Chamberlain, South Dakota. I am sitting in the Super 8 overlooking the Missouri River, a second floor room where I can see the two bridges, train and automobile, two centuries of movement across water. The windows thankfully open and birds are actually singing. When I turned the bend in the road and saw the blue expanse I shouted, “Water!” like Eureka--liquid gold after the grass badlands––and knew I’d never make Sioux Falls. 550 miles and done.
The resounding feeling of the day was space. I slept in until 7:20, took the longest shower, puttered my bags and cooler to the car, and got to Starbucks by 8:45am. In defense, I’d stayed up til 2am. But also, a Grande Americano (3 shots plus water) made in my Thermos travel mug lasted me the whole day. I didn’t even take the time to use the hotel coffee maker to brew hot water and make a pour-over like usual. Another confession: besides frequenting Starbucks, I dream of driving back through this landscape in a camper. The smallest, sleekest one available, something a touch bigger than a Vanagon but not much, to soothe my back instead of the tents on hard ground I spent so many years sleeping inside. Kind of romantic, when you think about it, to drive a bed around the west, a comfortable space in wilderness. Or so I tell myself.
There is nothing to eat at the hotel “all you can eat” breakfasts except gluten and, since I can no longer roll cereal, mealy white bagel, or waffle in my mouth, I moved on. Trader Joe’s supplied me with all the food I eat during the day: blue and raspberries, organic turkey jerky, hard-boiled eggs, roasted seaweed, carrots and Persian cucumbers, almonds and pumpkin seeds. A way to feed the area of my body. Valrhona 85% dark chocolate (didn’t break into it until mile 1350, I credit the chocolate for getting me the extra 200 miles to the river). Bottles of water are hidden in various places in the car, like I am camping and the US might run out. I am carrying at least 4 gallons, and I fill up three portable bottles every morning with the local water.
But back to space. Open, outer, inner, constructed, defined, fenced, bordered, free. Breathing, taken up. Refuge. When leaving Sheridan, the mountains I drove through beckoned a little in the rear view mirror, with their greatness, and the plains rolled endlessly. Yesterday I called this prairie, a bad choice of words. I do it all the time. I told a friend once I had a faulty mind map of the midwest; unknown ground. This space is grasslands and range (search “define range,” maybe that should have been my word), a rolling ride. The speed limit is mostly 80mph, except in construction zones, where it is an unruly 65 mph. But the sky... the sky is unmanageable, no control of air.
The two places I meant to go today, besides eastern South Dakota, were Devil’s Tower and Mt. Rushmore. Because of my late start, I was feeling a bit guilty, and dark gray clouds blew in on a vicious wind, shaking my car. Funny, I took a selfie by mistake and it shows how unhappy I was. I could see glory in the mirror, and for a moment it was hard to keep going forwards. To believe. Thank god for cruise control, or gut, and intuition. I had no idea why those two places beckoned, besides the cultural mash-up of Close Encounters of the 3rd Kind (da— na| na/ na\ na--) and 7th grade US History. As usual, I let iTunes DJ my experience, on shuffle. It chose subdued. By the time I got off the Interstate, I had selected Neil Young, and was feeling pretty melancholy.
In Gillette, there is a strip mine you drive through on the freeway, shocking in it’s brutality after the green hills, and the complicated sky hovered over the many run-over animals I passed: antelope, deer, coons. What we destroy to get where we need to go, a kind of obsession with freedom and ability to move. I passed Crazy Woman Creek and felt an affinity. But then I saw antelope running with me through the plains, almost as fast as the car, amazing. And the sun broke through on the byway, all the way to blue, and then five cowboys were herding maybe 200 head of cattle, reality interupting unreality. I drove north towards a storied land, and the space seemed full again. Both things: desolute and ravaged, commodified, and yet magical.
A thing I realized: this land is unbordered except by fences. There is no place (or space) to hide, very few trees, or any landmass that could pretend defense. Almost oppressive. When I got back to edges and rise I felt more comfortable, and wondered if that was why people built cities and planted trees, a psychological defense against the omnipresence of space pressing down on a flattened plain.
When I turned the corner of the road and the great thumb of rock that is Devil’s Tower thrust out of the land, I laughed out loud. It is so, so worth it: go there, see it. I actually pulled out in “take a picture here” lane, next to vans of older white men on some sort of pilgrimage. Still laughing. I drove all the way to entrance tollbooth and stopped. This was not my obsession: I didn’t need to go further. I went instead to the wonderfully cheesy gift shop and rolled two pennies through the stamping machine. So… much…joy. People gathered behind me like they hadn’t seen this before, though you can find them at every tourist site in the nation. All the things we brand. Plus little green men.
High on good will, whole and smashed pennies in my pocket, I drove east. Thinking about obsession. What space can we make for what consumes us, what we are passionate about? Close Encounters, at base, is a story about a man who is obsessed, trusts his gut and follows it to place where he learns to communicate (even building a sculpture in his living room), then let’s go and moves on to a new space he can’t even imagine. Outer space, inner space. Or maybe it is about UFOs. But I began to wonder if inner space was three-dimensional? What about words--so 2-d on paper, black ink soaked into pulped forest, but what happened when the words roamed the recesses of the mind? And memory seems so 3-d, so physical, like you could touch it. How was that different from staring at the mountain and laughing?
On the way to Mt. Rushmore, my 2nd stop, the land was red beneath the green sea of grasses. Complimentary, opposite. Bloody or of the body, or maybe just where my head was. In Sturgis, I pass a VFW Cemetery, bleached white headstones in orderly procession along the verdant grounds, and I think of men (and women) lying in coffins surrounded by red earth. Another obsession, our need for war, for another kind of defense. Then I realize I am also thankful. And then not. It is complicated, this landscape of freedom. At the rest stop, a man is castigating the repopulation of wolves in Yellowstone, how he went to a Ranger talk and breached the current of positivity, saying, “If you have to do it, build fences and keep them in! We don’t want them!” At first I thought he was a right-wing radical nut-job, and then I assumed, from his Idaho license plates, he has a dog in this fight.
At Rushmore, I laughed aloud again: to see something come to life. A different fracturing of space. And another obsession: a man sculpting icons in granite cliff faces. Recreating in the face of loss. This time I go in to the park, because it is an artist carving faces in stone, a memorial. It is disconcerting his focus, this all-out battle against the elements and the land to create his vision. Awe-inspiring, as great a piece of land art as Smithson’s Spiral Getty: interrupting, intervening, wrong, beautiful, fracturing, creating meaning. (Though Rushmore has become a tourist mecca like Disneyland). I am here in late May and cannot bear to think of the hordes that will arrive once K-12 lets out in the coming weeks. It is already full, or maybe I have so left Los Angeles behind after driving through silence and solitude for several days that 1,000 people feels like mayhem. I spend maybe 20 minutes and have to depart the layers of obsession: Borglum's need to recreate, and our need to see. The unaltered cliff sides surrounding the faces are beautiful. The portraits are a bit naïve close up. But in photographs, stunning. All of the west, sacred and profane.
Then it is several hundred miles across plains and range. My mind and body. Music and silence. Pliable man-made fences stretch the terrain, the hairy edge. Available, unoccupied space -- between words, between thoughts, and memories. Freeways like computer simulations of freeways -- straight, unending, a lazy S curve a bit a of drama. Passing the Ellsworth Air and Space Museum, I wonder what my air and space museum might curate at this point. Five states in three days--and despite the monuments, South Dakota doesn’t beguile. At some point I pass into the central time zone. I am driving on intuition and faith, two hours forwards. Tonight, the Missouri River outside my window is a balm. A horizon of water instead of grass. Cup half full.
Tomorrow, again driving towards what obsesses me.
1. a continuous area or expanse that is free, available, or unoccupied.
(in printing or writing) put blanks between (words, letters, or lines).
2. be or become distracted, euphoric, or disoriented; cease to be aware of one's surroundings.
Middle English: shortening of Old French espace, from Latin spatium, "an area, room, distance, extent, expanse, lapse of time.” Current verb senses date from the late 17th century, "to arrange at set intervals."