Syncopated Family Travel: The Return Home on Route 66

Story by Anthony Mathenia Photos by Rebekah Mathenia 

Syncopated: Displace the beats or accents in so that strong beats become weak and vice versa

syncopated_blueswallowThe return home from a trip always presents a share of mixed feelings.  On some level there is the disappointment that the excitement of new terrain is coming to an end.  On the flip side there is that draw to that familiar setting, that place of comfort, home.  I am Dorothy standing in the sparkling Emerald City of wonder, clacking my ruby heels together and longing for the black and white Kansas farm, even if it is dirty and smells like pig shit.

We plot our return through the American Southwest; venerable Route 66 is our road home.   It whips and winds through the desolate landscapes and broken towns in Arizona and New Mexico.  Every dot on the map haunts with past ghosts.  It’s like going through a nursing home and looking at the fragile skeletons.  In their dim eyes you can just catch glimmers of past lives full of adventure and glory.

syncopated_wigwamEach turn of the mother road holds shuttered motels forever locked at “no vacancy”.  In those now boarded up rooms, men and women once held each other with the thrill of new love throbbing through their wide open veins.  The neon is burned out with promises made to be broken.  Nothing last forever.  Progress is a motherfucking Interstate ripping through every good intention with the thrill of the open road.  Progress is going from point A to point B in a linear fuck you at 70 miles per hour.  It’s the destination that is important, not the landscape that is  blurring in the side gaze — definitely not the past vanishing behind. Progress is a streamlined sonofabitch.

This leg of the trip is made more poignant with the recent visit to Disney’s Carsland fresh in memory.  The film Cars was based on director John Lasseter’s own family road trip over this asphalt time machine.  As we traverse through the towns and places that inspired fictional Radiator Springs, I have a new appreciation for what I had considered one of Pixar’s lesser endeavors.  Stripped from the Hollywood trappings it is a sentimental lament to what was left behind.

syncopated_me_writing_windowIn Tucumcari, New Mexico, we check into the Historic Route 66 motel.   It doesn’t have the brilliant neon of the Blue Swallow down the road, but it makes up with it in mid-century modern style.   Parked outside is a gleaming black Cadillac.  The bright lobby inside looks like it could double as a Mad Men set.   The standout feature is a front desk counter made out of petrified wood. As we settle down, Cars happens to be playing on the television.  The Divine is really good at serving up these little coincidences to serve as signs telling our sub-conscience to wake the fuck up and pay attention.  The rooms along the motel stretch have curtain wall windows, acting as a looking glass for those who want to watch the world drive by: coming, going, always moving.

syncopated_seligman_carsRoad trips like these offer a neutral space to gaze out of life’s window.  This is us at our most conflicted: forever seeking the new, exciting future and longing for the simplicity of the past.  We want the shiny, we have a soft spot for the rusty and tarnished. We crave technicolor but long for black and white. This is our burden to bare as humans who have the sense to be able to tell past from present, to plot and plan, to remember yesterday, and hope for tomorrow. This is our shared journey through space and time.

Syncopated Family Travel – Bryce Canyon Utah

Family hiking in Utah - BryceAs we near the end of our first week, traveling takes on a comfortable rhythm. Like someone training for a marathon, we grow accustomed to the long miles between stops. Packing and unpacking the car each night becomes a precise clockwork. Miles rack up and scenery swaps out again and again. Every few hours we change landscape and it’s always so new. The grass in this place is not the same as the grass in that place: the rocks, the water, all different. Hell, even the sky seems different, by nature or trick of the traveler’s eye, I’m not certain.

As we enter Utah, Salt Lake City brings a momentary rush of heavy traffic, but it quickly dissipates moving further south. A lovely orange waste flashes by our car windows; the outside air is a convection oven. Utah is a dusty Eden with so many natural wonders, it is difficult to narrow down the list to a couple of stops before we press further west to California. Our travel takes us first to the southern edge of Utah. Here Red Canyon gives us an introduction to what we can find further at Bryce Canyon National Park. The road winds through interesting red limestone formations rising above rugged ponderosa pine trees. This place is familiar, if only because the Disney Imagineers borrowed the look of the eroded spires, called hoodoos, for their popular Big Thunder Mountain roller coaster.

Family hiking in Utah - BryceThe majority of travelers to Bryce tend to flock to Ruby’s Inn, a hotel that has been serving travelers for decades. It is a large complex just outside the gates to the national park, offering not just lodging, but shopping, dining, travel activities, and, of course, requisite taffy and fudge. We forgo the crowds and instead set down for the night in nearby Tropic, a small, dusty town of approximately five-hundred. We call ahead to notify the owners of Bybee’s Steppingstone Motel that we might not make it before their front desk closes for the night.

“No problem,” the friendly innkeeper says. “We’ll just leave the door to your room open and the key on the bed.”

Family hiking in Utah - BryceTropic seems to be the rare kind of place where a person can leave their doors unlocked without concern of wandering burglars or serial killers. It’s quaint and rough, just a simple stretch of a few homes, some hotels, a few restaurants, and a couple of shops set against a backdrop of grey cliffs. The Steppingstone houses eight charming, if small, rooms, uniquely decorated with homey touches like patchwork quilts on the beds. The grounds are nicely manicured featuring a rare green lawn, taking parched drinks from a flickering garden sprinkler. By the garden a traveler sits on a bench reading Camus. With such a tight schedule, I regret that I don’t have the leisure to do the same.

Family hiking in Utah - BryceOur first stop on our tour of the area is Mossy Cave Trail, a short, scenic walk situated between Tropic and Bryce Canyon proper. Through here the rippling Tropic ditch canal was carved through the arid land by farmers in 1892 to provide irrigation for crops. Along our walk we delight to view small waterfalls along the creek and above hoodoos and windows carved in sandstone. A special treat are the many colorful wildflowers that dot the landscape.

Next we take in some of the scenic outlooks of Bryce Canyon Family hiking in Utah - BryceNational Park, culminating in a stop at Sunset Point. The overlook is poorly named. Gazing out at the amphitheater positions our back toward the west, so the sun slides down, out of sight behind us. However, the diminishing evening light is supposed to make interesting shadows across the amphitheater. At the rim we join a long line of people poised with cameras gazing out at cliff faces and spires that give the impression of walls and buttresses of an alien castle. To our right, the entrance to the Navajo Loop trail catches our attention as it winds down into the amphitheater funneling into a narrow slip of rock. The lure of adventure beckons and we descend down the switchbacks and pass through a dim hallway of rock, named Wall Street. It empties out to an opening where spindly Douglas fir trees stretch upward in search of rare sunlight from the sky above.

Family hiking in Utah - BryceBy the time we reach the bottom, those inching shadows have covered the floor with deep, dense black. A terrible truth sets down upon us: we must somehow get back to the rim in the dark. Unfortunately for us, this particular trail boasts one of the most extreme elevation changes at Bryce. It’s a daunting five-hundred twenty-one feet back to the top. Climbing is a weary chore. Each step is a painful reminder of the overall lack of activity that dominates my normal life. Each labored breath mocks all those unfulfilled New Year’s promises to “eat better”, “exercise more,” “walk to the kitchen to get a beer instead of shouting at the child to do it.” Speaking of the child, she casually skips up the switchbacks, texting on her cellphone. She is soon out of sight, leaving her mother and me in the black depths of Tartarus.

We press on, sweat-soaked, bones creaking, bodies aching. Stopping. Resting. Resting. Giving up and making suicide pacts through punctuated breaths. Finally, we make it to the top.

“Geez, what took you so long,” snips my daughter as we arise like Lazarus from the pit.

The bed back at the Steppingstone is an exquisite comfort, though hard asphalt in a rat-ridden back alley would do as nicely after such a grueling workout. Too soon it is morning. With sore muscles we walk to nearby Clarke’s restaurant for breakfast. It’s good and filling and some European tourists provide unexpected entertainment as they navigate the puzzle of pancakes, butter and syrup. They quickly figure it out with great enthusiasm. Rested, sort-of, fed, definitely, we pack up the car once again, quickly, and set out eagerly to explore more of what Utah has to offer.

Syncopated Family Travel: Idaho Sucks

A travel column by Anthony Mathenia

Syncopated: Displace the beats or accents in so that strong beats become weak and vice versa

This is what passes for Art in Boise

No offense, but Idaho is a shithole. This is no mere opinion based on my brief run-in with the gem state, but it has been thoroughly fact-checked and confirmed on Urban Dictionary. We may just be spoiled from the beautiful vistas we have seen over the last few days: the rugged canyons of the Badlands, the rolling grasslands of South Dakota, the tree covered mountains of Wyoming, the colorful thermals of Yellowstone. There may be beautiful places in Idaho, but we see none of them as we drive south down the I-15. It is all farms and factories belching smoke.

The only things worth looking at are the Teton Mountains in the east beyond the vast plains of dirty nothing.

Suck my cock Idaho
Idaho sucks Cock

Our next destination is Bryce Canyon in Utah, but first we must slog through Idaho. When headlights flip on and yawns start chaining around the car, an unsettling truth weighs in: we may have to stay the night in this forsaken land. We go as far as Idaho Falls before admitting defeat and pulling off the Interstate. We should be looking for a place to stay, but with the cooler running low, we take the opportunity to restock at a Super Walmart just off the exit.

Here, the universal truth is confirmed: no matter where you travel, the people of Walmart stay the same. A case in point is a lady with an undersized silver t-shirt that makes her look like a pink pork roast wrapped in tin foil. “Sweet Thang,” proclaims the ass of her sweatpants, wide like a billboard. When you shop at Walmart, you take care to dress your very best, and I fit right in with my matted hair, scraggly travel beard, and rumpled “Pawn Star” t-shirt.

Nevertheless, there is something comforting about this little slice of American redneck heaven. As we purchase sandwich goods and beer, I can close my eyes like Dorothy Gail (also from a shitty state) and intone, “There’s no place like home.”

Our shopping complete, we look for a place to sleep. When you stay at a new hotel every night, you are gambling on things like comfort and safety. So far our choices have proved positive, but Idaho Falls is home to the Guesthouse Inn and Suites. It starts out well, with the friendly hotel clerk informing us that they have one nonsmoking room left. We eagerly snatch up the moderately priced room, believing that the hotel roulette wheel is once again being kind to us. Little do we know.

Taking our keycard, we drive around to the back of the building, where it appears that the black asphalt parking lot serves as an unofficial hotel lounge of sorts. Small groups of rough-looking men are milling about, flicking cigarettes and draining bottles of cheap beer. As I park, I look up to a second floor window, where a man in Homeless Activity Area Idaho Falls ccImage by Waterarchives on Flickra stained wifebeater is gazing down at us with a piercing stare straight out of a slasher flick. We should turn around, but it is late and it is only one night. That’s what door locks are for, I think as we haul our luggage to the back entrance, only to find that the security lock is broken.

At the door, a bald, heavily tattooed man pushes by us en route to one of the little parking lot parties. We drag our luggage up some stairs to a dimly lit hallway, which is flanked by a couple of worn cowboys.

“I fucked up that sonofabitch real good,” drawls one of the dusty men, sporting a mighty handlebar mustache.

As we squeeze past, he cracks his tattooed knuckles. Hard eyes follow the caravan as we move deeper toward our room number. Once there, it takes a few panicked swipes of my keycard before the door lock clicks open, allowing us entry. The second we open the door, we are smacked with a cloud of cigarette odor wafting out of our “nonsmoking” room. Perhaps there has been a mistake.

But like firefighters, we brave the smoke and push into the room, throwing the lock behind us. While my wife tucks her face into her shirt, I pick up the phone to call the front desk.

“Hello,” a pleasant voice on the other end of the line greets me.

“Hello, we just checked in and we are supposed to have a nonsmoking room, but this room reeks of cigarette smoke.”

“That’s a nonsmoking room; perhaps the smell is from a room down the hall.”

“I don’t see how. The hallway didn’t stink.” Perhaps this smoke passes through walls, Casper style? “There’s something else. The television is missing.” I gaze down at the unhooked coax cable limply hanging across the dresser.

a hard eyed serial killerMomentary silence at the other end of the line. “The room was just deep cleaned,” the clerk offers, not really explaining why the television is missing. “Would you like us to send up some air fresheners?”

My daughter starts coughing like a sixty-year-old with a two-pack a day habit.

“I think maybe we’ll just try some place else,” I say.

Moments later, we again move back to our car, past the hard eyes of cowboys, truckers, and potential serial killers. “What a shithole,” I say, as we cruise further down the Interstate.

Syncopated Family Travel – Yellowstone, Chinese Tourists, and God Damned Bison

A travel column by Anthony Mathenia

Syncopated: Displace the beats or accents in so that strong beats become weak and vice versa

one of the most scenic roadways in AmericaWe are up early the next morning ready to enter into one of the most emotionally thrilling experiences of my life time. We head south where the road out of Red Lodge becomes framed by stoic white capped mountains. As we ascend the switchbacks, we put the majestic soundtrack to Disney’s Soarin’ on infinite repeat. My heart swells and I bawl like a baby.

There is a reason that Beartooth Road is considered one of the most scenic drives in America. At each bend and turn in the winding road you are treated to a new spectacle. It begins with a view of the snow covered grey mountains in the distance jutting out from patches of dark green trees.

We take a moment at a pull over lot to enjoy the postcard view. The early morning air is crisp and sweet with pine and chipmunks playfully scurry about. From there we continue on up the pass. The air chills noticeably. Heaps of fresh snow are packed on the side of the road and some skiers dart down the steep slopes, disappearing out of view. At the next turn we are treated to an expanse of icy glacial lakes as we near the peak, just shy of 11,000 feet elevation.

America's National Park TreasureOur descent into Yellowstone National Park, brings us past brilliant, sparkling pools of water reflecting the picturesque mountains along side. Our entrance into Yellowstone is spectacular, wide open fields of gentle green hemmed in by tree-lines, and cut through with glittering creeks coursing over smooth stones.

The roads are lined with wildlife photographers hoisting gigantic telephoto lenses. I stop and pull out our diminutive Canon DSLR to take pictures of scampering groundhogs; I haven’t felt this inadequate since freshman year gym class. Yellowstone is a nature photographer’s wet dream.

You can’t turn around without looking at a scene straight out of a nature painting. In the park we are entertained with views of grazing bison, soaring hawks, mule deer, bull moose, brown bears, and hoards of Chinese tourists. At each stop, buses disgorge them and they trail after guides waving little flags. We follow them along the boardwalk encircling the Grand Prismatic Spring, one of the park’s most famous geological features.

the hot water at YellowstoneThere, the ground belches out thick plumes of steam, through which tourists attempt to ward off the gripping stench of sulphur by tucking their faces deep into stretched souvenir t-shirts. Only their eyes are exposed gazing admirably at the rainbow palette of intense geothermal features. There are boiling pools of the most brilliant blue giving way to greens meeting edges of fire-like swirls of yellows, reds, and oranges. There are burping puddles of mud making obnoxious noises, which elicit gapes and laughters from amused onlookers. And there are Chinese —

Chinese everywhere. My wife and daughter torment me by picking out my Asian doppelgänger, a dumpy fellow with stringing hair and thick Coke bottle glasses.

There is so much to see, but with the clock swinging past
the geothermal heat at Yellowstonenoon, we decide to go and find something to nosh on. Back in the car we cruise past the thick forests, littered with thousands of fallen trees like white bones. These dead trees are a common sight around Yellowstone, knocked over by age, disease, fire, and wind.

We are enjoying our drive when suddenly out of nowhere, traffic grinds to a complete and total halt. Eventually we see the cause, a whole entire herd of bison have decided to use one lane of the two-lane road as a walking trail. My stomach growls angrily. “Run over the mother fuckers!” I road rage to the cars in front of me. They won’t.

According to the vice guide, wanton killing of animals in a national park is a definite no-no. We have to mollycoddle the bastards. Sometimes cars are able to pass them, but most edge back giving the lumbering behemoths the right of way.

the delicious but annoying bison of YellowstoneThe passing lane is blocked by cars going the opposite direction, slowing to take photographs or point and laugh at the long line of us. I learn that the average land speed of a bison on an asphalt road is between three and four miles per hour. After about an hour of painstakingly slow travel, the bison finally decide to get off the road.

We waste no time, exceeding the speed limit toward the Roosevelt Lodge restaurant. When the waitress asks me what I would like to eat. I don’t have to debate.

“One bison burger please.”

“How would you like that sir?”

“Revenge is a dish best served cold,” I snip.

After getting re-energized with lunch and calming down, we drive over to look at the Old Faithful geyser, another one of those lifetime must-do’s. In the packed parking lot, I pass a pickup truck, where ravens the size of small dogs are ripping the soft fleshy sides of a cooler to get at the meaty corn chips inside.

I make the mistake of walking too close and the nearest raven gives me a beady, black stink eye straight out of a Poe nightmare. “You can have the fuckin’ Fritos,” I say making a wider berth.

In the Old Faithful viewing area we find benches and await the explosion of the well known geyser. As I sit I have the opportunity to reflect on the last few days spent touring such scenic places.

Chinese Twin at YellowstoneMany of the crowd will leave, with a renewed commitment to save the planet. But, I’m not so sure the planet needs saving. This amazing place was carved by fire and ice, forces so much bigger than ourselves. Hell, just underfoot is a super volcano that packs the potential punch of a 1,000 Hiroshima bombs. When it goes it is gonna take a chunk of America with it. It strikes me as egotistical to believe that we can kill or save the earth. The planet has survived things much worse than us and beautiful places like this will probably exist long after we are killed off.

I’m lurched from my thoughts when the geyser begins to churn and the audience perks up. “Ooooh” goes the Americans. “Lalalala” goes the Chinese. The crowd erupts when Mother Nature blows her volcanic load one-hundred-and thirty two feet into the air to the delight of the cheering crowds.

As the crowds dissipate, I duck into a nearby gift shop and look for taffy.

Syncopated Family Travel – Red Lodge Montana, GPS Disasters, and Never Turning Back

A travel column by Anthony Mathenia

Syncopated: Displace the beats or accents in so that strong beats become weak and vice versa

a shortcut from montana to wyomingWe leave Mt. Rushmore behind vowing never to return and continue northwest toward Yellowstone National Park. Entering Wyoming, the landscape changes again to sage green hills with a backdrop of dark green mountains. What can I say? This country is big and empty and beautiful.

As we head up Interstate 90, I begin to see signs urging to exit west toward Yellowstone. However, my wife insists we continue on toward Red Lodge, situated just north of the National Park across the Montana border.

We are lured by the promise of an ascent up Beartooth Pass, one of the country’s most scenic drives. Judging by our road atlas, we can continue north on I-90 until it wraps back west.

However, our GPS unit seems to know a short cut through Bighorn National Forest. We put our faith in technology, taking the suggested exit. If nothing else, a drive through of a national forest should offer better views than the Interstate.

Bighorn National ForestThe diversion begins in an outstanding matter as we navigate the narrow switchbacks climbing into higher elevation. To our right some fleet-footed pronghorn deer scamper up the rocky side of the road. We continue on through gates that close off these perilous routes during the winter. The need soon becomes clear as the outside air turns ice cold and snow dots the landscape even in summer. Things become even more dreadful in places where the weather battered roads break down.

With a rally car we might be able to make good time, but we have to move slow so as not to careen off road down into deep ragged, inclines. Our GPS continually recalculating our arrival time, pushing it later and later into the night as our fuel gauge creeps toward empty without a service station in sight. Despite our effort, Red Lodge appears as a still distant dot on the GPS display as we cross over the Montana state line. Sleep fogs over my eyes. “Turn left,” demands the GPS. I whip the car around and immediately mash the breaks.

“Road closed” warns a construction barrier. Looking past myshots from the window of the Bighorn National Monument headlight beams I see the reason; where my GPS insists there is a road there is nothing more than a roughly road-shaped dirt stretch loosely strewn with gravel extending off into pitch black night.

“Maybe we should turn back,” suggests my wife, “see if there is a hotel or something somewhere else.”

However, I’ve come too far and I’m too tired to admit defeat. I fly my civil disobedience flag and drive around the barrier. I flip on the hi-beams and hope that the road doesn’t terminate in a cliff and our trip gets cut short in some kind of Thelma and Louise tribute. I push the car further down the road, kicking up dust and gravel. I don’t have to fear for police in such a desolate place; my only concern is the road and the fuel.

The needle of the gas tank gauge is now buried on empty. We hadn’t planned on camping out; hopefully the road lasts. If not, at least we have turkey sandwiches and the last of that terrible Bud Light. The Nissan bounces up and down as we stumble over pot holes, fishtailing a bit around the curves.

My wife grips at the handle, cursing me; my daughter ignores the situation completely, zoned out in her iPod playlist. After a tense fifteen minutes the rumble subsides as the car tires clip back over onto pavement. Held breaths are forcefully expelled. My daring is rewarded because just a short time later we roll into the charming mountain town of Red Lodge, Montana.

During winter months, Red Lodge is a brilliant stay for those taking advantage of nearby skiing slopes. The town strikes the traveler as laid back, and perhaps a bit bohemian. The diminutive main street is filled with a chain of small cafes and bars, a legacy kept from the mining boom past, when the tiny town had twenty saloons. I lament that at this late hour, I’m unable to stop and close down one of them. Lodging is more of an urgent need than a gin and tonic.

We hope to stay at the Yodeler Motel, a kitschy chalet that has been in the area for over a hundred years and lovingly maintained. Unfortunately the outside neon decries “No Vacancy” leaving us looking for other arrangements. We find lodging next door at the lesser Lupine Inn.

There is a bed, but unfortunately the Internet connection is spotty leaving me to boost a signal from neighboring hotels. In our room, we spend the next hour periodically checking to see if Beartooth Road will even be open to allow passage into Yellowstone. Even in the middle of June it is iffy if the deep snow peaks will be cleared. Finally word comes from the stolen Internet, “PASS OPEN”.

 

Syncopated Family Travel – Mt. Rushmore, Sandwich Artists, and Injun Killers

A travel column by Anthony Mathenia

Syncopated: Displace the beats or accents in so that strong beats become weak and vice versa

offbeat family travelMy eyes furtively glance at the rearview mirror checking for cops as the family car edges close to forty-five miles per hour, cruising west on South Dakota Highway 44. This particular stretch of asphalt is post-apocalyptic empty and flanked on both sides by green and yellow mixed grasses as the road cuts through portions of Buffalo Gap National Grasslands.

My fourteen year old daughter stretches her short legs to give the car some gas as she accelerates closer to the speed limit. Early morning light floods through the windows catching the glint her subtle smile. This family road trip seemed the appropriate time to bump her into the driver’s seat.

The legal driving age in South Dakota is fourteen, so we are not exactly breaking the spirit of the law, though we lack the prerequisite forms and eye exams. I learned this from a vice guide I printed out from the dark basement below the regular Internet.

There you can find practically anything, crazy things like assassins. This particular tome of knowledge provides not just legal driving ages, but also for drinking, smoking, and other activities. It delves across the fifty-two states informing what is legal — some only barely by virtue of long forgotten laws and legal loopholes.

With each state in the union maintaining their own code of law, it can be a challenge knowing which states allow the smoking of salvia or the fucking of pets. In some places you can kill an Indian if he crosses in front of you.

Not that I endorse any such activities, but if you have the urge to get smoked up, screw your pooch, while shooting an injun, it is best to do it within the realms of the law like a good honest citizen.

This is the real fear that keeps good Libertarian men like Ron Paul and Gary Johnson from being viable presidential candidates. What one state views as a felony another simply sees as a wild Tuesday night.

Our next major destination is Yellowstone National park, with a quick bucket-list stop at Mt. Rushmore on the way. The famous sculpture is supposedly something that every God-loving American must see before they kick it.

It comes as no surprise that Mt. Rushmore started out as a mere money making scheme conceived to lure tourists to South Dakota. It’s a legacy that it is kept in tact to this day.

As we navigate the Black Hills region we pass through the small mountain town of Keystone, a terminal place kept alive by feeding on the millions of tourists that flock to see the famous sculpture. Like the corner crack dealer they seem to thrive on dealing their vile product to lobotomy eyed tourists.

Does the free world need this much salt water taffy? We should declare a war on it! Make it where the only way you can get fudge anywhere near a national park is in the ass of a drug mule.

a drive by on the first presidentMt. Rushmore itself is highway robbery of the worst kind. To get up close and personal with the chiseled presidents requires a hefty parking fee. Our annual national park pass is confederate money here. Instead we bypass the lot and hang out of the car window, wildly clicking the shutter gangsta style as we do a drive by shooting of the four presidents.

For those who don’t get suckered into the pay lot, you can pull over for free just around the corner and gaze at the hawkish profile of George Washington. Much like your favorite Hollywood action star, he’s a lot smaller in person.

We take the opportunity to snap some pictures and enjoy a picnic lunch. My wife is a sandwich artist, a true turkey club Picasso, unlike those hacks at Subway. Even though it is a pain in the ass to keep food when living out of your car, the inconvenience is worth the atmosphere.

A deer in South DakotaThe luscious backdrop of ponderosa pine trees and blocks of glittering granite is far preferable to the view of a squalid McDonald’s Play Place, ball-pit littered with dirty diapers and used needles. Not to mention the smell; I inhale the sweet aroma of the pine and it becomes clear what all of those air fresheners have been chemically aping all of my life. I’d love to figure out a way to capture it in a brown paper bag and huff it for the rest of my trip.

Nearby the Crazy Horse monument is carved in Thunderhead mountain to honor the heritage of the Lakota people, or perhaps simply as another tourist magnet. As I eat my sandwich I contemplate a new monument to capture the true spirit of America. I just need to find a suitable mountain to deface with the sculpted visages of Rockefeller, Ford, Carnegie, and Gates.

We’ll have “God Bless America” playing out of loud speakers, fudge making, and five t-shirts for ten dollars for every man, woman, and child. I tear up just thinking about it.

Syncopated Family Travel: Wall Drug and the Dakota Badlands Food Poisoning

A travel column by Anthony Mathenia

Syncopated: Displace the beats or accents in so that strong beats become weak and vice versa

South Dakota Family TravelFrom De Smet, South Dakota, we head west toward the Dakota Badlands. The roads are pretty vacant, not seeing much traffic outside of the annual Sturgis motorcycle rally in August, which chokes the Interstate with more well-oiled leather than a fetish club.

Along Interstate 90, a regular sight is garish billboards calling on travelers to visit the Wall Drug Store where 5-cent coffee and free ice water await. Combined with the Theta-state highway hypnosis, the staccato of advertisements is eerily effective. By the time we reach Wall, South Dakota, we figure it is worth checking out.

More importantly, Wall is also a convenient launching off point to the South Dakota Badlands, just a ten-minute drive south. We check in at the Sunshine Inn, a strip motor hotel located just a couple of blocks away from the tourist area, largely taken up by the massive Wall Drugs. The Sunshine Inn is a budget motel, but the beds are comfortable and, most importantly, they have AMC—tonight is the Mad Men season finale I’ve been eagerly awaiting.

An unlisted perk of the motel is John, the proprietor, who is helpful in suggesting travel activities. For instance, he tells us that the Badlands National Park is open twenty-four hours and overnight camping is allowed, which makes it perfect for an amorous nocturnal coupling. When we ask for a good place for dinner, John steers us away from the tourist section to the Red Rock Restaurant where the locals eat.

The Red Rock is jam packed, but we manage to score a seat. I order a country fried steak, my wife a cod sandwich, and my vegan daughter has to settle for onion rings. The complimentary salad bar is shocking in its lack of offerings. In total, it amounts to four items: iceberg lettuce, spring onions, whole radishes, and shredded carrots. Tucked under the yellowing sneeze guard are some macaroni and potato salads that look like leftovers from the grocer’s deli.

When it arrives, my country fried steak is disappointing—equal parts charred and greasy, with enough salt to preserve the whole cow. If this is where the locals eat, I pity them. When the waitress’s back is turned, I pilfer some ribs from the buffet line instead.

Fed, for better or worse, we check out the (in)famous Wall Drugs. History tells the story of the proprietor who in 1936 attempted to revive the dying pharmacy by offering free ice water to thirsty travelers. The gimmick worked, and the drug store thrived, expanding to take up several blocks today. The free ice water is allegedly still around, but it is a task to find it through the great maze of souvenirs: magnets, t-shirts, postcards, sharks’ teeth, snow globes, salt water taffy, fake mustaches, puzzles, tiny spoons, whoopee cushions, fudge, geodes, garden gnomes, and more.

Occasionally you emerge from the tacky goods to be confronted with some sideshow spectacle like a roaring robot T-Rex or a giant Jackelope. Each has a crowd of tourists lining up for a picture to say, “Yes, we really saw that.” We manage to fight the spirit of commerce and escape the clutches of Wall Drugs, never having found the free ice water.

With the obligatory tourist trap braved, we head out to the Badlands National Park. At the northern entrance to the park, we purchase an annual “America the Beautiful” pass. It’s pricy, but cost-effective for us because it will grant access to other places in the national park system during our travel. Just clear of the gate, the Pinnacles Overlook offers an amazing introduction of the northern area of the park.

Here striated white buttes, spires, and pinnacles frame low-lying plateaus of mixed grass. Along the sloping edges, juniper and yucca trees are nestled between eroded gullies. It’s a breathtaking view. My daughter and I take a moment to climb out across the hard clay outlooks, while my more cautious wife lingers behind to chastise our hubris.

To the west, we take a short drive over the unpaved Sage Creek Rim Road, where along the way, the landscape levels out into flat grasslands. Out of our window, pronghorn deer and bison graze in the distance. We park at Robert’s Prairie Dog Town, which is home to the park’s largest colony of prairie dogs. We enjoy watching the rodents as they scamper between their many burrowing holes. As I approach, they go into alert mode, signaling warnings to each other with high-pitched chatter. A lone bison lumbers toward us, and we snap some photographs, while keeping a safe distance from the shaggy, black behemoth. The park pamphlet reminds us that the bison are wild animals and capricious.

The sun begins to set as we backtrack to continue our drive to the main Badlands Loop Road, carrying us past other scenic outlooks. My stomach suddenly lurches in disagreement at our earlier meal at the Red Rock.

“Pull over,” I say to my wife, doubled over.

“Why?” she says.

“I need to go to the bathroom.”

“But there’s no—”

“Just do it,” I hiss through clenched teeth.

South Dakota BadlandsThe car bounces as she jerks the wheel over to the narrow shoulder. I don’t wait for it to fully stop before I leap out, grabbing some napkins. I’ll spare the details about what happens next, but it involves me defiling a national treasure. If there is a hell, I’m sure this will not bode well for me in the end.

With the sun setting, darkness rolls over the Badlands and night fades in, casting shadows over the jagged formations. We pull over at Panorama Point and wrap ourselves in blankets as we step out into the thrusting wind to wallow in the splendor of the glittering night sky. As I sip on a can of beer, I’m vaguely aware that the Mad Men season finale is starting, but who really needs that when you have a show like this?

In the parking lot behind us, a black jeep pulls up and a young man slips out, pulling tight a drab-green army jacket. The jeep seems to be loaded with all of his worldly possessions. As he nears, his flashlight settles on us briefly before he slips out of sight, down into the deep solitude of the carved formations.

I think about him and lament the fact that I never took the opportunity to disengage from civilization to wander the country. In that moment, my advice to the new graduate back at the Ingalls homestead doesn’t seem all that foolhardy. I look over at my daughter with her purple hoodie cinched tight over her head and the white wire of her iPod headphones trailing down to her pocket. Perhaps we should send all of our children out into the wilderness when they come of age.They’ll be mired down with homes and jobs and up-sizing flat screen televisions soon enough.

A gentle calmness permeates the air. No one dares to speak, as if our sounds are an unwelcome pollution. I breathe in slowly, as if tasting the cold, crisp air like fine wine. It’s damn good. I have a long way to go before becoming a devotee of the cult of the great outdoors, but I’ll admit that I’m starting to fall victim to Mother Nature’s love bombing.

 

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