Not only has the time zone changed, so has the season. The thermometer seems to have skipped autumn and gone straight to winter overnight in Custer, South Dakota. The sunny high 60s temps of yesterday’s drive through the eastern two thirds of the state have dipped below freezing in the interior Black Hills.
My Prius sits frostbitten outside the hotel window. We named her “Buffy” when I first bought her. The name fits her now more than ever. She’s my protectress and now my home. I know she doesn’t perform that well in snow, so I am pushing on through the north now, so she can glide into warmer weather down south come November time.
I am gutted because I really want to head to the Wind Cave National Park, but I can’t do that, Mount Rushmore, and an 8 hour road trip to my next stop in Montana. I’ve already booked it via Priceline, so I can’t cancel now. I hadn’t expected to arrive so late in Custer last night or to be so tired from my death grip on the steering wheel negotiating the sharp turns and steep climbs that brought me here.
The reasons for this trip rush over me this morning in a mudslide of fear. Escape from a work situation that was devouring my soul. Indecision about a long-distance relationship that teeter-totters between bliss and oblivion. Self-imposed confinement of a sort to see if, having nothing else to look forward to – no job, no income, no savings by the end of this road trip, and no retirement to look forward to at the end of my sixties, I would sit down and actually put on paper all of the thoughts, words, and impressions that rattle through my brain like rapid fire day-to-day.
This is the BIG TEST – the blow-it-all-sky-high moment when you chuck everything you have up in the air and commit to the one thing you’ve avoided all your life, the one thing you really wanted but were afraid to ask or expect from yourself, the thing you let slide for decades because you needed a pay check or the kids needed a home or whatever excuse the instant provided. This is that moment for me. And as I wound up and down mountain roads I didn’t expect to encounter last night on the way to a town tucked deep in the Black Hills Forest, I kept berating myself for the stupidity of randomly selecting a town to stay in just because it begins with the letter C. How C-RAZY is that?
This morning I reminded myself that’s the thing about road trips. Delays always happen and drives end up different than you expect. You overstay in one place only to regret having to find your way in the dark somewhere else. I don’t feel as worried in the daylight because I can SEE what’s around me, but at night, the natural world is indistinct and the ghosts of childhood and the silver screen come to haunt you. You worry the car will break down and no one will rescue you, or bears or bad men will rip you apart, or you’ll freeze to death. As if that sort of stuff is the norm rather than the exception, even in covered wagon days.
Eventually last night I just remembered to keep my hands on the steering wheel and gave Buffy a pat on the dashboard and thanked her for hauling ass up the mountains. Then I said a side prayer to the Virgin Mary for protecting me on this journey even if I don’t really have the faith I wish I had and am just hedging my bets or am faking it until I make it. It reminded me of another moment earlier on this trip when I visited the Grotto in the early hours of Sunday morning and prayed to Our Lady to keep watch over me while I drove around the country to discover what I really wanted to do with what feels like the last stage of my life.
As I pondered how I pray, I realized that I never really ask for anything for which I would expect or even recognize an answer if I got it. It’s not like I ask for something prosaic like a raise or a better boyfriend. Not me. I ask for miracles whose provenance cannot be irrefutably traced to divine intervention – like the strength to bite my tongue at work or the will to overlook others’ trespasses while I face plant all over my own. The results of any of my petitions could be attributed to the wind, or my own dribbling, but sometimes-functional self-control as much as the intervention of Our Lady.
Having realized the wooliness of my prayer, I was tempted to ask for something small but practical from Mary, just to see if she’s really listening, or if I’m really hearing, but then I figure it’s not for me to test. I instinctively ask when I am afraid, and I’ve been afraid of things at least five times a day on this trip, whether it’s the gas running low and exits blocked, or mountains I didn’t expect to drive at night, or roads that make it sound like your axles are about to snap. I say my knee-jerk prayers in those moments and wonder why the hell I don’t stay home like the rest of the sane people in the world.
As I gather my bags to head off towards Mt. Rushmore and Montana and pay my bill at the hotel’s front desk, I ask the man with the Jamaican accent what the winter is like here in Custer. He says he doesn’t know. The hotel’s last day open is today and he’s heading home for the winter.
I look surprised, and he adds, “This is a tourist town. Not much happens in winter. You didn’t know that?”
I say no and head out the door, realizing that a day later on the road and I might have missed Custer altogether. And I can’t quite figure out if someone is watching over me or if my spontaneous, ill-planned road trip is bound to catch up with me one of these days. I pack the bags in the car, strap Sniglet in the passenger’s seat, turn the engine on and warm the frost off the windshield, then put my hands on the wheel – ‘cuz either way, I’m still driving.