I almost missed this month's deadline for this column, but I have a good
excuse: I've been out searching for beauty again, and must report that my
family and I found some largish, mountain-shaped accumulations of it in
Glacier National Park, in northwestern Montana.
Now, the pursuit of this beauty didn't come cheap in 10 days, we
semiconsciously put over 3,000 miles on the trusty minivan but the
relative drudgery of the to and fro was surely and stupendously compensated
by the bald-faced bundles of blatant beauty we encountered when we got
The trip to the far side of Montana, clear across four of the larger
states, was mostly as uneventful as the vast interstate highway system could
possibly promise: no flat tires, no breakdowns, and no vast herds of unruly
or uneducated bison trampling my precious life-sustaining box of little
chocolate donuts. (Give me enough strong black coffee and little chocolate
donuts, and I'll drive around the world.)
The familiar trip from Minnesota to Wyoming (via I-90) crosses over 400
miles of my home state of South Dakota, and is remarkable (if a little
painful) for its scenic monotony. With notable exceptions (and given a few
pasture-sized bicubic patches), nearly any stretch of the trip could be
inconspicuously replaced with any other.
On the bright side, trips like this can deepen your appreciation of the
world's vastness. (Yeah, I actually tried that one on my kids.) On the dark
side, when the charm of vastness wears thin, the horizon starts to look like
a looping cartoon background: Tom chases Jerry across the apparently
infinite, hay-carpeted living room, passing that same cheesy billboard every
950ms. Been there. Done that. It's really big and mostly flat.
To be fair, the broadly dispersed notables on the trans-Dakota trip
include such gems as the reservoir behind the dammed Missouri River at
Chamberlain, those darned Badlands near Wall, and the doggoned Black Hills
of South Dakota. Now, each of these locations has already been a destination
in my search for beauty (and, hopefully, will be again), but this summer the
ultimate destination was the mountains big mountains.
The Black Hills of South Dakota are sort of like mountains. As geologic
features go, I've been told the "black mountain hills of Dakota" are among
the oldest crustal features around even older than the Beatles' song that
made them famous and that this age accounts for the mostly smooth contours
of their weathered granite and pine-covered swells. Swells are swell, I
guess, but give me a good rocky crag or two this summer!
Less geologically, more colloquially, the notable sights on I-90 include
several concrete dinosaurs, a large metal pasture sculpture of a bull head,
and a billboard offering 24-hour "toe" service. With such visual wealth, how
could you want for more? Well, if you're bold enough, or the gas gauge
approaches "E" at the right time, you might want to take a short side trip
to Mitchell, South Dakota, and pass one of the strangest buildings on earth.
Forming the outer layer of this oddly shaped building, you'll find
literally thousands of carefully mutilated carcasses ritualistically
dismembered, drawn and quartered, and finally stapled to sheets of plywood.
These carcasses are arranged according to their primary genetic attributes
of color and morphology, in such a fashion as to form patriotic images of
pioneers, astronauts, firefighters, farmers, nuns, and such like.
Okay, well, I guess "carcass" is not the best choice of words. But, if
ears of corn *were* sentient, then the so-called "Corn Palace" of Mitchell,
South Dakota, would surely be (au)reality's single unholiest abomination.
Now, the trip west of Dakota into Wyoming and Montana will have to
be the stuff of some future article. I'm back at work now, but I'm not the
same as I was before the trip. Summer vacation melts all the year's frozen
goo in my head and then pulls my cranial drain plug, so that the molten goo
runs out of my ears and directly onto my T-shirt. (To the naked eye, the goo
stain looks just like spilled coffee.)
If you happen to see me at some midwestern truck stop next summer, look
for the stain. If it's there, the trip is going well. If it's not, don't
worry: it's just a matter of time.
Blair Wyman is a software engineer working for IBM in Rochester, Minnesota,
home of the IBM iSeries.