With Emily beside me and the car stuffed beyond capacity, we headed west to the Black Hills of South Dakota. It was our first family vacation since the birth of our second son, Theo, who I could hear jabbering excitedly in the backseat. His sibling was traveling beside his cousin in my brother’s car somewhere ahead of us. Owing to a combination of his competitive instincts and my reluctance to accept the state’s reckless 80 mph speed limit, I had fallen out of contact with his Honda soon after leaving our hometown of Sioux Falls. I felt the absence of my firstborn in the car and couldn’t help but take compulsive looks back at his empty booster seat. It was a lot of trust to place with my brother, such precious cargo, but Miles and Emmett had so much enthusiasm for one another. At last I succumbed to my anxiety and had my wife text my sister-in-law. Everything was well with the boys it turned out. Somewhere near the riverine town of Chamberlain, we were told, the “poop” word had been introduced and repeated in various forms for perhaps the 175th time. They had just passed Murdo, placing them just a few minutes ahead of us in what I considered the most barren part of the Rushmore state.
I was in the passing lane, getting around yet another sluggish Winnebago, when a mourning dove alighted foolishly on the road in front of the car. Over the blue hood of our newly purchased Subaru Forester, I saw the frightened bird immediately take off—tail feathers fanned, pink legs tucked up to her white breast–and then, almost instantly, I heard the loud thud of death.
“Oh, my god!” Emily exclaimed.
“It couldn’t be helped,” I said to my wife in an apologetic tone.
“What was it?” she gasped.
“My father and I murdered a lot of those,” I commented sardonically after I had identified the victim. “They’re amazingly tasty.”
I possessed fond memories of September shooting along the prairie edges of the forested valley near Lake Alvin. In the evenings, we would stand with our shotguns at the ready, waiting for the quick-winged birds to return to their roosts after stuffing their craws with seeds from the fields and drinking from the lake. We used to carry game bags fashioned from old pant legs—cords sewn shut on one end by my father’s crude hand. Reminiscing as I drove along, I vividly pictured these makeshift devices that I had forgotten for decades and recalled how much, for whatever reason, I liked them as a boy.
The accidental killing of the dove—a Biblical symbol of peace and heavenly grace—seemed an ominous beginning to our journey and illustrated how destructive, even well-intentioned, humans could be. We would be gawking at bison soon enough—noble creatures who once teemed the Great Plains and beyond by the tens of millions. Buffalo skinners made mountains of their bones and reduced their vast herds to a mere one thousand, all for the profit of their hides. The survivors had to be mated with ordinary cows just to keep the species going.
Just then my wife’s phone made an electronic bleep, interrupting my ruminations about the West’s nineteenth-century pillaging. My brother’s family had reached the exit for 1880 Town–the first stop on our itinerary. Five minutes later, we saw an iron sculpture of a human skeleton walking a T-rex skeleton on a leash. I chuckled to myself at the artwork I had passed so many times before. It always seemed to me like some New Yorker cover brought to life. Then over the next hill, the sun-bleached structures of the old west tourist-trap came into view. With a sense of dread, I realized the fun we had so long anticipated was about to begin.
I painfully got out of the car, my lower back having stiffened on the ride, and squinted at our surroundings. Shiny black-and-chrome Harley Davidsons were lined up along a coral fence. The coolness of morning had burned away, and we were exposed on a hill under a pitiless sun. Beyond the bowed tallgrass, I could see caravans of fellow travelers on the interstate below–most of them hurtling westward, as we had been, on their summer odysseys.
I reunited with my six-year-old in the gravel parking lot while my wife lugged Theo into the gas station to change his diaper. Miles bounded up and down like a puppy as Emmett circled around him and kicked up a white cloud of dust.
“What do you think of this ghost town?” I asked the boys.
“It’s so cool,” Miles said enthusiastically.
His answer pleased me even though I had little interest in the place myself. I had chosen it entirely for the benefit of the children which seemed to be the rationale for most of my decisions those days. Somewhere along the line, my son had developed an affinity for abandoned buildings, and I figured this stop would save us some wasted hours on backcountry roads trying to locate forsaken mining villages.
“We’re gonna trap some ghosts!” Emmett proclaimed gleefully, a broad smile on his freckled face. The top of his head was aflame with red hair. My brother had started out life as a redhead as well, but his hair had darkened into a chestnut brown by the time he had reached junior high. Now it was pitch black like my own. We all wondered if Emmett’s hair would change as well.
His mother snuck up from behind and started slathering his face with sunscreen as she explained to me how they had just seen the remake of Ghostbusters. Looking like he had just been “slimed,” the poor kid writhed as she rubbed the cream into his skin. The boy was only five and I privately disapproved of all the adult shows they let him watch. Not that we were much better. Our own son spent far too much time on the iPad watching YouTube videos intended to sell products. Lately, he had taken to watching homemade movies of RC vehicles. The toys had become an obsession, and he had correctly decided that the dump truck and excavator combo my wife had purchased him for Christmas was cheap junk. The big problem was that the people who produced these videos were males in their twenties who still lived with their parents. The RC’s he now coveted cost several hundred dollars and I wasn’t about to spoil him to that degree.
It was one of the reasons I welcomed the vacation. It would do him good to be in nature away from all that. We stood in line at the bathroom for what seemed like forever, before the family finally gathered together at the entrance of 1880 Town. On the way over, Emily had whispered to me that she was hungry. I suggested to my brother that we have lunch first before going into the town. Near us, the silver cars of a passenger train had been converted into a diner.
“No,” my brother said, “let’s just go in. It’s only ten-thirty.”
We had traversed into the Mountain Time Zone, so as far as my wife’s stomach was concerned, it was 11:30. I glanced warily at her for approval. It made me uncomfortable to be the arbiter between her and my brother’s wishes. I knew she was uneasy around him as he tended to look down at the world and could be a little off-putting. I remembered a painful meal we shared together at a Red Lobster where Emily ordered tilapia tacos. My brother started going on about the fish being a “shit-eater.” Like so many things in his mind, it was yet another example of humanity’s stupidity. I tried in vain to defend my wife’s meal, arguing that the fish’s tolerance for unclean water made it a valuable global food source which had always tasted fine to me. But no matter, my brother knew everything.
It seemed best to compromise with him. I suspected that he hadn’t been crazy about this stop on our itinerary. We went inside and an old man with a white, bristly beard and one eye clenched shut sold us our tickets. He seemed like a real cowboy with his western accent and dusty clothes. He gave us each a map and informed us that someone menacingly named “McNasty” would be providing wagon rides out to the homestead on the half-hour. Then he beckoned us through a set of swinging doors where, on the other side, lived the past.
We immediately found ourselves in a room crowded with antiques and old photographs. Theo got excited by a row of saddles. He always liked riding “horsey,” although he usually did so bareback on top of his brother. I stared at a hide tacked to the wall with painted images of Indians shooting arrows at a train while Emily disappeared up a flight of stairs to look at a collection of props from Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves.
We stepped outside into the blinding sunlight without her. The town was lined up on either side of a wide, dirt road—squat, tin-roofed structures diminishing in size to the horizon. I followed the boys around as they popped in and out of the ramshackle little buildings. It was a spooky place and I half-expected to see an apparition around every corner. We pushed through the swinging doors of a saloon and experienced the welcome chill of air-conditioning. As we enjoyed some tall glasses of lemonade I had ordered from the bar, I noticed Emily looking around for us in the street outside the window. After ushering her inside to join us, I took a seat beside some dummies dressed up as cowboys at a poker table. At my insistence, Emily took the obligatory silly-photograph of me pretending to play with them. I held two-pair, black aces and eights–the fabled “dead man’s hand” of Wild Bill Hickok. I sneaked a peek at my mustached neighbor’s cards to discover an improbable heart-suited royal flush. I laughed knowing that even if no one had shot me, I would have lost my ass on a big pot.
Our collective thirsts slated, we returned outside to finish our tour of the town. Emily went off in one direction following Theo while Miles took off with Emmett in another. My brother and his wife watched the older boys as I trailed them listlessly from a distance. The desolation of the place had begun to depress me. It seemed a terrible way to live. I imagined how miserable I would have been trapped in such a place, baked alive in some room too small to breathe. I had always regarded technology as something corrupting and evil, but here in 1880 Town, I felt its absence as profoundly dehumanizing. I gazed at the church at the far end of the town–a white-washed building taller than all the others with its steeple and cross stuck up to the sky. I could see why people clung to religion back then for hope. What the holy-fuck else was there? I felt like if I had been forced to spend more than two weeks in such a place I would have found the nearest pistol and blown my own head off. Christ!!! Grateful to be living in the era of antibiotics, I roused myself from all this morbidity and went searching for my family. It was time to leave 1880 Town and never return!
I found Theo and Emily standing at a fence admiring some longhorns that were grazing in a meadow. One of the cattle drank from a wooden trough near us. His horns drooped downward instead of up, making him look rather pathetic, and Emily requested I mansplain this curious phenomenon.
“I don’t know,” I answered quickly without giving the matter much thought, “maybe they do that before they’re about to fall off.” This seemed wrong to me as I was I was saying it. “Do cows lose their horns the way deer shed their antlers?” Foolishly, I had voiced this question aloud.
“Cows don’t lose der horns! Dey keep ‘em for life!”
The derisive tone of the man’s voice made me feel like some dumb city slicker. He was leaning on the fence just a few feet away, but I hadn’t noticed him there at all. His eyes were full of contempt for me and I was certain he knew what he was talking about. The lines on his face and hands suggested a life lived harder than my own.
Embarrassed, I asked Emily if she was ready to leave. She told me she was starving so off we went to roundup the rest of the family. A black mule slowly passed by with a wagonload of tourists. I exchanged scowls with the driver, an old man in a battered top hat, and I wondered which one was McNasty, him or the mule.
Up ahead, I saw Miles dart across the street with Emmett running after him. His parents soon followed. I felt relieved to see them all and hurried to catch up before I lost them again.
They were all gathered inside the blacksmith’s shop around an anvil. I started explaining the rudiments of metalworking to my son, and without looking up, I sensed my brother rolling his eyes at me.
“I know all that, Dad.” My son seemed bored and insulted by my comments.
“Have you guys seen enough?” I pleaded, mentally holding my fingers crossed. When neither of the boys responded, I informed them coaxingly that we’d be having lunch on the train.
“Yeah,” piped Emmett, “let’s go on the train!” He started rocking back and forth as he implored his father. He always seemed so ebulliently happy around his cousin and, despite my travel weariness, I couldn’t help but be moved.
It was noon and the lunch line stretched predictably well out the door. I was skeptical of the fare. In fact, I was sure the meal would be a disaster. Miles was whining nonstop about Emmett already receiving two new toys on the trip. I didn’t see how this was possible since they hadn’t stopped anywhere, but he persisted until he was hysterical. I could barely understand what he was trying to say–something about a “green goblin.” Meanwhile, Theo was on the brink, and I was positive Miles and Emily were never going to eat whatever was on the train.
The line progressed with aching slowness until we were up the metal stairs and inside. I looked through the glass at some gray ham sandwiches wrapped in plastic. I wanted to bail, but the narrow car was packed so full of people that there was no turning back. I was sure we would spend forty bucks and Miles would eat only potato chips. I ordered the kids hotdogs, even though they were boiled, and myself a hamburger. Surprisingly enough, they offered veggie burgers so Emily was happy.
We went down a few cars and took a table across from my brother’s family. They were already consuming the premade food which, looking over, didn’t seem half bad. Miles and his brother fought and carried on the whole time we waited for our orders. I stared grimly ahead like a zombie, too paralyzed by hunger and fatigue to do anything. Finally, after close to an hour, the food arrived. The waitress looked like she belonged in a nursing home. In fact, the more I thought about it, everyone employed by 1880 Town looked like they might have been alive in 1880!
My burger tasted fantastic and I devoured it with gusto. Theo ate an impressive amount of the hotdog that Emily cut up for him while Miles refused to touch anything, not even the bun, because it had hotdog juice on it. He erupted into a massive fit. People were giving us dirty looks so Emily took them both outside. I finished my hamburger alone, feeling damn happy they were gone.
I placed Emily’s cold veggie burger in a to-go container and found them just outside. Theo climbed on a rusty railroad handcar while Emily pleaded with Miles to at least eat a chocolate granola bar. He was still going on about the “green goblin” that Emmett had allegedly received. At my limit, I took him into the store and purchased him a bag of Teddy Grahams which immediately pacified him. Calm at last, I buckled him into my brother’s car next to his cousin.
Soon we were westbound again, gassed up and at the mercy of whatever awaited us. It wasn’t until we arrived at our cabin, in the cool shade of the ponderosas, that the boys discovered the road-killed dove—wings splayed with her eyes closed as if in sleep–stuck in the grill of the car like a hood ornament.