I didn’t plan to hate every one of your flat, grassy miles. All day driving, the sun searing. The semis coming at me on this two-lane highway, then blasting past in a cloud of dust. All day driving, I told myself I can stop. I can abandon the plan, make up the distance tomorrow, find a clean bed in a faceless hotel. Sleep.
South Dakota, you weren’t having it. Each town the same. A railroad crossing. A grain elevator. A small shop to buy potato chips and a Coke. No hotel. No place to stop as a woman on the road alone, a small-boned woman ill-equipped for the masculinity of the Plains. You kept me on track with your clear disinterest.
All the way to Pierre. All the way to Rapid City. You gave me teenagers walking the highway in white shirts blazed in black: Choose Life. You gave me farmers in baseball caps leaning over plates of eggs. You gave me a thousand signs for Wall Drugs, the bleak majesty of the Badlands. All of this while I drove on, my life so tiny behind the wheel of a rented Chevy Malibu.
I didn’t want to travel alone, but Dana’s left eye wept all the way through Wisconsin. A scratched cornea, the doctor said. I’m going home, Dana said. Goodbye, I said in a Hampton Inn parking lot in Rochester, Minnesota. She took her suitcase. I kept the cooler full of peach Snapples.
South Dakota, I traveled with her absence beside me.
I traveled with my grandmother’s journal as my guide. She drove your roads in 1946 when she and three friends set out after the war. Coast to coast, Connecticut to California and back, 23 days. When I found the journal in a box of photos, I traced its places. Then I followed them, trailing my grandmother right out of my office with its gray cubicles, out of the home where I’d hung the curtains by hand. I’ll be back in a month, I called over my shoulder. Show me the way, I whispered to her spirit.
I drove where she drove, led by the bold sweep of her script. Murdocksville, Joliet. Road by road, beholden to a schedule that wasn’t my own. La Crosse. Rochester. Then I crossed your state line, entered the endless distances of Highway 14. I paused in Pierre, blasted through Midland and Quinn en route to a bland lunch at the Hotel Alex Johnson. She ate there, so I ate there. A slot machine glowed in the corner.
On June 19, my grandmother wrote, “Went and saw Mt. Rushmore. It was beautiful. Wouldn’t have missed it for the world.” She wrote, “Dinner at the State Game Lodge. What a steak.” She wrote, “Played bridge and looked at the moon.”
On June 19, I saw Mt. Rushmore. I snapped a picture and kept driving. The skies were darkening, rain clouds loomed. Only 20 miles to a room at the lodge, to a bed, to a meal. Only 20 more miles after all day driving.
Then the first switchback. Gone was the long straight highway, the grasslands spreading limitlessly. Now the forest was thick, the roads curving. Lightning, then rain. I slowed to a crawl. I kept crawling.
My grandmother didn’t tell me 20 miles can be so many things. Bend after bend. Rising and falling. The road blocked, buffalo illuminated in my headlights. Beep the horn before the one-lane bridge. Use the brights. Squint into blackness, turn another curve.
Forgive me, South Dakota, it isn’t your fault. I wasn’t prepared for the miles so abstract before I crossed them. For the ache in my hands as they gripped the wheel. For the anger in Dana’s set jaw. I wasn’t prepared for the way you’d turn from open and tawny to dense and dark. I only thought about how to go. I didn’t know how much I would want to stop.
Two hours later, I reached the State Game Lodge. I left banana peels moldering in the car, the spiral-bound atlas open on the seat. Climbing the stairs to the paisleyed bedroom that may have been the exact one my grandmother slept in, I paused. There was the dining room with its walls lined with pheasants.
“Sorry, ma’am,” said the host at the desk, “the kitchen is already closed.” For that moment, I was released from the bounds of the journal. No steak tonight, then. No bridge. No moon.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Kyle Taylor