Sunday, December 10, 2006

South Dakota Bars

This weekend we had a TFA professional development session in Rapid City. I was hoping to get out to Rapid on Friday night so that I could get a little extra taste of the big city and sleep a bit later on Friday morning before the session began. But alas, with my nose to the grindstone all week, I wasn't really in contact with anyone, and when I started to call folks up after school on Friday, I couldn't find anyone who planned on spending the night. So instead I joined my friends from He Dog at the R Bar in Vetal--a town which, as far as I can tell, consists of only this bar. The R Bar was hosting a "fun night," as the flyer advertised in, in which teams of three competed in indoor mini-golf, pool, and darts. I didn't arrive until competition was underway, so I spectated while the He-Doggers' golf ball wobbled its way back and forth across the very uneven hardwood bar floor; I especially enjoyed watching a team of cowboys in ten-gallon hats as they puttered their way through the mini-golf. This place was about as unpretentious as a bar can get, and the bartender had a few tricks up her sleeve which I will have to wait to reveal until a future date. We're hoping to bring back a larger crew for an All-TFA Tourney at the R Bar.

After a day of professional development and errands (I got a flashy new cell phone, which still fails to provide me quality service), we were supposed to all meet up for dinner at Chili's, followed by the unofficial TFA Rapid City Pub Crawl. As Jess and I were jumping in the car to head to dinner, we both decided we had little interest in Chili's a much greater interest in sushi. I've had sushi before, but never at a sushi bar. I don't know if Rapid City was the best place to start that experience, but it was good. Then it was on to tour Rapid City's bars.

The pub crawl begins at the Firehouse, South Dakota's first brew pub. Here I am enjoying a "Brown-Eyed Girl" while watching some good ol' rodeo on the television.

A few bars later, we ended up at Murphy's Sports Bar. As we were dancing on the dance floor, the MC started saying something about "who wants to be our guest DJ?" I kind of ignore this at first, but when he started calling for 5 volunteers, I led the charge out, dragging Wes and Dan into it to fill out the numbers. After two other random volunteers joined in, they held a "cheer-off" to decide who would be the guest DJ for fifteen minutes ("based purely on looks"). There was absolutely no noticeable difference in the volume of the cheers, but the MC seemingly randomly cut it down to me and a big fellow in a baseball cap. And then, again entirely randomly, I was crowned victor, and so found myself behind the laptop and in control of the dance floor. As many of you know, this is a position I relish.

Here I am winning the looks contest, which is ridiculous.

The DJ gives me the lowdown on how things operate: you click the "play" button on the laptop. Hhe wouldn't let me mess around with any of the fancier toys too much (no crossfades!), although here he is pointing out where the button for the smoke machine was.

Some teachers enjoying my music selection. If this teaching doesn't work out, I think I have a future rocking the dance clubs of South Dakota. Although I have to admit, mostly it was just my friends dancing. I guess South Dakota doesn't appreciate "My Love" as much as it should. And my fifteen minutes dried up just before I was going to play "Since U Been Gone." (I don't know if my music selection was what people were anticipating when they cheered for the guy in cowboy boots.)

Friday, December 01, 2006


Last weekend was the long weekend that got most of us through the fall, a nice four day break from teaching. Thanksgiving is also my favorite holiday. I certainly like being thankful; and I also like eating lots of food and sitting in front of the TV and hanging out with family. Unfortunately that wasn't really a choice this year, with plane flights costing upwards of $500 and not much time for travel. Instead, at the very generous invitation of Juliet, I joined a crew of homeless TFA-ers in Omaha.

This was my first trek to a city larger than Rapid since my arrival. Since I live in a time zone west of the rest of the Omaha crew, I had to drive myself and meet them there (although I passed them--twice--en route). The drive at first was standard West: open road, open planes, few cars. But by the time I hit central Nebraska I felt cramped and boxed in by all the cars on the road, and the 1,000 strong towns every ten or fifteen miles. You know things have changed in your life when you are overwhelmed by central Nebraska. Hitting the outskits of Omaha, though, felt like coming home: the lights, the cars, the unending pavement. Never before has four miles of strip malls felt so glorious.

The weekend was for the most part uneventful. We dined with a large group of family friends, and mostly took comfort in our ability to sleep late and easily access suburban amenities like Hollywood Videos and Indian restuarants. I managed to convince everyone that Thanksgiving was a great night at the bars, so we scoped out Omaha's hip downtown, Old Market.

I was a bit trigger happy with the camera, being back in the big city. This is a rather blurry rendition of the Christmas lights, just previously turned on, in Old Market.

He-Dog Elementary staff meeting at Billy Frogg's.

Dave is a master dart player. In the bottom picture he is celebrating his stats.

On Saturday, on the recommendation of various parties, we headed to the Omaha zoo. Not the least of these parties was Mara, Juliet's four-year-old cousin and our zoo companion.

Mara and Juliet at the zoo.

Omaha has the world's largest indoor rainforest.

I have an irrational fear of parrots. I think maybe my uncle's pet parrots scarred me as a child.

Omaha also has a giant desert dome. Here are some cute little deer like critters that live inside the dome.

Goats at the petting zoo.
We took pictures with the goats. Everyone else's picture came out good enough to use as their facebook photos. Then this is mine. How is that fair?

I went in anyway.
A Very TFA Christmas

It’s been quite a while, which I guess means that I’ve gotten accustomed enough to my life here that most weekends no longer seem notable; plus, at least until Thanksgiving, for the past few weekends I've just been re-treading old territory. Three weekends ago, over the three-day Veteran's Day weekend, I was supposed to go to Denver, which certainly would have been worthy of writing about, but a combination of snow, sick travellers, and weakened resolve beat that plans, and I ended up shuttling back and forth between Mission and Rapid City.

Two weeks ago I headed to Pierre; those of us who did not head to Vegas for a TFA conference had a TFA professional development session and Fall Social on Saturday, but a few of us headed into town Friday night to take in the night life. As far as we could tell, there was only one bar in town, which is why I was surprised that it was rather empty, mostly an older crowd, some country music, and a surly bartender. There was a downstairs that I suggested we check out, but we idled away a couple hours before finally going down. Here, it seemed, was every young person in Pierre, getting down to Snoop Dogg and 50 Cent. So we stuck it out for a while longer. That's almost as good as Vegas, right?

The first event the next morning was the decoration of the Teach For America Christmas tree in the state capitol. Non-profits from all over the state are invited to decorate Christmas trees, and, despite our lack of planning, I'm proud to say our tree was one of the two or three best in the place. Part of the reason I waited so long before posting was because I had no pictures to illustrate this, but now I do:

Prepping ornaments. Wes is sad because I crushed one, but that was only because they said they were shatterproof. But I guess not crush proof. This should offer some satisfaction to those of you who wanted to see a picture of me in my cowboy regalia. I'm not walking into a Wal-Mart here, but you've got a good view of a boots. Too bad I haven't worn them since this day, because after walking for a mile in them in the wrong socks they gave me a pretty brutal blister. I think I'm ready again, though.

Anna decorating the tree. Our theme was a "literacy tree," and Shannon made little miniature books and had pictures of her kids reading. She was the only one who brought ornaments.

Here I am topping the tree with a dream catcher.

The TFA Tree.


Wednesday, November 08, 2006

North Platte

Our original plans to camp in the Badlands north of Wanblee fell through, but because it was supposed to be so nice a few of us decided to hold out on camping. On Saturday morning, off a tip by a security guard at the St. Francis Indian School, Jen, Ryan, and I headed towards Lake McConaughy, just north of Ogallala, Nebraska.

Bar & Grill in Cody, Nebraska, where we stopped for a deep-fried lunch (Jen, a vegetarian, had french fries--that was about all that was available). This is actually the backside of the bar. Cody is the town "Too Strong To Die." Or something like that.

About 20 minutes after pulling out of a small town, I was looking at a map, and said, "Wow, that security guard was right, there's nothing for the next sixty miles." To which Jen replied, oh, I meant to gas back there. For a while we it seemed like there was a very real possibility that we would be stranded in the middle of the Sandhills, 30 miles from anything, with no gas. But we coasted on fumes into Hyannis, Nebraska and got refueled.

Hyannis, pop. 280. There are "rooms" above the bar, and I suggested that at some point we end our road trip in Hyannis.

Somewhere in route, Buffalo Bill's ranching cabin. It been relocated from some other town.

Upon arriving at Lake McConaughy, we experienced our first bout of road trip disappointment. "It's so big it looks like the ocean," we had heard, and there were some implications that it was beautiful, as well. Not to be an elitist, northeastern, coast-dwelling bastard, but usually you can't see the other side of the ocean. And usually a bloated puddle next to an oversized, industrial dam is not beautiful. The campsites we found looked like they were at the bottom of a quarry. Not pretty. So we cancelled camping and fell back on Plan B, heading for the bustling metropolis of North Platte.

North Platte is the hometown of "Buffalo Bill" Cody, creator of a Western circus that established many deeply entrenched stereotypes about cowboys and Indians. There are a lot of Cody-themed attractions in North Platte, none of which were open at this point of the year or at our late hour of arrival. Beyond these sites, North Platte is essentially an interstate town, two one-way streets filled with McDonalds and Dairy Queens and Motels. Luckily we are able to make our own fun.

Sunset over beautiful North Platte.

Our first stop was the Cody Trading Post, conveniently located just off I-80.

It looks like a sweet fort.

Me with fake bear outside the Trading Post.

Buffalo Bill Cody. My favorite restaurant when I was a kid was a BBQ place called W. B. Cody's, so this whole town gave me a hankering for some ribs. Considering Jen's lunch of french fries, we decided to go some place more vegetarian friendly for dinner, though.

Inside the Trading Post are not only Western tourist wares (I bought a bobble-headed buffalo), but also an extremely informative "museum."

Educational taxidermy. See, coyotes eat birds.

Two-headed calf. It was born in 1948 and lived for something like 17 hours.

Miniature version of Buffal Bill's Western circus. You can watch the Indian figurines dance!

Authentic Indian mannequin.

After leaving the tourist trap, we headed into town. Soon we stumble across a Goodwill, where I picked up a rugged, cowboy-esque flannel shirt. Next door was Town & Country Western Wear. I've been planning for a while to get myself some cowboy boots, and this was finally my day. The sales girl was very helpful--since I had no idea how cowboy boots were supposed to fit--and hid her bemusement well. Now I just need to break them in.

After dinner we scoped out a few bars, and finally settled on one in North Platte's little downtown area. This wasn't your typical Nebraska scene: these kids were wearing vans and backwards baseball caps; one even had dreads. So in walks flannel-shirted, cowboy-booted me, and I'm clearly the biggest hick in the place--at least until the bartender came over and checked my Connecticut ID (when Ryan ordered a pitcher of Boulevard--instead of the offered selection of Bud, Bud Light, and Miller Light--we were quickly labelled as "rich northeasterners." Although Ryan is from Michigan.) I was also singing loudly along to Weezer and Three 6 Mafia, probably not typical cowboy behavior. Later we went to Wal-Mart to do some late night shopping, and as I walked into the All-American store in my All-American apparel, Jen took a photo. A couple of other shoppers walked by and asked sarcastically if we didn't shop much. And when it comes down to it--no, we don't.


And that was about it--enough to make it a good Saturday night. The next morning we headed back on the road. Because I had no school Monday, I was pretty relaxed on our drive back Sunday afternoon. We pulled off at a scenic overlook to admire the Dismal River (not deserving of its name) and dream of easy days of floating with the drift.

Dismal River.

Later we were stopped by a train, causing the most congestion we saw all trip.

One more photo that has absolutely nothing to do with North Platte (If you can't tell, it's from Carhenge). Its pretty much the perfect photo though, so I had to put it up.

Sunday, October 29, 2006


Uncharacteristically, I wanted to stay home this weekend. Maybe it was the arrival of the satellite TV; I also just wanted to sleep in in my own bed for once. So Luke and I invited some of the fellas out to Pine Ridge for the evening. The original plan involved camping--this could be the last good camping weekend--but I was feeling like sitting around the house, so I managed to convince everyone to enjoy an evening in out of the cold. We took the scenic route out to Interior, where we bought some overpriced meat, then came back to feast on steak, onion rings, pumpkin pie, and beer while watching the Tigers blow it.

On the ride out to Interior we scouteed out some of the local Badlands. In the morning, after a pancake breakfast, we decided to head back out that way to do some exploration. I was nervous about leaving my car lying around; apparently at one point, on a field trip out that way, a school vehicle had its tires slashed, and I've heard stories of car windows being smashed in while people have been out for twenty minute walks. But we figured we could stick in sight of the car.

The mesa in the background here is what we first decided to check out. I drove as far as this picture, but the road got a little too rough here, so I decidd to leave the car. It would have made the perfect Suburu commercial, with the car parked on the perfect outcropping in a rugged landscape.

The mesa wasn't actually all that exciting, but there was a nice view down into some of the Badlands.

"The Pyramid":

"The Lost Valley." There is a big drop off down the rocks into the big valley with more Badlands off on the other side. It's the kind of place that feels totally undiscovered, the kind o place where in a movie we might discover dinosaurs still roaming. Of course, later on a found a Budweiser can that someone had tossed down the rocks.

Eventually we decided that the mesa wasn't exciting enough. I was nervous about my car, but I did want to check out the valley. We found a shallow spot in the cliff face where we could make our way down, which brought us into a patch of woods, and then we made our way down another set of rocks. Here are Ryan, Luke, and Russ making the final climb down. According to Russ's GPS thingie, it was a 200 foot elevation change from top to bottom. So not very much, but it felt big.

From the top the valley looked entirely open and expensive. Down at the bottom, with formations on all sides, it feels much more enclosed. We just tracked our progress with the GPS tracker and wandered around, feeling very remote.

There were a few signs of wildlife. Here was a monster spider we found. Apparently the Lakota trickster can take the form of this spider. Was this a sign that my tires would be smashed? Luckily, no.

We spotted a set of vertebrae at one point, and then found lots more bones scattered about, which indicated that the scavengers had taken care of the body. We were wondering what kind of animal it was. Then Luke spotted this skull, which allowed some of the more skilled members of our crew to identify the bones as belonging to a coyote. This skull is now sitting on my bedroom floor, waiting to be bleached for display. Later Luke spotted some antlers, which he also kept.

As we made our way around this big formation, I spotted a decent size buck up on the rocks. It's in the picture but it's pretty hard to spot. It's sort of right in the middle of the picture, just up off the grass. I tried to chase after it, but apparently deer are faster than me.

We had seen something that looked like a cave from the top of the mesa, so we decided to walk all the way around the formation to check it out. It was just a spot where a hole had been eroded a few feet deep. Here are the guys checking out the Badlands.

At this point we looked at the GPS tracker and realized that our starting point was right on the other side of these rocks. We decided that, rather than walking all the way back around, we would see if it was possible to climb up and over to the other side. The only significant problem was Ryan's shoes, whose tread had worn too smooth to really scramble up very well.

Making it down the other side.

We decided to revive our camping plans for this weekend. Damn the cold; we're going to backpack down Saturday morning with gear, set up a base camp, and then spend Saturday exploring the valley.