Our happy-go-lucky band of intrepid travelers was a contingent of University South Carolina-affiliated people crammed into a tour bus and bound for a coast-to-coast adventure that included stops at a whole bunch of national parks. I was the “step-on” guy and my wife Sandy was along for the ride. We were both comped, which is the only way we would have gotten on that bus.
Because long days were the norm, we had two drivers taking turns at the wheel. Mid afternoon found us headed west in South Dakota, hell bent for leather. James was at the wheel. James was a full time long haul trucker, and this tour bus driving stint was something of a lark for him. James did not like to drive slowly. (He didn’t like to take the cigarette out of his mouth when he filled the tank, either.) James had a very heavy foot, and on at least one occasion, he stuck it out the window to cool it off.
Having chatted him up along the way, I knew that James carried driver’s licenses from at least five different states. (If you need to ask why, you don’t know a damn thing about long haul truckers, traffic courts, and insurance companies.) This day I was to gain firsthand experience in the practicality of that tactic.
It had been a long, long day on the road, and we needed to reach Wall, South Dakota, by dusk if we were to stay on schedule for our planned visit to Mount Rushmore National Memorial the next morning. I was standing up front next to James, since one of my self-appointed tasks was to make sure the driver stayed awake. I saw James consult his watch, and then I think I saw him frown, and then he said something under his breath. Did he really mutter “I wonder how fast this sonofabitch will go”?
Then an extraordinary thing happened. This was nearly 25 years ago, but I remember it like it was yesterday.
The bus started down a long, long grade that was shallow at the top and got steeper and steeper as we approached a north-south trending stream valley. James had floored the accelerator at the top of the grade. The bus, which was already doing 80 at the top of the grade, gathered speed at an impressive rate. It was still picking up speed when the highway patrolman made his presence known. I had glanced over at the speedometer about halfway down the grade. It was pegged out, all the way to the right. James was moving that bus into uncharted territory.
The trooper who pulled the bus over told James that he had clocked us at 91 on his radar. Later, James told us that the trooper’s radar needed calibration, because that bus was doing at least 95. He ought to know, he said, because he knew what 95 looked like and had seen it often.
I asked James which driver’s license he had shown the trooper. He said he couldn’t remember.
The rest of the day passed uneventfully. Before nightfall I had eaten my first buffaloburger at Wall Drug and purchased a cowboy hat that I still wear on special occasions. We toured Mount Rushmore on schedule the next morning and were ensconced at Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone National Park by the end of the next day. With James at the wheel we would never be late.
Postscript: A "step-on" guy is a guide who gets on the bus as you enter a tourist area, narrates as you tour the area, and then gets off before you depart. The difference here is that I accompanied the tour group for 14 days.