Wednesday, August 31, 2005


New Orleans is the kind of place that everyone ought to have fond memories of. I haven’t been there in a long time, but I do. Hard to imagine the entire city being evacuated. Or the damage all along the coast, since New Orleans is hardly alone in its suffering.

Very hard to imagine it all as I was driving around on this sunny day here in Illinois, where the only hints of trouble were coverage on the radio and about a 30¢/gal. increase in the price of gas from yesterday, at least at the place I usually buy gas. Warned of this hike (again by radio), I filled both cars yesterday at the old price of $2.87.9/gal. Now if they would only stay full.

Katrina inspired me to pull out the 2005 World Almanac and check the table called “Some Notable Hurricanes, Typhoons, Blizzards, Other Storms,” p. 206-7, which runs from the Great Blizzard of 1888 (400 deaths) to the storms last year that beat up Florida. My conclusion: if you want to avoid the worst storms, don’t be Bangladesh.

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Tuesday, August 30, 2005


When I started out from Science & Industry last Friday, I imagined that I could go see an enormous outdoor sculpture by Lorado Taft called “Fountain of Time,” which is at the west end of a broad strip of land called the Midway Plaisance. I heard about this sculpture years ago, but have never managed to see it in person. A couple of years ago, we went to Oregon, Illinois, and saw another of his monumental works, the Black Hawk statue (see April 22, 2003).

So I started westward on the Midway Plaisance, which had a role in the 1893 world’s fair, and which is now roughly the southern edge of the U of C. “The first half of its name resulted simply from its location midway between two large parks that it connected,” says the AIA Guide. “Its use as a grounds for the Ferris wheel and other amusements during the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition... made ‘Midway’ synonymous with carnival grounds everywhere. A plaisance was one of Fredrick Law Olmsted’s landscape types and referred to a pleasure grounds with winding, shrub-lined paths... [but] the Midway was never developed with such a landscape.”

Its paths are more or less straight, not winding, and it has mature trees, rather than so many bushes, but at least these provided shade. About halfway along, I realized I wouldn’t make it to the “Fountain of Time” and still have time for lunch, so I rested for a few minutes on a park bench, one of several ringing a bigger-than-life bronze that lorded over the surrounding flower gardens. Nice piece of work. A plaque on its plinth said, “Linné."

Carolus Linnaeus, that is. I didn’t know Chicago sported a statue of him. I saw a bust of him once at the botanic gardens in Adelaide, South Australia, but that was abbreviated compared to this one. has this to say: “By Johan Dyfverman. [This] is a replica of his at the Royal Gardens in Stockholm. This replica was relocated from Lincoln Park to the Midway in 1976, because was subject to vandalism and much of the Swedish population had moved from the vicinity. Relocation was perhaps requested by Swedish organizations, perhaps as a Swedish-American contribution to the U.S. Bicentennial: Vin Linnes belonged to the 18th Century and was a fountainhead of the Enlightenment. Certainly the move had their consent because a large ceremony was held on April 19, 1976 presided over by the King of Sweden, Karl XVI Gustave, and Mayor Daley. Since Linnaeus was the founder of modern taxonomy and plant nomenclature, it is appropriate that this fine bronze casting and its plinth be located at a great university and become the center of a garden, especially one devoted to reading and enjoyment of winter and summer plants in the midst of the city.”

Formerly a North Sider, now a South Sider. It happens.

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Monday, August 29, 2005

Bits and Pieces

During my Hyde Park walkabout on Friday, I took a peek inside the newly restored Oriental Institute, one of Chicago’s more obscure, yet finest, museums. I saw that a “donation” was now “suggested.” It used to be free, but for $5 it’s still well worth it—for that price you can see a wealth of treasures from ancient Egypt and the Near East. Still, I decided that if I had to pay, I’d want to spend more than a few minutes there.

I walked across the street to the Chicago Theological Seminary, one of the university’s many gray eminences, and saw a sign that I’d never noticed before: Thorndike Hilton Memorial Chapel. I tried the door, and it opened.

The second edition of the AIA Guide to Chicago has this recommendation about the seminary, nestled in the heart of the University of Chicago campus, 5757 S. University: “Step inside to bask in the cloistered ambience, and visit the Hilton Memorial Chapel, a tiny gem built a few years before the rest of the complex.”

The seminary’s web site has this to say: “Our Thorndike Hilton Chapel is open twenty-four hours a day and available for students seeking a place to lead small gatherings or to spend time in individual prayer and meditation. The cloisters, a long corridor with one wall of glass doors that look out on the stone-terraced garth, is also a favorite place to reflect, especially during the afternoon hours when the hall is flooded with sunlight.”

I’d say that I was intrigued by these descriptions, but I read them just today. I’d been in the seminary before, but only in the basement, home of the Seminary Co-op Bookstore, which a friend introduced me to back in the mid-80s. Down there, passages stocked floor-to-ceiling with books snake off in every direction; a cave for book browsing. Long ago, I bought two of my favorites about Antiquity there: Daily Life in Ancient Rome and The Greeks and the Irrational.

The chapel’s a tiny gem indeed, no bigger than my living room, but a good deal more elegant, with stained glass windows, an altar and other dimly lit details. No one else was there, or in the hallway, or anywhere within sight, so it was all mine for just a few moments. I wandered down the hall, and then to the “cloisters” that the web site mentions, branching off from the hallway at 90 degrees. I’d imagined that cloisters were always open to the outside, but then again this is Chicago, where many days feature weather hostile to quiet reflection. You could see outside, but the doors were shut. Inside, the woods and the cushions on the seats and other details gave the place had a 1920s collegiate feel to it—fitting, since it was built in 1926. Though somewhat sunny, the dark woods absorbed a lot of the light. It was quiet.

Then I began to notice the walls. All along the cloisters were stones and tiles and pieces of other walls cemented into the wall, almost exactly the way items are fixed to the outside of the Tribute Tower.

I made notes, of course. Not a complete list, but a representative one: Plymouth Rock, an Authentic Piece; Scrooby; Bethel; Isle of Shoals; Wyclip Tile, Queens College, Oxford; Wartburg; Great Divide; Austerfield; Solomon’s Quarries; Agora, Corinth; China; Corner Stone, Hebron.

What’s the pattern? Not quite sure. There’s some emphasis on the Pilgrims, with Plymouth Rock and Scrooby and Austerfield, the latter two being Pilgrim hometowns. There were other structures from religious history, such as Wartburg and presumably Solomon’s Quarries, Hebron and Bethel. But “Great Divide” and “China”? Couldn’t that last one be more specific? But the stones were mute on that question. They’re stones, after all.

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Sunday, August 28, 2005

Weekend at Latka's

Too fine a weekend to spend inside at the keyboard. There may be a hurricane hitting the nation south of here, but the air has been calm here, and the sun out, with temps in the 80s at most.

Actually, I did spend some time inside watching the Season 1, Vol. 1 DVD of Taxi, which came in the mail the other day. Lilly was taken with it, especially the character of Latka. It was difficult, make that impossible, to explain to her the joke of Latka being from an unspecified authoritarian nation somewhere east of the Iron Curtain.

“Do you see the letters Latka gets from home? They honor barbed wire on the stamps.” -- Tony Banta (Tony Danza), talking about the prospect of Latka's deportation.

Fortunately, you can appreciate Latka without one particle of outdated geopolitical knowledge.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Hyde Park Day

Today was a rare day away from the writing table, and away from the kids. Yuriko and I did a trade this week: she went to a major Lautrec exhibit at the Art Institute on Tuesday, and today I went to see BodyWorlds (Körperwelten) at the Museum of Science and Industry. I don’t go to many museum megashows, but I was inspired to go to this one by my old friend Tom J., who saw it while visiting Los Angeles earlier this year.

I forget the words he used to describe it, but they were superlatives. I could use a few myself. Astounding, for one.

But first I had to get in. When I got there just a little before noon, the line wasn’t so long for tickets, but there was no entry into BodyWorlds until 3:45. The Museum of Science & Industry is interesting, but I didn’t feel like spending nearly four hours there, besides however long BodyWorlds took. So I headed west on foot, into the Hyde Park neighborhood and the University of Chicago campus.

Over the years, I’ve been an intermittent visitor to this part of Chicago, which is a few miles south of downtown, and usually out of my way. But I like to come here, to walk on shady sidewalks, to visit the bookstores, to see the university. That’s what I did this afternoon.

The first place I stopped by was Powell’s Books on 57th, a cousin store of the more famous Powell’s Books in Portland, Ore., which I only know by reputation. But the Hyde Park Powell’s is plenty good enough for me. I could have spent several hours there, and only the thought of carrying a sack of books around with me for the rest of the day—my car was parked several blocks north of Science & Industry, not nearby Powell’s—kept me from buying a number of not-quite-new but fine titles at $4.95 each. As it was, I grazed happily.

Later, I came to the Seminary Co-op Bookstore, one of my favorites anywhere. But today I didn’t browse there. Instead, I browsed in the cloister upstairs. More on that later.

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Thursday, August 25, 2005

Gambian at the Door

Lilly started school this week, 2nd grade. So far she seems to like it, except for one thing: getting up in the morning. That’s my girl.

Shortly after she arrived home on her first day, Tuesday, a woman on a bicycle rode up, rang our doorbell, and wanted to sell me educational software. Hadn’t had any door-to-door solicitation in a while—last time was some high school kids hawking some kind of home repair or something else I’d never buy from someone who just shows up.

Same with educational software. She was a slender young black woman, dressed for casual Friday, and said she was in the country for the summer from England. Working for some company, selling software, seeing the sites of suburban Chicago (I’m paraphrasing here). I said thanks but no thanks, and she said, “I get credit even if you look at one and say it’s interesting.” Hm. So I did that.

Oddly, not a trace of a British accent of any kind. In fact, she was speaking completely standard North American English, as far as I could tell in the few moments I heard her. “Where did you say you come from?” I asked.


“But you grew up somewhere else? Kenya? Tanzania?”

“No, but you’ve probably never heard of it. I grew up in the Gambia.”

“Oh, West Africa. Surrounded by Senegal, isn’t it?”

“How do you know about it?” She seemed surprised. A little geography seems to have that effect sometimes, though I suppose she was used to blank stares.

“It’s on all the maps,” I answered.

She had to go on after that, leaving me to wonder. The daughter of wealthy Gambians (there have to be a few), educated by Americans somewhere, whose parents now live in London most of the time because, well, who wouldn’t prefer that to the Gambia? If so, why was she selling software? Daughter of Gambian exiles who repair shoes in Birmingham, but who nevertheless raised the scratch to educate their daughter? Does she have an uncle or some other relative near here? Muslim or Christian? Is she a Mandinka? A Mandinka at the door—now that’s an interesting thought.

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Wednesday, August 24, 2005

No More About the Trip After This, I Promise

This will be an unusual entry, about places we did not see. Considering the blog’s title, I usually write about things I’ve actually seen. But you can’t see everything, no matter how much time you spend at it. Such is the inexhaustible nature of the world, or maybe the exhaustible nature of any small group of people.

• La Crosse, Wis. By all reports, it has a pretty downtown. Didn’t find out. We drove through it without stopping on our first day out, when we wanted to get as far as possible, to make the second and third days of driving easier.

• Minnesota 16. For the same reason, we skipped this road through the Richard J. Dorer Memorial Hardwood State Forest in southeastern Minnesota. It parallels I-90, mostly, but such roads are always slower.

• Sioux Falls, SD. Among other things, there’s a park in that town with the outline of the USS South Dakota in concrete. The Interstate takes you north of town, without much indication that it’s there, aside from the signs.

• Stratosphere Balloon Landing Site (1935). What’s the story here? I’d rather not look it up. Let it stay a mysterious point of interest on my maps (both Rand McNally and Michelin) a few miles south of I-90 in Aurora County, SD.

• The historic forts along the Missouri in South Dakota: Kiowa, Hale and Defiance, not to mention Pierre Choteau, and a place called the Triple U Buffalo Ranch. We also bypassed the Akta Lakota Museum.

• Wall Drug and the Badlands NP had their charms, but what about Minuteman Missile National Historic Site nearby? Cool, ICBMs. But I understand that you have to make reservations to get in the silos a long time in advance, which I only found out about just before we left.

• Rapid City & Sites, including Dinosaur Park. Something my brothers (then eight and five years old) remember from a family vacation to South Dakota in 1960, a year before my birth. Too bad, we deprived Lilly of that opportunity for recollection in 2050.

• Took a look around Deadwood, SD, but not Sturgis—which was already beginning to choke with bikers coming to the Sturgis Rally, which was to begin the week after we passed through. Also buzzed by Lead and Spearfish, SD, two towns with fine names.

• Bought supplies in Belle Fourche, SD, just before entering Wyoming and Montana. Up the road on US 85 is “the Geographic Center of the US.” My, oh my. Couldn’t justify the extra miles to see some kind of obscure marker. This time.

• Saw the very spot where fate caught up with George Armstrong Custer and his men, but not the Custer and Reno Museums. Poor Reno, he got the blame, though not officially.

• Plenty of Yellowstone, but really only a fraction. Too tired to consider the Grand Tetons after Yellowstone.

• Driving home, the goal was to get home. So we stopped for very little. A whole other trip could have been stitched together from such bypassed places as; Cody, Wyo.; the hot springs of Themopolis, Wyo.; Hell’s Half Acre, Natrona County, Wyo.; Casper; Fort Laramie NHS, Goshen County, Wyo.; Scotts Bluff National Monument, Scottsbluff, Neb.; Chimney Rock NHS, Morrill County, Neb.; various sites and towns along the Platte; the SAC Museum between Lincoln and Omaha; and even places in Iowa, especially Winterset, the birthplace of Marion Morrison, better known as John Wayne.

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Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Red Shale, Yankee Jim

Six nights in a tent, three in motel rooms. I’d say we got our money’s worth out of our new tent, acquired this spring. Especially in Montana. At Custer National Forest just off US 212, there’s a campground called Red Shale, since the soil is redish orange and rocky. At one time the Park Service must have collected a fee for it — I saw a rusty container that once held fee envelopes, for instance. But maybe the regional office decided that collecting fees cost more than was being collected.

Maintenance had also been cut. The water pump was busted. The campsites were so weedy that it was sometimes hard to tell where they were. In fact, it looked like the only attention anyone paid to the place was in the toilet building, which did have toilet paper. But this inattention led to a rustic charm, especially pleasant considering what we paid. It was a cold night and the stars shone very bright. Late at night, while snug in the tent, I was sure I hear coyotes in the distance.

Gallatin National Forest has some campgrounds on the road to the north entrance of Yellowstone. We picked one of them, about 15 miles from the entrance, the better not to deal with crowding in the park itself. A wise choice, because every Yellowstone campground we later saw looked jammed.

The campsite in Yankee Jim Canyon, by contrast, never filled up. About a half-dozen sites were occupied each night, out of 20 or so. Like the Red Shale site, it too was free — quite a surprise so close to Yellowstone. Also like Red Shale, there was no water, no maintenance and no other services except a daily delivery of toilet paper by unseen Park Service hands.

Yankee Jim Canyon is a rocky place. Boulders everywhere, both way up the sides of the mountains and next to the campsites, with a lot of smaller rocks here and there as well, and a handful of gnarly trees thrown in to keep things interesting. At night, a near-constant light wind blew through the canyon, but we pitched the tent — and it was hard to drive those stakes — among some boulders that served as wind breaks. We had the presence of mind to store all of our food in the car at night, in case of bears, but there was no evidence of anything bigger than a rabbit around the campsite during our entire stay.

And the wind blew. Wooooooooooooooo, a relaxing sound to fall asleep to, once we realized that the tent wasn’t going to blow over. It reminded me, strangely, of the night-sounds at the hut we rented overlooking the ocean in Bali, with its constant crashing waves. That was a nearly perfect aural experience. The winds of Yankee Jim Canyon were close to that.

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Monday, August 22, 2005

Mt. Moriah

It isn’t a complete trip if I don’t visit at least one cemetery. That’s what was missing during our stay in central Florida earlier this year, so I decided I wanted to see a really famous one on this trip—none other than Boot Hill in Deadwood, SD, more formally known as Mt. Moriah, a municipal cemetery.

Speaking of revisionism (see yesterday, about Custer), I saw about half an hour of Deadwood in a hotel room last year, a cable series famous for its blistering profanity. Just about every sentence by every character contained some. No doubt there was a good deal of swearing in the real Deadwood of 1876, more than in old Western movies or network TV Westerns, though no aural record exists, and written records are going to be vague on that point. But I suspect there wasn’t as much profanity in real life as on cable TV. The producers of Deadwood make it that way because they can. We want to make a gritty Western! None of this mealy-mouthed oater stuff for us.

Then again, maybe I’m wrong. Consider the dialogue of the first half of Full Metal Jacket, set on Parris Island. Every foul word of that rang true, though I’ve never actually heard a Marine drill sergeant.

However they talked in life, the residents of Mt. Moriah are quiet now. Yet they attract a steady trickle of visitors. There’s even an admission charge, a rarity for a cemetery. But it was a reasonable $1, so I paid up and headed up the hill, for indeed Boot Hill is a hill. A lovely wooded hill, covered in pine, dotted with stones of all sorts, from nearly worn-away to large, handsome, newish monuments. A light mist was falling, and it was fairly cold for the third of August, about 55° F. I think.

Wild Bill Hickok came to Deadwood in the summer of ’76, died famously, and now reposes at Mt. Moriah. In recent decades, admirers erected a bronze bust to mark his grave, which is surrounded by an iron fence. Calamity Jane rests behind the fence as well, reportedly by her own request nearly 30 years after Wild Bill was stashed away.

I wonder how these two have maintained their fame after all these years. Custer died fighting Indians—formerly considered an admirable pursuit, now an ignominious one. But Wild Bill and Calamity? Memorable nicknames, I guess.

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Sunday, August 21, 2005

Custer & Co.

One of my earliest recollections of George Armstrong Custer was from the movie Little Big Man, which went out of its way to rebut the heroic myth of Custer by playing him as a vain buffoon, as much of a cartoon as if he’d appeared with Peabody and Sherman. “Your life,” he tells Dustin Hoffman’s character after deciding not to have him hanged, “isn’t worth reversing a Custer decision!” It’s remarkable how often revisionism is just as much nonsense as the older nonsense (such as They Died With Their Boots On.)

Then again, movies haven’t ever been known for historic accuracy. A more nuanced Custer appears in the popular history Son of the Morning Star, which I read a couple of summers ago. It was my kind of page-turner, though I knew how it would end. In any case, Custer found undying fame at Little Bighorn, if a near-full visitor parking lot at the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument 129 years after his death is any indication.

Little Bighorn has, like the Mall in DC, been subject to the forces of creeping monument growth in recent years. Custer and his men have had their stones for quite a while. More recently, the Indian side of the battle has been represented with a memorial to all the tribes involved (including, evenhandedly I thought, the tribes that sided with the US Army). A handful of individual braves have stones now as well—two that I saw, Ve’ho’enohnenehe (Chief Lame White Man), a Southern Cheyenne, and Nestonevahtsestse (Noisy Walking), a Northern Cheyenne. According to their stones, they died “defending the Cheyenne way of life.” Won the battle, lost the war, I suppose.

Even the horses of the 7th Calvary have a memorial. Apparently, as things looked grim on Last Stand Hill, the men of the 7th shot their own horses to use as cover. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a monument to the animal casualties of war, but there it was. Something similar to remember all the horses of war may appear on the National Mall someday.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Four Faces

I got a short sideways look at the profile of the Crazy Horse Memorial in the Black Hills, as we drove by on US 16/385, and it looked impressive indeed. A fine monumental project. Why didn’t we stop? Price for a carload of visitors: $24. I would have paid half that, I think. Whoever’s in charge of the sculpture needs to raise money, but I refuse to be gouged for the cause.

Besides, we were on the way to Mt. Rushmore that evening, and the sun was going down. We wanted to see the iconic mountainside by day, and then after dark, lit from below. Speaking of gouging—or at least nicking—parking at the Mt. Rushmore National Monument costs $8. Not that bad, but my brand-new national parks pass didn’t cover the cost. Grumble.

The garage looked fairly new, a lot like the parking structure next to a mid-sized regional airport. A couple of stairways out of the garage lead to fairly new-looking tourist infrastructure, starting with a walkway that leads to a building complex—including a gift shop, near a large bronze bust of Gutzon Borglum by his son—that leads to another walkway flanked on both sides by structures (too bulky to be poles) flying the flags of all the states in groups of four. Four doesn’t divide evenly into 50, so perhaps DC and Puerto Rico are included, but I didn’t check.

From there, you reach another building, which also includes a gift shop, past which is an amphitheater. All the way, though, the Mt. Rushmore sculptures are visible. Despite the fact that the Four Faces are seen in countless photos, drawings, cartoons and North by Northwest, the sculptures capture and hold the eye. Yuriko, who didn’t grow up with iconic Mt. Rushmore, was just as impressed, if not more. Later she said she used to wonder why anyone would deface a mountain in such a large way, but after seeing it she called it great art.

I hope Simon B. has had a chance to see Mt. Rushmore in person. He was an erudite young Englishman I knew in Japan in the early ’90s. I forget how it came up, but once he suggested that Mt. Rushmore was a vast act of vandalism. When I heard that—which sounds like a lump from the oatmeal of anti-Western Civilization diatribes, trying to pass as an idea--I decided I needed to shock him a little, so my comment was, “You know what? Even if it is, I don’t care.”

We sat in the outdoor amphitheater facing the Faces, along with hundreds of people, waiting for the lighting ceremony. By this time it was getting dark. An enormous bank of clouds loomed off to one side of the sky, dark and rumbling. Eventually, a park ranger—a woman no older than 30, I think—came out on stage and said the show was going to go on until it started raining. Rumble.

I wondered what the show would be. A laser show! A laser show to John Philip Sousa! A laser show, John Philip Sousa, and four presidential impersonators down on stage! No. The Park Service isn’t quite so showy. The young ranger talked for about 15 minutes, first about coming to see Mt. Rushmore as a kid, then telling the audience about the four presidents, as if anyone over about 10 didn’t know about them. Then again, maybe people don’t. Rumble. The clouds were a lot closer by now.

After she was done, the stage curtain opened. Rumble. Boom. BOOM. A Discovery Channel video about Mt. Rushmore started rolling on the amphitheater’s big screen. The beginning scenes were of the Dakotas, including a shot of distant lightning on the prairie. Off screen, real lightning flashed, and by this time the amphitheater was losing people, including us. Soon the video stopped, and it was raining. People shouted, “Light it! Light it!” for the Faces were dark by this time, except during lightning flashes.

Before long, the lights were on, and we were treated to a luminous Mt. Rushmore in the rain. Water traced down parts of the Faces, leaving dark streaks. In all the many photos of the monument I’ve seen, I’ve never seen it half-washed like that.

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Thursday, August 18, 2005

The Wall

I’m skipping tomorrow, for various reasons, but picking up over the weekend, during breaks in other writing duties.

Most of what I could say about Wall Drug has already been said. Though Badlands National Park is near, Wall Drug is a tourist attraction — mecca — in its own right, maybe even outdrawing the Badlands. After all, the Badlands may be beautiful, but it’s an austere beauty, and you can’t shop there (except at the lodge gift shop).

Wall Drug, on the other hand, surely has more gewgaws, gimcracks and knickknacks within its many walls than all the rest of South Dakota, with maybe North Dakota thrown in. I’m not about to mock the place. I stood in awe. By rights, Wall ought to be a dusty, sluggish little town just east of the Black Hills. But no. In August anyway, it has as much retail activity as many regional malls in populous MSAs: swarms of people swarming through each of its many aisles, fingering the floor-to-(nearly)-ceiling items, spurring the constant beep-beep-beep of the registers.

Wall Drug isn’t one store, of course, though it’s — sort of — under one roof. It’s a warren of stores: standard souvenirs, clothes, jewelry, books, even a drug store (go figure). It has photos and painting and signs and oddities all around—read the Roadside America article. Its cashiers have nametags that also tell you the person’s place of origin, and two out of three seemed to be summer workers from the former Soviet bloc. (I encountered this at Yellowstone, too, and I asked a lass from Bulgaria about it, and she said, “Three months work, one month travel.”)

I was able to spend some time in the bookstore, and was pleasantly surprised. It isn’t a large place trying to carry every title the way Borders or B&N would, but a small store with an excellent selection, especially about the West.

We had lunch at Wall Drug, for there is a sizable food service there. High time, I thought, to try the buffalo burger. It was OK. Practically the same as regular beef. The doughnuts are also famed, at least the maple-coated ones. They were OK. Well, food isn’t why people go to Wall Drug. And why do they? I know why we went: because it’s there.

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Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Pierre Detour

I-90 through South Dakota doesn’t pass through the state capital, Pierre. About 30 miles is as close as the state’s only east-west Interstate gets to that city (which seems to be locally pronounced “Peer” instead of like a Frenchman’s name). Strictly a civil engineering decision based on topography, or was the South Dakota Congressional delegation on President Eisenhower’s bad side?

In any case, I wanted to detour to Pierre. Not so much to see Pierre, but to see the state capitol. It’s a travel hobby of mine, perhaps dating from the days in high school when I took a bus from San Antonio to Austin during the summers to visit my friend Kevin M., who had moved to Austin after our freshman year in high school together. I always walked to his house from the bus station, about three miles, a walk that always took me through one of the finest state capitols, that of Texas.

I still think Texas’ is one of the finest, and by the time I reached Pierre, I’d seen 34 capitol buildings—but only 20 inside and out, since I’ve arrived at some when they were closed, or for some reason I couldn’t stop for a good look. (See April 7, 2004, for the Missouri capitol and September 13 and 14, 2004, for Nebraska.) I was determined to make South Dakota the 21st complete visit, so we hit the state roads to Pierre, and I got my wish.

Not bad at all. A handsome black dome atop a massive white base, with plenty of the interior detail an early 20th-century capitol ought to have, such as terrazzo floors, heavy wooden doors with frosted glass, grand staircases, lots of marble and at least one wall devoted to governors’ portraits. Only a state since 1889, South Dakota doesn’t have all that many old govs, but they’re on display, as they should be. Most importantly, there was a rotunda to stand under, look up and gawk at.

The grounds were nice, too, resplendent with flowers and well shaded by large trees on that fine first day of August. Unlike some other capitols, the grounds -- and the inside for that matter -- wasn’t overburdened with memorials. Or maybe I missed them, chasing after Ann, trying to discourage her from picking the flowers.

We’d spent the night before at a state park near Pierre, so we arrived at the capitol fairly early in the morning. Thus we were able to get an early start toward our next destination -- Wall, South Dakota, famed in tourist lore, and subject of billboards all the way back in Minnesota. More on that tomorrow.

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Tuesday, August 16, 2005

King Corn & His Palace

After Spam (see yesterday) comes corn. This seems like a natural progression in the Midwest. South Dakota might be considered part of the West most of the time, but buzzing down the highway in eastern South Dakota, you’re sure that you’re still in the Midwest. Same flatland, same views of corn and soy.

Mitchell, SD, decided years ago to make a virtue of its place at the edge of the corn belt by building the Corn Palace. “Why are we getting off here?” Yuriko asked me at the Mitchell exit.

“The Corn Palace,” I said. “We’re going to see the Corn Palace.”


“You’ll see.”

I’d seen the Corn Palace point-of-interest spot on the map and read my Roadside America, which says: “It’s a combination of minarets, turrets and kiosks that’s been standing in downtown Mitchell since 1892 [sic, today’s structure is the third, built in 1921, but its corn theme is the same.]… It stands five stories high, covers a square block, and is built out of reinforced concrete, not corn. Its exterior, however, is completely [sic, partially] covered with native South Dakota corn, grain and grass murals. Ears of corn are sawed lengthwise and then nailed flat to outside panels, and are changed yearly. Typical recent themes have been South Dakota birds and a Salute to Agriculture.”

In 2005, the theme is “Life on the Farm,” depicted by murals of corn. Now that’s my idea of a stopover along a straight stretch of Interstate. Even better, it’s free to get in.

So in we went, because on the last day of July, it was hot in eastern South Dakota. Easily above 90° F, and while I could have lingered outside just a while longer to admire the murals, other family members wanted to duck inside, into a large foyer displaying items from the history of the Corn Palace and offering short explanations on how all those ears of corn are nailed to the walls (later, I got a closer look at the exterior murals—which I read use 600,000 ears of corn, 3,000 bushels of grain and grass, and a ton of nails).

We were in time for a guided tour. The guide was a young man, a college student summering in Mitchell I think, who had a remarkably stentorian voice, at least when he was announcing the tour. “Ladies and gentlemen, GATHER ROUND for a FREE TOUR of the WORLD’S ONLY CORN PALACE! Starting NOW!”

Gather we did. He wasn’t so loud after that, and clearly enjoyed telling us about the Corn Palace: its history, its unique décor, and its place at the center of municipal life in Mitchell. If the corn were stripped away somehow, you see, all that would be left would be a mid-sized municipal auditorium, because in functional terms, that’s what it is. According to our guide, during the non-summer months, the building—owned by the city—holds basketball games, concerts, graduations, parties and other functions, pretty much like any municipal auditorium. Beyond the foyer, the main hall sports rows of seats looking down on a basketball court.

But in the summer, it’s a tourist attraction. A gift shop covered the entire court. I bought postcards, since free admission always encourages me to do that. I turned down Lilly’s request for a coonskin hat.

The guide said that 11 hues of corn are used to make the outside images, all of which is grown on a nearby farm specially contracted for the purpose. Over the years, the successive Corn Palace artists—an honor in Davison County like being Poet Laureate, I reckon—come up with the drawings and plans for what amounts to a different corn-by-numbers scheme each year, which craftspeople then execute by nailing the ears down. I’ve seen murals and mosaics over the years, but nothing like this.

I also got to look at the interior murals. Roadside America forgot to mention these, but they’re made in the same way as the exterior murals, except the ears are changed only every decade or so, since the corn isn’t exposed to the elements (including birds). Unlike the exterior, the inside designs are held in such great esteem that they never change. They were created in the late ’40s by regional artist Oscar Howe. They’re distinctly WPA realist in style, showing the history of South Dakota, both Indian and white histories, culminating with giant hands of made of corn, one from each ethnic group, clasping each other in friendship.

Later, I looked Oscar Howe (1915-83) up. The guide didn’t mention it, but he was Yanktonai Sioux of considerable talent as an artist and teacher.

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Monday, August 15, 2005

Lovely Spam, Wonderful Spam

Enough about the glories of Yellowstone (see last week). What I really need to write about is the Spam Museum. It may be one of the few things that Lilly really remembers about this trip.

The first leg of our trip took us west and north along I-80, exiting Illinois north of Rockford, and then toward La Crosse, Wisconsin, a town on the Mississippi. Amid the flatlands of Wisconsin and Minnesota, the drive through the sloping and wooded terrain around La Crosse offered a welcome break — a fine little stretch of Interstate, for those who imagine there are none anywhere. In mid-afternoon, we reached Austin, Minnesota, hometown of Hormel Foods, and, since 2002, of the Spam Museum.

It’s a museum for our time, devoted to a commercial operation, full of light and color and sound and things to touch, fairly informative if you want to know about Spam, occasionally funny, and with an exit that directs you into the heart of the gift shop. I went in wondering if I’d see: (1) Monty Python’s Spam skit; (2) any mention of the bitter strike at Hormel in the 1980s; (3) or any discussion of the term as it’s used on the Internet. I got two of out of three. Not bad.

I didn’t see quite as much I wanted to, since Ann was determined to play with an exhibit that included an early 20th-century telephone switchboard, which had a lot of switches within her reach. She stayed there, or went back to it, for quite a while. It was part of a simulated “Hormel Provisions Market,” a pre-Spam business run by patriarch George Hormel, complete with fake hanging sausages and other old-time grocery doodads.

Hormel and his son (and successor) Jay, the museum assures us, were “great men.” I can’t say that I really know anything about the Hormels, but to judge by the sizable photos of the men in their natty old-time business garb, I’d say they were steely-eyed bastards of the sort who kept their business as tightly controlled as Spam is tightly packed. It’s the main way to build a multimillion-dollar business, after all.

Elsewhere were cans of Spam through the years with changing labels, a puppet show illustrating the coining of “Spam,” a video about the singing Hormel Girls, an amazing collection of Spam print and video ads, a radio studio in which you can hear Spam jingles, a map showing where all the Spam factories are, a moving conveyor belt near ceiling carrying about 800 cans of Spam, and that isn’t the half of it.

There was also a Spam timeline, and the ’80s strike got a brief mention there. Just when I thought that Hormel was going to ignore Monty Python out of embarrassment, I turned a corner to find that the last exhibit before the gift shop was devoted to the skit. There was a video screen, of course, and you could play the skit on demand. I did, since I hadn’t seen it in about 30 years.

I’d forgotten pretty much everything about it, except the endless selections of Spam on the menu, and the chorus, which is all too easy to remember: Spam Spam Spam Spam… Lovely Spam! Wonderful Spam! Spam Spam Spam Spam… I’d completely forgotten, for instance, that it was Vikings who expressed their love for Spam, but now that I think about it, that fits a Minnesota company, eh? (Though I suspect the Python men were just being absurd.)

No mention of spam as an Internet noun (and verb). Maybe I just missed it, but certainly Hormel couldn’t be happy about that.

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Friday, August 12, 2005


I’ll pick this up again on Monday, since I have professional obligations to take care of between now and then.

Late in the morning last Saturday we stopped to go swimming in the Firehole River, a tributary of the Yellowstone, by parallel parking along the narrow Firehole Canyon Drive nearby. From the drive, you go down some wooden stairs, and swim in a section of the river slowed — it’s very swift elsewhere — by a upstream narrows that empties into a deep pool, picturesquely surrounded by rocky cliffs on both sides. The current is also slowed by underwater rocks slightly downstream from the narrows. The water’s cold, the sun’s hot in August, and parts of the swimming area have a rocky bottom. But it was pleasant swimming all the same, especially after you discover spots with sandy bottoms. Lilly didn’t want to leave.

While parking the car, I noticed two guys behind us unloading scuba equipment out of a pickup truck. “Are you going diving?” I asked them as we headed for the wooden stairs.

“Yeah, the pool’s pretty deep,” one of them said. “We’re going to look around.”

Yellowstone offers a lot recreational opportunities, as the guide literature notes: hiking, cycling, camping, fishing, birding, swimming, cross-country skiing, and more. But scuba diving isn’t something I would have thought of. As we were swimming, I noticed several other divers going in and out of the deep pool, so there must be something to look at down there.

It wasn’t the only river we experienced firsthand at Yellowstone. Just south of the park’s north entrance, there’s a parking lot next to the Gardiner River. Just beyond the edge of the lot is a path that follows the edge of the river, under some shade trees. The river is very shallow at that point, with a cold current pushing over piles of very smooth stones. Like at Firehole, piles of rock moderated the current a little, so that you could sit in the river and let it wash over you. It wasn’t exactly swimming, but it was refreshing.

Along the road, just at the entrance to the parking lot, there were two signs: ENTERING WYOMING and 45TH PARALLEL of LATITUDE HALFWAY BETWEEN EQUATOR and NORTH POLE. I’d always thought it odd that Yellowstone National Park isn’t quite all in Wyoming, though most of it is — it’s as if the park couldn’t quite fit in Wyoming, so Montana and Idaho got slices. (In fact, Yellowstone became a national park in 1872, before any of those states entered the Union.)

I also hadn’t realized that most of the border between Montana and Wyoming is 45° N., but that’s only because I’d never studied the matter. There’s a large roadside sign in Michigan, along I-75, that tells travelers the same thing: you’re halfway between two spots on the globe that everyone learns about in school, but not that many people actually go to them, especially the North Pole.

Roadside signs of that kind probably aren’t all that precise, so most of the time it’s hard to know exactly where the line is. But I liked the idea, all the same, that we were luxuriating in a cold stream a few dozen yards — at most — within Montana. At some point on the path to the parking lot was Wyoming.

Then, when walking along the river by myself, at a small fork in the path only about 20 feet from the parking lot, I saw a US National Geodetic Survey marker, a little obscured by a nearby bush. But I knew that was it. The actual border, and the 45th parallel as well, precisely midway between the pole and the red line, as close as modern measuring devises can say. Other people were coming and going from the parking lot, and down the path, but no one but me stopped for the little round marker cemented into the ground. Considering that a border of this kind is completely artificial, I don’t know why I got satisfaction standing with one foot in each state, but I did. One of these days, I want to get a kick out of standing at Four Corners.

I stopped for a couple of other borders on this trip as well. On US 212, you enter Montana -- appropriately — in the middle of nowhere. I had Yuriko take my picture under the ENTERING MONTANA sign because I’d never done that before. Montana is my 46th state, and it would be hard to take one trip to visit the remainder: Alaska, Oregon, North Dakota and South Carolina.

In Yellowstone, east of Old Faithful and on the way to Lake Yellowstone, the park road crosses the Continental Divide twice, because that line loops a bit at that point in its bisection of North America. A sign marks the Divide each time, and we stopped at one — next to the small Isa Lake, which a nearby sign said ultimately drained into both the Pacific and the Gulf of Mexico. It was a lovely little lake, covered in this season by lotus pads.

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Thursday, August 11, 2005

Manmade Yellowstone

I suspect that the deeper eco-fringes have no use for a place like Yellowstone. After all, the hand of man is all too evident—roads, buildings, signs, picnic tables, just to name the things you can see from the road, though in fact the vastness of the park swallows them all.

Not only the hand of man, but also men, women and children, in great numbers, at least in August. Yellowstone is a popular place. More than 3 million visits a year, according to the NPS.

At Mammoth Hot Springs, the first major collection of buildings inside the north entrance of the park, we were caught in brief traffic jams and couldn’t find parking on one occasion. It was irritating at the time, but it would be churlish to complain about it: what do those other people think they’re doing, taking up space in my national park?

I did wonder if the Park Service is scheming to disallow private cars in Yellowstone, as it has done in Zion NP and Bryce NP, but those parks’ road networks are relatively simple compared with Yellowstone, which is sprawling. But it might happen. Maybe an older Lilly will return to the park someday, and marvel that she can remember a time when her parents were allowed to drive through the park.

Naturally we visited Old Faithful. Gotta go see Old Faithful, and wait for it to fulfill its impressive duty, which it did for us at about 6:45 pm on August 5, 2005, pretty much as the rangers predicted — at the information booth, they wrote an estimated time of eruption on a little whiteboard. I also saw it on chalkboards at other places around the geyser.

There was plenty else at the site besides the geyser itself. In fact, that unnaturally regular bit of nature supports an enormous tourist infrastructure, more than I expected. Immediately ringing Old Faithful was a large semicircle of observation benches; beyond that was a complex of sidewalks and shade trees, and beyond them were the Old Faithful Lodge and the Old Faithful Inn, both stalwarts of Yellowstone, the latter recently celebrating its centennial; and beyond that, even more facilities, such as gift stores, a gas station and a clinic, with massive parking lots to hold all the cars and buses.

According to, Old Faithful Inn was “built during the winter of 1903-04… [and] designed by Robert C. Reamer, who wanted the asymmetry of the building to reflect the chaos of nature. The lobby of the hotel features a 65-foot ceiling, a massive rhyolite fireplace, and railings made of contorted lodgepole pine. Wings were added to the hotel in 1915 and 1927 (by Reamer), and today there are 327 rooms available to guests in this National Historic Landmark.”

This year the building’s being restored, so the vaulting ceiling of the lobby was partly obscured by scaffolding and tarps. Still, the place was the model of a giant lodge in the woods — the brown woods, the massive gnarled logs holding things up, the fireplace (empty in summer) almost big enough to be a garage. Reamer went on to build other lodgings in the park, but this is his masterpiece, and I could see why.

Sure, come to Yellowstone to see marvels of nature. But the park also contains a few human marvels.


Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Doing Yellowstone

Some years ago, I received a guide booklet to a dozen national parks produced by the editors of Outside magazine. Outside was, at least in the late 1990s, an exceptionally well-crafted magazine, with a number of interesting articles in each issue. Eventually, though, the magazine’s persistent and annoying tone of extreme-outdoorism snobbery got to me, and I dropped the subscription.

Its editorial subtext seemed to be that if you don’t want to ride your $10,000 bicycle across Canada, then swim Hudson Bay, then go parasailing on Baffin Island -- all financed by product endorsements for your equipment, which, with great business savvy back in civilization, you arranged -- well, you might as well get on a tour bus with the other sheep. You can’t possibly appreciate the outdoors in any authentic way.

The same spirit infused the guide to the national parks. There was a short description of each park, with a basic map, and two other sections: What Most People Do, and What You Should Do. There’s some truth to that division, and I’m sure that in many ways, spending a week backcountry in Yellowstone is life-enhancing in ways that you can’t get otherwise. The element of snobbery comes in assuming that’s the only way to appreciate the place.

We did what most people do: we drove on Yellowstone’s roads, got out of the car periodically, walked around and saw things. With two little kids to accommodate, that’s the way to do it. I defy anyone to tell me I didn’t see remarkable things in a memorable setting, things that made me marvel at the variety of the natural world. It isn’t something I do all that often, though maybe I should. Yellowstone is a place for that kind of inspiration.

For instance, I’d never seen anything like the Norris geyser field. Little holes bubbling and burping and hissing. Heat from the sun above, and the ground below. The persistent stink of sulfur, which somehow didn’t bother me that much. Pretty little rivulets, shiny with mineral deposits, but so hot that you’d be boiled alive by them, or have your skin eaten off by high acidic content. Signs warning you do stay on the trail, or risk death (and who dared put the signs there?).

Even with my little geologic knowledge, the geysers fostered the sense that just under the surface, just below my feet and the wooden plank walking paths and the park building with educational exhibits and the parking lots and even the tour buses, there’s a dark monster, magma born, called the Yellowstone Caldera. What we see are flakes from the monster’s skin.

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Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Out West

I’m still a little rung out from the road, and I have some professional items to take care of in the near future. But I will type up a few notes about the last week and a half. We took a driving trip, almost a classic American vacation, since the end destination was Yellowstone.

Some trips are deep, others broad. This one was broad. From beginning to end, we drove 3,686 miles in 10 days, through parts of eight states, four Indian reservations, and three national parks and one national monument. We drove on Interstates, US highways, state roads, park service roads, surface streets and a couple of gravel and dirt tracks. When we stopped driving, we spent three nights in motel beds, two in our tent in state parks, and four nights in the same tent on national forest land.

Later, I’ll provide more detail about Yellowstone, or the Badlands of South Dakota, or Wall Drug, or any of the other big destinations we visited. But for today, I’m going to pull some in-between detail from my notes. I always take notes on a trip.

Such as: At the Kwik Trip near Sparta, Wisconsin, where we bought gas for $2.32/gallon (a typical price), I saw a handwritten sign for a missing animal: “George,” a two-year-old llama, complete with phone number to call. You’d think it would be hard to lose your llama, but maybe not.

Adopt-a-road signs were common enough the whole way through. But in Martin County, Minnesota, I noted that a couple of miles had been adopted by those “Sentenced to Serve.” A court-ordered adoption?

Near mile 297 on I-90 in eastern South Dakota, there’s a sunflower farm. Nice break from the corn and soybeans, but even those sputter out the further west you go.

Just inside the SD border, also on I-90, there was a billboard stating (unofficially, I suspect) that South Dakota “doesn’t welcome animal activists.” I didn’t write it down exactly, but it also said that meat, fur, hunting and trapping were the state’s livelihood.

US 212 cuts through extreme northeastern Wyoming. According to Rand McNally, there’s nothing along that bit of road. But in fact we passed Wyoming Colony, a mining facility—“Bentonite Capital of the World,” a sign claimed. I had to look that term up later. According to Schlumberger’s Oilfield Glossary, it’s “a material composed of clay minerals, predominantly montmorillonite with minor amounts of other smectite group minerals, commonly used in drilling mud. Bentonite swells considerably when exposed to water, making it ideal for protecting formations from invasion by drilling fluids. Montmorillonite forms when basic rocks such as volcanic ash in marine basins are altered.”

I drank from the pleasantly named Kidney Spring in Hot Spring, SD--available in its gushing glory to one and all, under a specially erected gazebo next to a cliff. It didn’t seem to affect my health one way or the other.

A few miles from the Little Bighorn battlefield in Hardin, Montana, there was motel called Custer’s Last Camp. If you stay there, do you wake up surrounded by Indians?

And, in Cody, Wyoming, a sign of the times, and not a good one: a billboard featuring kids’ faces, with the following warning—METH USE. IT’S NOT JUST ABOUT YOU.


There and Especially Back Again

About 24 hours ago, we were having breakfast in Torrington, Wyoming. Now we are recovering from the last leg of Out West here in Schaumburg, Illinois--a distance we crossed without using an airplane, so more posting later today (I think).