Getting My Griswold On – Day 6: Austin, MN

Miles traveled today: 556.9
Total miles traveled: 2282.9

So That’s How They Came Up With The Lyrics

My alarm was set for 6 AM today, but I woke up at 5:46 with bright sunshine peeking through the curtains. I sighed, because I knew it was time to bid Rapid City farewell, but I was also excited to be hitting the road again. An hour later the city dwindled to a speck in my rearview mirror before being swallowed up by the seemingly endless South Dakota prairie. It was a chilly morning, and very windy all day; I was awestruck by the way the prairie grasses were “rolling” wavelike in the gusty breezes. It’s hard to explain, but picture tall green grass blades with raggedy amber tips, flattening and spreading out over the land with each gust of wind, like an ocean tide pushing up on the sand before retreating. It dawned on me then that the lyrics to America The Beautiful perfectly summed it up: “amber waves of grain.” This was grass – not grain – but otherwise, it’s fitting.

And I have to say, this trip is making me feel all sorts of patriotic. I am rediscovering how vast and beautiful this country of ours is, and how fortunate I am to live here and have the ability to take a road trip like this one. I started feeling this way when driving through the purple mountain majesties above the fruited plain, you might say. Corny but true. Seeing Mount Rushmore again certainly helped.

Time Ch-ch-changes

Somewhere around the middle of South Dakota, I crossed into the Central Time Zone. Once I hit Indiana, I’ll reach the Eastern Time Zone, and will have experienced all four U.S. time zones. I’ve had to take that into consideration when planning each day’s trip; 8+ hours of driving today felt like 9 with the time change – but it’ll work in my favor on the return journey. I’ve always thought of Central Time as being the odd one. I don’t know if this is still the case, but the television networks always showed primetime programming an hour early here (“an all-new episode of The Office tonight at 8 PM, 7 Central” for example). My understanding is that’s because the farmers tend to get up early and, therefore, go to sleep early.

Today also marked the end of all that fantastic scenery I’ve been enjoying. Amber waves of grass aside, once you pass the Badlands there ain’t nothing to see, folks. I mentioned the next leg of my journey on last night’s Facebook status update, and somebody said to be careful and not to fall asleep at the wheel. Another friend commented that even if I did, it wouldn’t matter, because this is the straightest strip of highway in the U.S. I’m not sure if that’s true or not, but it certainly felt that way. Just one long, straight trek through endless empty land minus the occasional small town. I actually did start to feel a bit drowsy at one point and began yawning, so I cranked up the music and made sure to stop the car and stretch my legs. It worked, as I got my second wind. Crossing the Missouri River helped – it brought a change of scenery and something interesting to look at. There is a rest stop just across the river, and it’s the nicest one I’ve ever seen. It’s situated on a bluff overlooking the river, with a scenic viewpoint and an interpretive center inside. I was nearly blown off the side of the cliff by the strong winds; I’d forgotten how gusty it can be across the northern plains. It remained cool all day, but sunny, with just a few scattered fair-weather cumulus clouds dotting the sky. The severe weather of the past few days is history for now.

Shortly after 1:00 I crossed into Minnesota. Down side: the speed limit dropped to 70 mph. Up side: there was no road construction to contend with. Up side, part two: the scenery changed. Slightly, anyway. The landscape became even flatter – if that’s possible – but I started seeing evergreen trees. When I think of this state, trees and lakes spring to mind, so that was fitting. By the way, the rivers and lakes throughout Montana, South Dakota and Minnesota have been running very high and flooding the surrounding plains. All of them. Every time I pass a body of water, it is inevitably spilling over its banks and covering the bases of the nearby trees, and nearly every city I go through has flood advisories posted. The folks up in Minot aren’t the only ones dealing with high water.

I Drove 19 Miles Out of My Way for SPAM

There are two things you should know about me. I like quirky attractions, and I love museums. So when my friend Ron told me that “the world famous SPAM museum in Austin, Minnesota” was a must-stop, I was on board. Only, it turned out, Austin was actually 19 miles past my turnoff onto I-35 and points south. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to take a detour, but Ron was insistent, and then threw in a little bonus trivia, stating that Austin, MN is also the birthplace of legendary football player, coach and commentator (and video game namesake) John Madden. After hearing that, I was in.

It was going to be a close call, though. The museum closes at 5 PM, and Maggie was projecting my arrival to Austin just an hour earlier. Sure enough, she was dead on. I quickly found a Super 8 right off the interstate, checked in, and then drove a few miles to the museum, arriving about 45 minutes before closing time.

Ron, it turns out, was right. The museum was awesome! It’s located right next to a Hormel plant and one of two SPAM-producing factories in the country, which explains its existence in a small town like Austin. The outside of the building is brick with blue and yellow, SPAM-colored touches, and once you enter the lobby, you are immersed in a world of SPAM. It was actually very cool. There were displays tracing the history of the Hormel corporation in general and SPAM in particular, interactive games and kiosks, advertisements from each decade, glass-encased SPAM samples that included varieties I’d never even heard of – SPAM pizza, anyone? – an overhead conveyor belt with cans of SPAM whizzing by, and a very large gift shop. I purchased a couple of hard-to-find varieties (Garlic SPAM and Hot ‘n Spicy SPAM) and a few other trinkets, including a shot glass and a recipe book. I absolutely loved the museum, and could have spent more time there. I didn’t get to see the SPAM movie (but I did enjoy the SPAM-themed decor throughout). This was a totally worthwhile stop, and I’m glad I went out of my way to see it. It’s a slice of Americana I never knew existed before, and probably would never have heard of if not for this trip.

There’s not much else to do in Austin, so I’m holed up for the night. I’ve got some rum and Coke and I’m planning the next stage of my trip tomorrow. Turns out I’ll be passing through Clear Lake, Iowa. Something historical happened there in 1959, and I’ll be hunting down the site. Details tomorrow. :)

The Missouri River at Chamberlain, South Dakota.
The nicest rest stop I've ever seen. Chamberlain, SD if you're passing through.
Austin Minnesota
Other than John Madden, Austin Minnesota's biggest claim to fame.
How can you not love this place?!
Those are cans of SPAM stacked up in the lobby.
Mmm. The use of the word "base" instead of "crust" makes my mouth water. Seriously, why don't they sell this anymore?!
Yum! Guess what I'm serving at my next dinner party?
Fun fact: it takes each can of SPAM on this conveyor belt about 17 minutes to circle the museum.
I'm no interior decorator, but I'd kinda love this in my townhouse!