Early in 1959 some former residents of Rochelle, former clients of my father’s, asked him to come to Canada to help with a legal problem concerning their farms. My father had no experience with, or special knowledge of, Canadian law, but the clients wanted someone they knew and trusted, and who could speak the language of law, to be at the table with them when they talked to the Canadian lawyers. And so that spring Dad spent time reading Canadian land law, and that summer we embarked upon an expedition in the direction of Eston, Saskatchewan.
Just getting to Eston from Rochelle may have seemed expedition enough, but my parents planned an ambitious route that took us first to visit friends in Iowa, then meandered through a large piece of the American Great Plains, including parts of South and North Dakota and Montana, with stops at the major tourist destinations buried in these states — Mount Rushmore, Little Big Horn, Deadwood — as well as many of the minor ones. It seems that my father particularly wanted to see the Badlands.
After some days of travel the road had become endless, the terrain repetitious, and perhaps my fascination with the scenery became small. I read, or drew, or battled with my sister. Late one day somewhere in South Dakota, where the road skirted the edge of a small town called Cactus Flats, I was suddenly alert. On the out-of-town side of the road stood the “World’s Biggest Prairie Dog”, or so a simple sign at its feet claimed. And beside this amazing artifact stood a fenced-in field that was advertised as a real prairie dog village. I was thrilled. The sign said prairie dog village — who could possibly resist visiting such a place.
We had already stopped at some tourist sites, and would stop at many more during this trip. But on that day I wanted very much to stop at this one. Unfortunately for me, Dad’s mind was set on the Badlands and on a driving schedule that would get us to Eston in time to help his clients. Apparently he feared that if we stopped in this unexpected, unplanned place we would lose half a day and perhaps not reach the Badlands during the next day’s drive. I was disappointed, but we drove on. But as we drove on, just a few miles out of the town, steam suddenly began to pour from the front of the car. As the engine rapidly overheated my mother pulled the car to the side of the road, and we sat.
My memory of what happened next is a bit unclear, but I think a car going the other direction stopped and my father rode into town with them. Eventually a tow truck came to take the car back to town, where a local mechanic agreed to repair the punctured radiator as quickly as possible. We checked into the little motel at the edge of town, and I got to visit the prairie dogs. I can’t say that the visit was overwhelmingly exciting. The field, dry, dusty, and nearly devoid of vegetation except for scruffy, coarse grass, was distorted by hundreds of holes and mounds. Odd, but cute, rodents kept popping out of the holes to sit on their hind legs and stare at us, sometimes chattering excitedly, then pop back into the holes. But I did get this picture.
The next day the mechanic had the car working again and we were back on the road. Within a few miles the terrain began to change, and signs appeared announcing that we had entered the Badlands. As it turned out, the stop to see the prairie dogs had been a good idea, since the last motel before the Badlands was the one we stayed at in that town. If we had continued as Dad originally wanted we would have driven through the Badlands as the sky became dark, not able to stop for the night until we were on the other side.
Perhaps there’s a moral to this story. Perhaps sometimes an unplanned stop is necessary for the trip to work out as it was planned. Or maybe you’re just supposed to pause and enjoy the sight when you get to the “World’s Biggest Prairie Dog”. And maybe someday we’ll go see the world’s biggest muskellunge.