Rosa and I ended our tour with a trip up to the cabin in northern Minnesota with my family. It was a wild Fourth of July week, and a momentous end to the American Happiness Tour. For me, it was a combination of fun, work, and disaster. When my dad and I put in the boat lift, I got the worst case of lake itch I have ever had, and spent three hours losing my mind, trainspotting in the upstairs bedroom—unable to even speak. Lake itch like that is maddening in the first three hours, as the bugs burrow their way into your skin and die there.
I built a chair for Chuck Densinger–a big supporter of the American Happiness Tour–made of painted and stripped willow. A part of the California Series, I’m calling this chair “The Chuck.” Now, it’s currently drying in the basement before I finish it.
After a northern Minnesota family riot, I set off alone in the Scamp on my drive back to California. In Bismarck, the sky turned black, and when I turned off from Dickinson to Spearfish, the warnings started popping up on my phone and on the radio—90 mile an hour winds and hail. Mobile homes in danger of blowing over. Seek cover immediately. It was eerily calm, but the sky looked bruised and angry. Around me there was no shelter, no cover—just plains and road. I cruised fast to try to outrun the storm, driven by Rosa, who was remotely storm chasing in California for me, and giving me updates.
The storm headed toward me:
I got pushed around just north of Belle Fourche by 60 mile an hour crosswinds and driving rain. At one point, I almost had to pull over and direct the rig into the wind. It was scary as hell, but the Scamp took the gusts better than I thought. And when I finally crossed over the hill at 10 PM and saw the lights of Belle Fourche in the valley below, I knew I had made it through.
In Spearfish, I camped next to a creek and settled in for a day to follow the old trails of Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane through Spearfish Canyon, the ‘76 trail, Deadwood, and Leeds. I brought along a book of one of my favorite authors, Richard Brautigan, who wrote In Watermelon Sugar and Trout Fishing in America. In the land of Watermelon Sugar:
Trout in Spearfish:
Falls in Spearfish Canyon:
In Deadwood, during the 1876 gold rush, the main street was full of holes, where people were digging for gold. There was so much gold in the stream sands that for two years all anybody did was pan. After two years, however, the panning gig was up, and in came the sluices and the miners, who started tearing up the hills.
Deadwood, South Dakota in 1877:
Deadwood, South Dakota in July of 2013:
The winds were against me when I took off for Salt Lake the next day. So was the radio. In Wyoming, there are times when you hit seek on your radio and it scrolls through endlessly in a Sisyphean loop, chasing signals that aren’t there. Just outside of Casper, the Jeep and Scamp started shaking. At first I blamed it on the Wyoming roads, but quickly came to realize that something was wrong with the rig. It was running hard, shaking fiercely at 50 miles per hour, and pulling to the right when I pressed on the brakes. I had to turn around and head back into Casper at 35 miles per hour.
But in Casper, I found Reeds, where Wayne and his son Shawn helped me out and replaced a seized up brake caliper in less than an hour for under 200 bones. When they took off the wheel, the rotor was purple from heat, and we joked about frying eggs and cooking steaks. Shawn, a track racer, travels all over the country to drive cars around dirt tracks. The lobby of the shop is full of medals and trophies, and he speaks in a matter of fact way about everything. Wayne, his father, is the kind of guy who knows how to connect with anybody—who can buddy up to a Californian passer-through with a seized caliper while commiserating with a Wyoming rancher about trailer problems and the shims some hack put on his starter connection.
A warm thank you to Wayne and Shawn, who put me back on the road in no time. And if you ever need a great mechanic in Casper, I owe them this endorsement. Reeds Automotive in Casper, Wyoming.
About trailer campers, I’ve learned this: part of it is dealing with problems and breakdowns. In St. Cloud, I had to replace the tires. In the Dakotas, I had to worry about rollovers. In Casper, the brakes. It’s time consuming, stressful, and can be expensive. Is it worth it? Sure, sure. I do love the Scamp. But I also love pitching a tent somewhere deep. But in a tent, you can’t boondock in a rest area. And in a camper, there’s no driving into the wild or backcountry. It’s a road romance, an asphalt adventure, which is not without its charms.
In Battle Mountain, Nevada, when trolling radio stations, I came upon the most unbelievable discovery, when briefly listening to a Christian rock radio station. I heard this song, which will blow your mind and is worth a listen. A marvel:
During a religious parade in Georgia, where a man hauled a cross to honor Jesus’s plight, my grandmother commented to me, “You know, Jesus wouldn’t want him to do that!” And that is precisely how I feel about “Crown of Thorns” by For Today. I just want to tell those guys to go home, grow a garden, and cook some quiche or rice pilaf. I mean, I thought Charlie Sheen was ridiculous.
Even the gas stations can be bad jokes in middle of the country. Yes, this exists:
Mulling “Crown of Thorns” got me to the Great Salt Lake, before facing the final winds that pushed against me on my final push back into the San Francisco Bay Area. The Scamp:
America is big, America. It’s wilder than we sometimes remember. There’s more open space than there is civilization. And it costs thousands of dollars just to cross it. The roads are never fixed. The road work will always be there. The rest areas are places worth stopping. And the people we meet along the way… the Waynes and the Shawns and the Pattys and the Marvs with the thirteen foot Scamp and a big desire to swap tall travel tales and advise you toward the all-you-can-eat prime rib… you will never see them again, even though it doesn’t feel that way when you’re there with them.
I had a lot of time to think about the American Happiness Tour on the trip home. It’s starting to turn black and white. I can hear the music in my imagination. The faces have smiles on them. The lights glow. There are pints full of amber, and some dollar bills in the tip jar. And there’s Rosa, my lovely Rosa, every night with her guitar and her anxious eyes—a dreamy, visual descant now in my memory, something a lot like this: