Wednesday, May 28, 2003

I Love South Dakota!

I meant to post this yesterday, but never got around to it. If all goes well, I'll post Day Three tonight... but I'm not holding my breath on that one, since I'm also hoping to watch the Champions League final. We'll see. Anyway, in today's entry our heroes are in Iowa and South Dakota. Good times, they were.

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Day Two

J. and I got up this morning with an amazing, unforeseen ease. After our bellies were filled with a nutriciously mighty amount of donuts, we set our sights westward, beyond the flat-chested glare of central Iowa to what would prove to be the rolling hills of western and north-western Iowa. The drive was serene, so serene, in fact, that neither of us realized it when we had already driven nearly two hundred miles and it was lunch time in Sioux City, Iowa. Never has a border town been such a welcome sight. I really can't express the sheer drudgery of a drive through Iowa. I can, however, cite but one example. Somewhere south of Sioux City, J.'s peripatetic gaze fell upon an arresting sight: a sign that read 'Scenic View Ahead'. In the course of 3,000+ mile trips, most such signs on the highway go without notice, as they are as ubiquitous as they are a waste of time. Nevertheless, overwhelmed as we were by Iowa's unabashed, idiosyncratically appealing hebetude, we decided we'd take advantage of the diversion. 'There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody’s expense but his own' -- that was Ishmael, in Herman Melville's classic, Moby-Dick, but it very well might also have been the quote-of-the-day on some administrator's desk calendar at the Iowa Tourism Office. I've never encountered a more useless waste of a good idea in all my driving life. The Tourism Office, I suppose they are the most valid object of blame anyway, had erected a fifty-foot tower that one could climb, presumably to give the desperate tourist something to jump off off -- this could be the only practical use for it! The 'view' was of the highway, nothing else, I promise you. Granted, you could see that there were actual, bonafide hills to be seen, and not simply driven over, in Iowa if you stood high enough, but I hardly think this was worth the effort to construct, or climb, up such such a structure. In my younger days I would've pissed off the top and called it a day; now that I'm in my older crabby days, I was simply just a little pissed.

The pall over our morning spent in Iowa brightened a bit when we crossed the river into South Dakota. After shaking the dust from our feet at an Applebees in Sioux City, frustrating ourselves anew by trying to recall why it is we decided it was a good choice at the time, we were not very hopeful that the next few hours would be even remotely interesting. However, let me say -- lest this journal be a complete drag -- South Dakota is a surprising gem. The drive between Sioux City and Sioux Falls is nothing to write home about but Sioux Falls is actually a very pleasant town. Maybe I was just so eager to be out of Iowa that I would've thought Dayton, Ohio was an up-and-coming city, but I found myself smitten by the quaintness of everything. Okay, 'smitten' is a very strong word. I was comforted by its Everytown, USA look. Right off the conveyor belt. Baudrillard should've come here, not Vegas and Los Angeles. I guess if I lived there, I would be put off by this same backhanded compliment; but, as it stands, I don't live there, so I think it's fair.

While we were there, J. wanted to stop off at a Gateway shop, in yet another attempt to find a backpack-type carrying case for his swanky new laptop. [ed. Reading this a few years after the fact, I'm amused by the fact that J. still has this laptop and curses it each time he tries to run two applications at once.] Question: when is the right time in one's life to stop totting a backpack around everywhere? Helpful as always, Gateway didn't have any such bags; they, in fact, didn't even know what the hell we were talking about. This brings me to a very common gripe these days: Customer Service, or the wont thereof. I worked for a year and a half at a bookstore that liked to pride itself on being the top Customer Service-oriented bookstore in the country; plus I'm just an incredibly friendly person, so I think I know a little about the topic. The three Gateway employees with whom I've ever had the displeasure to interact, however, especially for a company that is supposed to be recognized as one of the best customer service providers in the computer industry [ed. HA!], have been nothing but inept. The first guy made jokes about the possibility of my having filed for bankruptcy while handing me an application about financing a computer. He, of course, could not have known that I was at the time in a nasty battle with my credit card company about an error on my credit report that claimed I HAD filed for bankruptcy, when it was not me but my parents; or perhaps he was merely ignorant about the consequent shame and humiliation of having to do so; all the same, in the name of good Customer Service, not to mention plain old human decency, he should've kept his trap shut. The second clod that actually sold J. his computer was so bad at customer service that I laughed and told him so. J. was being J. by asking for a lot of free perks with his computer -- a free year of America Online, a free carrying case, a free anything! Any decent customer service provider knows that you never say 'NO!' -- i.e., emphatically, with exclamation marks [ed. Unless they live in Europe, where to not do so would be more shocking than if they did.] Obviously this doesn't mean that the customer always has to get what he or she asks for, or even demands, but they should at least be pacified in the sense that she FEELS as though the person she is dealing with is going to bat for her. For instance, good customer service in this particular instance, with my perk-loving friend, could've had this snot respond to J.'s begging, "Let me go check with my manager in the back." Now, this guy knows that he's not going to ask the manager squat -- hell, he might even be the manager -- but is actually more likely going to either have a quick smoke, a Little Debbie, or maybe tell a few dirty jokes about little Debbie with Tony the UPS Man, come back out to tell J. a few minutes later, "Oh man, I'm really sorry. My boss said we really can't do that." Or something to that effect. Selling is as much an illusion as is buying.

How did I get talking about Gateway and customer service, of all things? Ah yes, Sioux Falls.

We drove around town for about fifteen minutes trying to find a go-cart place we saw advertised on the highway. I was taken back, sort of, to the Iowa tower, in that it in no way lived up to my expectations, but overall was very much on par with what surrounded it. To its credit, it was far less ambitious of a project than the tower, so I was charmed by the simplicity more than put off by it, if a bit aghast by the $1.50 I had to shell out for a flat Coke.

Unsure of where we might end up next, we began our drive on I-90 with open minds and options. Our gadabout ways ended up taking us to the town of Mitchell, home of the 'World's Only'(???) Corn Palace. This intriguing structure is made out of . . . oh, nevermind. It takes wide open, wide-(if a bit dulled)-eyed options to find places like the Corn Palace, and I would venture a guess that most of the people who end up in Mitchell happened through Iowa as well. More research is necessary for a theory, though.

It wasn't until we were west of Mitchell a ways that I finally recognized how nice South Dakota could be. We crossed the Missouri River after reveling in one of the best rest stops I've ever been to: the 'Scenic View' here was actually scenic -- a series of rolling hills landscaping the lolling (deceptive, so I remember reading once) Missouri River -- and the bathrooms were not frequented by tank-topped male sodomists with bad haircuts. There was even a bookshop, but, sadly, it was closed for the day. I can only hope that the remaining rest stops are this nice.

Almost immediately after we crossed the river, we felt as though we had begun a new phase of our trip. The blueprint plains were replaced by languid hills and wild flowers; the routine exits strewn along the highways thus far were replaced with, well, nothing -- there were no more 'routine' exits. For miles on end, there were no exits at all. We finally began to realize that this truly is an enormous country. More to the point, we realized that South Dakota is one honkin' huge state. Case in point, the width of Illionois, from Chicago to Moline, is roughly 169 miles; this same width is less than half the stretch of I-90 we'd be driving in South Dakota. Having spent most of my previous twenty-five years east of the MIssissippi River, this is some major, east-west mileage.

Although our original goal was Rapid City, J. and I quickly succumbed to the fact that neither of us were up for the task, so we pulled up short about 150 miles east in Murdo. We got some dinner at a small and, strangely enough, unnamed steakhouse. Day Two ended with one final moment of 'This seems fitting', but I'll save my final opinion until later -- as I was getting ready for my shower, I read a small sign by the sink that very matter-of-factly detailed the reasons for the 'discolored' (i.e., brown) water just before reassuring the chary reader that it is, sepia though it is, safe to drink and use. I kept my mouth closed during the shower.