Yesterday, Sara and I arrived back after a 3 and a half day road trip through some of the central plains of the United States. When I say some, I mean only some. The landscapes we saw were immense, spanning for what seemed forever towards the horizon and beyond. They go even further. This trip, on which we had some rough camping experiences because of weather, gave me a glimpse into a new world I had only read about or heard about and now know is something I want to know more about.
Our trip started late afternoon on Monday after Sara got off work and finished a few things for school. We packed up our rental car with more than we needed, as any good inexperienced campers, and headed north from Laramie into the golden grassed landscapes of Wyoming. Soon we veered east meandering through some seriously scraggly mountains. Small mountains, but mountains that as a pioneer or settler, would have thought more than twice about passing through. The weather was already menacing. Dark, fast-moving clouds and flashes of lighting were visible in the distance and in about half an hour we were in the middle of a high plains spring thunderstorm.
This first leg of the drive was by far the most adventurous. Sara is not an experienced navigator (although now has graduated with her scout badge) and combined with my virgin awed eyes scanning the new sights, we missed several of our turns and added a couple of hours to our journey. After almost running out of gas in the tank, and having no idea where we were in the dark, a town magically appeared as the highway dipped into a hidden valley – it was Newcastle Wyoming. We filled up with gas and pizza hut, got a warning from out nice waitress about the drive to Custer, South Dakota. She said watch out for the deer – as if I have never heard that before. Well she wasn’t joking… we must have counted over a hundred deer in a 35 mile windy road. Finally we had made it to Custer state park in South Dakota and our campsite called Elk Mountain.
Elk Mountain Campground, South Dakota.
The wind was unforgiving, we struggled a bit to set up the tent, luckily it is a very easy tent to set up (REI Camp Dome 2). After only 20 minutes in the tent and literally just about to fall asleep, the wind picked up and we saw lighting in the distance. We hesitated but then decided that it was best to sleep in the car that night. I’ve never seen a tent packed up so quickly.
The next morning we started early to take advantage of the beautiful weather that had moved in after the storm. Driving out of our campsite, literally still in out sleeping bags, we saw our first Bison (Buffalo).
Bison near Elk Mountain Campground, South Dakota.
Maybe one of the most impressive creatures I have ever seen, huge, unmatched in strength with any domesticated relative. It was shedding its winter fur giving it an even more intimidating look. I felt a great sense of respect for this animal. I could feel its presence and it felt good.
Not long after this, driving through Custer State Park, we began to see that Bison were not a rare sight. We came across dozens, and other wildlife as well, including, mule deer, white-tailed deer, vast colonies of prairie dogs yapping as we passed, mountain goats, pronghorn antelope, birds and eagles.
Our target for the next camp site was in the Badlands, so we took off for a drive to see the Black Hills, sacred ground of the Lakota Tribes. I was immediately struck with the epic beauty of these mountains, literally jutted out from the plains all around it, providing a rich forest full of life, water, and what was the source of so much conflict for the indigenous people of this region, gold. We had to pass by Mount Rushmore, as it is a famous site – regardless of this, we couldn’t help but be disgusted by this scar of imperialistic arrogance on a beautiful place. Reading about it, we did discover that it may not have been commissioned by the government in particular and only an artistic statement by a talented artist – indeed it is an impressive and beautiful piece of art. Regardless of this fact, the fact of the matter is, that this land once belonged to itself, to its own majestic grandeur and was recognized and worshiped by a people who truly understood their place sharing the land with the rest of the fragile life within it. And to have the faces of those who literally removed this livelihood from a great nation of people looking down on it is insulting. The rock face that existed naturally was far more grand than those portraits will ever be. Called a monument to democracy, I say it is a monument of conditional democracy. So long as you agree to our new way of life, you will belong to our democracy – if you do not, you will not belong. Enough of that.
After having lunch in Rapid City, a very western vibe town at the base of the black hills, we drove east to the badlands. I can’t describe well enough how it felt to first get a view over the cliffs of the plains that dropped sharply into the vast expanse of the badlands. Similar to the Atacama desert in northern Chile, these element shaped pinnacles and valleys held strong colour of reds and oranges in lines that defined eras of ancient time. The badlands have held some of the highest concentration of archeological discoveries in the US and its easy to see why.
Our second campsite was on the western edge of the Badlands park, Sage Creek. We shared it with a group of Bison of course. This spot was idyllic, like an african safari with less wildlife. With less wind and clear skies this was our most restful nights of the three.
The next morning we started early again and drove through the badlands national park and south into the Pine Ridge Indian Reserve. I want to go back someday, as this drive though made me drawn to it. The native people of this continent, and of South America interest me deeply and I wish to learn more about them, but that’s for another blog post.
Eventually we passed into Nebraska, and around the National Forest in the north-western corner of Nebraska. After checking out a few campgrounds that we weren’t satisfied with, we got lost on a forest road when we came across a US forest service worker and asked for directions. Very nice man, like a modern-day Davy Crockett, gave us directions to a campground on the outskirts of the forest and about 45 minutes later we arrived. This campsite was amazing. Nestled in this wide valley, surrounded by little pinnacles of rock and looking down into farmland, this former farm estate, now turned Forest Service campground was a perfect spot for our last night. Until the rain came. After a short walk around the surrounding area, setting up our tent and cooking dinner, the rain started and we decided to get settled into our tent early.
Our campsite in the distance near the Nebraska National Forest.
The rain was relentless, and didn’t stop. Ever. Not even once we had left in the morning. Packing up our stuff in the early morning was interesting to say the least. After the 15 minutes of rushing around trying not to get as wet as possible, and nearly getting frost bite on our hands, we drove out of there and headed home.
View from our campsite.
The trip was epic no doubt, a bit slow due to weather but none the less we got to see a part of this country that I never thought I would.
Sunset on the western edge of the South Dakota Badlands.