Extract no. 7 from Toad’s Road-Kill Café brings us into the Dakotas. I’ve skipped Nebraska: regular readers have read plenty about the Cornhusker state. If you look at the map you think that following Highway 83 ought to be easy enough. It isn’t - specially if you want to take the odd detour. More than once, as here, I got into difficulties.
Linguistic Difficulties In South Dakota
The guys in the little café at Springview had news for me. As I sipped at my coffee and munched my cinnamon roll they explained that there were roadworks on 183, and big delays. “What you wanna do,” they said, “is take a left on Rahn Lake Road.” I nodded and carried on munching. To tell the truth I wasn’t really concentrating. I hadn’t asked for their advice, and I had my AAA map of South Dakota right there on the table. What did they think I was – stupid? That cinnamon roll was damned good.
“Then take the oil road north,” they added.
“Beg your pardon?” I mumbled through a mouthful of crumbs.
“The oil road. Coupla miles after you turn off at Rahn Lake.”
One of these days, I swear, I’ll learn to question people before agreeing with them. One question I might have asked in that roadside joint, for example, was `What in tarnation is an oil road?`
I think my trouble is vanity. In fact, I know it is. It’s no longer exactly a fear of being wrong – even die-hards like me eventually learn to accept that they’re not always as right as they thought they were. Rather it’s a willingness to convince myself that with my literary background and interest in languages I ought to be able to decode mysterious words and half-heard names. I mean, I did Latin ‘O’ level. I do the Independent crossword - the cryptic one. I used to be an Immigration Officer at Heathrow Airport. I spent three years interviewing travellers in languages I’d never studied. That is to say, I was taught to get all the information I needed off most passengers with four basic questions: How long are you staying? What are you doing here? How much money do you have? Have you got a return ticket? I could do that in French (which I had studied), German, Italian, Spanish (on a good day Portuguese), and in an all-purpose Scandinavian tongue, plus a vague approximation to Dutch. Given that most visitors from the Indian sub-continent responded to the single request “chitty?” with a sheaf of documentary evidence as to their identity, itinerary and character – some of it authentic – that left Filipinos, who generally had some sort of seaman’s contract, Chinese, who were deemed Stateless and were therefore documented up to the eyeballs, and Iron Curtain types, with whom our resident eastern European translator was always eager to discuss such matters as wood alcohol, empty silent forests and Boris Pasternak. Hey, don’t talk to me about the meaning of words. I know all sorts: English, European, even American.
The oil road, I decided, was clearly one of two things. Either it led to some kind of drilling or processing plant and would have special signs for heavy traffic, or it was like a very bumpy road I drove down in the Nebraska Sandhills one time: a crushed-rock surface on which they had poured some kind of black, tarry liquid and left it to set.
I soon found the sign that pointed to Rahn Lake State Recreation Area, and headed west. This was going to be easy. I congratulated myself on my ability to divine meaning from arcane epithets. I was in mid-congratulation when I missed the oil road. Well, I assumed I had, because I was now several miles down a switch-back road heading further and further west, and I’d passed a number of turnings to the north. But none of them were black and tarry, so I’d ignored them. Even if I turned around and re-traced my steps I’d have no way of knowing which one I should take. There was no going back. So when I eventually found another right-hand turn, I took it.
It was a rough road, whose surface rapidly degenerated into crushed rock. That soon gave way to crushed rock with huge ruts in it, then dried rutted mud with crushed rocks piled up onto either side, and finally dried ruts interspersed with muddy puddles in which there lurked huge un-crushed rocks. In my rear-view mirror I now caught sight of a cloud of spray framing the blunt nose of a very large cattle-truck. I was bouncing along at forty, and it was gaining on me, rapidly. Just then a lop-sided nineteenth-century farmhouse hove into view beside the road, a typical frontier specimen with a huge barn behind it, both buildings looking as though they belonged in one of those museums I was talking about earlier. But as I approached them a pick-up appeared on the ridge ahead, hurtling towards me. Just when I’d made up my mind that I was about to be sandwiched between the two approaching vehicles, it swerved off the road and swung into the yard. I followed him in as the big truck swept by in a flurry of mud, grit and cow-shit, trumpeting its passage with a good long blast on the horn. The pick-up, meanwhile, had pulled up outside the barn.
“I’m heading for Winner,” I told the man as he opened the cab door. “Right,” he said, “ya want the oil road.” He turned to face north. “Follow this `bout two and a half miles and it’ll curve right. Ya’ll run right into it.” Yes, of course. And he was off into the barn, sliding the door closed behind him.
He was right: the road did curve, and it curved at exactly two and a half miles. I knew that because I was watching the trip-meter, like a hawk. Then I waited for the oil-road to appear. And waited, and waited. I came across another tumbledown farmhouse where a young boy was getting off a yellow school bus. “Which way is Winner?” I asked. He fixed his eyes on the car – or rather the Texas license-plate - then pointed up the road, and mumbled, “Look for the oil.”
Yes, I thought, but how do you recognise the bloody oil? I drew a deep breath and composed myself.
“What colour is it?”
“What colour is the surface?”
“The oil – what is it, black or…?”
“Yeah, that’s right. Oil.” Then he turned on his heel and headed for home.
The road now was like a causeway, threading its way between hay-meadows and patches of standing water. Drowned cottonwoods, skinned of their bark, bleached, leafless, stood magnificent against a clear sky. A bluebird flitted across my path. In the sunlight it was really quite picturesque, but the car continued to bump and lurch, and I continued to fret.
In the end I needn’t have worried. The farmer and the boy weren’t part of a northern conspiracy to confound Texans. They’d probably been trying to help me. I soon enough ran into the oil road. And, for the record, I was right: it was made of tar, even though it was a kind of pale raspberry colour rather than black. In no time at all I was making the long descent into Winner, the seat of Tripp County.