The Road Trip--Never What We Expected
So we arrived in Red Lodge Montana, staying at the lovely Willows Inn. We cannot recommend it enough if you are in the area. Although we were later than we figured, we ended up beating Mike Holly by about five minutes and soon found ourselves tucked in a booth at the fabulous Bridge Creek Backcountry Kitchen and Wine Bar, surrounded by the shining wood interior, chatting with our waitress and catching up among ourselves. Once again, I found myself able to explore new areas of cuisine as I set into a buffalo steak, served with a customary pile of potatoes. After some walking when we were done with dinner, I let the old roommates catch up alone on the porch of the inn as I curled up with another chapter of Stephen Lawhead's Byzantium up in our room. Other than a little rattling around by the bikers from Denmark in the next room, it was a refreshing and peaceful long night.
The next day saw us served a great breakfast from our hosts and then heading out to the car, which was dusted with a light coating of ashes from the fires in the area. After brushing off Therese, we got out of town, just before the local roads were closed down because of the fires. I stopped to take a picture overlooking the town, and was waved to by a unusually beautiful blonde biker as I stood next to the road. Kevin and I launched into a long discussion of the virtues of biker chicks as we tried to find our way back into Wyoming.
This section of the trip didn't have any pictures worth reprinting here as everything was so hazy from the fires. We had a very difficult time seeing the Bighorn Mountains as we came up on them. Naturally the views, once we got to the top, weren't all that compelling. The Bighorn River itself was more of what the locals around where I grew up would have called a "crick." I was rather surprised, but you could see the much wider banks of what the river was during its flood stage. The most exciting moment of the afternoon was seeing a guy selling beef jerky from his '57 Chevy along the side of the road, miles from nowhere. You just don't see stuff like that anywhere else. And so we made our way to the incredibly rural areas of northeast Wyoming, heading for the metropolis of Sundance, (over a thousand people!) while Kevin related stories of his month-long rural placement there the previous February. He pointed out some of the tiny villages in the area that he had visited and told me horror stories of family trees that had no branches.
We got into Sundance, which was pulsing with bikers gathered for the Sturgis rally. We checked out our accommodations right off, quickly finding out that we were not staying at the clinic as we had hoped. After a few moments of crisis, we found that a doctor friend of Kevin's had arranged for us to stay in her backyard outside of town, where her husband had pitched a tent for us. Very, very cool of them.
After a quick circuit of the town to say "howdy" to old friends, we dashed out to Devil's Tower, so that I could take a long look at this wild piece of geography.
When we got back into town around sundown, we grabbed a spot at the Aro Restaurant, where Kevin had been a regular during his placement. The place was absolutely packed with bikers and Kevin and I managed finally to get seated in a corner by the bar, where we both sat so that we could watch the crowd. We found out later from one of Kevin's waitress friends that several of the bikers noticed us as the only two non-bikers (at least the only two guys not wearing leather) and also the only two drinking wine at dinner while everyone else had beer. Apparently a number of them asked if we were "together!" Little did we know. As the crowd thinned out, Kevin was persuaded to grab his guitar and go up onto their little stage and play some tunes. Kevin had been very nervous about this possibility and was worried that the bikers wouldn't like his music and would decide to kill us. I just kept telling him to concentrate on his more humorous music, which he did, along with a good handful of classics. The audience was immensely positive, laughing and calling out for more. This is another point where I deeply regret not having my camera. One giant, shaven-headed, goateed, Jesse Ventura-ish fellow was requesting an Eagles tune that Kevin didn't know. Kevin started playing another one, and (full of our wine from dinner) demanded that the fellow join him on stage. When he got up on stage, he was hunched over in a shyness bordering on terror, but then as the crowd continued to cheer, began moving to the music, bobbing his head, and by the end of the tune was back-to-back with Kevin singing into the mic with the happiest look on his face. As the crowd screamed its approval, Kevin raised both fists into the air and shouted out "Rock on, Sundance!" This totally ridiculous drunken shout would be bellowed out every time he paused. And we would all cheer. I was still sitting in the corner with the locals that Kevin had gotten to know while he was there: the owner of the Aro, her daughter, who was waitressing for the week and joined Kevin to do some incredible spontaneous beat poetry on stage, and Anna and Rick Breese, another waitress and her husband who was one of the local deputies dealing with the crowd for the rally. These last two ended up talking with me the whole evening and made me decide that this was one town full of good people. Kevin and I agreed later on that the Aro was the only place in America that made us think of an Irish pub: a local place with good food, good music that made everybody part of the family.
After leaving the Aro at about two in the morning, we went out stargazing and wandering the countryside with a few of the waitresses who had been friends with Kevin. By the time we had to try to find where we were staying for the night, it was a lot closer to sunrise than sunset. I grew up in a place with backroads, but the house we were looking for was on the far side of nowhere. Kevin and I missed the road for the longest time, and then we had to drive down a gravel lane for five miles--without seeing a house--before coming to the right spot, pausing only to let deer run across in front of us and to ask one another, "Are you sure this is the right road?" We finally arrived, giggling at the strangeness of it all, to fall into the tent that these folks had pitched for us in their backyard.
The next morning, after some good conversation with our host (and terrified silence from his toddling twin daughters), we headed into Sundance to say some good-byes, grab a few supplies and hit the road. The bikers were out in force.
As we got going, we were having a blast looking at all the different bikes, talking about all the outrageous styles we were seeing, and speculating about the people participating. After a while, though, the crowds began to go from being interesting to being endless, and even irritating. Here we hit the most dangerous point of the entire journey.
I wanted to take a look at the Crazy Horse and Mt. Rushmore memorials. Looking at the photocopied map that we had of South Dakota, it looked like it would be a detour of two hours to squeeze that in. Kevin agreed, reluctantly. With the addition of bikers everywhere and the fact that what appeared to be a normal highway going through Custer State Park was in fact a continual 20 MPH zone, our detour took five hours and I began to fear for my life. Kev was open that he was an east coast driver – just wanting to "get there" – but now things got tense as we made slower and slower progress. Having a rock fly off a passing truck and crack Kevin's windshield just added more plutonium to the bomb. I seriously began to contemplate not completing the journey after we got to South Bend.... I did get to see the memorials, though. I was surprised how little progress had been made on the Crazy Horse memorial since I'd read about it in grade school, although what I saw of the visitors center was fabulously impressive with its Native American collection. The only other highlights were that as we followed these bikers along the winding road through Custer we saw a buffalo along the edge of the road (free range agian) and we were passed at one point by Jack Nicholson on a bike, revisiting his Easy Rider days. But this wasn't enough for me to think that Kevin still might not kill me.
Yet this is what friendships are made of: weathering times like this. Not weathering them is what unexplained disappearances are made of, but we didn't travel down that route. Once we got on the highway, we made our way east. I didn't ask to detour into the Badlands. We stayed in Murdo, South Dakota that night, a town that seems to only exist to give travelers a place to eat and sleep. We rested early that evening, and watched the only episode of Survivor that we ended up seeing and had a lively talk on the ethics that the show demonstrated and what ethical mindsets it tried to force viewers into adopting.
The next day we continued our journey across South Dakota. I didn't take any photographs at this point, although I have created a computer, web-page simulation of what driving across South Dakota was like. Just scroll down.
Wasn't that dull?
Fortunately, dullness was broken for us as we got into the Madison area for the evening as crashed at my Mom's place for the night. She had a good, home-cooked meal waiting for us and we couldn't have asked for more. We got to share some of the stories from our journey thus far, enjoy some conversation, and even visit Grandma the next morning. This is where I had to admit just what a charmer Kevin can be, when I saw even my Grandmother get all giggly talking to him. Then we hit the road, heading south through Wisconsin and into northern Illinois, making for the town of Oregon, where I grew up.
As we came down the Rock River, I was able to point out some of the sights: Stronghold Castle perched on its bluff overlooking a bend in the stream; Lorado Taft's Native American statue, which we all called "Blackhawk," although it looks nothing like the man; and then on to my old house. This, unfortunately, had been decimated by tackiness: painted an ugly color and having had the lawn destroyed and covered with old children's toys and junk. Redneck heaven. We also went by my old parish, St. Mary's, which is now decorated by statue of the Holy Family that I adore. It seems to me to represent the best of what a family can have: that eager, affectionate love. A good model for a parish to have in front of it.
After this glance around town, we headed west. We stopped by DeKalb, so I could glance at my old undergraduate digs and grab lunch at an old restaurant I used to go to. Then we pushed our way through Chicago traffic and headed on to Purdue University, where a party was awaiting us. And the Road Trip continues....