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Devils and Details

July 26, 2011

Today was not the most fun day The Hamster has had on our road trip, but it was easily his most impressive.

The day started in Deadwood, where we visited the graves of Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane. You know a town is too touristy when even the cemetery has its own souvenir shop. Even the graves themselves were recently redone with new headstones to impress the out-of-towners. The whole town was such a sleazy tourist trap that we nixed our other Deadwood stops and headed straight to the center of America.

When Alaska and Hawaii became states the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association did some figgurin’ and found the geographic center of the United States to be a spot just outside the town of Belle Fourche, SD. I had no knowledge of this until Saturday, when I stumbled across it while leafing through one of those cheesy hotel “magazines” about what to do in the area. Turns out Belle Fourche installed a decorative granite compass marking the designation, and the town was sort of on the way to our next stop, so even though we were already way behind schedule we figured it was worth a few minutes for the opportunity to stand at the exact center of the country.

That’s where Sam had his first victory of the day. At just about every stop on our trip he’s been getting one of those souvenir smushed pennies, but the penny smusher at the Center of the Nation Monument ate his coins and gave him nothing in return. We told the ladies in the visitors center, who had no idea how to fix the machine but one of them happened to have exactly the smushed penny Sam wanted in her desk and gave it to him.

It was a good note on which to leave South Dakota and head to our next stop, Devils Tower in northeastern Wyoming. Literally the moment we crossed the border the landscape changed from forests to cattle ranches. An hour later we pulled into the parking lot of our third National Monument in two days (and the nation’s very first National Monument, thanks to Teddy Roosevelt), a scientifically unexplained stone monolith 867 feet high. More exciting than the tower itself, though, was Sam’s discovery of a car with Hawaii plates in the parking lot. We got all 50! We spent the next several minutes wondering how one might drive from Hawaii to Wyoming but our thinking was interrupted when Sam noticed something else interesting: two climbers scaling Devils Tower.

Can’t see them? Hang on, let me zoom in a bit:

Still no? OK, let’s get closer:

There. There’s one guy on top of the ledge, and his partner is climbing up well beneath him. I don’t know how Sam spotted these guys from where we were standing.

After a quick lunch we argued briefly about the convertible roof. It had been a beautiful sunny morning and I wanted the top down. Sam insisted on leaving the roof closed. I gave in. Two minutes later we were hit with a monstrous sunshower so heavy I had to drive 40 in a 75. The kid was on fire.

Now that we were a whole lot drier than those climbers, we headed north out of Wyoming and into Montana, to the Little Bighorn Battlefield. Only took four hours. For the first time since our first long drive out of Cooperstown, Sam got bored in the car. He ended up pulling out the DVD player and watching the first half of “ET” before the setting sun caused glare issues. 

Eventually we made it to Little Bighorn, which bored Sam more than the drive. I had planned to drive the tour road, which has several stops with markers indicating battle sites, monuments, etc. He wanted to leave. We compromised on walking over to the Native American monument and then to the hill where Custer and his men had their Last Stand, and then heading out.

By the time we left Little Bighorn it was about 6:30 pm. I was originally hoping to see Pompey’s Pillar (a large rock near the Yellowstone River where William Clark carved his name and the date that is the only physical evidence of Lewis and Clark’s expedition), but it was over an hour away, we’d been in the car most of the day, and we hadn’t yet eaten dinner. I told Sam that Pompey’s Pillar would have to wait till morning. His response: “We can make it, Dad. Let’s do it.” I told him that going there would mean we wouldn’t eat until afterward. He was OK with that. I told him we might not make it there by the 8 pm closing time. He insisted that we would. So I asked the lady inside my GPS how to get there, she told me, and we went. We got there at 7:48, just enough time to get into the gates, speed through the exhibits, peep Clark’s graffiti autograph, walk in his footsteps, climb to the top of the rock, and then grill a late dinner at the nearby picnic tables.

Sam even noticed that the date Clark inscribed on the rock (July 25) is today’s date–by squeezing it in today we accidentally visited Clark’s handiwork exactly on the 205th anniversary of its carving. Everything worked perfectly until we were ready to make dinner, at which point we got swarmed by the same mosquitos Clark complained about in his journal and we had to flee to the saftey of the car.

New plan: we’ll find a place to spend the night and eat a cold dinner in our motel room. Sam is often easygoing, but not when it comes to food. This time, though, he continued rolling with the punches. Which was good because the punches kept coming. Turns out that the recent oil spill on the Yellowstone River has brought hundreds of extra people to the Billings area, filling every room in the hotels and motels in and around town for days on end. We drove up to hotel after hotel after hotel, only to be turned away every time. We eventually found a decent place for a semireasonable price but by the time we got into our room and sat down to eat it was 10 pm. Sam was clearly tired and desperately hungry, but his mood never soured. I was both impressed and appreciative, and told him so.

Meanwhile, thanks to his insistence on abridging our Little Bighorn visit and seeing Pompey’s Pillar today, we’re completely back on schedule and can sleep a bit later tomorrow before heading to Yellowstone Park, where I plan to reward Sam with a special (and early) dinner.

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