by Raju Peddada
Dedicated to the lady who keeps everyone grounded -- my magnificent mother
(Swans - September 24, 2012) Satya suddenly lights up the night before by giving me a giant hug, accompanied by the cutest smile, as if saying "... glad to see you go gampa!" I don't mind extended hellos, but long goodbyes drain punctuality, as I wanted to make that clean exit. The designated departure day was the next morning, July 18th, at 4:30 am. After staying up late with the kids watching Parent Trap, we did manage a getaway, but not a clean one. A black cat crossed our path before our wheels moved forward. It was only when the darkness persisted beyond 6:00 am on my wristwatch, set on Central Standard Time, that I realized that we had left at 3:20 am Mountain Time. Even a horrifying coffee was indispensable --only the caffeine mattered -- which I got at this grimy gas station on 57th before turning left towards Belt on 200/87E.
We had turned onto 89S after Armington, and in the fifty-five millimeter view of the headlights, I saw an abrupt increase of insects in flight that somehow kept missing the windshield. I also noticed how huge the stars appeared in the eastern sky, particularly a vertical group up by my window. It was flat till Monarch, and immediately after that little settlement, we were cocooned in pitch darkness as the trees covering the Little Belt Mountains loomed over us. We had entered the Lewis and Clark National Forest. I alternated my attention between the heavenly distraction and earthly dangers while snaking the asphalt through the mountains.
This vertical cluster of stars kept me company for all of the wee hours. Far up to my left was this spiral formation appearing like pin-pricks of light caught in a hazy spider's web, floating in the indigo infinity. Then, below this cluster, were three stars, bright-faint-bright, in a descending order. This formation moved in tandem with us, sort of an assurance "... don't worry... we'll be here forever..." Something nagged me. I had seen this same formation before, and I couldn't place it. I drifted in contemplation, trying to find a rationale for something this vast and inexplicable, and the utter futility on our part in trying to find meaning and assign a sense to this frighteningly mysterious void. I am convinced that our infinitesimal significance and impact so affects us that we need ignorance to survive.
Hairpin bends kept coming up in the mountains, as my mind traversed its own hairpin bend to meet the original Satya: My dad, who drove us every summer into new spheres of self exploration. Then suddenly, without any warning... Aha! The place I had seen the same vertical formation of stars was in the historic and picturesque Little Falls, New York, late in the night of July 3, 1989, on a trip with my friend. A pang of regret pierces me. The hills had flattened down, and I could see a thin line of gold on the horizon, dissipating up into the indigo void. Lewis and Clark National Forest was history, as we arrived in that twilight at White Sulfur Springs with a thick film of protein on the windshield. I spent a few minutes cleaning the windshield, and filled up the wiper fluid. At 7:00 am, in complete daylight, I could still see the three stars in the eastern sky.
The boys were awake, and Butch, our speculator extraordinaire, as always would ask a question to start the day. "Daddy... what would happen if the moon was closer than it is now? What if it was so close that we could build a bridge to it?" "Dead... we'll all be dead, boy" I responded. 89S was simply great theater. As the sun rose, the coruscating Big Belt Mountain range to my right appeared as a lineup of brides in their golden veils. I developed a neck ache gawking at the shimmering peaks. Brides in veils gave way to tall grooms in the form of fir trees in the Gallatin National Forest, drenched in that effeminate morning glow. And to my left, past Ringling, I saw this lone tree whizzing by on a vast blonde plain whose shadow trailed for a hundred feet westward. I wondered if I would see this tree again in the coming years and possibly feel reassured. Sometime after 8:00 am we merged onto 90EW near Depot Center, and turned east toward Billings, Montana. We stopped at a McDonald's in Columbus for a late breakfast and got into a conversation with an old farmer in coveralls.
Butch: "Daddy... look, that machine looks like a Pteranodon!" One thing that appeared regularly since Fargo were these upright rusting harvesters and threshers from 100 years ago, like some Jurassic fossils, with their huge beaks and exposed innards craning forlornly into a future of dissolution. I cannot help but conjure the bawdy joviality, the sweaty ambition, and the lives that had unfolded around these implements of agriculture. I asked "...Why don't they sell the steel for scrap rather than allowing them to rust away?" Moments of deafening silence, which inferred: "What's wrong with you, man?!" The farmer reluctantly offers this, moistening his dry lips: "They ain't rustin scrap, they de remayns of orr loved uns... my gandpe - grame, my pa-ma... dem havestors arr orr storays... de remayns arr bones of the famley..." These were intense and candid emotions from an craggy old man. The rusting hulks, dissolving slowly, offered reassurance and an emotional heritage that connected generations.
To Mani's unbridled delight, we passed a train junction near Laurel. Two-mile-long coal, cattle, and grain trains awaited their assignments with idling engines. And speaking of heritage, the history trail began in earnest after Billings. Highway 90 turned south, and the first sign was: "Crow Nation Welcomes You." In the early 18th century the Crow Nation (referred to as Apsáalooke in Sioux dialect) occupied the Badlands from North Dakota through Montana and Wyoming's Yellowstone River Valley. In the early 20th century the Crow were shoehorned into a reservation, and unfortunately I cannot extend this discourse on the Crow Indians, as I also have been squeezed into the limited state of words.
Exit 510 declared the detour into history again: Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. This lassoed me back into the Civil War and the imagery of the meteoric ascent of George Armstrong Custer, then as a colonel, his last stand against the Sioux nation led by the fierce Crazy Horse and Gall of the Lakota. It was a case of Federal hubris against Indian reality, which actually was realty. As we crossed into Wyoming, oddly, Dick Cheney's sneer flashed in my mind's eye, a mental trigger I had no control over.
Mani, pointing to his right: "Daddy... how far are those mountains... can we walk to them by evening?" To the west, as we drove south towards Buffalo, was the Bighorn Mountain Range draped in various greens by the eponymous national forest. This was buffalo, rather, the bison country, and I couldn't avoid the connection to the 19th century warrior/entertainer William F. Cody, better known as "Buffalo Bill," just as we passed an exit for 14W to Cody. After Buffalo, 90 turned directly east. At Gillette, it was sizzling. We had lunch, and filled up for $72.99. Then, past Gillette, Mani, upon spotting three trains crossing each other, exclaims: "... what the fucking hell!" "Oops!" Butch offers. I am to blame for this, as I am a raging curmudgeon in traffic, raining expletives on those who don't move to the right lane, even as they see a fast car approaching.
Within forty minutes of Gillette we passed exits 185 and 187 for Sundance and the Devil's Tower National Monument and Forest. It so happens that the actual "Sundance Kid" (outlaw Harry Alonzo Longabaugh, 1867-1908) came from this innocuous little town in the middle of wilderness -- played with understated perfection by Robert Redford in George Roy Hill's classic film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. It was close to a 100 degrees, and the immobility was wearing thin on the boys, who were impatient for Mount Rushmore. I could not engage them in the wonders outside anymore. "What's new?" was the inference with their body language.
As we entered South Dakota, to our left were the rolling farms on the tundra, and to our right, south, were the Black Hills -- it was hot! Highway 90E meandered up, then down towards Sturgis (yes, the motorcycle Mecca during August), and Rapid City. The detour on 16W to Mount Rushmore, through Rapid City was pure traffic hell, spiking up our psychological temperature. Keystone was the last town before the monument, which trapped the gullible visitors with its official looking museums, attractions, and distractions. We climbed into the Black Hills, circling three rocky outcrops, then suddenly the tree curtain parted to reveal the majesty of Doane Robinson's idea and Gutzon Borglum's creation: the four faces sculpted on granite. I always thought about the one face missing on that mountain: Alexander Hamilton's. After confronting a parade of SUVs, trucks, cars, trikes, and bikes at the entrance, the boys said "We already saw it, dad... why get sweaty waiting here?" At that point, the wondrous monument had become anticlimactic.
Here I realized something. How long can spectacular monuments and landscapes hold ten- and seven-year-olds before they start to tune them out? By the time we had arrived in South Dakota, they were done with the wonders beyond the car window. Their interactions increased and they bantered incessantly. And since I found my entertainment and wonder in their wonder, it was not long before this trip had turned into pure contemplation... escaping to the destinations within.
I couldn't fathom how four hours had dissolved after Rapid City, but we finally gave up for the night in Oacoma, South Dakota. The Oasis Inn soaked us for $87.72, and when walked into room 119, the sink was full of water, with phlegm...or cum floating in it. We changed rooms, showered, and walked to a grocery store in their Old-West-type strip mall. A tantalizing paradox obliterated my fatigue. How did this happen? Here, we saw this bronze "Amazon" woman looking for a "dip," in tight shorts, wearing Dolce & Gabbana glasses, flaunting more curves than the Black Hills possessed, and the Jabba-the-Hutt-like creature with a nose stud manning the register. Later, I asked the boys "... which creature was more interesting to watch?" Both in unison: "The fat one with that nose thing." I smiled, for their innocence, and wondered how long before they were corrupted by sexual attraction.
Early the next morning, we had that "free" breakfast at the motel and hit the road after filling up for $60. Within two hours we were in Minnesota, and within four hours we were in beautiful La Crosse, Wisconsin, for lunch at McDonald's. At this point, the boys started to drive me nuts with their importunate queries: "How long before we are home?" A few minutes later, the same question rephrased. I guess they had asked all the questions they could, and this was the final question: "How long before we can see mama?" Their trip was over after Rapid City, and my cogitation had just begun.
La Crosse was an idyllic town on the Mississippi, with the scenic route 35NS hugging the river, crossing 90EW at right angles. We sliced diagonally down Wisconsin after La Crosse -- no anomalies of consequence till after Janesville. Suddenly I see tires smoking and hear this loud screeching, followed by an explosion. The car ahead had rammed into the one ahead of it. At close to 75 mph I had little wiggle room, and I was sure of hitting the car that was already smoking. Then, with a flick of my wrist I took the car off the road to our left, onto the gravel, going around the involved cars and avoiding what could have been catastrophic. The lane closure for construction had caused this. Mani, again: "Are these all morons?" We had started twelve days ago by seeing the remains of a gruesome accident, and now here we were, concluding the trip by almost becoming similar remains, as if inferring: "life is a journey between deaths." That Brahmin superstition had almost materialized.
We got home around 5:00 pm on the 19th of July, and before I turned off the car, the boys and their mother were one lumpy convolution of heads, legs, and arms. I was sapped and listless. It was almost 7:00 pm by the time I had showered and had dinner. After a sleepless eleven nights in strange beds, my brain had involuntarily shut down, as did the body, but the vibration persisted. The last images that flashed on my mind were that iridescent-blue butterfly, River's face, and the curvaceous woman from Oacoma, and before my back hit the bed, I was asleep.
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About the Author
Raju Peddada is an industrial designer running an eponymous brand, purveyor of ultra luxury furnishings of his own design (see peddada.com). He is also a freelance correspondent/writer for several publications, specializing in commentary, essay, and opinions on architecture, design, photography, books, fashion, society, and culture. Peddada was born in Tallapudi, a small southern town in south India. He's lived in New Delhi and Bombay before migrating to the West Indies and eventually settling in Chicago, Illinois, where he worked in corporate America until he chose to set up his own designing firm. He lives with his family in Des Plaines. (back)