Alaska Sojourn!
Tom's Updates, Day 3


Into The Heartland
by Tom Bowman

The Heartland, that big middle part of the country that includes Missouri and Iowa, are behind us, as is the most of South Dakota as I write this. I'm sitting in the Lazy J Campground in Rapid City, and a wicked thunderstorm has just come over the Black Hills to crack and boom and rain fat drops on the tent fly, making big "splats" as each lands. I've got John Lee Hooker on the Walkman and Jim Beam in the cup. There are nearly 1500 miles underneath Crow Jane's wheels, and the Travel Gods have been good to us this far.

When we reached the end of our first day in Jonesburg, MO, we had broken out from under the clouds that had been hounding us for most of the first day, culminating in thick showers around St. Louis, but by the time we got to our destination, we appeared to have run out from under it all and were treated to a nice, clear sunset. Only some distant clouds to the west broke the vista, but as we turned in around 11:00 P.M., those turned into another thunderstorm that went on most of the night. Morning broke soggy but calm, and as we set off for our ride across The Show-Me State, the skies were merely unsettled. Around Kansas City we hit more rain, but nothing serious and by the time we turned north on I-29, we were once again out of it. North of St. Joseph, the winds came up and we tacked easterly into a stiff breeze until reaching the Iowa state line. There's not much one can say about Iowa that doesn't have either "corn" or "green" in it, but as we paralleled the Big Muddy river there were scenes of flooding; perhaps you've seen something of it on the tube?

I guess I have to admit to occasionally having moments of delirium on the road - fits of duncedom in which I look right at something and don't recognize it. Yesterday it happened to me as we were approaching Omaha on I-29 northbound; I kept seeing road signs that read "Council Bluffs", and found myself wondering "When do we get to Omaha?" See, one of the little pain-in-the-ass problems I have is that I can't read anything up close with my glasses on, and I've never gotten around to going the bifocals route - too vain, concerned about distortion, etc. Anyway, I couldn't read the map on the tankbag, and just figured "Well…..Omaha must be north of Council Bluffs." Those of you looking at a map, or who are familiar with that area have already figured it out and are probably laughing your asses off: Omaha is on the other side of the river from Council Bluffs. Duh. Well, after passing through, we made Sioux City in jig time, where we decided on a motel instead of camping, as Ian is laboring away under the notion that he can successfully run his business from the road and needed a handy phone jack and power supply.

I took the opportunity to seal up a seam or two on the tent that had sprung leaks in the showers in Missouri, to the great puzzlement of the other guests. I'm quite sure some of them thought that I was simply going to drive tent stakes into the asphalt parking lot and camp out. Sioux City happens to be the home of Gateway Computers, which is housed in perhaps the ugliest statement to gonzo marketing on the face of the planet: a huge, sprawling white industrial-ugly building just off the Interstate, painted with black "cow" spots on the white building sides. You can see it a mile. The other things Sioux City is home to is a thriving casino business: just like in Lost Wages, you can plunk your butt down in a neon-illuminated barroom and watch drunken, cigarette-puffing people shove money into electronic gaming machines while you eat a $4.95 "Prime Rib Dinner With All The Trimmings". Mmmmmm, good !

Monday morning dawned with high clouds in the sky and dire reports on The Weather Channel about more severe thunderstorms in Missouri and Nebraska: seems we just made it north in time. The day promised a mind-numbing grind across South Dakota, and I admit to having not much stomach for that, so I had scoped a route using the state highways and paralleling the Missouri River - routes 50 and 44. Let me tell you, folks, if you ever have to cross South Dakota, that's perhaps the best route on which to do it. As we turned off I-29 for the last time and headed west, we found ourselves in rolling land so green you couldn't believe it. The road was anything but straight and flat, and picturesque farms dotted a land of frequent vistas. Out through Vermilion and Yankton, and on to Winner, the route was anything but boring. I guess I just didn't have much appreciation for the farming industry, or for the scale of the state, but somewhere about a hundred miles into the middle of SD, I began to ask myself "Who is going to eat all this corn??" I think I've got it figured out: the cows are going to eat it, along with an unimaginable quantity of hay, either growing, being cut, lying in fields drying, or stacked in bales or rolled up in ricks. What the cows don't eat, ADM ("Supermarket to the world" they proclaim) is going to make into corn syrup with which to sweeten our soft drinks and candy bars, and about a zillion other things. there's so much corn in South Dakota, they even have a Corn Palace. We didn't get to go there, having to choose between Wall Drug and the Badlands, but I imagine its quite a place. Another thing that I began to ask myself as we rolled along was "Why would anyone want to be a pig farmer??" The smell must destroy all the sense organs in the nose after a short time, rendering the pig farmers incapable of identifying anything more subtle than skunk, which now that I think about it is about on the same plane as Pig Farm. You could smell them literally a half-mile away.

The corn and hogs transition to alfalfa, sunflowers, wheat, and milo (don't ask me what that is - a convenience store clerk told me that name as we stopped for coffee and gas in Winner), and thence to grasslands after crossing the Missouri, after which most of the land is given up to herds of cattle and giant tractors hauling plows twenty feet wide as they turn the black soil for more of whatever. There was a point in the morning when I looked up into the sky and saw two long, narrow clouds keeping exact seventy-mile-an-hour pace with us while above them another layer of clouds raced the other way, noticeably changing position at a high rate. At another point, in a huge field of tall grass, an all-white horse ran all alone, his tail held high and straight out behind him, running perhaps for the joy of it, like us, simply to see what the other side looks like. The cows even seemed to have something going: at one place, a herd of black cows faced a similar herd of brown cows across the road; each herd was jammed shoulder-to-shoulder into the corner of its' pasture staring like "Hey: let's rumble!" Another macabre thing unique to the state is the practice of "X Marks the Spot" signs denoting where there have been highway fatalities; they're quite common. I have no idea what to do with that knowledge, but the state seems to want me to know. Something else that struck me along the way: South Dakota must have one Hell of a winter judging by the size of the snowplows seen in the highway department yards: huge, double-sided monsters fifteen feet wide and six feet high. Houses seem to be built with banks of trees thick on the west side, telling me that there's not a goddamned thing to stop the wind but fence posts between there and Wyoming. Not my kinda place, I reckon.

There is a place - I can't tell you where without a map - where the Badlands begins, only you're not yet in the park. There are wide erosion features where the grass has been carried off into white and pinkish gullies and washes by the periodic rains. As you run on west, one comes to the Badlands themselves, a spectacular place, and eerie - an unearthly place of exposed coral pink sand and white chalky earth. Route 240 winds across the top of the park from vista point to vista point; the nearest thing to it I've ever seen would be in Utah - Cedar Breaks, or perhaps Bryce Canyon. Definitely worth a trip. While at the visitor center we met a couple on custom-painted Honda cruisers, his a Valkyrie, hers a twin. He was taping his trip with a helmet-mounted video camera he got from a sky diver!

From the Badlands, we hiked to I-90, almost an indignity after such good, scenic roads, and schlepped on to Rapid City. We forswore a visit to Wall Drug, that mighty tourist trap in the town of the same name. Interstate 90 is surely the reason why South Dakota has such a dreadful reputation with motorcyclists: there is no more sense-depriving slab of concrete (oh, I know, there are lots of others near as bad). The high point of that leg was watching a B-1 bomber climb out from Ellsworth Air Force base near Rapid City. We'd include a photo, but then we'd have to kill you.

Tomorrow, Mt. Rushmore, the Crazy Horse Memorial, Devil's Tower, and thence to Cody, Wyoming.

"Think twice `fore you go, if we ever meet again,
Think twice before you go, we may never meet again;
If you ever left before, you may leave me again."
John Lee Hooker

Tom Bowman, from the Alaska Sojourn!


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