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!

 

 

Getting My Griswold On – Day 5: Badlands

Miles traveled today: 178.8
Total miles traveled: 1726.0

Flash. Crash. Repeat.

Have I mentioned the crazy weather we’re having out here? For the third day in a row, I encountered thunderstorms. And not just any old thunderstorms – big, dangerous ones. With lots of lightning and thunder and – worst of all – hail. As I was leaving the restaurant I ate dinner in this evening, the manager was welcoming an elderly couple. “Looks like rain again!” the husband said, pointing out the ominous sky. “I know,” the manager replied. “Feels like we’re in Washington or Oregon.” I stopped dead in my tracks and wheeled around, ready to correct him. Because this is nothing like the weather we get back home. It rains there a lot, sure. But it’s a gentle rain most times. A soft rain. Often, no more than a drizzle or mist. It’s certainly nothing like these severe, car-denting hailstorms and lightning that flashes constantly, every few seconds. Check out this video I shot last night from the motel parking lot.

Free Ice Water!

My first stop today, after a more leisurely morning than I’ve had lately, was Wall Drug Store in Wall, South Dakota. This might sound odd if you’re unfamiliar with the place, but Wall Drug is more than just a drug store: it’s an institution and a semi-famous tourist attraction. Opened in 1931, the proprietor was struggling with the business until he hit upon the idea to advertise free ice water to travelers on their way to the newly-opened Mount Rushmore, 60 miles away. The idea worked, and the enterprise has been thriving ever since.

Wall Drug is both enormous and kitschy, with a cowboy/Old West theme. It’s comprised of several different “businesses” all under one roof – clothing stores, art galleries, gift shops, a restaurant, even an arcade – kind of like a shopping mall but more intimate. When we lived in South Dakota, we’d head out to Wall Drug every so often on our way to the Badlands, which – sure enough – was my next destination. I bought a pack of buffalo jerky to snack on, just like old times.

What A Nice Butte

From Wall, I drove 21 miles to Badlands National Park. I love the Badlands – this 244,000-acre preserve of eroded buttes, pinnacles and spires offers breathtaking scenery. The red-striped rocks take on different appearances depending on the time of day, amount of sunlight and shadow, and weather conditions, so the whole landscape feels like it’s in a constant state of flux. I drove at a leisurely pace, stopping often at different viewpoints and overlooks. I did quite a bit of hiking, too – if you only see the Badlands from your car, you’re missing out, because there are numerous trails that lead around the various rock formations, and you are welcome to climb them (at your own peril, of course). It was pretty hot in the sun, but a nice breeze was blowing at times, and thunderclouds were stacking up to the west. As soon as I got on the interstate heading west, back toward my motel, a squall line moved through and hail started pelting my windshield so hard I thought it was going to crack. Everybody on the freeway pulled over and waited for the storm to pass, which fortunately took only five minutes. It was something, though! I got video footage from inside my car but I’m having trouble uploading, so I’ll post that another time.

I can’t help but marvel, once again, over the beauty of this area. I liked it as a teenager, even though my parents complained about the brutal winters. They are harsh – one year (I think it was 1985) we had a blizzard on my birthday. Which is April 27th. In some parts of the country, it’s already summertime by then! And that first winter, back in ’83, it dropped down to -27 one night. This is definitely a land of fierce extremes, and it can be very punishing if you aren’t prepared for it. But the magnificent beauty and abundance of natural attractions – not to mention free ice water a mere 55 miles to the east! – make it worthwhile. I’ve often wondered if I could ever picture myself living in Rapid City again, and after returning, the verdict is in: yes, I could. I’m not saying I will - I love the Pacific Northwest far too much – but I wouldn’t rule it out if the circumstances were exactly right.

The Pluses and Minuses of Traveling Solo

I am having the time of my life on this trip – and it’s not even half over yet! The best part about traveling solo is, you can do whatever you want, whenever you want. Which is pretty much also the best thing about being divorced. If I want to see the world’s largest ball of twine, there’s nobody nagging at me about sticking to the schedule. The downside to traveling by yourself? A lack of human companionship, which is pretty much also the worst thing about being divorced. Everywhere I’ve gone the past few days – Crazy Horse, Mount Rushmore, the Badlands – I have seen nothing but families and couples. There were so many parent-and-kid combos today, I actually got a little pang in my heart because I never got to do that with my family, except for one nice weekend getaway to Crater Lake a year before we divorced. And the families with small kids? They’re the luckiest of all. I hope they realize that. I haven’t seen another solo person, anywhere, and I’ve been looking. Oddly enough, I’ve become the guy who other couples ask to take their picture. Maybe I have a trusting face (or perhaps it’s because I’m not chasing after small children). I’ve lost track of how many strangers I’ve photographed.

I’m not complaining, though. I’ve always been comfortable by myself, which is why when dinnertime rolled around I decided to walk across the street to Perkins, a sit-down restaurant that’s kind of like a Denny’s or Marie Callender’s. You know the type: they all serve breakfast all day, sell pies, and have cash registers up front when you’re ready to pay. Some people might balk at eating alone, but I have been trying to avoid fast food and felt like a decent, sit-down dinner for once, so I went. I have never been so excited to see a salad in my life. I’m not saying the chicken fried steak I ordered was any healthier than fast food, but it hit the spot, and aside from the jerky and a breakfast scone I hadn’t eaten all day and was starving.

And now, sadly, my time in South Dakota is up. I will miss it, and I’m already vowing to return someday – and I promise it won’t take me another 25 years. By the same token, today was the first day it felt like I was on vacation instead of a road trip, so it’s time to Ramble On and head east. Tomorrow will be my first full day of traveling since Billings.

This gives you an idea of the enormity of Wall Drug.

Inside the main entrance to Wall Drug.

Hey, I thought the ice water was free!!

Near the beginning of the Badlands Loop. Interspersed with the rock formations is the largest protected mixed grass prairie in the country.

Luckily, I didn't see any.

One of the trails in the Badlands.

Red-striped rock formation in the Badlands.

Thundercloud over the South Dakota prairie. You could hear the rumbling echoing through the Badlands.

A spot of color in the Badlands.

Mountain goats far below. I could barely see them from my lofty perch overlooking this canyon - thank god for zoom lenses.

More Badlands.

Getting My Griswold On – Day 4: Black Hills

Miles traveled today: 166.8
Total miles traveled: 1547.2

It’s Technically Not “Stealing” Since I Didn’t Pocket Anything

I forgot to mention yesterday the one downside to my motel in Rapid City: a crappy wireless internet connection. For some reason I cannot log on through the Super 8 server, so I have to look for other local networks. Last night there were none to be found. It was late, and I had to get my blog updated, so at 11 PM I threw on a pair of sandals, packed up my laptop, and walked up a small hill, through the wet grass, and past a darkened car wash business to the Hilton next door. I strolled in like I owned the place, marched right through the lobby, said hello to the clerk on duty, and set up my laptop. I got the Hilton signal easily enough, but it needed a password. Undaunted, I walked up to the front desk and asked for the password, which they provided to me on a slip of paper. Heh. I then spent the next 45 minutes working on my blog and uploading pictures to Facebook. At one point the clerk asked if I was cold and offered to get me a blanket. I politely declined. Lesson learned: pretend like you belong somewhere, and nobody will ever be the wiser.

The things I do for you people…

By the way, after yesterday’s severe thunderstorm, I noticed today that I have hail damage to my car. There are several pock marks and indentations on the hood, about the size of golfballs. One of them even chipped the paint. I guess I’ll have to think of that as a souvenir from South Dakota. Fortunately the Santa Fe is well past its prime anyway.

Gutzon Was A Dynamite Master

After waking up shortly before 7:00 and helping myself to the free motel breakfast (they’re the same every day at every place, and starting to get old), I headed up to Mount Rushmore. As far as the monument goes, it hasn’t changed a bit since 1986. As for the visitor’s center, however, it’s completely different. There is now a multi-story parking garage where before there was just a paved lot (hard to believe). The Avenue of Flags is now more elaborately designed, and the whole museum/gift shop/amphitheater complex is radically different. One cool new thing: there’s a Trail of Presidents that winds down to just beneath the mountain, with some great vantage points you weren’t able to see before.

Even though I’ve been to Mount Rushmore many times, it is still amazing to see. I stared at it for a long while, reflecting on the intervening years of my life since I’d last visited, and enjoying the awe-inspiring beauty of the surroundings. The sky was a perfect, deep shade of indigo, with puffy clouds building over the Black Hills. Incredible. I have seen so much beauty on this trip already, it’s really made me appreciate this great land of ours. I spent about two hours at the monument and bought a few souvenirs. Including a windbreaker, Esther. Bring on the rain!

Lord, I Was Born A Gamblin’ Man

After Mount Rushmore, I drove north to the historic town of Deadwood. Here’s a place that is radically different from before for one simple reason: gambling is legal, so there has been a proliferation of casinos. Since I subscribe to the whole “When in Rome” philosophy, I decided to try my hand at the slots. I’m hardly a big spender, though – I put a dollar in a penny slot, worked my way up to $8, then gave it all back to the casino. Oh, well – I was suitably entertained for ten minutes or so. Afterwards, I stopped by Wild Bill’s Saloon & Steakhouse for a buffalo burger and Coke. I was parched – that’s one thing I’m having trouble getting used to on this trip: the heat. I was burning up, beads of sweat were dripping down my neck, and when I passed a bank thermometer, it read 75 degrees. LOL…it’s the humidity. It’s been brutal here, with all the thunderstorm activity every day. Quite frankly, the weather here is insane. When I started writing this post, we had blue skies and sunshine. Within an hour – no exaggeration – a thunderstorm moved in. It was every bit as intense as yesterday’s. Lightning was flashing constantly, thunder rumbling, we had hail and heavy rain and winds. Total deja vu. Naturally, I went outside with my camera to try – once again – to capture that perfect lightning shot, putting my very life at risk.

This time, I think I succeeded. But I digress…

Satisfied with my Deadwood experience, I drove through its twin city, Lead. Much less touristy, and known for its gold mining. Lead is a beautiful town full of rolling hills and amazing scenery.

When Did Rapid City Become So Funky?

My tour of the Black Hills complete, I returned to Rapid (as the locals call it, something that annoyed me in 1983 but I now find charming). I decided to check out Dinosaur Park, not so much for the dinosaur statues but, rather, for the amazing view of Rapid, and the distant prairie. After snapping some pics, I headed downtown to the Historical District. I was quite surprised to find a little slice of Portland in Rapid City: quaint coffee shops, a used bookstore, and this cool alleyway I stumbled upon that was decorated all over with graffiti and murals. I strolled through there, taking plenty of pics. Love it!

I then decided to head for my old high school, right outside Ellsworth AFB. I pulled into the parking lot and stared at it, mesmerized. I’ve always been in a weird position when it comes to high school – I graduated from Milpitas High in California, but only spent my senior year there. The first three years I attended Douglas High School here in South Dakota. On the one hand, I feel like Douglas is my true high school since 75% of my time was spent there, but on the other, my diploma has the name of a different school on it. It’s a strange situation. I parked my car there and wandered around, staring at Patriot Stadium and peeking inside the glass doors at the hallways I once roamed, many years ago. A flood of memories returned, naturally.

I couldn’t get on base – the visitor’s center was closed – so I drove instead to Rushmore Mall in Rapid City. Made a quick beeline through there, only because – again – it was a hangout, back in the day. I remember taking my first girlfriend there to see a movie starring a little-known actor named Jim Carrey. The film was Once Bitten and it was cheesy, but a fun night. My adolescent hormones were in overdrive. I think it was my first “real” date. Good memories.

One random observation about South Dakota: you’ll see people dressed up as cowboys even though Halloween is months away. And there are Indians, too. This town is definitely still very much clinging to its Old West roots. On the way back to my motel, I stopped at a grocery store for booze, since I didn’t bring any on my trip. South Dakota, it turns out, is yet another state that sells liquor in their grocery stores. C’mon already, Oregon and Washington – get a clue!

I Killed Cleveland

Because I left on this trip a day early, my schedule has a little bit of flexibility built in. After a full day on the go, I realized that I hadn’t seen enough of South Dakota yet, and couldn’t imagine leaving tomorrow morning with so much still to explore. So, I made the decision to nix the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. Instead of spending an extra day in Ohio, I’m spending it in South Dakota instead. I am enraptured by this place all over again, and want to enjoy every last drop of it while I can. If Dayton represents my childhood, Rapid City is my adolescence. Even though I’m inevitably disappointing a couple of friends in Ohio, this is my trip, and I have to do what feels right.

And now, some pictures.

The first view of Mount Rushmore from Highway 16.

Gutzon Borglum's famous sculpture, carved out of granite.

One more sign that this is Sioux country.

Pactola Lake Reservoir, Black Hills

Downtown Deadwood.

In Deadwood, you can see history unfolding before your eyes.

Rapid City, SD.

Dinosaur Park has been a Rapid City landmark since 1936. It offers great views!

Welcome to Art Alley.

Art Alley, Rapid City

Art Alley in Rapid City. How cool and funky!

One of the murals in Art Alley.

Patriotic lightning.

Getting My Griswold On – Day 3: Rapid City, SD

Miles traveled today: 434.5
Total miles traveled: 1380.4

A Parting Shot or Two

Pulling out of Billings this morning at 7:30, it occurred to me that I might have been a little harsh on the town. Perhaps the outskirts would prove to be a little more, umm…Montana-like. So as I drove past on the interstate, I snapped another photo of Billings. (Click to enlarge).

Billings 2.0: Still not impressed.

And then another.

Billings 3.0: NOW we're talking!

Ahh…that’s more like it! Never let it be said that I don’t try my best to give a place the benefit of the doubt. This makes Billings look quite charming. Montana town, you have redeemed yourself!

133 Miles of Absolutely Nothing

Once I left Billings in the dust, the great plains opened up before my eyes. There was a moment when I crested a hill and saw, spread out before me, as far as the eye could see – from one end of the horizon to the other – absolutely nothing. Pure, uninhabited countryside, an uninterrupted rolling golden prairie, and I thought, this is why Montana’s nickname is “Big Sky Country.” Because truly, the sky did seem a whole lot bigger in that moment than I’d ever seen it before. Conversely, I felt very tiny.

After a short while, Maggie (my GPS unit, whom I’ll be referring to by name for the rest of the trip, as she’s my only traveling companion – she does talk to me, after all) had me turn off Interstate 90 E and head onto Montana US 212. I didn’t question this – I’ve learned that Maggie is wise in these matters – but after awhile, I kinda did question it. US 212 turned out to be a two-lane highway that took me through the middle of nowhere. And I mean, nowhere. I hardly saw another car the entire two hours it took to traverse, just a few random Native American outposts. Modern, of course. Tract houses – no teepees. And, as per usual, miles and miles of beautiful countryside. Hills, rock formations, trees, and a blanket of purple and yellow wildflowers seemingly everywhere. At one point I stopped the car to stretch my legs and take photos (from the middle of the road, no less). A gentle breeze stirred, the sun beat down upon my skin – warm but refreshing – and I could hear cicadas buzzing and birds chirping. I felt completely at peace in that moment. There was absolutely no thought of my joblessness or money woes or other issues that plague me back home. I was tempted to leave the car on the side of the road and wander off into the great, desolate unknown, Into The Wild style. I get the appeal now. I do. It was a gorgeous morning without a cloud in the sky.

That, it turns out, would not last.

Great Faces, Great Places

After several hours of nothingness, I crossed the Wyoming border, and was greeted with – more of the same nothingness. I could barely reflect on this, however, because I was suddenly in South Dakota. Seriously, my trip “across” Wyoming took a little more than twenty minutes. If I’d have blinked, I’d have missed it.

The Black Hills loomed on the distant horizon, growing larger by the minute. I pulled to a stop at the sign announcing South Dakota, and I swear, I got goosebumps. Twenty-five years ago, I left this state, and vowed always to return. When I actually crossed the state line, it was an emotional moment for me. I’ve talked about returning to Dayton, my favorite childhood place, but South Dakota is where I spent my most formative years: 1983-1986. All but my senior year of high school. I learned to drive there. Dated my first girlfriend. Went through adolescence. South Dakota holds many warm memories for me; I enjoyed my years living here, despite the often harsh weather. Fittingly, my 80s mix CD was playing as I entered the state.

I passed through Belle Fourche and stopped to grab lunch at Taco John’s. TJ’s was a “hangout” for me in high school. I know they’re a chain, but we don’t have them in the Pacific Northwest. The tacos remain good – not great – but the Potato Ole’s? Yum. They’re just round tater tots with a nacho cheese dipping sauce. They are every bit as good as I remember. After lunch in my car, I traveled through Spearfish and Sturgis, and was then suddenly on the outskirts of Rapid City, my old stomping grounds. Again, another goosebump moment for me…and suddenly, there it was, laid out before me. Over and over in my head, I kept thinking, I can’t believe I’m back here. You have to understand, I’ve been wanting to come back for many years. I’d even planned a trip with the kids in 2008, but that fell through. It felt surreal to be back. I found my motel, a Super 8 on one of the main drags, and even though check-in was an hour away, I convinced them to let me in early. I had places to go and didn’t want to haul my valuables around.

After a few minutes of debate, I settled on the Crazy Horse Memorial, Korczak Ziolkowski‘s monument to the fallen Sioux leader. He started work on this momentous carving (it will dwarf Mount Rushmore when completed) in 1948, died in 1982, and his family continues work to this day. They still have a long way to go – it won’t be completed in my lifetime, that’s for sure – but it has changed a lot since I last visited in 1986. I spent a good two hours in the museum and gift shop, and watched a traditional Sioux dance on the veranda beneath the gathering clouds.

Be Careful What You Wish For

About those clouds…when I checked in, I learned a severe thunderstorm watch had been issued for the area. Ominous looking dark thunderheads built up over the Black Hills and blotted out the sun. Driving back toward Rapid City, the sky turned black and eerie, and though sunset was a couple of hours away still, it grew as dark as night. Fantastic, jagged streaks of lightning sliced through the sky, and it started raining just as I pulled into the motel parking lot, accompanied by deafening claps of thunder. Man oh man, I was loving it! And then, suddenly, I was a little frightened by it all. The rain came down in sideways buckets, winds gusted to almost 70 mph and it began hailing. Not just little hail like at home, no sirree…golf-ball sized hail up to 4″ in diameter. I was a little intimidated by it all, as I haven’t experienced a thunderstorm like that since…well, since I left here! It turned out to be quite the storm. There were downed trees and power lines, flooded roads, and a huge section of downtown lost power…literally, my Super 8 was the first business in blocks with electricity. Whew!

After the storm quieted down, I headed out to dinner. When we lived here in the 80s, we used to frequent a Chinese restaurant downtown called Great Wall. I looked it up online, and surprisingly, it was still there, in the same spot as always. I picked up an orange chicken combo dinner and brought it back to my room, driving down storm-ravaged streets through a steady rain and continuous lightning and thunder. The food was very good…and there was an awful lot of it. Too much for me to finish. But it was another happy memory relived.

I’m in Rapid City for two nights, so I don’t have to travel tomorrow. I can also sleep in a little longer – I’ve only managed about 10 hours total the past two nights, but hey – I’ll sleep when I get home, ya know? This is all about having fun, and tomorrow, that’s the plan. I’ll be hitting Mount Rushmore, Deadwood, and checking out some places around Rapid City and Ellsworth AFB, where I lived.

The enormity of the vast Montana landscape is staggering.

The middle of nowhere, Montana.

Wyoming! Blink and you'll miss it.

Welcome back to South Dakota, 25 years later.

The Black Hills, growing larger on the horizon.

Crazy Horse: what it will look like someday...

What Crazy Horse looks like now.

Lakota Sioux performing a traditional war dance at Crazy Horse.

I know the foreground is blurry, but check out the lightning!

Rain! Wind! Hail!