Almost there...

Monday, August 12, 2002

First, a bit of back story. In Reno on the first day, we left the casinos, after Kevin shot his wad, and started what would become a two thousand mile tradition: Dairy Queen. We had lunch, and our first of a series of chocolate dipped cones. Slowly, over the course of the next few days, we realized we had a tradition. Once a day, whether we needed it or not, we stopped for a chocolate dipped cone. In Idaho, in Montana, Wyoming, in South Dakota, and Minnesota

So by arriving in Keystone that night, we had gone another 200 miles beyond where we were planning, which turned out to be a good thing. This gave us plenty of time for Mt. Rushmore and Jewel Cave.

Mt Rushmore is self-described as the “Shrine of Democracy” but I couldn’t help noticing that it truly seemed to be a particularly good allegory for America in general. It was most assuredly the Shrine of Consumerism. Mt. Rushmore had the largest gift shop of any attraction we’d been to so far. They had Mt. Rushmore keychains and tumblers and puzzles and t-shirts and figurines and pens and pencils and well, heck, if it was ever logo-branded in America, they had it there with a Mt. Rushmore stamp on it. Then they had another “bookstore” inside the museum. As we emerged from the museum and ampitheater space, we noticed Abe Lincoln standing on the plaza. Well, okay, an actor playing Abe Lincoln. He looked pretty darned authentic from his stovepipe hat to his beard to his long lanky body. Everything, except the Reeboks he was wearing.

We headed out of there and down toward Jewel Cave. So far, they’ve discovered 127.8 miles of Jewel Cave, but they believe there’s about 5000 miles of cave, not to mention all the other local caves. We don’t get that sort of thing much in California since most of the state is so close to sea level. But there above 3500 feet, you can go down a long ways before hitting the water table. Pretty cool to imagine that you really could live underground there. On our way out, we stopped at Dairy Queen for our daily dipped cone, and through Custer State Park on and on to Wall Drug.

Wall Drug. I’d never heard of it before this trip, but everyone I talked to about the trip said two things: one, that they hoped Kevin and I would still be friends after this, and then followed that up with a terrible road trip story; two, everyone said, ‘Oh cool! You get to see Wall Drug!” I had no idea. Wall Drug is not a drug store. Perhaps it was at one point, but now the drug store section of Wall Drug pales in comparison to your average Rite Aid, but the rest of it, is something else entirely. It’s a restaurant. It’s a soda fountain. It’s a mall. It’s a fudge shop. It’s a tourist trinket shop. It’s a leather shop. Heck, it’s a whole lotta things. Out in the backyard we took pictures on the Jackalope,.had our free ice water, and watched the T-Rex come to life. Then we sat down for our 5 cent cup of coffee, and Kevin had a slice of pie. Several hands of Fluxx later, South Dakota was Kevin’s for the Fluxx road trip championship. And we were off again. As we left town, the sun gave us a real show. Gorgeous.

Heading toward the Corn Palace, we realized we’d need to stop there in Mitchell for the night. Surprisingly enough, the reach of the Sturgis road rally extended this far, and we had to scramble for a hotel room again. We found one at the Holiday Inn, where our room had two doors: one to the hallway, and one out to the pool and mini-golf course. Since it was after closing, I strolled around the eerily quiet indoor course alone in the dark. Kevin suggested a game in the morning, but we decided to hit the Corn Palace and get the heck out of town.

Next stop, the Jolly Green Giant in Blue Earth, Minnesota. Here we consumed our last ritual DQ cone. Once we reentered civilization, we replaced the DQ dipped cone tradition with coffee. Good coffee. Oh good coffee how I missed you.

Then there was the Spam Museum. As we exited the freeway, we smelled the Hormel factory creating Spam. We pulled up and entered the Spam Museum. This was no Potato Expo. Oh sure, the Potato Expo was great, don’t get me wrong, but the Spam Museum had production value. First there was the Wall of Spam, and then the docent offered to take our photo with Spammy, the Spam mascot. We strolled through the rest of the museum (seeing the Spamettes, and the Spam Game Show, and trying our hands and racing the Spam packers in the factory) and through the Spam shop, which actually managed to put the Mt. Rushmore shop to shame, having everything from Spam desk sets to Spam ice scrapers to Spam aprons to Spam earrings. They did not have a mailing list though. Nope. We exited singing to ourselves, “Spam spam spam spam spam spam spam spam wonderful Spam!”

We pulled into Minneapolis near the Mall of America around 5:30. Kevin pulled into the first hotel we saw and before long we were in the mall. We were immediately drawn to Camp Snoopy. I had picked up a discount coupon at Subway earlier in the day which made the unlimited ride pass only $16.95. And the log ride called our name. The kid sharing the log with us asked, “Do you like log rides?” We said exuberantly, “Yes!” He kept staring back at us. Kev asked, “Why, do we look too old for log rides?” He shook his head vigorously in assent. Oh well. We’re definitely not. He got drenched, and we made it out with only a faint misting, learning the important lesson of sitting in the back on this ride. We spent the next 3 hours riding like maniacs before dinner at Café Odyssey. Of all the theme restaurants I’ve been to, this is the only one I wish would expand. Three different dining rooms – themed as Machu Pichu, Atlantis, and the Serrengeti. The dinner choices were eclectic and satisfying, and truly put the menu of the Rainforest Café to shame. After dinner we had 20 minutes before Camp Snoopy closed so we did the bumper cars, the roller coaster, and the bumper cars one more time. Then after a day of driving through corn fields, we headed upstairs to the theater to watch Signs. I screamed a lot. I think M. Night Shamalan wanted to make a 50’s horror flick, and prove that they could still be scary. It was, and it was fun, and refreshing. The monsters were real. It wasn’t a dodge like so many movies now. It wasn’t that the aliens were really the government. The aliens were really aliens and really hostile. Very cool.

We left the theater and made our way across the empty mall to the car. Any mall has a certain eerie quality after hours, but after seeing Signs, and being in the largest mall in America, it was especially spooky.

The next morning we rose early and headed back to the mall for coffee – real coffee. Oh, and a turn on the bungee trampolines. Turns out, Kevin weighs too much, but he still made me do it. Standing in line with all the kids, I thought about how I should’ve learned my trampoline lesson by now, but I haven’t. They still look like fun, even after the trampoline accident I had 4 days before traveling across Europe with 36 students. Bouncing like a mad fiend, I quickly developed a new level of respect for Cirque du Soleil. It’s tough to flip over and such. I could learn it in a few more tries, but it was still scary. I’ll do it again given a half a chance though.

For breakfast, we headed up to the General Mills Cereal Expereince. It’s a mini-theme park where you can get your face on a Wheaties box, or blend your own cereal flavor. We opted to just have breakfast – 2 small bowls each, plus a bag of Lucky Charms marshmallows for the road. The small bowls turned out to be hardly small. I had Golden Grahams and Wheat Chex, and Kevin had Golden Grahams and Honey Nut Cheerios. Oddly enough, this was probably my favorite breakfast on the road. Go figure.

We left there for the Museum of Questionable Medical Devices, which for better or worse has been absorbed by the Minneapolis Science Center. So, we saw a small piece of the medical device collection, and spent a lot of time playing in the rest of their Exploratorium-like exhibits.

We blew past the giant orange moose, only seeing him from the road, on our way to the Wisconsin Dells. The Wisconsin Dells are much like Vegas-lite. It’s a strip of tourist attractions fostered by low liability risk laws in Wisconsin. We just couldn’t pass up a chance to race go-karts around a giant wooden Trojan Horse. Clearly, this could never exist in California. The big sign at the ticket booth proclaiming, “No Insurance. Ride at Your Own Risk” proved once and for all we weren’t in California any more. And ride we did, quite at our own peril. After four different tracks, we headed back to the car to see what else the Dells had to offer. There was the Worlds Largest Water Park, the World’s Largest Indoor Water Park, Robot World (where the second Mir Space Station is on display), mini-golf courses with 90 holes, and some of the most bizarre and cheesy hotels we’d found. We finally took Rachel’s advice and headed to the Cracker Barrel for dinner. Southern cooking at it’s finest. We shared a country fried steak and a “Veggie” platter. Veggie being a loose term for anything that didn’t used to walk around on it’s own. Fried okra, sweet carrots, fresh corn, mac and cheese, dumplings, and so forth. Kevin had the best baked potato ever. We played several hands of Fluxx, finally ending in a draw for Wisconsin Fluxx Road Trip championship. After dinner, we decided to skip seeing the Mir and head on to Chicago so that we could sleep in the same hotel two nights in a row.

Chicago is a great city. We struggled through traffic into town, but once there we went to the Art Institute only to find that there was a special Family Day, which meant that tickets were free. It’s a nice collection. I wanted more sculpture and antiquities, but the medieval armor and weaponry collection was stunning. We left there and headed for Gino’s East. I then proceeded to begin my Fluxx winning streak. Before the end of the evening, (including later stops at two cafes) I had beaten Kevin 7 games to 3. Oh yes, I am the Illinois Fluxx Road trip champion.

So after that, we rode the El down to Sears Tower and spent an hour or so there, watching the sun set over the city from high above it. We walked out towards the waterfront, past the fountain, and then got attacked by bugs. We headed inland after each of us ate bugs, and stumbled on the free concert in Grant Park just as intermission was ending. They announced, “As you can probably see, we’re having a terrible problem with bugs tonight. Worse than we’ve ever seen it. Imagine playing a wind instrument, and taking a deep breath to play and getting a mouthful of bugs. It’s bad. So we’re going to skip Copeland and go straight into Gershwin’s An American in Paris. Sorry about that folks.” So we sat down and listened through the end of the show, being somewhat amused by the very zesty conductor and his wiggle booty. At the end of the show, we headed back to the car and off to Andersonville to see Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind. We arrived at 10:00 for the 11:30 show, so we found a Starbucks, and played a few hands of Fluxx only to have them close at 10:30. We headed down the street and found another place for a few more hands. By now, I was definitely kicking Kevin’s ass and he never managed to redeem himself that night. We got to the theater at 11:10 to find a line that had wound around the corner. In a few minutes, they were sold out. As the fellow finished his announcement, I quickly raised my hand and Kevin and I launched. “But we drove 2000 miles to see this, and it’s our only night in Chicago.” Everyone else in line groaned. He apologized, and said, “Yeah, everyone’s got a story. But really, we’re sold out.” Then one girl came up and said, “Of course, if you could get one more person to donate their spot to you, you’d be cool.” And she handed us her seat token. Her friends were late and weren’t going to get seats, so she sacrificed for us. The guys looked at our token and told us to wait off to the side while he gave all the others who couldn’t get in a 2 for 1 pass for Sunday. Eventually, he took us up, and handed us one other token from the office. We got great seats with padding in the back row. And then the girl who donated her token came and sat next to us. Her friends had arrived, and the guy had let them in too.

And the show rocked. 30 plays in 60 minutes. And they baked us brownies.

More later…

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