Travelogia on the Road: A Sea of Grass

In the summer 2012, I helped a close friend (who was also named Sam) move from Pasadena, California to Atlanta, Georgia. Instead of taking a normal route along Interstate 10, Sam, drawn in by the search for a rare German pastry called baumkuchen, insisted on taking a circuitous route that ultimately sprawled across the Great Basin and the Midwest and down the Appalachians and Atlantic Coast. My recollections from the time, lightly edited, are hereby offered for your entertainment.

Day Three

“She has taken the virginity of three of my friends…and one enemy.”

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The drive from Salt Lake to Rapid City constituted the longest, hardest day of the trip, and we were desperate to avoid the level of boredom experienced crossing Nevada. To this end, I’d spent the previous night in our hotel room on my computer, converting episodes of QI into audio files. It occurred to me that the show didn’t have a terribly strong visual element and would be nearly as enjoyable played over the car stereo. Well, it was a rousing success and we cruised easily all the way to the Black Hills.

Wyoming comprised the majority of our drive. It is the least populated state in the union, but one of the largest in area. Bill Bryson in The Lost Continent claimed that Wyoming had the unfriendliest waitresses, and I never doubted it. Australia may have been settled by convicts, but the Western United States were settled by fugitives. In any case, we found the waitresses to be friendly but firm in their enforcement of restaurant etiquette.

Sam had been to Wyoming once before, having stopped at a breakfast joint in Rock Springs– though he misremembered it as being in Rawlins. The restaurant was part of a chain in this area, and they served free pie after 10 AM as a courtesy to weary travelers like himself. Unfortunately for Sam, he had arrived too early and was denied his free pie.

This time, he was so determined to his free pie that we ended up arriving at at 8:00 a.m. Sam tried to get his way, but even after explaining his previous experience the waitress was insistent that he had to wait. Neither of us wanted to do that, but it was only a mild letdown for him. Our spirits were raised when we saw a mass of California Hell’s Angels being pulled over outside Rawlins.

Located in the center of Wyoming, Rawlins is fairly typical of towns in the western interior, which to us was very strange. Because there are no big cities to have nights out in, every small town has a movie theater. And for some reason, these theaters insist on putting the star’s name above the title of the movie being showed. Today’s was especially egregious:

BRUCE WILLIS IN:
MOONRISE KINGDOM

Obviously they couldn’t put Jared Gilman up there, a fourteen-year-old who had never been in another film. But to advertise Moonrise Kingdom as if it were a “Bruce Willis film” seemed as if it might set up the audience for disappointment.

Toward the end of the day, the Black Hills rose like Olympus above the Serengeti plains. Sam was determined to see Mount Rushmore, and despite the small area of the hills, navigating it would take hours. It was unlike anywhere we had traveled, a cool, lush, and unpredictable wilderness, though it carried with it an air of civility. Birds and deer grazed near the road as if waiting to get their pictures taken, often holding up traffic.

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We reached Mount Rushmore in the pouring rain, just as the sun was setting. The faces of the presidents appeared to be crying. For the first time we were genuinely cold, but we powered through. Sam took the obligatory picture with the monkey before getting other visitors to photograph us.

The only problem is that we briefly lost the car. Mount Rushmore has two identical parking structures, and we spent a long time going from floor to floor before realizing we were in the wrong one. We found the car and rode down into Rapid City, an unremarkable large-ish town consisting mostly of strip malls.

The main restaurant in town was bustling. Near us there was a pub trivia tournament going on, but we resigned ourselves to watching the first round of Olympic soccer. Suddenly we realized the opening ceremonies in London were just two days away. And if Sam was to be believed, something else was waiting in store.

I was sitting in the hotel room converting more QI files when Sam got off the phone. “That was Liz,” he said. “I have some good news.”

Baumkuchen wasn’t the only reason Sam wanted to go to Chicago. Several of his classmates were from there, notably his friend George, who had skipped Middle School and led a life so sheltered that he had difficulty doing everyday things, like paying for parking. Sam wanted to make sure he was still alive, and to that effect he arranged dinner with Adam and his other friend Rae.

“What did you tell her?” I said.

“I told her I was coming to Chicago with my lightly toasted co-pilot, and she said ‘I love lightly toasted co-pilots!’”

I’m not a habitual marijuana user, but I was too excited to care about being misrepresented. If anything, it was working in my favor.

“Liz is very sex-positive,” he said. “She has taken the virginity of three of my friends… and one enemy.”

Day Four

“If they kill us, I’ll kick your ass.”

“Did you see those cult members in the hotel?” I asked Sam. We were walking to the car.

“No!” he said. “Why didn’t you point them out to me!?”

“I thought you’d seen them too.” The cult members were hard to miss. They appeared to be polygamists; the party consisted of an older man, a boy, and several women. But unlike Warren Jeffs’ crew, the women all wore very brightly colored dresses that seemed more appropriate for extras in Do the Right Thing, as well as little black skullcaps. We never figured out who they were, but as the Black Hills signal the end of the American West, we considered this to be a special treat.

It was a shock to see how many “adult superstores” were being advertised along Interstate 90, in ultraconservative South Dakota. It could be said that commerce overwhelms political posturing, but this is a state where abortion is very nearly illegal. As it would turn out, these places are on highways all over the country, with the mysterious exception of our own California.

The states really are different countries. People have been moaning for fifty years about how much America has become homogenous and indistinct. These people are idiots. Don’t listen to them. This fact was brought to life with stunning effect when we crossed the Missouri River at Chamberlain, South Dakota.

Chamberlain is only a few miles east of the 100th meridian, where the West officially ends, but the town couldn’t have felt more different from Rapid City. There was a main street lined with little brick shops, including an independent drugstore. There were ethanol stations.  They called soda “paap,” and they only had Pepsi. When we went into the cafe, we sat behind a Lakota family chatting in thick “don’cha-knoo” accents. I looked at the dessert menu, and the first item was deep fried Snickers. We were in the Midwest, and to celebrate we availed ourselves of some delicious apple pie.

At the behest of some of Sam’s family friends, we were obligated to take our picture at the Spam Museum in Austin, Minnesota. We’d already blown off Wall Drug, and as Sam pointed out “They have to know we went to the Spam Museum. They’re Hawaiian!”

As it turned out, the Spam Museum was closed. But Sam took a picture and we went into town for dinner. Austin was even better than Chamberlain. The moment I got out of the car, a woman passing on the sidewalk said “Hello!”

I hadn’t expected it to be like this. I had expected dreary towns where everyone is morbidly obese, shops at Walmart, and lives in fear of illusory invaders. But in any case, people were friendly, able-minded and (mostly) healthy. They were Minnesota Nice.

We ate dinner while my clothes washed in a nearby laundromat. Sam got a text. “It’s Liz,” he said.

“What do you think my chances are really?” I asked.

He thought for a moment. “35%.”

“35?”

“35 is good,” he replied, and I suppose it was. It is slightly better than 34.

When my clothes finished drying, Sam burst into the room, suddenly full of energy.” How would you like to go to Iowa?”

I was confused. We had intended to stay the night just up the road in Rochester, but Sam had been chatting with the writer of a webcomic who lived in Cedar Falls and was eager to see him. He was also named Sam.

I collected my clothes and we leapt into the car, careening silently down U.S. Highway 18. It was the first night driving we had done, and there were no lights, but there were fireflies, another first. We sped through invisible towns, listening to Police songs with the fog lights on. Finally Cartoonist Sam texted us. He and his girlfriend wanted to meet us at a local park in Cedar Falls. He assured us it would be well-lit.

“These people aren’t going to kill us, are they?” I asked. “I mean, they want us to go to this park in the middle of the night with no people. How well do you know them?”

“Not very,” he said. “I’ve only communicated with the guy online.”

“If they kill us, I’ll kick your ass.”

The park had no lights, but two figures still managed to find us in the dark. I took a defensive stance. “We agree not to kill you if you don’t kill us,” I declared.

“We agree not to kill you if you don’t kill us!” he replied. It was the first time he had met one of his fans, and we left in good spirits.

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