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Breezing by Towns

Feb 18, 2016

Cars breeze along Interstate 29 at 80 miles an hour, passing small towns in the blink of an eye. Photo by Greg Latza.

I feel sorry for those two airline pilots, who several years ago were fired and had their licenses revoked after somehow missing Minneapolis, their intended destination. I’ve never held a pilot’s license, but as a longtime driver on South Dakota’s lonely highways, I’ve blown past a town or two.

Granted, none of my towns were like Minneapolis, with millions of lights stretching horizon to horizon. Mostly I’m talking about Artesian and Redig and only once a bigger town (bigger as in 706 residents).

Actually, much of the empathy I feel for the pilots stems from the fact that they did something I’ve fantasized about for years. Whenever I fly home to the Black Hills from the East — usually out of New York or Boston or Chicago — I’ve had my fill of big airports. I yearn for laid back Rapid City Regional and its easy baggage access and convenient parking. The last thing I want to do is deplane in Minneapolis and dash for my connecting flight, stumbling on the moving walkways, paying $6 for coffee and marching herd-like through vast concourses. What if, I’ve fantasized over Wisconsin, the pilots don’t land in the Twin Cities but instead ease directly into Rapid City? In my fantasy the reason has always been bad weather, but simply forgetting to land works, too.

Of course, I know how badly the pilots felt when they realized their error. I hate it when I’m driving Highway 34 and miss Artesian. As you approach Artesian from the west the road bends a bit and somehow that diverts my attention — or perhaps, more accurately, it focuses my attention on the roadway itself. Yeah, that sounds better. Either way, the next thing I know I’m staring at a sign telling me I can resume driving 65 mph and I realize I failed to spot another sign, half a mile back, that told me to slow to 45. At that point I always check my rearview mirror for flashing patrol car lights, and with guilt I bid Artesian farewell.

I’ve never missed a town because I was preoccupied on my laptop, as may have been the case with the pilots. But Johnny Cash can be a distraction. On the south edge of Harding County, Redig’s half dozen lights are just about the only man-made illumination seen in any direction. Driving north one moonless evening, I watched those lights coming nearer and nearer for six miles or more. Imagine my surprise minutes later when I realized I was still looking at the lights, only now they were receding in my rearview mirror. I pride myself in knowing lots of Johnny Cash lyrics, and when Boy Named Sue came on the radio I kept up with Johnny, but missed a planned stop at the Redig store.

Missing tiny spots is one thing. But it’s humbling to miss, in broad daylight, a major I-90 stop like Kadoka, with no fewer than two Interstate exits and 706 residents. A couple years ago I left Spearfish at mid-morning, bound for Sioux Falls. I decided Kadoka’s famous fried chicken gizzards would make a perfect lunch. Noon approached and passed, still no Kadoka, and suddenly Murdo loomed ahead. Kadoka lay 43 miles behind me and here’s an irony worthy of O. Henry: I think I missed my chicken gizzards because I was daydreaming of chicken gizzards.

Apparently the pilots were over Eau Claire, Wis., when they discovered they were off course by 97 miles. You can’t fully understand how disorienting that feels until you’ve actually experienced something similar. Boy, do I understand. Just a couple weeks before the airline misadventure, I was on my way to Vermillion for a conference. I crossed the Missouri River at Pickstown about 10 p.m., intending to make my way southeast via Highway 50. A while later, thinking it was high time for Yankton’s lights to pop into view, I found myself driving though Menno — 30 miles north of where I thought I was and following Highway 18, not 50! I’d appreciate someone in Pickstown or Wagner writing and telling me how I went wrong. Then just east of Menno a raccoon darted from the ditch. I couldn’t help hitting him. The raccoon looked plump, like maybe he helped himself to someone’s chickens now and then. So perhaps he’s not universally missed in Menno. Still, knowing my error put me in Menno in the first place, and caused the animal’s end, brought a lump to my throat.

I had companions with me that night. Much like those pilots, I didn’t tell my two passengers we were off course. The three of us were engaged in a good conversation and I didn’t want to take that off course, too. As was the case with the Minneapolis bound crew and passengers, we got to our destination late but otherwise no worse for the wear. Except we felt sad about the raccoon.

Editor’s Note: This column is revised from the January/February 2010 issue of South Dakota Magazine. To order a copy or to subscribe, call (800) 456-5117.


11:02 am - Mon, February 22 2016
Stuart Surma said:
The story reminds me of the time my late friend Jack Reich of Isabel left Brookings headed North on I-90 . He intended to head West on the HY-12 exit at Summit , but he too must have been listening to Johnny Cash! All of the sudden the sign said "Welcome to Sisseton!!" If he would have kept going it would have said- "Wecome to North Dakota too!!" Stu Surma, Java, S. D.

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