Roads Trip: With A Vengeance

(This is Part 2 of my road trip. Click here to read Part 1.)

Back on Track

After getting my brakes fixed in Kimball, SD on Wednesday, I was ready to hit the road again. It wasn’t what you’d call “fun” authorizing a $91.01 credit card receipt for unexpected towing and repairs, but given that I thought I’d be shelling out upwards of $1,500 for a new transmission it was all I could do not to add hearts and smileys to my signature. Thanks Overweg Repairs for the good news, the quick work, and all your helpfulness!

Following up auto repair costs with a peaceful drive through beautiful country is a pretty good way to cool one’s head, I’ve found. I got to cool mine over the next 174 miles to Wall, SD, home of the famous Wall Drug.

I spent some time wandering through the stores inside the Wall Drug complex, taking particular pleasure in the home decor shop. Not for the decor itself- though there were some pretty sweet hand made clay mugs I wouldn’t have minded taking home- but for this gorgeous, over-sized, hard cover book on Harvey Dunn. Page after page of artist history and full color pictures of all of his work. Beautiful.

Alfred at Angela’s house

I’m not even sure why I enjoy his stuff so much. Western and prairie themed art isn’t generally my thing, and there are a few of his pieces I’m a bit *meh* about. But all in all that fellow’s work really brightens my day. Maybe it’s the Laura Ingalls Wilder fan in me…

After lunch and a cup of their nickel coffee, I hopped back on I-90 for Rapid City to meet up with Angela, an amazing woman I met through my friends Katharine and Haakon at their wedding this summer.

My first stop in town was Prairie Edge, a beautiful store that specializes primarily in Lakota artwork, books, and music. It was all pretty incredible. One of those places I could spend an awful lot of money. You know– if I had an awful lot of money to spend. In the end all I bought after an hour of wandering was a braid of sweet grass. I can’t wait to hang it up in my apartment. Mmm-mm-mm.

After Prairie Edge I was off to catch the end of the salsa class Angela teaches on Wednesdays. We hit up Firehouse Brewing for wine and appetizers after the class, before heading back to her house for blogging and paper grading.

It was all just so incredibly… good. It was… relaxing. It was… homey.

It was one of those times that makes you feel like whatever it is you’re doing it must be the right thing because everything in the air around you is so calm and peaceful and fun.

Hi honeys! *scratch scratch scratch*

Since I was enjoying my time in Rapid City so much, we talked about the possibility of my sticking around for another day or two, an option I seriously considered. In the end, however, I decided to press on toward Missoula, MT by way of Custer State Park so I could complete the trip I’d set up for myself, and see the buffalo and visit with the burros again while doing it.

(Coincidentally, my drive through Custer on 10/20/11 was exactly one year to the day from when I drove through with my mom last year. Good times.)

And there they were, in all their furry, dusty, sunny glory. Mile after mile of herds of buffalo and pronghorn antelope, flocks of wild turkeys, acres of prairie dog burrows, and more long-eared burros than you could possibly scratch and feed and chill with in one day.

But I did try my best. ;)

Official State Dinosaur of Wyoming: Triceratops

Back on the road I tooled along 16W, heading through north eastern Wyoming as I worked my way back to I-90 to get to Billings, MT, my last stop before Missoula.

I wasn’t to reach Billings last night, however. No Billings. No bunking with more new friends from the wedding. No early morning start to Missoula today (Friday). In fact, at this point it looks like I won’t be making it to Missoula at all this trip.



Somewhere between Sheridan, WY and Aberdeen, MT I found myself behind a semi traveling about 60 mph on a 75 mph stretch of road. When it’s Montana Dark at 7pm on a lonely highway I don’t mind driving 60. Fact is I’d prefer it. And after passing a 10 point buck standing alongside the freeway just a few minutes before, I was really looking to go something closer to 25. But there I was, a mere 100 miles from Billings, and wanting so badly to be done driving for the day. So I pulled up next to the semi in an attempt to pass it, when my headlights latched on to a dead deer in the middle of my lane directly in front of me.

Oh no…

With the semi to my right and no shoulder to my left, I had no choice but to center my car over the deer in an effort to clear it and cause as little damage to my vehicle- and myself- as possible, slow down as much as I could before impact, and hope for the best.

It sort of worked?

You would not believe the smell…

After running over Bambi’s mother, I slowed way down and pulled into the right lane, scanning the road for any sign of an exit. The car felt okay, but you never know. A half mile later and there was a scraping sound coming from under my car. A loose splash guard? A loose hose? A loose DEER FACE?

After a couple more miles of nothing, I came upon the Aberdeen exit (with a sign beneath it reading “No Services”) and pulled off the freeway to survey the damage in the damp, 40 degree darkness of an unlit exit under a patch of Big Sky unaware it’s supposed to feature moonlight.

Like you do.

I shut my car off, turned on the headlights, popped the hood, and opened the flashlight app on my phone. (I promise this is the last time I travel without a real flashlight.) After a brief survey of the underside of the car, I determined I could poke off the majority of the entrails with the ice scraping end of the snow brush in my trunk. And as my right splash guard had, in fact, come loose, I decided to thread the rope from my trunk (rope my mom and I made at the Laura Ingalls Wilder house in DeSmet, SD last October) through the guard and out from under the hood.

Scrape scrape scrape, tie tie tie, close the hood, hop in the car, turn the key… turn the key… TURN. THE. KEY… Nothing. The headlights are on, the emergency flashers are still going, the car’s only been off about 15 minutes, and now: tick-tick-tick-tick-dead.

Hoo boy.

I called my brother and had my second “mimicking weird car noises into the phone” conversation of the trip, during which time he gave me the Montana Highway Patrol phone number. I call ’em up and they say they’ll call dispatch to send me a tow truck, and that I should sit tight because I’m pretty far from everything out there on the reservation so it’ll be at least an hour before anyone can get to me.

Hoooooo boy.

And so Alfred and I bundle up with hats, scarves, blankets, and a pillow, and we wait. And it gets colder. And the flashers keep flashing while we shiver, and watch our breath, and wait some more.

Joy Ride #2

An hour later I’m experiencing tow #2 of this trip, Joy bouncing along behind me on the bed of  the big white truck taking us 50 miles north to Hardin, MT, itself only 50 miles shy of the evening’s intended destination of Billings.

Paul, our driver, and I pass the time chatting about life, travel, his kids, the books his wife writes, the locations of some of the reservations in the area (we are on a Crow reservation, “but I am Blackfeet,” he grins), and some of his past hauls. One haul in particular, he says, was very sad. He told me about it when we passed a sign announcing the approach of Little Big Horn.

“Wait. THE Little Big Horn?” I ask. “As in ‘The Battle Of’?”

“That’s the one!” he says. “Folks come here from all over the world asking to see the place where the Indians won. They just can’t believe it. That’s what they call it. “The place where the Indians won.” I haul drivers from Australia, from Spain… They all tell me they came here to see where Custer lost and the Indians won. From Germany… There was a family one time from Germany, and they had just flown in and they were still jet lagged from flying. They rented a car and drove to Little Big Horn, and on the way the person driving fell asleep and drove into the cement divider on the freeway. They all died. Very sad. That’s a very sad message to send back home to Germany.”

I ran over a dead deer and walked away from it. That entire family died and Paul hauled it all away.

The Bad Adds Up Faster…

We reached Hardin, MT and Paul dropped me off at a Super 8. $80.14 for a single night’s stay. Not terrible, but when you thought you’d be sleeping somewhere for free it stings. But what’s one night, right? They’ll look at my car in the morning, jump it, scrape off the deer goo, make sure nothing’s shaken loose or being nudged by bones, and I’ll be back on the road.

How you fix a splash guard. In the dark. Without the right tools. In the middle of nowhere.

Except that morning comes and I learn XYZ Towing and Repair won’t be looking at my car until Monday, three whole days from now. And that’s at the earliest. They also said it usually takes one to two weeks for a AAA insurance claims adjuster to make it out that far. And that it takes at least a week for parts to come in for Toyotas. And that I’ll need to book a room for at least three more nights now to get me to Monday, and perhaps as many as ten or more if the car requires any serious work.

So I cried.

I’d made it through all the other things that came my way on this trip, but for that news? For that news I sat there in the lobby of the Super 8- having just checked out since my reservation was only good until 11 am- and wept.

All day it was like that. Back and forth with the insurance company, with the repair company. No times, no guarantees, no real information. Just me fumbling around with my options and asking XYZ if there’s any way they can take even just a peek at my car before Monday since I’m sure it’s something simple. But no. They’re behind schedule and I’m at the end of the list. And towing it 50 miles to Billings wouldn’t even help, it turned out. It’s a much larger town with more repair shops to choose from, but it would be $275 just to tow my car up there, and I’d still be waiting until Monday to have my vehicle looked at, and all for what I suspected was just a battery in need of a jump, and undercarriage in need of a “thumbs up” from someone with a trained eye.

Weeping like that was the easiest part of the day. I was glad I didn’t still have my hotel room or I knew I’d’ve just crawled back into bed and cried, getting nowhere, accomplishing nothing. Thank you, Super 8 staff, for letting me make calls and cry in your lobby. I don’t know where I’d’ve gone without you.

…But The Good Adds Up Higher

The magazine in my desk drawer is an April 1995 NatGeo, and the owner rescues strays. Stay here.

I approached the on-duty manager at the Super 8, a friendly woman named Carla who wears her eyeliner the same way I wear mine. I told her what happened, said I couldn’t afford to stay there for $80 a night with as long as I’d be in town now, and asked if she knew anywhere I could stay for less.

I’d barely finished my question when she picked up the phone and called her friend Charlotte, the woman who runs the Lariat Motel and who works in animal rescue, primarily picking up stray dogs and cats from the area reservations so she can get them healthy, happy, and adopted. Today I would be one of her rescues.

Not only did she give me a special rate (which I won’t mention here just so folks don’t show up asking for it), but she even closed up shop at the motel so she could drive over to the Super 8 and pick me up so I didn’t have to walk. Then when we arrived she knocked another $5 a day off my rate, and told me she’d call Father Fabian at the local Catholic church and ask him to pay for one of my nights.

“Are you sure? Can I do anything for him? Does he need help? I can help him. I’m pretty good at office stuff. Or I could clean–“

The pink triangle in the foreground is the edge of a double bed, where I’ll sleep to the tune of silence and dogs.

“Naw, don’t worry about it. That’s just what he does. He likes to do that. To help out travelers when they’re in a rough situation. He doesn’t need any help. I just call him when people come through that I think could use a hand.”

I owe somebody a hand.

I get up to my room to unload my bags and almost immediately the room phone rings, and just like back in Kimball, SD it was the motel manager on the line with good news.

“Just wanted to let you know Father Fabian’s going to pay for two nights.”

I owe somebody two hands.

“Oh, and come on down when you’re finished and you can meet today’s rescues.”

In the front office she’d told me about the three puppies she rescued from the Pryor Reservation today. When I expressed an interest in seeing them she said she’d be happy to show them to me. When times are weird, everything gets just a little more sane if you can work in some animal time. So I ran back downstairs to Charlotte, who directed me to go through the garage and said I’d find the puppies out back, and not to worry about their big bellies.

Me-First! is the one climbing onto my lap. Sneak-In-For-Attention is the one on the ground.

“They’re just big because they’re full of worms,” she laughed. “But I fed them some good food and gave them worm meds so they’ll be better real soon.”

And wouldn’t you know they were just the friendliest pups you could ever hope to meet? One was very timid and came out and mrowled for my attention just once, but then backed into their sleeping shed to hide amidst piles of blankets. I tried coaxing him back out, and he let me scratch his belly when I wiggled my way through the tiny shed opening, but he never did more than peek his head around the corner after that.

But the other two? Merciful heavens! They were scrambling all over each other for my attention the entire time I was out there! Both were so eager for time and touch it was all I could do to keep up with the “Pet me first!” demands.

The larger one would wrestle his way in close to me, then put a paw up on my leg and sit very still while I scratched his back and belly and cheeks. No growling, no barking, no scratching. Just licks and paw pats. The smaller one was equally quiet as he attempted to wiggle his way under his buddy to sneak in a few pets and scratches for himself.

They were all absolutely adorable. If I lived around here I think I just might be in danger of adopting a few too many of Charlotte’s Whelps…

Strange When You’re A Stranger

I eventually pried myself away from the little dudes at 5 o’clock and made my way back to my room to start writing this post, when my cell phone rang. It was the repair shop.

“Hi it’s XYZ Repair. You can come pick your car up.”

“I… What?”

“Yeah, we were able to take a look at it. *irritated sigh* You can come get it.”

“I… What?”

“The deer didn’t do any damage. We jumped it and it’s running fine. We close at 6. When can you get here?”

“I… Well I just checked into a motel… Can I pick it up tomorrow?”

“If you can’t get it by 6 tonight then you’ll have to wait until 9am Monday morning and there’s a $25 per day storage fee.”

“Well how far are you from 7th and Center? I would have to walk to go get it and it’s raining now, so maybe I could pay over the phone and you could leave the keys–“

A rescue, with a belly full of worms. But see the blur as the tail wags…

“We can send someone to get you. The total cost for the inspection, jump, truck charge, towing, and for having us look at it today instead of Monday *another irritated sigh* comes to $511.”

“I… What? Five hun–what? I… Yeah, great. I’ll be waiting outside when your guy gets here.”

They sent Paul, the tow truck driver from last night. His friendly face helped soften the $511 blow, which I believe will be reimbursed by my insurance as a “travel interruption” cost? Hopefully? I like Paul. I like that he has a job. He’s the reason I’m not including the name of the place that towed me and looked at my car. They weren’t very helpful, their attitude toward customer service was lousy at best, and their rates were ridiculous. But Paul was alright. After dropping me off at XYZ today he parked the shuttle van and came back inside wearing a paper cone as a hat, and a grin. He’s good people, Paul is.

And so here I am in a motel room I learned about through Carla at Super 8, being paid for by Father Fabian, with Charlotte the Lover of Strays looking out for me. Joy is parked outside. Alfred is snuggled into the bed. And tomorrow I leave for Milwaukee.

Missoula will just have to wait.

And that’s alright too.



  1. “When times are weird, everything gets just a little more sane if you can work in some animal time.” :)

    Sounds like a great adventure. Every journey could use a little providence, eh?

  2. I have to hand it too you dear, you handle these things so much better than I would. I love that you can find those small good things and let them wash away all the s…. Next summer, when my wife and I will cover those same roads on our trip to the Bitterroots and the Olympic penninsuula I will think of yours for sure. The west is beautiful, compelling and stern. I very much look for your return to “Little House in the Big Woods” country. I do find it odd that your battery could lose it’s charge so quickly for no apparent reason. Perhaps a temporary short circuit of some sort kind caused by the conductivity of the deer parts. See ya, Doug

  3. Oh man, what an adventure so far. Maybe I should’ve waiting to interview you on my podcast until AFTER this trip! What insights and lessons learned!!

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