Archive for May, 2006

Fort Pierre and Beyond!

Sunday, May 28th, 2006

Weather: Beautiful… until the ride home.

Frogwing at the Casey Tibbs Monument
The Casey Tibbs Monument, at the entrance to Fort Pierre.

There was quite a dichotomy between the way Pierre, South Dakota was described to me, and what I actually found when Frogwing and I rolled into town. The gulf between myth and reality was as wide as the Missouri River at Lake Oahe. You can blame that on modern times, and the ubiquity of giant, multi-national corporations, I suppose. Super Walmart is here, along with the usual assortment of fast-food emporiums. The invasion continues…

While I was expecting a dusty cowtown straight out of the Wild West, what I experienced instead was a sort of Anytown, USA, with a hint of USDA-approved Western-Style flavoring. Even personal emails from friends of mine who hail from South Dakota warned me of being shot at for trespassing, and made the place seem like it was just one step evolved from Dodge City, during that town’s bloody heyday.

Here is a sample of what I was reading before the trip, and one of the main reasons for the big letdown when I discovered the reality:

If your personal motto is, “Leave your neighbor alone. The poor bastard has enough trouble already.” so much the better. If not, keep driving. You’ll save wear and tear on yourself and the entire populace of South Dakota. But if getting full of whiskey and driving your car down main street while shooting at street lights is something you’ve always secretly wanted to try, keep reading. You may have found paradise on earth right here in good old South Dakota.

And…

…wait for someone to offer a political criticism of our government in action and join in with the alcoholic approval, especially if said approval involves the “God-Damn bleedin’ heart gun grabbin’ commie liberals, ruinin’ the whole country.” On no account should you try to stick up for the liberals. If you bought a new gun from Cody, now would be a good time for show and tell. Make sure it’s not loaded.

This is from an excellent piece by a fellow named Jack Diamond. I’m going to watch for more of his travel reviews, because they fit right in with my ideas about myth and legend being so much more entertaining than straight reporting. But I’m not going to use him as a reference to guide my travels anymore. He paints word pictures that are impossible to live up to, in our modern reality.

That should explain why Frogwing and I spent very little time in the city, and why we rode so many miles on the wide open prairie to the west of Fort Pierre.

Another good reason to stay out of town, was the excellent Pierre ORV, or Off-Road Vehicle park.

Pierre ORV Park
Frogwing and I had some real, dirty fun here!

This is a playground the likes of which Frogwing and I have never experienced. After I took this photo, I packed up the camera, lifted all my luggage off of Frogwing’s back, and stashed it near some prominent bushes, where I could be sure to find it again. The great thing about these open prairies is that you can see people coming for miles. I wasn’t concerned about losing my luggage to local bandits.

Fully unburdened, we spent the next two hours bounding over the hills under an enormous blue sky. Some places were built up with moto-cross features. We rolled slowly over the “whoops”, but attacked the table-top jump with gusto. I don’t know if it was the road-biased suspension settings or my own rusty riding technique, but we bottomed the front forks landing that one.

I can tell you this: If there was any cubicle-generated tension remaining in my mind, body, or soul after the past three days on the road, I left it all out there on the dirt trails of the Pierre ORV park. Dirty and sweaty, we returned for our luggage, and headed back to the room to clean up for dinner.

Mike and Jodi Schwinler run a tight ship at the Fort Pierre Motel. Newly renovated, the room was clean, the A/C worked, and the bed was comfy. This was much better than I usually expect at the prices I am willing to pay on the road.

Jodi was at the desk when I checked in, and we had a nice chat about the local attractions. She gave me a local town map, and confirmed my choice for dinner at the Cattleman’s Club to be one of the best in the area. We had several such chats over the course of my stay, whenever I couldn’t think of where to go next.

Myril Arch’s Cattleman’s Club Steakhouse is famous nationwide for it’s simple policy of preparing three or four cuts of beef to absolute perfection. The place looks like a large, modern ranch house with big picture windows overlooking Lake Sharpe.

Hunting prints adorn the walls, and sawdust covers the floor. Guests sit at unpretentious formica tables on institutional steel-framed chairs, with black vinyl cushions. Your steak or prime rib comes with the usual sides of salad, potato, and ranch toast. Nothing fancy here. At the Cattleman’s Club, it’s all about the beef.

Cindy Arch-Blair and Big Twin Hog.
Cindy Arch-Blair runs the Cattleman’s Club, when she’s not riding her custom Harley Davidson.

I had the 16-oz. top sirloin, rare, and with the blend of spices they rub on, I didn’t even need the A1 steak sauce I habitually use. I can’t remember the last time that happened. The Cattleman’s Club Steakhouse goes straight to number one on Rush Hour Rambling’s new Ride-to-Eat list.

Before we left on this epic journey, I wrote a piece in here called “(Portions Unpaved)”. In that, I talked about finding those little towns and settlements at the end of the dotted lines which represent dirt roads on a map. The one such place that I fixated on while planning this trip was called Mission Ridge.

Some thirty miles northwest of Fort Pierre, Mission Ridge lies past the end of route 1806, on a long, dirt road that shares the same name. It does NOT, however, lie at the T-intersection of Minneconjou Road and Mission Ridge Road.

The Lost Travellers...NOT Frogwing's fault.
I might indeed be an idiot. This is not Mission Ridge.

I only found this out after I got home and started writing this piece. In the photo above, you see a confused traveller, thinking he is at the location called Mission Ridge, ready to rename it “Missing Ridge”, because there is nothing there but a T-intersection on a dirt road.

This happened because, instead of following the DeLorme’s Atlas and Gazetteer you can plainly see rolled up on Frogwing’s seat, I followed the directions given to me at a gas station by one Wylie Redwing, a local fisherman.

I met Wylie while filling up at the Shell station in Fort Pierre. Though a native of this town, he has travelled around quite a bit, and even spent some time in Lake Minnetonka, very near my workplace in Plymouth, Minnesota. We had a pleasant chat, and he told me to follow Minneconjou Road to the end. Mission Ridge was right out there somewhere. At least, that’s what I think he said… So I followed his directions, and ended up in the middle of nowhere, about three miles northwest of my intended destination. Then I turned around and went back the way I came.

Maps are wonderful devices, when you actually USE them! This is one reason why I’m not an Ironbutt rider.

Frogwing and I returned, slightly dejected, to Fort Pierre. I pulled out Jack Diamond’s article, and located a couple of places he mentioned on the town map that Jodi had given me. The Possum Lodge sounded intriguing, so I set off in search of that.

Unpretentious in the extreme, The Possum Lodge “Adult Daycare Center” is housed in a corrugated, galvanized-steel shack which used to be a welding shop or something. It is in that part of town which still supports small businesses, and far away from the mainstreet tourist venues. The people I met in there were a wealth of local lore, and I wish I had brought my notebook inside with me. As it happened, I enjoyed an hour or so of their conversation, before heading out on their recommendation to Jake’s Goodtime Place for a meal of hot buffalo wings.

Mark Larsen is the chef at Jake’s, and the wings are his specialty. He offers them in a range of pain from simply hot to Super Nuclear. As a travelling moto-journalist, there are just some risks I have to take, in order to bring you the whole story about the places I visit. Sampling the “Super Nuke” wings at Jake’s is one of those risks.

Habenero peppers are dangerous. I believe they have been weaponized in aerosol form to disperse rioters, for particularly sadistic police agencies. Although I was able to eat several of the Super Nuke wings without hurling them back out, I could feel them lying there in my stomach, emitting their own kind of lethal radiation. After failing to douse the flames with a cold beer, I knew it wouldn’t be long before the meltdown ensued, and I would have to spend substantial time, er, decontaminating in the bathroom. Time to head back to the motel, then, at maximum speed.

Saturday night was spent mostly in my room, for obvious reasons. I did venture out to the Hopscotch club, because it was only a couple of blocks from the motel. This place had been highly recommended by nearly everyone I talked to, with a nudge and a wink and a particularly knowing kind of smirk. As a married man, I do not frequent such places, where young women remove their clothing for fun and profit. Back in my Marine Corps days, however, I became something of a connoisseur in this field. I felt that I owed it to you, my faithful readers, to investigate.

Well, just like the city of Pierre, which has been transformed by the arrival of multi-national commerce, the Hopscotch club has been “cleansed” of the activities that gave it such a bawdy reputation. Ten minutes in that joint, and I was convinced that it was just another urban blue-collar “Gentlemen’s Club”. Nothing remarkable, nothing dangerous, and certainly nothing very titillating for one so jaded as myself.

The ride home on Sunday was almost non-stop. My digestive tract had mostly recovered from the Super Nuke wings, but I didn’t quite trust it to function normally all the way home. Only one gas stop was required, but we made a couple of extra “safety stops” along the way.

One of those was in Nicollette, Minnesota, at a place whose name escapes me right now. But it was there where I met members of the Flying Dutchmen Motorcycle Club. These guys have their own off-road and flat-track facilities, on private land in southern Minnesota. I’m definitely going to be talking to them again. But that is a story for another time.

Frogwing and I have been home for a week now. It’s been a long week of sitting in my cubicle, typing up reports, going to meetings, and generally getting caught up on all the misery I dodged while riding around in the wide open spaces. Existential Gravity always sucks me back to this place, where I suffer for my daily bread. But for awhile there, under that big blue sky, I achieved escape velocity, and savored the illusion of Freedom. It was a beautiful thing, while it lasted.

Huron to Fort Pierre, on US 14

Thursday, May 25th, 2006

Weather: Sunny and warm.

Good Morning Huron!
Early Morning on Main Street – Huron, South Dakota

Note: During times of low traffic volume, the traffic lights flash yellow here. Just ride to the intersection, look both ways, and continue on. That was a pleasant experience.

Part I: The Lodger

The people on the front desk at the Crossroads Hotel in Huron are going to remember me. I’m the guy who, like Goldilocks, had to try three different rooms before I finally found one that was “just right”.

The problem wasn’t that the bed was too hard or too soft, or the porridge too hot or cold.

No, the problem was that I couldn’t park Frogwing right outside my door. (That would have been in a carpeted hallway, and management kind of frowns upon that.) I had to park him across the street from the hotel, or in some underground garage where I couldn’t see him at all from my window.

The garage was out of the question. Nobody knows what goes on down there…

So, I parked Frogwing across the street, and went to check in. The first room they sent me to was on the second floor, on the other side of the building. No sale. The second room they sent me to was situated behind some big HVAC unit, and I couldn’t see Frogwing from there, either.

Frustrated, I walked outside to where Frogwing was parked, and took a careful look at the windows I could see from there. Then I went back to the desk and told them which rooms had sightlines to my motorcycle. I’ve got to give these kids credit; they showed remarkable patience with me. Finally, we settled on a room from which I could sit up in bed and see Frogwing leaning, ever-so-casually on his sidestand.

You guys and gals who used to park your bike inside the room at the roach motel will certainly sympathize with my plight here. Sure, he is covered by insurance… but Frogwing is much more precious to me than that. A brand-new, lime-green version could never replace my O.D. green veteran road-warrior. I couldn’t sleep unless I could see him from the window.

Finally at peace with my accomodations, I went to the unremarkable hotel restaurant for dinner. Then, party animal that I am not, these days… I went straight back to my room, and slept like a baby all night. (Anyone who has actually HAD a baby, knows that they wake up several times during a typical night.)

Despite my slight case of insomnia, I practically leapt out of bed on Friday morning. One more audit to go, and I would finally be free for the weekend! I didn’t even bother with the hotel-room coffee, but downed a Mountain Dew from the vending machine instead. Then I checked-out, reunited with Frogwing, and went out to shoot the photo you see at the top of the page.

The audit went smoothly and, after a nice brunch at the local diner, called “Ida May’s”, Frogwing and I set off down US Highway 14, headed west.

Part II: The Traveller

We wandered through Wolsey and Wessington, stopping here and there to look around. Then we came upon St. Lawrence, population 201, and I just had to stop. Something was tugging at my memory, and it was driving me just a little bit crazy, like an itch you cannot scratch.

Finally, I dug out my wallet, and rummaged through the old business cards stashed in there. Sure enough, I found one with “St. Lawrence Blacksmith Shop, Eugene Porter and Sons” printed on it. On the back, I had written “Porter Sculpture Park”. It all came together in a rush!

Last year, on our trip to the Badlands and Black Hills, my friend Mark Foster and I stopped at the Porter Sculpture Park along Interstate 90. You can’t miss the place, because they have built an enormous steer’s head out of steel, some four or five stories tall, on the south side of the freeway. We were lucky enough to meet the artist, Wayne Porter, and had a wonderful visit with him before continuing our journey west.

It was imperative that I find Wayne’s home here in the little town of St. Lawrence, because who knows when I will pass this way again.

St. Lawrence Blacksmith Shop
Interactive Art at the St. Lawrence Blacksmith Shop

Unfortunately, Wayne wasn’t home. Luckily, nobody else was either. Otherwise, I could have been shot for molesting the sculpture as you see here. At least, that’s what people told me, before I ventured out onto the South Dakota prairies.

But you know what? I don’t buy that. Everyone I met in South Dakota was decent, respectful, and as nice as Americans used to be, back when we were admired by the rest of the world. So much of this state seems frozen-in-time, in the best possible way.

A perfect illustration of this was the fellow I met in Miller.

Frogwing and I rode into Miller, South Dakota, population 1500 or so, in the high heat of the afternoon. We were greeted by this gigantic cowboy…

The Miller Cowboy

At first, I thought those were bullet-holes in strategic locations about his person. After closer scrutiny, I realized that they were anchor-holes for the many neon tubes which once glorified his visage and profile, back when this town was a happening place out here on the prairie. I wondered what it was that he was whoa-ing the traveller for, and directing his attention to. I guess I’ll never know, because the adjacent building was empty and devoid of any clues.

Across the street from this icon, however, was a place called Sommer’s Bar. This was one of four such establishments within a block radius of the giant cowboy. Now, you have to understand that I home-in on these places by pure instinct… and it happened that Sommer’s Bar is owned by a fellow rider named D.C. Herman.

When I walked in, I saw an older, bearded gent, sitting at the bar reading a newspaper. I almost felt sorry to disturb him. Then I looked around…

There was motorcycle paraphernalia scattered all around the place. Sure enough, I had found a home for the afternoon!

D.C. Herman has been riding longer than I have been alive. Much longer. In this photograph, he is straddling a 1947 Harley EL “Knucklehead”, which was only three years old at the time.

D.C. Herman, circa 1950
Sailor D.C. Herman, circa 1950, Diamond Head, Hawaii

As we got acquainted, we realized that we shared one common distinction: We both gave up Harleys for Kawasakis, once Harley Davidsons became too expensive. These days, Mr. Herman has a garage on his property that he calls “D.C.’s Kaw Barn”. In there, he houses his whole family’s collection of Kawasaki motorcycles. The family that rides together, stays together, I guess.

He has a hat that seems to mean something significant to him, although I couldn’t get him to divulge the secret. But he has had a portrait taken of himself, wearing this same hat, over the course of the last five decades…

D.C. Herman: Over and over again.
D.C. Herman, 1956, 1976, 1986, 1996… and now?

…he’s getting ready for his 2006 photograph. He always tries to grow the beard and mustache exactly the same way for each occasion. It’s almost eerie, the way the face never changes, isn’t it?

I spent way too much time in “Sommers Bar”, that Friday afternoon. But that is because I had found a kindred spirit, and a good friend. It’s not easy to leave that behind. He gave me his address, and I will be writing him, the old fashioned way. No e-mail for D.C.

I will leave you tonight with a riddle. This was printed on a piece of paper behind the bar at Sommers, and while I was there, I couldn’t decipher it! This was probably because I don’t drink too much when I am riding. It all became clear, once I was home and properly relaxed…

The sign said:

“VYSDER ZOMENIMOR ORZZIZZAZZIZ DENDERIZ ORZIZ?”

The first person to decipher this in the comments section gets… nothing more than my admiration.

Next time… Fort Pierre, and the ride to Mission Ridge!

Agriculture Alley

Tuesday, May 23rd, 2006

Weather: Partly cloudy and warm.

Little House on the Prairie... gone bad.
An Ansel Adams moment, on the road from Aberdeen to Huron.

Last Thursday, after our business in Aberdeen was done, Frogwing and I took a leisurely ride down South Dakota Route 37 to Huron. This is a road I call “Agriculture Alley”, because there are nothing but farms as far as the eye can see. The prairies are billiard-table flat, and the road is dead straight, all the way to the horizon. The only entertainment comes from the appearance of tiny towns at regular intervals along it’s length.

The towns along 37 are centered around a grain elevator and a couple of other support activities, usually including some sort of bar-n-grill to feed hungry farmhands coming in from the fields. Now, if a traveller wants to know anything about the history of a place, where better than the local watering hole to find out?

Ferney Farmers Bar & Grill... Ferney, South Dakota
The Ferney Farmers Bar and Grill… Ferney, South Dakota

I mean, some “journalists” busy themselves digging through musty old documents in the basement of the county Hysterical Society or library, and that’s all well and good. But if you want to know what’s really going on, and hear the best stories of days gone by, just buy the local geezer a drink, settle in, and listen as he proudly delivers his collection of myths and legends, gathered over a lifetime in a small town.

This is the way history was passed down in the old days, the Grand Oral Tradition. It may not always be strictly accurate from a factual standpoint, but it is guaranteed to be a whole lot more interesting than what you will find in the archives of some long-dead local newspaper.

Take these three fellows, for instance…

Robert, Irvin, and Clem; The Country Corner Club.
Robert and Irvin Troske, with Clem Becker… The Country Corner Club.

If I hadn’t been on a business trip, I might have settled in for a few hours playing cards and soaking up the local lore of Turton, South Dakota. They certainly weren’t in any hurry. “Ted’s Country Corner” was a local cafe that had fallen on hard times, when these three old gents and one other fellow chipped in and bought the place.

These men are all in their seventies or older, and I’m pretty sure they have no intention of running a profitable business here. They just needed the grown-up equivalent of a clubhouse, where they can get together for their afternoon card games and hang out just like they did when they were kids. I enjoyed the short time I shared with these distinguished country gentlemen, and I hope to visit them again someday.

So Frogwing and I poked around quite a bit that Thursday afternoon. Every time we approached the dirt road leading to a little farm town, we turned off the highway and headed for the water tower. That’s the rule I go by, when investigating small human settlements. Water is a precious commodity, and we tend to put our water towers close to the center of our lives and communities. If there is anything worth seeing in a small town anywhere, you will probably run across it on the way to the water tower.

This is how we met up with The Dinosaur.

Dinosaurs still roam the South Dakota prairies.
Dinosaurs still roam the South Dakota prairies.

I was astonished when it came into view around the backside of an old barn. I don’t remember which town we were in, because I was too rattled to take notes. Notice how it tries to blend in with the foliage. The thing was either sleeping, or waiting for us to come close enough so it could pounce, I don’t know which.

At first I thought it looked like one of the first tanks to appear on the battlefield in World War I.

But then I realized that it was some ancient agricultural wonder; an implement of great utility and… oh, what the hell. I have no idea what it is, or was. But it sure was big. Modern art, if you ask me.

Anyway, that was the trip from Aberdeen to Huron. At the end of it, I checked into the Crossroads Hotel, ate a light dinner, and fell into a sound sleep just after the sun went down. In the morning, I would audit the Huron plant, and after that Frogwing and I would begin our weekend odyssey across the Great Plains to Fort Pierre, and beyond.