Kyle and I are in Interior, South Dakota, just outside Badlands National Park. The town has 94 residents (according to the 2010 U.S. Census) and two bars (according to our own). We’re in the second drinking establishment of the evening, The Horseshoe, having found bar #1, The Wagon Wheel, to be the blandest bar in the United States, manned solely by its owner, who was drinking coffee and watching Armageddon. Here at The Horseshoe, though, we’re surrounded by pool-playing cattlemen, a drunk with a brass-knuckle knife sticking out of his jeans, a woman from the Urals whose biggest dream is to get a Marilyn Monroe piercing in Rapid City, and our aforementioned mysterious buffalo-icing beer-slinger who, before we can ask him what the hell he’s talking about, is out the door — taking two buckets of ice with him.
I turn to Kyle, empty bottle in hand. He rips a hunk off his recently purchased pickled turkey gizzard and shrugs. “You’re the journalist,” he says. “Go take a look.”
Outside The Horseshoe is a ’68 Chevy, its sky blue paint giving way to rust. Splayed in the back is the only buffalo I will see on the entire trip. The behemoth is half-hidden under a green tarp, on top of which two men are dumping buckets of ice. Its head hangs over the bed of the truck at an unnatural angle, eyes wide and staring at the starry sky.
Kyle comes up behind me. “Until this moment,” he says, “this trip was like Stand By Me, but without the dead body.”
“We aren’t pulling over for anything but gas.”
After escaping Sturgis — with a brief pause to take in the American majesty of Mount Rushmore and the colossal disappointment that is Wall Drug (fuck Wall Drug) — we gunned east through the Black Hills’ Ponderosa pines. It would be an eight-hour haul, but there was hope of making it to Omaha before the day was out.
But road trips are no place for plans. There they were: the Badlands, a city of sand cathedrals in the middle of the Midwestern grasslands. Without a word we rip the Ranger off the interstate into the setting sun as it cuts across the towers of exposed sediment.
We scramble around the jagged rocks until the sun disappears, and then, finding ourselves on the far edge of the park, the main road nothing but a string of lights in the distance, we decide to call it a night in the small plains town of Interior.
In Interior, the following words are cut into a giant beat-to-shit hunk of shapeless driftwood: “INTERIOR: I was born of wagons west. The oldest town in the Badlands. I’ve known drought and winter’s fierce storms. Three times fire has swept my streets […] This is a land that bred great Indian Chiefs and mighty warriors—Now it is a land of Neighbors. WELCOME-TRAVELER.”
“Jesus,” Kyle mutters, “it’s like the beginning of a horror film. ‘A land of neighbors’… where they never let you leave.”
“I’ll just be happy if we keep out of that,” I reply, pointing at the dilapidated one-room building behind us simply marked “City Jail.”
* * *
And so far we have. We’ve fired a ridiculously large revolver in a shooting range twenty-five feet underground, we’ve called a bar full of bikers at The Knuckle Saloon gay, we’ve been cased by cops while devouring staggering amounts of Taco Bell, but by and large we’ve stayed out of trouble.
The thing about driving long distances is, even if you have an amazing hour-long conversation with the other person in the vehicle, there are still so many more hours. It’s easy to romanticize being on the road. Seeing America. The freedom. The sense of being in a place you’ve never been before, your body occupying a space it’s never before filled, exploring a country that felt so big until you actually saw it, until it became real, until the postcards were photographs with Kyle’s travel-worn face as the fifth head on Mount Rushmore.
Driving into Omaha we’re overtaken by the smell of shit that hovers over the city, emanating from the numerous feedlots and meat factories.
Kyle turns to me and deadpans, “Did I just eat out a homeless woman?”
The Slowdown is a very hip venue, sandwiched between an American Apparel and an Urban Outfitters. Kyle’s opening for an old friend Howard Kremer (of Have a Summah fame), and before the show the two of them catch up outside, talking inside baseball about who’s making it big, who’s off the meds, and who’s signing contracts with Comedy Central. Right before the show starts Kremer squints at Kyle and says, “Wait, I’m opening for you, right?”
I’ve seen five Kyle Kinane shows in a week, but Kyle absolutely kills. After the show, Howard says to me, “There are certain comics who make you forget you do comedy when you’re watching them. That’s Kyle. A lot of funny shit happens to that guy.”
The crowd drains out, leaving me and Howard and Kyle the dregs of the bar. The two of them get mired in an argument about ghosts that, while humorous, is somehow surprisingly serious as well — never have I wished more for a tape recorder.
“I’m not talking about floating white sheets saying ‘boo,’” Kyle insists. The booze lends his conviction a sense of urgency. Just as we start to question a local about the nearest cemetery, the bartender cuts in, “All right guys, last call. Drink ‘em up and get out.” He had the right idea. The next day Howard has to fly to Austin and we have to drive all the way to Sioux Falls for Kyle’s final show. There’s no time for ghosts.
* * *
The Orpheum Theater in downtown Sioux Falls opened its doors on October 2, 1913. It’s a large venue with a tall, frescoed ceiling and six hundred seats, the majority of which, when we walk in minutes before Kyle’s show is supposed to start, are empty.
“To be expected,” Kyle says with a shrug. We’re both tired. After the slog of the road, the never-ending Budweiser-mixed-with-fast-food hangovers, the claustrophobic sleep of the fitful and bloated, the tour feels like it’s already over. After Omaha we turned the Ranger around, and according to Kyle’s iPhone’s GPS, we’re already headed for home.
But before he even takes the stage, the applause fills the hall. He mixes his set up, peppering it with musings on South Dakota and stories from our harrowing days in Sturgis and our push across the country. It’s fascinating to watch him turn such recent events from our trip into well-honed bits. The crowd eats it up: I’ve seen a lot of audiences relish his talent, but these Friday night Sioux Falls spectators really came to laugh, and Kyle performs like the Orpheum is packed to the rafters.
When he ends, everyone in the theater, for the first time this entire tour, gets on their feet. The applause is thunderous and it swells until it fills the empty balconies, reaching me where I slouch in the back of the theater. I set my beer down on the empty seat next to me and stand up and join them.
* * *
With the last show behind us the tour is truly finished. Blown-out tires from big rigs litter I-80 like hunks of rubber road kill. Irrigation equipment hulks in field after field, steel dinosaur skeletons bleeding water on the thirsty August crops.
Kyle has his hand out the window, as he almost always does. We drive in silence through miles of blue skies until suddenly, as we cross into Colorado, a giant lightning storm comes up behind us and chases us west, into the Rocky Mountains, toward the Pacific. Toward home.
Isaac Fitzgerald has been a firefighter, worked on a boat, and been given a sword by a king, thereby accomplishing three out of five of his childhood goals by the age of 25. He has also written for AlterNet, The Bold Italic, McSweeney’s, the San Francisco Chronicle, and Mother Jones. He is the managing editor of The Rumpus. Follow him on Twitter.