Monday, August 31, 2009

The Nicest Guys Ever are from South Dakota

(written August 30, 2009)

Wall Drug is for kids folks. Unless you want to buy silly souvenirs, there’s not much need to stop in there. Ironically, the town made it quite easy for me to leave soon after I arrived because the entire town’s power went out. Got on the road and headed to Custer State Park where I was planning on tenting out in the wilderness that night among the buffalo and whatever other wildlife they could throw at me. I have a zero degree sleeping bag with me and a self-erecting tent so I should be fine. Took the exit for the park and realized that the blackout had reached this far too. All the traffic lights were out and no one could sell you gas because the pumps were all electronic now. I had enough to last me the ride through the park and more but since I had a few near missed on “E,” I was trying to be cautious. Got back on the road and realized I was going in the wrong direction because I paid too much attention to the gas station and didn’t see that the gas station was the turnoff for the park. Oh well. By the time I made it back to the gas station, their price light was on indicating power was back on so I got some gas and needed some caffeine.

As I was going inside to get coffee, a man saw my plates and said, “Far from home, eh?” His name was Milty Belt, a retired professor of psychology at a nearby college. He had a black pickup and was very interested to hear about my trip so he waited outside on the bench to chat as I got my drink. We talked for a while and he was awfully funny. Told me how much bales of hay cost ($600-800 for those big round ones), and got a kick out of my city girl ignorance of all things country. Penny, the woman who worked at the station came up to clean up a bit and was saying how she NEVER wanted to go to NYC, “too many people. The only thing I’d want to see is the Statue of Liberty anyway.” They seemed to know one another and I later found out that he lived up the road in Keystone. He asked if I was going to go riding and I assumed he meant horseback. He meant motorcycle riding. Right! I forgot that so many folks around here are bikers because Sturgis is just north of here. There are Harleys everywhere and there’s even a special hand gesture they do to one another when they pass on the road.

Milty asked if I’d be interested in a ride since he goes around the park at least twice a week to get the bike out and enjoy the scenery. He understood if I didn’t want to since I just met him but I assured him that this fact didn’t stop me from experiencing something fun and he seemed to be someone that folks around here knew. We were to meet at the park entrance in 30 minutes or less and on the way, I left a hilarious voicemail for my folks, giving them his name, the cross-streets of the gas station, that he knew Penny who worked there and added that if I didn’t call back in a few hours after the ride, assume the worst. Needless to say, I did. It was a blast. I have never been on a Harley before. He asked and I mentioned my Vespa ride through Manhattan, which was also with a guy I had just met at a gallery opening. But “Uncle Milty,” which was always his nickname, looked at me and said seriously, “that’s a scooter.”

We saw the Needle’s Eye, some buffalo resting along the road, drove through the town of Custer and he brought me back to my campsite where I’d tent that night. He thought I was crazy since it would get down into the 40s that night but I was intent on doing it. The area was situated right on a lake with swimming but it was already so cold. I didn’t even have socks on during the ride because I didn’t think I’d need socks in the summer! I had to borrow proper shoes and a sweatshirt from my “ain’t no junk in this trunk” collection. Thank goodness I hadn’t gotten rid of that stuff yet. The ride was chilly but being behind him cut down on the wind. I thanked him for a lovely ride on his Road King and he wished me safe travels in the future. He said I reminded him of a girl he used to date and she was crazy too. With those kind remarks, he went off into the mountains.

At this point, I was not about to set up tent just yet. I wanted to explore other parts of the park and get something to eat. I happened upon this lodge and a general store. Bought some jerky and cheese (hilarious) for emergencies, a bacon pop for Kobe and went for an early dinner at Blue Bell Lodge. Had the buffalo meatloaf with mashed potatoes and a glass of cabernet, the second drink of my trip so far. Two couples were just leaving the outdoor patio when I sat down so I pretty much had the place to myself. I used the time to take advantage of my weekend minutes and called Matthea to tell her about my ride. As we were wrapping up, three guys came out onto the patio and sat down with their drinks. I felt I might be too loud on the phone so I apologized. They were cool. Told Matthea I was going to go over there when I hung up to join them. Just felt like it. Sure enough, it was a good decision. They were very nice. All married with teenagers, all from eastern South Dakota. They were on a golf/hiking/gambling boys weekend and had just returned from the summit of Harney Peak, a 7,242 feet peak nearby and were doing the rounds at the lodges in the park.

They didn’t seem to believe that I was from New York because I didn’t have an accent and wasn’t swearing so I took out my ID and proved it. We chatted about my trip so far and what they all do for a living: sales, jewelry and telecommunications (Mike, Brian and Paul respectively). Mike was the basketball coach for their kids and that’s how they all met each other. Their kids have been friends for years. Sweet. So they were staying near Deadwood and were heading up there soon to go out to some restaurant and go to another casino. I didn’t know much about Deadwood. Hadn’t seen the HBO show and as with most of the places I had been, didn’t do much research. This was the town where Wild Bill Hickok was shot in the back of the head. He was a gunslinger in town. Deadwood was also a mining town and I got to see a mine from the road. It just kept going down.

The boys invited me to come with them and I accepted. I already trusted they were good men it sounded like an adventure. Brian drove with me and we followed Paul and Mike. I had already eaten but they had dinner at Midnight Star, a restaurant on Main Street, Deadwood, owned by Kevin Costner. He had filmed “Dances with Wolves” nearby and loved the area so he opened his own restaurant and plastered the walls with himself (costumes, photographs, memorabilia from each and every one of his movies). Very humble. I had chocolate cake for dessert and afterwards, we headed to Saloon No. 10, another famous spot. This was where Hickok was shot in the late 1800s. It had sawdust floors, smoke-filled air, blackjack tables, slot machines and young girls in corsets. It seemed to be a trend among the ladies but some of them were wearing them with strap bras, which was just tacky. If you’re gonna wear a corset, ya gotta have your breasts hanging out properly. C’mon ladies! Mike and I played the roulette machine and won $45 in less than 20 minutes. It was fun. Although it was his $5 that started us off, he split the winnings with me. What a generous guy. Paul, on the other hand, was playing blackjack and I don’t think he ended up in the black at the end of the night. But he did get to participate in some very interesting bachelorette festivities and I’m sure that made it memorable. Similar to Hogs & Heifers in NYC, this seemed to be the place to come for your hen party. There were girls all over the place handing out condom bead necklaces and brides-to-be asking for personal items, scavenger hunt style, that she could wear. You could also see penis straws in the drinks of many girls’ glasses strewn across the bar. My new friends were very good at meeting gals obviously. A few they met on the hiking trail snuck up on them at the restaurant that night and later on the street when we were all kicked out, offering us a cab ride home since they ordered a 16-passenger van. See, all the girls must have known that these were the good ones.

After a stroll down the road to another bar that had live music but few patrons, we met another young lady from Colorado who had enough energy to power Deadwood. We assumed she worked there since she recruited us to come in and enjoy the tunes but we think she just felt bad there were no people around and the band was still playing their hearts out. She strangely turned a night out drinking with friends into a lesson about homelessness and how the government could do better economically to house them for free than let them live on the streets due to the high costs of frequent ER visits by homeless individuals. Not sure what this girls major was back “home” but it must be either political science, social work or theatre because she was definitely a character with a lot of research under her belt.

We went back up to Saloon No. 10 to meet up with Brian’s friend Mike who was a realtor in Deadwood and had found his house for him 6 or so years ago. His wife, daughter and her boyfriend were also in attendance and they were a fun bunch! Be sure to check out the photo of Kim’s boyfriend because it was killing me to come up with the actor who he reminded me of. I said Noel Wyle but I think he’s more like this younger actor that was in all of those “American Pie”-type movies. After the saloon closed at 1:30, we all headed to their house for “breakfast.” Mike and Diane actually made a huge spread for a bunch of drunks who didn’t want the night to end. I had drive their Escalade there since these kind gentlemen were in no shape to drive at this point and were responsible enough to let the New Yorker who knew when to call it quits have the keys to gladly chauffeur them around.

Breakfast was fabulous and hanging out with this crew was a blast. We headed home to the house near Deer Mountain. The guys had already offered me a floor in their house to stay over since the park was an hour south and I sure as hell wasn’t interested in tenting any longer. I had a lovely room all to myself and we all crashed immediately. Woke up to see what an amazing property this was. Surrounded by tall Ponderosa Pines with wraparound decks, this lodge in the Black Hills (named by Sioux Indians due to the darkness of those Ponderosas) was the perfect place to chill out and write. And that’s what I am doing. Brian graciously offered the keys to me so I could stay as long as I wanted before I headed out farther west on the next leg of my trip. So cool.

After breakfast with the fellas, as they headed back east for Monday jobs, I chose to go see Crazy Horse and Mt. Rushmore in one fell swoop. It was a beautiful day, perfect for viewing mountaintop masterpieces. They were both incredible. I was worried that I wouldn’t be impressed, having seen so many images of them over the years, but hearing the history and how they were created (and are still being created), was very educational and a cool experience. I even got a piece of the rock blasted away from Crazy Horse for free outside of the sculptor’s studio and plan on giving it to my nephew who will hopefully some day take his family there and see the completed sculpture.

A few things I learned from being out with the guys: no dice games in South Dakota casinos (why, dunno), “motorboating,” “tramp stamp,” “2-bagger,” some guys are sensitive enough to buy the David Foster tribute album from PBS and South Dakotans love to “call bullshit.” Can’t explain here, look it up.

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