Saturday, October 11, 2008

Staying Frosty

Last night's drive was one of the more surreal experiences of my life. It was pitch black – Wyoming and Montana don't have lights on the freeway except near towns, and there aren't many towns – and we were experiencing the genesis of a serious blizzard. Half the time, with our headlights shining at blackness and sideways snowflakes, it felt as if the car was not moving at all, but caught in some kind of bucking light show. Other times, on hills I guess, and on bridges, which really do freeze before everything else, it was like we were making the jump to light speed and everything was moving way too fast. I was glad, not to mention thankful for my life, when we finally pulled in to Bozeman, Montana, found a hotel, and collapsed with some much-needed MSNBC vs. Bravo action. I slept hard – the kind of hard where you wake up in the middle of the night and don't know where you are, and don't care.

This morning we woke up and it was still cold as hell, and the world (i.e. the parking lot) was covered with ice, but it wasn't snowing too hard. We decided we would look around Bozeman a little before heading to Butte and then Missoula.

I found some great records (I'm overdue on posting new acquisitions – those are coming soon) and Emily found good fashion photography book, and a shirt and belt at Salvation Army (ditto on that). And there are a lot of good neon signs.

I wouldn't call Bozeman a destination (unless you're there to ski or pursue some other outdoor activity) but if you ever find yourself here, as we did, feel glad. Just like Missoula and Bellingham and Ellensburg and Moscow, it's a frontier college town with a solid weekend's worth of fun stuff to do.

Next up: Butte.

Ice Road Truckers

…and more ice.

We woke up in Lead to find about four inches of snow on the ground, and a weather forecast predicting much more of the same throughout the weekend. We had planned to head for the Badlands and Wounded Knee and the Pine Ridge Reservation that day.

I was in the Badlands last year, on a trip across the country (in the other direction) with my mom. I might have mentioned this before, but for her sixtieth birthday she was going to treat herself with a roadtrip from Seattle to Brooklyn. Having just gone freelance, laptop in hand, I flew out and went with her.

Some of our favorite parts of that trip were the things we saw in the Badlands and on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

There are two units in the Badlands—the Northern unit and the Southern unit. In between the two, there's a town called Scenic, which still has an old stone jail and some old buildings, like the one above.

The Southern unit is known as the Stronghold, because the Lakota would go there when the cavalry was pursuing them. Custer called the Badlands (though I'm pretty sure he was talking about North Dakota) "hell without the fire." You could easily get lost in them if you don't know your way around.

As you drive southwest from the Stronghold, you enter the Pine Ridge Reservation. I studied federal Indian policy as a big part of my undergrad history major and was excited to be there—as ironic as that might sound, with Pine Ridge being the poorest county in the entire country. In a previous post about this current roadtrip, I mentioned the feeling that in the West, history is all around you.

That is true everywhere of course, but places like Pine Ridge drive the point home. In 1887 Congress passed the Dawes Act, which split much reservation land into parcels individually owned by tribal members. Under the guise of assimilating Indians into the larger society, the Dawes Act actually just made it easier to dupe people out of their land. As you drive into the res you see a ton of signs marking who owns what allotment. In speaking with people, you quickly realize that it's common to own multiple tiny parcels of land spread across a huge area—sometimes more than one state—the ragtag remnants of whatever parts of allotments weren't sold off to whites. One guy told me he had land in South Dakota, North Dakota, Nebraska, and Minnesota, some of it as small as several square yards.

A little farther down the road, you reach the memorial of the Wounded Knee Massacre. You can read all about that elsewhere (a good place to start is Dee Brown's 1970 book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee), but essentially it was the last major armed conflict between Indians and the US Army. The 7th Cavalry was disarming a large group of ghost dancers, and when one demanded payment in exchange for his rifle, the cavalry opened up with hotchkiss guns, mowing down more than 300 men, women, and children as they attempted to flee. It used to be called a "battle" but in 1990 the government issued a "statement of deep regret" and a board reading "massacre" was nailed up over it. No formal apology, no polished monument.

So, uh, not to bring the room down or anything, but that's there, and I think it's worth seeing. People leave sage, tobacco, candies, bullet shells and other offerings at the grave marker. The rest of the reservation is interesting to see as well—many of the roads marked as major are actually unpaved, and fun to explore.

But back to the current roadtrip. Emily and I decided that, as much as we wanted to go, braving the Badlands and the back roads of Pine Ridge in the coming blizzard was not worth it, and quickly re-tooled our plans. We drove south out of Lead and saw a completely fogged-in Mount Rushmore.

There are often mountain goats walking around down there, and this trip didn't disappoint. (And the mountain itself is fairly overrated, so no big whoop that we couldn't see it.) We headed north on scenic highway 14A, along Spearfish Creek and on to Wyoming for a look at Devil's Tower National Monument.

Foggy too, but still worth it. One of the major characteristics of this trip has been getting the national park system to ourselves. We walked the 1.3 mile trail around the tower with no interference whatsoever.

As we drove west from there, the weather reports were getting more and more ominous. I didn't take many photos, but I did snap this one—I think it was in Moorcroft. We've seen a few bars like this, with brands all over the side of them. They almost seem like gang tags.

We had planned to go through the Bighorn Mountains and on to Yellowstone, but I-90 itself was icing up; we figured the smaller roads would be worse, and we wouldn't be able to see much anyway. So we stopped to throw down at a Taco Bell in Gillette, and as it started to get dark, we buckled in for a slog toward as far as we could get in Montana.

Friday, October 10, 2008

The Hills

We ended up in Lead, South Dakota, staying at the Palace Express. We both agreed it's our second favorite hotel so far, after the one in Detroit.

The columns in the photo above have these smiling bald eagles on them.

We went to a couple bars and it's a pretty happening small town scene. Lead is in the middle of the Black Hills – the next town over from Deadwood, but without all the tourist traps. It's in a ravine, with the business district primarily in the bottom, and houses on the sides. The residential neighborhoods remind me a little of Aberdeen or Kalama.

When we headed back to the Palace, the snow was really starting to fall.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

On a Plain

After Fargo we drove across the Great Plains toward Theodore Roosevelt National Park. These plains are called Great not because they are better than good, which is debatable, but because they are really, really big. They just go and go. There are a few things to see a long the way but mostly it's just plains.

Valley City, ND

Golden Valley, ND

And, finally, Theodore Roosevelt National Park, on the western edge of the state. This guy was milling around the parking lot waiting to greet us when we got there.

This is Roosevelt's cabin in Medora, ND, where he lived for some time many years before he was President. The small museum they have set up about Roosevelt's time in North Dakota is really informative and well designed – being there made me want to learn more about him. He was once shot while giving a campaign speech, and insisted on finishing the speech before allowing a doctor to treat him.

His namesake park is breathtakingly beautiful. It's not so much grassland, as I'd thought, but a long corridor of northern badlands along the Little Missouri River. It's hard to describe the feeling of exhilaration I sometimes feel in the West – the landscape is so big and spectacular, and you can feel the history around you. We camped right on the river flat, once again with the whole place to ourselves.

On the entire trip, it was only our second night of clear skies. The moon was so bright we almost didn't need our lantern, and the stars were still spectacular. It was well below freezing and we huddled around a little fire.

The next morning I woke up to find that the tent was covered in a layer of icey dew.

I made a big pot of coffee and sat at the picnic table reading as the sun came up and lit the hills on the other side of the river.

Big yellow leaves were falling off the cottonwood trees, and other than the noise they were making and a train way off in the distance, it was totally quiet.

Well, these guys were making some noise too.

There weren't many prairie dogs by the river, but when we went up and over the hill toward Medora, there was a huge village. I had seen them in Yellowstone and the Bighorn Mountains last year but they were tiny – more like chipmunks. These plains dwellers were much bigger and reminded us of Littlejeans.

We would have liked to stay another day, but with snow in the forecast we decided we'd better take off for South Dakota. After sandwiches and coffee at the Iron Horse Saloon, we drove out through the Little Missouri National Grasslands, headed for the Black Hills.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Ya Sure

We spent last night in Fargo, North Dakota, at a luxurious, warm, dry EconoLodge. They have laundry there. There is also a TV. We got Taco John's to go and watched the second presidential debate on a big bed.

Before that we had a little time to walk around downtown. A little time is all you need; it's very small. I found a few records which I will post later. Today we're going to a big thrift store before we head west again.

There are some cool neon signs around. Why don't people use neon as much as they used to? There are tons of neon signs in the midwest. If I ever had a bar, it would have a neon sign. Or it would have no sign. But if there were a sign, that sign would be neon.

This dude wanted to show the fish he'd just caught in the Red River. His friend was not so friendly.

The light was really beautiful at sunset. We've been really lucky with the color of the trees through the entire trip so far. From here on out the light will take over.

Oh yeah, about the debate. Obama could not have been better. McCain had a good closing statement, but most of the time (I feel bad for saying it, but) he reminded me of Hank Hill's dad. The Republicans will talk about his Israel answer and how he connected with the veteran who asked it, but that guy was smiling and nodding when Obama answered his question, and I don't know if anyone noticed, but Obama stood there and talked with the guy for several minutes after the debate was over.

Another thing: the second questioner was a young Black dude named Oliver Clark. He asked McCain and Obama, "Well, Senators, through this economic crisis, most of the people that I know have had a difficult time. And through this bailout package, I was wondering what it is that's going to actually help those people out." There were a few things that bothered me about McCain's answer. First, McCain condescended in saying "I'll bet you, you may never even have heard of [Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac] before this crisis." Second, toward the end of McCain's answer, he said "…we're going to have to go out into the housing market and we're going to have to buy up these bad loans and we're going to have to stabilize home values, and that way, Americans, like Alan, can realize the American dream and stay in their home." [Alan was the first questioner, a middle-aged white guy.] Setting aside the truly insane – and actually radically leftist – hail-Mary idea to buy up bad mortgages, I thought McCain's answer contained a subtle racial slight. Oliver had asked the question, but McCain told him that his plan would help "Americans, like Alan." He could have just as easily said "like you and Alan" or "like you" or just left it at "Americans;" instead, he seemed to exclude Oliver. Am I reading too much into it? Maybe. It may have been accidental, or a non-issue altogether. But the McCain campaign has thrown just about every type of dirt it could find at Obama, and it clearly hasn't stuck—so at this late stage, judging by the trajectory so far, it would not be a surprise to now see them resort to the lowest, most gutteral mud-slinging, attempting to appeal to middle America's worst instincts. McCain himself might not calculate going there – his campaign and running mate will handle the overt attacks for him – but his answer to Oliver's question seems to reinforce a sub-conscious prejudice at the very least.

Or not. I don't think I'm overly sensitive to stuff like that, but maybe I am. Who knows.
Next stop, tonight: Theodore Roosevelt National Park, a big swath of grasslands in Western North Dakota.

And it Rained All Night

Turns out it's pretty hard to find a boat rental around Voyageurs National Park in October. The park is open year-round, but the visitor centers close up shop in September, so there was very little information to be had. In the frenzy of packing and moving, we didn't have time to research all of this beforehand, and felt a little like the Griswolds arriving at Wally World. Sadly, there was nary a hint of a John Candy-like character who we could force at gunpoint to give us a tour.

We ended up camping at Woodenfrog State Forest Campground, which was pretty sweet, and I'm sure about the same as camping in the actual park. It's just that it's on the shore, instead of on a tiny precious little island. We were right on the water though, we had an incredible view, and once again we had the place to ourselves.

The forecast was grim (all rain, more rain, rain forever) but we were lucky our first day there and stayed completely dry. We took a little hike on this cross-country skiing trail. When there's no hill it doesn't really feel like a "hike," but that's what the sign called it. Anyway, it was really pretty and very, very quiet.

During the summer you can rent these big houseboat things and motor slowly around the park, spending the night at various campsites. Or docks maybe. I don't know. The biggest one is about $1800/week or something and holds around ten people.

Anyway, we had a good day and evening at ol' Woodenfrog, finishing it off with some mulligan stew (that's hobo food for you non-campers) and cans of Leinenkugel.

We decided to leave the next morning because it had started raining really hard in the middle of the night. Without the ability to get into Voyageurs, and with foul weather making more exploration a little daunting, we figured we'd seen what we could of the area, and would be better off allowing ourselves more time in the West.

We drove through some interesting small towns such as Blackduck.

Minnesotans are really serious about their Halloween decorations. This one was really cool.

They also seem to like larger-than life statues. I tried to convince Emily that we should epoxy one of them to the roof of the Jeep but that was a non-starter.

The senate race between Al Franken, incumbent Norm Coleman, and independent Dean Barkley is really heated and there are signs all over the place. We heard part of their debate when we went to buy groceries in International Falls. Of course we already knew Al Franken was funny and well-spoken, etc., but the way he brings his style to running for political office is very effective. You'd have to be some kind of wonk (I guess…?) to care about some other state's Senate race. Regardless, I recommend checking it out here.

Next stop: Fargo, North Dakota.