Benny and his friend Griffin at Ocean Beach in San Francisco.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

South Dakota and 5-Cent Coffee

I'm writing this post in a 1950s time warp in Kadoka, South Dakota, typing away to the creak creak creak of the rusted-out swings outside our motel room door. Touted as the "Gateway to the Badlands," the motel was probably cute in the 50s, rundown in the 70s and now edges toward the decrepit. But it's been a long drive from Sioux Falls and we're not inclined to be picky.

Checking in at the lobby was delayed by the woman in front of me, who counted out eight 10-dollar bills with painstaking care. Behind me were six motorcyclists in leather and little matching bandanas. They talked about some big motorcycle rally and when the motel clerk mentioned a motorcyclist discount, I immediately said, "My hog's out front," but I don't think he believed me.

We ate dinner at a restaurant/gift shop across the street, where I found a copy of the book "Roadside Geology of Southern Dakota." The cashier stared as I brought it to the counter. "That book's been here forever,” she said. “We wondered what kind of person would buy it.” Then she eyed me suspiciously.

We woke up this morning in a Sioux Falls Holiday Inn, where Ron let me sleep in and took Benny to its fairly extensive water park. As we barreled down I-90, I tried to distract a bored Benny by telling him the plots of the Little House books set in South Dakota. He was quite intrigued, so much so that we took a not-so-quick detour to De Smet, the setting of the last three books. Benny has decided that he wants a farm now, and bought some toys at the Laura Ingalls gift store and spent the next 60 miles enacting elaborate scenarios involving a stuffed chipmunk, a stuffed horse and a wooden gun.

Traveling by covered wagon

Benny's ready for school on the prairie

East and west South Dakota are quite distinct, divided by the Missouri River, East South Dakota is all prairie and pretty farms with lots of water and west South Dakota is hilly and rugged with a daffy western obsession.

Ron and Benny at the Missouri River in South Dakota

After we crossed the Missouri, the billboards became more aggressive and pleading, sprinkled with cheery Wall Drug signs touting 5-cent coffee. Then they turned positively menacing as we neared 1880 Town. 1880 Town was amazing, we were told, it was exciting, it was nothing we have seen before. We simply could not miss it. Bad things happened to people who missed it. It had dinosaurs! It was 40 miles away, it was 30 miles, 20 … 10 … 8 … 5 …. We pressed our noses to the windows, anxious to see this fabled place. And there it was, a tiny fake town attached to a big Shell gas station. As we drove on without stopping, I half-expected to see a billboard saying “Did You Miss 1880 Town? Turn Around Now!” I’m sure tomorrow we’ll see a billboard saying “Did You Skip 1880 Town? How Do You Sleep At Night?”

We officially started this cross-country drive from South Haven, Mich., to San Francisco on Thursday. The first week of our vacation was a rushed, pollen-induced haze of sorting papers, mopping basements, hauling carpets and chauffeuring an antique cabinet all over Berrien County. I also caught a bad cold. But there was lots of family time and cookouts on the grill. I saw only brief glimpses of Benny as he spent every moment with his cousins.

Benny in Ann Arbor, Mich.

At 1 p.m. Thursday we finally hit the road, with Ron in the driver’s seat, Benny napping in the back and me sneezing in the front. Chicago traffic slowed us considerably, but we made it to Madison, Wisconsin by dinnertime and spent the night at Ron’s niece Christina’s condo.

On Friday morning, I was still a sneezing, coughing wreck, but we piled into the rented minivan and drove across Minnesota with grim determination.

But life became all kinds of better after a night at a very nice Holiday Inn. This morning my cold was almost gone and Benny has adjusted to road life and no longer demands snacks every half hour. Tomorrow we see the Badlands, Mt. Rushmore and quite possibly the Minuteman Missile Site. I simply cannot miss the missile site. It might have dinosaurs.

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