Sheila and Fred offered us options of sights to visit and we chose Mount Rushmore. Sheila and I shared the back seat of their Lincoln Towncar with her multiple portable O2 tanks. As I said, Sheila does not allow her inability to keep her confined. Sheila and Fred are such comfortable conversationalists, that I did not nod off to sleep. We covered a multitude of topics as we drove for hours and hours, but it was never boring. From an excellent viewing distance, we were able to see and photograph Chief Crazy Horse, the Mount Rushmore-like statue in continual progress monument to our Native American brethren.
The first two hours of driving from Denver to Gillette, Wyoming I did not disappoint Ron and his expectations of me. I slept. That motion narcolepsy kicked in once again. The drive was expected to take between five and six hours, depending on how often we needed to stop for back or bladder respite care. Once we were out of urban areas, we hit the usual Midwest traffic. We saw about one other car an hour. This did not change much until we came close to Gillette itself.
Never in my life, not even my years in Michigan traveling and living, have I ever seen such stretches of uninhabited land. At one point, after my “nap” I believe we drove for at least 100 miles without seeing any homes, business, or other signs of human population off of the freeway. That is not to say that there were not signs of life. Dotted on the brown hills were spots of greenery in sporadic settlements of life. Often we would see antelope and deer along the way eating the sustenance nature has provided. Buffalo were reported to roam the same areas, but they were elusive during our drive by.
Going to Wyoming was not my idea. More often then not, I secretly wished we could avoid it entirely. The state had never created images of sugarplums dancing in my mind, but it did produce causes for anxiety. First it was the state that Mathew Shepard needlessly died in. Having identified my identity very early in life and early in the movement for liberation (the 60s), I have had my share of persecution, taunting, and various forms of pain from those who are less tolerate than I would appreciate. My defenses are always on alert and it has never been my modus operandi to deliberately put myself in unwelcome situations. In this vein, Ron has lived a charmed life in not having felt like a pariah nor has he had a need to be protective of his person. Due to this, there are times when he does not recognize uncomfortable to potentially dangerous situation, which puts more pressure on me to A.) be on guard, then B.) to convince him why I am uncomfortable. Those of you who know our previous travel stories, know that this is similar to other circumstances he has naively put us in that were not particularly financially healthy.
The second issue that added unease was that the friends we were to visit were a couple Ron knew for a number of years during his tenure as Father Ron Schmitz. Now, not only was he not a priest, but also he was introducing me. How they would respond to this was the primary question in my mind, though I have had e-mail correspondence with Sheila over the last couple of years. “Go with the flow and enjoy the moment.” That was my mantra.
When I stopped anticipating and started giving the passing scenery my undivided attention, I noticed the sky. We have all seen sky, but the Wyoming sky looked like someone had spread a magnificently enormous blue tablecloth across a tremendous ceiling. It dawned on me that I have never seen such and incredible amount of sky at one time. It seemed to continue on forever without end up high, while the land spread out in the same direction, but lower. I had a renewed appreciation for agoraphobics. I could understand now how some could be afraid of wide-open places. There were no signs of human life for as far as the eye could see. The reality of the fear was that if there were a problem with the car, such as running out of gas, there were no emergency phones, no fast food restaurants, or gas stations for miles and miles.
Our first break after a number of hours was at a state rest area. I picked up the CasperWyoming’s newspaper, it was only 24 pages f or a midweek edition. newspaper and read it thoroughly, however; although it is sub-titled as The next break was for gas as Sheila’s detailed directions were to get gas before the last stretch, as there would not be other opportunities. We stopped in a town named Bill population less than one thousand. It looked like a pre-planned community and was only residential. When we stopped two women for directions to the nearest gas station, they directed us to the next town, which was called Wright. After leaving Bill and getting it right, we found a truck stop gas station. We were able to call Sheila and Fred to give them an update of our wanderings and an estimated time of arrival. This was taking forever to get there and I had seen all of the scrub brush that I had ever cared to.
When we reached Gillette, we were able to easily follow Sheila’s navigating to reach their driveway. The moment of truth was upon us, no, upon me. Fred met us in the driveway with a giant smile that pushed his moustache handlebars far in the air. I received the same warm welcome that Ron did along with a comforting handshake. Sheila met us at the door, hugged Ron and then looked me straight in the eye and said, “I am a hugger. I hug everybody.” Her love of people reverberated with her hug and I knew that the two of them would accept me wholly since they had such respect for Ron and his judgment. My anxiety melted so that I was able to feel free to be myself without reservation.
Sheila only has one lung and therefore is on continuous oxygen. Her nasal cannula tubing is long enough to allow her the freedom to roam their two-story house without any confinement. Being on O2 does not slow this lady down in any way.
Our first night’s dinner was supposed to be a BBQ’ed steak dinner, but Fred’s propane tank was empty. Sheila popped them in the broiler and served a perfect dinner. The weather was still warm enough in the evening to be able to sit out on their deck into the evening for a lively chat. That was our breakfast spot the next morning too.
At lunchtime we had a picnic in Custer State ParkSouth Dakota. in What caused us to break for lunch at the time we did were the people standing on the side of the road staring at a small hill. Fred pulled off into a picnic area and we went to investigate. Among the trees and brush were six curly horned mountain goats resting and grazing. One was climbing the hill. We were about 10 yards away and they were less interested in us then we in them. What beautiful and magnificent creatures they are.
When Sheila opened her picnic chest, there was a banquet of goodies for our gastronomic pleasures. Yellow jackets or wasps thought the spread was for them, so we had to compete for our lunch. I was able to drown one and Fred snatched one in flight and squeezed it between his fingers, an awesome show of bravery. As we continued our drive through the park, both Fred and Sheila who are expert spotters of wildlife, a passion for both of them, continually pointed out the animals along the way. Farther in the park, we drove to the Needles area. The area received it’s name from the natural formation of giant rock formations that have been etched by the wind and rain to form the shape of an eye of a sewing needle. Across from this is a rock formation that looks like a giant prairie dog standing on its hind legs with its front paws pulled up to its chest.
Back in the car once again, our destination this time was our ultimate goal, Mount Rushmore. I had always wanted to see this historic site, but knew I would never venture to South Dakota specifically for this site. It was truly outstanding. The difficulty is perceiving how any artist can sculpt such a huge piece and keep it in perfect perspective. It is demanding of your attention and one can easily just sit on one of the benches and stare at the four faces without any sense of time passing by.
When we our senses were satiated, we climbed back in the car for more driving. The next stop was Deadwood, the city with the famous cemetery. This is where one of my childhood heroes is buried: James Butler Hickok or better known as Wild Bill Hickok. Next to him per her last dying wish is Martha Canary who you will recognize as Calamity Jane. It is stated on a sign next to her grave that her dying breath was the request to be buried next to Wild Bill. There are other historical and interesting residents in this deathly quiet rest home, but it was getting late and we were becoming dead tired. Time to satiate our biological appetites, so, we took off for Spearfish, South Dakota for a lively dinner in a funky restaurant that is decorated in a cross between a Hard Rock Café and TGIFridays. On the way home, we took turns guessing how many miles Fred had chauffeured us this day. Fred was the closest, but the actual number was 324 miles. Quite an outing for one day, but we were rewarded with a slice of Sheila’s homemade peach pie. The whole day was like a smorgasbord of desserts for the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, full and fulfilling.
After morning coffee the next morning, we headed off to the local Starbucks. Starbucks in such a small town! It is a franchise owned by the Albertson’s supermarket in which it resides. That explained how Fred was able to get his coffee card stamped on his way to earning a free coffee. With our brews in hand, the next stop was the bagel store. Their offerings even made a bagel connoisseur such as myself have a difficult time deciding on which taste treat to sample. Our breakfast now accumulated, we went to the local park, sans the wasps, to enjoy good food and great people.
The tour had not ended yet. We went to Eagle Butte mine, a coalmine of significant size. The tires for some of the equipment cost $50,000 and are taller than Ron if he were standing on my shoulders. Our last site was Chugwater, Wyoming. This is the area that the Native Americans herded the buffalo off of the cliffs to their deaths.
Gillette is made up of a number of “pods” or groupings of homes and stores. Gillette is quite extensive in territory, but in a state that boasts a population of less than 500,000, there are no cities that suffer from overpopulation. Sheila and Fred love their little city and adapted well to it. They are both originally from Iowa and have moved around a great deal due to Fred’s career with the railroad. Come January, he will be able to retire and they can live wherever the wind takes them. Sheila doesn’t let her need for O2 canisters keep her being a travlin’ gal. They do not think anything of driving for three to five miles to shop or to get specialized medical treatment. I on the other hand found it cumbersome and daunting to drive across Modesto for any reason.
It was time to say good-bye by lunchtime and head back to Denver. All of my anxieties, which were a prelude to this meeting, were replaced with the complete opposite feelings of love and acceptance. The unexpected bonus of this side trip was the pleasure of witnessing two people who have been married for over 40 years treat each other with the same love and respect you would expect from newlyweds. Their continuing commitment to each other in spite of the challenges they have faced is a true archetype of what marriage should be about. So that I do not share personal stories, just let me say that both Sheila and Fred continually shared stories which put them in the running for “Proud Parents of the Year”, sharing the accomplishments of their three grown daughters and their two grandchildren.
On the road again, Ron and I headed back to Denver to spend the night in a Hampton Inn (owned by Hilton and more bonus miles). The travel back was now more fascinating and held my interest enough to stay away during the entire trip. What assisted in keeping me awake was the fact that the lovely blue sky that we had witnessed on our drive up to Wyoming was now very different. At first, clouds spread across the sea of blue like someone had flung mashed potatoes upward. When you think about it, no artist, either painter or photographer can truly capture clouds that look real and this is mainly because the formations have a surreal quality in reality. Some of the cloud formations looked like they were drizzling downward. Diluted streams of cotton running down the wall of sky created an incredible canvas to admire. Within an hour though those streams of cotton changed to streams of dark mascara pouring out of the eyes of the heavens and following were sheets of rain. The rain came in sheets like someone was hitting the windshield with planks of water. Fortunately, the highway had as few cars as when we were driving in the opposite direction. We finally arrived in Denver at 8:00 pm and after a detour to the local Costco, we found our hotel for the evening.
Note that “Big Sky Country” is the motto for Montana, but is equally plausible for South Dakota and Wyoming.