Great American Road Trip (08/2009 – 09/2009) [Part 1/3]

2009 December 8
by Jon

SAT 08/29/09 – WED 09/02/09
Written 09/21/09 – 10/07/09

Saturday, August 29 - we woke up at 5 AM when the alarm went off. I’d slept fitfully that night, waking up every hour or so before finally getting to sleep around 2:30, only to be woken not 150 minutes later. Normally I’d have hit the snooze several times, but we were both so excited about the trip that we crawled out of bed, showered, got all of our stuff into the car under cover of darkness and, with a twist of the lock of our front door, headed out, not to return in over 2 weeks.

The start of the whole adventure

We sleepily pulled into the Dunkie’s around the corner from our place to get some breakfast. The lone beacon of light before 6 AM on a Saturday, we weren’t the only customers, but since the place normally has a line nearly out the door, it still seemed eerily quiet.

Day 1 Dunkie's breakfast, 5:45 AM

After eating in the car we pressed on to I-93 and over to Logan Airport:

01a - Logan
Total distance: 8 miles

The drive out to Logan normally takes somewhere around a half an hour. In the quiet, dark, rainy streets it took us under 12. Why did we head out to the airport to drive across country? Simple. Logan Airport is the eastern terminus of I-90. Since we’d be driving all the way out to Seattle – that is, the entire distance of I-90 – we figured, hey, might as well take an extra half an hour and start at the beginning so we can say we really did the whole thing. And so we did, straight from the start.

Eastern Terminus of I-90

We headed West along the Mass Pike. The rainy weather really brought out the… er… pleasant odor of the paper factories in Chicopee. We made our first pit-stop at the Pike service area outside Lee at 8:00.

Day 1 Stop 1 - Lee, MA
Total distance: 135 miles

After a brief stop along with a bus full of Indian tourists, we jumped back on the road westward, making our first border crossing into New York at 8:20. An accident past Albany slowed us down a bit and we stopped briefly thereafter but decided to head back out before getting off Exit 42 and stopping a few minutes before noon in Geneva, NY.

Day 1 Stop 2 - Geneva, NY
Total distance: 370 miles

We wound up eating at this small place called the L&R Restaurant in town. Sort of no-frills townie type of place, but it was cheap, quick, and good for a bacon cheeseburger and some onion rings. Plus, the smoke shop next door had a wooden Indian.

Which is always a plus.

At this point Becky took over so I could take a break. We crossed over from New York into Pennsylvania at 3:20. Damn New York is huge. 400 miles across on I-90 from MA to PA. We made a pit stop at Exit 27 after Erie.

Day 01 Stop 03 - Erie, PA
Total distance: 560 miles

I picked back up the wheel after the stop. Becky picked up some candy.

We hit Ohio a bit after 4 and got off the highway in Cleveland. Well, specifically in Lakewood to stop at Melt Bar and Grilled around 5:20:

Day 01 Stop 04 - Cleveland
Total distance: 665 miles

Melt Bar and Grilled

Oh man I was so excited to be there. See?:

Excited. I mean, did you see that menu? No part of that doesn’t sound delicious. And they have Maharajah IPA on tap. Maharajah ON TAP. I would almost drive out to Cleveland just for that. But treachery was afoot! Well, not treachery. More inconvenience. We walked in expecting it might be busy since it was Saturday but, hey, it wasn’t even 5:30. Can’t be too much of a wait, right? Like, not an hour. Which it was. Seriously, an hour wait at 5:20? The hell? I mean, given this was basically the restaurant of my dreams but still. Ah, Melt. Perhaps it wasn’t meant to be, but perhaps we shall meet again. At like 2:30. On a Tuesday.

We decided the best thing to do, considering we weren’t yet quite hungry, was to press on. We wound up stopping an hour and a half at an Ohio Turnpike service area at mile marker 77 and got some grody pizza since it was marginally better than Hardees (I never did rise to the challenge of the Mega Thickburger but then I also didn’t plan in a hospital visit into our itinerary). But hey, it was food. By a fashion.

With rumbling but full stomachs we headed on toward the part of the country chiefly populated by states starting with the letter “I” by way of hitting Indiana around 8:30. 100 miles into the state we crossed from the Eastern Time Zone into the Central Time Zone and 10:00 became 9:00. We stopped at an Indiana Toll Road service plaza at mile marker 56 to make one final pit stop before entering into the breach that is Chicagoland:

Day 01 Stop 05 - Indiana
Total distance: 930 miles

From there the last thing to do was just get to our hotel. Driving into Chicago at night can be a bit of a harrowing experience. You see, the traffic on the highways there is so horrendous during the day that, by the time it finally clears up, everyone sort of figures the best course of action is to drive as quickly as possible with little to no regard to safety. Fortunately, I’d run that particular gauntlet several times before and, as such, it was with a degree of nostalgia that I shouldered through four lanes of cars darting in and out of lanes while drafting behind one another up the Dan Ryan and through the split to I-94. Off the Dempster St exit and into Evanston where we arrived at our hotel, the Orrington, just around the corner from my junior-year apartment. I stepped out of the car around 11 PM, some 18 hours after we’d departed Somerville the same day.

Day 01 Stop 6 - Evanston, IL
Total distance: 1020 miles

We checked in and had some wrangling to do with our bags. I was tired but, never one to pay some dude $5 to put my bags on a cart for me, we went around the side door to bring our bags up to our room in a couple of trips. This involved going through the hotel’s bar, but, hey, if you’re drinking in a hotel bar, you get what you pay for. They wanted me to pay more for valet than I would to self-park in a lot two blocks away. After nearly getting run over by a valet dude screaming around the corner when we parked in front of the hotel, you can imagine how I felt about that. As an added bonus, going to the self-park lot would give me a chance to walk a couple of blocks through my old stomping ground between 2000 and 2004. As I breathed in the cool late summer air and walked through the streets as yet empty of students except for an advance guard of athletes, I took in the number of simple landmarks – a sub shop here, a wings place there – that I had taken for granted as part of the background. Noticing a few things that had changed in the space of 5 years made all that didn’t more poignant. The point of our vacation was to get away from our predictable, worn-out living environment and into the Great Unknown, but, just for one day, it was good to feel home again.

I returned to the hotel room, showered, and hit the sack around quarter of midnight. The room was quite good – one of the better ones we’d have – and the complimentary Internet was a nice welcome, too. With no need to rise early the next day, we went to sleep for a good, long time. It wasn’t much for adventure, but Day 1 got us where we needed to be to really feel like we were on the road. The next day I’d drive across the Mississippi River for the first time in my life and our adventure would truly begin.

Sunday, August 30 - we awoke in a hotel room for the first time on the trip after a solid night’s sleep at around 7:30. After stretching and showering we headed down to get bagels from an Einstein’s around the corner about an hour later. We walked toward Northwestern’s campus as we ate them, the morning sun shining gloriously through the cool, damp air. Good day to take a walk, we decided. And so we did. After all, Becky had never really seen the place where I lived for four years before meeting her, and I was up for a trip down Memory Lane. Unfortunately, Becky was missing our pets already by that point. Fortunately, it wasn’t long before she found a new friend for the morning:

Becky's insect friend

The poor, tuckered out annual cicada had probably been calling for mates for days and wasn’t long for this world, so he didn’t put up much of a fight. Becky carried him along on her shoulder as we walked up through the south end of campus and onto Sheridan Rd. We cut through past the Arch, past the Rock, past the entrance to Kresge Hall where the German grad students would stand in -10 degree wind in turtlenecks and smoke in January, and onto the lakeside end of campus where all the arts buildings lie.

It was there that Becky made another insect friend, an even more tuckered-out dragonfly:

Becky's insect friends

While attempting to pose the two together the cicada finally decided he’d had enough and, via an erratic and circuitous rout, got his little wings to lift his gigantic head up into a nearby tree. We bid him farewell and walked on past the student center and to the edge of Lake Michigan. We first stopped by the man-made pond there to see if it was still full of enormous carp.

Yep, still full of enormous carp.

We headed on to the lake shore, studded with boulders NU students are fond of painting when the campus police aren’t looking.

Along the lake shore

Becky was particularly fond of this one:

And I gotta admit, it’s pretty fantastic. We also decided to re-enact a picture from 3 years ago, the last time we were in town:

Along the lake shore

Apparently I screwed up the camera orientation, but not bad, right?

We finished walking up the lake shore, through the frat quads and past the dingy stone dorm where I lived my freshman and sophomore years and back down through campus. Past the intersection where I got hit by a car on my bike once, past Lunt Hall, and back to the hotel room. We relaxed for a while as I got ahold of Aaron and a couple other of my college friends to confirm plans to meet up for brunch. Ultimately we decided on LePeep a couple blocks from our hotel and, around 11:30, we checked out and walked our bags out to the car. As we passed the restaurant there was not a small group of my college friends but a rather large clan of them choking the sidewalk. My friend Sam, you see, had gotten married that weekend and many of them were in town for it. As it turns out, plans to get them all moving on brunch worked out better than I’d have imagined. Around noon we sat down – in two separate groups – and ate a nice meal as we caught up.

NU folks at LePeep

NU folks at LePeep

All in all, basically everyone I knew my junior and senior years of college (freshman year was kind of its own entity and I had very few friends my sophomore year) and wanted to see, minus, like, two people were there. That was quite awesome to see them all on the one hand but on the other hand I had to split my hour-and-a-half there between eating and the half-dozen people I hadn’t seen in over four years. Needless to say I didn’t get nearly enough time to catch up with many of them but I’m glad for the time I did have and left there feeling quite happy. Maybe in four more years I can see them again for a half an hour!

On our way out of the parking garage we got a special extra bonus. Whether by twist of fate or programming glitch, our parking pass in the garage came up as owing $0.00 in the automated machine when I went to pay it, so, hey! Free parking! So there, expensive hotel valet!

We hit the road around 1:30 to head to an unplanned stop that had occurred to me along the way: the Baha’i Temple up the road in Wilmette.

Day 02 Stop 1 - Wilmette
Daily total distance: 2 miles

I’d passed by it numerous times when I lived in Evanston but never actually went into the dang thing. We decided to fix that.

At the Ba'hai Temple

We did go in to the temple proper. A crusty 60-something original hippie woman told us at the door to be quiet and that there was no photography allowed. I wanted to ask her if she was lost because clearly she belongs with the rest of her kind in Porter Square back in Cambridge, but that wouldn’t have been very nice. We solemnly walked through the inside – not nearly as interesting as the outside – and headed out, feeling ever-so-slightly more enlightened. Or something.

Our next stop was a favorite of mine: Mitsuwa Marketplace out in Arlington Heights:

Day 02 Stop 2 - Arlington Heights
Daily total distance: 20 miles

Mitsuwa is one of my Happy Places. I didn’t discover it until 2003 – via the Japanese language class I took my senior year – and was floored the first time I walked in. Moving to Boston and seeing how much more dark, dingy, smelly Super88 is made me miss it after moving. Really, it has to be seen to be appreciated and pictures don’t truly do it justice. It was nice to return to the large, brightly-lit supermarket, walk around the food court, pass through the bookstore and the liquor store (full of a larger selection of sake than I’ve been able to find in New England) and take it all in. I couldn’t find the toy store I’d spend hours picking through and where I’d gotten my Van Halen original 1984 tour t-shirt, but it’s possible it closed within the past 5 years, if it didn’t just move to some dark corner where they could hide the gaijin in their shame. We picked up some candy and departed around 3 to continue out West. Becky also found something special for her to snack on during the drive:


On our way back out on I-90 we swung through Becky’s old home town of Algonquin. We didn’t stop, but we drove through to see how things were holding up since we last visited 3 years ago.

Day 02 Stop 3 - Algonquin
Daily total distance: 45 miles

Some things hadn’t changed. The statue of an Indian princess Becky tells me was called Princess Shooting Star was still gone, but her stand still sat there empty:

Her old house, though, had changed. It was now painted green – more like its color when she lived there – and the Native American circular sun god painting that had appeared on the garage door was now gone:



So that’s too bad. Maybe it’ll return somewhere else. I promised Becky that if we ever got a house with a garage we’d paint an Indian sun god on it.

We got back on the highway and through heavy construction around Rockford and crossed into Wisconsin around 4:50. About an hour later we hit Madison and, upon Aaron’s suggestion, stopped at State St Brats:

Day 02 Stop 4 - Madison
Daily total distance: 160 miles

Really, after the letdown of Melt the previous day, this place was just what I needed. Thanks to a student orientation event going on down the road it was nearly empty, too. WIN.

I grabbed a nice local red ale from the bar – in a 24oz mug, no less – and something called a “red white and bleu” brat (a red brat and a white brat grilled and smothered in bleu cheese) all for, like, 12 bucks.

I have written down in my notes for this meal, “supar delishus” and “State St Brats = win.” I believe this to be the best description I can give to you, dear reader. Unless you’re not into that sort of artery-clogging-meat-smothered-in-cheese sort of thing. In which case there’s more for me and the residents of Wisconsin.

We continued on I-90 West, crossing the mighty Mississippi River a bit after 8:30 into Minnesota. Unfortunately it was dark by that point – far darker than I thought it’d be at that time of the evening so we didn’t get a picture. Not that it matters; the mighty Mississippi didn’t look terribly mighty at that point through the shadows. We pressed on one good, solid drive through occasional white-knuckle narrow, one-lane construction zones in the dark (then resolving to try to get going earlier to avoid further such harrowing rides), arriving in Rochester around 9:45:

Day 02 Stop 5 - Rochester
Daily total distance: 370 miles

We passed by Rochester’s sort-of-famous corn-shaped water tower on the way in:

It’s more impressive in real life but, more importantly, was a harbinger of things to come. Corny things to come. We checked into the hotel in the eerily quiet downtown Rochester, having now successfully driven further west than I ever have in my life:

End of Day 02
Cumulative total distance: 1390 miles

The room, honestly, was a bit of a let down in that it was roughly the size of a shoebox. We had to sort of step around the bed and sidle into the bathroom, which was even smaller, of course. But hey, for 60 bucks you get what you pay for, so that still makes it only the second-worst hotel room on our journey. And really, it was comfortable, just tiny as the hotel was carved out of a turn-of-the-century building, old clangy pipes and all. Which wasn’t without a certain charm as all other hotels we stayed in were clinically modern.

The same charm can’t be said about the people hanging around the lobby at 10 in the evening on a Sunday. The Mayo Clinic was right next door, you see, and families of patients were put up in our hotel much more often than itinerant travelers such as ourselves. The eerie sadness was kind of overwhelming, key word being “eerie.” Though the city’s streets were empty, I still didn’t get such a great feeling about leaving anything in the car. Maybe it was the strained look in the people’s eyes, but I felt more comfortable with our belongings in our room. All that aside, though, after a busy day we were more than happy to hit the sack. The coming day would be one of the most adventure-packed on the whole journey.

Monday, August 31 - we woke up early, at 6:15, to get going. Things were just starting to get in gear at the hotel and, as such, instead of getting a proper breakfast we just got some muffins from a restaurant downstairs, which were actually really good. Mine was a fresh lemon poppy-seed still warm from the oven and it was moist and delicious.

We got going out of Rochester and back on the road around 7:15. Our first stop, a bit before 9, was in the little town of Blue Earth, MN:

Day 03 Stop 1 - Blue Earth, MN
Daily total distance: 100 miles

Why would we stop a mere 100 miles down straight, easy highway, you ask? Why, to visit this guy, of course:

No, not that guy. This guy:

The Jolly Green Giant

Because the good people of Blue Earth decided that if your local frozen vegetable company is going to have a 40-foot tall green man as a mascot, you might as well build a life-size statue of him and let people climb underneath it. Of course, this provides a photo op from a – shall we say – “interesting” angle:

Becky 'neath the Jolly Green Giant

That’s right, folks, you, too, can be photographed under the Jolly Green Giant’s jolly green crotch for absolutely free in Blue Earth, Minnesota. At least the lack of anatomical correctness on JGG provided for a degree of modesty, which is more than I can say for another gigantic statue I stood under (see Day 9). Tragically, the statue does not bellow out “HO HO HOOO…” on queue, though it really should have. Still, he looked so happy that it brightened our day to see him that morning.

We continued on down the road with Becky at the wheel, crossing into South Dakota around 10:30. As the road was flat and we could cruise at 78 mph with little effort, we continued until about 10 minutes of noon, stopping in Mitchell, SD:

Day 03 Stop 2 - Mitchell, SD
Daily total distance: 300 miles

Mitchell just isn’t any ordinary town in South Dakota, though. Oh no. Mitchell is home of the one-and-only “world” famous Corn Palace:

Corn Palace

Corn Palace

Becky outside the Corn Palace

The Mitchell Corn Palace is the only structure in the world of its kind, believe it or not. A hall made entirely out of corn. Okay, so not entirely out of corn, clearly. In fact I doubt any of the load-bearing parts of the building are made out of corn – loose in definition building code in South Dakota might be – what as corn is most likely not exactly a great building material to work with. Which is sort of the point, I guess, to show off American ingenuity by carpeting the whole structure – inside and out – with murals in the form of corn. Like so:

Corn Palace mural

Corn Palace mural

Corn Palace mural

Corn Palace



Y’see? Corn. Corn husks, corn stalks, corn ears, corn flakes, you get the point. A work of art celebrating our nation’s greatness using corn as a medium. If there is anything more America in the world I certainly don’t want to see it because I might go into anaphylaxis from merely bearing witness to it. Hell, they even have a mascot you can pose with who is, not surprisingly, an ear of corn:

Or you could also pose with an Injun if that’s more your style:

Becky and Injun Friend

I don’t know how many Indians there are with such striking blue eyes but hey, if they wanted historical accuracy they shouldn’t have talked to white people, amirite?

It’s so easy living in the Northeast to equate racism with hating black people. It’s good that South Dakota reminds us that it’s not just that. Though I would love to see a tourist stop in, say, Baltimore where white tourists can come sidle up next to a carved statue of Dolemite and take photos.

Before heading inside the Corn Palace we decided it was best to get some lunch, which we did at a western-themed restaurant (I remain unsure how much of the theme was for the benefit of tourists and how much was genuine local flair) across the way. It was adorned with plenty of things to get us in the Out West mood such as chandeliers made out of antlers and pictures of Buffalo Bill Cody next to buffalo:

Buffalo Bill ate here

It also featured an array of pictures of Indian Princesses with glimmering, blue eyes and milky white skin that, while we weren’t able to get a decent shot of due to the low light, were still a sight to behold. Keep the whole magically pale skin thing in mind for the post about Day 4 coming up as it’s a bit of a theme in South Dakota. At any rate, I got a decent burger at a cheap price which just about perfectly hit the spot so it was all right by me. We headed out and across the street to tour the Corn Palace, which, I might add, one can do for free, so proud the people of Mitchell are of their achievement that they will not have you pay to see their work.

As it turns out, the Corn Palace is Mitchell’s civic center. We walked through to discover a corn mural-lined basketball court/performance arena:

Inside the Corn Palace

Inside the Corn Palace

Inside the Corn Palace

Inside the Corn Palace

Inside the Corn Palace

This place had corn everything. If you can name it, they had a version of it that was corn-ified, most likely available for sale in their gift shop:

And really, what sort of corn palace would be complete without – you guessed it:

Get it?  Get it?

Lest you think an appreciation for portmanteau is limited to the East Coast elite and their endless freestyling on the name “Barack Obama.”

A bit of history about the corn palace. It has been constructed annually by the good people of Mitchell since 1892. Impressive, since I’m fairly certain there probably wasn’t all that much to the city of Mitchell in 18-hundred-dickety-two. The arena is flanked with photographs of every single iteration of the corn palace that’s gone up since then, including notably a mural of the original so you can feel like you were there yourself…

…and a picture from the year they built the corn palace as part of an alternate-timeline LARP where the Nazis had taken over America:

Alternate Timeline Corn Palace

That must’ve been a fun year.

After hitting up the gift shop we had gotten our fill of corn and then some and so headed back out on the highway across South Dakota. The road was flat. And long. And flat. It looked a lot like this:

And sometimes this:

With the occasional bout of this:

Just to mix things up. At around 3:45 we crossed into the Mountain Time Zone and it became 2:45 again. About an hour later we pulled off for a stop in lovely Wall, SD:

Day 03 Stop 3 - Wall, SD
Daily total distance: 525 miles

Wall being, of course, home of “America’s Most Popular Attraction,” Wall Drug.

Becky in front of Wall Drug

Wall Drug – for those who haven’t heard of it before – is an unabashed overgrown tourist trap. Situated a bit over 50 miles outside of Rapid City to the west and a solid 200+ miles from anything else in any other direction, Wall Drug has been built up as a stop to let tourists stretch their legs, get something to eat, and give the kids something to do to shut the hell up since it was founded in the 1930s. The kitchiness really has to be seen to be believed, which isn’t a tall order, considering, as I just said, there’s nothing for miles around it so it’s not like it’s hard to find the place. It has swollen to two buildings: one, a continuous connection of what used to be five or six storefronts houses a restaurant, an endless array of souvenirs, crap, more souvenirs, more crap, and an actual drug store thrown in there somewhere.

Also, a group of ancient animatronic country western singers:

Which are impressive – at least in how unsettling they look – until you head out to the courtyard between the two buildings where they have an animatronic piano-playing, singing gorilla:

Paino-playing gorilla

Though you do have to insert a nickel (seriously) to make him play. But trust me, it’s worth 5 cents. They also have a giant jackolope that you, too, dear visitor, can ride:

Becky riding a jackelope

Please note that the giant jackalope is conspicuously sized for adults, not children.

As you walk into the rear building, you pass by the obligatory stuffed buffalo…

…and right into the jaws of… a giant T-Rex!

Attack T-Rex!

Bet you weren’t expecting that, were you? The massive animatronic (sensing a theme here?) dino attempts to erupt from his cage in a haze of fog at surprisingly regular 5-minute intervals. Fortunately, if you’re tired of waiting for him to execute his next escape attempt, there are plenty of olde timey shops adjacent:

Attack T-Rex next to Olde Timey Shoppe

Convenience! Having been attacked/amused by enough giant animals, we headed back into the main building to grab some early dinner and ice cream before heading out. On the menu? Oversized buffalo hot dogs and big novelty drink cups:

I wouldn’t have it any other way. Now, while much of the dining area was wallpapered with pictures of stern Indian chiefs – like so:

One particular picture caught my eye as a standout:

Horses at Christmas

That’s right, it’s horses at Christmas. If that doesn’t belong in MoBA, I don’t know what does.

Having seen all we could muster of Wall Drug, we hit the road again and shot down the remaining 55 miles to Rapid City:

Day 03 Stop 4 - Rapid City, SD
Daily total distance: 580 miles

When we got there it was a bit before 5:30 so, instead of heading straight to the hotel, we went up the hill to the nearby dinosaur park. The park closes at 5 after September 1 but, by sheer luck on our part, we were there on August 31, and so it was still open when we got there. Which is a good thing, because there were plenty of dino-friends we otherwise would have missed:

Becky on a brontosaurus tail

Becky on a triceratops

As you can plainly see, most of the cartoonish, vintage 60s children’s storybook dinos were quite friendly.

Though some were a bit dour and boring.

But oh no! Another attack T-Rex!

Attacked by a T-Rex

South Dakota is full of them, it seems! But silly me, I assumed he was out for blood. All he really wanted was a dino treat!

Becky feeding the T-Rex

After getting Becky a squished penny at the gift shop we bid farewell to our fun-loving dino-friends and drove down the hill to our hotel. We got to our clean and perfectly decent room at about 6:30 but, after freshening up a bit, left not 15 minutes later. Why? We had one more stop to make, namely Crazy Horse:

Day 03 Stop 5 - Crazy Horse
Daily total distance: 620 miles

Crazy Horse is located about 40 miles down Route 16 from Rapid City. Another, more famous mountain carving is 30 miles down away from Rapid City, down another fork in the same road. Namely, Mount Rushmore. So, given that we had time to see one that night and would have to do the other the next morning, why did we choose Crazy Horse first? Oh, you’ll see.

We arrived at about 7:45 as daylight was rapidly fading through the Black Hills. Entry was $20 (Crazy Horse, unlike Rushmore, is completely privately funded, you see, so it’s a bit more expensive as they must rely on their own revenue to cover maintenance fees) but the nice, mustachioed gentleman at the gate told me we could get a pass to come back the next day for free.

Crazy Horse

Another nice, mustachioed gentleman gave me said pass as we entered the museum. Unfortunately, we wouldn’t have time to return the next morning, but we felt as if we could get a good feel for it in the half an hour or so we had.

Becky in Crazy Horse museum

Noble Indian

Becky and the buffalo

Crazy Horse Memorial, you see, was conceived by one man as a monument to the greatness of the Lakota people after the US government sorta-kinda stole their land and then carved the faces of a bunch of our leaders into their mountain. Trouble is, he wanted to make it far bigger than Rushmore (the size is hard to discern in pictures due to the distance and can only really be appreciated by seeing one and then the other in person) and didn’t really have the funding or the personnel to do that. Also, he was a bit of a perfectionist. And so, to this day, his surviving family picks away at the mountain, slowly turning this:

Crazy Horse

Into the final goal, which is supposed to be this:

Model of Crazy Horse

As you can plainly tell, they’ve got a long way to go. Becky says they’ve made definite progress since when she last visited, though, in 1986. So it’ll be done one of these days. Maybe not in our lifetime, but eventually. These things take time.

We sat down in the chilly, damp air on the benches outside and waited for what we came for. You see, at Rushmore they do a dignified flag ceremony at night. Crazy Horse, being privately funded, though, has a HUGELY BIG LASER LIGHT SHOW PROJECTED ON THE MOUNTAIN. Yeah buddy. Of course it has to be experienced in person and pictures fall far short. It goes on for about a half an hour, displaying the history of the mountain and its carver as well as that of the Lakota people and Crazy Horse himself. It’s really an extravaganza. A solemn, dignified extravaganza, of course. At the end they project the proposed final image onto the mountain and leave it there for several minutes for all to admire:

Crazy Horse at night

I know it doesn’t look like much in the picture but keep in mind that the frame of that picture is roughly 300 yards across. Yeah, big. We left back through the museum and gift shop. While they might not be as built-up as those of Mount Rushmore, they did have one thing that those dang gubermint statues don’t offer:

Crazy Horse lets you take 6 lb rocks for $1

That’s right, folks: you, too, can take home a 6-pound rock from Crazy Horse mountain for only a dollar. Becky now has two, one from each visit.

We headed back down the windy road to Rapid City and got back to our hotel room – this time in a more permanent fashion – a bit before 10 and called it a day:

End of Day 03
Daily total distance: 660 miles
Cumulative total distance: 2050 miles

And man oh man what a day it was. I still can’t believe we crammed all that into one day. I’m really glad it all worked out, though. And there was still plenty more to come the next day, too.

Tuesday, September 1 - we woke up at 6:45, showered and got breakfast down in the hotel lobby. Something we noticed along the way amongst the many, many hotel breakfasts we had was the standardized setup mid-level hotels seem to have fallen into in terms of their breakfast facilities, regardless of chain: mini-bagels, cereal, coffee, orange juice from concentrate, undersized danishes, and a rarely-used waffle-iron with batter lined up in plastic cups next to it. This would be the first such breakfast, but we’d get sick of them quickly and try to avoid them on the return trip. For right then, though, it was good enough.

We checked out and, at 8:00, headed down the road to our first stop at Mount Rushmore:

Day 04 Stop 1 - Mt Rushmore
Daily total distance: 24 miles

We paid the $10 entry fee and parked at 8:45, just as the geriatric early risers were starting to fill in. By the time we left an hour and a half or so later it would be packed, so I’m glad we got there when we did, as it allowed us to take pictures of Mt. Rushmore in all its majesty:

Mount Rushmore

In front of Mount Rushmore

See? Majesty. As you’ve certainly noticed by now, the sky was just offensively bright and blue, making all pictures we took look like we were standing in front of a backdrop of Mount Rushmore instead of the real thing. Hell, standing there looking right at it it still looked oddly fake. Trick of the lighting, I’m sure, but it was unsettling in a way in that we really just wanted to run up and touch it to make sure it was really there. Nonetheless, the optimal lighting did lend us ample opportunity to take silly photos. Like so:

Playing with Mount Rushmore

Eating Mount Rushmore

Personally, I’m quite fond of the last one. We also got a nice couple to take our for-reals picture just in case we wanted one to look back upon in our golden years that didn’t involve us trying to pick George Washington’s nose:

In front of Mount Rushmore

In case you’re wondering, that tripod-thing on Teddy Roosevelt’s head belongs to someone doing a geological survey or something to that order. It’s about 6 feet tall, to give you an idea of the size. Like I said in the last post, one doesn’t really appreciate how stupefyingly enormous Crazy Horse is until you see Mount Rushmore by comparison; Rushmore really is substantially smaller, albeit more complete.

Included in the entry fee is access to a museum and not one but two gift shops. The museum takes you through not only the construction of Rushmore but also its early planning phases. As far as the construction goes, they emphasize that it was done mostly by dynamite and allow you to use a pretend giant Wyle E Coyote “TNT” plunger to simulate the experience.

Becky likes blowing up things

Becky particularly liked that aspect of the museum. What interested me was this idea I had in my head all the way through age 27 and 2 months that Mount Rushmore was conceived, designed, and implemented as we see it today. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, it went through a number of revisions. Here are two early drafts:

Mount Rushmore draft

Mount Rushmore draft

The first was scrapped to make room for TR, an obvious decision because he was the only President to have ever actually been carved out of rock. Unfortunate that they moved the head positions, though, because Rushmore would be far more amusing were Jefferson giving Washington a purple nurple for all eternity. The second, one presumes, was simply rejected due to being “too Bohemian Rhapsody.” It might be an anachronism but it makes sense to me.

And so we arrived at the current design. Or did we?

As Becky is illustrating here, there was supposed to be more to it. Washington was supposed to be a full-torso bust and Lincoln was apparently supposed to be actively engaged in popping his collar. We surmise that this idea was scrapped as a combination of “forget it” and the notion that, though historians may argue who was our doucheiest President (it was Johnson or maybe Harding), it was certainly not Lincoln, so the look did not suit him. A wise decision.

One’s trip to Mount Rushmore is not complete without watching the inspirational film reel, narrated by Tom Brokaw. It leaves you full of inspiration and love of one’s country and an overwhelming feeling that our generation will never achieve what our grandparents did that only Tom Brokaw can convey. After that we headed over to the larger of the two gift shops.

Hunting dinosaurs

Okay, so, admittedly I posed them that way myself. But I didn’t have to move them all that much. One never knows where Young Earth Creationism will pop up. The gift shop also had a couple old timers hanging out talking about working on the mountain as youngsters. Or at least that was the idea. Honestly, they didn’t seem to care much one way or the other. On the plus side, though, they did have the exact small, pewter necklace of the mountain that Becky had literally dreamed of the previous night, so that was pretty cool of them to think ahead like that.

We left Mount Rushmore at about 10 and drove the short distance back to Keystone, SD. There’s not much at all in Keystone that isn’t dedicated to attracting tourists, but one thing stood out for us: the National Presidential Wax Museum. Contained within are wax statues of every single President. Even the fly-over ones! Totally worth the admission. One is greeted by a certain young, charismatic fellow upon entering the museum:

Gazing upon pasty Obama

He’s dreamy. And also oddly pasty. I surmise that the proprietors of the museum, fearing backlash from making Obama too dark, erred on the side of caution and made him ashen instead. That combined with the pugilistic look about him makes him look more like a Latino flyweight boxer than a President. But there’s a reason for that, you see: the designers were working freehand from pictures and, well, that ain’t easy. For many other Presidents (actually, almost all of them until quite recently) they worked using well preserved life-masks taken of the actual faces, like so:


That feeling right now? The one where you can’t decide whether you want first ask why a museum of US Presidents has a mask of Bela Lugosi or first make an obvious Bauhaus joke? That’s the feeling I had all over when I took that picture.

We continued on. Here you see a factual re-enactment of your 4th grade history textbook:

Your 1st Grade textbook

Followed by a group of the Founding Fathers. It’s a little-known fact that the Continental Congress had plastic name-plates like an HR team-building session. Someone’s about to do a trust fall!:

Founding fathers with name tags

And then what was by far my favorite scene: an early 19th century soiree featuring second-tier historical figures getting all sloppy. Here we see Henry Clay double-fisting:

Henry Clay double-fisting

Meanwhile, John C Calhoun goes straight for the punch bowl:

John C Calhoun rocking the punch bowl

One presumes the look on his face is an internal bemoaning of how it is not polite to do a keg-stand in mixed company. How far we’ve come.

Moving on, we saw Becky’s favorite, the Hall of Loser Presidents, that is, Presidents not elected by due process:

Hall of Loser Presidents

Tyler looks as if he is standing next to Ford because he lost a bet with the other three. Ford, on the other hand, looks like he just made a boom-boom in his Pull-Ups. These are perhaps related.

No such socializing can be had for William Henry Harrison, though, who comes pre-casketed for your convenience:

Pre-casketed William Henry Harrison

And then… Caveman Zombie Lincoln?

Caveman Lincoln

Still not entirely sure what in the name of God’s green earth is going on there, but we moved on. There were some Injuns smokem-ing peace pipe:

And speaking of smoking, in this scene with the use of the first telephone, we see Thomas Edison just sort of, y’know, chillaxin’:

Edison's just chillaxin'

“Dude. Are you ordering pizza? Can I get Hawaiian on half? No? How about just pepperoni? No, I don’t like mushrooms. Do you still have that coupon? Just say you do and they’ll give it to you anyway. No, seriously, dude, trust me, they will.”

Moving on, we saw a re-enactment of Wilford Brimley’s wedding:

Wilford Brimley's wedding

…and TR in his natural state of about to smack the snot out of your punk-ass:

TR is about to lay the smackdown on you

He might hit you with the book. He might hit you with the cane. Either way, you got a whoopin’ comin’.

Next, more recent scenes. This is when Reagan thought of a funny “Marmaduke” while in a conference with Gorbachev:

Reagan thought of something funny

…and this was to illustrate that, contrary to popular belief, nobody liked Ike:

Nobody likes Ike

Here’s LBJ’s swearing in with a blood-spattered Jackie Kennedy looking like a tranny Sears mannequin:

LBJ swearing in

…which may or may not have to do with the fact that John-John Kennedy is apparently Chuckie:

John John is Chuckie

But if I leave you with two lessons we learned above all else, it’s first that Nixon could moonwalk:

Nixon can moonwalk

…and that Al Gore is sick of your bullcrap:

Al Gore and Becky do not approve

But then, you knew that. Finally, here’s a picture that, ironically, I forgot to include when I first wrote this:

Becky at Ground Zero

How could I have forgotten that? That’s never supposed to happen. Anyway, it should come as no surprise that that’s the setting in which we find George W Bush. Apparently if you ask the owners they’ll let you climb in the display and take your picture with him so you too can re-enact the worst tragedy in America in the last 65 years. Classy.

Is there anything else I’m missing? Mentally Handicapped Carter?


Zombie Bush Sr?


No? Great. Moving on. We headed back to Rapid City to get lunch before hitting the road again. But first, we decided to check out Rapid City’s unique collection of bronze statues of lesser Presidents:

There’s Franklin Pierce, whom historians note as our nation’s Gothiest President.

And there’s James Buchanan, whom many historians agree was Like Totally Gay or Something. There were more, too, but there’s only so many Presidents whose greatest legacy is getting middle schools named after them that one can take at a time.

We got lunch at a local Pizza Hut. It was dingy and kind of gross but it was fast and cheap and we were itchin’ to get back on the road, so it was good enough. We hit I-90 West again at 12:15, crossing over into Wyoming about 45 minutes later. That makes about 26 hours we spent in South Dakota. Those big square states are big.

About an hour later, a solid distance off the highway in a location that can’t rightfully even be called the middle of nowhere, we arrived at Devil’s Tower National Park:

Day 04 Stop 3 - Devil's Tower
Daily total distance: 160 miles

By virtue of being so isolated, Devil’s Tower is another one of those landmarks that one doesn’t really appreciate until one sees it in person.

Devil's Tower

In front of Devil's Tower

Now, you can’t rightly tell because it’s so far away from us, but that sucker’s huge. It’s about 500 feet tall from the base. By comparison, the Prudential Tower, the tallest building in my fair city, is about 750 feet tall. To give you some idea of scale, here’s a climber on the tower:

Climber on Devil's Tower

Yeah, huge. And yes, that is a way of mentioning that you can climb it if you want. I do not want. But hey, if that’s your thing, go for it.

There isn’t all that much to the adjacent visitor’s center other than a sweet penny machine for Becky, but we found a couple of interesting things:

This means something

Where I was going for more of a David Lynch vibe in the first one, Becky indulged my desire to make at least one Close Encounters of the Third Kind reference in the second. The guy at the gift shop desk asked if we were artists. I wanted to say, “no, people from where we are just dress and act like this,” but that wouldn’t have been very nice, even if it is true. It did remind me of SLC Punk, though: when a group of punks cross the border to Wyoming and explain the odd behavior of their friend who was on acid at the time with, “he’s from England.”

Which is not to say we were on acid at the time. Or British.

On our way down the mountain we stopped to take some more pictures in a photogenic clearing:

Becky at Devil's Tower

Playing with Devil's Tower

Apparently the theme of the day was taking trick shots with national monuments. While we were doing just that, we saw a prairie dog. And then another. And another. And another. And… well… it turns out that at the base of Devil’s Tower there’s a huge colony of ‘em: probably several hundred, all over the place:

Prairie dogs

Prairie dog

Prairie dog

Prairie dog

Prairie dog

As you can plainly tell, they weren’t exactly afraid of humans. So long as I didn’t make any sudden moves I was able to get only a few feet away from them. There were signs forbidding feeding them but clearly they were used to getting handouts from humans. They also made it a habit to slowly saunter their little guinea-pig butts across the road with little regard to cars. One of ‘em might be cute. Several hundred was a little overwhelming. But still cute.

Becky took over driving and we cut back to I-90. We stopped for dinner at about 5:45 off Exit 25 in Sheridan, WY:

Day 04 Stop 4 - Sheridan, WY
Daily total distance: 320 miles

Wasn’t much to Sheridan but it had a Burger King and we were hungry so it did the trick. Between that and the Pizza Hut for lunch this was at least in the Top 3 of worst food days on the entire trip. Ah well, there’d be better meals to come.

We crossed into Montana at 7:30 and arrived at our hotel in Billings an hour later, just a bit after it got completely dark:

Day 04 Stop 5 - Billings, MT
Daily total distance: 460 miles

The sunset through Montana was so unbelievably gorgeous it was almost sanctimonious; as if it was rubbing in our faces how much more beautiful God’s Country is than the dirty, crowded, gray Northeast. Ah well, at least we have paved roads off our highway exits here.

The presence of some hispanic migrant workers playing checkers in the lobby as we checked in was very jarring with the whole Wild West image of Montana and Wyoming. I suppose that they must’ve come from down in southern California to work on the highway, though I didn’t ask as we were tired and I didn’t want to come off as sounding suspicious. We brought our bags up to our room, a perfectly decent, clean and comfortable one with a simple layout and free wireless. Honestly, that’s all I really could ask for.

End of Day 04
Cumulative total distance: 2510 miles

We watched a show on Animal Planet about carnivorous animals to wind down before turning off the lights and heading to sleep relatively early. We had a big day – our second-longest drive of the trip – ahead of us and only one more day of travel until we’d reach the end of our journey on I-90. Also, while playing Wild West was fun for a couple of days, I was growing weary of feeling like a tourist in my own country and was looking forward to getting back into a nice, big, coastal city. Seattle awaited us the next day.

Wednesday, September 2 - we woke up early, a bit before 6:30, showered and packed up. We grabbed some Typical Hotel Breakfast and hit the road around an hour later into the wide, open spaces that is Montana. We didn’t encounter all that much in the super-sized driving shifts we took, with the noted exception of this behemoth mother taking up nearly all the dang highway:

I don’t know what one requires a pre-fabricated Huge Honking Tank for, but apparently there’s a market for them in Montana. After the long and otherwise uneventful drive, we pulled for our first stop around 10:45 in Butte:

Day 05 Stop 1 - Butte, MT
Daily total distance: 220 miles

Of course it’s pronounced “Byoot,” but we invariably referred to it as “Butt.” Like so:

Mature, I know. But what’s in Butte, other than a convenient bathroom break? Why, only the largest Superfund site in the world, the Berkeley Pit!

Berkeley Pit visitor's center

You can read all about the Berkeley Pit at your leisure: about how it’s yet another prime example of the hazards of over-leveraging the environment, about how it’s so toxic that it once killed 342 birds that landed on it, or how it’s basically so polluted that it’s a man-made lake a half a mile wide and several football fields deep that has a pH lower than Mountain Dew. How all these things in this environmental clusterbomb take place right in the good ol’ US of A, not in some dirt-farming former Soviet state. The kicker is, that while the stuffed shirts in the Northeast would probably put barbed-wire fence keeping curious ne’er-do-wells out all around it, the good folks of Montana are less into Puritanical self-castigation and more into seeing lemonade where there are lemons and now offer you a chance to see the Pit for yourself for a mere $2 a person. Now that’s a bargain if I’ve ever seen one.

After paying admission, one enters via a long, ominous tunnel out to the viewing stand:

From the viewing stand one can see the Pit in all its eerie-colored glory:

Berkeley Pit

Berkeley Pit

Berkeley Pit

Berkeley Pit

Berkeley Pit

As you can see the Pit is: 1) weirdly colored and 2) highly reflective. These are, the “Pit Newsletter” that came with the price of admission (and was worth $2 in and of itself) explained, due to the high metal-ion concentration. The former, specifically, is due to what they call “chemostratification” where there’s a copper-rich blue level on top and an iron-rich red level beneath it, hence why it looks different colors from different angles.

We took a few more photos near it and headed on back out:

Berkeley Pit

Exiting the Berkeley Pit

Before heading back on the road we stopped by the gift shop to pick up some Montana goods. They also had this lovely copper statue:

I’m not entirely sure if it’s a statement of how America will conquer over its adversaries (or maybe Spain over Russia?) or a bit of financial positive reinforcement, but it sure was something.

We elected to get lunch at the Butte Subway (I got a million of ‘em) before hitting the road again. We rather fortunately got our food just before the lunch bell rang at the local Butte high school and it was flooded with teenagers. Good thing we got there when we did, as there wasn’t much else in terms of places to eat in Butte.

After finishing eating and gassing up in Butte, we hit the road again to conquer western Montana, through storms of chickens:

…and really creepy billboards:

This inn... is clean.

I should point out that if you don’t find that one particularly creepy, you should know that Missoula is the childhood home of David Lynch. Makes a bit more sense now, huh? No, not really? Yeah, I guess not.

We also saw some particularly intense billboards for the Montana Meth Project. Apparently the meth problem in Montana is so severe that they’ve now taken to disturbing wayward tourists with graphic billboards along the highway. Which I’m actually kind of a fan of because, well, ain’t much else to look at around there. Which might help to explain how the meth got to be such a problem in the first place.

We crossed into Idaho a bit before 3 PM and hit the Pacific Time Zone, thereby making it a bit before 2 PM. Around an hour later, after driving for nearly 300 miles straight, Becky finally agreed to pull over in lovely Coeur d’Alene, ID:

Day 05 Stop 2 - Coeur d'Alene, ID
Daily total distance: 505 miles

No, really, it was quite a pretty place, which is not what you think of when you hear “northern Idaho.” Heck, even the gas station we pitted at was clean and bright. So maybe it’s not such a bad place, right? I mean, who doesn’t like potatoes?

At any rate, I took over driving again and we hit Washington – our first Pacific state – around 3:30. And promptly hit a huge traffic jam in Spokane. As it turns out, it was due to a rather nasty accident, the first of its kind since near Albany, NY for us, and the worst unplanned traffic stoppage (not counting a long wait for construction in Oregon on Day 6 as “unplanned”) of the entire trip. But we persevered and, around 5:30, stopped at a scenic overlook over the Columbia River at I-90 mile marker 139:

Day 05 Stop 3 - Columbia River near Ellensburg, WA
Daily total distance: 680 miles

It was so scenic that Becky decided to sneak up on it:

…whereas I had a more direct approach:

Either way, we got to where, were we playing Oregon Trail, would mean we beat the game:

Along the Columbia River

Along the Columbia River

Along the Columbia River

Screw you, dysentery!

On our way out we caught some things skittering across the gravel out of the corners of our eyes. We initially thought they were some sort of bug or even small rodents, but they were actually these little guys:

Lizard in Washington

I don’t know about you, but when I think of Washington state, I don’t immediately think of indigenous lizards, but apparently I have been misinformed about the Pacific Northwest for much of my life until that day. The more you know, I suppose.

We continued on a short 30 miles before stopping for dinner in Ellensburg, WA at this place called the Ranch Restaurant off the highway. It was quiet and nearly empty and seemed like average American fare. When we got there, though, we noticed something: taupe vinyl booths. Kitschy, wooden Christmas Tree Shops crap on the walls to the order of “bless this mess” and “home is where the hearth is.” A menu consisting largely of pureed meats. Yep, we had stumbled into an Old Person Restaurant. As it was 6:30 there were hardly any old people left. I ordered the French Dip and we ate quietly – the only way to eat in an Old Person Restaurant. It was good but we were happy to hit the road again for sure.

It got rather alarmingly dark as we wound through the huge, ancient pine trees flanking the Puget Sound. With very little fanfare and practically none of the bright neon lights one associates with a large city, we entered Seattle and, before long, hit the Western terminus of I-90:

Western terminus of I-90

Okay, so not the very Western terminus; it was closed off due to construction. But we came, like, 0.8 miles away from it so that still counts. A few minutes later – around 9:00 – we arrived at our destination for the night, the lovely house of one Ms. Sigrid in West Seattle:

Day 05 Stop 4 - Seattle, WA
Daily total distance: 820 miles

Whew! Quite a day of driving. Though it was only 9 PM (or 10 PM Mountain Time) we were rather exhausted. Fortunately, Sigrid had been up since 6 AM that day and was just as worn out as we were so we opted to all have some tea and relax and talk downstairs while we played with her two Brittany spaniels, one of which seemed to be nuclear powered. Though seeing America for 5 days was quite an adventure and one I’m glad I had, I was also so immensely relieved to be back in a nice, friendly neighborhood with Subarus and Priuses [Prioria, natch] and hanging out with someone who understands coastal city life and thinks the world might be more than 6,000 years old. I’m all for getting out of my comfort zone, but something about Seattle made me feel very comfortable, indeed, and that was a quite welcome feeling.

End of Day 05
Cumulative total distance: 3330 miles

And so we successfully completed traversing the North American continent from East to West in 5 days. We were immensely grateful for Sigrid’s hospitality when we arrived. Not only did we have a place to crash and dogs to play with, but she also made up a bed in a guest room just for us. It was a better room and night’s sleep than several of the hotels we stayed in, and all for free. Now that’s service. We had a great time chatting for a couple hours and retired around 11. To get a jump on the morning, I took a shower that evening before heading to bed. The next day we’d wander around Seattle and head on down to our final destination in Port Orford, Oregon. We may have made it across the country, but our adventures were still just beginning.

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