Self Mutilation in Nebraska

This isn't so much a story as it is a set of vignettes drawn from my family's recent vacation. For two and a half weeks, we travelled by car and wimp camped in the Black Hills in South Dakota (home of Mt. Rushmore, the "bad lands", Wall Drug, and Reptile Gardens), Yellowstone NP (mostly in North West Wyoming), and Rocky Mountains NP (in Colorado, right beside the town of Estes Park).

I suppose I could write at length about all the cool stuff we saw at our stops along the way. But for some reason, the boring drives in between seem to invoke my muse more forcefully. Who am I to argue?

Table of contents:

Wall Drug

We're driving through Wisconsin on our way to South Dakota. As we pass Wisconsin Dells the Tommy Bartlet bill boards suddenly give way to Wall Drug bill boards. Wall Drug this, 500 miles. Wall Drug that, 470 miles. Wall Drug has Free Ice Water, Wall Drug has an 80 foot dinosaur, Wall Drug - a great place to poop. There are even Wall Drug signs that advertise other Wall Drug signs ("There's a Wall Drug sign in Egypt!"). It gets quite tiresome.

Once we cross the South Dakota border, the bill boards show up in earnest. Most of them are for Wall Drug, but we also see a lot of signs for Gutzon Borglum ("He Carved the Rock"), and ... could it be? ... REPTILE GARDENS! All Right, Karen and I are excited! Is it close to our campground? Do we have time to go there? Can we get a bumper sticker? (I really want one for my Sun SPARCstation.)

The kids have no idea what we're talking about. <sigh> Modern Youth have no appreciation for High Culture.

By the time we reach the badlands, we're so sick of Wall Drug signs that we could puke. Finally, we see the turnoff for Wall Drug. We cheer as I pass it without slowing down. The siege is over! Free at last! Then inspiration strikes. Now I know what I really want ... a bumper sticker that says:

I drove past Wall Drug WITHOUT STOPPING


We leave South Dakota in search of Yellowstone. This is a loooooooong drive. And although there is a certain stark beauty in the endless Wyoming scrub, it can only hold you attention so long.

It was during a similar long drive many years ago that Karen and I invented a new license plate game. It works best with the 3-letter, 4-number plates; the object is to come up with the "best" assembly language instruction to go with the 3-letter part. For example, "HCF" would be "Halt and Catch Fire". "ICA" might be "Increment and Clear Accumulator". You get the idea.

Alas, the kids have very little patience for this kind of geek entertainment. So we occupy much of our time picking at each other until we finally settle on the "ABC Disease Game". I start by saying:

Karen says:

Becky chimes in with:

And so on.

A little later, Becky has to pee. So we tell her to try not to think about water falls, gushers, or leaky faucets. Then we sing "Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head", "Old Man River", and "Michael Row your Boat Ashore". (This is pay-back time for all the "are we there yet" whines.)

It's a looooong day.

Big Tits

We leave Yellowstone, bidding a fond farewell to hydrogen sulfide and enter the Grand Tetons. "Lookit them big tits!" yells Karen, always quick to offer helpful French translations. (We also had some fun with the Nez Pierce river.)

What can one say about the Tetons, besides "Great View"?

Round about lunch time, we enter the outskirts of Dubois (French for "of the wood"), population 837. Great. Our food prospects promise to be a slice of E-Z-Cheez pizza at a Git-n-Go. I pull over at a Super 8 Motel and ask the clerk where we could grab a bite of lunch.

"The Cowboy Cafe - halfway into town on the right."

Oh boy.

We enter town and discover it's not the tiny ink-spot we thought it would be. Evidently, cowboy kitsch is big business. Western "art", western furniture, western apparel, and western food. The Cowboy Cafe has a matrix of burgers; the vertical axis is typical: "burger", "burger with cheese", "double burger", "double burger with cheese", etc. The horizontal axis is new to me: "hamburger", "steer", "buffalo", and "garden". The waitress explains that steer is leaner than hamburger, and buffalo is leaner still. I stick with hamburger.

After eating, I make a pit stop. Upon entering the bathroom, I am immediately struck by a contraption on the wall. A round hole in the wall, obviously once containing a ventilation fan, is now covered with what looks like a white plastic lid to a large round container (Tub-o-lard?). A smaller hole is cut in the plastic lid, to which a short length of dryer vent hose is attached. This leads to a ventilation fan ... a square ventilation fan, which is mounted to the wall with a coat hanger. Duct tape holds everything together.


I go to pay, and I see another unusual artifact - on top of the cash register is a Far Side calendar.

That clinches it - this place MUST be run by an engineer! My mind reels at the implications. Are we witness to a proto-engineer who just didn't quite make critical mass? Or an old burned-out engineer who started a new life in a foreign land? And an even bigger question - how could an engineer possibly survive without at least a 56K Internet connection? (Does Wyoming even have an ISP?)

As we drive out of Dubois, we pass a coffee shop named "Pony Expresso". We're a loooooong way from home.

Self Mutilation in Nebraska

Our vacation is now over. We leave Colorado and get on I-80 for the long trip back home. Shortly after crossing the Nebraska border, we stop at a rest area for an early lunch. There is a visitor center with little pamphlets describing the many tourist attractions in Nebraska. Here are just a few:

Also in that visitor center is a post card that gives a few "fun facts" about Nebraska. At the end, it says "The long drive across Nebraska is what ever you make of it." Uh-oh.

Dave Barry once asked why we need two Dakotas. He must never have driven across Nebraska. Karen and I have been married for over 15 years. After that long, there just aren't all that many things left that we haven't talk about. And those were covered over the past two weeks. I guess it's time to start over. "Hi, I'm Steve. What's your major?"

But it doesn't take long for our eyes to glaze over and our heads to empty of all rational thought. Primitive urges take over; we are reduced to snarling beasts. At least most of us are ... David is strangely silent. Normally this would be a clear signal that Something Is Wrong, but driving through Nebraska is not normal.

"Hey Dad, lookit this!"
"I can't. I'm driving."
"Just for a second."
"I can't. I'm driving."
"Just look."
"One ... two ... three ... four ..."
"Just for a second."
"Twenty seven ... twenty eight ... twenty nine ..."

Then Karen starts to snort violently. At first I think she's choking. Good - one less person to have to go pee. But no, she's trying to talk and laugh at the same time. After repeated attempts, the ugly truth finally comes out. David has been scratching "tattoos" into his arms and legs with a nail clipper.

My nail clipper.

"Don't worry, Dad, they lick right off!"

Only three zillion more miles to go.