Devil’s Tower in eastern Wyoming is America’s first National Monument, established in 1906 by Teddy Roosevelt. The giant tower, which some theorize is the leftover plug of an ancient volcano, looks like a giant white mushroom with no top sprouting in the middle of the woods, 867 feet tall and 1000 feet wide. Part of “Close Encounters” was filmed here. Ethan describes Richard Dreyfuss sculpting a pile of mashed potatoes into a replica of the Tower, totally freaking out his wife and kids in the process, but I don’t remember that scene.
At the Tower’s base, we watched blue and yellow specks of climbers making their slow ascent, the Devil’s crevasses slashing in lichen yellow and moss green from top to bottom. In 1893, Mrs. William Rogers became the first woman to climb Devil’s Tower, using a wooden ladder her husband built. Keep in mind he was using 19th century building technology. I got vertigo thinking about this lady pioneer, probably wearing a long skirt, climbing rung by rung and looking down over her shoulder at the free-fall should she slip. Mrs. Rogers must have been one tough chick.
Thousands of Harley Davidson bikers had the Tower surrounded that day. Tough chicks in black bikini tops and leather chaps snapped photos of their bearded boyfriends on their Blackberries and I-Phones. Motorcycles packed the Chuck Wagon Diner parking lot and a giant black HD flag flapped over the picnic grounds. As we climbed back into The Oddy, wondering what the devil was going on, a biker dude said, “You sure picked the wrong week for a family vacation!”
“Why’s that?” I asked.
“It’s the 70th anniversary of Sturgis!” he replied. “We got 800,000 bikers coming this year.” Ethan and I looked dumbly at each other. How could we have spaced the World’s Greatest motorcycle rally? We would pay for our ignorance.
As we crossed into South Dakota, Sturgis billboards advertised Ozzy Osborne, Marshall Tucker, Billy Ray Cyrus, Bob Dillon and Bret Michaels (whom I thought was dead). But the most entertaining billboard featured “Senor Wiener” (Home Of The World’s Greatest Wiener!). A cartoon hot dog dressed in a sombrero and serape looked down at us, its thought bubble saying, “You know you want me!”
We followed the Harleys to Mt. Rushmore, The Oddy the only family fish in a bright, darting school of rumbling, chrome-armored sharks. Holy Terror Mini-golf, Bear Country U.S.A., gold panning, reptile zoos, and cave tours fought the four dead Presidents for attention, and we never made it to see their heads close up. Instead, we pulled into a crowded scenic viewpoint a quarter mile away, snapped a photo of our heads just below theirs, then pulled a U-turn and beat it back to Rushmore’s best attraction; the treacherous, nerve wracking, faster-than-a-speeding-bullet Alpine Slide. The Toluca Lake Hillbillies rode a ski lift up the mountain, then plopped onto blue, plastic two-man slides that whipped us down twists and turns like we were in try-outs for the Jamaican Bobsled Team. Ado’s hair stuck straight up at the finish, his little face frozen in speed shock. A wooden cutout of a cartoon pelican with the words “Must Be This Tall To Ride” painted on his bill might be a good idea here.
We left George, Tom, Abe and Teddy behind, happy to have survived the Slide and the tourist trap that is Mt. Rushmore. Two hours later, the attractions, the billboards, the gas stations and even the ubiquitous Harleys fell away as we entered The Badlands National Park right at magic hour, the setting sun painting this desolate and other-worldly landscape a dusky, blood-red. Rocky pinnacles and sharp spires that looked as if some artsy giant had made them out of silly sand and play-dough were stacked as far as we could see, surrounded by an unbroken expanse of rippling prairie. It was quieting, all that lonely space, especially after the riotous Rushmore, and even the kids were content to sit above an enormous canyon and let The Badland’s wicked beauty fill us up.
Outside the Park’s east entrance, we stopped at The Prairie Homestead National Landmark, the original sod home of Mr. and Mrs. Ed Brown, who staked their 160-acre claim in South Dakota in 1909. In the purple dusk, this old, two-room cave gave me the creeps, with its white lace doilies on the windows, oil lamp and birch broom to sweep the rough dirt floor. I kept expecting to see Mrs. Brown’s skeleton sitting at the old Singer sewing machine, where I imagined she died from pure exhaustion while fixing a hole in Mr. Brown’s pants. I climbed the hill behind the house and a small herd of cows stared at me through the gloom – perhaps the great, great, great grand-cows of the Brown’s cows. Eking out a living in the Dakota Territory took guts. In front of the Homestead, a sign informed me that Sodbusters liked to joke that the U.S. Government bet them 160 acres against $18 (the cost of the land) that they would starve to death within five years. Those homesteaders were a hilarious bunch.
That night, we drove as far away from the town of Sturgis as we could, but the only motel room left in the entire friggin’ state was at the Riverview Inn in Chamberlain, on the east bank of the Missouri River. “How bad can it be for $80 bucks?” I asked as I hung up the cell phone, realizing too late that I had just jinxed us. At 11:00p.m. we pulled up to The Riverview, passing the sold-out Super 8 Motel next door that glowed like a Four Seasons. A middle-aged couple sat at a rickety metal table in the dirt front yard, moths and mosquitoes swarming in the humid air, drinking a bottle of Pinot Grigio. Something crunched under my feet as I walked over to say hello.
“How is it?” I asked.
“It’s all there is,” the woman answered. Ado climbed up on her lap and started playing with her I-Phone. “We were lucky to get it.”
I looked down and my disappointment turned to despair. The ground was covered in small black crickets, thousands of them, mostly dead, but a few still taking feeble hops. I hate crickets. When I was little, I used to spend summer weeks at my Aunt Dolores’ house in Stockton, splashing in her sparkling pool all day and screaming “THE KINKAS! THE KINKAS!” in terror all night as the shelled insects sang softly outside my window. I’m not afraid of rats, snakes, bats or spiders, but anything with a carapace can still make me scream.
As I contemplated a night in Cricketville, Ethan took our bags around the front of the motel to our room. In ten seconds, he was back, still holding the bags.
“There is a very large, very drunk biker lying in front of our door,” he said, carefully enunciating each word like he didn’t believe it himself. I crunched my way over to the The Oddy, grabbed two Coors Lights out of the cooler, and popped the tabs. The situation obviously called for something much stronger, but Silver Bullets were all we had. The winos at the table laughed in solidarity.
“What are you going to do?” I asked Ethan, envisioning my strong, studly, shrimp of a husband dragging that drunk fat boy into the parking lot by his pantleg. Or maybe even kicking his ass.
“I’m going to get the manager to let me in through the inside door,” Ethan replied.
There would be no Hell’s Angel vs. Toluca Lake Hillbilly brawl at the Riverview that night. Inside Room 104, a dozen crickets lay dead on the carpet. I peeked through the plastic blinds, the motel’s green neon lights reflecting off a row of parked Harleys, and heard snorting and grunting as the drunk guy’s friends tried to get him on his feet. They were quiet, considering the task, and as far as I could tell the sheets were clean and the towels fresh. We would only be here ten hours, I promised myself, and the alternative was camping on the mighty, mosquito-ridden Missouri, so I chugged my Coors and climbed into bed.
At exactly 4:48 a.m., Marley made a break for it, apparently as freaked out as I was by dead kinkas and drunk bikers. She was panting hard and pacing, so I opened the door thinking she had to pee, and she bolted into the night. I woke Ethan and we crunched through the cricket drifts, shining our flashlights into the ravine behind the motel (it doesn’t help to call her name, since she is deaf) and praying she wouldn’t get as far as the Interstate. Marley’s been my best pal since the day I brought her home in a shoebox at six weeks old, and alarm was starting to bang around in my chest like a kid with a couple of pots and pan as I trotted down the hill in my pajamas and flip-flops. I scanned the dark two-lane road, the empty railroad tracks, and the wide, still brown river. Just as I was vowing not to leave the state of South Dakota without my dog (dead or alive), I saw movement in an open field bordering the water. The blur disappeared behind a parked trailer advertising “Beer, Burgers and Bait.” I tore towards it and there was Marley, happily sniffing prairie grass under a wide-open starry sky. When she spotted me, she took off as fast as her old, arthritic legs would carry her, apparently determined not to be re-incarcerated at Cricketville. I caught her just shy of the river and dragged her back to The Riverview. When Ethan opened the door of The Oddy, her tail started wagging. She jumped in, put her head down, and went to sleep.
The next day, we watched The Riverview recede in our rear-view mirror. We crossed into Minnesota for a hot second, checking into the City of Fairmont’s jam-packed water park to alleviate the 95 degree heat, then hit Iowa. We zoomed by “The Nation’s Largest Truck Stop” in Davenport, ate a fabulous dinner at Sushi House in Cedar Rapids, and slept in a clean, cricket-free Holiday Inn in Bettendorf. The Hillbillies were back on track.