The Vacation From Our Vacation

This blog entry about the events of Sunday, May 27, 2007 was originally posted on May 29, 2007.

DAY 3:  “This place is great,” I told Luciana, the Dutch woman across the breakfast table.

“Yeah, it’s really American,” she said.  We were in the local restaurant next to the Best Western, a place decorated with old 45’s, vintage lunch boxes, and other Route 66-esque paraphernalia — even the booths’ upholstery had Route 66 signs on them. 

“This is what other places [back home] try to be, but it’s all faux,” I told Stacy, sitting at my side.

“Yeah, it’s not faux; it’s fo’ real!” she said.

Speaking of kitsch, I had dubbed the minivan with Rob, Leisa, and Stacy the Kitschmobile, they were were happy to have me back as a passenger.  “You were lost, but now you are found,” Leisa proclaimed.  I hopped in my original seat on the first day in the dark red minivan — or rather, the cinnamon van as Stacy corrected.

The Kitschmobile, along with the other four vehicles in the caravan, headed west on I-90, not to follow a storm but to go on a nearby scenic drive; there were no real promising storms in the area as the guides had hoped for the day previous, and we were in a holding pattern.  Later on it would be determined if we’d head north into North Dakota — or even western Minnesota — or head down south towards the Texas panhandle.  They weren’t sure what to do just yet, but had to choose one soon as not to half-ass two separate options.

And so, that morning we head into the Badlands, one of South Dakota’s main geological tourist attractions.  “It’ll be our vacation from our vacation,” I said.

BADLANDS NATIONAL PARK (picture above), a part of the Badlands area, is (according to Wikipedia) an area with a “type of arid terrain with clay-rich soil that has been extensively eroded by wind and water.  Canyons, ravines, gullies, hoodoos and other such geological forms are common… [they] usually have a spectacular color display that alternates from dark black/blue coal stria to bright clays to red scoria.”  The Badlands are (and forgive me for the bad joke) so bad they’re good, particularly for paleontologists — it’s where dinosaur digs still go onto this day.  We didn’t dig, only shot — pictures that is, at various overlooking points amongst other groups on family road trips.  We stopped for a while at the head of the Saddle Pass Trail for a quick optional hike.  I trekked up for a bit with guide Bob, a guy who reminded me of Ron Howard in his facial features and his voice.

Driving out of the Badlands, we rode through a prairie, a range where it was cows — not buffalo — who roamed, where the deer and the antelope… just stood around and stared at us.  The region was full of animals — turtles, frogs, prairie dogs, rattlesnakes — and even a huge dinosaur, in cement form at the head of the exit for the town of Wall, SD, where we stopped for a lunch of Subway and Dairy Queen. 

Wall was particularly of note because of its famed institution, Wall Drug, an old-fashioned drug store-turned-emporium of western kitsch, with billboards announcing its location from 500-miles away (much like the Mexican-themed kitsch tourist trap South of the Border, SC off of I-95 on the east coast).  It was established in 1931 by Dorothy and Ted Hustead, who took a dilapidated little store and made it their own business.  However, early business was bad — not a soul was stopping in — until Dorothy decided that they’d advertise that they had free ice water.  Word caught on to all the thirsty travelers riding cross country and soon, as Jenna the writer put it, “an empire was born!”

Time didn’t really allow for all of us to go to Wall Drug from the Subway sandwich shop we were in, but Stacy and I devised a plan to do a quick recon mission with the help of Jenna, who was tagging along our caravan in her own car.  She also wanted to go to Wall Drug since she promised her boyfriend a Wall Drug t-shirt if we were ever in the area.

“Do we have time to go to Wall Drug?” Stacy and I pleaded to tour leader Bill.  He looked at us with concern for our well being.  “I don’t want you walking there.”

“[We’re going with Jenna,]” I said.  “[She has her car.]”

“Okay, ten minutes.”

The ten-minute mission was a quick in-and-out.  We drove the few blocks to the city block-sized store and walked down the aisles of kitsch: dolls, pottery, cowboy hats, shot glasses, those pictures of wolves on log chips, and stuffed jackalopes heads and went to the t-shirt room to do some quick purchases.  Stacy and I bonded with Jenna, who was also a fan of cheesy, kitschy things.  “So are you a part of the Kitschmobile Crew?” I asked.

“In spirit,” she answered.

The mad rush to Wall Drug was barely necessary because weather data had’t really changed and we were still in a holding pattern.  “I’m perfectly happy right here [in Wall],” Bill told the other guides in the Subway.  And so, our caravan went to downtown Wall, which had become a boomtown of kitsch with many competing souvenir stores and “museums” surrounding the originator.  I killed more time at Wall Drug, checking out the goods and posing with the plastic prospectors and fortune tellers, wondering if we would continue this “vacation from our vacation” by going to Mount Rushmore — only two hours away — if storms weren’t looking good. 

“WHEN I GET INTO SITUATIONS like this, I asked myself, ‘What would Bill Reid do?’” Bill Reid said over the radio.  We had left the town of Wall and head eastbound, away from Rushmore, to follow a developing storm — the only thing that had any sort of promise in the area.  It wasn’t too far away from Wall that we stopped in a little parking area by a local post office to stretch our legs, write and send some quick postcards, and assess more weather data. 

The debate was whether or not to chase the nearby storm — it was possible that it would evolve into something big — or just start heading down south towards the Texas panhandle where tornadoes were more likely the following day.  Optimistic Bill chose to bring us north and east up Rt. 14, watching the storm linger on the radar.  We weren’t the only ones skeptical about the storm; we noticed another storm chasing tour group parked somewhere, most likely assessing their situation as well.

OUR VACATION FROM OUR VACATION continued as we drove through a beautiful Microsoft XP wallpaper image, crossed the Missouri River and entered Pierre, SD, a major city with a many fast food restaurants and car dealers on the main strip.  Pierre was not only the capital of the state, but apparently the capital of little casinos; almost every establishment we drove by was a [slash] casino: car wash/casino, Subway/casino, Dairy Queen/casino.  Leisa joked the domed capital building was the capital/casino.  We took a pitstop at a gas station/convenience store/casino, where I actually stepped into the shady back room to play a quick game of video blackjack.  I won the first hand but then lost the next three — but one thing I did win during our pitstop was a speedy trip to the only unisex bathroom.

“I’m the fastest person to go to the bathroom,” Jenna the writer claimed in line ahead of me.  “Time me.”

Thirty-seven seconds later, it was my turn.

AMONGST THE THINGS I’m interested in when I’m away on a vacation are the locals.  In the mid-west, locals were as almost “foreign” to me as people of another country — they say things like “sack” instead of “bag” when packing up your things at a store.  Many of them lived up to the stereotypical mid-westerner with beer guts and beards, like the one guy talking to me and Sacramento James on line.  “That guy’s shurr got a lot of fancy equipment in his van,” he pointed out to us, not realizing we were wearing our Tempest Tour storm chasing t-shirts

“That’s us,” I told him.  “We’re storm chasers.”

The other thing I noticed about people in these parts is how more patient they are — in fact, no one made a fuss when two guys on line paid by writing a check, something not uncommon.  Try doing that in New York these days, and you’d probably start a little riot.

However, waiting is something we newbie storm chasers became accustomed to, especially when the storm we were tracking still hadn’t evolved into anything fun yet.  New data showed that maybe a supercell would form by the time it got to North Dakota or even Minnesota, and we debated whether or not to chase a storm that might not amount to anything, or save driving time for the next day by heading south already.  Farther northeast we drove anyway, until we stopped again on the side of the road for the guides to have a quick meeting about what to do.  It was then we discovered the storm had dissipated.

“The atmosphere completely capped,” Brian explained to us in a kind, apologetic manner.  “It happens.  Many times.”

“Looks like a big dud today,” Bill’s voice said on the speaker.  With that said, we started our journey back south.

“WE’RE ACTUALLY ON A TOUR of rest stops and truck stops,” I told my compadres in the Kitschmobile Krew (spelling intended) as we stopped in Murdo, SD for yet another pitstop.  Stacy said that we were on tour “urinating our way across the Great Plains.”  Much to our chagrin, we had no time to stop in next door to Murdo’s crowning tourist attraction, the Pioneer Auto Museum, claiming to have really big vintage cars and even the original General Lee of Dukes of Hazzard fame.  Instead we drove off, left to our own devices in the car.

“Since we’re in the state they filmed Dances With Wolves, we should give each other Indian names,” suggested Stacy.  Double camera bag-toting Rob became Many Cameras; wise-cracking Leisa became She Who Cracks Wise; Stacy was dubbed Princess Giggling Jackalope; and I became He Who Sleeps With Mouth Open (picture by Stacy).

Our name game was interrupted by chatter on the radio.  “I see the first Wheel Of Fortune of the day that I’m aware of,” Bob announced, sharing his weather data.  “Just south of North Platte, [Nebraska].”

“Think we’ll make it there in time?” I joked.  While North Platte was our final destination of the night, we were still six hours away.  “Maybe it’ll hold.” 

“Oh, there’s two,” Bob said, finding another rotating Wheel Of Fortune supercell.

“He’s just trying to make us miserable,” said Princess Giggling Jackalope.

It was a long ride back down to the central part of the Cornhusker State.  We drove down Route 83, passing through the quaint town of Valentine, where American flags waved proudly on almost every lamp post.  “That’s nice how they do that here,” Leisa said.

“I think it’s for Memorial Day,” Brian noted.  “Sometimes you forget.”

“Oh, so I guess it’s not for Charles Nelson Reilly,” said She Who Cracks Wise.  (The Match Game regular of the 1970s had recently passed away.)

“OKAY, LET’S TRY to see something today,” Bob suggested to his fellow guides on the radio.  And, as if tour leader Bill called up Mother Nature to request a fireworks show for us, we drove right towards an awesome lightning storm, conveniently on our way to North Platte, NE.  The distant lightning got closer and closer in the big expansive sky.  Different kinds of electric bolts — mostly side-winding “crawlers” — flashed through the sky, each one generating 1.21 gigawatts of awe in all of us.  It was just what we needed on an otherwise uneventful storm chasing day.  Bill was happy to at least deliver something.

“If it’s any consolation, there were a lot of chasers in South Dakota,” Bill apologized in the next morning’s briefing.  “But as one chaser said, ‘That’s chasing.’”

I didn’t seem to mind; that’s the nature of storm chasing.  And when it’s a slow day of chasing, I say it’s fine to take a vacation from it.


There’s a chain of gas stations in South Dakota called “Kum & Go.”  Rob and Leisa used to giggle about it when they first encountered one on a previous road trip, but it got stale because they Kame and Went so many times…

Next entry: The Perfect Storm

Previous entry: The Thrill Of The Chase

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Comments for “The Vacation From Our Vacation”

  • hold on…hold on, is that dinosaur from Pee Wee’s Big Adventure?

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/29  at  04:30 PM

  • In American Gods by Neil Gaiman, he says that roadside attractions are American’s most sacred places.  In Europe, when they found a spot with a strong spiritual pull they bulit a church.  In American, when we feel the land has a special spiritual nature, we build roadside attractions.  Both churchs and giant dinosaurs draw people from hundreds of miles away to come worship at their alter grin

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/29  at  04:40 PM

  • MARKYT:  I don’t know, but I’d like to think so. 

    STEPH:  Yes!  Funny, I wonder what archaeologists of the future will think of us, digging up roadside attractions like that…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/29  at  05:45 PM

  • Erik - Ive just finished reading “the Alchemist” after reading about it on your RTW blog.  Now i see why so many travellers travel after reading it.  I do wish i could speak to the sand, the wind, the sun and the hand that made it all though.  If i could i think i’d say “stay out of my shoes”, “stop messing with my sweet hair”, “try to find your way to Scotland” and “good effort” respectively.  Ive now moved on to “Vagabonding” by Rolf Potts which im quite excited about. 

    I really like those storm pictures.  You must be coming close!  I’ll keep my fingers crossed for all you guys today.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/29  at  05:51 PM

  • RSS feeds are now correctly linking…

    Tips accepted…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/29  at  06:18 PM

  • Hah, I thought PeeWee too!... but this website says it isn’t. (’s_Big_Adventure)
    Maybe we’re confusing it with the Flintstones drive-in dinosaur?

    Cool lightning pictures grin

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/30  at  07:14 AM

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This blog post is one of nine travel dispatches from the trip blog, "The Global Trip: Twisted," which chronicled a tornado chasing tour of the American midwest in the late spring of 2007.

Next entry:
The Perfect Storm

Previous entry:
The Thrill Of The Chase


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