Full of Nothing


June 10th, 2017

“Our life is full of empty space.” – Umberto Eco


We left Terra Sancta Retreat Center early on the morning of Saturday, June 10th.  Terra Sancta is on the outskirts of Rapid City, South Dakota. Our goal was to make it to the next retreat house, called “Simply Sisters”, by the early evening. Simply Sisters is located in Richmond, Minnesota, so we had at least nine hours of driving ahead of us. We planned on stopping in the Badlands National Park for a while, and that would break up the ride a bit. It was still going to be a long road.

We warmed up the GPS, put in our destination, and read the results: 347 miles just to Sioux Falls. For the love of God…that would be nearly five hours on I-90 driving through some of the most boring terrain on the planet.  It is terrible to have your spirit crushed at 7:30 AM, knowing that, no matter how fast you drive, you will never really believe that the journey will end.

Between the Badlands and Sioux Falls is a lot of nothing. It is not that the land is so desolate. It is not nearly as nasty as the area around I-40 between Kingman and Barstow. Nor is it as wasted as the stretch on I-10 through western Texas before you get to El Paso. However, the fact is that the Mojave is rugged and scarred and interesting. The desert is full of surprises. A person notices odd things. Sometimes it is like finding wild flowers growing on the surface of Mars. The plains of South Dakota hold no such charm. Like the oceans, they are seemingly endless, and without distinguishing features.

The speed limit on I-90 is 80 MPH. That is about twenty miles too slow. We drove a little over the speed limit, and we were passed by other cars. This did not happen often because there weren’t many other vehicles on the highway. Driving on a lonely freeway prompts troubling questions like: “What if we break down?” The answer to that question is: “You’re screwed.” There no cops out there, and cell phone coverage is sketchy. I-90 is a bad place to experience mechanical problems. It is also a bad place to run low on fuel.

Sensory deprivation is cruel and relentless. Desperation takes hold. As a person drives past scenery that looks exactly like what he passed an hour ago, he tries to seek out something on which to focus. Anything. Anything at all.

“Look, Karin! There’s a cow! And over there, I think I see a tree! I haven’t seen a tree for half an hour!”

Without bothering to look up, Karin said, “Don’t bother me now. I’m counting stitches”, and she continued to knit.

Pathetic. Just pathetic.

The South Dakota landscape is enough to break the spirit of the most seasoned traveler. It is a prairie purgatory. Generally, it is unwise to drive long distances under the influence of drugs, but something has be done to stay alert. Music helps to make the time pass. I have found that the Hindu chants of Krishna Das work well in this situation. The cadence and the rhythm of the songs put me into an altered state of consciousness. I found a groove.

Karin told me, “Only drive, Frank. Only drive.”

Very Zen.

It would be unfair to say that the entire journey was mind-numbingly monotonous. It wasn’t. We had a brief period of excitement. Karin and I had eaten lunch in Mitchell, home of the Corn Palace. Karin drove as we left town. She noticed about ten miles from Mitchell that she had forgotten her purse in the booth at the deli. She immediately found an exit and spun the car around. Shifting gears like a pro, and weaving in and out of traffic, Karin got us back to the eatery in no time. She found her purse.

I now know for a fact that a Toyota Corolla six-speed handles well at speeds over 100 miles an hour.


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