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May 4, 2016

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The First Van Voyage: Tennessee to South Dakota

June 2, 2016




It was Friday morning and I was leaving Saturday at 10 A.M. All I had to do Friday was say my goodbyes. First was family and then came friends - twice. One of my very best friends had arranged with the fine folks at Trailhead Beer Market to throw a surprise party in my honor and then an after-party culminated at Barley's Taproom. It was a long and blurry Friday but I was determined to leave the next morning. 



The next morning, I woke up on time, chugged a couple bottles of ginger ale (great for a

 hangover) and set out. I'd known all along I would have to get away from the heat and humidity of the southeast pretty quick. A few weeks earlier, I'd basically closed my eyes and pointed to a place on the map where I knew the weather would be better suited to vanlife. I wound up deciding on Badlands National Park in western South Dakota as a kind of kick-off point to my new life. I plugged BNP into the Google map, selected to avoid highways, and off I went.


The Tennessee portion was a lot slower than I'd expected. The back roads I was being led down were like slow moving roller coasters. Sharp turns and steep, short hills abound. I was getting nervous that it would take weeks to get to cooler weather. That nervousness wouldn't last long. Kentucky came unexpectedly. I had no idea where I was when the GPS told me to turn and suddenly I was crossing the line. Kentucky was uneventful, as was Indiana and Illinois, other than a few touristy stops I made. The land got flatter, the roads got straighter and speed limits got higher.



Then came Iowa. I had never seen such a vast and empty landscape as Iowa. It was a surreal experience for me. Every square inch of Iowa had been touched by man and turned into farmland yet, the majority of the time, there was no one in sight. I pulled out my maps and looked at the road layout. Iowa is a massive grid of empty roads. They don't try to dress them up either. Half or more of the roads were numbered or had single letter names like "Y" or "E".


After hours of agricultural farms, came the windmill farms. What an impressive sight! The symmetrical rows of crops and the deep blue sky was suddenly cut open by these crisp white modern marvels. I started ignoring my directions and swerving toward those giant objects on the horizon. Lola and I got as close as we could and we must have sat on that road for an hour, just enjoying the emptiness.


As we were leaving, an old pickup pulled up slowly and rolled down the passenger window. I

expected to have unknowingly been sitting in this mans driveway and was about to have to answer for it. He just wanted my opinion on the windmills! He parked right beside me, blocking the entire road as if he knew no one would likely be coming down it. His name was Don Sneeden, a retired engineer and current pig farmer. Don's sitting on 600 acres and 8'000 pigs and had been approached about putting up some windmills on his farm. He was there to see what they looked like and how much noise they made. The power company wants to put 84 windmills on his property and pay him $7k per year for each windmill on a 40 year lease. He doesn't have to lift a finger and he can still plant crops right up against it. That's $588k per year for doing absolutely nothing and the installation would be finished within 6 months. As envious as I am of an opportunity like that, that's a win-win-win, if I've ever heard of one. The utility company gets their power, Don makes a small fortune and can finally give up pig farming, and the environment doesn't get destroyed in the process! His hesitation is baffling to me but he sounded pretty happy with the idea by the end of our conversation. His humble and quiet way represented Iowa well, I think.



Now I roll into South Dakota. I thought I knew what a small town was until I met South Dakota. The massive industrial farms started to fade. Small farms and open grassland took their place. I


couldn't believe what I was seeing! I suddenly understood how ghost towns come to be. There's no fiscal crutch in these places, they are all they have. There's very little economy and no big cities nearby to find work, the smallest event or bad business decision could probably send people fleeing.


That night, I stopped to gas up and had to go inside to pay since the old school pumps didn't have credit card slots - or any buttons for that matter. The attendant showed me a weather map she'd printed off. We were well inside the giant red bar on that map. She said I'd better find cover. I weighed my options and tried a couple of small campgrounds nearby which were full. There was no car wash or garage in the town where I could find shelter. So I looked at the radar and decided to take it head on. I would drive into the storm and make it as short-lived as possible.

I did just that. What I didn't expect was for the tightly packed hills I had been in to return to nearly flat, gentle rolling plains. The wind picked up and the sky started to fill with lightning. It scattered across the sky like a fishing net. I was worried. Then it started hitting the empty fields beside the road, not making a sound. Silent lightning?? How is that possible? Every time I crested one of those rolling plains, I just gritted my teeth, hoping the lightning wouldn't notice I was the tallest object for miles. I finally made it through the first band. I was feeling good. The sun was about to dip below the clouds on the horizon and things were calming. I hopped out to snap a few photos of the sunset. It was spitting rain and things were pretty mean looking behind me but I could take five minutes, right? I got one good shot off and the sky opened up again. I jumped back in the van and tore down the road. Right then, a bolt of lightning hit less than 50 ft away, in the field next to me. The electric fan that was running over my bed made a loud pop. I could hear the lightning this time. It wasn't silent after all, it was a low fast grumble. I assume that's from hitting the open ground and not an object.


I started searching for the nearest place to take sanctuary, even if it meant me going out of my way. I found a truck stop 44 miles away. At around 20 miles, the storms had passed and I started driving through huge bugs that were leaving one and two inch wide bloody splats on my windshield. This lasted for almost 10 miles, covering my windshield for the rest of the trek to the truck stop. I've never been so happy to see a Pilot truck stop in my life. I nestled in with the other overnighters and knocked out. I was glad to only have two more hours' drive  ahead of me the next day.






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