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I Didn’t Hate South Dakota

I didn’t hate South Dakota.

In fact I never really thought of South Dakota. I knew it was the home of Mount Rushmore, and that was enough for me. Everything else I had ever learned or been told about the area led me to believe it was the most boring of boring places in the US. Not worth wasting a thought on, much less a trip.

But the other day I arrived in Rapid City, South Dakota, and my opinion of the place changed drastically; though this almost wasn’t the case.

What happened was this:

After spending a few days in Minneapolis, visiting my brother and filling our hours with game after game of Egyptian Laser Chess and rounds of trampoline dodgeball with Joel Runyon, Jóna and I hopped a bus up to Fargo, North Dakota.

After 6 hours on the road, we arrived, only to be told that our planned path through ND and down into the western side of South Dakota wouldn’t be possible, as their routes have been changed (though not on their website). We would have to go back to Minneapolis first, and then catch another bus through to Rapid City, where we planned to snag a hotel for the night, hop a free shuttle to Mount Rushmore, and then go on our merry way.

Our stop in Rapid City could have been depressing. I’m not a big fan of tourist attractions, and the whole city (in my mind) was just a vehicle for the famous President-encrusted mountain. Further, after enduring an extra 12 hours in a cramped Greyhound that we needn’t have experienced (back and forth from Fargo), we were both quite close to the ends of our respective travel-tolerance ropes.

During a stop in Souix Falls (5 hours or so from Rapid City), I sat down in the Greyhound station and started chatting with another passenger, who turned out to be a roofer, looking for work in the area. Another man came up and joined the conversation, and he was involved in contractor work; essentially rebuilding towns after catastrophic disasters.

I learned a lot about roofing.

But the second gentleman and I (his name was Tom), continued our chat after we boarded the bus, and a few hours later, we had run the gamut from roofs to politics to science and technology. He headed back to his seat and we both passed the last few hours reading, but were pleased to have had a solid conversation in what was otherwise a quite introverted trip.

When we arrived in Rapid City, I found that my phone wasn’t working (apparently T-Mobile doesn’t operate anywhere in South Dakota), and was unable to contact a hotel to make a reservation and to see if any of them would pick us up from the Greyhound station that late at night.

Tom asked me where I was headed, and when I told him about the phone problem I was trying to solve, kindly offered to have the guy who was picking him up drop us at a hotel nearby. We gladly (and thankfully) accepted.

When Tom’s ride arrived, a duo of dogs exploded from the car and ran to greet him, followed by a fellow about Tom’s age (probably 50 or 60 years old) came out and clasped his hand. We were introduced to Monte, and as we loaded up our bags in his car, he said “Well why don’t you come out and stay with me?”

The automatic response most people have in this situation is to assume the worst. Who was this guy? What did he want from us? Did he want to kill us, or just rob us?

This reflex has been worn away in me by years of travel, though, so I quickly took stock, reassured myself that he wasn’t nefarious, and checked with Jóna to make sure she was comfortable with the arrangement. She quickly nodded yes, and our South Dakota education began.

It started with a drive around the outskirts of town, leading to Mount Rushmore, which was essentially closed for the night, but still accessible if you ignored the signs telling you not to enter. We had a dramatic view of the rock-faces, each unobstructed by weather or tourists, and boldly emphasized by the lighting.

I was impressed. It was actually quite the dramatic view, and in the chilly, empty, quiet night, it was even more so.

We were then driven to a massive log cabin, which Monte had built. He showed us around and explained how he’s building these castles because he likes the aesthetic, but also because they’re eco-friendly and perfect for the Dakotan environment. He also owns a log-cutting business — removing diseased trees so that healthy ones can continue to live — so the log cabin ventures fit well within his business portfolio.

After checking out the cabin, we went out in search of something warm to eat.

The restaurant we decided on offered up an interesting mix of standard American fair, along with some regionals specialties and Mexican food. No one would man-up and order the Rocky Mountain Oysters, but Tom offered to buy Jóna a buffalo burger, in part because he wanted to make sure she tried it, and partially to welcome her to the United States.

Warm fuzzies all around.

Jóna and I were having a good time, but were also quite tired. Thankfully, the next stop was another log cabin, and this one we would get to sleep in.

To say it was a rustic experience wouldn’t be quite accurate, even though the vibe was definitely woodsy and lumberjack-like. It was more like the place felt like home even though we had never been there before, and it was warm and friendly enough that we quickly fell asleep, luxuriating in the quiet held in by the log walls, despite the blustery weather outside.

The next day we went for a hearty breakfast in a small restaurant that smelled of pancakes and looked like a hunting lodge. There were real moose, elk, and deer heads mounted on the walls, and a signed Nascar tire above our table. We ate all we could, and then Monte and Tom took us to visit another cabin, this one past the Black Hills, and a few frozen lakes, which we stopped at to take photos and wonder over the pickups trucks pulled out onto the ice, each surrounded by clusters of ice fishermen.

We finally headed back into town and were dropped off in the downtown area, right next to the Greyhound station.

We all exchanged handshakes, hugs, and email addresses, and we offered up our sincere thanks, which were met with smiles from our chance tour guides.

As Jóna and I sat in the bus and pulled away from the station, headed toward our next destination, we smiled at each other and I said “You know, I didn’t hate South Dakota, but now I kind of like it.”

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My US Road Trip, 2012 Edition

One week from today, on February 15, I’ll be setting out on a 60-day road trip around the United States.

I’ve done this before. Those of you who have been reading for a while may remember the WBSQ Road Trip 2010 project I undertook with Ash Ambirge and Andi Norris (and for the latter-part of the journey, Maren Kate Donovan).

We zig-zagged our way around the country, and in the process wrote a lot of travel stories, created numerous (and somewhat bizarre) videos, and met a whole lot of really cool people in real life, including, but not limited to Josh Millburn & Ryan Nicodemus, Nina Yau, Matt Stillman, Elisa Doucette, Arielle Patrice Scott, Jodi Ettenberg, Daniel Noll & Audrey Scott, Amber RaeTony Bacigalupo, Kristin Quinn, Robert Granholm, Greg Rollett, Carl Nelson, Andrew Norcross, Nicole Antoinette, Jamie Varon, Adam Baker, Joel Runyon, Zachory Zorbas, Matt Cheuvront, Grace Boyle, James Ryan Moreau, Chelsea Latimer, Josh Hanagarne, Jenny Blake, Amber Zuckswert, Jun Loayza, Mark Powers, Josh Stevens, and many, many, many more.

These people (and the others we met along the way) helped make the road trip into an amazing experience, and I’m bracing myself to be just as blown away this time around. Thanks again to everyone involved in that last road trip; it was over a year ago, but I still have many fond memories of it that I check back in with frequently.

2012 Newness

This time, I’ll be traveling with a new blogger named Jóna Hildur Sigurðardóttir.

Those of you who are subscribed to Exiles will likely recognize Jóna as the gal I dated at the end of my time in Iceland, and who I then convinced to come live with me in Kolkata. She also happens to be a professional sushi chef, an educated expert in comparative literature, and one hell of a fashion designer. You may also know her as ‘That Chick With Blue Hair and the Enormous Salvador Dali Tattoo in Colin’s Photos.’ That’s her middle name.

On top of the change in travel company, instead of taking a car, we’ll be exploring aboard Greyhound buses.

Why Greyhound?

First, they’re the only form of ground-based mass-transit available in the US that goes all the places we want to go.

Second, they’ve got a fairly mixed reputation, and that interests us. You get from place-to-place using other services, but you don’t stand the chance of getting abandoned by your driven mid-route, or sitting next to an incarcerated prisoner. We’re not sponsored by Greyhound, either, so we assume we’ll get some great stories from the spaces in between cities.

Finally, they have this thing called a Discovery Pass, which is essentially an ‘all-you-can-ride’ ticket. We’re opting for the 60-day version, which will cost us all of $556, a ridiculously low sum (as you’ll know if you’ve ever taken a road trip and paid for the gas).

This is going to be a super-cheap way for us to see the country, and that’s part of the plan: we’re intending to put together a guide of sorts that will give step-by-step instructions on how to undertake your own ‘New Great American Road Trip,’ and the theory is that such a road trip could be undertaken by just about anyone with a few weeks or a few months to spare, regardless of how big their wallets happen to be.

How You Can Be Involved

Want to meet up with Jóna and I? Want to meet up with other people in your area? Want an excuse to get out for a drink or a meal or an adventure?

Excellent! There are several ways to get involved with this road trip.

One way is to host Jóna and I as we pass through your city or town. We’re going to be choosing our stops based on where we have a proffered bed or couch or floorspace to sleep, so if you’ve got someplace we can crash for a night, let me know and I’ll add you to our list of potential stopover spots.

Another way would be to play tour guide and show us your hometown and the things that make it special. In my experience, even the tiniest little township has something unique, and that’s what we’re looking to see. This is Jóna’s first time in the US (except for a short visit to Disneyland when she was a kid), too, so even if your town isn’t terribly interesting to you, it likely will be to us. Drop me a line!

Finally, if you want to get together a Tweetup in your area (a real-life get-together organized online), let me know. We’ll plan a tentative day to show up, and will try to get as many people in the same spot at the same time as possible. Even if just a few people show, there’s a good chance we’ll all meet some great new friends, share stories, and have a grand ol’ time. Down to give it a shot?

Again, our route will be determined by where we have places to crash and do stuff, so let me know if you’re interested in hosting, touring-guiding, or partying with us somewhere along the way!

Bonus

For additional inspiration, here’s a brief collection of photos from the last road trip in 2010. As you can see, everyone involved had a ball, and I’d love to have some photos of you to include as inspiration the next time around!

Thanks in advance, and don’t hesitate to ask if you have any questions!

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Silly Question

I was sitting on the third flight of the day when the thought hit me. Or at least, I think it was the same day. The math got a little fuzzy after Hong Kong.

The thought? “I’ve lost track of time, or time has lost track of me. I’m somewhere in between the pages of a book, and I’m somehow cramming about 48 hours into a single day. I’m the sharp edge of the page of the book. If I turn sideways, I’ll disappear.”

Needless to say, at that point I was quite sleep-deprived.

We left Kolkata unceremoniously, having enjoyed a going-away party several days before we actually took off. Jóna and I had planned to hop a train for Mumbai, but our third attempt at doing so failed just as badly as the first two. We resigned ourselves to enjoying a few more days in the three-bedroom flat we had been renting in Kolkata for the duration of our stay, spending most of our newfound time indoors, working on our respective projects and gazing longingly toward a near-future when we would find ourselves back in the First World.

Hot showers. I’ve been taking two a day since I got back. After 15 minutes of standing — perfectly contented — under the endlessly-hot waterfall of steamy, clean water, I emerge from my reverie and tell myself that water isn’t free here, though it is awesome on a level I never noticed or appreciated before.

Honestly, I’ve gotten very little done in the few days I’ve been back in the US. I visited with a friend from college after landing in Chicago, and he was kind enough to put us up for the night, buy us a meal, and not be offended that we just wanted to pass out after the stressful hullaballoo we went through just trying to get back to American soil.

The whole thing was a jumbled mess from start to finish.

We found out, after landing in Mumbai for a 5 hour layover, that Jóna would need to fill out some kind of form (they call it ESTA, even though it has nothing to do with the verb ‘to be, non-permanent’ in Spanish) and pay $10 in order to enter the US. This is, I might add, a luxury citizens of certain special countries (read: countries who smile and nod wistfully instead of speaking up against us when we launch an ill-conceived ‘War Against Whomever’) are afforded, and is supposed to be better somehow than simply applying for a visa. As far as I can tell, though, the only benefit is that you have faster turnaround on them telling you whether or not you’re turned down pre-arrival (though they still reserve the right to send you home after you arrive).

From there, the friendly Cathay Pacific manager (who informed us about ESTA) also informed us that Jóna would need a return ticket from the US, leaving from her port of arrival (in this case, Chicago). The irrationality of this necessity is boggling, as it seems to assume that someone visiting the US, potentially for months, will not be leaving the city they arrive in.

In our case, Jóna was planning to road-trip with me around the US until the end of April, at which point she would head back to Iceland. Turns out, however, that IcelandAir doesn’t fly out of Chicago. Furthermore, as helpful as Cathay Pacific was throughout all of this (they allowed us to occupy one of their office computers for a solid 4 hours while trying to sort everything out), their terminals were running some old version of Internet Explorer, so every time we tried to purchase a refundable ticket from Chicago to someplace international, the browser would crash and all of our hard-work would go unrewarded.

I’m not ashamed to say that by the time we finally just said ‘Fuck it!’ and bought a relatively cheap ($190), non-refundable ticket to Canada from Chicago — chalking it up as an unavoidable cost of travel to the US — I was a jittery, pissed-off, mentally-shredded human being, equal parts ready to punch an American politician (ideally whoever was responsible for that ridiculous ‘must have a ticket out of the US’ law, but any politician would do at that point) and break down into a sobbing, gasping lump of sleepy traveler.

It must have been something to behold.

But we finally got all the paperwork in order, and we hopped a 6 hour flight to Hong Kong, where we then boarded a 15 hour flight over the Pacific to Chicago.

Upon arrival, I made it through customs faster than I thought possible, but Jóna was pulled out of line after waiting in it for about 30 minutes and taken to a back room.

I grabbed our bags from the conveyor belt and set them down in front of a pillar, leaning against it and facing the room where she was taken, making angry eyes (without seeming to be making angry eyes) at the security personnel there. After 20 minutes of waiting, I went and asked one of the loitering guards when I could expect her to be done in back. He glared at me and said, “She’ll be out when she’s out.”

I choked back a snide, “Thank you, that was very helpful; ass,” returned to my pillar and shifted my glare to the pudgy Homeland Security rent-a-cop that had so rudely answered my question.

After another 15 minutes she emerged. I asked her, “What did they do to you?” expecting to hear a tale of full-cavity searches and violent waterboarding.

“They questioned me for a bit. They wanted to know if we were planning to get married while I was in the country. You know, for a green card.”

We laughed in relief and at the ridiculousness of the prospect. “If they only knew how silly a question that was.”

We kissed, picked up our bags, and walked toward customs.

This post was stolen from the pages of Exiles, my everlasting ebook, which you can subscribe to (or find out more about) here.