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3. Road Trip 2008, Day 2-3: Heaven is a Place On Earth

“It is very easy to be underrated, because all you need to do is nothing. Everyone wants to be underrated. It’s harder to become overrated, because that means people had to think you were awesome before they thought you sucked. Nobody wants to be overrated, except for people who like to live in big houses.”

Chuck Klosterman, Klosterman: IV

Now we had a new problem before us – finding a place to camp for the night. Before leaving Crow’s Peak and saying goodbye to our new drinking buddies, we asked where we could set up our tent without having to pay. They told us we could probably park on Tinton Road without being hassled by cops or land-owners. They also recommended we check out Spearfish Canyon before leaving the next morning. We thanked them for their advice and company, then took to the darkened hills of Spearfish in search of Tentin Road.

We drove around for quite a while before accidentally finding Tentin, a winding gravel road leading into darkness. There weren’t many houses along the drive, so it seemed like a pretty safe area to set up shop for the night without getting disturbed. Once again I had a scare when we almost hit another animal, this time a cow running across the road and into the woods.

“Was that a wild cow?” I asked.

“Wild cow?! You’re a dumbass,” Paul answered. It just seemed strange to see a cow running all willy nilly up into the wilderness of South Dakota. We found a gravel inlet and decided to park. As a precaution, I parked the Element amidst some bushes. We scarfed down some crackers and hummus, and commenced setting up the tent Paul borrowed from a friend by flashlight. Once inside, it quickly became apparent that the cramped 6 x 5 floor plan wasn’t going to work very well for the two of us. Paul fell asleep instantly, and I was left, tossing and turning, trying to find comfort. As a sleeper I’m a sprawler, letting my limbs stretch out full length. This didn’t bode well with my 6’4 frame trying to stretch within the 6 ft length. To add to the discomfort, Paul began snoring and gradually overtook the already cramped space, pushing me to the edge of the canvas floor.

After about two hours of restlessness, I found a nice fetal position. Just as I was slipping into sleep, I heard screaming in the woods. Not human screams – the screams of some type of creature. High pitched and shrill, the shrieks echoed in the night air, moving me away from any semblance of drowsiness. What could it be? Bats? Raccoons? Or could it be the dreaded wild cow I’d seen earlier? Soon the cackling was coupled with other strange warbles and grunts. I couldn’t fathom what kind of creature could make such a plethora of obnoxious noises.

By three in the morning, laying in a huddled, shivering ball, exhaustion finally overpowered the fear, and I fell asleep. Even in a state of R.E.M, I dreamt about not being able to sleep; talk about a nightmare.

Around five in the morning, I awoke to a rustling noise outside our tent. I nudged Paul.

“Paul…Paul….you hear that?” I whispered. No movement. He wasn’t waking.

“MOOOO!” I sat up and looked out our screen window to see a black and white cow, five feet away from our tent, staring at me with big glossy eyes. Behind her were four other cows, all roaming around my car.

I would have been scared if it weren't for her pretty eye-lashes that reminded me of The Cown-tess on "Pee Wee's Playhouse".

“Paul, wake up! There are cows all over outside!” Paul opened his crust covered eyes slowly and glared at me. “They are surrounding my vehicle dude!”

Visually annoyed, he grumbled,” You woke me up because of cows?” He rolled back over. I was on my own. I cautiously unzipped the door, and stepped out into the dewy grass. The cows didn’t flinch. As I stood up, more and more cow faces appeared from behind the trees, reminiscent of when all the sasquatch appear at the end of “Harry and the Hendersons”. I looked down toward the road and found a herd of orange and white cows moseying up the hill. Did we park in someone’s ranch? Seeing that I didn’t want to sit around and find out (the arrival of a rancher with a shotgun is never a welcome sight) I again told Paul that we’d better get going. He reluctantly got up and helped me take down the tent as our audience of cows looked on. I thought cows were scared of humans, but this cattle just watched us with annoyance. By the time we packed everything in the car and ate breakfast, the cows were mostly gone; they were all following in the direction of the others on the road, like some type of cow cult marching to their mass suicide.

On the road we could see Heifer's Gate, walking like lemmings to their death.

With our path finally clear of cattle, we began heading back down the hill. As we came to the end of Tinton Road, I noticed a couple peacocks in the ditch. Where the hell were we? Wild cows, mystery creatures that scream and grunt through the night, and now peacocks running rampant in the ditches? I decided that the peacock must be the pheasant of the Dakotas. This belief disappeared quickly when we saw the sign in front of the next driveway: Animal Farm. The sign’s images of monkeys and donkeys explained the strange noises that kept me awake the night before.

We rolled into downtown Spearfish around 6 a.m. Thanks to my cow encounter, we were way ahead of schedule, so we decided to take the advice from the night before and go check out Spearfish Canyon. As we rolled up the hill and around the curvy path, we quickly understood why the insisted we check it out: splendor spread from one rocky wall to the next. The grey rock ledges went straight up like walls enclosing us. Trees, defying the laws of nature, were growing right out of the cliffside. With the sun peaking from over the top of the wall, I decided the perfect music was Fleet Foxes with their calming My Morning Jacket meets CSNY sound, fitting perfectly alongside the stunning landscape. We stopped several times to look at waterfalls, cascading down the canyon wall.

"Days are just drops in a river to be lost always-" Fleet Foxes

After stopping and starting the car for the 20th time, we decided to escape the confines of the Element to go explore the magical canyon.  We found a pull-off when hiking trails and decided to try one out. After walking down a path for a while, Paul decided to go on a morning jog, which was fine with me. I was so overcome by nature’s dazzling display. The intimacy of being alone heightened the experience. Ducks swam by in the pond, hawks circled above, and deer trotted alongside me in the trees: it was like something out of a Disney movie. I wouldn’t have been shocked if two cartoon birds had sat on my shoulders and sang to me.

The only things missing were Brer Rabbit and Uncle Remus.

When the sun finally exposed its self to the majestic scene, spot-lighting the glory of the land, I stopped, sat on a boulder thinking, “This might be the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.” I must have sat there for 15 minutes, just basking in nature at its finest. As weird as it may sound, I felt like I was meant to be there, on that stone, at that moment, like God or Mother Nature, or whatever is in charge of this world had created this painting, set this scene, put on this performance, all just for me.

When I finally decided I’d better go find Paul, I began to wonder how I’d never heard of Spearfish Canyon. Why hadn’t we seen tourists running amuck? At a rest area in Eastern South Dakota, Paul grabbed a ton of brochures on the Black Hills, but I didn’t remember seeing anything about the canyon. What is wrong with this state? There were at least 500 signs for Wall Drug and not even a mention of this glorious retreat? The more I walked, surrounded by waterfalls and remarkable rock formations, the more irritated I became. Who cares about a bunch of man made faces in the side of a cliff when you’ve got more beautiful sculptures formed by the hands of nature?

The path ended at one final waterfall, more spectacular than any I’d seen all day. The crystal water poured over the ledge like something out of the blue lagoon and formed smaller falls at its foot. When I reached the top of the spouting waterfall, I could see Paul waiting for me. We exchanged looks, no words were necessary for what we had both witnessed on this glorious morning.

As we looked down from the top I noticed a cave-like inlet beneath the showering water. When I pointed this out to Paul, he began grinning. “I’ll be right back.” Before I could respond he was jumping over the edge of the platform and working his way through broken branches toward the water’s edge. When he disappeared from sight, I looked back over the edge of the platform to see Paul tip-toeing through the water toward the giant falls.

He cautiously approached the splashing liquid and then in one quick movement, he stuck his head under the frigid dowfall,  instantly jerking back. “Whooooooooo Hooo!” he howled, echoing through the canyon. He dashed under the falls and into the inlet, out of sight. I had the sudden urge to join him as the cascading water taunted me. I hopped over the platform and followed the path Paul had already created.

Once on the shore, I stepped into the chilly water and began walking carefully on the slippery rocks. When I reached the falls, hypnotized by its beauty, I walked right under its path without hesitation. I stood there for a moment, like a coach relishing the Gatorade raining over his head. After a moment, I stepped forward into the inlet where Paul was smiling at the magnificence around us. The inlet didn’t go in very far, but that didn’t matter. We were in a place far from the trappings of the modern world, a secret sanctuary hidden amongst the tourist traps of the Black Hills.

When Paul finally left the inlet, the freezing water once again shocked his body. “WhoooHoooo!” he howled. He turned back toward the falls and shouted joyously,” Hey Andy, that’s what it feels like to have the Pixies injected into your bloodstream!” . I stood in the cave for a moment, giggling at Paul’s comment and realizing that this canyon really was like the Pixies in many ways. Grand and inspiring, both were underappreciated by the masses. While over-weight tourists roam around Wall Drug and listen to the likes of Kid Rock and Kenny Chesney, the real gems go unnoticed by the masses, only to be discovered by those willing to search out something not plastered on billboards and played incessantly on the radio. In both, we had found something beautiful, original, and untouched by commercialism; havens providing escape for those seeking shelter from a bloated society.

Yes, the Pixies are an underrated band. And I’d like to keep it that way.

These monkeys have gone to heaven.

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2. Road Trip 2008, Day 2: Good Vibrations

“Sometimes the path you’re on is not as important as the direction you’re heading.”

Kevin Smith

We continued our trek up I-29 with the sounds of Thin Lizzy pushing us along. Since I’ve always panned Lizzy as garbage, Paul felt it important that I listen to something other than “The Boys Are Back In Town”.

“You’ve got to appreciate the double lead guitar harmony; they were like the first band to do that. Anytime you see a critic reference Thin Lizzy in a review, they are just basically saying that they use double lead guitar.” His lesson on Lizzy would explain why every Ted Leo review ever written mentions Thin Lizzy (I still don’t understand why they always mention Springsteen, other than the obvious New Jersey connection). For the remainder of the trip it became a game to point out Thin Lizzy’s double guitar influence on an artist: Wolf Parade, Iron Maiden, Turbonegro…who knew Thin Lizzy’s influence ran so deep.

Not only was Paul trying to coerce me into liking 70s double lead guitar rock, he also had the goal of convincing me to purchase a giant back-pack for camping up in the mountains. I kept trying to explain to him that I already had a backpack; the same backpack I hauled around in college filled with over-priced textbooks and Bruce Chatwin travel novels. When he began listing the items we would need to take with us, I gave in: water, sleeping bags, pillow, water, tent, food, and more water. We made a short stop in Sioux Falls, South Dakota to pick up equipment at Scheel’s. I wanted to take him to Ernie November’s, the record store my friends and I used to visit as teenagers. Unfortunately we didn’t have much time, and I didn’t even where the new store was located. It’s pretty sad that back before the internet, poor little Iowa punks had to drive almost two hours to buy independent music.

My high school sanctuary.

Back on the road, we made way into the dismal sprawl of South Dakota, a land of vacant hills covered in yellowing grass. The only objects breaking up the monotony were the barrage of advertisements for Wall Drug. Every five miles a sign would appear amidst the bland scenery advertising “Wall Drug: Free Ice Water!” After a dozen signs stating the same sentiment I became annoyed shouting, “WE GET IT!” This didn’t seem to stop the signs from coming though.

At one point Paul asked me about Wall Drug, suggesting we might have to make a stop. That’s what these signs do to you: beat you into submission until you are drawn to visit likes zombies. “Must go to Wall Drug, drink ice water. Eat rock candy.”

Wall Drug: home of free ice water, steam baths, and blow-jobs from horses.

I explained to him that it wasn’t worth stopping for. I remember going as a six year old and being unimpressed, which says a lot. Six year olds are entertained by sandboxes for Christ’s sake. Wall Drug is basically a glorified gas station with lots of old timey souvenirs for Midwestern rubes to spend their money on.

My only fond memory of Wall Drug is when my brother and I got the chance to lay our heads on the plastic boobs of a mannequin.

To help wake us from our Wall Drug stupors, I decided to put the Pixie’s “Doolittle” on. Soon we were both caught up in the music, nodding our heads and screaming alongside Frank Black and crew. With the Kim Deal’s booming bass-line pounding out the speakers, Paul shouted, “I wish I could inject the Pixies into my bloodstream!”

I don’t know if the Pixies ever wrote a bad song (I’m sure you could find one in their rarities, but those don’t count). I’ve always felt they are hugely underrated. I know, it’s not like they are some unknown, underappreciated geniuses like Slint or Neutral Milk Hotel, but I still don’t feel they get the credit they deserve. I know their song “Where is My Mind” is known by pretty much everyone on earth thanks to “Fight Club”, but I doubt the majority of the public would be able to tell you who sings it. They are even featured on several video games, but that’s not saying much since game makers always seem to throw us indies a bone (only “NCAA 2006” could make me sick of Guided By Voices “Teenage FBI”).  I’m not claiming the Pixies are some little garage band that never made it, I just don’t think they get recognized for their genius. They are always referred to as influential, which is a nice sentiment and all, but they are more than influential; they’re fucking incredible.

Once the “Doolittle” greatness ended, we were forced to concentrate once again on the Wall Drug phenomenon, with signs coming every mile now. We had to escape this insanity.

Then, our savior appeared in the distance: The Badlands. Without much discussion, we pulled into the Badlands entrance, looking forward to an escape from the Wall Drug Menace. Despite the $15 dollar entry fee, we both agreed a change of scenery was in order. As we drove up to the first viewing area, we both sat quietly in awe. The bulbous rock hills of beige and crimson looked like something out of a Star Wars movie (pre-CGI). The sun was just beginning to set, which added to the grandeur of the land, casting a golden glow amidst the green grass, straining to grow at the foot of the mounds.

At one of the viewing points, there was a sign discussing how settlers used to try driving their stage coaches through the hilly terrain, hence the name “badlands”. After reading this tid-bit, I looked out onto the bumpy land and thought,” Damn our ancestors were stupid.”

I don't remember passing through these Badlands when playing Oregon Trail.

Back in the car, I put on some Neil Young (we didn’t have Springsteen’s “Badlands” on us) and soaked in the majestic terrain. Paul was so caught up in our surroundings that he suggested we just stop and camp for the night. I would have agreed, but I had a goal for the night. While researching micro-breweries for the trip, I came across a tiny little brewery called Crow’s Peak in Spearfish, South Dakota. My mind was set on the notion that we would end our first day of driving sipping on homemade brew in western South Dakota. Paul was concerned that we wouldn’t make it before closing time, but stubborn as I am, I stuck to my goal. “We will be drinking a beer by drive’s end.”

Paul said goodbye to the beautiful scenery by taking a piss.

As we were exiting the Badlands, still reeling in the brilliance of our surroundings, an antelope with antlers a foot long came running out into the road. As we sped toward the antelope, who decided to stop in the middle of the road, I suddenly awoke from my dream-land.

“AHHHH!” I screamed, swerving the wheel and slamming the brakes. The tires screeched in horror.  Once at a complete stop, the antelope calmly trotted to the side of the road.

“Dude, why are you screaming like that?” Paul asked. I tried defending myself, but it was futile: I’m a puss.

Pulling out of the Badlands entrance, we saw the epic-center of evil right before us: Wall Drug. I pushed the pedal to the floor, hoping to speed past its mesmerizing powers. For some masochistic reason, I still kind of wanted to stop to check it out. Luckily, the thought of sipping a foamy beer helped me escape the evil clutches of South Dakota’s blackhole.

As our drive continued the land became a little easier to tolerate. Paul threw on the Beach Boy’s “Friends”, which I didn’t know how to take. Don’t get me wrong, there were some great songs, but the lyrics were pretty miserable. For example, on “When a Man Needs a Woman” Brian Wilson sings in a falsetto:

You know it makes you nervous
When you wait for your boy
You wait nine months for a bundle of joy
There’s a baby
Yes, there’s a baby about to be born
When a man needs a woman,
They make things like you, my son

This is by the same guy who wrote “Hang On To Your Ego”! What makes it more baffling is that “Friends” was released just two years after “Pet Sounds”.  Those drugs really sunk Brian Wilson fast, at least the lyric writing part of his brain.

Around 7:30 we rolled into the Black Hills, with exits for Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse Memorial, and Devil’s Tower popping up every few miles. Spearfish stood at least another 45 minutes away. Our chances of getting to the brewery in time were bleak (the website said it closed at eight). Paul asked if we should just camp in the Black Hills and do some sight seeing in the morning, but after eight hours in the car, I was becoming delirious and stubbornly stuck to my goal. “We’ve got to get to Spearfish,” I insisted.

We sped past the Black Hills, through Sturgis, and soon found ourselves at our destination around 8:15. Since I didn’t plan ahead and actually get directions to the brewery, we made a quick stop at a gas station where we were pointed in the right direction. After maneuvering through a residential area, we came upon what looked like a tiny barn sitting upon a giant clump of dirt. When we saw the sign, we knew we’d found the end to our day long journey. Once parked in front, we hopped out of the car and noticed the closed sign taunting us from the window.

“Damn it, it’s closed,” I said slamming my hand onto the hood.

“Wait, I think I see people inside,” Paul whispered. We tiptoed up the stairs and could see a bartender behind the bar and a girl sitting on a stool sipping on a mug of beer. I creaked open the door, realizing how ghoulish we must seem.

“Uh, hi. Are you guys open?” I asked shyly.

“Um, no, but if you guys want to have a beer that’s cool,” the young bartender replied. YES! Our goal had been attained after all! We didn’t haul ass for nothing. We both took a seat at the bar, and the bartender poured a couple of ice cold brews. Paul ordered up a stout and I asked for the IPA.

“You’re going to love the IPA, it’s the best I’ve ever had,” the girl said. I was so entranced by the beer that I had forgotten about the sole patron at the end of the bar. I looked over to find a cute brunette smiling over at us. She had a spunky, sophisticated look to her, reminding me of a young Parker Posey.

“Oh really? That’s saying a lot,” I joked. On cue, the bartender plopped the golden IPA before me. As I took a sip, the hoppy freshness soothed my parched tongue. This girl knew her beer. It wasn’t an over the top IPA with its perfect blend of hops and a crisp, fruity finish. I told her I agreed with her, and soon the four of us were chatting over our beers.

There was something about this girl I couldn’t put my finger on, a certain intensity. Whenever I’d talk she stare at me with the most captivated look, like she could see the words floating out of my mouth. I began to get the feeling she might be interested in me. Usually girls are staring blankly in the distance when I discuss beer, but she was unfazed by my rambling.  When we told her that we were from out of town and doing a tour of breweries, she seemed even more interested in these two stinky nomads from the Midwest.

A few brews in, she began listing bars we should check out in Spearfish, and I began to wonder if she was suggesting places for Paul and I to go, or if she was inviting us to go with her. Every time she’d take a drink, I’d catch her eyes glancing at me from over the edge of her massive mug. Like something out of a “Wonder Years” episode, our eyes met and I could hear the entrancing organ intro of “Good Vibrations”, followed  by Wilson’s voice:

Softly smile, I know she must be kind
When I look in her eyes
She goes with me to a blossom world
I’m pickin’ up good vibrations
She’s giving me excitations

I awoke from my dream-state when the bartender came around the bar and took a seat next to her. Right before my eyes, she stared at him with the same spellbound stare she had been aiming at me for the past 10 minutes. I was confused. Is she dating the bartender? Was she digging me until he cock-blocked me? Or is she just an attentive listener with everyone?

The more I thought about it, the more I realized what a boob I had been.  A girl gives me an inkling of attention, and I think she’s instantly fallen for me.  I let the beer wash away my internal embarrassment and continued with our conversation. In the end, I think that the bartender’s stomp upon my hopes was a good thing because I know longer had the need to be self-conscious: I could simply enjoying the South Dakota beer.

Our discussion went all over the place: beer, hiking, tourists, kayaking, and yes, even Wall Drug. Soon the bartender was enjoying our company so much he decided to let us have another round for free. We ordered a brown (amazing!) and a pale ale (only mediocre beer there), and continued our banter. He went on to tell us about the current hops shortage in the brewing community. I’ve heard about gas shortages but never a hops shortage. Due to the lack of affordable hops, we found out that the brew master at Crow’s Peak had been experimenting with spruce needles.

For the next hour, the four of us sat around sipping on some tasty beers and conversing like we’d known each other for years. I knew we’d be visiting many more breweries in the next few weeks, bigger and more well-known, but I doubted any would match the intimate experience we had at Crow’s Peak.

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