Last November I became the new owner of one of my grandfather's (mom's dad) most prized possessions, his 1987 Chevrolet El Camino. I have many fond memories of my grandfather and a surprising number of them involved riding around in the bed of that pickup (if you called it a truck you were a "city kid"). And when the question arose about what was to happen to the car, I jumped at the opportunity.
At the time I didn't even have room for it in MN and was forced to leave it in storage in Holyoke, CO just gathering dust. Well, in April I acquired myself a brand new three car garage and then two weeks ago I finally set out on the pilgrimage to reclaim "the Camino", along with the memories of my childhood and grandfather who impacted my life immeasurably.
I have made the Colorado to Minnesota trek twice before, once with two cats, and once in the middle of the night. Needless to say, I have never had the luxury of taking any route but the quickest, and that's old I-80 from Cheyenne, WY to Des Moines, IA and then north to the Twin Cities. For this trip however, I had decided early on that we were taking the scenic route. We would head north through Wyoming and my father's hometown of Morrill, Nebraska where we would attempt to do some sleuth work on his father's missing Purple Heart from World War II. Then we would continue into South Dakota, presumably somewhere near Rapid City by the end of day one and spend day two crossing SD to MN.
It was only fitting for a journey of such ancestral magnitude that I had as my co-pilot and navigator my best friend of 28 years Jeff Holets, or as he is known in MN "Uncle Jeff" and as he is known in Portland "Fair Trade Jeff".
On Saturday afternoon we saddled up, bungee corded all of our valuables in the bed, gathered all the cassette tapes we could find and rolled out. The first thing I came to remember about the 80s when we finally got out on the open road is that apparently no one ever ate or drank in their vehicles back then, because there wasn't a cup holder in sight. By the time we reached Wyoming we had broken the tape deck but at least we had managed to re-learn the art of the crotch cup holder.
We managed to avoid having to fight any "damn cowboys in Torrington (WY)" as my father so vividly remembers having to do, and crossed the border into Nebraska. And that is where things got interesting.
First we stopped at the home my dad grew up in and took some pictures, then it turned out we were two houses down. Next we looked up the address my dad had "found online" for the guy who "might have ended up with Grandpa's war medals". Turns out the occupants of said address had never heard of the guy we were looking for but they were more than willing to help us with our search... for some meth. We didn't realize how fervently they wanted to become meth head private eyes until after we gave them my cell phone number, so we decided it was getting late and we better head for South Dakota (or a police station).
We drove the next 3 hours northbound across western Nebraska with the windows down and the sun setting in what I can only describe as the most tranquil experience of my life. It was the one stretch where we didn't talk much. We just took it all in. I knew my grandfather was watching and I knew he would be proud.
About nightfall navigator Jeff set to finding us a place to stay. Both of us had discussed how near we would be to Mount Rushmore and that we would like, if given the chance, to check it out. Well as just was our luck, the town of Keystone, SD where Mount Rushmore is located happened to have exactly ONE place with a room left, the White House Memorial Hotel.
Upon rolling into town about 11pm we quickly came to realize that the reason there was only one place to stay was not because of high demand but because the entire town shuts down at the end of the season. The place was quite literally a ghost town. Endless gift shops, tourist attractions, hotels and restaurants, and not one of them open. After checking in we found the one place open and offered to buy the staff a round if they would fire up the grill so we could order food. I was hopeful that would at least diminish the amount of spit in our food and turns out it was one of the most worthwhile bribes either of us had ever paid. They had about six guys in the back who we A) hadn't counted on treating to beers and B) looked like they got kicked out of Sturgis, which I suspect is awfully difficult but we ate... like... kings! 1/2 pound buffalo burgers, hand cut french fries, and several pints of the local micro brew amber. I could have been delirious from hunger but it might have been one of the best meals of my life.
On Sunday, with a nearly 10 hour drive looming across two states and two time zones, we got up early, enjoyed the least complimentary breakfast ever offered at a hotel and headed up the mountain. Mount Rushmore just after dawn was well worth the excursion and I've never wanted so badly for the Team America theme song to be playing. Alas it did not and we set our sights on the next stop, the "World Famous" Wall Drug.
As "tranquil" as our Saturday evening in Nebraska had been, South Dakota was just plain boring. Nothing in sight and constant 25 mph wind made for a long couple of hours. When we made it to Wall Drug, it turned out to be just that... a drug store, a really nice drug store, but a drug store none the less.
After losing an hour near the Minnesota border, and running into that classic 7pm Sunday evening twin city rush hour we just barely made it home before the girls went to bed. And I was certainly glad we did because we got to take the El Camino for the first family spin around the neighborhood. The face on most of my neighbors screamed "What in the world is this asshole doing driving around with his friend, wife, dog, and two toddlers in the bed of an old pickup/car hybrid for!?" My face, on the other hand, was all smiles.