Light Up the Night Sky

For the second night in a week, I was awakened by the loud crash of thunder.

This time, I did not roll over, shake Tara excitedly, and ask, “DID YOU HEAR THAT?!?!” Because after I did so last week, she was unable to fall back to sleep the rest of the night, and was not a happy camper on Thursday. I have come to learn that she does not share my enthusiasm for thunderstorms, and would actually rather sleep than watch jagged forks of lightning split the night sky.

To each their own.

“I lived in Kansas,” she says. “We got thunderstorms all the time.”

OK, but I lived in South Dakota and Ohio. We got thunderstorms all the time, too. Yet I still get giddy anytime they occur. I guess that’s due to 19 years in the Pacific Northwest, and before that, 8 in California. Thunderstorms on the West Coast are a rarity. We get a few every year in Portland, but they’re rarely anything to write home about.

Last night was the exception. About 11:40, a rumbling woke me up, and for the next couple of hours the lightning and thunder (and periods of heavy rain) were constant. I’ve rarely seen so much lightning around here. It was pretty freakin’ cool! True to my word, I never woke Tara up (tempting though it was), and she ended up sleeping through the whole thing. I’ll admit that, after awhile, even I was beginning to think, OK, it can settle down now. Sleep would be nice. I finally nodded off again about 3:00. Exciting night, but it’s going to be a long day, especially following a nice, long weekend. Coming back to reality always sucks.

Thunderstorms rumbled through Portland this AM. (Courtesy of Mike Ranweiler Photography).
Thunderstorms rumbled through Portland this AM. (Courtesy of Mike Ranweiler Photography).

They’re predicting more storms tomorrow night, so I’d better catch up on my sleep before then!

We had a great visit with Matt and Monica, even though it ended up being shorter than expected. They arrived right on cue Friday afternoon. Actually, they were early, and already there when I got home. Even though it had been four years since we last saw each other, there was never an awkward moment. We grilled some ribeye steaks topped with mushrooms for dinner, listened to music, and talked long into the night. Until close to midnight, as a matter of fact, sitting out on the patio, taking advantage of a warm summer night. The slugs came out as they always do after dark, freaking Monica out, but we assured her they’re harmless. A little disgusting maybe, with their slime trails, but hey – that’s nature! Saturday, they wanted to spend “a typical day in Portland, MarTar-style” (their nickname for the two of us), so we got an early start to a busy day. Took them downtown, where we attempted to grab some Voodoo Doughnuts, but the always-long line was even longer than usual and the hot sun was beating down, so they settled for a whiff of fresh doughnuts instead. We walked around the Saturday Market for awhile, showed them the waterfront, and then headed over to the east side of town for lunch at our newest discovery, Lardo. We then spent a couple of hours exploring record shops and vintage stores before heading home for a breather. We listened to music for a few hours, then ducked into one of those hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurants for a quick dinner that turned out to be surprisingly good. Came back home and ended up back on the patio, engaged in more conversation. It was a fun, and full, day.

Sunday we were supposed to take them sightseeing in the Columbia Gorge – the Vista House, Multnomah Falls – but Monica had been feeling under the weather on Saturday, and after a restless night found herself suffering from a full-on (or about to be full-on) cold. Feeling miserable, they made the difficult decision to return home a day early, but not before we went out for breakfast together at Shanahan’s in Vancouver. All in all it was a great visit, and we look forward to seeing them again soon. We won’t let another four years go by this time, either.

Now, the next big thing on our agenda is our wedding. Which is a mere 11 days away!! That’s right, we can now officially say, next week we will be married!!! Which is exciting and wonderful and hard to fathom, all at once. It feels like I just proposed to her. It’s amazing how fast this year has gone by.


Getting My Griswold On – Day 5: Badlands

Miles traveled today: 178.8
Total miles traveled: 1726.0

Flash. Crash. Repeat.

Have I mentioned the crazy weather we’re having out here? For the third day in a row, I encountered thunderstorms. And not just any old thunderstorms – big, dangerous ones. With lots of lightning and thunder and – worst of all – hail. As I was leaving the restaurant I ate dinner in this evening, the manager was welcoming an elderly couple. “Looks like rain again!” the husband said, pointing out the ominous sky. “I know,” the manager replied. “Feels like we’re in Washington or Oregon.” I stopped dead in my tracks and wheeled around, ready to correct him. Because this is nothing like the weather we get back home. It rains there a lot, sure. But it’s a gentle rain most times. A soft rain. Often, no more than a drizzle or mist. It’s certainly nothing like these severe, car-denting hailstorms and lightning that flashes constantly, every few seconds. Check out this video I shot last night from the motel parking lot.

Free Ice Water!

My first stop today, after a more leisurely morning than I’ve had lately, was Wall Drug Store in Wall, South Dakota. This might sound odd if you’re unfamiliar with the place, but Wall Drug is more than just a drug store: it’s an institution and a semi-famous tourist attraction. Opened in 1931, the proprietor was struggling with the business until he hit upon the idea to advertise free ice water to travelers on their way to the newly-opened Mount Rushmore, 60 miles away. The idea worked, and the enterprise has been thriving ever since.

Wall Drug is both enormous and kitschy, with a cowboy/Old West theme. It’s comprised of several different “businesses” all under one roof – clothing stores, art galleries, gift shops, a restaurant, even an arcade – kind of like a shopping mall but more intimate. When we lived in South Dakota, we’d head out to Wall Drug every so often on our way to the Badlands, which – sure enough – was my next destination. I bought a pack of buffalo jerky to snack on, just like old times.

What A Nice Butte

From Wall, I drove 21 miles to Badlands National Park. I love the Badlands – this 244,000-acre preserve of eroded buttes, pinnacles and spires offers breathtaking scenery. The red-striped rocks take on different appearances depending on the time of day, amount of sunlight and shadow, and weather conditions, so the whole landscape feels like it’s in a constant state of flux. I drove at a leisurely pace, stopping often at different viewpoints and overlooks. I did quite a bit of hiking, too – if you only see the Badlands from your car, you’re missing out, because there are numerous trails that lead around the various rock formations, and you are welcome to climb them (at your own peril, of course). It was pretty hot in the sun, but a nice breeze was blowing at times, and thunderclouds were stacking up to the west. As soon as I got on the interstate heading west, back toward my motel, a squall line moved through and hail started pelting my windshield so hard I thought it was going to crack. Everybody on the freeway pulled over and waited for the storm to pass, which fortunately took only five minutes. It was something, though! I got video footage from inside my car but I’m having trouble uploading, so I’ll post that another time.

I can’t help but marvel, once again, over the beauty of this area. I liked it as a teenager, even though my parents complained about the brutal winters. They are harsh – one year (I think it was 1985) we had a blizzard on my birthday. Which is April 27th. In some parts of the country, it’s already summertime by then! And that first winter, back in ’83, it dropped down to -27 one night. This is definitely a land of fierce extremes, and it can be very punishing if you aren’t prepared for it. But the magnificent beauty and abundance of natural attractions – not to mention free ice water a mere 55 miles to the east! – make it worthwhile. I’ve often wondered if I could ever picture myself living in Rapid City again, and after returning, the verdict is in: yes, I could. I’m not saying I will – I love the Pacific Northwest far too much – but I wouldn’t rule it out if the circumstances were exactly right.

The Pluses and Minuses of Traveling Solo

I am having the time of my life on this trip – and it’s not even half over yet! The best part about traveling solo is, you can do whatever you want, whenever you want. Which is pretty much also the best thing about being divorced. If I want to see the world’s largest ball of twine, there’s nobody nagging at me about sticking to the schedule. The downside to traveling by yourself? A lack of human companionship, which is pretty much also the worst thing about being divorced. Everywhere I’ve gone the past few days – Crazy Horse, Mount Rushmore, the Badlands – I have seen nothing but families and couples. There were so many parent-and-kid combos today, I actually got a little pang in my heart because I never got to do that with my family, except for one nice weekend getaway to Crater Lake a year before we divorced. And the families with small kids? They’re the luckiest of all. I hope they realize that. I haven’t seen another solo person, anywhere, and I’ve been looking. Oddly enough, I’ve become the guy who other couples ask to take their picture. Maybe I have a trusting face (or perhaps it’s because I’m not chasing after small children). I’ve lost track of how many strangers I’ve photographed.

I’m not complaining, though. I’ve always been comfortable by myself, which is why when dinnertime rolled around I decided to walk across the street to Perkins, a sit-down restaurant that’s kind of like a Denny’s or Marie Callender’s. You know the type: they all serve breakfast all day, sell pies, and have cash registers up front when you’re ready to pay. Some people might balk at eating alone, but I have been trying to avoid fast food and felt like a decent, sit-down dinner for once, so I went. I have never been so excited to see a salad in my life. I’m not saying the chicken fried steak I ordered was any healthier than fast food, but it hit the spot, and aside from the jerky and a breakfast scone I hadn’t eaten all day and was starving.

And now, sadly, my time in South Dakota is up. I will miss it, and I’m already vowing to return someday – and I promise it won’t take me another 25 years. By the same token, today was the first day it felt like I was on vacation instead of a road trip, so it’s time to Ramble On and head east. Tomorrow will be my first full day of traveling since Billings.

This gives you an idea of the enormity of Wall Drug.
Inside the main entrance to Wall Drug.
Hey, I thought the ice water was free!!
Near the beginning of the Badlands Loop. Interspersed with the rock formations is the largest protected mixed grass prairie in the country.
Luckily, I didn't see any.
One of the trails in the Badlands.
Red-striped rock formation in the Badlands.
Thundercloud over the South Dakota prairie. You could hear the rumbling echoing through the Badlands.
A spot of color in the Badlands.
Mountain goats far below. I could barely see them from my lofty perch overlooking this canyon - thank god for zoom lenses.
More Badlands.