No stars graced the night stay above. Back spray on the windshield blurred everything ahead of me.
I reached under my seat for the towel I kept tucked there for just such an occasion and ran it across the glass every few miles. Combined with the frantic swipes of the wipers, it gained me a few minutes of passable visibility.
At 45 mph, the wind beat the back of my head as I crept along and stole away precious heat, but after the last few hours, Mother Nature and physics drew my ire.
That’s nothing to say about the other motorists in their comfy enclosed vehicles driving up on my tailgate. Only pure exhaustion stood between them and insulting gestures as they blinded me further with high beams.
With the windchill factor, it felt like freezing temperatures. Inside my soaked gloves, my hands grew numb. The only thing keeping my feet warm was the heat seeping through the firewall. Without a top, the heater was useless, even if it worked.
Out beyond my headlights, the road snaked through breaks created by a series of creek beds. In the distance, the lights of Rapid City beckoned.
“I’ll have dinner at Denny’s or Perkins,” I said to myself, the wind ripping the words away with icy hands. “Forget the diet. I need a hot meal.”
And a cigarette.
Somewhere to the south, Interstate 94 lay, and if I missed it, I’d have to hand in my driver’s license. Built under the directive of Dwight D. Eisenhower and inspired by the Autobahn, the Interstate System comprises the main shipping arteries of the country.
Four-lanes, concrete or asphalt, the only way onto these roadways are ramps. Semi trucks dominate the traffic, which runs at 80 miles per hour in South Dakota. I hoped the payoff for heavy, fast traffic would be dry pavement.
I stopped on a side road a half-mile from the on-ramp. A brief break from the wind warmed me some, but not enough. At that point, I was probably running off my abundant fat stores, which never seem to keep a person as warm as a greasy steak or quesadilla.
With a deep breath and a muttered “cowabunga”, I drove off to a dance with 18 wheelers.
For most of the day, the best speed The 5 achieved was 75 miles per hour. So I expected cars to pass me and I watched the rearview, ready to brace for whiplash that followed in the wake of the big rigs.
But most traffic headed east, leaving the road in front of me clear except for a few vehicles.
I drove past Box Elder, South Dakota to the US16 bypass and found the familiar round green sign declaring a Perkins awaited. It took a little critical thinking to find the access point to the restaurant parking lot amidst the forest of hotels, but I finally pulled into a space out front under a light where I could watch The 5 from inside.
Stiff from shivering, I dismounted a little less gracefully than usual, stretched and looked around.
The parking lot was empty except for two other vehicles. A quick glance at my watch told me it was a quarter past 10 p.m. With it being a weeknight, this observation failed to concern me.
“What the hell?” I read a sheet of paper taped to the inside of the door.
Closed 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. for deep cleaning.
So much for a hot meal. Though I tried to console myself by remembering that such places usually blasted the air conditioning this time of year, my hunger tortured stomach protested loudly.
I knew my chances of finding an open restaurant at this hour were slim. A few years before, a friend and I stayed in Rapid City during Sturgis week and ate supper after a concert at Buffalo Chip. We ended up eating gas station burritos.
Deciding that gas station food sounded better than nothing, I headed up the hill to a convenience store.
I found the windows dark, and the door locked. The pumps were lit, but nothing else operated in that lot, and the string of cuss words that fell from my lips stretched back to the Missouri.
Frustration fed my panic, and low blood sugar hampered my ability to assess options. Ready to give up, get a hotel room and re-plan the entire trip, I considered my present options.
Recreation was not the sole purpose of this trip. I needed to wake my old self. I wondered if I still had the grit to face challenges alone.
It’s something akin to survival. My situation wasn’t life or death, but the mental skills were the same. I focussed my mind on solving the key problem, finding food.
To the north of the gas station sat a Taco John’s restaurant with a couple of cars parked out front and the interior fully lit. Deeming it worth a shot, I finished filling the gas tank and drove over.
They were closed for dine-in, but the drive-through was open. I ordered a burrito and tots and sat on the tailgate in the parking lot while I ate.
Slowly, the chill seeped out of my limbs, and I started feeling halfway human again.
I pulled up the map and scanned the last few miles to the campground. Google told me it was a 45 minute drive, the last 15 of which comprised a windy two-lane through Custer State Park, which is known for free ranging wildlife.
Wild fauna scared me less than being blinded by a modern vehicle with overbright headlights on a tight curve. This late at night, probably not too many folks cruised the scenic byways.
The deciding factor was the deposit I’d paid on one of the last campsites available in the park. My goal was to keep all expenses under $600, and gas already threatened to break the budget. The budget didn’t include a hotel room.
So, I found an open truck stop, used the facilities, bought a gas can, filled it with two gallons of gas, and picked up a four-pack of local beer before striking out again.
City lights lit the night for a while as I followed SD 79 south. Perhaps I saw enough of the Hills to know they loomed off to my right, or maybe it’s the instinct developed during my years in Montana, but I could feel them as keenly as I could feel someone standing over my shoulder in a library.
Air swept down from higher elevations carried the tangy scent of dry pine and sage. I filled my lungs with it, but despite the resurgence of chill, I felt relaxed, at home in an arid climate once again.
I followed the signs to SD 36 and felt the change in RPMs as The 5 started climbing. Soon the road turned into the shoulderless, windy two-lane I expected.
“Thank God I replaced the bulbs on this thing!” I said aloud as the high beams lit up both sides of a narrow canyon ahead. If any deer or bison played roulette, they were out of luck tonight.
South Dakota State Parks’ instructions on my permits both for The 5 and for the campsite offered no alternatives to “print and display this paper”. As I stared at the kiosk at the entrance station, I wondered how a place best known for the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally offered no options for permit display on open vehicles short of getting one pre-laminated.
So I took one from the bin, wrote the permit number from the email on it, stuck it to the windshield and moved on.
I now followed US 16A, having met up with it just before the park entrance, and it led me through a couple of resort and campground areas I recognized from childhood. When finally I pulled into Grace Coolidge Campground, I felt exactly one iota of irritation that my campsite sat exactly twenty yards off the pavement.
Too tired to give a damn more, I cracked open a beer, pitched the tent, set up my sleeping arrangements and, after hanging the towel and my rain gear over The 5’s roll bar, passed out for the night.
To be continued…