Summer ’86: Part VI

I headed due south on State Hwy 6 past more amber waves of grain.  Off to my right the sun was setting behind a high layer of cirrus clouds, giving off a golden glow.  I loved driving in the late afternoon.  After a few twists and turns on minor roads, I finally merged with U.S. 12 and crossed into South Dakota, my last of the 48 contiguous states in which to travel (actually North Dakota had just been no. 47).  I rolled into the small town of Mobridge (about 4,100 pop.), which actually had three drive-in eateries with carhops and two drive-in theaters.  I spent the night at a picnic area just south of town.  I felt somewhat isolated out there, but it didn’t matter.  I was safe and secure under the blankets in Ol’ Blue.

I was still stocked with enough victuals to get me through most of the day as I crossed the Wide Missouri again on U.S. 12 then hooked a right onto southbound U.S. 83.  It was a flat straight stretch of highway for 100 miles to the State Capital through more wheat fields.  I filled up the tank in Pierre (pronounced pier) for a more normal 78 cents a gallon. The Capital Building was a somewhat diminutive structure, owing I guessed to a relatively small state population of about 720,000 (ranking 45th).  I drove west and south on U.S. 14 until merging with I-90 not far from Rapid City.  From there, it was just a short jaunt to Mt. Rushmore.  I was tingling with anticipation at seeing the quintessential monument to patriotism for the first time.

I passed by some hills with unusual formations – pinnacles sticking up like shark’s teeth.  It looked like the Badlands.  Little towns dotted the area with picturesque names like Custer, Keystone, and Black Hawk. I parked at the Visitor’s Center (there was a multitude of tourist’s cars in the lot) and made my way to the observation deck.  It was truly a magnificent spectacle with a late afternoon sun casting dramatic shadows across the six-story high granite faces.  It took sculptor Gutzon Borglum six years of blasting, carving, cutting, etching, and polishing to achieve his masterpiece in the mid-1930s.  It was an unbelievable accomplishment.  It would survive millenniums.

As I said goodbye to George, Thomas, Teddy, and Abe, I noticed an elderly couple attired in Hawaiian shirts, plaid pants, and cameras around their necks.  I turned to them, and pointing to the faces, said in all jest, “It’s amazing what the Corps of Engineers can do.”  They had this look of disbelief and the lady said in all seriousness, “They didn’t do that!”  I thought to myself, “Where has all the sense of humor gone?”

I was about to exit the Tourist Center when one of those sudden and unpredictable rainstorms, so common in the high plains, came thundering through.  It was a splash and dash affair, but I knew there was trouble in Ol’ Blue. I had left the rear skylight open for ventilation since it was a bright cloudless day when I arrived.  As I expected, the head of the bed was pretty well soaked.  The best I could do was hold the pillowcases out the window and hope the air flowing through the van would dry out the sheets.

I headed west on U.S. 16 through the Black Hills National Forest.  I remembered reading somewhere that this area was considered sacred to the American Indians. I crossed into Wyoming which, by the way, has the notoriety of being the least densely populated state (outside of Alaska) with an average of five people per square mile compared to 1,165 soles per square mile in New Jersey.  I eventually merged with I-90 again and quickly exited at a rest area to check out the sheets.  My “drying out” method had not worked out as planned.

The sun was getting low as I soon pulled into Gillette (elev. 4,544 ft., pop. 12,134).  I had to resign to the fact that I was finally going to have to spend a night in a motel.  After all, I had spent the first nine nights of the trip in Ol’ Blue, so I guess I deserved a “night off” in an indoor room.  I easily found a reasonable Best Western Inn, checked in, and after backing in to my parking space, I opened the rear doors and draped the sheets over them to dry out.  The air was warm and extremely dry, so it didn’t take long. I kinda felt like a fish out of water being in a motel room.  I survived.

I checked out, thanking the proprietor for a good night’s sleep. I grabbed a Chicken McMuffin at the Golden Arches and was on my west to Sheridan.  From there I took U.S. 14 west across the northern plains of Wyoming.  Although I was passing through a few small towns like Burgess Junction and Lovell, I felt like I was fairly isolated from the rest of the country.  I was definitely in the wild and wonderful world of Wyoming.  I stopped for gas and groceries in Cody, which I learned was one of the premiere venues on the rodeo circuit.  I wasn’t surprised since Wyoming had earned the moniker as the Cowboy State.