The Lucky 24

Trip Start Jun 19, 2010
Trip End Sep 01, 2010

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Flag of United States  , South Dakota
Thursday, July 15, 2010

       DAY TWENTY-FOUR: It's the commemoration of my lucky number, this day being number twenty-four on the road (I think), and it arrives in typically epic style.  It’s getting all soggy and soiled and voices are grating as my clothes begin to stick to my body and the nights draw out.  Now that Navin is back, he’s back to leading the show, always at the front of the bus with his angular face terminating at a gaping smile, smart phone glowing in his hand like a jewel.  He mixes up hikes and caverns and detours and dirt roads with the thing, always ready for an adventure, and everyone is happy to oblige his endless well of energy in pursuit of more, more, more.

            We wake fairly early at the side of the road to a sign, riddled with bullet holes, documenting South Dakota’s largest and most-devastating fire in its history, occurring in 2000, consuming over 80,000 acres.  Our concerns are elsewhere, and we dart off to the Black Hills, most specifically to Mount Rushmore and its anthill of tourists.  We drop the ten dollars at the gate and a buzzing fly of a parking attendant guides our gargantuan rhino bus in his golf cart to the distant side of the parking lot, where we slap on some sunscreen and hop out, Washington’s nose shadowing us all the while. 

            Mount Rushmore is beautiful, awe-inspiring, and almost jingoistic.  I can’t even begin to try to describe how amazing of an accomplishment it was for them to do what they did, when they did it, in that detail, on that scale, and for some reason also beyond my, understanding, this grandiose achievement inspires within me a sort of anti-patriotism, causing me to reflect on why these figures are cast so permanently in such massive stone, and whether or not such accolade is deserved.  Teddy Roosevelt, for example: I’m not close to knowledgeable about history, and I dig what he did for National Parks, and with the Panama Canal and all of that, but was he not a big of an over-aggressive war-monger?  It struck me as interesting that the sculptor, as brilliant as he was, was quoted as dreaming fervently to participate in, "six wars at once," and it is this sort of self-righteous, hard line, romantic notion of imperialism and war that puts the only chink in my country’s armor, from my perspective.  Even the giant plaque near the top of the mountain, one that supposedly details our nation’s history – and does so valiantly, describing chronologically each region’s ascension to the union, and so forth – but it completely glosses over the way we got our land from the Natives, simply noting that we did so by way of our, “strong Christian values,” or some guff like that.  Please.  It is both wonderful and upsetting to experience all of this with thousands of your fellow countrymen, some pasty and overweight with cameras slung about their necks, some Quaker, some studded with Gothic metal and leather, all from regions and cultures different from your own, both united and blinded by the same shared glory.  It’s rah-rah and it’s in good spirit, these types of monuments, but they also stand, I feel, to distract a nation’s citizens from the ugliness required to maintain a large slab of fruitful and temperate land.  I don’t mean to be preachy, I’m just saying that all of these are necessary evils in maintaining power, both in today’s world and in antiquity (or whatever), and I think it’s important to reflect upon both sides, good and bad.  Anyway, the rocks are awesome, and the pupils are these little rods that, when viewed from a certain angle, make it seem like President Lincoln is shooting lasers from his eyes, so that’s way cool.

            We all reconvene at the viewing platform, but again The Beard is nowhere to be found.  Cornbread does his mock-pimp walk, scouring the scene as if he had some mobster’s belly and influence, and we all make lewd comments, ignorant of the sea of war veterans and grandmothers surrounding; we are horrible people.  We want a picture in front of the monument, all of us, before we leave, but without The Beard, we’re left to asking a plump old man with a rotting nose if he’ll stand in for our friend, who had recently passed away.  Slightly incredulous, the man did it, and it again proves that you can get someone to do anything that doesn’t involve money if you have enough conviction.  Man, I’m being cynical and difficult to read!

            Just as we’re about to leave, as always, The Beard appears at the bus, and we drive to Custer, South Dakota, a pleasant old stagecoach town, to get a pizza, and for some of us it’s the first meal in perhaps a day and a half (the others had KFC the day previous while I slept and Navin refused).  We get to charge our phones and all the such and bother, and I pour Navin regulated sips of Powerade from my glass because I am both greedy and generous at once.

            Some of them want to spelunk, so we head to some caves about an hour away, and take up five parking spots in a crowded lot.  In but a moment, as if sent from Bog, our first pair of road-bound aesthetes come knocking on our window, asking for a tour of the bus.  Both auburn of hair, post-hipster of badge, they are enthusiastic and appreciative and quite friendly.  Each little detail on the bus dwarfs the next, feeding their Whopper smiles, and as theirs grow, so does mine.  We find that they, food scientists from South Carolina, will be in Chicago this weekend as will we, and we exchange phone numbers and pleasantries.

            Meanwhile, the spelunking tour is sold out, and the other tours are $9 and unimpressive (at least to me; my general lack of desire to do anything reaches its peak here as I sneak behind The Beard’s ear to question whether it’s really worth it to him, and slowly this sentiment trickles across the group until we decide to cut out, to the dismay of a rather effeminate and kindly park ranger.  We fix to drive around the park a bit, though, to see some wildlife, and in no time at all, we’re prancing through a plain that boasts two massive bison.  We find refuge on the side of a hill, hiding behind trees, studying these majestic, enormous creatures – their heads are wedding cakes with Afros! – until The Beard regains some of his daring, and marches out alone into the field, face to face with the dinosaur.  Shmark jokingly offers him a dollar for every next step he takes, with a minimum winnings of twenty dollars, but we all fear that even another step might set the grazing monster into a fit.  Instead of retreating, however, The Beard does a flip onto his hands, and walks toward the animal on his palms!  Our gasps and shouts don’t help, either, and finally, rocking side to side, landing hard on its back as it works out its momentum (or simply gets itself dirty; who knows its intent), the buffalo springs to its feet and, horns lowered, stares down The Beard.  We’re all wondering what’s going to give, and don’t move for fear of further provocation while, like an animal whisperer, The Beard tiptoes away, soothing his foe, until he can reach the hill and head back to the bus intact.  Phew.

            So anyway, death again averted, the cave tours avoided, we head to Rapid City, hoping to fix what ails our Pearl while stocking up on rations for the next few days we’ll spend in Badlands National Park.  At an auto shop, we pick up a wrench to change our fuel filter, as well as some concentrated coolant, hoping these elixirs might help our baby from wheezing and burning on the hills.  We deliberate for an hour about what kind of inverter to buy – The Beard and Navin gleamed two days previous that the inverter, what converts the car battery’s power into current that can safely run everyday appliances and fixtures – then buy one, then call fifteen friends from home, then return it, then head back in to buy, then call another person, then leave again until they were closed and packed up for the night.  Ultimately we find a better one for cheaper at a nearby truck stop, and The Beard sets to work on it with Tristan’s help.  I, meanwhile, start helping to cook what was to be a sausage quinoa jambalaya, but we can’t get the water to boil and the quinoa remains in the bag for now in favor of old hot dog buns.  Hopefully I cook the pork thoroughly, but regardless of that I douse it with fresh jalapenos and buckets of hot sauce so if there is bowel unrest, no one can immediately blame it on negligence. 

            Navin takes us down a “back way” toward a “free campsite” in Badlands that he found through his trusty phone, but it’s quite dark and the road is unpaved, so we, thoroughly creeped out by this endless lonely road deep in the purple nigh, also taken by the crisp and melon-colored haze surrounding a thumbnail moon, eventually pull over at the side of the road at a viewpoint, from which point we hopefully won’t be woken by curious fellow tourists, come morning.  Signs all around warn us that Prairie Dogs in this area contain a strain of the bubonic plague – the what?  How is this possible?? – and we try to keep our ankles in the bus at all times for fear of sending the world into another Dark Age.  The plague, seriously?  That tickles me to no end that this was a real warning, but I would prefer not to learn of its seriousness.

            Meanwhile, in this ominous and well-named Badlands, the night horizon is visible in all directions, with simply no mountains to blot out the distance (I don’t know that I’ve ever experienced this before, but it’s not yet the good part.  No, all around us, besides the blackness and the stars and the pestiferous omnipresence (ooh, nice) of flying insects, comes, complete with persistent gusts of wind, a symphony of fireworks on the greatest of scales, and again, in every direction.  The sky looks to me like one of those old French paintings of war, with a plume of distant smoke containing within it all sorts of microcolors to astound and dazzle the eye.  We assume these are but simple electric storms, but they do fill the sky as if directly from Zeus himself, and as we doze off to sleep we can’t help but be but taken by all of it.  Day after day, up after down, the astounding force of nature never ceases to impress us with its strikingly beautiful might.  “Thanks, Nature!”  “You bet, Hickory Rick!”
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