[continued from Parts I
; this is the third part in a four-part series]
So I set about righting everything I could. As the gear dried in the South Dakota sun, I found the dishpan, took it into the bathroom, and filled it with dish soap and water. We still had dirty dishes from the interrupted dinner of the previous evening, and I knew that if I was really determined to get back on the road—and stay there—I’d have to be more willing to break rules, to be creative with solutions. So I washed the dishes in the bathroom, and I rinsed them in the shower. Afterward, I stacked them in neat rows on towels I spread over one bed.
At the motel office, I told the desk clerk what had happened the night before, and he shook his head in sympathy. “I just need somewhere to wash the clothes and sleeping bags,” I said, “but I’m not sure where a Laundromat is.”
“Lemme think,” he said. He was a grizzled guy in his 50s, his gray hair stringy and long in the back. He had a tattoo of the Harley Davidson emblem on one forearm; on the other was a heart encircled with vines, and pierced with dual swords. In the middle of the heart it said, “Helen,” one letter bleeding into another. He chewed on his lip while he thought, and then said, “You know, there’s a real nice hotel down the road a ways, kinda acrossed town, that we’re affiliated with. Presidents Inn. You get to use their stuff if you stay here.” He nodded, almost to himself. “Yeah, they have a laundry room, I think it’s pay, but it’s pretty good. And right next to it is a pool. You could wash the clothes and the kids could swim.”
It was a perfect plan, much better than hanging out at a Laundromat, waiting for clothes to dry. I thanked him, and as I left he added, “I can watch your stuff outside, too. No biggie. Just honk as you leave.” I smiled, and said, “okay,” though I couldn’t imagine actually leaving our gear outside, alone.
Then I calculated how long it would take to wait for the tent and air mattress to dry. It was at least 3-4 hours before I could pack them up, maybe more. If I waited, we couldn’t start the laundry until 3 or 4, if not later. The entire time, we’d just be sitting here, too, doing nothing. I decided I’d put a little faith in the people of South Dakota, and I packed the car with the wet sleeping bags and the muddy laundry, and I hustled the kids into their swimsuits.
As we passed the office, I honked the horn. In the rearview mirror, I watched the tent billow and sway in the breeze, and I hoped the guy would keep an eye on our stuff. There was hardly anyone around, though, and the place was small, but clean and sweet, in a way. The whole town was.
Three hours later, we headed back. The kids were wet, but happy, and I’d been able to wash all of the laundry between the two washing machines. The cargo space was piled with clean, folded clothes and freshly dried and rolled sleeping bags. We stopped for ice and milk and bread, and then we headed back to the hotel. As we drove back through town, I noticed ahead of us, a pack of motorcycles on the road. In the sun, it was hard to make out how many, but there were a lot of them, at least a dozen. A few minutes later, a band of motorcyclists appeared behind us. They were all Harleys. And then it was as though Harleys were everywhere—studded at sidewalks and outside cafes and bars and moving in packs along side streets. I noticed t-shirts outside one souvenir shop emblazoned with Sturgis and then I remembered what that was. The huge motorcycle rally
. Even though it officially starts in August, people start making their way to Sturgis in July, sometimes.
I saw the parking lot of our motel first, and it was filled with Harleys—50 or 60, some of the decked out in fringe and flames. In the middle of the parking lot, the riders mingled, shaking hands, hugging, clapping each other on backs. The tent, I thought. The mattress.
I pulled in, my red Volvo station wagon in a landscape of chrome and leather, and I tried to look inconspicuous. This was, of course, impossible. There were no other cars in the lots, nothing but a sea of Harleys. And an island of Volvo. I turned to the eastern corner, our corner, and there, with half a dozen guys standing around them, were our tent and mattress. Even from a distance, I could tell they were dry. One guy was sitting between the two on a deck chair, and as I eased the car toward our room, he stood and waved at me. I rolled down my window. My electric window.
“Are you the girl with the stuff?” he asked.
“Yeah..?” I said, realizing, of course, that “the stuff” could mean just about anything, and not all of it good.
“Hey, great. We saved the spot over here for you.” He gestured to an open parking space tucked back a bit farther. “Greg said you guys’d been hit in a thunderstorm and hadta dry your stuff out.”
“Yeah,” I said again. “We just got back from washing everything.”
“Well, all this is dry now. Greg made us watch it whenever he checked someone in. Which was a lot.” The man laughed. “He made one of us sit in that damn chair to make sure no one’d take your stuff.”
I grinned. I felt a rush of warm relief and gratitude. Everything’s been so hard, I wanted to say. I wanted to say, Thank you, thank you. I wanted to sit with them and listen to everything they said.
Instead, I parked the car.
We had the back open about 5 seconds before three men materialized next to us, and asked if they could help. Usually, I would have said no because out West, no one asks if they can help unless they are hitting on you or a serial killer. I’m also a do-it-myself kind of girl. In my family, you don’t ask for help unless you can’t do it yourself. And, ideally, you should be missing a limb. But in driving along the ribbons of pavement and swathes of grass, and with all the work I’d done, my shoulders aching with the strain of it, I’d come to some point where I could accept help, even when I could have done it myself. I finally understood that accepting help doesn’t make you weaker. The guys picked up the piles of laundry and helped us carry them into the room. Then they carried the groceries in, and then a woman in a purple tank top and black jeans asked if I needed more ice. And they smiled when Thing Two asked if he could see a Harley, and one of them, even, lifted him up as though he were small and set him on one.
In the parking lot they helped fold the tent, helped deflate and fold the air mattress. One man, a face flecked with old, faint scars, the kind you get from fighting or work, or both, put one gentle, meaty hand on my shoulder. “Is it true you’re driving across the country?” he asked.
I nodded. “We’ve only been on the road for 11 days,” I said. I still felt discouraged, and a little ashamed. I wondered if any of them thought I was an idiot for getting rained out, or for even trying to drive all this way with one adult and three kids.
“And you haven’t turned around yet,” he said, his voice low and gravelly and admiring. “That’s good. That’s real good.” He didn’t say anything else, just clapped my shoulder twice, before he went and grabbed a beer from an ice chest in front of someone else’s room.
We turned in early after eating at a steak house down the street*. Later, while we slept, I heard them outside, talking and laughing and sometimes hollering. But I never felt afraid. And many times, I heard someone say, “Shhhhh. They’re sleeping over there.” And I could imagine, in the dark, some tattooed man, pointing toward our room.
-to be continued-
*Once we hit the Midwest, Thing One, as a vegetarian, had very few menu options. So she'd often order a salad and onion rings. Invariably, the waitress would forget the onion rings. But my favorite time was when someone put meat on her salad, and then looked at her like she was crazy when she asked for a different one, sans animal.