Friday, November 21, 2014

Big Plans

The epic “now that the kids are gone journey” begins and ends in Albuquerque. When we arrive just about the first thing I notice at the airport is a big display of Breaking Bad merchandise. We return to Albuquerque and Rachel, my old friend from Johnston College, takes on a Breaking Bad tour. Our first stop is the car wash. In front there is a big official tour conducted in huge trailer, similar to the one Walt and Jessie cooked meth in. A large group of tourists take photos. Blue smoke gushes out of a vent on the top of the trailer. There are “no trespassing” signs in front of Walt's ugly cul de sac home. There is no parking anywhere and a small crowd takes pictures. We also see the cafe where Walt met with Lydia, the site of Pollo Hermanos and Hank's house. The RV tour is rated on Trip Adviser as one of Albuquerque's most popular attractions, second only to the Balloon Festival. When we return to the airport, Himself is disappointed to learn that the shop is out of Breaking Bad magnets. The clerk tells them that it's impossible to keep souvenirs of the program in stock.

I marvel at what a grip Breaking Bad has in establishing the city's identity. Himself says he's not surprised although he is nearly militantly nonplussed by anything I find uncanny. When I ask him however, he is unable to name another TV show that has etched itself upon the city where it filmed so indelibly. The fact that Breaking Bad is a cable show and is probably one of the blackest comedies in the history of television, increases my wonder at the phenomena.

After nearly four weeks of motels, it is good to be home and while I am, per usual, struck by the quietude sans kids, it is nice to be able to navigate fearlessly to the bathroom in the middle of the night. Opie whines shrilly with delight for hours after we return. Gary, the cat, bites both of us, although he has no history of being a biter. After an hour though, we are forgiven and Gary pesters us, purring loudly and kneading in the bed for most of the night.

We've drive nearly 5000 miles and visit 16 states, only two of which I'd been to previously. As we drive we listen, via Audible, to the entire Dos Passos U.S.A. Trilogy and then, after visiting his home town of Sauk Center Minnesota, Babbitt and Main Street by Sinclair Lewis. It is remarkable how all of these quintessentially American novels hold up and add poignancy to our journey through Grand Rapids, Chicago, Minneapolis and seemingly infinite small towns where often we are regarded as a novelty. I am surprised at the ubiquity of water towers. It seems most towns have them as well as an “Historic Main Street.” With few exceptions though, on the periphery of these little bergs are endless strip malls of Walmart, Home Depot and myriad chain stores and restaurants. Hence, vacant storefronts come part and parcel with “Historic Main Street.”

In my mind's eye, the small towns and Econo Lodges run together. Breakfasts buffets with waffle machines,shitty coffee, Fruit Loops, fake maple syrup and margarine. Except for the big cities, we are usually the only visitors at local attractions. We stop for gas in Faith South Dakota. There is no credit card slot on the gas pump. I walk into the station. Four men are playing cards at a table in the back. There is a list of names accompanied by the DVD titles that are late being returned. Grumpy Old Men is nearly three weeks overdue. I foist my credit card at the clerk and tell her we're going to fill up. She looks at me quizzically and tells me to come back with the card after we're finished pumping the gas.

A lot of America is crammed down our throats these past four weeks. Each little town is in so many ways like every other little town. Chicago bleeds into Minneapolis. Woebegone museums of emptied attics and the giant institutes crammed with dirty money art. The Waffle House. Cowboy hats. Highway Burma Shave signs have morphed into anti-abortion campaigns featuring cuddly infants. Homogeneous Silver Lake and hipster Park Slope are a million years away from so much of what's in the middle. I am conflicted after having dipped my toe in. I struggle not to judge people by their beliefs and institutions and whether they shop at Walmart instead of Costco.

During the last week of travel Joe College and I text back and forth tensely and continuously. Girl-friend-in-law is returning from four months in Prague the last week of December and he has it in his head that they will spend a few days sequestered in a mountain cabin, preferably well decorated and with snow on the ground. This escalates for me emotionally because the boy is single-minded and stubborn. The popular New Year's period is chosen. Prices are up and most owners won't rent to a person under 25 years old. He visualizes the cabin he wants and is unwilling to compromise, despite the infinite number of more practical alternatives that I pose. Dozens of e-mails and text messages are exchanged. It is crazy making not because the boy wants a romantic getaway with Girl-friend-in-law but because his inflexibility and doggedness so parallel my own.

I feel bad that the plans for their reunion have resulted in so much sturm and drang. Wanting him to avoid the self-sabotage that has plagued me for as long as I remember, I write him, “I really want this for you but because I see so much of myself in you, seriously, take it down a notch (As I also have to remind myself.)  You're going to want what you want but you will wake up one day I'm afraid and realize that sometimes treating your “wants” as “needs” is short sighted and self destructive.   I've resumed a few relationships (YES BECAUSE OF FACEBOOK!) with people from my college days so suddenly the place you're in is particularly resonant to me. I remember feeling that my 20s would last forever. It is shocking to find myself this old.  Nevertheless, while striving for a place of moderation, you absolutely should wring as much pleasure as you can, now in this final year of college and the beginning of the next part of your life.  This brings you another step closer to where I am now.  Getting to where I am now comes very fucking quick.  One day you will remember that I told you this. It will be shocking. Anyway, I hope at least at my age you will know, like I know, that if nothing else, your life has been worthwhile because you had a kid. Or two.

Friday, November 14, 2014


November 8, 2014

We spend the day with our friends who have been transplanted from Silver Lake to administer the Grand Rapids ArtPrize program. This ambitious art event is primarily sponsored by Richard DeVos Jr. and his wife Betsy. Dick is the son of Amway co-founder Richard Senior and Betsy was chairperson of the Michigan Republican Party. I read their biographies and also about the history of the often legally troubled multi-level marketing company Amway and derive nothing the least bit warm nor fuzzy. ArtPrize however, has essentially put Grand Rapids on the map and draws thousands of visitors. It differs from most art competitions because the public participates in judging the artworks and some of the prizes are in the six figure realm. A lot of the art is more than a little edgy but it is reported that there has been no conservative pressure or attempts at censorship in curating the project. More than any endeavor I can think of, ArtPrize makes art fulfilling and enjoyable to an audience that is not necessarily a museum frequenting crowd. This year, nearly 400,000 votes are cast.

Another wonderful attraction in Grand Rapids is the newly opened Downtown Market. The downstairs offers prepared foods and specialty groceries. There is concern that the offerings might be too unfamiliar and expensive for the lion's share of Grand Rapids citizens but the market is bustling on the chilly Saturday morning of our visit. The upstairs offers several public meeting rooms with gorgeous views. Also, there are several different fantastically equipped kitchens, including an incubator and children's space. Cooking lessons and demonstrations are offered frequently and there is a verdant greenhouse with flourishing herbs and vegetables. The Market, like Art Prize is also funded largely by the DeVos family.

This is a challenging things for those of us of liberal inclination. These are conservative people. Their business thrives on practices that are ethically questionable and depend enormously on political influence. Money has been used to buy sports teams and for lots of Christian causes. But there has also been a $22 million contribution to the Kennedy Center in addition to ArtPrize and The Downtown Market. My friends, who are employed by ArtPrize assure me that there is no conservative religious doctrine in play in the commitment to arts and the urban renewal of Grand Rapids. It's just not black and white. People can stand for good and bad things at the same time. It's ok I guess to appreciate the former and rail against the latter.

Michigan is cider country and we are surprised how quickly leaving Grand Rapids that we enter a rural landscape. We drive through Ada Michigan, home of the Amway Company and site of one of the largest buildings I have ever seen. A few miles from there, through beautiful country, with a bit of fall color left, is the Sietsema Orchard. In the height of the depression, Jerry Sietsema took a risk and planted an apple orchard. Today they manufacture a number of different hard ciders, a flight of which is incredibly pleasant on a brisk fall day.

November 9

Jackson Michigan is the site of the Cell Block 7 Museum. This is an actual cellblock that was decommissioned in 2007. It has been preserved in tact except for a couple of historical exhibits that have been added. While the prison museum we visited in Canon City Colorado was also housed in an authentic former prison, Cell Block 7, due to it's enormous size (and the fact it is surrounded by ten other buildings of the same size which continue to function) and the recency of operation is as horrifying as it is fascinating. The cells are as they were and I presume as they are, a metal bunk, a toilet, a small desk, a plastic chair and a locker. Inmates are not permitted to hang anything on the walls but there are traces of drawings and graffiti.

There is one exhibit about a chaplain from the forties who bucked against the punitive ethos and opted for compassion. He caused a big stir in the town of Jackson when he hosted a number of inmates in his home for Christmas dinner. There is also the story of Dale Remling's 1975 escape from the prison, via helicopter. He was apprehended, alas, a few hours later.

One of the cells has a pen and a stack of Post-its for visitors to share a message. I can think of nothing worth writing but notice that a number of the visitors are former inmates. One has written, “I was here for nearly five years. It was for marijuana which is (almost) legal now.” There are four tiers and we are on the top. A man yells from the bottom floor, “I want to show you something!” We think he wants us to come downstairs and we head in that direction but half way there, he yells again, “Stop!” He points to a discolored spot on the floor. “This is a blood stain they could never get out. A guy fell from the top tier. We don't know if it was a suicide or he was pushed.”

Our next stop is Louisville Kentucky. We dine on fried green tomatoes and local beer at an historic downtown eater. Like Grand Rapids, there is an enormous amount of construction which bodes I guess congestion but is nevertheless an indication of increased prosperity. We stay at a particularly crappy Econo Lodge so we're happy to get an early start.


I had never thought much about Kentucky except for horse racing and mint juleps. It is however extraordinarily lush and beautiful. The gentle landscape along the highway, unlike other places we've driven through, is largely unsullied by strip malls and trailer parks. Some backroads take us to the Abbey at Gethsemini, where Thomas Merton was a monk. There is a little video about a monks daily life. The day begins with Virgil, at 3:45 a.m. There are six other times for prayer and singing and a mass each day. The monastery produces cheese, fruitcakes and ceramics so in addition to prayer, singing and meditation, most of the monks work four to five hours a day. There is no unnecessary conversation and meals are spartan and vegetarian. Monastic accommodations used to be referred to as “cells.” I don't know if this is still the case. But, the rooms at Gethsemini are about as small and spartan as the cells we enter at Cell Block 7. And the monastery schedule is as rigid and unchanging as the daily prison grind. How queer that some men experience torment and others grace in lives that are so parallel.We cross into Tennessee and make our way into the tiny town of Bells to a cabin on a blueberry farm.  I drink my coffee now as fall leaves flitter over a tiny pond.

The owner of our cabin is the author of a number of self-published Christian themed books. They are displayed on the coffee table with price tags. He is also the curator and creator of the tiny village of Green Frog, a couple steps from the cabin. He has established a tiny village with a school house, chapel, general store and a restored cotton mill. The keys for all of these buildings are left for us so we can explore. Some of the buildings are original to the spot and others have been moved there and restored. Also on the property is The Cotton Museum of the South. This is a huge cotton mill which closed in 1957 but has been preserved. An older man is fiddling with some lights and invites us to come inside. There are two floors of giant machinery. He describes carefully how everything functioned but it is over my head. There are huge cotton bales and a dead bird which he steps around without acknowleging. He reminisces about picking cotton. He remembered how pleased the family was when one of the son's tiny brides proved able to pick two hundred pounds a day.

We cross from Tennessee to Mississippi. Our destination is Holly Springs, the setting of the film Cookie's Fortune. It is Veteran's Day and the town square is festooned with flags. One of my revelations of this trip is that almost every town has a water tower and most have a square. I can't describe how the center of Holly Springs feels different than anywhere I've ever been. There are remnants of gracious living, the sense of a completely different pace and a weird poignancy.

Our destination is the Marshall County Historical Society Museum. After four weeks visiting oddball museums, this one takes the cake. Community members sought to save the former dormitory of a girl's school from the wrecking ball and succeeded. It was determined to convert the site to a museum but there was no funding for the project. The families of Holly Springs and surrounding bergs simply went through their attics and relics from the Civil War era up though the sixties are crammed into three floors. Because the museum is largely unfunded and a labor of love, things are just sort of lying around. Some objects have descriptions, many of which are handwritten using all caps in a rather unsteady hand.

There are military uniforms from the Civil Era War, the Spanish American War, World Wars One and Two and Vietnam. A retired history teacher is our guide. The durability of some WWI military breeches is remarkable. Our guide says we're really not supposed to touch things but she lets us.
There are letters, photos, ration books and memorabilia carted home by American soldiers from all over the world.

Upstairs is filled with costumes, many delicate ones, hanging out in the open. They have no resources to preserve them but it is remarkable to be able to look so closely at handmade garments from the 19th century. There is a case with just gloves and a shelf with hats. There are cases jammed with costume jewelry and fans. There are rooms choc a block with household objects, one with toys and children's readers, the recreation of a turn-of-the-century physician's office and even a funeral room.

There is a Ku Klux Klan robe and only token nods to the black community. One of the handwritten descriptions of a photo refers to “colored people.” There are photos of the local high school's senior class from the early 1900s through the 1970s. Except for a couple in the late 1970s, all of the students are white. There is another wall containing other class photos from another local school. All of the faces are black.

The handwritten description that says “colored people” is yellowed. The KKK robe is accompanied by a long explanation describing the shame of the south. Our guide apologizes that there are no artifacts representing local black people who served in the military and she adds that many did. I'm not sure what to make of it. I loved looking at the three floors crammed with stuff. I am moved that people saved so very many things and the pride of place that makes this weird museum possible. I am aware though while it would be impossible in a single visit to really examine everything the museum contains, that still it only tells part of the story.

From Mississippi to Arkansas. Our intention is to drive until we get tired. Friends from the south have always raved about Waffle House and I am determined to try it. The waitress is a complete doll and there is a customized Waffle House juke box with even a special country song. “Pretty lady...workin' at the Waffle House."  As sweet as the waitress is, the food is tragic. We land at an Econo Lodge in Brinkley Arkansas. It is just like the other Econo Lodge's we've stayed at and I'll only remember the names of those towns by going back and rereading here.

It's a long drive West on Interstate 40 to Bentonville, made longer by a traffic jam caused by a terrible accident. The Ozarks are still in autumn technicolor, the best fall color I've ever seen. Our destination is the newly opened art museum Crystal Bridges. The location is spectacular and designed with walkways through verdant Ozark hills and streams. Unfortunately the weather is in the 20s so we remain inside the spectacular building designed by Moshe Safdie, who also designed Yad Veshem,  and was a protegee of Louis Kahn. Bentonville is a company town. The company being Walmart. This is in the great tradition of dirty money philanthropy. Walmart made 17 billion in profits in 2013 yet most employees receive Food Stamps and Medicare. Essentially then, the American taxpayer subsidizes the huge company. Admission and parking at Crystal Bridges is free at least and it is spectacular to behold. While our friends in Grand Rapids report that the ultra-conservative DeVos family does nothing to censor the submissions to ArtPrize, while the Crystal Springs collection is impressive, the offerings are tame and non-controversial. Even a large gallery of contemporary works emphasizes happy and whimsical pieces instead of more challenging or controversial.


We stop by Springdale to visit the Shiloh Museum of Ozark History. There are letters and artifacts from the Civil War which reveal how tragically the area was decimated. Much emphasis is placed on, what in addition to Walmart, is Arkansas' biggest cash cow--chicken. There is a display of Tyson products and a film from the 50s about developing the chicken of the future. A group of children are being taught about pioneer life. The costumed docent says, “We don't shoot cows because we eat them but we shoot bears.” The children stand at the window holding toy rifles and watching for bears. Corn cob pipes are offered in the toy section of the gift shop. I know I'm not in Silver Lake.

From Springdale we make a long trip West. Orange and red cotton woods turn to grazing land as we cross Oklahoma. The night is spent in Shamrock Texas which has no distinction except for being midway between Arkansas and Albuquerque. We have dinner at a steak house, probably the only ones in the joint eschewing red meat. There is excellent Texas beer served in enormous Texas sized goblets. Other diners eat giant steaks and sport camouflage prints and cowboy hats.

We resume our trek down Interstate 40. Route 66 ran through the center of Tucumcari New Mexico. There has been some funding to create murals through the down and restore many of the original neon signs but it is a sad lost place. There are so many burnt out buildings I cannot help but think insurance arson. The historical museum is similar to the one we visited in Holly Springs Mississippi. There is obviously very little funding and it looks like everyone unloaded the crap from their attics and there it landed. Nevertheless, there's tons of interesting stuff just lying around. The museum also has a collection of wagons, an airplane and a Union Pacific caboose. A local nun's sewing machine has its own little display, as does a dismantled post office. There's tons of fossils, rusted farm equipment, home appliances and random letters, telegrams and newspaper clippings.

There is an impeccably inscribed journal from a hospital. Beautiful handwriting lists the patient's name, age, religion, illness and disposition. Most were Protestant or Catholic but we leaf through all the pages and find two Jews and two Mormons. There's a lot of pneumonia, ranch accidents and a couple of “therapeutic abortions.” On every page there are a number of patients who have expired. I suspect that these willy nilly historical museums are not unique to small hard luck towns like Tucumcari or Holly Springs.

Saturday, November 8, 2014


November 4,
Next stop Minneapolis. After over a week of cheapo motels with translucent sheets and polyester plush blankets I score a miraculous same day deal at the Hyatt Regency, ifor an enormous suite no less. One thing about staying in barebones roadside hostelries is that there is genuine motivation not to hangout in the room. Alas, the quality linens and gorgeous towels are a trap. We are less voracious in Minneapolis than we've been in other places. There's a dinner in a huge British style pub where I have a good cider and himself samples the local brews. It is mostly business guys watching a football game on giant TVs. One of the few ladies in the joint orders a Corona.

The Minneapolis Institute of Art is gigantic, wreaking of old money. The huge collection takes up most of the day. There are a number of wonderfully done “period rooms” which incorporate art, household items and furnishings from a number of different eras. I am particularly fascinated by one called “The Curator's Office.” The first director of the institute, the bookish Barton Kestle boarded a train bound to Washington D.C. and was never seen or heard from again. During some remodeling in 2011 his office, which had apparently been inadvertently boarded over, is discovered, completely intact. There's an old typewriter, cameras and other relics of what the 1950's office of an artsy individual would contain. I totally buy it and am captivated by the story. Curious about this mysterious disappearance I poke around online and discover that this period room, including the back story, was created by artist Mark Dion. The museum has taken on the theme, per Stephen Colbert, of “truthiness.” I am embarrassed yet exhilarated to have been so hoodwinked.

We dine at the very nice Sea Change Restaurant at the Guthrie Center. I want to see the Stone Arch Bridge but we are advised by our server that it is mighty cold to walk near the river. An alternative she suggests is to use the elevators in the Guthrie Center for an excellent view and the enclosed “Endless Bridge.” There is no performance at the Guthrie this night but there are some kids waiting to be picked up. We are admitted and ride up in the elevator. A security man stops us and tries to kick us out. I whine a bit and we are allowed sixty seconds to view the bridge. Himself is surprised at how fast I am able to run.

Some Johnston College alumni live near by and we stop by and have a chat. I am always pleased by how many JC alums dedicate themselves to service. We met Hetel at the Durrell Conference over the summer. She's an attorney working in fair housing and helping homeowners avoid foreclosure. Her husband Kevin is a community organizer, also working with the impoverished.

November 5
We set out for Chicago passing through Wisconsin. Warrens is the state's cranberry center. All of the cranberry related tourism is closed for the season but we drive around the bogs. A gas station offers a big jar of cranberries macerated in moonshine. I ask the clerk how one would use this. The gal says she has no idea and that she doesn't like cranberries. Although I'm still intrigued, I pass on the concoction.

The next stop is Wisconsin Dells, which is sort of like Big Bear on steroids. Enormous, garish tourist attractions surround the dells of the Wisconsin River. Most of the town is shut down for the season but we find a giant moose themed brew pub. Again, we enjoy excellent libations. The barkeep expounds articulately and passionately about the different brews made on the premises. His two customers at the bar order Coors Light.

November 6
We are invited to stay in Glencoe with the parent's of one of Joe College's friends from Johnston, Sara and Chris. They are incredibly gracious, although we've shown up at an inconvenient time. Both have just returned from New York and a few days ago Sara made an emergency trip to Israel where one of her friends was gravely injured while on a bike tour. Chris leaves Chicago again the next morning but Sara takes the time to give us an incredibly erudite driving tour of the city which we are thankful for because it is pretty friggin' cold. She drops us to spend a day at The Institute of Art. We barely make a dent. I have my first in person encounter with “Nighthawks” and am impressed by the extensiveness of the impressionist collection. There is a special multimedia exhibit “The American City Lost and Found: New York, Chicago and Los Angeles 1950-1980. It's an objective look at urban unrest and renewal. There are a series of some Helen Leavitt color portraits from early 1970's New York that are particularly breathtaking.

We return to Glencoe and attend the play Isaac's Eye at a community theater group. Chris and Sara are very dedicated the theater group. A gorgeous new theater is being constructed and until it's completion, performances are being held in the back of the homey bookstore from which the theater group emanated over twenty years ago.
November 7
I make a wrong turn and we end up touring The Loop in bumper to bumper traffic on our way out of town. Gary Indiana looks grim and we skip the Michael Jackson birthplace attraction. Our first stop is in Elkhart Indiana, known as the RV capital of the world. Our destination of the Midwest Museum of American Art. The museum occupies a 1920's bank building which has been refitted rather modestly. The collection is small but sort of mind blowing for a town that is known primarily for recreational vehicles. Represented are Grant Wood, Norman Rockwell, Reginald Marsh, Grandma Moses, Andy Warhol, Jim Dine and Helen Frankenthaler.

There is also a large collection of the Indiana manufactured Arts & Crafts style Overbeck pottery. The firm was run by three sisters and their work was celebrated at the Chicago Worlds Fair. There are some gorgeous large William Morris inspired pieces but also some small whimsical pastel toned miniatures that convey a charming and feminine sensibility.

Our eating proclivities, outside of major cities, relegates us mostly to vegetarian pizza, In Elkhart however this is accompanied by some outstanding beer and cider and an amazing homemade pretzel in a convivial brewpub. From here, we venture to Amish country. There are many horse-drawn buggies on route to a supermarket known as the Amish Costco. After having sample Amish provisions at the Reading Market in Philadelphia, I have come to associate Amish cuisine with a homespun, healthful heartiness. The market does carry a number of wholesome Amish products but the bonneted ladies and bearded gents were filling their carts with soda (called “pop” here), Top Ramen and frozen pizzas.

The final stop is with some friends recently moved from Silver Lake to Grand Rapids. They've purchased an enormous historic house and turned it into a lovely and comfortable home. I write this sitting next to a gorgeous tile fireplace. I am intimidated by the number of rooms and am nervous about opening the wrong door but we are given a lovely guest room and enjoy a restful night. Ike, the Wheaton terrier I was friends with back in Silver Lake has made the transition beautifully and stretches out languidly in a warm spot near his people.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014


November 2, 2014
I never thought we'd end up in North Dakota but Himself decides he wants to see the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center in Washburn so it's another long day on the road from Wall South Dakota. As is usually the case when we visit off the beaten path attractions in November we have the museum to ourselves. I learn that to a large extent the expedition was under the aegis of Thomas Jefferson and that prior to departure Jefferson made sure that Meriweather Lewis studied with the nation's top scientific minds. More than most other expeditions into Indian territory, the objective was the acquisition of knowledge and not profit. The expedition is excruciatingly well documented and the logistics of preparing for it are mind boggling. Adjacent to the center is a replica of the fort constructed for the expedition at Mandan. During the season there is a separate visitor center there but in November we just follow a guy up there in the car and he shows us around.

It is funny to think about how the age of enlightenment had really taken hold in the 18th Century. There was no formal religious observance at the fort and the bible sent along on the journey was more for behavioral instruction and not spiritual succor. We are both struck by a large statue commemorating Seaman, Meriweather Lewis's Newfoundland dog who was a member of the expedition. Legend has it that when Lewis died, Seaman waited on his grave until his own time came.

November 3, 2014
We spend the night in Jameston North Dakota, site of the Buffalo Museum and the world's largest buffalo which we hail from the highway without stopping. It is a long ride to Alexandria Minnesota to visit the Runestone Museum. A huge Viking greets us as we arrive in the little town. Again, we are alone in the museum although the lady in charge is very chatty. Ohlof Ohman freed the stone from a clump of roots while he was clearing land on his farm in 1898. A controversy went on for years and Ohman was branded a forger. The public humiliation caused one of his children to leave the area and another to commit suicide. It wasn't until 2004 that it was concluded that the stone is a genuine Viking carving from around 1362.

Besides the Runestone the little museum is choc-a-bloc with artifacts from the little farm town including a lot of household objects, clothing and weapons. An ancient telephone is accompanied by a sweet sentimental story about a little boy calling the information operator when in need of advice or comfort. There was a wired-haired terrier named Scotty who was such a good little dog that when he died he was preserved for posterity. He still wears his license.

The lady in the gift store doesn't want us to leave. She tells us about relatives in S. California who live in Venice. She is relieved they live there because the area isn't vulnerable to mudslides. Are we known for mudslides? She is a PBS devotee and while she had never heard of him, she noted that on the PBS show “Finding Your Roots,” Nas discovers that he has Viking blood. She segues into Antiques Road Show and Irish Minnesotans. I'm afraid she's going to follow us to the parking lot. She is a sweet lady and I hope that there some other weirdo tourists to come keep her company.

The last empty museum we visit is the Sinclair Lewis Interpretive Center in Sauk Centre Minnesota. Life in the little town inspired several of Lewis's best known novels which don't pain the town in a particularly positive light. Originally, the citizens of Sauk Centre were outraged by what they perceived was Lewis's defamation of their town but it didn't take long for him to become a favorite son. We see his writing desk and the incredibly detailed notes and maps he created before embarking on a novel. Main Street is largely preserved and many things, including Sinclair Gas has been renamed to honor the town's most celebrated son.

Saturday, November 1, 2014


October 31, 2014

The tiny bunkhouse in Hot Springs North Dakota is part of a large horse ranch. We head up to the main house to seek John, the owner's itinerary advice. A retired civil engineer, the horse ranch is John has been in love with the west since childhood. The big house has stunning enormous western style chandeliers and other amazing details hand hewn by John. There is also a tiny ghost town he's constructed. Our bunkhouse is chock-a-block with cowboy memorabilia. Even the switchplate covers have cowgirls. We wake to neighing horses, penned several feet from the cabin.

After a morning of laundry, in a Hot Springs laundromat you can buy for $217k if you're looking for a change of scene. We have the road to Mount Rushmore mostly to ourselves except for bison and wild burros. The route up to the monument is full of hairpin turns and cunningly crafted tunnels. The idea for a large monument carved out of granite in the Black Hills was conceived to draw tourists to South Dakota. It is sculpted by Danish-American Gutzon Borglum and his son Lincoln. Construction began in 1927. The original conception was that the full bodies of the four presidents be represented but in 1941 it was determined that the four heads sufficed.

November 1, 2014
After nearly a week of cheap motels on interstates we are sad to leave the cozy bunkhouse. We cruise through the sprawling Rapid City surrounded by prefab housing and long strips of chain stores. The town of Surgis is famous for a February motorcycle festival and the town is full of shops with cycle merch. A few miles away is Deadwood. The town is well preserved and westerns are still shot there but behind most of the authentic facades are casinos and this is the only tourist attraction in the state that is bustling. We cross again through Rapid City to reach Badlands National Park, which we nearly have to ourselves. Vast grasslands surrounded by eroded buttes and pinnacles extend for as far as the eye can see.

After a barrage of highway signs we make the obligatory stop at Wall Drug. There are parking lots all over the town and the dining room seats over 500 people. We are the only diners when we arrive at 4:30 on Saturday. A Yelp review aptly notes that the food is quite inferior to MacDonalds but we haven't eaten all day and want to see what all the fuss about Wall Drugs is about. Most of the stores are closed but we pick up a few kitsch souvenirs for the kids. The salesman who I presume has had a very boring day is chatty. We tell him we're from L.A. This is the first time I've ever been asked if I'm traveling in an RV.

We notice Ann's Motel which is more removed from the highway than the rest when we enter the town. It is good ratings on Trip Advisor and I call to book a room Ann tells me that she won't be back from church until 6. We kill some time walking around the town. Like in other markets we've been to I notice that there is a lousy selection of lousy produce. Two loud guys in filthy overalls buy a beer suitcase and rolling papers. There is a dinky library and giant grain silos. The Badlands are the backyards to the houses on the edge of town.

Ann returns late from church, saying that the priest went on longer than usual. Despite a huge sign in the room that there is a $200 fine for smoking we reject a room that reeks of tobacco. There is also a sign that says checkout is at 10:00 and there is a $20 fine if you're late. Himself advises me not to hold up to Ann that she was late back from church if we're running behind schedule.