One thought ahead. Three sentences behind.

Westward Go!

“But I can go into hiding without ruining my life.
Hell, I’ll go to the Dakotas and they’ll never find me.”

Mario Puzo
Omerta

 

Work, we do it. Punch in, go to lunch, eight-to-five, do it again. At least there are vacations, a chance to break free and take a different direction. That’s why I don’t understand why some people willingly lock themselves into vacation plans that run tighter than a prison schedule. I’m talking about ads you seen in the newspaper or online:

 

SEE THE WORLD IN EIGHT DAYS AND NEVER
LEAVE AN AIRPORT PARKING LOT

 

Some think this prepackaged itinerary is the only way to go. They are the kind of tourists so locked into their daily work routines that anytime they are not looking at a fresco or a grotto or a Michelangelo is downtime to be spent at the souvenir shop.

I think there is more work than vacation to these schedules. Even if you are not punching a clock, you are still on the go with a pay up, learn French, present your passport, fly on a plane, get on a tour bus, check into your room, get antsy, go out, get lost, ask for directions (in French), remain lost (in France), swear (in English), come across the Louvre and find it closed for night. Where’s the vacation?

As far as I’m concerned, vacations should (mostly) go unplanned. At least that was the game plan when I picked up my friend, Marco. We both had a week of vacation and that gave us plenty of time to reach Big Sky Country in western Montana. Soon we would see antelope, moose and an inexplicable herd of camels; German hikers would move amongst busloads of Japanese photographers; historical landmarks would be followed by roadside attractions; crystal clear streams would lead us to snow-capped mountains, Old Faithful’s geothermal belching would awe us; Deadwood’s Casinos would rob us; the continual pleas of a daytime disc jockey for anybody on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation to bring him lunch would keep us laughing as we crossed the Missouri River and back home. But at the moment it was the land along the way that interested me; land most flew over; land with few conveniences or points of interest; land with grassy knolls blanketing an endless prairie.

Out there is nowhere and nothing falls between. It’s where it all began and it never did change. Maybe that’s why they call it God’s Country. I’m sure during biblical times, when a squabbling feud broke out in every chapter of the Old Testament, God must have found great relief leaving his bickering creation for a while. Abel, Cain and the jealous brothers of Joseph could argue all they want. God was grabbing a six-pack and heading to the Peace Garden State, North Dakota.

Marco and I were on our way, rolling down the road with nothing ahead and nothing behind. No cow pastures, no cornfields, no barns, no farmhouses, the horizon lay in front of us like an open canvas. Most people would find boredom under such vacant skies, but I found the moment exhilarating; to find a place that allowed one to break from the routine and forge a new identity. This is the myth of the West and Marco and I were driving right into it.

Actually, Marco was driving. I was in the passenger’s seat happy not to be sitting at a desk. It was a beautiful fall day so I unbuckled my seat belt and stuck my head out the window. At eighty miles-an-hour, I quickly pulled my head back in before I lost my eyebrows. I felt like a kid. I wanted to listen to music so I fiddled with the radio, but too many miles separated us from civilization and the only station I could find was a gardening show.

We needed music. I tried to sing until Marco asked me to stop. I tried the radio once more. I would listen to anything. But the scanner ran the dial and never stopped. Even the gardening show disappeared into white fuzz. Marco and I may have still been in the United States, but to the rest of the commercialized world we may as well have been driving on the moon.

I resigned myself to a quiet road until the scanner hit. The song wasn’t county nor rock ‘n roll. It didn’t have the heartfelt strings of a violin sonata nor did it carry the heavy pound of a hip hop beat. Although familiar, the song remained elusive.

Later we would be told it was jazz saxophonist John Coltrane playing “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music. But at the moment what we heard was a drum beat slightly holding back, yet driving the band forward, the bass providing a warm, rich sound, the piano building layer upon layer until Coltrane stepped in with his soprano saxophone to fill the car and fly out the window like a barn swallow, swooping over the barbwire fence, passing over the unplowed fields and onto prairie that became a body of water with motionless waves.

No longer were we in a car heading for Montana. We were caught in the endless stream of cascading notes. Coltrane played like he could go on forever. We listened wondering if he would ever stop. Even if the car ran out of gas, surely the momentum would carry us to our destination.

The song played in my head as I filled the gas tank. It was a few years later and I was again on vacation, again heading west, again picking up Marco.

I kid my friend that he’s good luck when it comes to vacationing. Over the years we’ve taken a few and never once had a bad one. The weather was always pleasant with no problems finding a place to stay. The National Parks and tourist destinations were never crowded. Every truck stop and small town diner provided great meals. (Banana cream pie at The Busted T in Lemon, SD. Try it!)

Every vacation was a day to remember. This time we were heading to Custer State Park in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Along with thousands of other visitors, Marco and I would stand on frost-covered bluff in the pre-dawn chill with cups of hot coffee while waiting for a herd of buffalo to appear on the horizon.

I knew the annual buffalo roundup would be one-of-a-kind experience. It’s not every day you get to witness a collective herd trample across an open prairie; see the park’s staff separate the calves from their parents with chutes and gates; watch the calves get branded, tagged and immunized; observe interested buyers survey a herd that needed to be culled for the winter; sit it in lawn chairs on a giant bluff and eat lunch in front of an endless panorama; drive through that endless panorama and wind through the ever-twisting Needles Highway; come across a pack of donkeys waiting in the middle of the road, the biggest of them with a beer gut like a Southern County Sheriff, swaggering up to the open window with a “I do believe you was all speeding in my State Park.”; pay off the sheriff with a snack; head into Keystone to saddle up to the nearest saloon and run into an actual celebrity: Ken Burns filming his documentary on the National Parks. (No paparazzi in tow.)

It would be a great day. I just had to get there.

I decided to stay off of I-90, which would have gotten me to Marco’s hometown in Chamberlain, SD in a timely manner, but I wanted my vacation to start the moment I left Minneapolis, MN. So, instead of ripping down the interstate at ninety miles-an-hour, I took an easy stroll on U.S. Highway 14 through New Ulm, Sleepy Eye, Walnut Grove and Pipestone. Then crossing into eastern South Dakota, I grabbed State Highway 34 and went through Madison and onto Artesian.

It was an uneventful trip as I maintained an uneventful speed. I was so successful in my uneventfulness, I realized I was running late. So I picked up the pace after Woonsocket.

With nothing ahead and nothing behind, the thin strip of highway leading into an open sea of prairie grass was begging me to go faster. In no time I reached Wessington Springs. I was driving so fast, I didn’t even catch the town’s billboard congratulating Wes Springer State Rodeo Champ, 19… Forget it! I was already past it, pushing on and gaining momentum.

At this point I was flat-out speeding. I almost forgot how fun it was. Up and down the prairie bluffs I felt like I was on a roller coaster as my car slightly lifted off the ground as I crested another peak. If there was a perfect place to speed, surely this was it. No barns or farmhouses. No cars from the opposite direction. There was no reason I couldn’t push my gas pedal further into the floor. It was a beautiful day, a clear day. I could see for miles. The prairie was drawing me in and propelling me into the Missouri River Valley. I was a speck, a lark, a Coltrane solo. Nothing was going to stop me. So, I climbed and climbed. And as I crested the next motionless wave, I saw a turtle in the middle of the road.

Before I could react my car sailed over the slow-moving jaywalker and landed back on the ground. I snapped my head to see the turtle retract its own.

That was it, but at that moment everything changed.

What I really loved about this part of the country was a passing glance. How conveniently I set aside the rest:

Blistering days, sub-zero nights
Howling tornadoes, endless snow
Locust and land grabs
Wounded Knees, last stands
Foreclosed farms, boarded-up stores
Broken treaties, forced reservations
Badlands and Missouri Breaks
Endless stretches of nothing more

Vacant and isolated, this land would not rush to my aid if a turtle caused my car to careen off the road. That was the reality, the good, the bad and the indifferent.

I let my foot off the gas and gripped the steering wheel. I could have perished if that turtle became a banana peel. And my death wouldn’t have been at the hands of a gun, arrow or stampeding buffalo. It would have been a turtle that done me in. Certainly, not a fitting chapter when it comes to myths of the western landscape.

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