I’m gonna give that walrus some crackers. Walruses love crackers…
(This is Part 1 of my road trip. Click here to read Part 2.)
I’m on a road trip with my walrus Alfred.
I’d say I’m on a road trip with my walrus Alfred “to Missoula, Montana” because that’s how this thing started, but that doesn’t appear to be how it’s ending.
I’ve wanted to visit Missoula for two years now, and have been planning this trip since last winter. But 600 miles into turning that 1,500 mile “want” into a “reality” I find myself a bit off course.
Intrigued? With an intro like that who wouldn’t be!
The good times: Let ’em roll…
One of my favorite things to do when I was little was to ride along with my grandma- we call her Mimi- on her Chicago-to-Michigan treks to visit her family there. Every time before we’d set out, she’d say a little prayer for “angels in front, angels behind, and angels on both sides of the car.”
I always liked that prayer.
I always used it, too. Every time I’ve ever gone on a long car trip I’ve said it. Out loud or in my head, it’s borne repeating before my drives to and from Keturah’s in Michigan; to and from Josh and Liz’s in Ohio; to and from LA; to and from Rapid City last October; to and from… Missoula…
The good times: Let ’em hang tight real quick, eh?
Total Lack of Facial Control
So I said my Mimi Prayer this morning and I hit the road. God it was awesome. The freedom of a full gas tank and nowhere to be – there’s nothing else like it.
Tooling along today I kept realizing I was grinning like an idiot to myself alone in the car, all hopped up on the sight of I-90 stretching to the horizon. I couldn’t help it. My mouth just lifted right on open like my teeth were trying to expand into space.
All those beautiful hills rolling past covered in red and yellow trees, a clear blue sky melting into patient gray, acres of cattle and horses, creeks winding through scrub brush gullies, windmills towering over the landscape like alien bird talons, 75 mph speed limits… There’s just an awful lot to grin at between Milwaukee and White Lake, SD. The real trick is in calming your smile back down!
CHS Farmers’ Alliance, White Lake, SD
White Lake, 1st and Main
Ah White Lake. White Lake, South Dakota. Comfortable home of Ehler’s General Store, the CHS Farmers’ Alliance, and not a whole heck of a lot else you can see from Main Street. How’d I come to find myself in White Lake? Well I’m glad you asked.
Y’see, I needed gas. I knew from where the needle was on the gauge that I still had another 40 miles left in Joy, my 2005 Toyota Matrix, and GasBuddy told me there was a Cenex 4 miles away in White Lake, so I pressed on.
As I drove, I came up behind a slow moving cattle trailer, so I got in the left lane to go around him, then almost immediately saw the sign announcing my exit was coming up in 1 mile. You cover a mile pretty fast doing 80, and when the truck you’re passing opts to speed up so you can’t get back over…
Speed speed speed, zip over close in front of the semi, and phew! I made my exit!
The thrill of escaping death with my sweet driving skills was destined to be short lived, however, as a half a block off the exit I heard Joy make a noise I’ve never heard her make before. It was this scrapey, thuddy “buh-buh-buh-buh-bump” that built in volume as I slowed down, followed by a loud THUD as the car came to a sudden and total stop.
I’m no rocket surgeon, but I knew that was probably a bad sign.
I had just circled the vehicle for a visual inspection when a car drove past. Idea! Why walk two blocks into town in overcast 40 degree weather when you, a woman traveling alone, can hitch a ride with a total stranger?
I flagged down the next vehicle that passed, a big green truck, belonging to one Mr. Dan The Pheasant Hunter. Rifles filled his back seat, boxes of shells occupied the front. And there in the driver’s seat was Dan, pleased as punch to meet me.
Dan the Pheasant Hunter
He’ll never forget the time, he says, when it was 10 below and his car broke down near where mine had and no one would give him a ride into town. It shouldn’t be that way, he says. Folks should help each other out if they can.
Can’t argue with you there, Dan.
He drove me the two blocks into town, passing the gas station I would’ve tried coasting to, explaining to me that it doesn’t have gas right now. Neither does the one across the street from it, he laughs. But the CHS Farmers’ Alliance with it’s two quad-pumps does, so we pull in there.
I priced gas containers inside so I could fill one up and carry some fuel back to Joy and Alfred where I’d left them just off the exit. But $11.89 for a 1 gallon plastic jug? My gut cringed, but it didn’t phase Dan any. He just walks on in through the shop door, finds the owner in the back, and asks if he can borrow a gas can to help me out.
“Did you tell him about the girl from out of town who let herself run out of gas?” I laugh.
Dan and the owner then proceed to regale me with tales of their own “out of gas” stories as Dan and I hop back in his truck so I don’t have to walk with the filled gas can, which he pours into the tank for me before waiting to make sure my car starts.
You’re alright, South Dakotans. You’re alright.
Except that– the car kind of doesn’t start. I mean, it turns over, but it won’t move. Maybe I’m just stuck in the gravel? I give it a little more gas, all the time wondering if a low tank was really the problem, when Joy finally jumps forward and I buh-buh-buh-buh-bump back to the CHS, popping to a stop in front of the gas pump.
After a quick call to dad, and an onomatopoeiacally descriptive conversation with the shop owner, we decide the problem is most likely the transmission, which can’t be fixed there in town. Closest help is 12 miles forward in Kimball, or 35 miles back in Mitchell of “Corn Palace” fame. The girl inside the CHS tells me she just had her transmission replaced for $1,800.
I mull this over while waiting for Joy’s ride to Kimball to show up. We will move forward, Alfred and I.
“Like a band of gypsies we go down the highway”
After a brief tour of town- itself rather brief- a big red tow truck shows up to lug me into Kimball. Duane’s the fellow behind the wheel. Drive’s part time for his son, Dan Overweg of Overweg Repair.
Let me tell you: If you break down in South Dakota, you want to break down as close as possible to these guys.
Nicest most helpful bunch of folks you ever met. Duane’s a semi-retired antique tractor restoration hobbyist with 30 years of towing behind him. (Zing!) Dan and his wife Corinne raised three kids while managing the sharpest business in town. And while Duane is towing Joy and me the 12 miles over to Kimball, Corinne is on the phone trying to find me a room for the night. With all the pheasant hunters in town for the season, apparently, lodging is mighty scarce. Dan says not to worry, though, because if there are no rooms left for rent I’m welcome to stay at his and his wife’s house.
You could hug a family like that. You really could.
But Corinne did end up finding me a room. The last one in town. The room at the end of the row at the Dakota Winds Motel directly across the street from Overweg Repair and for a discounted rate. Perfect! And the best part so far was the 5pm check-out time at the DWM because I’m an Overweg customer.
You could hug a town like that. You really could.
Doo-Wah Ditty’s Diner, Kimball, SD
So I haul my bags and my walrus over to the motel and check in with Nathan, the manager. Nice guy. Real friendly. I tell him what happened and where I’d been headed, when he tells me a friend of his just moved here from Missoula about a year ago and ‘too bad she’s not here or you could talk about places to see there when your car gets fixed.’
I head over to my room. Two double beds, TV, microwave, mini fridge, table, strong wifi signal, clean, warm. Score! A quick unpack, then I’m off to Ditty’s Diner across the street for a 9pm dinner of a sandwich and a Diet Coke. It was positively idyllic, except for how the decidedly “Murder, She Wrote” travel-episode-vibe I was experiencing had me wondering if I was about to observe a quaintly bloodless murder I’d get framed for before being bailed out by a retiree in pearls and an argyle sweater.
Fortunately the experience was limited to just the sandwich and the Diet Coke.
I’d just returned to my room when the room’s phone rang. It’s been so long since I heard a land line ring I didn’t realize what was happening at first. And who knows I’m here to call me? I pick up and it’s Nathan, the motel manager, saying his friend from Missoula just showed up with a bottle of wine and they’re going to play Super Mario and do I want to come over?
Heck yeah I do!
He lives on site with his wife, Theresa, and their gorgeous boxer, Baxter, so two minutes later there I was next door, cozied up on the couch with my shoes off and a glass of Moscato in hand, laughing my head off with three strangers at a motel in Kimball, SD.
I fully accept the fact that tomorrow I may be asked to shell out a pretty penny on some major auto repair work. I fully accept the fact that said repairs may keep me in town a few more days, and that I will no longer be able to continue on toward Missoula as transmission work tends to be a bit of a bank buster. I fully accept the fact that this is still a fantastic trip, better than anything I had planned.
Why? Because this is my trip now. This is my adventure. These are my people I needed to meet. These are the provisions I needed to see God make in big and small things every single step of the way during a difficult situation. Good people are everywhere. Adventure is everywhere. God is everywhere.
My pad at the Winds. Stop by any time.
When anything in an engine is gonna go, it’s gonna go. 10 seconds made all the difference between stopping safely, and grinding to a sudden stop in front of a semi on the freeway going 80 miles per hour. That’s timing I can sure appreciate. Then there was the kindness of Dan the Pheasant Hunter in town for the day; the generosity of the guy from CHS; the gentleness of Duane with a poor kid stranded out of state with an unknown car problem; the above-and-beyond helpfulness of Dan and Corinne Overweg helping me find a room and offering me one in their own home; the hospitality of Nathan the motel manager; the warm welcome from him, Sarah, and Theresa; and the absolutely delightful hominess of ending a long, crazy day with a dog resting its head on your leg. More blessings, big and small, punctuating an unexpectedly eventful day.
I’ll know more in the morning as far as what will happen next with Joy, but I’m thinking this will be as far west as I go on this particular road trip. And that’s okay. Because it was still an adventure. I still saw and did what I needed to see and do. I still had God time. I still had New People time. I still had Writing time. I still had Me time. No matter what the financial cost tomorrow: I have no regrets.
Except for Wall Drug. That I will regret missing. I guess it’s time to plan another trip…
Goodbye for now, good ol’ White Lake
ETA (Edited to Add aka Edited to Awesome)
The next morning has arrived- much as expected- and I’m having one of those moments where I’m incredibly glad I didn’t freak out last night or right now I’d be stuck eating my words.
That’s right! My car? It’s fixed!
It turns out a bolt came loose on one of the brakes and fell off and… and that’s it. It was just a bolt. It was just a bolt! I don’t know what my total costs will be, but I do know they won’t look anything like transmission repair costs because IT WAS JUST A BOLT!!!!!
Wall Drug coffee: Here I come!
And I’m gonna take my time making that drive, drinking that coffee. I’m not going to skip the beautiful Badlands as I’d planned. I’m not going to skip Custer State Park as I’d planned. And I’m keeping handy the resolve I developed yesterday that I just might not see Missoula on this particular trip.
I mean– now I really could get there, but if I’m enjoying myself elsewhere, seeing and doing what I needed to see and do on this here drive, then I don’t mind saving the money that longer leg would cost me. I’m already getting in Kimball what I intended to go to Missoula for.
And anyhow it gives me a reason to plan Trip #3 out West, and maybe next time I can bring along a buddy…
“Like a band of gypsies we go down the highway
We’re the best of friends
Insisting that the world keep turning our way
And our way is on the road again.
Just can’t wait to get on the road again.”
– On the Road Again, Willie Nelson