Or near serendipity, as in the case of the snippet below, from my unpublished travel memoir, "Quest for Pie." It is 2009; the boys are I are leaving Badlands National Park, pressing westward.
Edie had suggested that I buy a Garmin — an electronic pad about two by three inches, a $200 piece of equipment that perches on the dashboard and gives directions using satellites. And God knows I sometimes need directions. We had stood in the big Best Buy electronics store while I turned the thing over dubiously in my hands. But it would be a new technological device to master, and I worried I’d drive off a cliff while consulting it. My gut told me: save the two hundred bucks.
So I used maps—the paper kind that fold. A few weeks before we left, I picked up a stack at the American Automobile Association office at a strip mall in Northbrook, provided by a perky, helpful AAA gal who grew so enthusiastic about our trip as we talked about it, I fancied, for a moment, she wanted to come with us.
The morning we left the Badlands, before the boys woke up in our cabin, I consulted the South Dakota map, figuring out our route. We had an easy, two-hour drive to Custer, where we’d see Mount Rushmore and, the next morning, tour Jewel Cave National Monument—another Edie call. She learned from guidebooks that they had a lantern-lit tour of the cave. Normally, I’d resist a cave, as a dark, damp place not worth the effort of descending into. Really, if you’ve seen one cave—and we had, a cave in Put-in-Bay, Ohio—you’ve seen them all. They’re dark. They’re subterranean. They’re caves.
But lanterns? Flickering flame? That made it an adventure. Tom Sawyer, exploring a cave with a candle, courting death with Becky Thatcher. The route I worked out at home had us swing north along 90 through Rapid City, or…
Badlands National Park is in the southwest corner of South Dakota, a thumb of green sitting atop a field of pink—the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Long ago the Sioux Nation. And there on the map, right by the border with Nebraska, I noticed the “Wounded Knee Massacre National Historic Site.”
All I knew about Wounded Knee was a) a book was written about it with the evocative title, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and b) that’s it. I’d heard of the book, but not read it.
Nevertheless the name resonated, vibrating with historical significance. Two inches below where we were now. I checked the map’s key. About 40 miles away. When I asked the clerk in the lodge—a round-faced, black-haired Native-American woman—what the drive to Wounded Knee is like, her eyes widened a tiny bit, as if impressed, and I felt perhaps a notch above the standard braying white bread tourist. I liked that, liked the idea of going there without having planned to go beforehand. Of the boys and I standing solemnly before whatever plaque or megalith or memorial is at Wounded Knee. The impulse surprised me—uncharacteristic—but I immediately realized where it came from.
As you head into the West, the inventory of roadside gift shops attached to gas stations suddenly shifts toward rubber tomahawks and feathered dream catchers and plastic statuettes of Indian chiefs. I had never been particularly sympathetic to the Native-American plight—indigenous people always get the shaft by better-armed newcomers, it’s the same story the world over, no need to feel guilt-ridden that it was also true in the United States. Making a show of feeling bad, scraping together a little ball of faux remorse and rolling it around between your fingers doesn’t change the hard facts of the past. No suffering is alleviated. It’s just an unconsciously insincere, easy way of letting yourself off the hook for something that isn’t your fault to begin with.
But this transformation of their vanished culture into souvenir garbage struck me as slightly obscene, romanticizing the people who had been ruthlessly slaughtered and displaced while yet again making a buck off them. A distinctly American phenomenon. I have never been to Poland, but I’ll bet there aren’t tubs of plastic rabbis and bad paintings of Jewish women lighting Sabbath candles in all the gas stations heading to Auschwitz. Visiting Wounded Knee struck me as an atonement, a kind of penance, a humble gesture to inject some good karma into our journey at its beginning. Plus it would be educational. I ran the plan by the boys—drop down 44 to 2, pass through Potato Creek and Porcupine, visit the site of the Wounded Knee massacre. We could even dip into Nebraska, to notch another state on our belts. It might add an hour to the drive. They were all for it.
In the van, map spread out across the steering wheel, reviewing the route, I congratulated myself: the Garmin device would never have pointed me toward Wounded Knee. The Honda was loaded up, running, outside the cabin at Cedar Pass Lodge. We were checked out. The coffee was in the coffee holder, the boys in the back. Wallet, sunglasses, wedding ring. Everything set.
Although … one qualm. As I put the car in gear, I thought I had better mention it to them, just in case. If we loop south to Wounded Knee, we’ll then proceed northwest to Custer, via a different route. That means we’ll miss Wall Drug.
“Could we do both?” Ross asked. No, not really. If we did, we’d be backtracking and it would add 100 miles to the trip. The boys were adamantly in favor of Wall Drug. Mom had talked about it. We had to see Wall Drug.
“Wall Drug is a must, right Ross?” said Kent, rallying support. Right.
Edie had indeed been rhapsodizing the place as a highlight of her youth. They give free ice water. I considered overriding the boys, but then I’d be hijacking the itinerary and forcing us off onto a grim tangent. What if Wounded Knee turned out to be a bust; a windy, dreary nothing? It would be my fault.
Okay, okay, I thought, No Wounded Knee. Wall Drug it is.
“Goodbye Badlands,” Kent called, sweetly as we headed toward the park exit. “Hope to see you.…”
“Eventually?” I said.