No Easy Ride Home
June 9, 2001
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That last little tour was the kind that sticks with you for a while; driving east over the soft Appalachians and under the ocean at Hampton Roads, walking the steel decks of the battleship Wisconsin at Norfolk and talking with a sailor who'd been there when the big guns roared for real. Back through Charleston, West Virginia, through Louisville and St. Louis, Kansas City and Denver, across a lot of farm land, rising gently for 500 miles into the high plateau and then dropping easily into Laramie. There we walked the steel decks of the old Territorial Prison but there weren't any veterans there to detail the experience for us in person. But they were there in spirit, and we did get a righteous dose of raucous decibels in the Buckhorn Bar on Saturday night. The battleship may be one of the absolute coolest and loudest places ever placed on the Historic Register, but it's pretty quiet these days; the Buckhorn's on that list as well and you can get a beer there. And it's not that quiet. Although the owner told me that there's a lot less fighting in there than there used to be. "It's been in the family a long time, and my grandfather never minded the fighting. In fact he kind of enjoyed it. If there wasn't a fight going on, sometimes he'd just start one himself."
We somehow became lulled into the notion of a real easy ride home and the next morning ran into sullen rain and a stiff quartering headwind at Chugwater, so hard it made the wipers flutter off the glass. Herefords out there in a draw were all standing facing southeast, to let drivers know which direction the wind was blowing; it makes more sense that way, instead of pointing into the breeze to indicate where it came from, like most wind gauges. At Wheatland, Wyoming, it thickened into snow and became a full-blown blizzard. Horizontal snow at 45 miles an hour out of the northwest, heavy enough to pile up on the windshield. It began to take one's undivided attention just to stay on the road, and it occurred to me that these folks are probably happy to get this moisture any way it wants to come in. If it's going to arrive mad, well that's fine too, we'll take it, just as long as it gets here. Stopped at the truck stop at Orin Junction where the freezing wind wanted to blow you right off the parking lot. Sitting in there warming over a cup of coffee and a plate of roast beef and gravy, listening to a table of pipeline workers talking about the new line going in, and the door opened and a guy walked in and everything stopped; it was like an old western movie.
He was wide and not real tall and his face was round and very red; everything besides that face was covered with black rain gear and leathers, and it all looked wet and cold. He moved stiff, like he hadn't been on his feet in a while, and seemed mighty happy to be there; we looked out to the gas pumps to see the fundamental Harley sitting there. No windshield, no fairing. He was heading for Casper, 56 miles west, straight into the teeth of it. A guy at the table asked him how much he wanted for his motorcycle right now, and he smiled and you could almost feel frostbit skin crack. Another guy offered to trade him a new Suburban for it, straight up, and he said, "A new one?" and the guy said, "It's a '99." His friend said, "You might be careful about that-- his wife'll be comin' to Casper to track you down, 'cause it's her car."
The biker asked the waitress how much was a cup of coffee and she said 50 cents and he said he'd have one. He drank it and was fueled up and gone before I finished my Sunday Special. It was 34 degrees outside; no telling what the wind chill would be riding across a 40-mile-an-hour snow-laden wind at that temperature, but I know riding in just 40-degree weather will chill your knee bones so deep it'll take 'em hours to thaw out. I thought about that guy on the way back in my warm truck.
Around Lost Springs, east of Orin, the snow began to let up but the wind didn't, spinning the infrequent windmills at high rpm's and standing flags straight out. North of Lusk, plains country but still up at 5000 feet, it warmed to 50 degrees and the sky began to break and by the time I could see the Black Hills the sun was out, each rising of the prairie casting a long flat shadow on his neighbor to the east; payback for what probably happened in the other direction that morning. Seen from afar like that, and especially from the south with a luminous sky to the north, you think that to call them anything but the Black Hills would have been a misnomer; they stand out there beyond the grasses, separate, a dark and beautiful mystery. They look like sacred territory. You wouldn't go in there with a truck unless you had to, but it's great to be in those rocky evergreen forests. But it just doesn't feel real black in there; the blackness is a collective thing, visible only from a distance, and it seems to be more the essence of the Hills than what you sense from inside. Like the Manhattan skyline from across the river feels more grand and powerful than standing by a sidewalk hot dog cart on a numbered street corner; say, 8th Ave. and 43rd Street.
Turned east on US 18 at Mule Creek Junction, a place that might have been named by Hollywood back in the 50s, and caught just the southern part of the curves and valleys of the Hills. Turned north to Rapid City on 79, fueled at the old Windmill Truck Stop and found a bargain motel up on the high ground off the freeway. In the morning couldn't resist going right downtown for breakfast; parked across the tracks and walked a few blocks. Something about that town that draws a person; hard to describe it without using romantic terms, like 'free' and 'open.' It's that sanctuary that sits in the back of your mind, and if things got just a little more restrictive and a little more crowded where you live you could always pull up stakes and go out to Rapid City. It's your escape hatch from all the meddlers and the busybodies who want to run your life for you. Of course it's already that for a lot of people; the place is growing like crazy and is probably full of people thinking the same thing about some other place even farther west, maybe in Nevada. Or maybe north, like North Dakota.
Finished the last 600 miles on cruise control, sailed easily across South Dakota and southern Minnesota and was happy to be home, even though there was no parade to meet me at the edge of town; that was probably because it's all so spread out there isn't any edge any more.
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