As of this writing I’ve visited 32 of our 50 United States. Anne has seen a few more thanks to her grandma, who drove her to Maine one time back in the ’80s. We’ve had the chance to luxuriate and wander several of those at length. Some of them were one-stop wonders, states adjacent to others that weren’t a main focus in a given trip, but were easy enough to cross off our lifetime to-do list if we could think of a reason to get out of the car and say hi. Perfect example: on our 2013 drive to Boston, we visited a Connecticut museum in our path (and weren’t enamored enough of that sketchy neighborhood to explore any further), but we couldn’t find an easy way to work Rhode Island into that year’s itinerary.
Since we were at the westernmost end of South Dakota anyway, we had wondered if we could find an excuse to hop over into its neighbor Wyoming. About two minutes of research brought us to an obvious option of inescapable prominence, by which I mean that gargantuan protuberance up there.
Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover:
Every year since 1999 Anne and I have taken a road trip to a different part of the United States and seen attractions, marvels, history, and institutions we didn’t have back home in Indianapolis. From 1999 to 2003 we did so as best friends; from 2004 to the present, as husband and wife. Beginning with 2003’s excursion to Washington DC, we added my son to the roster and tried to accommodate his preferences and childhood accordingly.
2008 was by far our least favorite road trip to date, and still holds the ignominious title as of 2018. Our next vacation had to be better. Step one was plain enough: we looked at Anne’s brainstorming list of future road trips and chose the one that screamed “dream vacation”. That’s what led to our long, long drive out to the farthest reaches of South Dakota and beyond. At nine days it was the longest we’ve ever taken. The farthest point of 1,180 miles made it the longest drive of our lives. It would be the farthest west we’d ever been up to that time. It was also our first vacation using exclusively digital cameras to record the experience, leaving behind the 35mm film of our childhoods forever. They weren’t expensive cameras for their kind, certainly not the most advanced as of 2009, but we did what we could with the resources and the amateur skill sets available to us.
We’re the Goldens. This is who we are and what we do.
DAY SIX: Wednesday, June 17th.
One hotel breakfast bar later, we were on the road to Wyoming. A sign along the road advertised a gas station on the Wyoming/South Dakota border that promised the cheapest gas around. We had hoped to stop in, but the turnoff was camouflaged, cleverly disguised as mere rolling hills.
Our primary objective for the day was Devils Tower National Monument. It stands nearly a quarter of a mile tall in the middle of an empty, hilly plain with a small town or two nearby, and not much else that’s manmade. You might remember it from such films as Close Encounters of the Third Kind, where it was the setting for the climax.
Deep in the beautiful desolation of eastern Wyoming, Devils Tower was visible from eight miles away, recognizable even without a spaceship hovering overhead. The long and winding scenic route took its sweet time in leading us in laps around the tower to the parking lot and visitors’ center.
If you only know it from a single picture, you might imagine Devils Tower looks the same on all sides, but it is actually not that symmetrical. From different angles and lighting, it appears to take on different shapes.
Up close, the walking path around the base of the Tower didn’t look like such a long distance. We decided to stroll around and see the sides for ourselves — gravel on one side, huge chunks of rock on another side, trees on yet another.
27 sides later, we realized we were fools, suckered in by the Devils Tower optical illusion. Yes, every side was different, and Devils Tower seemed to have more sides than a snowball has snowflakes.
Prayer bundles hung from branches at a few points along the main path. We and all other guests proceeded without intruding upon them or peeking inside in hopes of finding snacks like unruly bears.
From one distant vantage point we could see and hear a group of Tower climbers a few stories from the top. During the month of June, there was ostensibly a voluntary ban on climbing the Tower out of respect for Native American rituals conducted each year. Presumably this pair had obtained the proper permit, or had steeled themselves for the wrath of the local gods. They inched up bit by bit while shouting at each other loudly enough for the winds to carry half their conversation down to us at ground level…and that half was, “I CAN’T HEAR YOU!” The deafer of the two could have heard his partner more clearly if only he’d though to rappel to the ground alongside us.
By the time we reached side number Omega, my son was kind of a wreck, and my wife and I weren’t feeling too hyperactive ourselves. Eventually we returned to our starting point along the path and sought refuge in the visitors’ center.
We paused for breath at the visitors’ center gift shop, which was small in size and selection. We were amused by a children’s book called What Pooped in the Black Hills? but we otherwise came away empty-handed. Anne had another plan in mind already — her pre-vacation research had indicated that the Devils Tower Trading Post at the park entrance would have a huge selection of souvenirs.
Unfortunately for her, she hadn’t counted on my fixation on our dwindling gas tank, which had pushed most other thoughts out of my head. When I’m too worried about something, or too excited, or too intrigued, or too just-about-any-emotion, I develop a sort of mesmerized tunnel vision that propels me past anything within sight or hearing that’s irrelevant to my fixation. I can forget, overlook, dismiss, or misinterpret a frightening amount of seemingly obvious sensory input. I wish I could blame-shift this condition to old age, except I don’t think of myself as “old” most of the time. I wish the problem was simply one of making consciously bad choices, but more often than not it happens on autopilot.
Anyway, this form of intermittent creeping brain malfunction on my part is why, when Anne asked to stop at “trading post” some undisciplined part of my mind intercepted the phrase, tweaked it, and forwarded it to the rest of my brain as “post office”.
As luck would have it, there’s a post office right across the street from the trading post. How convenient! So I pulled into the post office parking lot and paused.
Anne told me she didn’t need to stop at the post office. I squinted at her, shrugged, and returned to the road back to South Dakota.
Several blocks later, Anne finally realized that her husband was possessed by temporary stupidity. She knew there could be only one cure: she exploded at me.
Presto! Worked like a charm. I immediately — though, regrettably, with no small amount of grumpiness and stung pride — turned the car around and headed right back to the trading post, despite the several blocks’ worth of extra gas it might expend.
Anne was well aware of the gas issue, so she quickly ran into the gift shop, intending to forsake any perusing and just smash some pennies in their smashed-penny machine for our niece and nephew. She assumed her husband was waiting with the engine running, so she hurried as much as one can hurry a smashed-penny machine.
A few minutes later, she glared at me when I walked in the trading post, too. Having had a few minutes to clear my head and regain one or two of my senses, I realized that leaving the car running was pretty dumb under the circumstances. And since the car would be turned off anyway, why not come inside and grab myself a souvenir, too? Our odds of returning to Wyoming again within the next decade were next to nil. Carpe diem and whatnot.
Anne hadn’t yet had that same opportunity to calm down. Frustrated and angry with this situation, she finished her pennies and ran out to the car, only to find that the engine was off and the car was locked. My son was inside, still recovering from the Devils Tower trail of tears. With irritation building upon irritation, she knocked on the window to have him unlock the car door.
When he did, the two of them learned something our rental company hadn’t bothered to mention: our vehicle had a working car alarm.
As soon he tried to pop the door, the most embarrassing klaxon in the world signaled for attention to the dozens of other tourists around us.
Meanwhile, inside the trading post I thought to myself, “Heh. Car alarm. Someone’s a moron. HAAAAA-ha!”
Anne flew back inside and asked the moron for the keys, then ran back outside and turned the alarm off. She forced a sheepish grin and explained to the nearest gawkers that we hadn’t known there was an alarm on it.
Then she tried to open the door again. The alarm was off, but the door was still locked. Those were two separate keychain buttons. While she fumbled with the keychain and its many options, my son tried to be helpful and unlock the door again. The most embarrassing klaxon in the world returned for an encore performance.
By this time, Anne was made of rage. She reentered the post one last time to find her husband Captain Moron setting his amazing powers of leadership and intuition toward the complex task of trying to decide which Devils Tower t-shirt to buy himself.
One more detonation from Anne clarified his decision-making processes and got them out the door within a few minutes.
One or two more wrap-up explosions — not unlike a July 4th grand finale — begat a silent ride on a fraction of a gas tank, which was enough to traverse the next eight miles to a tiny town called Hulett. The sole gas station in town looked abandoned — no signage and one pump that dispensed only 85-octane gas. Back in Indiana the lowest level of gas purity is 87-octane. Maybe we’re spoiled or Indiana has stricter standards, but 85-octane sounded to me like a level more appropriate for lawnmowers, chainsaws, or Molotov cocktails.
I take the idea of car rental seriously enough that I never think, “Oh, well, it’s not MY car anyway!” but we were hardly in a position to be choosy. I put only $5 in the tank — enough to get us comfortably within South Dakota while minimizing any imaginable internal engine damage. I’m sure 85-octane is good enough for the local Waltons. I just don’t like gambling on the unknown. And if my brain malfunctioned once more and left Anne with no choice but to take my life into her hands, I’d’ve rather we at least made it back to South Dakota first.
To be continued!
* * * * *
[Link enclosed here to handy checklist for other chapters and for our complete road trip history to date. Follow us on Facebook or via email signup for new-entry alerts, or over on Twitter if you want to track my TV live-tweeting and other signs of life between entries. Thanks for reading!]