The Only Lira de Braccio in South Dakota

National Music MuseumI wasn’t sure what to do for most of South Dakota. All I knew of it was Wall Drug, the Badlands, and the Black Hills. While at least two of those things are well worth the trip, there’s a lot more area to cover when crossing South Dakota. I was worried about being stuck on I-90, watching the blood slowly drain from my veins as I mentally ticked off the mile markers. in Minneapolis I met a member of a tribe located in southern South Dakota, and he assured me that there was more to see if I knew where to look – especially if I got off the interstate. He told me I was better off on highway 18, which runs parallel to I-90 but near the state’s southern border. He also told me to check out the music museum.

StradavariVermillion, South Dakota is not a large town, and the University of South Dakota is not a large school. But tucked away in a smooth stone building on the south edge of the campus, you’ll find the National Music Museum. I walked up to the front counter on a Friday morning, ready to pay my admission fee. The woman said the museum was free on Fridays, and offered me an iPod with which to listen to the audio tour (also free). I took my museum map and iPod and thanked her. I walked into the first room, which was filled with old stringed instruments, including many rare pieces from Europe. And there was a Stradivarius. Like, a real Stradivarius. The kind that sell for millions of dollars. There were several, in fact. As I listened to the audio guide tell me about the most famous violin maker in all of human history, I looked up and around, trying to see if anyone else was as flabbergasted as me to find such a thing in this little corner of South Dakota.

PhysharmonikaAfter checking out the only Lira de Braccio in the Western Hemisphere, I moved onto the next room, which featured members from the most unusual branches of the piano family. There were large organs and tiny keyboards. A few of them were so adorable and compact I wanted to take them home with me. I learned the origin of the phrase “pull out all the stops.” It comes from the organ, which has a numbers of pegs known as stops that control the air moving through the pipes. You would get a very powerful sound if you were to pull out all the stops.

Glass ArmonicaUpstairs I saw horns with no keys, whose sounds were made by the player’s embouchure alone. I learned that the saxophone was, in fact, invented by Mr. Sax of Belgium. I even got to see a Glass Armonica, one of the many things invented by Benjamin Franklin. Inspired by the sound of a wet finger on the rim of a water glass, Franklin designed and built an instrument made of glass bowls, which the musician would play using a moist finger. There was even a tiny metal bowl built in to keep some water nearby.

As my time was running short, I only had a few minutes to check out the player piano, the Indonesian gamelan, and the original heart-shaped trumpet from St. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. On my way out I stopped to look through a few postcards and the woman at the counter handed me a stack of extras for free. The cards had black and white images of unusual music-related scenes, such as a baby inside of a tuba or Mr. Rogers holding a double bell cornet.

Sgt Pepper HornIt’s no secret that the world is filled with tiny surprises like these, and that you’re most likely to find them when you’re not looking. But most travel surprises are valued simply because of their oddity, their contrast to the expected. The National Music Museum certainly falls into that category, but it’s also an objectively interesting and valuable place. It’s a fascinating, well-curated collection of rare and valuable pieces. It’s cheap most days and occasionally free. It’s the kind of place many cities would love to feature as part of their downtown tourist area. But it’s not in a big city. It’s not even on the main road of the small town of Vermillion. The National Music Museum is the most impressive place I’ve ever found on such an unimpressive street. And it is a long way off of the interstate.


The Things You Miss When You’re On The Road: Part Two

About a month before I left on my trip I wrote a post listing the things I thought I would miss during my travels. Now that I’m back home, I thought it was time to review my predictions.

1. Bathrobes

There’s no question that I enjoy lounging about in a bathrobe for hours on end. I’m doing it right now as I write this. But I didn’t miss it on any conscious level. Since I was never sleeping in a stable or familiar place,  the idea of being especially comfortable or lazy never crossed my mind. Bathrobes aren’t just a means to comfort, they are a luxury of it.

2. Watching movies

I confess to watching a movie or two while on the road. I say confess because it seems a shame to spend time watching a movie, which will always be there, when one could be exploring a new and different place. What’s more, most of the time I was watching movies I’d already seen before. But I love the screen arts, and a person only has so much energy. Every once in a while I found myself in a place that didn’t particularly interest me, and curling up on a motel bed with a good movie seemed to be just what the doctor ordered.

3. Having a second monitor for my computer

I certainly missed this, though not for the reason I thought. I thought it would drive me bonkers to lose all that screen space and be forced into seeing only one application at a time. In fact the screen space didn’t bother me – my neck did. A laptop is so much smaller than a human. It asks the fingers and eyes to move their focus to the same point, and I often found myself closing up like a clam shell when sitting at my computer for too long. I had to keep remembering what one of my college professors once taught me: “The computer comes to you, you don’t have to go to it.”

4. Refrigerators

I certainly missed having regular access to dairy products, but for the most part my limited selection of food items didn’t bother me. When staying with people I usually enjoyed either a home cooked meal or dinner out. When left by myself in a city there was usually some special diner I’d been told to try. In light of all the restaurant food, simplicity in my personal meals was welcome. The truly problematic thing wasn’t the lack of a refrigerator, but the abundance of ovens. My car turned into one on a daily basis. This meant I was not only limited to items that didn’t need to be cold, but ones that could stand extreme heat. After failing with several different foods that would have been fine in my car in colder months, I found myself eating nothing but Top Ramen and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Even this might have been fine if it hadn’t been so impossible to find quality wheat bread. I’m spoiled living in Seattle. The mere presence of Whole Foods and PCC in your area means you’ll always find good bread at even the cheapest grocery stores. This isn’t the case everywhere.

5. A great range of clothing choices

I didn’t miss this, not even a little bit. It was nice to have so few options, and to know that I couldn’t make much of a bad decision considering I only had so many decisions available. I only had one pair of jeans and one pair of pants. I only had a handful of tops and a couple pairs of shorts. My shoe selection was based on utility alone. It was fantastic. It’s how I imagine life is for men.

6. Always being able to immediately wash sticky things off my hands

This was less of a problem than I anticipated. I am, in fact, quite good at not touchy sticky things to begin with.

7. Comfortable temperatures

I did not find summer in the Deep South to be especially uncomfortable. Perhaps it was because I’d spent so many years building it up as the worst thing in the world. Yes, it was hot and humid, but I expected it to be. There were a few times when things got a little sweaty, but it was nothing I hadn’t signed up for. I don’t remember ever being especially uncomfortable as a result of the temperature, save for a few times in the mountains when I got very cold.

8. Days that don’t require planning

I certainly did miss this. I suffered some serious planning fatigue over the course of my trip, especially in the second half. In the future I probably won’t plan solo ventures that last longer than two months, unless they involve a lot of sitting around on beaches or following someone else’s schedule. We take it for granted in our boring, every day lives, but there is serenity in waking up and knowing exactly what you are supposed to do.

9. Seattle rain

People thought I was mad. They asked me what I missed about home, and I told them I missed the rain. I worked so hard to make them understand, to be an ambassador for the Seattle Shower. They knew Seattle was a rainy city (it was always the first fact anyone could muster about the place), but they saw it strictly as a negative. That’s because rain in the rest of the country is awful. It’s unpredictable. It can arrive at a moment’s notice, and be gone minutes later. It’s hard and thick. You can get truly soaked in the rain after only a minute or two. In Seattle, you always know when the rain is coming, and it’s usually pretty light. It’s also refreshing. It’s interesting. It smells good. Seattle is well known for its rain, but it is a type of rain most people don’t even know exists: the good kind.

10. Familiarity

I missed the ease and routine that comes with familiarity, but I didn’t have a problem with unknown streets or unusual people. Besides, I had personal familiarity. I knew my car inside and out, where everything was and the condition all my items were in. I developed a certain amount of routine in my writing and posting. I suppose I found as much familiarity as I required.

When I first made this list, I speculated that the things I would miss the most would be things I wouldn’t even think of until I had to go without them. I didn’t realize how much I’d miss good wheat bread. I missed my bed – not for its comfort, but for the fact that I never had to find or create it. But on the whole, I didn’t miss much of anything. I worry that it sounds callous, like I have no appreciation for my home and the people and things that make it what it is. That’s not it. I suppose it’s because I knew I’d soon be back. I pushed my focus to the things that I had in the moment, and assumed everything I might wish to have would be back in my life again soon. The truly important things were waiting for me, and everything else turned out to be so much window dressing. It’s a good question to ask every once in a while:

What will you miss?