Wheatfield Near Fort Pierre, South Dakota. Photograph by Robert Clements

Monday, September 29, 2014

The License Plate Game

My South Dakota License Plate. It's hard to read. Take note, all who pass me. 

I'm an old hand at traveling back and forth from South Dakota to Maine and back. A distance of 2100 miles to and 2100 miles fro and I've pretty much got it down.

Day One: Take off at about 7:00 a.m. Drive to Wall for gas and a donut. Drive forever, unless I and the dog have to pee, until I reach Sioux Falls. Turn right, and end up in Iowa. Stay overnight in said Iowa. Unpack dog and cat, pack back up in the morning. This last thing, all three days. They are remarkable and patient travel companions.

Day Two: Take off at about 7:00 a.m. The second day is the most stressful. I head right toward Chicago and race around the perimeter of it, on I-80. The last time I did it, I ended up taking a wrong exit, which is always a big fear of mine. What will happen? Who will save me? I ended up in a tight and uncomfortable traffic jam that spit us out into LaPorte, Indiana, where my GPS guy, Garmando, who tactfully didn't say, "I told you to take that exit, idiot," found I-80 East again. After going through Indiana, I reach Ohio, race through Cleveland on I-80, and head up to Erie, PA for the second night.  

Day Three: Take off at about 7:00 a.m. This is the longest day. I'm heading for the ocean, and I can't get there, soon enough. When did New York and Massachusetts, both of which I have to cross, get so big? Finally, I get to the BRIDGE. Everyone who loves Maine, who comes home over that BRIDGE, knows the one I mean. And everyone who has been away who crosses that BRIDGE from New Hampshire to Maine and home does what I do. They laugh and cry, and whoop and holler, and then they open the windows to suck in some Maine air. It really is different. It smells like home.  

And, I'm never home, long enough. When I leave, I perform the opposite actions. Erie the first night, Iowa the second, and back to Spearfish on the third. The third day, another BRIDGE takes me across the Missouri and puts me on a galloping path up a big hill and into the West, onto the high plains and prairie, and into the Black Hills, which are not for sale.   

Here are some observations.
  • South Dakota highways are awesome. 
  • Iowa (particularly the southern part) is one of the most beautiful states I've ever driven through.
  • Ohio has the best rest stops. The sign that says Ashtabula reminds me of two Bobs. Clements and Dylan. I try to call the first Bob when I see the sign, to tell him I'm in Ashtabula because we get a kick out of the fact that Bob Dylan uses the word in a lyric. …I'll look for you on old Honolulu, San Francisco, Ashtabula…(from You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go).  
  • I can't remember much about Indiana, save for the towns surrounding Notre Dame and the signs leading to Fort Wayne. If I took that detour, I could visit my ex-husband. I never do. I've already been that route.  
  • No matter what day or time I try to sneak through Chicago, even on I-80, I wind up tear-assing through six lanes of traffic, ready to snarl at the dog or cat should either one make a peep. I rejoice when it's over. It's ugly and nasty and I want my Mommy and/or a glass of wine.
  • I can't believe they put a 90-degree angled turn in Cleveland.  
  • Lake Erie is really big. Gordon Lightfoot wrote The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald so that I could think of this every time I see the lake. …and farther below Lake Ontario takes in what Lake Erie can send her….
  • The Berkshires are beautiful and every time I go through Stockbridge, James Taylor croons to me from his song, Rockabye Sweet Baby James. Said lyrics: ...and so were the Berkshires from Stockbridge to Boston….
  • My license plate is among the rarest spotted during the license plate game. And I know when people might be playing that game.
How do I know? Someone starts to pass. I see them pull out. I wait forever and then I peer into my rearview mirror to see that they are hanging on my rear bumper. I know what they are doing. They are trying to figure out where I'm from. There are two clues. One is a funky photo of Mt. Rushmore. If a traveler knows where that is, then they'll figure out that I'm from South Dakota. If they don't know, the other clue is the fuzzy, smudgy letters way to the top of the plate that reads "South Dakota" in red cursive. It's hard to make out when one is driving eighty miles an hour. Heck, it's hard to make out when one walks right up to it. I almost hit a pedestrian in the Kennebunk, Maine rest stop when I started to back up before noticing that she was walking up to the rear of my car. She studied it and then toddled off, shouting to her friend back on the sidewalk, "It's South Dakota!"

Driving across the country is a long, long journey and the license plate game is one way to keep from going nuts. Of course, electronics keep a large part of the population entertained, but some must still get carsick, or like to contemplate their lives while staring blindly at scenery. I like to believe that spotting my license plate gives a carload something to keep them going, keep them hoping, until their own journey ends.  

I did the very same thing once, with a friend, as we drove from Maine to Arizona and back. We saw the license plates from all 50 states. The last one we found? The one that sent us past them in a road-weary hysterical frenzy? The one that obsessed us from Utah until the sighting on the Oklahoma panhandle? No, not South Dakota. It was an even rarer find.

It was our neighbor upstairs. North Dakota.