I love to travel. But I hate the actual “traveling” part. The flying part anyway. The first and last days of a trip always get my heart racing and twist my stomach into a pretzel. This time, I have the added stress of feeling almost totally unprepared for this vacation. I have spent so many days and nights working at my job that I’ve not had time to do my usual pre-trip planning and packing. I’ve thrown things into suitcases at the last possible moment and I know that I will have forgotten things. I just hope they are things I can buy on the road.
Several months ago I decided that it was time for another road trip. I say that “I” decided because Doc doesn’t have much to do with planning. He’s happy to go along with whatever I select knowing that I’ll choose things we’ve talked about or things I know he will enjoy. This year, I’ve decided to do a partial repeat of our first trip together 23 years ago. We’re going to drive across South Dakota, and then cross the Bighorn mountains to Yellowstone National Park and return over the Beartooth Pass in Montana. On our first crossing of the Bighorn Mountains we were stunned by beautiful fields of blooming lupines. I’ve researched historic blooming dates and determined that the second week of June is our best bet for seeing the flowers in bloom. I’ve also arranged to meet Doc’s son and family in Yellowstone. We are particularly excited to share that portion of the trip with them.
I’ve planned an 11 day vacation. There is much to do and see and we could spend much more time traveling. But with a family of cats at home, we worry about them even though they are being well cared for. I’ve learned that 12 days is about right for us these days. When I researched flights, returning on the 11th day gave us not only the best flight schedule, but it was also decidedly the cheapest flight, saving us more than $200, so that is what I’ve chosen.
Our flight from Cleveland to Sioux Falls is scheduled for 10:47 a.m. We leave our house at 7 a.m. for the hour+ drive. No, it is not too early.
Traffic on this Saturday morning is light. Note to self: Saturday flights might be more expensive but if we don’t get caught in weekday traffic jams it’s worth paying more.
We arrive at the airport to find four new signs announcing a red lot, a blue lot, a green lot and an orange lot but nothing indicates what any of these colors mean. I manage to read a sign further down the road that indicates the green lot is “Daily Parking” and costs “$17 per day.” It’s the garage closest to the terminal where we usually park. It seems a little pricey to me.
A fifth sign reads “Long Term & Hotel Parking.” We both know it’s the wrong choice. Doc pulls in anyway. We’re in the lot of the Sheraton.
If all else fails, ask somebody.
I go into the lobby of the hotel. Yes, I am welcome to park in their lot for $13 a day. But the adjacent orange airport lot is cheaper. We drive into the orange lot. Only when we get to the new ticket machine (which no longer gives you a ticket) does it indicate that parking here is $11 a day. Doc swipes his credit card and we drive to one of the only spaces we can find ̶ at the far end of the lot along a fence. The fence will make it easy to find the car when we return.
Doc pulls into the space. We hear a small scraping sound. He backs up. We hear a BIG scraping sound.
“I think you ripped the bumper off of the car,” I say.
“Get out and see if you can see what’s happening,” Doc answers.
I get out of the car. He has caught the bumper of the car on a spike that is sticking up several inches out of the concrete parking barrier. I have no idea why there would be a spike.
“You ripped the bumper off of the car,” I say.
I hold the bumper in place as I direct him forward into the parking space.
Doc gets out of the car and we pound the plastic bumper back into place. Sort of. It’ll get us home. Maybe it will get us home.
Note to self: Leave early for the airport so you can spend an extra half hour parking and doing auto body repair.
We walk 500 miles to the terminal. There is a long line at the United counter but I don’t care. We pass the crowd and enter through a set of ropes to a kiosk marked “Premier Access.” There is just one other couple there. A United worker is waiting and immediately walks over and checks us in. Premier Access is worth every dollar of its annual fee.
We check three bags. I don’t have to pay the $25 per bag fee which means that the money I save on baggage fees every year pays the Premier Access annual fee.
At the security check we pass the regular line and are directed into the empty “Premier Access TSA Pre-Screened” line. Shoes left on. Everything stays in our bags. I breeze though security. Doc sets off the metal detector three times. He finally removes his wallet that the agent had said he could keep in his pocket and he gets past the detector. It is one of those RFID wallets that I bought him for Christmas last year.
Once inside the gate area, I can finally relax. We find a food court and sit down for breakfast; we look for a news stand so that Doc can buy the New York Times and a USA Today; we find our gate. The wait is less than 20 minutes. This is why we left the house at 7 a.m. for an almost 11 a.m. flight.
People tend to look at their flight time when planning their schedule. But the flight time means nothing. The only guy who needs to worry about the flight time is the pilot. It’s the BOARDING TIME that is the important number to a passenger. And an even more important number? The FINAL boarding time. Our flight time is 10:47 but our boarding time is in the neighborhood of 10:15. Final boarding is around 10:30. Show up at 10:46 and you’ll find that the airplane doors are closed and you’ve “missed” your flight even if it’s still sitting at the gate.
We board the plane in “group 2” right after the military and the handicapped. There is lots of overhead bin space to stash our carry-on before the other passengers get on.
We have to change planes in Chicago. Every time I have to fly through O’Hare I swear it will be the last time I fly through O’Hare.
.“We’re never flying through this airport again,” I tell Doc as we’re walking from gate C4 to gate F22, a trek of about 1.5 gazillion miles.
“Yes we will,” he says, knowing that we often have no other choice.
There is a shuttle we could ride to get from one terminal to the other but the one time we chose to ride it, it took so long that we missed our flight. Doc insists that walking is faster. I’m happy to have the exercise. We walk, or rather, we jog to the F gates. We have a little more than one hour until our next flight leaves which means we have about a half hour before boarding begins. We know from experience that we don’t stop for lunch or even to buy a bottle of water until we get where we need to be. We make it to the gate with a few minutes to spare. Doc finds a nearby food court and buys a sandwich. I’m not hungry but I’ve forgotten to put aspirin in my carry-on so I step into a shop and buy a small $11 bottle of Excedrin for my headache. We board the small express jet and land in Sioux Falls at 2:10 p.m. Central Time. Everything is right on schedule.
At baggage claim our red tagged suitcases are the first ones out. The Avis rental counter is right there. Convenient. We get the keys to our small, ugly white (why are all of my rental cars white?) GMC Terrain and spend time figuring out how to turn on the air conditioning and cruise control. There are no longer attendants in the car rental pick-up lots to show you how to operate the car. “Progress” had done away with that job. We figure it out as best as we can. We have a 291 mile drive across South Dakota. It’s a longer drive than we’d normally do in a day but it’s a good straight highway and the speed limit is 80.
We sail across South Dakota. I’ve never seen so many billboards. Sign after sign encouraging drivers to stop off at 1880 town or Reptile Gardens. “See the famous Corn Palace.” “Get free ice water at Wall Drug.” Or homemade doughnuts. Or pie.
We started in Sioux Falls because it was a cheap ticket but also because I wanted to read and photograph the Wall Drug signs. Sometime in the mid-1930’s, with tourists driving from the Badlands to Rapid City without a thought of stopping at their store, the wife of Wall Drug’s owner came up with the idea for the corny signs to lure visitors through their doors. The idea worked and their business grew. Today, the weary traveler with nothing better to do along the long, lonely stretch of highway across the plains, can read these kitschy highway signs all the way from Iowa to Montana.
Reaching the town of Mitchell, we pull off the highway to look at the “famous” Corn Palace. We don’t intend to go inside. I just want a photo for my “kitsch” photo collection. You want my advice? Don’t waste your time on the Corn Palace. Even its kitsch value is lacking. Mitchell is a nice town with some shopping and a few places to eat if you’re in the market for any of that. We’re not, so I snap a couple of pics and we get back on the road.
Having nothing to eat since breakfast, I’m now starving and we’re not even close to Wall Drug’s promised doughnuts and pies. We stop in Chamberlain at a place called Upper Crust Pizza and Wings. TripAdvisor ranks it as #1 out of 18 restaurants in Chamberlain. We order salads and a 10 inch deep dish pizza which is TO DIE FOR. Pizza perfection. The Belmont Stakes comes on the TV behind us and turn around to watch American Pharoah win the triple crown.
We reach the Best Western in Wall, SD at around 7:30 p.m. Mountain Standard Time. I have gift cards so the room is free. It’s been a long day and we both fall asleep within an hour. I’m up again at 2:30 a.m. and start writing this blog…