Saturday, September 18, 2010

All Good Things...

Saturday, 18th, September – 2010. One year ago today, I think I was in Oslo. With a whole world still ahead of me. Every day an adventure. Even free hostel breakfast a surprise.

I think I was sharing a room with three big Scandinavian construction workers, and there was a weird cold fish in mustard sauce for morning meal.

I think there was a Frisbee golf course out on the field I had to cross to take the train into town.

I think.

So much has happened. Some memories seem fresh, others faded – the ones truly forgot I wouldn't even remember ever knew. So much has happened, an while I'm sure re-reaig, and watching videos, and flipping through pictures will help bring it back – it will all just be an echo of what was. A life once lived.

Tomorrow – tomorrow I'll have to get on the internet, and see if I have work. Tomorrow I'll have to start e-mailing everyone and thank them for helping make my trip what it was. Tomorrow I'll have to get Combo C! Wait, tomorrow is Sunday. There is no Combo C on Sunday. Just Monday to Friday, eleven am to two pm. That is, if it still even exists at all.


I might even pick up an X-Box 360. I might buy a new computer to deal with all my pictures. But that's tomorrow. I'll need to pay off my credit card, check my bank balance. Tomorrow.

But that's all in the future. That's once my trip is done and over with. Today, it's still on. It's still on.

I can feel the world rushing back, and to be honest, I'm not really liking it. I know I will once I'm back and everything is back to normal (it bothers me how quickly I'll adapt to living back in the 'real world.' But once I adapt, I'll be glad for it.) There's not much to do today. Just drive through Michigan, cross a final time zone, and then head back up into Canada. A country my presence has not been felt in for over twelve months.

Texting with my mother, she plans dinner and says she wants to hear stories when I get back. Having read half a million words over the course of this year, I'm not sure what stories I have left, but I'll be able to field questions.

I can already feel myself retreating to the computer room, and locking myself away on the internet. And I don't like it. While at the same time I do want to play video games.

It's strange – using computers while I travelled felt like filling time, or staying connected with people. Now? Now it will feel like wasting time.

Ah – but never mind that. As I sit in the car, I try to type up the last few nights worth of blogs. And in doing that, I feel disconnected from katherine, with whom I'd spent the last seventy five nights, far and wide across the country. Tonight we'll return to seperate houses, and have to say good-bye for the first time in a long time.

That she'll be thirty minutes away, on foot, means nothing. I can't think of a tie we'd been more than ten meters apart in the last ten weeks. Maybe once, in a Wal-Mart, or some other shop, where we tried to secret away gifts for one another.

So i'll close my computer now, and start to read Jack Horner's How To Build A Dinosaur. After all – time is running out. Only six and a half hours remain.

Six hours and fifteen minutes remain, never mind that an hour has gone by. Sitting on the I-94, around mile marker 89 a tractor trailer had gone of the road, cab completely crushed. Because of this traffic was not moving. Of course, the moment we passed it people were back up to seventy miles an hour, and then some – but the damage to our time was already done.

While I don't want this trip to end, spending time in a car while people gawk at crushed cars – that's not really my thing either. Just as we decided to pull out the laptop and watch some Archer, since we were practically in park, the speed picked up again and we were off.

More traffic. Michigan reminds me of – of – New Jersey. A grey hell that one is unable to ever escape. It's true, that's what's happening. We're being sucked in. I know it.

Ann Arbor provided some escape, as I now sit in Great Lakes Chocolate and Coffee (I like both those things!) A giant five dollar smore sits beside me, as Katherine ensures I eat my share of her giant caramel pecan... thing.

Five hours still to go, but soon enough we'll have crossed the border and that will be that. World travel: Over.

All good things...

Dunes, Malls, and Jimmy John's

Wake up, eat cheerios, watch some Project Runway.

I spent the morning trying to upload pictures to Facebook. hundreds and hundreds of pictures uploaded, with hundreds left that I didn't get the chance to toss up. They'll have to go up after this trip is through, when I'm safe and sound, back in Good Ol' Canada. That idea still slightly terrifies me.

I've been having dreams about familiar places – and my memories have been switching over. Blasts of images, the shopping complex with grocery store, local bank, Pizza Pizza, and dollar store came flooding back. I remembered the path, and amount of stepts to walk from parking lot to bank to pizza, to video rental, back to car. I can visually picture all the areas around me, and the floor plan to a mall I'd not visited for twelve and a half months.

It's as if my brain is making space for the knowledge it thinks will be useful, make my life easier, once I return. I can already feel the familiar feel of stepping into my local Best Buy, and it's as if I'd never left – even though I'm yet to return. And it's eerie – and depressing. If we go with the assumption that my mind is making ready for my return, shifting skills and knowledges, I wonder what I've given up without even realizing.

Can I still plan three weeks of hostels and flights and trains in an afternoon, without much thought? Or has that left me. Turning a stranger into a friend over a free breakfast, is that something I'd still do without thinking – is that even possible in the real world?

Surely my mind has shifted some as I traded trains and planes for an automobile, but -

It will be different.

Killing some virtual Nazi's in Call of Duty 3, I whiled away the time until we headed out to The Dunes. Indiana's lake shore is a National Park – but being late in the season, there is no longer anyone there to collect an entrance fee. Not that it would matter, as Kath and I have our access pass. After a quick count, we realized we'd been to over twenty of America's national parks / monuments in the past ten months. Maybe we should have got the Parks Passport to stamp out all the places we had travelled to. A couple we me at Yellowstone sai how they'd just made it to their twentieth park, and they'd only had their passport for nine years.

We didn't say anything then. Twenty parks in nine years really is impressive. Not many people decide that driving more than ten thousand miles in ten weeks is a good idea let alone one that could provide great fun.

The dunes was a beautiful beach, with large mounds of sand to hike up and around. Across the water, you could see Chicago – so far away. Steel mills, or iron works, also lined the water. There's a story about how this park became protected the same day the plants were told they could build here. I'm not sure how it all worked out, but for some reason or other they are in a symbiotic relationship, each needing the other to co-exist properly.

Walking on sand reminded me about hiking up Dune 45 in Namibia. Give me snow any day. Walking in deep water might, almost, be preferable.

Up the sand, down the boardwalk, and then – after some good ol' outside, we headed off to The Mall.

Yes, The Mall. I wanted to see if I could buy individually coloured packets of fuse beads – perler beads – hama beads – take your pick at the name. I failed. But, we did go to a hippy shop which sold glass pipes, and bongs. A sign read the store will refuse sale if they think it will be used for illegal purposes. And I think the sign was serious. I wonder what they think these things are used for? Sure the sign called them tobacco pipes – but, don't people who smoke tobacco from a pipe usually have one of those awesome Sherlock Holmes deals, not a psychedelic glass piece?

My other purpose for coming to the mall was to pick up a copy of Uncharted for our oh-so-welcoming host. Unfortunately Gamestop decided that they hate that game, and had no copies in stock, not even used. Next choice for gift? Fallout 3. Hard to say if this was the better choice. Uncharted would have been good, as he liked the Tomb Raider games a lot. But Fallout 3 is – well – Fallout 3. And that's awesome too.

Our last stop was a craft store to find the much desired plastic beads required to make video game sprites. But it too was a failure. However, just before we left my eyes stumbled upon a package of candy: Boston Baked Beans. One of the podcasts we've been listening to talk about these potential treats, referring to them as the enemy of candy. They are said to be the most vial tasting things of all times. At their heart they are candy coated peanuts. But their vial exterior proves too strong for even the kindest soul to shine through.

I had to have them.

With beans in hand, I prepared for the worst as I took a great big bite. They were – well, to be honest, they were not all that bad. They were kinda like peanut M+Ms. I didn't hate the candy, and for some reason I was upset by this.

The woman ringing up my candy entered the amount I gave her incorrectly, and my receipt claimed that i was owed over one million dollars. It was like being back in Africa all over again. But did I receive this one million dollars, that the computer could not have been wrong about? No. All I got was seven and change.

I pointed this out, but the cashier did not seem impressed. When she asked for a zip code, and I told her I didn't have one her mood further soured. I do believe she thought I was just screwing with her. I tried to explain I had something similar with crazy letters and numbers, but she just waved me away. So, while the candy may have disappointed by being good, the purchasing experience did not let me down.

After that we just headed back, grabbed some sandwiches from Jimmy John's (the fastest sub creation restaurant you've ever seen) and then watched a few episodes of Flight of the Conchords, followed by Eastend and Out. Eastside and Out? Something about an ex-baseball player who works, now, as a substitute teacher.

And then to bed.

It was a quiet end to what has been a very long year.

Chicago in Chains

In the morning we sat around, Katherine, myself, and our two house guests, watching a marathon of Parental Control. Ah yes, the MTV show where parents pimp out their daughter to potential suitors. And I will tell you this – I haven't been able to enjoy doing nothing for some time.

A bowl of Cheerios in my hands, and mindless drivel in front of me. One episode blending into the next, blending into the next, with two dogs hopping around begging for attention.

The morning was spent in a mindless daze, but that couldn't last – nor would I really want it to The idea of doing nothing for a whole day distresses me. Almost as much as the realization that in fifty or so hours, doing nothing – not covering five hundred miles of open country – will soon become the norm.

This idea of home is looming closer and closer. For so long home has been where my pack was, but soon home will be a stationary structure, with the same bed, familiar sights, and rooms full of my possessions. Now, I love possessions, and I love the idea of a good sleep - but, the transition? It might be a messy one for a few days.

Never mind that though, for we were soon picking up, piling into a big black truck, and heading off out of Indiana to the Land of Lincoln, Illinois.

Rather than blindly following a GPS, this time we took the toll roads. Now you may think, but couldn't you avoid those toll roads and only add a minute or two to your time? Well, yes, that's true. And that's what we did last night. However, this way which avoids the tolls may run you straight through the middle of Chicago Heights. Were we hoping that the lights would go green when we approached, and that we wouldn't have to stop at any signs? Indeed we were. Now I was ignorant to the potential danger this neighbourhood could pose. But apparently people go here for one reason: to score crack. Other than that?

That's not entirely fair though, I know people who have worked in the heights – but still, on our final drive, with the sun setting, we could have planned that better.

Chicago is a city that hates drivers. You can tell, because “$25.00! Cheap!” is a sign you'll see on many parking garages, and at that price, it's not lying. But there was no reason to think about that, it was the norm for those that grew up around here. Parking was paid for, and off we went to explore the city.

Unfortunately, or fortunately, we didn't bring our Cameras with us. So many pictures could have been taken, but were not. I did manage to grab a few from one of the people with us. I even managed to borrow the camera to snap a few myself, so I can say that I've been to Chicago, and taken some snaps there. But, for the first time in ages, I didn't have a camera with me.

And it was freeing and wonderful – although, you know, maybe I should have taken a picture of... well, never mind. After an hour or so my mind stopped thinking like that. Mostly, because I knew I could grab pictures from others. So addition, not quite over.

Chicago is a city of beautiful architecture. It's like the Shanghai of the previous century. No two buildings stand alike, It is a stretching city scape of intrigue and interest – and all the street corner people screaming at the masses? They're just there to remind you what time you're really in.

Walking down the shopping strip, passing all number of stores that meant nothing to me (I know Eddie Bauer and Tilley. Those are the two clothing brands I roll with.) we finally made it to the river, where we would meet up with another two guys – brothers, who reminded me far too much of guys I knew from back home. It's strange seeing people who seem so familiar, never mind that you'd only know them for minutes.

The six of us headed through the public park, where two rectangular fountains spewed water from what looked like small skyscrapers. It was not un-reminiscent of the World Trade Centre. Though, I don't remember the world trade centre ever being illuminated by the giant face of a smiling man that slowly begins to frown.

Our real reason for being here was another piece of art. Some call it Cloudscape (but then some call the Sears Tower the Willis Tower, now, too.) For most? It's simply “The Bean.”

The Bean is a huge reflective metal art piece that looks, well, like a bean. The name cloudscape comes from the wide angle reflection of the city which stretches across all sides, showing a different part of the city, depending on your current perspective. As you approach you, of course, become part of the scene as well. More often than not your part of the scene will be consumed with your attempt to take a picture of yourself, camera not blocking your face.

Then, being a warped gently sloping bean, you can walk underneath it. Walking under the bean is an experience. The walls curve in on you, and there you are, standing to your right – standing to your left. A small step and you're both in front and behind yourself. Then, in the flat circular mirror over head, there you are.

The longer you look neck craned back, the more your mind lets go of its physical presence. When finally I looked ahead of me, it was as if I was falling through the sky, crashing down upon the ground. That, or like I felt incredibly car-sick for the moments it took to process what direction was what.

I wonder what it's like for astronauts to come down to Earth after months in space. How does the body re-learn that there's such a thing as “up”?

Now, never having been one to use drugs, I can only speculate – but this seems like it would be a horrible place for a trip. Nothing good would come from that. Looking around, and seeing your refection starring back at you, no matter where you turned? It's disconcerting enough as is.

When all had agreed that enough time had passed within, and around, The Bean we pressed on.

Jumping into a minivan taxi we headed, well I don't know entirely. But it as beside the planetarium. We headed down near the planetarium where Chicago's best outdoor concert venue was located.

Tonight we would be checking out the triple billing of Mastodon, The Deftones, and Alice in Chains.

The area was still two third empty when the musical stylings of Mastodon began their set. Loud, angry, and with muffled lyrics screamed through distorted microphones, I allowed myself the comfort of relaxing into the beat. Closer to the front circle pits had opened up where elbows were thrown, and punches flailed. That, of course, being how you dance at a show like this.

Further back – not wanting to jump in with teenagers smashing around – I focused more on the music, and the fact that, standing safely back, meant I was old. I could not hear their lyrics about dwarfs, elves, “you know – geek stuff,” I think that would have added to the experience, but it was good fun nonetheless.

The only part I hate about live shows is when you have to wait twenty minutes between sets for one act to break down and the next to set up. This is when people walk around, crowds thicken, and suddenly you remember that dressing in t-shirts and shorts, while the rest of the audience is in jeans and hoodies, may not have been the best idea.

Our whole group was dressed, arms bared. In this we were alone. And while it may have been cold between sets, once people started moving, I was glad for the heat syncs that were my arms and legs.

I had no problem with the temperature, and Katherine was trying her best not to let on she was cold. Were it just me, I'm sure I would have heard about it, but she was staying strong in the face of four others. Some of those four? They decided the best way to warmth was through “liquid blankets.”

Between sets, after a few of these eleven dollar 'blankets' one of the group found himself standing beside the Mastodon guitarist while using the urinal. He was shocked, outraged, my new friend was. The guitarist would not shake his hand, and had that gall to look as if he were not enjoying the experience of meeting one of his fans – while, you now, using the urinal.

True that this guy was a huge Mastodon fan, but with everything, it should be noted – timing plays a crucial role.

Next up were The Deftones. I'd seen them many years before, probably at a Warped Tour. It's possible that this is a fictional memory, but I think I remember seeing them way out in Barrie, Ontario once upon a time. When they took to the stage, most of the general admissions area was full up, and the seats were nearly packed as well.

This was a harder set than the one before, with blinding lights, and smoke machines, and lead singers standing on benches, placed just so – allowing him too look over us all and spit water, frothing from his mouth. Why people are excited to be covered in the saliva of famous people, I have never quite figured out. But it seems to be a popular pastime.

This time multiple circle pits opened, one right beside us. Myself, and urinal greeter's much larger (think terrifying bouncer sized individual) helped act as the wall, keeping the chaos contained, only once or twice being knocked back.

When people fell, we – or others in the pit – would quickly act to get them to their feet again. This shocked me. We've always done that in Canada, but I'd grown up hearing about how people were stomped to death at American hard core shows. This did not seem to be the case. It was a good group of people, having a fun time with their controlled chaos.

Knowing that this used to be my scene, Katherine asked in all serious, “What could possibly be fun about that?” I didn't really know how to answer it – but I think it has something to do with the controlled chaos. almost like a roller coaster, there's fear, there's danger, there's a physical side to it all – but at its heart, you know you're likely to be safe. Even if you do take a tumble, smacking your head against the ground, you know there will be someone there to get you to your feet, and pull you out so you can shake it off – before jumping back in again.

The final act? Alice in Chains – at least five of their songs were off the new album. I recognized most of the songs. I think I've listened to three or four hours of straight radio this entire year. How I knew any of their new material is beyond me. Unless they're used as bmper music for Raidolab (which I doubt) or RebelFM (which is possible) it's a mystery.

The crowd was tamer for this, an there was no slamming around. Just people enjoying music, while scenes of flies on meat, or military power build ups played in the background.

When the show ended, the the hundreds upon hundreds of people all left the small confined area, suddenly the wind was no longer blocked – nor was body heat warming. This was a bit of a shock, but as we walked home, taking care not to let some of us stumble out into oncoming traffic, there were other distractions to keep us focused.

It was a long one hour walk from venue to Travelodge where half of us would be departing, and even once there the wacky antics didn't end. No, as they forgot to lock the porthole that allows access to all the phone and data lines that run through the walls, some – still warmed by the liquid blankets – thought it would make a neat hiding place to crawl into. Never mind that it was also an eight storey drop.

Back to the truck, back to Indiana, back to bed. Tomorrow? Well it would be he last full day of my trip.

Through Iowa to Chicago - Kinda

Today marked our final push through America from one part of the country to another. After today we would not longer be driving great stretched through this land of the free and home of the brave (play ball.)

There were no real plans to do anything. We woke up, and hit the road – destination, Chicago. Kind of, but not really. We were going to Indiana, a town in Indiana pretty close to Chicago. The final stretch of our journey would be spent with a buddy that I had met way back in Europe, when I was staying in Venice. Living forty, fifty, minutes outside of Chicago – albeit in a different state – it seemed like a good way to wind down my journey.

Though there were no plans to do anything between point A and point B plans, of course, materialized on route.

Rolling through Iowa city, we discover that the university of Iowa (go Hawkeyes!) had a free museum in one of the buildings. Finding a place to park took us on a tour of the town. Iowa City is every bit a university town. From the do-it-yourself pottery shops to the new record shops - not to be confused with the used ones filling most cities selling vinyl for one or two bucks an LP - this was a town looking to appeal to every new-youth-adult with a pocket full of their parents money, far away from home. The vegan restaurant, and the independent cinema just went to further the urban cool.

The lawns were covered in students sitting in groups of one, spread the obligatory four meters from all others. Some red books, while others poured over notes – school just getting underway. Others enjoyed the freedom of the outdoors by cracking open their laptops and wandering through the world wide webs.

Walking through the lot we headed into the main building, and up into the University.

The museum covered three floors. The lower floor was mostly an exhibit showing how the others were created. Think of it as taxidermy 101.

The ground floor contained exhibits created detailing the history of Iowa. Rock from millions of years ago was placed alongside modern rock. And rocks(!) from(!) space(!!!) Another case had two native hunters holding spears. There were petrified shark fins, and ancient fish teeth. But the main draw (the one all crayon pictures created by children asked to show their favourite piece) was the giant sloth.

The giant sloth, an ice aged wonder, was a ten foot tall monster which lumbered through the North America forests, which apparently were plentiful during the ice age. I don't know much about that period of time a dozen thousand, or so, years back – so I assume it's possible the world wasn't all ice, no matter what Dennis Leary voiced CGI movies would have me believe.

The Giant Sloth was a magical beast, the type of legends, much like the New Zealand bird, four hundred years extinct. It's thought, much like in New Zealand, that these creatures were hunted to extinction by the early people. Very large, meaty, and slow. Not a good combination.

The third, top, floor of the museum contained the taxidermies specimens of various birds, and mammals. Wolves, and rhinos made this area their home, along with little blue flash cards explaining snippets of their lives. An albatross hung over head, while swans and ducks filled many glassed in cases. In front of one such case a newly minted adult sat with her sketch pad rendering the fowl in charcoal black.

The mammals and birds occupy two different halls on the third floor. This wouldn't be a problem if not for the fact that to access them one needs to walk through a lecture hall. We could have walked down three flights of stairs, then back up three more, but as class was ending, the room emptying of one group, while filling with another, I pounced on the chance to charge through.

The rooms also have a number of skeletons, including one of a human. In an attempt to show we are little different from other animals, a baby blue card was pinned next to that which is us. “Humans are a social animal, usually behaving well in communal groups. However, humans may become aggressive and forceful when in unknown circumstances.”

Iowa City was a welcome stop, not only allowing for the stretching of legs, and free museum, but also for allowing a cultural experience. While I knew University life was big in America, I didn't know just to what extent. In the University book store facial tattoos were being sold for the schools mascot. Streamers, and noise makers could be bought for the football games. There were key chains, bottle openers, and pom poms all sporting the yellow and black. But what was even stranger were the bar-b-que toppers. Cast iron pieces on which burgers and hot dogs could be cooked, searing in the teams name, and logo.

On one side university clothes were on display, while on the other the frat and sorority gear. This was a great divide from what we knew back in Canada.

After Iowa City we drove on. Katherine finished reading The Traveller, and I started to read a book about the quest by leading experts to create a modern day dinosaur by messing with the development cycle of a chicken. Chicken-o-saurus: Dinosaur from the future.

Before rolling into the long driveway in a beautiful gated community, we made just one last and final stop. The birthplace, and tombstone, of Herbert Hoover – former president of these United States.

His birth home? Two rooms. With front and back door open, you could see straight through, and were you to lay on your stomach, with arms and legs extended, you could probably touch the ground on either side of the walls. Still – it was said to be a comfortable place. The recreation of his fathers blacksmith shop is only steps away from the home, staffed by a park ranger who springs into action every time – two or three times an hour, I”m sure – someone walks past the threshold.

Just along the road near by his tomb stone, and that of – I believe - his wife, lay nearby. Free postcard to all those who visit.

And then that was done. Driving on, we made our destination. Introductions all around; a quiet night of watching t.v. and chatting, and being in awe of the decorations (mostly framed, signed, concert posters and related merch) that adorned the walls. Two small dogs, including a far-too-cute Chihuahua named Ren were played with – once more making me reconsider my self imposed ban on pets – and then it was time to sleep.

Drifting off to bed it struck me: this would be the last bed I slept in in all of America. This would be the final bed of my trip – my journey. The year long, and then some, trip would soon end. The next bed I slept in after this would be “my own.”

And while this may not seem like much, I will tell you – it's a huge thought, difficult to even process.

And then, to sleep.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Nuclear Missile Silos Along the I-90

At 10:00am I started driving the i-90, to the 29, to the 80; I drove across all of South Dakota, down most of Iowa, and then carried on some more. At 8:30pm I switched the car off. We'd finally arrived. Now, even taking into account the one hour time zone crossing, that's still nine and a half hour of driving, with almost nothing going on. For what it's worth, at eight we saw an authentic Danish windmill. It was built in the eighteen somethings.

One would think there wouldn't be much to write about today. It's almost as if I could get to sleep early, without staying up into the night typing. But no, while little happened after ten in the morning, those earlier hours were packed with seeing the end of the world as we knew it (and I felt fine.)

Waking up we tried to break our tent down and get out before the camp monitor came around looking for payment. It's not that we were against paying the fourteen dollars so much as it was, m'eh, it's already morning. But – we failed, and were kept honest by the old man with a box, a clip board, and a golf cart.

Once we broken the tent down, we spent twenty more minutes looking at the various rocks in the park. Sharp rocks, tall rocks, flat rocks. There are a lot of rocks in the Badlands National Park.

Once we had enjoyed said rocks to their fullest potential we set out on the road, headed towards Omaha, Nebraska, or some city in Iowa. Somewhere. The destination wasn't really important; today was supposed to help us break up our journey between South Dakota and Chicago. It was the first day there was absolutely nothing planned. No sights to see, no stories to be told.

This lasted nearly ten minutes.

Just outside the gates of the National Park is a sign informing travellers of a national historic monument a quarter mile off. This was a site that I never would have thought America would have made open to tourists, but one that I was pretty excited to see.

Here in South Dakota is the Minuteman II missile silo, and launch centre.

The headquarters to this monument is right outside the park gates. It's free, and worth a visit. Inside the main building we watched a ten minute film about how nuclear weapons have been, and still are keeping America safe, and allowing freedom to survive in a world full of Soviets, and other no-do-goods.

The Minuteman II missiles worked off of solid state fuel, allowing for greater accuracy, and thus lower yield warheads. Each missile carried 75% of the entire destructive power of everything used in World War II. Now, this may still sound like over kill, but compared to the less accurate Russian missiles which had a yield 500% of all explosives used in World War II, the American weapons were barely a kick in the shins.

After seeing the movie, reading the literature, and glazing over the informative displays, we grabbed a ticket to tour the launch centre.

Five or so miles down the highway there was an exit which turned quickly into a dirt road. At the top of the road was an unassuming building that may have been a farm house, or perhaps an auto shop. It's hard to say what it would have been thought of – but a launch centre capable of ending the world as we knew it? That would be one of my last guesses.

The closer we drove the more we saw. There was a fence, barbed wire, around the building. But that juxtaposed the basketball net outside. There was a flagpole, but in reality it was a radio antenna. Then there was the peace keeper parked outside, and the familiar “do not enter” sign, last seen at the boundaries of Area 51 in New Mexico.

This time we were allowed inside the gate. With a metal triangle welded to the top of the gate, we were welcomed to Delta-1.

While we may not have known this was a nuclear missile launch silo, the Soviets did, and this very patch of land was constantly targeted by their own weapons. The farmers, on whose land the missiles were buried, they knew too. This was never a top secret program, but some times the best way to keep something hidden from the public is to put it in clear sight.

Millions of people must drive past the missile silos on I-90 every year. How many know, or even care, what's inside? They went without me even giving a second glance.

Now, here we were in the command centre which saw use up to Desert Storm, in 1991. We made our way inside where the common room looked very much as it once did, with the same couches, and magazines (Popular Mechanics, Byte, Sports Illustrated) still laying around. On the wall is a framed letter from the military issuing precise rules of who can hold the television remote control, and under what circumstances the channels may be changed.

Working in this location there were weeks of boredom punctuated with moments of complete and utter panic. But most of the time the boredom took over, and fights for who could choose the televised program took hold of the young men and women stationed here. At one point the soldiers began to go outside and physically move the satellite dish – this eventually caused six thousand dollars worth of damage, leading up to the official rules about channel surfing now hung with pride beside the television set.

From the main room, we walked through the security station to the elevator. Thirty three feet down we traveled in an aging elevator, screen being pulled across to keep us in. Rattling and clanking we were lowered deeper into the station itself.

Back when the base was in use, none but the two men who manned the station were allowed down the elevator. Even food was simply place on board, button pushed sending it down, to be picked up at the bottom. Today seven people cram on board the lift.

There was at least one time that other living creatures did reach the bottom however. It's said that one solider kept complaining about the chef's cooking – a terrible idea – claiming he didn't know how to cook a rare hamburger. Being in the middle of cattle country, the cook went out into the fields, grabbed a calf, put it on the lift, and sent it to the bottom along with the message, “here's your rare hamburger.”

We are led to believe no harm came to this animal.

Once at the bottom, a wall mural depicts a nuclear missile bursting through the Soviet flag. Just to the right is the blast door, weight five standard elephants. Painted on it, a spoof of the Domino's Pizza logo, is a picture of the Minuteman II, along with the slogan: World-Wide Delivery in 30 Minutes or Less – or your next one's free.

Crossing over through the door is like stepping into the world time forgot. Yes, it's true the magazines were all two decades old, but everything else seemed as if the people had packed up and left only moments earlier. But here, in the launch room, things were very different.

The base went online in the sixties, and it seems that the technology was never updated throughout the three decades the place was in use. Running off of a 48 computer (think Commodore 64, and then down grade it) the silo launch controls looked like something of a science fiction movie. It was one of those rooms that could have only existed in a military centre. There were buttons, lights, switches – so many that I'm sure their true purpose, if ever there was one, was often forgot.

A red chair screwed to a track which could be rolled around on, sat in front of a console. The room itself was on a shock absorbing floor, and each chair was fixed with a seat belt to keep the soldiers in place in case of an attacking explosion. Only 33 feet underground, it seemed almost pointless. No one here would survive an enemy blast.

A rotary dial phone was attached to a grey metal unit, with red box over head. The box was locked with two padlocks – one for each officer on duty. Inside the box were the keys needed to initiate launch. Countdown timers, status lights for the ten missiles controlled from this location, and numeric switches used to target attack zones, unknown to those with the keys, were all within easy reach of the two railed chairs.

When word came from the teletype machine, or the primitive intranet, each office would confirm the codes, take the keys, insert them into the slots and then – when ordered turn them at the same time. Twelve feet apart from each other, no one person could cause the missile to launch. Two men were required, but never did the time come for them to turn the keys home. On a few occasions two young men in their late teens, and early twenties, sat sweat on their brow – keys inserted, terrified that the order would come to turn, leading to who knew what future for themselves, their loved ones, and the many innocents half way around the world. But never were they ordered to turn.

Hundreds of these bases were destroyed as America and Russia stepped down their arms race. Hundreds still exist. In Canada, we were told, we should be safe from missiles both incoming and outgoing, unless – of course – one of them misfires. This was said, of course, in jest. There's a different sort of humor down here.

And with that we left D-1: QUINN COTTONWOOD Missile Flight D-01.

Our final stop as part of this excursion was a few more miles down the highway. The missile silo, itself.

Located just off the I-90, the silo would once have been watched with state of the art security systems. Guards would have been on hand in moments if anyone came near. Today, missile removed, and replaced with a decoy, the silo is available for all to see.

We could not go down within the nuclear silo, but even from the ground it is a thing to witness. Perhaps, most impressive, is just how beautiful it looks. An azure blue crystalline shape sits in the middle of a gravel lot, surrounded by chain link fence. A large pole-like antenna stands beside it. Like a piece of modern art, the silo stands in the middle of a South Dakota field, looking to all the world as a work of beauty, rather than destruction, yet it was here that all things could have changed.

What once was the most powerful weapons system on the planet, is today a tourist attraction. A piece of living history. And while that may seem strange to some, I can't think of any better way of keeping the public informed, than by letting them get up close and personal.

Today the Minuteman II silos have been imploded, the launch centres destroyed. Weapons like this one are things of the past, no longer used. No – today, armed by men deep beneath the Earth's surface – it is the Minuteman III taking up the fight.

And then, nine hours later we saw the windmill.

Mount Rushmore, Wall Drug, and The Badlands

Two parks and a store. Who knew it would take all day? Who knew the store would be just as memorable as the parks?

Waking up in our motel, and enjoying the breakfast which, once more, included the sweet sweet taste of freshly baked waffles (Katherine could enjoy them this time) we packed up the car, and headed out.

Thirty minutes down the road was the last piece of Americana that were were planning to see. Just outside the town of Rapid City is one of the most recognizable monuments in the entire country: Mount Rushmore.

The faces of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln find themselves carved upon the mountain's face. Some for better reasons than others. Washington was there because he led to the birth of the Union, Lincoln for preserving it. Jefferson linked the coasts with rails. And Roosevelt – well, he certainly wasn't there because the sculptor worked for his party, or because he looked like the sculptor. No, that would just be silly. Whatever the reason, few should have problem with his choices. If they wish to complain, let them find and carve their own mountain. Then they can add Martin Luther King Jr., Susan B Anthony, Mickey Mouse, and all the others who people scream should be thrown up there too.

My only problem with Roosevelt is how they justify his presence. How hard would it be to say Washington created it, Lincoln preserved it, Jefferson linked it, and Roosevelt protected it (after all, it was he who set aside more land for national parks than all other presidents combined. It was also he who set aside the first block of land, forever to be protected.)

In the Lonely Planet we have the author clearly did not enjoy their experience, complaining about the multileveled parking garage, and avenue of state flags that one must pass before viewing the mountain. I honestly can not find fault with these things. Having the flags of all the states and territories is a beautiful way to lead up to the mountain, and as for having enough parking room for all those who wish to enjoy the sight? Well what type of fool would complain about that?

Still – I can only assume the author was having a bad day, which influenced his/her writing. I can't say I've never had one of those.

It's easy to point to the ten dollar parking fee (National Parks pass doesn't get you in here) and use that to complain about the monument, but you do not need to enter the official gates to enjoy the mountain. From the high way there is a pull off which offers just as good a view as from the inside, if not better. Not only that, but on the highway you are apart from the dozens of tourists who flock, even in the off season, even in the early morning. And, up in the black hills, there are even more lookouts from which Mount Rushmore can be appreciated, free of charge.

Why we paid to go inside? Well – we were here, when would we be back, and we wanted to experience it to its fullest.

Arriving in the morning there were only a few people milling around. No doubt a couple of weeks earlier this place would have been packed. Still, we were able get in and take pictures of ourselves, with not a single other person entering our shot. This lasted for about ten minutes before the first bus showed up and everything changed.

Part of me wished we woke up an hour earlier, but then we did get here, we took the pictures we wanted, and we saw the sight. There's little left to complain about, except for the workers who were walking around on Lincoln and Washington's heads.

Construction workers walked along the top of he mountain, filling cracks, and attempting to preserve this monument for future generations, despite the signs informing us that there was no danger of damage.

Was it annoying to have them in our pictures? Sure. Kind of. But when we were there, earlier, they were just to the side of the faces, adding a very interesting sense of scale to the sculptures. Moments later, just after the buses started to show up, when rappelling lines were tossed down over the eyes and nose of the former president, situated off to the right, then pictures became truly obstructed. Having already taken my clean shots, I was amazed by the whole process of taking care of this work. For those who just showed up? They seemed less enthused.

Best seen in the morning light, we were experiencing this location at its best. Having taken far too many photos, we walked the quick trail, stopping to watch the mountain goats. Not native to this area, the hundred or so that now inhabit the hills were all spawned from an initial group of six gifted by the Canadian government. They have become such an iconic part of the Mount Rushmore experience that stuffed animal versions are for sale in the gift shop.

Wandering through the shop Katherine was on a mission to locate a “Mount Plushmore.” A stuffed version of the rock sculpture just seemed to make sense, if only for the name alone. While none was to be found here, I told her the internet would probably be able to provide, and if not, then the opportunity was open before her. A gimmick that strong is a license to print money.

We sought out the most gaudy gifts, photo frames with the monument and sparkling hearts, considered buying them for friends and family, then deciding that we hated no one that much.

When we'd looked at the four rock faces for as long as we felt we needed to, it was time to head on out, get back on the road, and make our way towards Badland's National Park. Only two hours away, we should have been there in no time.

Of course, this didn't quite work out. First, we spent an hour driving through the Black Hills, right up the moment a fee needed to be paid. While I'm sure they were lovely, I'd seen forests before, and the best locations – a tunnel perfectly framing a view of Mount Rushmore, and a lookout, offering views of the same – were freely available outside of the paid zone.

Stopping at the tunnel, coming upon fifty people standing in the middle of the road after a blind turn, we wondered what was going on. A tour bus had emptied out and everyone was snapping away with their cameras. But at what? Turning, unsafely, as I drove through this mob is how I discovered the framed view. After fining a place to turn the car around again, we headed back and joined in.

After the hills we set out for the Badlands once more. And we would have made it there too, if not for a billboard at the side of the road. “Free Ice Water” it read. “5 cent coffee,” another boasted. More signs for Wall Drug appeared along the I-90, and something started to feel familiar. I remembered something I had read early on in this American road trip. These signs spanned across the entire country, starting many states away. This, Wall Drug, was counted as one of America's top eight quirky sights, along with Roswell, the Cadillac Ranch, and the – I can't believe we didn't get to see it – world's biggest ball of twine.

As we obeyed the signs and exited the highway, we had no idea what we were in for.

Wall Drug is a store two blocks in size. It's bigger than Toronto's Honest Ed's, an even quirkier.

Inside you'll find shops of all kinds. Some sell t-shirts, in others you can buy snacks. There's also the pharmacy which will fill your prescription. Don't fear, as you can buy many a jackalope here as well.

But that's not where it ends. Those shops are really only the beginning. Cowboy boots, leather clothes, spurs, and all other gear are for sale here. There's also the rock shop, and the traveller's chapel, for all those who wish to come in, kneel down, and pray.

Then there's the back yard, where a giant jackalope can be sat on by people of all ages. A water show explodes through the ground timed with music. There are stuffed buffalo, and statues of various people. A T-Rex attempts to break from its compound and feed every twelve minutes.

There was even a section where one can pay to pan for gold. Of course this was the one area closed for the season.

There was also a restaurant selling five cent coffee, and offering free ice water. In a place like this where a whole day can be spent, not to mention hundreds of dollars, cheap Joe, and free H2O are no big worry.

There was an area that sold one of a kind creations. One piece that caught my eye was an Alien (think Aliens, not E.T.) created from welded metal and bicycle chains. It would be the perfect addition to my growing number of such action figures when I got back home. And soon I would be back home – with less than a week to go, such thoughts were far more 'real' than they ever had been.

But, also, as home approached money no longer seemed something I could spend without thought. Each dollar unspent here could be one used towards something else in the future. Like video games. Or rent.

I let it go. Katherine would later buy it for me as a present. For her, I found the gold panning kit, which came with a book, a plastic pan, and a bag full of dirt with gold flecks in it. I also grabbed an extra packet of flecked dirt. Sure it was a silly little thing, but after not buying it back when we were in Virginia City she had been rather upset. Now, without having to justify the money, she would be able to enjoy the act of panning for gold in her own home.

While I was off looking elsewhere she returned to me with the gift of plastic velociraptor bones contained within a brick of plaster, which needed to be chipped away at, before putting the skeleton together. I could be a dinosaur guy, just like Alan Grant, now!

The toy department was my favourite area. Aside from the games, cap guns, and figures there was a rack of invisible ink game books. They type I remember from car trips, decades back. The big orange pen with clear liquid, changing the colour of what was beneath, had not changed at all. The only difference is that Sudoku's were now a part of the game – though it seemed a strange thing to add to a book where all the answers were already there, just waiting to be revealed.

My favourite game from these books was the battleship (I love battleship.) In these books the game was called Fleet. Just as I wished there was a book that was all Fleet, I looked down, seeing such a thing. I may have bought every one they had in stock. Nostalgia is a powerful thing, and the last time I saw these in airports somewhere over seas, they were nearly ten dollars. Here at Wall Drug, but a fraction of the cost.

There was an arcade room with a Who Wants to Be a Millionaire game in it. Different from the one in Vegas (everyone gets to open the cases here) I knew Kath would want to play. She claimed she didn't, but once I put in the four quarters and let her sit down she was grinning like a three year old who just discovered a secret stash of Oreo cookies. It didn't end well, but the opening of the cases was the real fun. And what's money for, if not fun?

She also, after seeing me give it a go, wanted to play the light gun shooting game. Strange, since she seemed so against touching a real gun. This was one of those games where you shot targets to make things happen – shoot the coffin, see a skeleton pop out, shoot the motel sign to light it up, the rattle snake to see it jump.

When she was done, I thought about how it worked, then – seeing the 'no flash photography' sign – had my thoughts confirmed. In seconds we had our cameras out, flashing away, causing all the lights, sounds, and devices to explode at once. A cacophony of wild west wilderness was abound. We were the only two in the room. No one seemed to mind.

No flash photography indeed.

There was even a store that sold replica casts of dinosaur bones. The urge to buy a replica skull for fifty dollars was tempting. If they had small Alan Grant Utah Raptor claws, I would have picked one up. But they only had larger versions.

What's more – they had beautiful fossil in rock plasters that would have been perfect hanging on walls, and replica skulls. These were a big more pricey. One carnivore's leg sold for three thousand. It's skull replica went for six grand. The T-Rex leg bone sold for five thousand, and as for its replica skull? Well there was no price tag – but being five to ten time larger than the other skull... Still, this is what I'd love to have in my home, as decoration. But, rather than the cream coloured versions they had here, I would want one tinted black, to look like the replicas they have in various museums. That is a talking piece.

After spending two or three hours looking, shopping, and enjoying free ice water, we finally headed out – but not before taking a few Wall Drug bumper stickers and signs. Free to those who come in, these stickers spread the love of Wall Drug even more than the coast to coast billboards do. In fact, one employee told us how a solider on leave came in a week ago, explaining that he saw one of the stickers on the back of a Humvee in Afghanistan.

The legend of Wall Drug is a far reaching one.

Then – finally – we headed off towards the Badlands National Park.

We quickly drove the scenic road, getting through it in twenty minutes instead of the hour it claimed it should take with stops. We found a tent site, then headed to the visitors centre to watch the park's movie which showed off all the life that lived within this desolate zone. After that we grabbed a bite to eat, and only then did we do the drive once more, heading out and over through the park. This time we took an hour and a half, stopping at all the lookouts, and taking all number of pictures of the eroded rock, the dry cracking sand, and jagged peaks glinting against the sun.

For Katherine, who had never seen a landscape like this before it was incredible. For me, I was reminded of my time in Dinosaur National Park, Alberta. Though it may look like an expanse of nothing, with full water bottle on hand, and comfortable place to spend both the day and night, it is a place of great beauty.

The prairie dogs ran around playfully in the setting sun, while shadows stretched all along the spiked valleys below.

Improperly named, the Badlands are a place which is unlike most others on the planet. On this day the usual yellowing blanket of grass which covered most of the ground had been replaced by an ominous black ash. Only two days earlier the grounds had been set ablaze in a controlled burn to cut back on the tall grasses, preventing future wild fires. Some photographers complained to the rangers, and staff – but myself? I thought it only added to the image of a place, thus named.

When the sun set, we headed back to the tent (fixed with the aid of duct tape, of course) and cringed as it was nearly doubled over by the wind. We made sure the pegs were in firm, then tied the tent to metal poles on our site. We also aligned the doors with the gusts. Then, secure in the thoughts that our home probably wouldn't blow away bouncing across the landscape, we headed off to the amphitheater for the night time ranger program,

We were treated to a presentation about the night sky, the planets, the constellations, and then a tribute to the 'real stars' – American Men and Women around the country serving the country to protect freedom and democracy. It was an interesting way to end the presentation, but in this country, not an unexpected one. The ranger then went and shook the hands of the three veterans in attendance.

When the slide show and talk finished, the ranger used his five mile laser pointer (the green ones that some people have been using as weapons to blind pilots) to show us various constellations, and stars in the sky above.

When that part ended we were able to look through the three 80x telescopes on hand. For the first time in my life, I looked upon Jupiter, with its coloured bands. The storm was, unfortunately, on the other side. Once more, my love of the night sky came flooding back, and I wished I had – not only a telescope, but an area free of light pollution in which to use it.

After looking at Jupiter, its four moons, and some stars, mosquito netting used to break it apart into various colour patterns, we headed back to our tent. We got into our sleeping bags – leaving them unzipped as it was actually warm – then broke out my netbook in a terribly non-camper fashion, pressing play to watch the season finale of True Blood.

As I went to sleep I realized this would be the last time I slept in a tent this trip. This would be the last national park we would visit. (We hit at least a dozen in two and a half months, not bad all things considered... wish we bought the passport to stamp off those that we had seen) Everything would soon be coming to an end. And while I may claim, at times, that I'm ok with that, or I'm not... to be honest, I'm not really sure. I probably won't know until that time actually comes, less than one week from now.

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Long Road to Rushmore

Waking up in Yellowstone for the second time was better than the first – I was used to the cold. This doesn't mean that I got out of bed any quicker, but – you know – I was prepared for it anyway.

We took down the tent, careful to avoid further damaging of the split pole, and packed up the car. We're getting pretty good at this routine, and getting everything down and into the trunk took hardly any time at all. It's strange to think that the first time I travelled across a country (Canada) I had an entire van full of things – the whole thing, seats out, packed... Now, two people can fit everything into one small car trunk.

I think I could pack lighter too. We have been adding – Jedi Monkey is no small item to be trucking around with us, I'll tell you that right now. And we can't just leave it in the back seat – people break into cars for a CD or two, who wouldn't smash and grab for a stuffed monkey in Jedi robes?

On our way out of the park I stopped to take a picture of the arch, built over a century and a half ago, welcoming visitors into Yellowstone. I should have taken it the first time I past through, as the morning sun was illuminating the wrong side. But what can you do? My only hope is that Mount Rushmore is best viewed in the morning sun, as tomorrow morning is our only time to see it.

The plan for today? Drive to Rapid City, thirty minutes from the site. Find a cheap motel – Super 8 rooms go for 45.00 now that it's past September 6th, and neither Friday nor Saturday – sleep, and wake up early to see the site before moving on to Badlands National Park.

Looking at the route we'd travel, I added a few more things to the days itinerary, and we were off.

Stop the first, food. But soon after food came the all important Wal-Mart. The tent pole which had frayed after yesterdays travesty still managed to keep the tent up. It is my hypothesis that the pole will continue to work for many years to come, provided that it does not snap in two. So what we needed was something to fix it. Now what has fixed just about everything I've used this year? Duct Tape.

Duct Tape fixed:
My Bag
Another Girl's Bag
My Watch
My Second Watch
My Battery Charger
A Screen in Florida

If I kept thinking, I'm sure I'd remember using it to fix all number of other things too – but those are the ones that sprang to mind. Had we had any a month ago it would have been the easy way to fix the leaky hole in the tent too – instead we had to gob sealing compound over it, and hope for the best. Sure it worked, and looks better than duct tape, but it just doesn't have the same charm.

Tomorrow when we set up the tent, I'll tape a few bands around the pole, and everything should be good as new.

Once we'd left the chapel of consumerism it was back on the road. Now, while it's easy to say “we drove” it should be noted that the day was comprised mostly of driving – three hours from the park until Wal-Mart, another two hours until our second site, and then three and a half more hours until Rapid city.

This is something that I don't think always comes across in writing, or travel shows. So much of the time is spent with tedious repetitious tasks where you're at your best if your brain shuts off. Katherine doesn't like when I say that in regards to driving, but... Hey, nearly twenty thousand kilometers down, and we're still going – so something's being done right.

Our second stop, which I'd seen on the map a week ago, but thought too far out of the way to get to, was the Little Big Horn Battlefield. When I saw that we were to drive right past it I made sure that we would stop in. The site costs twelve dollars per car, but as it's part of the National Parks service our pass would get us in free.

Once more I marvel at the money saving powers of our National Parks pass. I had one in Canada, but there were not nearly as many places to use it as there are here.

At the site a ranger gave a one hour talk about the events leading up to the battle. He tried to explain that Custer wasn't the fool people thought he was – explaining that his style of charging headlong into battle got him through the Civil War with flying colors. They also showed that he was not acting against orders (apparently a lot of people are under the impression that he was?) Custer's orders were to act how he thought was best under the circumstances. With orders like that, it would be impossible to break them.

The talk was not one sided, going on to explain that the natives were well within their rights to defend their land. Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull were shown to be the true heroes of the day, standing up for their people, and bringing the natives off the reservations in opposition to the American military trying to take what they could not buy.

After the talk we drove the five miles through the battlefields to see the various markers and look out from the ridges down to the river as the various generals did all those years ago.

The horses grazing by the road, and the sunflowers growing near by proved to be the most interesting things to view.

The final thing, after walking up the hill to see the spot where Custer fell, was to view the iron mural. Line art of Natives on horseback stood out against the blue sky. I'd seen an image of this somewhere – a travel guide? A promotional magazine? A poster somewhere? I couldn't remember where – but I'd wanted to see it, not knowing where it was. When I happened upon it? Well it was a fantastic addition to the day.

After that – we hit the road and drove on into darkness.

It should be noted that Katherine read about two hundred pages during our drive. The Traveller has not got any better. In fact, it has got progressively more ridiculous, and detached. Curse you critical reading skills. Why couldn't I be a non-thinker as such all those that made this a best seller? University – you've ruined my ability to enjoy being a mindless drone – as Gabriel might say.

Oh lord, I'm referencing the text.

It pains me to admit I related to the crazy characters of the text when, after hours of driving through the beautiful Montana countryside, a small town appeared before me. The neon lights, the road signs, the rules that appeared after the open roads at seventy five miles an hour – it seemed controlling, and on some level, it made me feel a little sick.

A minute or two later, and I'd readjusted – but those first minutes?

There's not that much road ahead of me. Soon I'll have to settle in again. We'll see how it goes, when it goes, I guess.
All original text and photographs Copyright © 2009 one.year.trip / previously.bitten | Theme Design by previously.bitten | Entries and Comments.Powered by Blogger