RAPID CITY, S.D. — The first sign that we shouldn’t have been here was the sign.
Outside our Rapid City hotel this past weekend, an electronic billboard flashed rooms as low as $39.99.
This wasn’t some drive-up, park-in-front-of-your-door, musty motel from a Stephen King flick. It was a nice-ish, newly built hotel — with bright colors and a too-generous use of the number 2 in place of the word.
The second sign came from the guy behind the front desk.
He pointed out that the serve-yourself breakfast buffet was from 6:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. He then involuntarily coughed. And then he said it. Yes, he had to say it.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I swear it’s not coronavirus.”
I almost packed up our pack of Griswolds, put us back in the Family Truckster and hit “cancel” on this getaway weekend for our stir-crazy family.
Our hope for a virus-free road trip quickly turned into a guilt trip, the adventure burdened by the undeniable wisdom of epidemiologists: If we’re gonna kick this thing, we all should stay home.
The guilt was compounded when we pulled into the hotel parking lot — and found it absolutely crammed. Suddenly, my wife, Debbie, and I were wondering whether we were the knuckleheaded parents, ancestors of those spring break lugs who were taking on coronavirus as if it were coming out of a beer bong.
Instead of packed beaches, we decided to go to South Dakota. Specifically, to Mount Rushmore, where we’d never had the time to take our three boys when life was busier.
South Dakota has several advantages in that it has few people, few cars and just one city of any size. It has one weird statewide slogan (Nebraskans can relate to weird statewide slogans): “Meth. We’re on it.” And another fortuitously timed campaign: “South Dakota: We put the SD into social distancing.”
No matter how sparse the population, your mind plays with you the minute you step into a hotel room.
“I wonder if Rudy Gobert stayed here the night before,” one of the kids muttered.
That was a not-so-subtle reference to the Utah Jazz player who became the first NBA player to be publicly diagnosed with coronavirus disease and the first to apparently pass coronavirus onto a sports broadcaster who, as it turned out, stayed in the same hotel room the night after Gobert had.
Gulp. Not to worry. Debbie, who is used to travel, scrubbed that room like a crime-scene investigator. Note to others: If anything ever happens to me, check the Clorox wipes. They’ll have my DNA on them.
After she scoured the place — leaving behind the nose-hair-burning smell of bleach — she promptly put the door tag on the handle. No housekeeping required.
And then I opened the blinds. And, holy Moses, what on God’s green earth is that? Glowing next door? It looked like a giant greenhouse.
My youngest explained that it’s a water park! It’s called WaTiki!! Three or four hotels are connected to it!!! It has giant red and green tube slides that, if you look at them the way I looked at them, look like the spokes and tentacles of every microscopic coronavirus photo in every newspaper.
Surely, it’s not open, not during this outbreak?? And then … splash! I see kids with inner tubes climbing the stairway of doom. And all I could think was, someday, scientists will be talking about the WaTiki cluster.
Then I went to the car to fetch the last of our overnight bags — and there, near the soon-to-be-open breakfast buffet, was a kid dressed solely in swim trunks, goggles on his head, having himself a good cry. And two tables down, his 12-year-old sister with her face, her bare cheek, planted firmly on the table.
So, of course, breakfast was out for the Cooper family. And the lobby became a hold-your-breath breeze-through. And the elevator — ah, hecks no. Time to get some steps in.
Back in the room, I pulled the shade on the water park. Climbed into bed. And somehow crashed.
Next morning, we headed up to Mount Rushmore. On our way, we heard the president’s daily briefing. He accused a reporter of a fake-news question about a shortage of hospital masks.
And then we had a discussion. What does it take to get on Mount Rushmore? One by one, we went down the accomplishments and attributes of Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln. My youngest droned on like the guy on the radio in the background … you know, the leader of the free world. About that time, my older sons decided both their little brother and the president would make a good fit for Mount Shushmore.
Pulling up to the majestic mountain, we were confronted with empty toll booths and signs about the virus. From a distance, a ranger looked at us sideways and waved us past, the way you wave away someone with coffee breath. Inhale. “Yes … uh huh … no, it’s free for you crazies … keep it moving … park on 3.” Exhale.
We turn a corner and we’re one of about a dozen cars — three from Minnesota (they have more coronavirus cases than we do), three from Colorado (ditto) and one each from Wisconsin, North Dakota, Nevada, Texas and, cripes, I hope it’s a rental car, New York.
All the cars practice auto distancing — a least a stall between cars. Then a bit later, we arrive back at our car to a sea of empty spaces and a car parked directly beside us, the passenger side open to my driver’s door. Check the license plate and, it figures, Florida.
We walk the promenade to the presidents. It’s cut off — with a giant backhoe protecting Washington’s “feet.” Completely unrelated to the coronavirus, the pathway is under renovation.
There we meet Ben and Amy from Minneapolis and their two kids, Brooks and Luke. We socialize (distantly) with them. Ben is originally from St. Cloud, Minnesota, and spent a couple of years in my hometown (Omaha), pre-college. I spent a few years in St. Cloud, post-college. Turns out, they’re staying at another hotel connected to the WaTiki virus, er, water park.
Small world. Big question: Is the world too small right now? I ask Ben. That is, are you guilting your way through this trip the way we are?
A little bit, Ben says. But ultimately, he says, it’s in his DNA. He works as a commodities trader. It requires him to, pardon the pun, think against the grain. Which in turn makes him want to take trips when we all probably should stay home.
Just last week, he started working from home. Amy, a second grade teacher, was home because schools were closed for spring break. In turn, the kids were home, too.
The setup lasted half a day. By noon Monday, Ben was googling places they could go. They too figured they should show their boys Mount Rushmore.
And, well, Mount Rushmore is Mount Rushmore. A decade-in-the-making, death-defying feat of planning and dynamite. A work of art that is both awesome and groundbreaking and, well, without the hiking trails or the tours explaining the vision of sculptor Gutzon Borglum, a bit boring.
And on this Saturday, there was an added dimension. The more we looked at Thomas Jefferson, the more it seemed like he was giving us attitude. As in: “I did NOT write the Declaration of Independence for you to act like fools. … Scatter!”
We take our obligatory photos. And then Ben asks: You guys hanging out at the pool tonight?
“Uh, gosh, we, uh, um … well, all right, I’ll be blunt: Do you think that’s a good idea?”
Ben: “It’s fine. I did some reading, and it doesn’t transmit through water.”
Me: “Yeah, but the CDC says it might live for a day or more on plastic and metal, and besides, did you see the little boy having a meltdown in our lobby and his sister doing the faceplant on the table near the toaster and the guy at the front desk coughing and making COVID-19 jokes … and the housekeeper, the sweet, sweet woman who wasn’t wearing any mask or gloves as she cleaned rooms.”
I should clarify. My mind said that. My mouth simply said: “Yeah. Our boys are kinda past the water-slide age.”
At that, my son Sam, 12, shot me his best Thomas Jefferson glare.
We soon parted ways. Then we loaded the truckster and went to Custer State Park, a gem of winding roads, hiking trails, wooden bridges and one-lane pigtail tunnels in the Black Hills.
A buffalo posed on a hillside. Five mountain goats trotted past us. We got out and hiked, snowmelt from the 59-degree spring day turning a stream into a babbling brook.
The idyllic path was a gentle reminder: Animals, the environment, seem to be thriving. Fewer humans. Less pollution. And, yes, no viruses thinning their ranks, at least not in 2020.
Back at the hotel, the two-legged animals wanted us to stick around. The manager — the front-desk comedian with the coronavirus set — wrote a note on our bill that said we could stay one more night for just, you guessed it, $39.
The capitalist gods, no doubt desperate in these times, were trying to pack their germ-infested quarters with more suckers like us. But the truth is: it’s not worth it. WaTiki can wait. And Mount Rushmore? I promise you, those four dudes aren’t going anywhere.
We piled back into the truckster.
“Where we going next, family?”
The answer was unanimous.
Home. Please. For as long as it takes.