My All-American Road Trip
The first Covid summer, I embarked on a journey through the heartland. My previously unpublished notes still ring true two years later.
With the dog days of summer over and our attentions back to school and refocused work, I remembered a trip I took in August 2020—and found the reflections I had written down.
As another page flips on the calendar in this odd year, I pause to reflect on one of the most meaningful summers I’ve had in some time. August is typically a time for vacations, the dog days when not much is going on and, even in an election year, all but hard-core political junkies can ignore the latest nonsense coming from Washington. We Americans don’t take the whole month off like the Europeans do, but many of us take the foot off the gas just a tad.
This year was a little different. For “knowledge workers” who were fortunate to simply transition where we stare at our computer screens, this August was little different than the five months that preceded it, save for higher electricity bills from running the A/C. Many of us tried to take vacations, but they were largely last-minute and involved a bizarre checking of quarantine rules in states that were within driving distance.
Screw that, I said to myself in July. Having had several fun work trips and an actual family vacation canceled by the virus, and not having been able to celebrate or even take a break during the process of submitting my book manuscript, then getting it edited and to the printer, I was at wit’s end. Miraculously, my annual trip to Oklahoma to give lectures on the Supreme Court, this year set for the last days of July, was going ahead as planned, albeit with the pandemic precautions we’ve all gotten used to.
My wife, sensing that I was running on fumes but not wanting to take vacation days for a lame break that would’ve just meant parenting our two preschoolers in a less convenient place, suggested that I go ahead and plan a week for myself. My in-laws, who moved from Kansas and built their home on our property, and are our primary childcare solution, were also wary of my bringing home the bug from Indian Territory and appreciated my taking a week in exile. (Practice tip: if you want some time off to do whatever you want, annoy your family.)
So I thought, great, but where can I go? Then it dawned on me: road trip! There were parts of the country I’d never visited, and friends all over I hadn’t seen in a long time, so when life gives you lemons, make the most of your hard-earned Hertz status. From Tulsa I would fly to Denver, rent a car, drive up to Mount Rushmore—had to visit before they blew it up in this iconoclastic time—and then make my way back east.
And so I did. Although Reagan National had been a ghost town, Denver airport was little different from the Before Times. I hightailed it north, cutting clear across Wyoming before stopping for gas in the Black Hills of South Dakota. The air was somehow fresher and cleaner than even in Colorado, and I felt the weight of the past months start to recede from my psyche.
I soon arrived at the Crazy Horse Memorial, a massive mountain-carved homage to the Lakota warrior that was started in 1948 and isn’t close to being finished. It’s still impressive, particularly once you learn that it’s a purely private undertaking, explicitly refusing federal and state funds. Equally impressive is the Memorial Foundation’s support of Native American education, which now includes a satellite campus of the University of South Dakota called the Indian University of North America. It might take a while, but it’s not beholden to the government.
That evening I reached Deadwood, a valley town that has attracted mythical status in popular culture of late but saw its heyday in the 1870s gold rush. The likes of Wyatt Earp, Calamity Jane, and Wild Bill Hickok all spent time there, with Wild Bill meeting his fate while holding the “dead man’s hand” of pairs of aces over eights. South Dakota legalized gambling here a century later, so now the town is like an Old West movie set punctuated by casinos, biker bars—Sturgis is nearby, and the annual rally was the following weekend—and t-shirt shops. Donald Trump’s visage is all over the place here, the president’s having hosted an impressive Fourth of July celebration at nearby Mount Rushmore.
The next morning I achieved Rushmore, the ostensible goal of my quest. A few people warned me that the presidential heads were smaller than one might expect, so my expectations were properly managed, but I thought the monument was spectacular. Ben Domenech advised me to record a video of my visit. I thus memorialized the conceit of my trip, connecting my love for this country as a naturalized citizen—like most immigrants, I do a job most native-born Americans won’t: defending the Constitution—to its battle against the illiberal forces sweeping across the plain.
Setting off east, I hit a wall—literally, the town of Wall, best known for Wall Drug Store, a sprawling strip-mall-cum-emporium that advertises for hundreds of miles and draws millions of annual visitors. First developed as a stop for tourists on their way to Rushmore, the place really took off when it began offering free ice water. I had some of that refreshing liquid, as well as the 5-cent coffee and a bison burger. Wall Drug is ultimately a collection of Western-themed stores, plus an art gallery and giant sculptures of a brontosaurus, jackalope, and other random things. It’s the epitome of a roadside attraction, America at its best and most entrepreneurial kitsch.
Wall also happens to be the gateway to Badlands National Park, which I’d long wanted to visit. There’s alas no connection to the Bruce Springsteen song of the same name, but they’re both awesome. Badlands the park is collection of out-of-this world rock formations—indeed, it feels like you’re on another planet—including buttes, pinnacles, and other fossil-ridden striated masses. The views are truly stunning and unlike anything I’d ever seen.
The hour was getting late and I had many miles to go before stopping, so I skipped the Mitchell Corn Palace—the world’s only structure dedicated to corn, with murals and designs made from various grains—and made it to my destination in time for dinner. Dakota Dunes, an unincorporated community across the Missouri River from Sioux City, Iowa, is the first exit off I-29 coming from the south. I’d been there once before during a trip to speak at the University of South Dakota (in Vermillion, the second exit off the interstate), and found a welcome respite at the home of a friend who’s heavily involved in state politics and so talked up Governor Kristi Noem as a 2024 dark horse.
The next day consisted of a monotonous midwestern drive to Chicago. Amid all the fields of corn and windmills—wasted ethanol and energy subsidies, anyone?—there was at least one oasis: the Field of Dreams in Dyersville, Iowa, in the state’s northeastern corner. This is the baseball field built for the eponymous movie and it remains a remarkable tourist attraction that, had it not been for the pandemic, would’ve hosted a major league game the following week. Just as I turned into the facility, the sun broke through the clouds of what had been an overcast day and—I kid you not—lit up an infield where little kids were playing ball. “Is this heaven? No, it’s Iowa.”
Alas, I would have the opposite experience when I arrived in Milwaukee, where I’d arranged to meet a friend for the proverbial “beer and brat.” A fine rain was falling, which closed the lakeside South Shore Terrace beer garden. We had to settle instead for some hipster dive, where all the beer was in cans and half the food was vegan. The overtaking of working-class ethnic neighborhoods by their cultural “betters” was a bit too much on the nose. At least they had patio umbrellas.
Then it was on to my old stomping grounds in the Windy City: Lakeview, which surrounds Wrigleyville in the north end and where I lived my third year of law school. The friends I stayed with there greeted me with a much-needed glass of wine and a top-notch suggestion for where I could take them to dinner. Tango Sur didn’t exist during my student days, but this Argentine steak house made me reminisce about my even earlier student days, studying abroad in Buenos Aires. This was the first place I’d encountered a place with a temperature check upon entering the outdoor seating area and where you got the menu on your phone via a QR code on the table. That’s some real innovation to deal with the pandemic, and if it allows more restaurants to open up, I’m all for it. [Post-pandemic, I’m really annoyed by these alien checkerboards; give me a menu so I don’t have to look at my phone any more than I already do!]
The next night I became one of the few people in America to witness a major league baseball game this year, taking in the Cubs-Royals tilt. Did I sneak into Wrigley Field? No, I paid to sit on one of the iconic rooftop bleachers across the street (which were not crowded, for anyone keeping tabs on my Covid compliance)—and finally got my beer and brat.
It was nice to spend two nights in one place, but then I drove to Indianapolis for my first speaking engagement explicitly about my new book. The event occupied a large ballroom at the downtown Conrad Hotel, spread out and masked when not eating. Several judges and other legal luminaries attended—and I got my first true author experience, sticking around to sign bookplates and kibbitz about the sorry state of our political discourse. This was one of the better-attended Federalist Society events here in recent years, showing that people are hungry to have a reason to get out of the house, and that they can be trusted to do so in a responsible fashion.
I didn’t stay long in the Hoosier capital, motoring down to Louisville, Kentucky, to stay with a law-professor friend who had recently moved to the tony suburb of Anchorage. That was just as well, because Louisville was experiencing some of most significant unrest of any city in the country, driven by the killing of Breonna Taylor in a no-knock police raid. But the two days I spent in the burbs allowed for deep conversation about the revolution engulfing the country—and much less bourbon drunk than on previous visits. I still don’t understand why people protest government injustice by destroying private property, particularly targeting small businesses that have nothing to do with “systemic” anything, but changing our governmental model isn’t the answer. A dictatorship of the proletariat is still a dictatorship.
From the ’Ville it was on to the ’Burgh, Steel City U.S.A. My final speaking event of this “tour” would take place the next day—a hybrid gig with half the attendees coming in over Zoom—but that evening I got to stay at the iconic Duquesne Club and enjoy a meal on its newly reopened roof deck. Pittsburgh has really turned itself around in recent decades, with a focus on health care and technology, adapting to creative destruction rather than wallowing in self-pity. It was a fitting end to a whirlwind week of adventure and contemplation.
By the time I got home to northern Virginia, I had put 2,500 miles on my rental car in one week. I was tired, but refreshed, with mental batteries recharged for the battles ahead.
Although my vacation technically ended, the following weekend we took the kids on what the Brits would call a “mini-break,” to historical Williamsburg. It was an appropriate coda to my tour of Americana, bringing us back to literal first principles. There was a hiccup when the resort where we stayed kicked us off the playground because of Covid—while the pool beside it was fully open, with young adults frolicking. But we rallied from that unreasonableness; Jamestown was particularly well equipped to show our young boys how the earliest Americans lived. There was a lesson in current events as the display of state flags was missing one: Mississippi (where I lived for a year and still maintain ties), which is currently between flags.
To quote Bill Clinton from his first inaugural address, “There is nothing wrong with America that can’t be cured by what is right with America.” The last few months have been dark for our country, but I still have faith in what Abraham Lincoln, and a century later Ronald Reagan, called man’s last best hope on Earth.
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