We woke up the morning of Thursday, September 11, with snow falling around us. We were in Spearfish, South Dakota, just north of the Black Hills. There were still ten days of summer remaining, but snow lightly dropped over the Black Hills, creating a beautiful winter landscape that none of us expected. Our plans were loose for the day, we knew as much as Mt. Rushmore, and possibly some combination of the Crazy Horse Memorial, Badlands National Park, and the Jewel Cave near the town of Custer. Most of us took it upon ourselves to get a local’s opinion as to what was best to see as we made our way through the Black Hills south towards Mt Rushmore… and eventually Colorado. In almost every case, each person heard that Spearfish Canyon was a must. Having a mostly fluid plan, we took the advice.
Carved by Spearfish Creek, the canyon weaves its way deep into the Black Hills. The turns were sometimes blind and visibility was limited by snowfall and sleet, but it did little to take away from the natural beauty of the canyon and its twisted drive. We stopped frequently for snowball fights- at least five to my count- as most of us weren’t used to a September snowfall. Because of the weather we weren’t afforded any early views of Mt. Rushmore, not seeing the faces until we were walking uo the main path towards the mountain. It seemed very fitting that we visited Mt. Rushmore on September 11, but there were few other tourists there, as the snow must have scared a great deal of them away. Not only did we make the trip, but we decided to celebrate with a patriotic shirtless photo that two of the park rangers thought was hilarious.
Maybe two more snowball fights and a thirty minute drive late we made it to the Crazy Horse Memorial a little further south. We had at this point in the day decided it would be our last stop, as we would make the drive on to Fort Collins for the night. The Crazy Horse Memorial was something of a wild card; I had suggested it, saying that if we were in the area we might as well do it. No one else in our group had any prior knowledge of it and most just went along with the idea. I was not aware of the tourist constraints that were placed on seeing the memorial. Far from finished- in fact on its own grand scale closer to the beginning- it was less impressive than I had hoped, even in regard to Crazy Horse’s gargantuan 90ft head. We were not permitted access within 1000ft of the monument, and with the snow falling around as and making any view from a considerable distance no more than a haze, I would have to say the monument was a disappointment, once we finished we packed in and headed south. The drive to Fort Collins was in a near blizzard, visibility sometimes below 100ft. Arriving just before midnight, a handful of us went out to catch a quick glimpse of the Fort Collins night life while the others slept.
The next morning we collected ourselves- having spent the night at two different friends of Amanda’s to help split up the ten of us- and grabbed breakfast in downtown Fort Collins, a few blocks away from the Colorado State University Campus. I elected not to join. I’d become pretty overwhelmed with the constant companionship and was in need of alone time any way I could find it. When everyone else drove to the restaurant, I walked, about two miles from the apartment I’d spent the night before. I checked my phone- my maps actually- to see if there was anywhere I could find a music store nearby to sit and play piano, always my best way of de- stressing, and the closest thing to personal meditation that I’ve yet found. No luck, so instead I wandered around Fort Collins, aimlessly window shopping and enjoying the fleeting concentration of passing a new storefront every twenty seconds. I passed by a large storefront without any lights, but as I focused my eyes I realized it was empty inside except for three or four beautifully painted upright pianos. Painted abstractly or anyway the artist saw fit. One was painted as if there was a bustling speakeasy listening to the player. Another as if all the wood paneling had been removed, exposing the hammers and wires, all of the guts of the piano. I stared at them through the darkness for a minute, feeling a little tortured by the fact that the building was obviously closed. I walked past the main facade to where the entrance of the building was, and one more final piano was sitting and waiting. This one outside, waiting to be played. I played away for an hour, people sometimes stopping to listen and compliment, maybe just smile as they went by. It was just what I needed, playing long enough to lose myself in it and keep my fingers warm on a cold morning.
And then my phone buzzed, a call from Amanda. I told her I could barely talk, as my phone was about to die.
“Check your email” she said immediately. I asked why. She just repeated herself. I stopped playing and tried to go online, and my phone shut off. I knew the restaurant where everyone was having breakfast was only a block away so I hopped off the piano and ran over. Emerson was sitting outside with his feet up on a stool. He was dejected, and I asked to borrow his phone. As I read the email, it was clearly obvious the news that we had all expected within a week of coming back to America had come true, and in the worst case scenario that we had imagined. We were not going back to Sierra Leone. Peace Corps had little faith in the west African nation’s ability to contain the constantly growing Ebola outbreak, and as a result the post was being shut down for a year. And we were not given the option of transferring countries, as Peace Corps had been forced to deal with several other country evacuations over the year and their were too few places to go around. In just a few weeks we were scheduled to be given our close of service, and officially end our Peace Corps service before it had truly begun. Some people broke down in tears, some declared they were finished with Peace Corps, and some of us stared at walls. I stayed around long enough to make sure everyone was alright, grabbed a coffee to go, and went back to the piano. We had been made refugees within our own country, and were forced to start over.
The news put a damper on everyone’s day, and it wasn’t until the evening after, when we had a barbecue and dinner in Larkspur with Amanda’s parents that I noticed people’s spirits rising again. Although the news was inevitable, and as much as we chose not to admit it to each other, the announcement was still like a brick wall obstructing any future progress. The road trip was built on the idea that we were taking advantage of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to pack a van full of good friends and see America. I was worried for a day after the email that the idea was going to shift towards escapism of our new realities, and in so being, that people would quickly look for ways out and bail.
But we did rebound from the announcement, and having picked up two more people, Mason from Utah and Allayna from Rochester, New York (but visiting friends in Denver), we headed east towards Chicago. For the first time during the road trip, we had a full van of ten people, and we were now just two days away from Chicago.