don't let the sound of your own wheels drive you crazy

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.

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