July 11, 2006
341 miles. Not much eventful today, and a lot of just driving. We made one important decision ... there is a campground for sale right outside of Custer SP, the Spokane Creek Resort, and we are going to buy it and live happily ever after. Come visit!
On our way out of the Black Hills, we stopped at Jewel Cave National Monument. You know the difference between a Nat’l Park and a Nat’l Monument? Nat’l Parks need to be sanctioned by an act of Congress, and any ol’ President can designate a Nat’l Monument. (Excepting, of course, our current President - he’s too busy destroying the environment to bother with preserving it. Ha ha ha. Cry cry cry.) Many Monuments are later promoted to Parks. We went on the “moderate-level” guided tour of Jewel Cave. It was really beautiful; it reminded us both separately of the Goonies cave. Definitely worth it, but we were both pretty ready to get under way and put some serious miles on the car.
So we did, and drove through Wyoming. We were going to stop at the Cheyenne, WY KOA, and we found it, but we did not stay there. It was almost the opposite of charming. It bordered some huge factory, was directly off the highway, and must have been near a cowshit processing plant. We’re not talking natural, fresh farm manure here. This smell bowled you over if you even cracked the car door. Shoogs vetoed it post haste, hurried back into the car, backed up to get the hell out of there, and hit a brick wall. Seriously. He actually knocked over the KOA decorative brick parking lot wall. I laughed my ass off while he got out and laid the bricks back together. I wanted to help, but it was too funny! Wiping tears from my eyes, we crossed the border and dragged on to Fort Collins, CO. Our luck held out once again, because we found a lovely campsite that bordered a large field of the most beautiful horses I have ever seen. They wandered around all evening, playing games with each other and galloping here and there. Thoroughly captivating as we sipped our post dinner whiskey. (We found out later that they were exotic, foreign-bred, famous show horses!)
I did some late night laundry and read my book while Shoogie went to bed early. I think he might be getting that cold.
July 12, 2006
240 miles. Yep. Shoogie’s sick. And, well ... he’s not the most patient sick guy. I mean, who is, right? But Shoogie. Oh Shoogie, Shoogie, Shoogie. I love him. That’s all I’ll say.
Another almost full driving day. We drove through CO today, and decided on the spur of the moment to stop where we’d be able to do a little white water rafting. I haven’t been for years, but I used to love it, and Shoogs has never gone. So we found a campground & resort, and signed up for a trip for tomorrow. I hope he’s feeling up to it, but they said we could get our deposit back, if not. He’s really feeling crappy today.
We got a campsite right on the Colorado River across from an immense cliff and some train tracks going along the base. Really nice site, and we were lucky (again) - it was really the only super cool site left; the place was really filling up. As we were setting up, it clouded over very quickly, and started to sprinkle just a bit. Shoogs walked up to the camp store to see about a tarp, and I started to unload. By the time he got back (sans tarp), the sprinkle had upgraded to a light rain. We hustled to get the tent up while the ground was dry, and good thing, too. Just as soon as we laid the tent down, the downpour started. And the lightning, and the thunder. We were soaked through instantly, and then just as quickly muddy from the knees down because of the sand & dirt we were kicking up. We finished erecting the tent (quickest time ever, probably), with no major water distress to the tent itself. It was a warm day, but a cold rain. Poor Shoogie was miserable. If you’re tenting, once you’re already wet, there’s no place to go. You might as well stay in the rain. But all sickie-pie wanted to do was relax, which was entirely impossible. So I worked a little magic, and produced the cure-all for this trip - a whiskey on the rocks. Refreshing!
So. We’re standing and sipping and generally getting soaked. The wind picks up a bit, and I’m watching the rain hit the river and turning my face up to the rain, and generally having a great time. And I don’t mean to be, but I can’t stop giggling at my poor sweetheart. It’s AWFUL, he’s SICK! But there’s something about his hunched shoulders and the way he’s holding his arms, and his dripping windbreaker, and his sad puppy dog expression as he takes sips of his whiskey that pushes me over the edge. I wander closer to the river, so he doesn’t see me laughing, which (rightfully so) would make him FURIOUS in his current state. Then I hear him say, “Oh shit.” I think he’s referring to my inappropriate laughter, so I turn to apologize. But he’s not even looking at me. I twist around to see what he’s looking at, and immediately see our tent spinning towards us. We hadn’t staked it down! I have a quick horrifying flash of us chasing the mother-effing tent all the way down the road through the campground, but it somersaults over the picnic table and smacks right into Shoogie. Even sick, Shoogie can withstand the power of an empty tent, so we’re saved! Except I totally, completely, 100% Lose. My. Shit. I can barely stand up. Jeez, it was funny. I’m laughing right now writing about it.
The rest of the evening is uneventful, and the sun comes out full force and dries everything. (Even my laughter-induced tears.) We spend the rest of the evening chillin’ and cooking and watching trains go by right across the river. Sometimes the engineers wave and blow the train whistle. Fucking cool.
July 11, 2006
July 10, 2006
110 miles. The air was wonderfully cool last night, and woke up refreshed and not sweating for the first time in a handful of days. We even slept in just a bit. Nice. And we took our time getting ready, so by the time we headed out, it was lunch. Hooray! We enjoyed a delicious lunch buffet at the Game Lodge, the former “Summer White House” of Coolidge. Then we hit the scenic road.
We’d gotten a tip from the rangers, and in mere moments we rounded a curve, and were surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of bison. It was truly amazing, and I shouldn’t even try to capture it here, because no words exist for the childlike, giddy, quiet, intense, joyful wonder I felt. (Okay, actually – I just came up with six words; but you know what I mean.) And the herds just kept going and going for, like, 2 miles. Astonishing to see these beautiful beasts up close. If I were allowed, I could have petted them from the car. It was slow-going, because they were everywhere, all over the road, and munching on grass and brushing their teeth. I was in heaven! We emerged from the bison herds, but the critters weren’t done with us yet. These magical animal encounters just kept up the whole day. Mule deer moms & babes. Antelope buddies out for an afternoon walkabout. White tail deer that couldn’t care less whether we were there or not. A whole extended family of big horn sheep nestled down in a copse of trees. We had to stop for an entire wild turkey family out for a stroll to cross the road right in front of us.
And then there were the burros, famous in the area (or infamous, I guess). A small group of burros had been brought to the area in the early 1900s by a tour company to carry folks to the top of some mountain lookout or other. Eventually the company closed up shop, but just left the burros there. So they’ve been in the park for about 100 years, hanging out, breeding, making families, having fun, and living pretty good lives, really. And whenever they see people, they come right up and nose their way right into your beeswax. I don’t know if it’s in a burro’s nature to be forward with humans, or if it’s a learned response, or what; but these suckers’ll stick their heads right into your car window - right into your face! - and beg for food. If you get out of the car, watch out! Because they’ll surround you with their cute begging eyes and their huge nosy noses. I LOVED IT! I was out of the car instantly, digging around for food that Shoogs and I weren’t going to eat. We served up some lettuce that had gone wilty, we sacrificed our carrots, we gave ‘em everything we didn’t suppose was unhealthy for them. And a dozen or two of them rewarded us with undivided attention ... until we ran out of food, and fresh tourists came along. It was pretty cool, but also the teeniest bit scary to be mobbed by creatures who outweigh you by that much. I got all girly and giggly when they would eat out of my hand.
We headed back to camp to indulge in a divine nap. It felt so decadent and good and pleasantly temperatured. Maybe the best nap of my life.
In the early evening, we took a gorgeous drive through the park highway up to a few viewpoints of Mt. Rushmore. And there are two short tunnels we go through that were purposefully designed by this one dude back in the 30s to allow a perfectly framed view of Rushmore. We’d thought we might catch it at sunset, but we mistimed it. No big deal, it was a great view, and stunning drive through a stunning park. It unfortunately came along with the WORST public restroom of the entire trip. I am not timid not overly sensitive to the vagaries of public facilities, but even I almost couldn’t stomach it. I tried twice, and both times decided my needs were just not that urgent. Then I came to terms with the fact that yes, in fact my needs might very well be that urgent, and I guess third times’ a charm. For the record, I am compelled to note that these bathrooms were outside the boundaries of Custer State Park, and they bear no responsibility for them. Thanks for listening.
And that’s as close as we came to Rushmore, a great view from a long distance. Shoogs had been there before. I hadn’t, but felt no compelling need to go. What more could I have seen from up close?
That night was a full moon, huge and low in the sky, and a heartbreaking shade of light orange.
Thank you, Mr. Florida; sweet dreams, critter-guy.
July 9, 2006
194 miles. There was a major windstorm all night, and I barely got any sleep. It was crazy and incredibly disconcerting. Shoogs (of course) slept like a baby on valium. I guess it stressed me out - I kept looking out the tent window to make sure nothing was blowing away. Which is an overreaction, to be sure, but the middle of the night in the middle of a prairie brings strange thoughts to your head. After tossing and turning all night, another all-you-can-eat brekkie swept my cares and weariness away. It’s actually a bit amazing how quickly humans can adopt a regular routine. After 3 days, it was as if we’d never eaten breakfast anywhere else. I’ll miss that little place. Lovely folks, and damn good pancakes.
We headed to Wind Cave National Park in the Black Hills of South Dakota, where we had already reserved space on a 4-hour spelunking cave tour. We were so excited; I mean, it’s like a childhood fantasy to go cave exploring. Not that we were allowed to go off on our own or anything, but it’s just incredible to think of the possibilities. Wind Cave is the 7th (or 8th, depending on reckonings) longest cave in the world, with approx. 103.5 miles of cave mapped. It was discovered in 1881. (Well, discovered by white men who bothered to tell anyone; likely discovered and cursorily explored by Lakota many years prior.) The story goes that Jesse Bingham discovered the cave while deer hunting, and the air rushing from the cave blew the hat right off his head. Several days later, he brought some friends with him to show them the phenomenon, but the air pressure was such that day that the hat was sucked into the cave and lost forever.
We met our tour guide, a caver-nerd-girl named Ajax. She was nerd-cool, with a few isolated moments that bordered on geek-awkward. Along with us on our tour was a lovely Brit couple, about our age, and then a single young man named Patrick. Patrick had just recently graduated from college and was headed to law school in the fall. He was on summer vacation with his folks. Patrick was pure undiluted geek-awkward through and through.
The experience was pretty unforgettable. We suited up in full gear - gloves, helmet lantern, the whole deal. And then we literally crawled, shimmied, climbed and slid around for about 4 hours. It was TOUGH. Very very fun, but far more challenging than either Shoogs or I expected. And dirty! But beautiful, and dark, and exciting. Unlike anything I’ve ever done. Really damn cool.
The one thing it wasn’t was quiet ... the one blemish on the experience was that Geek Boy would NOT SHUT UP. That kid was a stream-of-consciousness thinker in the extreme, and did not keep one fucking thing to himself. We did not get more than a few seconds at a time to listen to the impossible silence that exists under the earth buried in rock. Impossible silence is damn right! Poor kid, it was like he couldn’t help it. You’re supposed to kind of stay on each other’s asses, so you can see where they step or put their knee or bend down or whatever, but I confess we let Ajax and Patrick get as far ahead of us as we could. Well, at least we and the Brits bonded instantly. We tried so hard to be good, but there were times that we just look at each other and burst into giggles. It actually hurt your brain to believe that he could STILL BE TALKING. In some ways it was just as impressive as the cave, but far more annoying. At the end of 4 hours, we were all pretty beat, and Geek Boy’s patter had slowed down from overwhelming to merely frequent. We emerged into the sunlight, bid our goodbyes, and moved on (slowly - I was already a bit sore) to Taco John’s for dinner.
We decided to head to Custer State Park and camp there for the night after all, despite our earlier (ignorant) derision. We’d heard from 3 other people besides Mr. Florida that it was a no-miss situation. Who are we to argue? So we traveled a relatively short distance and got extremely lucky. We got the last campsite at in the entire park, at Stockade Lake South. Do you know of this idea of campground hosts? I’m not sure what all they do or how they’re compensated, but these folks are basically the building manager of the campground. Our campground host was Joanne, a lovely retired lady who lives in her RV with her husband. They own no permanent residence anymore, and they travel around the country, hosting. They host at this very campground basically every May to October each year. Seems like a really fucking cool job to me.
Driving in, we saw more wildlife than we’ve seen the whole trip. Mule deer, whitetail deer, antelope, sheep. And we hear rumors that the bison herds are hanging out right along the scenic drive. We’ll have to see tomorrow; I can’t wait! Even before we hit the showers that night, we’d already decided to stay here at least another day. As we were setting up, we met a young couple camped next to us, Kyle & Sam. They lived in Pennsylvania and were taking the summer after college graduation (sigh) to travel all over. Cool kids, and very active. Made me feel old.
But then I took what may be the best shower of my entire life (remember it had been 4, maybe 5, days) and I felt young again.
July 8, 2006
Day 8. 91 miles.
So I started to tell you about Mr. Florida who gave us his leftover cooler detritus last night. He was adorable and hilarious, and the type of guy you’d want to talk to at every party ... for about 10 minutes before he wore you out, and then you’d have to fake a nosebleed to get away. He had some very interesting things to say. Which is good, since he had no apparent interest in our stories. He’s a self-proclaimed “critter guy.” Loves the critters, and he and his 11-y.o. son seek them critters out. “Have y’all been to Custer State Park?” he asks. “Naw,” we respond with vague un-enthusiasm, as we give each other ‘that look.’ (We don’t care about STATE PARKS. STATE PARKS are lame. How great can it be if our fine institution of a Wash, DC govt. hasn’t seen fit to endorse it?) Well, he goes on and on about it. “Pronghorn sheep coming out your ears!” “You can see bison brushing their teeth!” So we thanked him, assured him that we’ll check it out, and then faked a nosebleed and left with, like, 83 extra hotdogs from his cooler.
So this morning, we’re a bit ... well, delicate from the previous night. Shoogs is already up, walking it off. And as I’m rolling over for the last time, on the way to deciding to poke my bleary head out of the tent, I hear someone run by and have a brief conversation with Shoogie. “Hey!” “Hey – how’s it going?” “Good! See ya – have a great trip!” Turns out that Mr. Florida is a jogger. Of course he is – his wife probably makes him do it to burn off excess energy. So we chuckle about that (gently, because our heads hurt) and go for another all-you-can-eat pancake brekkie. We’re regulars now, so we’re like family. And fuck hair-o’-the-dog -- nothing cures hangovers like hot sweet breadlike items smothered in sugary liquid.
When we get back to camp, we find a bag of food on our picnic table. Mr. Florida, on the way to the airport with his family to fly home, has taken the time to drive out of the way to our campsite to give us the rest of his unused cooler stuff. Who cares we didn’t need it? I thought it was the sweetest thing. People are (charmingly) nuts.
Then we saddled up and hit the trail. Literally. I love horses. They are beautiful creatures, and although I grew up in horse country in Virginia, I’ve not spent much time getting to know them or about them. But I am a sucker for a trail ride. A charming older cowboy gentleman named Sam Newman hooked us up, and told us tall tales while we waited. He was a talker in a completely different way than Mr. Florida. A cowboy-talker; constant but gentle and with plenty of pauses for either response or reflection - whatever we the listeners reckoned we felt like. (We found out the next morning from the purveyor of pancakes & velvet jesuses that Sam Newman did not speak a lick until he was eight years old. They grew up together.) Our trail boss (*giggle*) was an incredibly handsome young man named Dustin. Hellooooooooo, cowpoke! We were accompanied by a perfectly Iowan family from Iowa, and the trail dog Canyon. My pretty girl was named Sage, and Mark’s big boy was named Mason. (That sounds dirty, but it’s not.) Mason and Sage were (of course) best friends (if only in my mind), and trotted along happily side-by-side as Mark and I lasciviously ogled the gorgeosity that is the Badlands.
We tried to kick it back at camp during the hot part of the day (104 today), but there was no relief at all in the form of shade or breeze. So we gave up, hopped in an air-conditioned Myrtle (our newly named workhorse of an awesome car) and headed to Prairie Dog Town. Man! Those suckers are EVERYWHERE. It was pretty cool – must have been hundreds or thousands of them. Total cutie-pies and they know it, too! We saw a few bison, too, but only from too far away to appreciate them. Have I said that I am bison-crazy? I am.
We stopped at almost all the overlooks, wading through waves of heat back to the car when we needed a fresher-upper. A beautiful pronghorn sheep that looked like a stately old man passed by our car almost where we could touch him (if we had wanted to roll down the windows, which we didn’t because we would have instantly melted). And then it happened. At a perfectly inconspicuous overlook. Okay – ants, right? RED ants. Got that? FLYING red ants. Now try this: SWARMING flying red ants covering Shoogie’s hat and shirt within seconds of haplessly crossing their own ant-y Burning Man. It was totally freaky, but anti-climactically ultimately benign. Although we did get to make a report to an official investigative Park Ranger, which made us feel very important indeed. The Summer Ant Storm of 2006.
As it cooled off - well, let me amend. When it was supposed to have been cooling down, but actually wasn’t, we hiked the Saddle Pass Trail. It was a steep full-on climb, basically. We’d climbed an enormously steep way to the top ... to reach another plateau. Sigh. (Which cracked me up when I could breathe again, 'cause from the front it totally looked liked we were climbing a *real mountain*). But we were able to look down across the whole beautiful and far-away valley below us, and the oft-neglected but magnificent prairie at our backs. It would have been perfect if my eyes hadn’t been trying to hide in my skull due to the impossible bright early evening sun.
We got back home to witness the treat of Guitar Guy strolling all over the campground and through the bordering prairie. You know that guy, right? ...Just taking it all in, man. Wandering, strumming, singing to myself, experiencing nature. This is IT, man... Adorable in the Badlands; annoying at Gas Works Park - what can I say? (Turns out that Guitar Guy was also Early Morning Yoga/Pilates Guy.)
And then we partook in an all-you-can-eat Cowboy Cookout at the same place we eat pancakes; also delicious. And those folks are now the godparents of our children.
Tomorrow: Spelunking in Wind Cave! Also, I take back everything I said about Mr. Florida - we meet the talker to end all talkers.