Friday, July 25th
So, we are on Interstate 90 West, driving through Wyoming, and I am pulling on my perpetually seatbelt ensnared iPod headphone like a fish with a lure in its mouth. We have left the Black Hills and sunk back down into the plains. Again the cottonwoods rattle in the wind or their bleached, white limbs mark former homesteads like frozen lightening. Again we are in the plains and it is evocative and romantic in a hard to articulate way, it is empty and vast and lonely and looks for all else like the bottom of the sea.
For years my parents had a heavy and musty smelling atlas on a table in our living room. It fascinated me. Most people worth knowing have spent their share of time looking at maps of foreign places and imagining the sort of treasures they would buy in the souks of Alexandria or how the hoarfrost jeweled rocks of the Andes might shine at daybreak. But, one of the names printed in that atlas looms in my recollection for its alien location and the anonymous grandeur of its appellation. Marked in our atlas, in the eastern section of the Arabian Peninsula is an area labeled simply, The Empty Quarter.
In the past, when I have thought back to that atlas and The Empty Quarter I thought about the scene from Laurence of Arabia where Peter O’Toole is riding, alone through the desert and singing The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo with the full voiced enthusiasm of those who believe themselves alone. From now on, odds are that The Empty Quarter will bring to mind this vast, drained-ocean, cow-specked plain, the smell of sage and the whirling and crashing of sand colored grasshoppers as I walk through the tall grass toward some distant, barbed-wire fence line. It is a mysterious place, making me a little anxious and a little more obtuse.
Everyone is quieter today, reading or listening to music, turned inward as is so common among our reflective and bookish family. We stayed in a red, sandstone South Dakota town called Hot Springs last night. The river that ran next to the main street gushed from some volcanic seep higher in the hills but maintained a steady 87 degrees year around; unsuitable for fish but irresistible to the Victorian body bent on curing things like dropsy, the vapors or beriberi. It had been a grand town, offering the water cure to 19th century convalescents and miracle-remedy hopefuls. Today the great old ocher storefronts and hotels and…er…Kidney Springs Gazebo are a bit more humble, but the visitor can still see the touches of Gilded Age favor. There was no cell coverage or phones in the room but they had an espresso machine and that would do just fine for me.
Yesterday we drove high into the Black Hills, to Mount Rushmore, Sylvan Lake and Needles Park and returned to Hot Springs after eating Bison Meatloaf, a Bison ribeye with sea salt and rosemary and Bison tips in a black iron skillet and the largest serving an enormous serving of hasbrowns. Earlier we had stopped at a tractor graveyard in Bridgeport, Nebraska. The pictures from this roadside detour are my favorite so far. The tractors have an almost human quality in their broken down and rust-seamed hunched over positions. Like somehow, through years of constant use and constant contact with the farmer that drove them the tractors took on a little of the manner of the man that had owned them. Or, maybe the openness of the plains is getting to me. I can’t really tell.
And we went to Carhenge. It is a campy thrill but if you can put aside the kitsch and peculiar, mid-western desire to plant automobiles in the ground like shiny, inert tulip bulbs then Carhenge is really sort of nice to look at. We all seemed to think so anyway. And now we are stopping for lunch, between battlefield visits to Summit Springs and The Little Big Horn. The violence-pocked history of this place blends with the modern and the absurd; a vast and empty space that slowly becomes more and more known.