The Grand and Final Dam

I stayed too long at a Starbucks outside Spokane trying to get a post done. As I left the sun was setting, and I didn’t have much time to make it to the Grand Coulee Dam. My parents were in their RV and parked at a campground not far from Grand Coulee, and we were hoping to catch the evening laser show at the dam. I knew I didn’t have time to get to the campground, so I called to tell them I’d meet them at the park itself.

SunsetI made good time and arrived a few minutes before my folks. I walked around the visitor’s center playing with the exhibits meant to teach kids how dams work. I already knew how dams worked of course. I’d learned the last time I was at the Columbia River, on Day Two of my trip when I stopped at Bonneville Dam in Oregon.

My folks arrived and we grabbed some warm gear out of the cars. We knew the laser show was a good half hour long, and it was getting chilly. I wore my sleeping blanket around my shoulder like a shawl. I was getting used to being prepared for anything.

Colorful lasers shot across the flat cement faces on the dam and the show began. It was narrated by the low, booming male voice of the Columbia River itself. He spoke at length about his own power, wildness, and might. He told us the history of the region, and how it was once used by natives before the white farmers came. Then the top soil dried up. He explained how the huge Columbia Basin Project, which built over a dozen dams along the Columbia River, also helped the country get through World War Two. Most of the story was told with a slow, authoritative pace, but he sped up when he started to talk about how the dam was built and how it worked. This was a shame because these were the parts that sounded most fascinating to me. Did I hear him say something about hand polishing the granite bedrock so they could lay the original concrete? I’ll never know.

Near the end of the show there was the obligatory homage to American prosperity and ingenuity. The song “They’re Coming to America” played over the speakers and the laser images showed famous American symbols and landmarks.

“Far,” Neil sang, “we’ve been traveling far.”

The first thing shown in the montage was Mount Rushmore, where I’d been just ten days earlier.

“They’re Coming to America.”

Next up was the Lincoln memorial in Washington D.C., and I thought about standing in the spot in Pennsylvania where Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address.

“Oh, we’re traveling light today.”

There was the Liberty Bell, whose Wisconsin replica sits in the Madison Capitol Building and looks down on the labor protestors who sing there every afternoon.

“They’re coming to America.”Liberty and Propane

There was the striking image of the Statue of Liberty, and I thought about seeing that same statue in Las Vegas, in Birmingham, and on the side of a lonely highway in Nebraska.

“Home, to a new and shiny place.”

A bald eagle flew across the screen, like the pair my parents and I had seen that afternoon flying over Kootenai Falls, or that one perched on the side of the road in Minnesota, or in that birdcage in Dubuque.

“They’re coming to America.”

It took me four months to see America and here it was, flashing before my eyes.

Today. Today. Today.

After the show I joined my parents back at the campground. I pondered the significance of spending the first and last nights of my trip near the banks of the mighty Columbia River. I closed my eyes thinking, “This is my last night on the road. Tomorrow I will sleep in my own bed again.”


Honesty on Uncle Tom’s Trail

Stairs in the TreesI first heard about Uncle Tom’s Trail during a ranger hike along the south rim of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Our guide told us that it was named after Tom Richardson, a ranger from the early 1900s who used to take visitors on a treacherous journey to get the best view of the Lower Falls. Tom would row them across the river and take them down a rickety, 500 step robe and ladder climb.

Today Uncle Tom’s Trail is a 300 step steel staircase, and while it’s much more stable, it’s still quite a trek. The ranger warned that it wasn’t for anyone easily winded or afraid of heights. When the ranger hike was over and the group was walking back, she pointed the interested parties towards the trailhead for Uncle Tom’s. The interested parties turned out to be me and two others, a middle-aged woman and her husband. We started down the trail but hadn’t gotten far before the woman abruptly stopped.

Photo of Stairs“I think I’ll stay here,” she told us.

The man and I continued down, exchanging basic info as we walked. I learned that his name was Chris, and he and his wife were from Colorado. He explained how she is terrified of heights, but had wanted to try anyway. Not long after we left her behind, the dirt dropped off from below the staircase and I saw 50 feet of open air under my feet. The staircase was the industrial kind, woven and open to allow rain to fall through easily. I’m not generally afraid of heights, but even I felt queasy for a moment.

“It’s a good thing she stayed,” Chris told me.

At the bottom of the staircase we stopped to take in the beautiful view of the falls. Chris insisted on taking a picture of me in front of the view, something strangers often insist upon. People back home always complain about how few pictures I’m in, so it seems I’m the only one who isn’t the least bit interested in photos of myself. I suppose it’s because I think I look like a goofball in any picture where I’m standing and smiling rather than trying to look like a goofball.

Me and the Lower FallsChris and I headed back up the stairs, and I told him about my hike up the Grand Canyon in Arizona. He told me about his work as a therapist, and somehow it came up that his wife smokes. A while back they talked about how she needed to stop, and she promised to do so. Now she smokes and lies about it.

“But that’s what addicts do,” he said, “So I don’t ask anymore, because I don’t want to be lied to.” Funny, it still seems like being lied to if you ask me.

We rejoined his wife on the way back up. She had made it a little further down before stopping. Chris and I assured her that she made the right choice, the stairs would have scared anyone. The three of us walked back to the parking lot together, but something felt heightened in me. Somehow I was part of the wife’s lie now. I was an accessory to her smoking when she says she’s not. And I was a part of Chris’s lie too, pretending I don’t know so we don’t have to talk about it.

Chris and I at Uncle Tom'sI’ve been a part of lies before. Every family and group of friends has secrets, and I’ve had several jobs where I was in charge of sensitive information. But I expect to hear secrets from my boss or my best friend. I don’t expect to hear them from strangers. The funny thing is, it happens all the time. On the road, you’re everyone’s sounding board. There’s no reason to keep anything from you, because in 20 minutes you’ll be out of their lives forever. I did the same thing with the strangers I met, telling stories in an open and honest way I know I wouldn’t have done for most people back home.

I’m starting to wonder if we’d all do better with a few more strangers in our lives.


Buffalo Bill Dam

I never thought I’d find a place that was windier than Bandon, Oregon. But such a place exists. It’s nestled in the canyons of Wyoming, just out of Cody on the road to Yellowstone National Park. And it’s on that spot that in 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt thought there ought to be a dam.

Clouds AheadI park my car in the lot for the Buffalo Bill Dam visitor’s center and am immediately thrown back by the wind. The sun is out and the air is bitter. An old man pulls up in a golf cart and asks me if I want a ride. He takes me and a few other recently arrived visitors over to the main center. On the way he warns me of a coming snowstorm.

“Look behind you,” he says. “That’s not rain.”

I look to the west and see the clouds he’s talking about. They do look like storm clouds but I’m not sure how he knows they’ll bring snow. I don’t say anything, but I secretly hope he is wrong. I have to drive that direction tonight.

The visitor’s center is small, and I cozy up to a few other guests to watch a short film about the making of the dam. At the time of completion it was the tallest dam in the world. Three contractors came and went over the course of construction, and the final cost was twice the original estimate. The Shoshone River floods every spring, meaning most work had to be done during the winter. The various contractors faced constant labor disputes over the horrendous conditions.

View DownI walk out onto the dam and it’s windier than before. I look across the beautiful lake and then down to the river punching out below. Somehow I find Buffalo Bill Dam to be more impressive than the Hoover Dam, despite being half the size. Perhaps it’s because the canyon is so narrow and the walls are so tall and steep. My fingers are freezing and the wind is bearing down. I can’t imagine trying to construct anything in such a place. I can barely hold on to my camera.

I hitch a ride on the cart and I see the storm clouds again. I sprint from the cart into my car. The wind has been pounding hard on my head and smacking my hair into face, and the stillness of the cab is a relief. I look towards the clouds on the horizon. They don’t seem so bad. All day I’d seen the beautiful and strange weather of the Wyoming landscape. I’d driven through sun and rain, and seen a dozen different storms on the horizon. This was just one more patch of gray rain.


Storym Wide Angle

Murder in Deadwood

Outside of the Old Saloon #10 a man dressed in stereotypical cowboy gear is sitting on a bench. He suggests I come inside, as they are about to do a reenactment of the death of Wild Bill Hickok. I take his advice, mostly because that is exactly what I have come to see. Prior to my arrival in town some 20 minutes earlier, all I knew about Deadwood, South Dakota was that Stephen Tobolosky was once in a TV show of the same name. With about an hour to kill in town, I figure I might as well find out what killed Wild Bill.

Saloon No 10Inside the bar a waitress directs me to the back room and I take a seat at an empty table. She asks what I want to drink. The true answer is “nothing,” but that seems rude.

“I’ll have a Roy Rogers,” I tell her.

A crowd starts to form and the tables began to fill up. The cowboy comes in and asks for four volunteers. Two people raise their hands. Slowly a third joins. I don’t want to volunteer, but I can’t stand to see a presenter try to work a dead crowd. I raise my hand.

The cowboy takes the four of us behind a curtain to put on our oversized costumes. The only man in the group is given the job of bartender and told to stand in the back of the scene pretending to fix drinks. The cowboy turns to the rest of us and asks if we know how to play poker. I say I know a little. The short brunette shakes her head no, and the skinny blonde seems terrified by the question. The cowboy tells us it doesn’t matter, we just have to pretend. The blonde is turned into a steamboat captain and told she should pretend to get shot in the arm when the gun is fired. The brunette is appointed saloon owner. My character has an actual name and a line to say at the end, which I assume is given to me because I am the only one who isn’t staring blankly like she’s about to be hit by a bus.

The cowboy leaves to do the intro, and both women turn to me with fear in their eyes.

“So you know how to play poker?” the brunette asks.

“We can just pretend,” I tell them. “We’ll pull cards and when you get a bunch that match you can lay them down like you won.” I know it’s not accurate, but I figure it will be easier to do than learn poker in 30 seconds, and it should look good on stage. The women nod.

The cowboy has us come out one by one, each time introducing our characters and explaining what brought us to Deadwood. I don’t hear much because I’m focused on getting to the right spot and setting out our newly acquired props. I sit at the table with the two women and shuffle the cards. They are still confused and nervous, and I keep having to point at them to get them to draw more cards or throw in chips. I look at my hand, slowly replacing good cards with bad. Before long I lay down a flush, and we shuffle again. The cowboy is still talking, setting the scene and telling the crowd about his character: Wild Bill Hickok. I don’t hear anything he says because I’m trying to get the girls to keep moving cards and chips around. I get a straight and lay down my cards again.

Me and Bill“You’re good at this,” the blonde steamboat captain whispers to me.

Thanks. I made up the rules myself.

The cowboy leaves for a moment to switch from narrator to Bill. The same waitress who took my order comes up to the table.

“Anyone wanna buy me a drink?” she asks in character.

The two girls don’t even look up, they’re so focused on our mythical version of Gin Rummy. The cowboy didn’t say anything about the waitress, so I shake my head no.

“Really?” she says, “No one wants to buy me a drink?”

I can hear it in her voice. Something is supposed to happen here, and she needs one of us to give her the cue.

“Okay, I’ll buy you one,” I say. There’s an awkward pause.

“Can I have one of your chips then?” she presses, pointing at the table. Ah, so that’s what she’s after. I hand her a chip and she takes it to our fake bartender to buy a fake drink.

The real show starts when Wild Bill walks into the scene and joins us for a round of cards. His assassin, Jack McCall, enters a short time later. The two have something of an altercation, but I’m not paying attention because a saloon owner and a sea captain keep looking at me to know what they should do next. I can hear the tension mounting between the two real actors, and Wild Bill turns his back to the future killer. The blonde chooses this moment to finally lay down a flush. Wild Bill whispers to her to keep her cards up, and she looks at me confused, as she was pretty sure this was a winning hand. I nod in agreement but motion that she should keep going anyway. She pulls her cards back up.

JB Hickok MonumentWild Bill Hickok is shot in the back. As the actor falls to the floor the three of us jump out of our seats. I say my line and we all run after the murderer. Backstage the sea captain remembers she was supposed to get shot. Both girls are smiling and jittery, and I smugly consider the underrated benefits of my $60,000 theater degree.

We walk back out to take our bows. The waitress has thankfully forgotten to get my Roy Rogers. I leave the bar and head over to my car, ready to get back out on the open road. I still have no idea why Wild Bill Hickok was shot.

Crazy Horse Dreams

I first saw the Crazy Horse Memorial when I was nine years old. I was on vacation with my grandparents, and we went to it right after seeing Mount Rushmore. Crazy Horse is only a few minutes from Rushmore, and is intended as a mountain memorial to the great Crazy Horse, the war leader who lead the Lakota people to victory at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. I remember being so excited as a little kid. Mount Rushmore was a permanent symbol of the greatness of the past. It represented the hard work of men from decades before my time, most of whom were long dead. But Crazy Horse was a mountain in progress. I imagined being an old woman and taking young kids to go see it. I would tell them about the day I first laid eyes on crazy horse, and how back then only a bit of the face and arm had been completed. They would marvel in the way that little kids do, amazed that I could remember something so far in the past. Visiting Crazy Horse, I felt like a part of history.

I was excited to come back and see it again 18 years later. I was excited to see how it had changed. I hoped that the visitor’s center was still laid out in roughly the same way, so I could remake photos that I had taken as a child.

Posing with Crazy HorseI paid my entrance fee at the gate and drove up to the parking lot. From the lot a person can get their first glimpse of the mountain, and that’s where I got mine. My heart sank. It looked exactly the same. Though work had been going on the whole time, the progress was virtually undetectable. I was filed with shame. The white presidents had their mountain made in less than 15 years, but Crazy Horse was permanently stalled. Where were the funds to remember the people who were here first? No where, it seemed. No one cared about Crazy Horse.

I went into the Visitor’s Center to see the collection of local Native American artwork, and to watch the introductory video. The video told the story of one man, Korczak Ziolkowski, who started the project in 1948. When he first began his work, Ziolkowski was completely alone. He built a log cabin near the mountain to live in, and constructed over 700 wooden stairs to get him to the top of the mountain to begin blasting. He worked alone for years before marrying a much younger woman and having 10 kids. The whole family became involved in the project.

Ziolkowski’s wife was interviewed for the video, and mentioned how he had been offered federal funds of more than $10 million on two occasions, but turned them both down. “He believed you don’t stand around with your hand out waiting for the government to give you money.” I did some research online later that suggested he was also suspicious that any federal money would mean federal control, and he didn’t want to risk his larger vision.

The full plan of the Crazy Horse Memorial was something my nine-year-old brain had tuned out. You can see the grand idea in a series of scale models inside the visitor’s center. In the shadow of the great mountain they hope to construct a university campus, a medical center, and a museum. The visitor’s center already includes the museum’s introductory artifacts, but one look at the site plans and you can see how huge the sculpture’s dream really was.

Master PlanI don’t mean to mock Ziolkowski’s belief in private enterprise, but it’s hard to see something remain stagnate for so long knowing the funding was there all along. The great monument to Crazy Horse looks no different now than it did 18 years ago. I even checked my memory against old photos in the gallery to be sure. While Ziolkowski is long gone, his wife, his children, and so many individuals who have become passionate about the project are forced to fight for it, and fight for it using his ideals. Outside of the occasional wealthy philanthropist, the Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation must raise all its money through ticket sales and gift shop purchases.

Before leaving Crazy Horse I bought a souvenir shot glass – my small donation to the cause. Perhaps the lesson I was supposed to take away from Crazy Horse is that sometimes worthwhile work outlives those who know it to be worthwhile. At the current rate, it’s unlikely that anyone working on Crazy Horse today will live to see it’s completion. Like the pyramid builders, they must have faith that future generations will benefit from their efforts.

As I walked out the door I saw a small, laminated sign printed out on plain printer paper. It was given a place of honor right under the sign that says, “Push.” It proclaimed the line Ziolkowski is most well known for, and the one true take away visitors get at Crazy Horse:

Never Forget Your Dreams


The Only Lira de Braccio in South Dakota

National Music MuseumI wasn’t sure what to do for most of South Dakota. All I knew of it was Wall Drug, the Badlands, and the Black Hills. While at least two of those things are well worth the trip, there’s a lot more area to cover when crossing South Dakota. I was worried about being stuck on I-90, watching the blood slowly drain from my veins as I mentally ticked off the mile markers. in Minneapolis I met a member of a tribe located in southern South Dakota, and he assured me that there was more to see if I knew where to look – especially if I got off the interstate. He told me I was better off on highway 18, which runs parallel to I-90 but near the state’s southern border. He also told me to check out the music museum.

StradavariVermillion, South Dakota is not a large town, and the University of South Dakota is not a large school. But tucked away in a smooth stone building on the south edge of the campus, you’ll find the National Music Museum. I walked up to the front counter on a Friday morning, ready to pay my admission fee. The woman said the museum was free on Fridays, and offered me an iPod with which to listen to the audio tour (also free). I took my museum map and iPod and thanked her. I walked into the first room, which was filled with old stringed instruments, including many rare pieces from Europe. And there was a Stradivarius. Like, a real Stradivarius. The kind that sell for millions of dollars. There were several, in fact. As I listened to the audio guide tell me about the most famous violin maker in all of human history, I looked up and around, trying to see if anyone else was as flabbergasted as me to find such a thing in this little corner of South Dakota.

PhysharmonikaAfter checking out the only Lira de Braccio in the Western Hemisphere, I moved onto the next room, which featured members from the most unusual branches of the piano family. There were large organs and tiny keyboards. A few of them were so adorable and compact I wanted to take them home with me. I learned the origin of the phrase “pull out all the stops.” It comes from the organ, which has a numbers of pegs known as stops that control the air moving through the pipes. You would get a very powerful sound if you were to pull out all the stops.

Glass ArmonicaUpstairs I saw horns with no keys, whose sounds were made by the player’s embouchure alone. I learned that the saxophone was, in fact, invented by Mr. Sax of Belgium. I even got to see a Glass Armonica, one of the many things invented by Benjamin Franklin. Inspired by the sound of a wet finger on the rim of a water glass, Franklin designed and built an instrument made of glass bowls, which the musician would play using a moist finger. There was even a tiny metal bowl built in to keep some water nearby.

As my time was running short, I only had a few minutes to check out the player piano, the Indonesian gamelan, and the original heart-shaped trumpet from St. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. On my way out I stopped to look through a few postcards and the woman at the counter handed me a stack of extras for free. The cards had black and white images of unusual music-related scenes, such as a baby inside of a tuba or Mr. Rogers holding a double bell cornet.

Sgt Pepper HornIt’s no secret that the world is filled with tiny surprises like these, and that you’re most likely to find them when you’re not looking. But most travel surprises are valued simply because of their oddity, their contrast to the expected. The National Music Museum certainly falls into that category, but it’s also an objectively interesting and valuable place. It’s a fascinating, well-curated collection of rare and valuable pieces. It’s cheap most days and occasionally free. It’s the kind of place many cities would love to feature as part of their downtown tourist area. But it’s not in a big city. It’s not even on the main road of the small town of Vermillion. The National Music Museum is the most impressive place I’ve ever found on such an unimpressive street. And it is a long way off of the interstate.


Rocks and Oracles

StreamI got to Pipestone National Monument 20 minutes before the visitor’s center was supposed to close.  I had never heard of it before, but I was looking to take a break from driving and I saw a sign on the highway with an arrow pointing off to the side. National Monuments tend to be pretty interesting, and they’re almost always worth the stop. The ranger behind the counter told me that the monument was there to preserve the quarry where Native Americans get the traditional stone for their pipes. Now that it’s a National Monument, only the local tribes are allowed to take rock from the quarries, and even then they must have special permits. The stone itself is seen as sacred.

The ranger pointed towards the back of the visitor’s center and told me that there was usually a craftsperson back there working on a pipe. I followed where he pointed and saw a middle-aged Native American man sitting on a stool and fashioning a pipe by hand. There was another couple already standing there watching him, a husband and wife on the early side of retirement. The man asked the artist if he was part of one of the local tribes, and the artist recited his quarter lineage through an impressive string of vowels I can neither remember nor pronounce. The man laughed out loud at the absurdity of having a name so strange and long.

“So you work and live around here?” the man asked.

“Yes,” replied the artist.

“And where’s your casino?” the man said, chuckling at his own joke. I cringed.

“Up in North Dakota,” the artist replied, without anger, offense, or joy. He was used to it by now. It wasn’t worth correcting the man.

“Oh,” the man nodded. He hadn’t expected an actual answer.

Oracle SignI looked around the pipe museum and gallery until it closed for the evening. Upon the suggestion of the ranger I set out on the 3/4 mile walk to see the quarries. The path was easy and the prairies were calming. The walk occasionally followed along a small creek, and I watched the water forming its path over the rocks. In one corner of the walk I came upon a small waterfall where the members of the J. N. Nicollet Expedition of 1838 stopped to rest for three days, carving their initials into the rock. Nicollet and his men were mapping the upper Mississippi, and I can see why they stopped. The little waterfall is surrounded by full trees that provide shade, and smooth rocks that make for comfortable sitting. The prairies are more hospitable than the desert, but they still benefit from the occasional oasis.

The OracleI continued my walk, coming across unusual formations that had been given names and histories by the local natives. Most of the named rocks were ones that seemed to form faces. Some were endowed with prestige, such as The Oracle. I hadn’t walked far when I got to The Oracle, but I was far enough that I couldn’t see the visitor’s center anymore. No one else was on the path, and I did my best to travel back in time for a moment. I thought about being one of those early settlers, coming across a form of rock so highly valued that the locals made pilgrimages to obtain it. I thought about being one of those natives, and seeing The Oracle formed in the rock. It must have felt like destiny – seeing a face in the sacred stone. I thought about being in my car just an hour earlier, turning off the highway because of a sign and an arrow, and seeing the face of a thousand-year history. I like to think I’m closer to the artist than the tourist, but that’s just my vanity. Perhaps I turned off the road to be reminded of that. Destiny comes in all sizes.