Insanity on the Prairie: On Sturgis, Lumber Trucks, and Vast Emptiness

Posted on August 11, 2012


A not-so-insignificant part of me is really wishing at this point that I’d done this trip on motorcycle. That would never happen, of course, because I know too many people who would fret about the mortality rates, and then would do me in themselves if I made it back in one piece. (And then there’s the whole thing where I never actually learned how to ride a bike bike, but whatever, that’s totally insignificant to this desire.) But still, the urge is in me and I’ve been feeling it gnawing at me all across the prairie states these past few days.

Part of this motorcycle mania has been in me for over a year now, since I agreed to climb onto the back of a bare-bones number and zip around Karachi at 50 miles per hour. That first ride may have been responsible for ten percent of my yearly hair loss (and 2011 was a bad year for my follicles)—I am not ashamed to say that I screamed and clenched my thighs around the skinny seat so tightly that I was wobbly-legged and sore when I stood up. At the time, though, I was quite ashamed to see women, well composed, sitting side-saddle with three children on them, sitting bored and steady behind their drivers at equal or greater speeds. By all rights, that ride should have killed any of my remaining inklings of hope for two-wheeled transit (an exposed pipe on the bike burned a cylindrical hole into the sole of my shoe and a man on the street later told me that 50 people die in bike accidents daily in Karachi). But man, the adrenaline and the freedom.

It might be as simple as that. Adrenaline and freedom. A great sense of control. The awful reality of what it means to propel the human body down asphalt at supernatural speeds; the imminence of death inherent in every daily interaction laid bare by the utter lack of the safety cocoon provided by even the most rudimentary of cars. Thanatos kicking into absolute overtime, lulled out of complacency, and suddenly asserting his rightful place in the human psyche. I suppose I had all that in mind when I considered doing my entire Central Asian trip on motorcycle. (I relented only because it would have been too difficult to move the bikes from Mongolia to Kazakhstan or to get them through customs in Uzbekistan as an American coming overland.)

But there’s more to my little automotive compulsion now. It’s something to do with what I’ve seen on the road and in the towns I’ve been stopping in for the past few days. It’s to do with the state of my mind on the most isolated stage of this trip and the utter desolation of some parts of the land out here. It’s … something that I guess I need to put into context, so there’s my thesis/promise to the reader and now I’m going to make you get through the mundane and minute babbling details of my journey between Spokane, WA, and Oskaloosa, IA, before I deliver the payoff. … Bwahahaha?

On to the blow-by-blow!

I bear an intolerable and undeserved hatred toward lumber trucks. That’s an unfortunate aversion for someone who grew up in the Inland Northwest, as the north-south highways around Spokane are prime shipping routes for Canadian lumber coming down from British Columbia. The fear and rage has absolutely nothing to do with those grisly scenes from the Final Destination film series (which, I must admit, I was really into in my morbid early teenage years). It has more to do with all the weekends, when I would drive between Chewelah and Spokane, and I’d get stuck with one such semi-truck to my fore and one to my side. And each and every mile, as I watched the logs in front of me shift under their chains, but with nothing holding them in from behind, all I could think about was one of them sliding off, sailing back with a 70 mph momentum, and smashing its weight through my windshield and into my chest. Or swiping me from the side, inverting my car door’s curve and rolling me into a guard rail, mangling the chases and more so maiming my body. And if one were to survive such an accident, one’s twisted body would in all likelihood be peppered with splinters. I hate splinters, too. God, I hate lumber trucks.

Too bad, then, that the first leg of my trip, from Spokane, WA, to Billings, MT, took me first through the Idaho panhandle. The road from Spokane into Idaho is a smooth one up through Coeur d’Alene, a pleasant lake town right across the border with a fair café culture and a long floating wooden boardwalk (I used to have dreams of walking out onto the swaying wooden plank lines in a deep fog and just walking and walking forever, past flower stalls and idling rowboats, on into the deep heart of the forty-mile lake). However, after Coeur d’Alene the road climbs into the thickly forested hills of the panhandle and wends its way through quick turns in the valleys and around old silver mining towns. Most drivers in the area (myself included) choose to take these turns at 70 mph. That does not concern me much; I love accelerating through tight and fast turns. What gives me pause and bother is the fact that this road is littered with lumber trucks and they too love to pull tight, fast turns with their wide, dread loads. Often the semis will skid over into the second lane, running cars like mine towards the median or the guardrail. I really, really hate lumber trucks.

So I was overjoyed when I reached the highest pass (just a measly 3,000 or so feet) in Idaho and began the descent into the lower hills of Montana. Most of the people I know who drive this route on a regular basis hate this pass. It means moving from the lively driving (lively … yeah) of the panhandle into the shimmering nothingness of the plains. I will agree with them that most of the prairie states are drab places, topographical deserts, truly desolate in every respect. But in Montana at least, and in a good chunk of Wyoming, I think there’s a great deal of beauty with real holding power.

On my route through Missoula, Butte, Bozeman, Billings, Sheridan, and Spearfish, I found myself actually letting out a little “wow” now and then. Big, old fields of rolling hills peppered with what I believe are known as “erratics,” but which I call big, fucking boulders dropped into the middle of nothing. Protrusions of grey granite with red streaks as if they had been smeared with ochre wiped from the hands of some giant. It’s this peppering of big sky country with worthy, colossal irregularities that makes me understand the legends of ogres and giants so ubiquitous in regional (and in fact in global) mythos.

There’s also a good deal of humor and inventiveness in this part of the world when it comes to roadside advertisements. Unabashed, hand-painted signs like: “Cherries. You want them.” Even the government signage takes a more direct route here: “Road Workers Ahead. Give ‘em A Break.” It’s also worth mentioning that despite the extreme conservative values (you cannot make it ten miles through South Dakota without finding a handmade pro life billboard on the side of a farm plot), the most flashy and prevalent billboards are those advertising porn super centers; a friend in Pierre, SD, explained this as a reflection of old-school plains men living in small towns with little to no outlet for their carnal desires who override social mores with their lust and just go nuts for the one or two big adult emporiums in every state.

But goddamn, sometimes I take a turn out here and my heart just jumps up the beat. The first moment I came out of the eastern Montana hills and into the flatlands, it was beating hot and hard down on the earth, and all I could see infinitely into the unattainable horizon line was a baked, rolling nothingness.

I don’t take much stock in arguments and theories that attempt to tie our current behaviors back to our proto-human, post-simian ancestry. The hunter instinct, the pre-programmed fear of poisonous animals, the idea that we’re built as natural runners or short interval sleepers, it just seems like bunk to me—especially those notions that appeal to a primordial psychology of mankind. Anything innate and anything pre-programmed just smacks of reductive, lazy, simplistic theory-making to me. But when I drive through that void with nothing to either side of me, I want to scream and run. My heart will pound its way through my chest just to find its way to a tree—preferably many—up which to climb and hide for cover. The primordial chimp, or the notion of it bred into me by discourse and fed by my history as a part-time urbanite, part-time forest-dweller, whatever it is … it just screams at the plains.

In the night, they are even more eerie, or rather the few manmade objects that punctuate their starkness are of a terrifying purpose and audacity. I hit Laurel, Montana just after dark on my first day and immediately I could smell the industry. Then a tight turn and a spear of light and metal shot through the earth. A refinery of some sort, the kind you often see in New Jersey, just across the Hudson River, the kind with a million white lights scattered over a spindly lattice work of steel and dandruffed over low-lying out buildings for miles across. Complete with pillars of fire perpetually bellowing out of tall smokestacks, it was a dystopian incarnation of a Ridley Scott, Blade Runner nightmare world, dropped unceremoniously and menacingly onto an already brutal road.

Thankfully Billings is only partially out of the hills and still has a bit of a rise to it. I arrived in the pleasant, little Montana town just after dark and crashed out on the couch of a lovely couple whose cats kept me company for the evening. Likewise, in Pierre, SD, I got to spend the night with a local man who took me around town in the night, populating the countryside with history and meaning. He took me out to the earth roll dam just up the Missouri in his Domino’s delivery car after work and narrated to me the settling of the town, the effect of the dam.

He pointed down one driveway and told me the story of a Sioux raiding party, which attempted to raid a neighboring tribe. The raiders caught the tribe’s watchman on the ridge of a hill and mutilated him to within an inch of his life, but he escaped, outrunning the Sioux to his village. The Sioux, according to their own oral history apparently, laid down a stone marker for each drop of the man’s blood and built a cosmologically significant turtle mosaic in the region, which has survived to this day in spite of the common prairie practice of stealing rare stone materials from sacred cairns to build stoops for private homes. Yet as of now, the mosaic is on private property.

A part of me was fascinated to learn that there was an active and living oral history in the region and that everyday members of the Pierre community were active and willing participants in it. Indeed, I was even more surprised to learn that a small band of Sioux in the region still live a horse-mounted hunting existence far off the grid and beyond the sight lines of the road, speaking almost exclusively Lakota. It’s rare to find something beyond the stretch of the nation, even out here. That something—however faint—of the days before control and dominance and punishment and discipline can still exist in this world, so heavily gridded and observed, is heartening. But more than that, I thought to myself as I washed my hands in a sulfur stream and watched the lightning strikes of a prairie storm roll in from an unobstructed sixty miles off, I was just disappointed that land inundated with morality had been fenced off for good by a country lawyer.

But that digression aside, by the time I reached Pierre and on my way past, towards Iowa, I’d long left behind the giant-pocked landmarks of Montana and Wyoming and entered an unbreakable flat corn and cow land. I started to go a little batty. It did not help that I was listening to hour-long radio programs on subjects such as the suicide epidemic in Hungary, but oh well. I started to talk back to the radio hosts, to vocalize and narrate the land in a deep radio voice of my own.

As my mind started fading towards the end of Wyoming, though, I began to notice more and more motorcycles on the road. The things were like accursed gadflies, buzzing around my car and clogging the roads until suddenly they lay a hundred thick in every direction. And then I realized I was in Sturgis, SD, right around the time of the rally, the biggest biker event of the year.

While navigating through my field of gadflies, hoping to God and Thor and any deity that would listen that I would not accidentally sideswipe a little bike in my blind spot off the road and into the blood-hungry steppe, I started to get a good, close look at the bikers. Some were old men and saggy, men and women alike done up in the antiquated leather chaps with tattered fringes. Others were young and clean-cut. Some of the women, their hair usually blonde and tightly bound, looked about as close to a Valkyrie as I may ever see in my waking life.  But what struck me truly was the ease with which they congealed into a mass on the roads.

I’m not too fond of the culture that comes with Sturgis. It’s an almost uniformly whitebread crowd, and chin strap beards and wife beaters are a little too common for my aesthetic taste, while misogyny and racism are a little too common for my soul. But it’s a cohesive culture I’m not fond of. As soon as one merges onto the road and sinks into the bike cluster, one becomes part of the in-group, sucked into a pack that travels tight and supportive. I saw them and I felt very alone. I wanted to be there, connected into that pack, swaying in communal to and fro of their masses. Except that I didn’t, not truly. But the base, lonely, half-crazed and steppe-mad part of me desperately wanted it, that communion on the road.

My latest respite has not helped greatly with my sanity and obvious urge for company. Over the past few years I’ve become a very social animal, unlike my younger self. But I was still game to travel 9,200+ miles absolutely alone with the knowledge that long spells of lonesome contemplation would be cut through by rest and conversation in the evenings. However at present I am writing from a guest room in a house on a functional, historic farm four miles outside of the rural town of Oskaloosa, IA. I am kept company by four cats, each one vying for my attention.

Don’t get me wrong, I like taking a stroll through the woods nearby and hearing the screech owls and the foxes rustling in the undergrowth. I love driving down endless lanes of corn and soy. But, god, what a pathetic urbanite I’ve become, spoiled by New York and the people within. I’ll be glad to reach Madison, Wisconsin, tomorrow.

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