It’s 8:10pm in Rapid City, South Dakota. I’m already drunk, and I still have two pint glasses in front of me waiting to be consumed. Curse the cute girl with the nose ring behind the check-in counter at this Ramada for telling me I looked like I needed multiple “Buy One Get One Free” passes for the hotel bar. If today hadn’t gone as it did I might not have found myself mired in this situation. I don’t know. I guess it had to happen eventually.
I woke up early this morning in Sheridan, Wyoming. Last night I shared cheeseburgers and some of my songs with a group of bikers at the motel. I think A&W’s curly fries were better received than the songs I played for them. Although for a bunch of tough biker guys they seemed to get a kick out of my rendition of “My Blue Heaven.”
I set a course for Rapid City not knowing how long the drive would take. I imagined somewhere between four and five hours, but once I got on the highway I realized that it was only about 150 miles. I headed for Gillette, Wyoming, where I wanted to drop off a surprise housewarming gift at Gretchen’s soon-to-be new home. I somehow weaseled the address out of her without hinting at my intentions. I thought it’d be cool to have a token of affection from a friend waiting for her upon her arrival.
Shortly after I started driving, I noticed a problem with the Volvo. When I tried to accelerate up a hillside, the car would not lurch forward with increased velocity, but instead react by shuttering and double clutching. Like flooring the gas pedal in neutral, that’s what it felt like driving my car today.
I arrived in Gillette and figured I would first see if any mechanics were available to inspect Red Volvo. I attributed my car problems to the fact that it’d been almost 3,500 miles since the last fluid check and oil change in Tucson. Also, after almost ten-thousand miles, perhaps the tires needed to be rotated? I couldn’t be certain, as I did not take car shop in high school, nor do I know anything at all about cars.
Luckily, South Douglas Highway—the main drag in Gillette—afforded multiple options for automotive service centers. I first stopped at Midas, but they informed me that their schedule for today was already packed solid. A few hundred yards down the road I happened upon a Goodyear. I pulled into the parking lot and walked into an empty waiting room. A young man in a black t-shirt and jeans stepped into the room, introduced himself as Chris—the station manager—and asked how he could help me. I told him about my situation, the harsh idling, double-clutching and null-response while accelerating. I asked how long minor servicing took. He voice was husky and echoed off the walls of the small room. He said, “Thirty minutes.”
After pulling my car into the garage, I told the attendant that I was going to get something to eat, and to please call my cell phone if there was a problem. I walked down the street to a discount liquor store and bought two cases of Fat Tire to enjoy upon my arrival home in New Jersey. Then I remembered I didn’t like to eat, and I returned to the garage, where I found my car on a lift. I stood close by, watching the two mechanics, Darrick and Darryl, as they attempted to drain the oil. They argued incessantly over where the oil-cap and oil-filter were located. They turned to me and asked, “Do you know where it is?” One of them, Darrick or Darryl, admitted they weren’t exactly used to working on “imports.”
Oh, right. I’m in Wyoming.
I told them there was a layout of the engine in the owner’s manual. Darrick, the black-haired kid, lowered the car to the ground so I could open the passenger-side door and flipped through the glove compartment. I opened to the page that mapped out all the crucial elements in the car’s engine. When the mechanics were certain they could correctly work on the car, they decided to first rotate the tires before focusing their attention on draining the oil and replacing the filter. With the car on the ground, they loosened all the lug nuts. Then the car was hoisted and the tires rotated front-to-back. Upon lowering the car, the lugs nuts were tightened. The hood was popped, and the three of us inspected the automatic transmission fluid, the power steering fluid, windshield wiper fluid, brake fluid and antifreeze. I was told that nothing needed to be refilled. The hood was slammed shut, and the car was hoisted once again. From beneath the Volvo, with the three of us studying the undercarriage, I pointed out where to drain the engine oil, and the cap that would enable them to change-out the oil-filter.
The oil was drained and the filter was removed. Unfortunately, I was told after the fact that Volvos use a special filter that they did not have on the premises, so they had to call on a friend for a favor. I was told it could take anywhere from fifteen minutes to an hour for the new filter to arrive. In the meantime, Chris took his lunch break, and Darrick and Darryl focused on other matters.
Darrick was sitting in the front seat of his truck, talking on his phone, when Darryl noticed me poking around near the car. He approached me tentatively, wiped his grease-black hands on his jeans and began to fidget with the air filter and battery. He was sweating. Then he asked, “So, what are you doing in Gillette?”
“Oh, I’m just passing through. I noticed the car was acting up, so I pulled off the highway in what seemed like a decent-sized town. I’m actually on my way home to New Jersey, I’ve been on the road for over a month now, writing a book about music in different cities.”
“Oh, wow,” Darryl said, “that’s a really long drive. You haven’t had any problems?”
“What, with the car?” I asked.
“Yeah,” said Darryl.
“No. Not really,” I admitted, re-tracing my drives across the country. “On the first day I caught a nail, or a screw, or something, in the rear tire. Luckily, it wasn’t in deep enough to be a problem. I had it serviced in Tucson, too, so I figured it could use one more check-up and fluid-change before I get home.”
“Geez. You just graduate?” he inquired.
“Yeah, I graduated in May.”
“When did you graduate high school?”
“Oh, that was…2001…I think,” for some reason I had trouble with the math, and having to suddenly count backwards confused me.
“So, you’re still pretty young,” he noted.
“Yeah, I guess. I’m twenty-two.”
At this point, Darrick—who had remained silent for the duration of my time at Goodyear, and had just now walked back into the garage—asked if he heard correctly about my writing a book about music. Darrick spoke softly, which was fitting because he looked like your stereotypical rube: blonde hair, a sunburned neck and blue eyes that contained youthful naiveté.
“You said you’re a writer?” He asked.
“Yeah, I’ve been writing about music.”
“Right,” he began, “so, are you just writing about country music? Or other styles, too?”
I had to stop myself from laughing, but for some reason I responded, “Well, no, not just country…some rock ‘n roll, too.”
I couldn’t fathom why I chose to lie so blatantly—be it because I didn’t want to make him feel bad, or because I simply didn’t want to explain, again, who these bands were to someone who probably didn’t care anyway. Maybe I thought that’s what he wanted to hear.
“Have you interviewed anyone famous?” Darrick then asked.
I pondered telling him I’d interviewed Garth Brooks or Darryl Worley, but I chose not to. Instead I said, “Well, they’re not mega-rich famous musicians, but most of them have toured outside America, and some can even make a living solely playing music. So, to me, that’s pretty famous.”
“Yeah…” Darrick said, his voice trailing off. Without warning he wandered off to find his cell phone and made another call. I looked around for Darryl but he had disappeared. Darrick and I were alone, but he remained on the phone, trying to figure out where the filter was. I exited the garage and re-entered Goodyear’s front door to buy a Snickers bar and a Mountain Dew from the waiting room vending machines. I guess my unease and boredom had triggered my appetite. When I returned to the garage, Darrick told me that the filter was lost.
“Probably fell off the back of the truck, or something,” he laughed, shaking his head. I was speechless.
We stood around in silence for what felt like an hour. I refused to check my phone to see what time it was for fear of insulting my mechanics. Chris and Darryl both returned from their breaks. Finally, a young woman arrived in a red pickup truck. She exited the vehicle holding the filter. I thanked her. I bit my tongue instead of asking how she’d “lost” the first filter. Darrick and Darryl installed it and poured a new batch of oil. When they were done, they pulled the car into the parking lot while I settled up with Chris. Before leaving, I asked if he had a map of the area. I said that as long as I was here, I might as well look for my friend’s house. He ripped a map of Gillette out of the phone book and handed it to me. I thanked him, bid him farewell, and briskly walked out to my car. I waved goodbye to Darrick and Darriyl as I pulled back onto South Douglas Highway. With no trouble, I found Gretchen’s seafoam green house. I left her gift wedged between her front door and screen door. Finally, I re-joined the sparse flow of traffic on Interstate-90.
For the next portion of the drive, the car seemed to run like new. It was maybe twenty-five miles until I reached Moosecroft. I exited onto US-14 and drove thirty-two miles until I reached Devil’s Tower. With my pulse steadily rising, I constantly glanced at the horizon in the hopes of catching that first glimpse of the tower, but it was not until maybe a mile from the base of the tower that it became visible. Around that same time, I started to see signs announcing there was a ten-dollar park entrance fee. I reached into my wallet while sitting at the national park entrance behind a burgundy Chevrolet, and counted only eight dollars.
Once the Chevy rolled away, I inched closer to the cashier and began to strike up a conversation with her. She was a brunette, big-boned, and showcasing her very professional forced smile. I asked if she had any idea whether or not it was going to rain today, all the while trying not to make it too obvious that I was counting any spare change I could find in the ashtray, on the floor, in the setbacks, in the glove compartment, and between cushions. I handed her eight crisp one-dollar bills, and fashioned the final two dollars out of two fistfuls of change. In return, she handed me a maps and information packets measuring an inch in thickness.
“Welcome to Devil’s Tower!” she exclaimed, flashing another forced smile.
I snaked my way past ‘Prairie Dog Country,’ where I’m shocked to find nary a squashed prairie dog in the road, and up the spiraling roads to the designated visitor parking area. I couldn’t take my eyes off the rock. It looked so surreal. Suddenly, Close Encounters of the Third Kind made a bit more sense.
From what I read, it seemed like no one is positive how Devils Tower formed. The various brochures described the monolith as being made of igneous rock (created by magma). Devil’s Tower formed over many millions of years, but scientists weren’t sure if it is actually the neck of an extinct volcano or not. Whatever it is, once it formed, the process of erosion drew layers of rock away from the tower’s base and into the Belle Fourche River, which, over time made the columns visible. The summit is 867 feet from the surface, but apparently it is still growing. Countless vacationers journey to the tower ever year, and the rock is revered by numerous Native American tribes—many of whom feel a spiritual connection to the rock. The symbols they’ve scored into the base of the rock, and pieces of cloth they’d tied to the trunks of surrounding trees and shrubs, were a constant in my hike around the tower.
The length of the hike around the monolith’s perimeter is 1.3 miles long. I snapped photograph after photograph as I moved through the different surrounding landscapes. I found it remarkable how each side of the tower felt like a different environment or ecosystem. There was a fairly dense ponderosa forest on the eastern face, badlands, boulder gardens, and burnt woodlands on the other three faces. Huge fallen shards of sedimentary rock were visible from any location along the route. There were also telescopes where you could get closer looks at the rock, including the location where the long wooden ladder that was originally used to climb the tower in 1893 still hangs.
From the forest, I could look out into the distance and see for an eternity. The endless red sandstone, cliffs and valleys, were breathtaking. From the badlands, I saw firsthand the damage from recent forest fires. There was tall grass growing at the edges of the paths, and at many junctures there were smaller, man-made passages beaten into the ground, each of which strayed from the path for various distances. When I reached the boulder garden, there was a sign marking the halfway point.
I had to watch my step at times, as the terrain was a bit uneasy. The rocks were being made slick by a light drizzle that had grown steadier since I started hiking. All the while, I watched intently for wildlife that might be visible. At one point, I noticed something slithering through the underbrush. I crept after it and lunged at it just as I watched it settle beneath a nest of twigs and dead bark. It was definitely a snake. Not knowing anything—at all—about snakes, I thought the pattern on its back looked eerily reminiscent to a rattlesnake’s. It had a generic camouflage pattern along it’s back. I’d read that there were rattlesnakes indigenous to this area, so I had to proceed with caution. I immediately darted in for a closer look and lowered my face to the ground. I steadied myself against a dead tree trunk while attempting to find out which end was the head. I saw no rattle, and I heard no rattle, so I moved even closer. I reached for the tail and the snake lunged to bite my hand. I guess that end wasn’t the tail. Taking a page from the Crocodile Hunter’s handbook for charming potentially venomous reptiles, I moved to a safe distance and poked at it for a while with a stick, trying to coax it gently out of it’s home.
Just then, a dorky looking kid wearing khaki shorts and a white t-shirt walked over and interrupted my fun. He rested his large walking stick against his waist, cleaned the mist-covered lenses of his glasses, and asked what I was doing. Rain-dampened black hair was hanging over his forehead.
“There’s a snake under there.” I said, matter-of-factly.
“What kind?” He inquired. By now, another family that had been hiking stumbled upon us, and the young son and daughter were stepping around the snake, trying to get a better look at it.
“I don’t know,” I began to say, “it’s got a pretty generic pattern on it. I was hoping it was a rattler—” with that, the parents quickly ran over to grab the arms of their children and tugged them away, which made the little boy cry-out in pain, “but…I haven’t heard any sound, or seen a rattle. Also, I’ve never really seen a snake in the wild before, so, what the hell do I know?” I chuckled. No one laughed with me. No one so much as smiled at me.
Walking-stick kid bent at the waist, and within five seconds identified it as a bull snake. I might have rolled my eyes. I definitely turned and started to walk away, bored by his answer and slighted by his condescension.
I kept my head down as I finished the last tiny portion of hike. The rain had grown from a steady drizzle to whatever is the next rung on the metaphoric ladder of rainstorms. The summit now obscured, I jogged back to my car and descended, back through Prairie Dog Country, out the park gates and onto US-24. With Devil’s Tower in my rearview mirror, I made my way back to US-14, and then re-joined Interstate-90 just outside of Sundace, Wyoming.
I crossed the border into South Dakota as the sun was beginning to set. When I started through the Black Hills, my car began shaking. Every time I attempted to mount an incline, I felt like the car was going to stall. I kissed the steering wheel and pleaded with Red Volvo not to die before I reached Rapid City. The last thing I wanted was to sit in a dead car on the side of a road in Spearfish, South Dakota. For a while, I drove through a thunderstorm. Lightning moved horizontal across the sky. The sky turned white or purple as repeated bolts were thrown down from above. When the rain subsided, I was, maybe, ten miles outside of Deadwood.
“Welcome to Deadwood, cocksucker,” was what I’d hoped the welcome sign would say. Unfortunately, as I rolled down Main Street with my car in neutral, I didn’t even notice if there was a welcome sign. I closed my eyes and prayed for the car to make it to a parking lot. When I opened my eyes all I could see were bikers. I closed my eyes and sighed. I’d forgotten the Sturgis Bike Rally was this week. No wonder all those bikers were in Sheridan with me last night. No wonder had so much trouble finding a motel in Rapid City. No wonder the motel I eventually found was more expensive than any other I’d stayed in this entire trip.
As I crawled down Main Street, I became annoyed at the din of bike motors and the bikers who sat parked along the street, revving their engines for no reason. To say that the charm of the Bike Rally was lost on me would be an understatement.
I walked up and down Main Street with my stomach growling and my hoodie pulled tight over my head protecting me from the rain. I looked for a steak joint, but settled for a bar that touted half-pound hamburgers. Standing on line behind a gray-haired, leather-clad westerner and his leather-clad biker-chick wife was when I realized I was deep in the midst of my first encounter with “price gouging.” The cost of a hamburger on the menu only included the beef. A slice of cheese and ketchup packets required an additional two dollars. Each. I flagged down a cute blonde waitress near the bar and asked her what was on tap.
“We’re only serving cans tonight, “ she informed me.
“Well, what’s the can selection?” I asked, trying out my “Fuck Me” eyes at her.
“Budweiser, Bud Light, Miller Genuine Draft and Miller Light,” she rattled off, still looking down, not even noticing the creepy, borderline date-rapey looks I was shooting her.
“I guess I’ll take a…Miller Light,” I said, defeated.
“That’ll be seven dollars,” she said, finally looking up at me. Just before our eyes had a chance to meet, my head dropped into my hands.
I chewed my well-done burger until my jaw hurt and watched the blonde girl joking with crusty old biker dudes. Sitting alone at my picnic table, I had an epiphany. I declared, every biker in this bar—probably every biker within two hundred miles—was the very definition of “that guy,” as defined by the character of Droz in P.C.U.. They all wore Sturgis Bike Rally shirts to the Sturgis Bike Rally. For a moment, I felt vindicated. In my mind I was the coolest person here. Plenty of cute blondes would rather flirt with me than Sturgis Bike Rally bikers. Right?
When I finished the can of beer and the burger, my anger returned. I exited the bar, disgusted that my already rapidly thinning wallet was being drained simply because some idiots wearing leather chaps were in town for the weekend. I wanted to find a store where I could buy Deadwood-related souvenirs for Ian and Marsha, both of whom were obsessed with the HBO series Deadwood. The only problem was, the stores seemed to be only carrying Sturgis Bike Rally souvenirs. After an hour of searching, I found only one store with some Deadwood kitsch piled up in a corner. I purchased two trucker hats and a flask. Having accomplished a few of my goals for the evening, I returned to the Volvo feeling a bit better about my situation. I climbed into the driver’s seat and inserted the key into the ignition. That’s when I remembered my car troubles.
Getting the car into Deadwood was easy. I had the Volvo in neutral and I could roll down Main Street. Now I had to get up the hill, and then navigate the Black Hills until I reached my hotel in Rapid City. The vehicle was in bad shape. Trekking through those Black Hills, I couldn’t seem to get the damn thing over forty miles-per-hour. I prayed for long stretches of open road on level ground, but my prayers went unanswered. There were two motorcycle accidents in succession as I headed east in the direction of Rapid City. Whenever I came to a halt, the car idled ferociously and I expected it to just flat-out die at any moment; one final death rattle and then its life would cease. I begged Red Volvo to just make it those last twenty-five miles. I started counting down. Twenty miles. Fifteen. Nine miles.
“We’re going to make it!” I thought.
And then there was another motorcycle accident. I sat in traffic watching the flashing lights of cop cars and ambulances just up ahead when the car stalled. I clenched my fists and my eyelids shut and screamed vulgarities for about thirty seconds before turning the key to the “off” position. I tried to start the car but all I heard were faint clicks. More vulgarities, more fist pounding. I put the car in park, turned the ignition and slammed my foot down on the gas repeatedly. Cars were beginning to honk at me. I opened the car door and stood out in the rain directing cars to pull around me. I jumped back inside and tried desperately to start the car. Somehow, by some miracle, the engine turned over after a few dozen attempts, and the car started. I turned off the radio and the air. I wanted to leave no opportunity for the power to drain or the car to stall again.
When I rolled off I-90 the car was again in neutral. I coasted down the exit ramp into the Ramada Inn’s parking lot. Appearing like an apparition out of the rain and fog, I entered the hotel lobby. Nose ring girl’s cheery disposition was no match for my depression. I tried to my hardest to match her smiles as I gladly took a half-dozen “Buy One Get One Free” passes from her hand. I was so defeated I didn’t even bother asking what time her shift ended.
“My beers are finished. I want something harder. I want to relieve my stress. I want to forget what the fuck is happening right now. I have seven dollars in my wallet. I’m in a city with half a million bikers, for God-knows how long. A copy of the local yellow pages led me to call all the area auto mechanics. I was greeted by answering machines that state none of the shops are open on Sundays. A call home proved fruitful, as I was given the number for a Firestone Tires that will be open at 8am tomorrow. I planned on being there just as the doors opened, provided my car starts in the morning. Of course, Firestone is known for tires, and I fear that is not the problem. I could be stranded here in this hotel until Monday. Grounded. I just want out at this point. The last thing on my mind is New Jersey, but—I swear—as much as I don’t want to be going home, I’ll take that over this situation. I’m going back to the bar.”
The above paragraph was written while stretched out beside the indoor pool at the Ramada Inn. After all my drink tickets were exhausted I left the bar feeling creative, and walked over to the pool area with my final pint of Hefeweizen. I sat there for an hour recounting my day and trying my hand at some stream-of-consciousness free-writing. Upon concluding the above paragraph, I breathed heavily and decided to return to my room. I went to close the lid of my laptop and it came down on the lip of my beer glass. The glass fell over and a half-pint of beer spilled onto the keyboard.
I’d like to take a moment to apologize to the parents of any children who might have been present at the Ramada Inn pool that evening. The inappropriate, immature response to destroying my laptop was completely uncalled for, and I’m embarrassed by my behavior. I’d also like to apologize to the housekeeping staff for breaking two mirrors in my hotel room and littering the walls and floor with obscene Post-It notes. Again, it was a childish response.
I threw my laptop case in the trunk of my car the next morning. From that point on it was just me, a pad a pencil, and the tape recorder.