**Note: We finally have good WiFi and can publish the posts we’ve been drafting each day for the past week. We apologize for the delay (but it’s really not our fault). If you’d like to read in order, here are links to August 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th.**
Today we accidentally woke up at 5:45 am. I set my alarm for 6:45 am, but sometime in the middle of the night my iPhone must have gotten confused about which time zone we’re in, and the alarm went off an hour early. And then for about the first 45 minutes or so, we thought it was an hour later than it really was. Very confusing. All of this was fortuitous, though, because we had over 8 hours of driving today, and that’s after visiting Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse. We packed up our stuff, including a nicely dried tent, and we were relieved to take our last campgrounds showers of the trip. When I came out of the shower area, Kurt informed me that he’d convinced today’s front desk person to honor the discount coupon that was previously rejected by my nemesis. My hero!
We ate some cereal in the car while heading to Keystone, SD, and Mount Rushmore. Keystone was a touristy little western-themed town, and we passed right through, with motorcycles behind us and in front of us. We’ve encountered a ton of motorcycles lately, ever since we were driving up the Pacific Coast Highway. Their presence there was explained by a racing event. In Yellowstone and South Dakota, there are all kinds of signs welcoming bikers, but we’re not quite sure what the cause is. But since we seem to run into major yearly events at every turn, (Durango had Music in the Mountains, Monterey had the Moto GP, San Francisco had the marathon, Yellowstone had a classic car show, and Chicago will be having Lollapalooza), I’m sure there’s some kind of Harley road tour that’s tracking our route back east.
When we got to Mount Rushmore, I was annoyed to note that there’s no fee for viewing the monument, but there is a $10 parking fee that the National Parks Pass doesn’t cover. The parking pass is good for all of 2010, so obviously Kurt and I will have to plan several more visits to South Dakota to really get our money’s worth. Seeing Mount Rushmore was definitely cool, but it didn’t really seem like a place where you could spend a whole ton of time (absent some type of special presentation or something). We got there just as it was opening at 8, took our pictures, bought a magnet, and were back on the road by 8:30. As we left the parking area and started to head east toward the Crazy Horse monument, there was a little scenic turnout where you could just see Washington’s profile. To me, that was almost better than seeing the monument head-on. It’s an angle I’ve never seen in photographs, and it was a really cool view.
We then headed 17 miles to the east and visited the Crazy Horse monument, which is a work in progress. My mom visited the same spot a few decades ago, and she says that back then you could just about make out where the head would be. I could see what she meant, because there was a display with pictures of the mountain at different points in time, starting before work began. Now, the face is done and they’ve started to block out the horse’s head. It’s going to be enormous when it’s done. But at the rate the project is going, Kurt informs me, it won’t be done in our lifetime. After sharing that depressing fact with me, Kurt redeemed himself by befriending a stranger. It was awesome, and I’m so proud of him. The stranger laid the groundwork by kind of striking up a conversation with us, but Kurt held his own and kept the conversation going. The only thing he didn’t do was find out the stranger’s name, so I’m left to call him Ralph, because that’s the name we both think would have suited him.
Anyway, Ralph approached while I was checking out a 1/34th scale model of what the Crazy Horse monument will look like when it’s finished. Ralph had an old-school non-digital camera, and he quipped, “if you have enough money, I’ll let you take my picture with that statue.” I was in love. I said “if you want me to take your picture for you, I’d be happy to.” And the dialogue continued as follows:
Ralph: Well how much money do you have?
Me: Not much – only about $5 at the moment.
Ralph: I don’t come cheap, but I can be bought.
And that’s how our friendship was born. I offered again to take Ralph’s picture, but he said his face would break my camera. That’s when I kind of bowed out of the conversation and got preoccupied with setting up a good shot of the 1/34th scale model in the foreground with the real monument in the background. Instead of letting this particular stranger encounter end, Kurt delighted me by taking the lead with Ralph, who turned out to be a retired southern trucker.
Ralph told Kurt that his digital camera had broken, so that’s why he was using “old reliable.” His camera broke while he was visiting a guy in Colorado with 72 classic cars that he rebuilt from the frame up. Ralph was snapping away, thinking he was getting great shots of the awesome cars, only to later discover that his camera had stopped working. Kurt commiserated by telling Ralph about our memory card disaster on Monument Valley/Grand Canyon day. Ralph was sympathetic, since he’s a fan of the Grand Canyon. He told Kurt he’s from Florida, and Kurt said we were road tripping from Pennsylvania. Ralph said he was familiar with some of PA because he used to be a trucker, which meant he’s “been everywhere and seen nothing.” Classic. When I finished taking pictures, Kurt and Ralph wished each other well on their travels, and we were off.
Our drive today was mostly boring. The Black Hills (other than the monuments) were a little anticlimactic after the mountains we came through yesterday, and the Badlands weren’t as impressive to us at this point as places like Monument Valley were. But to be fair, we didn’t spend a ton of time exploring either place.
Only a few other moments are worth noting. First, we passed the place where “Red Ass Rhubarb Wine” is made, just outside Hill City, SD. So naturally we are kicking ourselves for not budgeting some time for a tasting there. Second, we stopped at the famous road trip mecca Wall Drug, because even though Kurt’s cousin and her husband warned us that it wasn’t worth our time, we all know by now that I’m a sucker for anywhere that launches a full-scale billboard campaign beginning about 50 miles in advance. So I couldn’t resist. And neither could about 700 bikers. I left with a magnet and a chocolate coma after inhaling a very thick milkshake.
The rest of South Dakota was fairly uneventful and flat. Iowa was a welcome change, because there were some hills and the farms were pretty. But my problem with Iowa is that, due to road construction, there was no welcome sign. How am I supposed to know where I am, let alone feel welcome there, without a sign to greet me when I arrive? Kurt calmed me down by reminding me that we’d be driving into Nebraska today, then re-entering Iowa tomorrow, so hopefully we’ll get another shot at the picture then.
As we drove through Iowa, we decided to try naming a price on Priceline to land a hotel for tonight. So far, we’ve found Priceline to be useless in our trip planning. But that all changed today. We put in a bid of $60 for a 3-star hotel in Omaha (the highest ranking we could find in Omaha), and we ended up scoring a room at the Hilton. Doubly good, because it’s supposed to be nice, and because I’m a Hilton Honors member.
After successfully snapping a picture of Nebraska’s welcome sign, we pulled into the Hilton only to discover that a NALBOH conference is going on there (for those not in the know, like me until a couple of hours ago, NALBOH is the National Association of Local Boards of Health). And so our streak of hitting cities when events are going on continues. At check-in, we unsuccessfully tried to persuade Crystal, the woman at the front desk, to give us free WiFi. Luckily, we successfully persuaded her to give us a room starting with a 2 (there’s no second floor here, so we had to settle for room 22 on the 5th floor).
We left the hotel to find a late dinner, and we discovered that basically all of Omaha, except for a little 4-block area called Old Market, is a ghost town. Even on a Saturday night at 8:30. Which was fine with us. We had good local beers and steaks at a place called the Upstream Brewing Co., where Jennifer (our waitress) was super nice. Dinner was great, but I think it’s fair to say that we’re kind of done with Omaha now. It’s a good thing we leave tomorrow for Chicago.