(Author’s Note: I got back to civilization, and civilization quickly conspired to keep me from finishing up the trip blog. Fortunately only one blogpost, this one, went unpublished. Here it is! Road trip postscript!)
In my book, only rednecks and UFO abductees are supposed to wake up in cornfields outside Emporia, Kansas. But there I was. I had done that thing where I, ya know, don’t brush my teeth the night before. Between the latte, the bacon burger, the truffle fries, the Guinness, and the gummi bears from the night before, my mouth tasted like death in a bad mood.
After remedying that situation, I headed back south on I-35, realizing glumly that this would be my entire road home. (Part of the appeal of taking 183 the whole way down was bypassing I-35 completely.) Before long I was in Wichita, and retracing the route that I’d taken north to get into the wilderness. …
I’d driven the windy road from Wall to the Badlands campground in absolute darkness the previous night, with no idea what was around me. Turns out, a lot.
I leisurely (leisurelily?) backtracked through the park as the rising sun colored the landscape a beautiful orange. There were almost a dozen scenic turnouts, giving different perspectives on the alien landscape.
It’s difficult to describe (or ya know, understand) the appeal of Wall Drug in Wall, SD. It’s like the Paris Hilton of drug stores: famous mostly because it’s famous, and because it LOVES LOVES LOVES promoting itself. As I drove into the town of Wall from the south—not even along the Interstate, mind you—there were SEVEN different billboards for it within a quarter-mile on both sides of the road.
The business occupies an entire square city block, and not a small one. There’s every possible item of kitschery for sale, and a few impossible ones.
There’s a long, long wall of magazine clippings that mention Wall Drug. At one end of the row, animatronic raccoons in pith helmets sing songs while kids pan for gold. At the other end, a giant animatronic T. Rex springs to life every 12 minutes and tries to eat you.
“This monument has never accepted any government funding, and it never will,” says the woman on the screen. “He [the sculptor, Korczak Ziolkowski] believed in individual initiative and private enterprise,” she lectures. “He didn’t believe in waiting for a handout”—here she pointedly extends her palm—”from the government.”
And I thought I was here to learn about a statue.
But then the Crazy Horse Memorial, a dozen miles away from Mount Rushmore in the Black Hills, is kind of nutty in general. They’ve been blasting at the side of a mountain here since 1948. To call it the largest statue in the world doesn’t really get the point across. It’s going to be 563 feet high and 641 feet long, big enough that all of Mount Rushmore could fit inside Crazy Horse’s head. The horse’s head is 22 stories tall. The gap under Crazy Horse’s arm will hold a 10-story building. And so on.
Then there’s the Fox News angle that the introductory video took. …
I lazed in bed for an hour after waking, writing blog and churning through pictures while College Gameday played on ESPN. At 9:30 I had an omelet at the breakfast buffet downstairs (included with my room, WOOT) and then embarrassed myself by filling an entire luggage cart with the stuff I’d brought up from the car. It looked like I’d been living there for months. There was even a ROCK on the cart. Just sitting by itself. A rock. Am I a fucking caveman?
Before leaving town I went to the Lewis & Clark museum. See, Great Falls is named after a series of five waterfalls in quick succession on the Missouri River*, which Lewis & Clark were misfortunate enough to run into as they paddled west. So they took 31 days—that’s a month—to portage their canoes and all their gear around the falls, across prairie covered in prickly-pear cactus, wearing moccasins. In honor of their miserable freaking time, or something, Great Falls now houses a 5,000-square-foot exhibit that basically tells me to STFU about how difficult my backpacking trip was.
Also, apparently trees just sit on top of the water here.
About 1 in the morning, it started to drizzle. You’d have thought the Vicodin would make me groggier than a drunken hibernating bear, but with a pit-crew efficiency that impressed me greatly, I leapt out of the tent and threw the rain-fly over the tent, stowing my shoes under the cover, and jumped back in my sleeping bag. Still got it!
By the morning, my feet (surprisingly comfortable this whole time) finally caught up to the rest of my body in soreness. Other, brand-new parts began to ache as well: right thigh, left pinky. By mid-day my body was a cacophonous symphony of ouch.
Despite all the physical effort, I seem to be rather untalented at sleeping while in the wilderness. From about 2:30 til 3:30 AM, I was wide awake and reading a book on my iPhone. (No, I didn’t have a cell signal.) At some point I stepped out of the tent to answer nature’s call and was struck by the moonlight bouncing off the trees and the Wall above me, rendering everything a ghostly white.
Fear of the dark is not something I normally deal with, but it hit me a few times while here, miles from any help. The Blair Witch Project is the scariest movie I’ve ever seen, and so I made tremendous efforts not to think of it as I lay in my tent, which inevitably turned into a game of “Don’t Think of an Elephant.” That part where they hear the baby’s cry—GAH SHUT UP THINK OF HAPPY PUPPIES Still, all I heard in the woods that second night was the rushing wind through the trees. When I finally slept, I dreamed there was a carnival of tourists there with me at the Wall. When I woke, of course, it was quite the opposite.
I was up with the sunrise as usual. It was funny how little I wanted to actually do now that I was here; I was reminded of a quote by an explorer upon reaching the South Pole, who said “I had finally reached my goal and all I wanted to do in the world was sleep.” It was certainly a journey-over-destination kind of thing. There’s not a lot to do when you get to the South Pole either, come to think of it.
I hit the trail at 8:30 the next morning, and just like that, my big road trip was on its back nine. It was a full sixteen hours after I’d stopped the previous day. It had been a bit of a boring time, but I sure as hell wasn’t in a situation to move much of anywhere. I struggled mightily to make it back up the saddle from the previous afternoon, doing one mile per hour if I was lucky. The best part about the return trip, though, is that you can’t give up.
I woke at about 4:00 in the morning to what I thought was wind moving through the nearby trees. Then I heard the sound again. It wasn’t wind.
I lifted my head out of the sleeping bag and held my breath, listening keenly. Off in the treeline, maybe 100 feet away, I heard a branch snap. Then another. I made sure my bear spray and knife were in arm’s reach.
In retrospect it’s amusing how ABSOLUTELY SURE I was that a bear had made off with my un-hung food bag during the night. I was mentally cataloging how many Clif bars were in my backpack to live on, and how I’d be able to boast that I had indeed been attacked by a bear (it was a supply-line attack! It counts!) But as the sun finally rose and I found my food bag undisturbed, I chuckled at my own skittishness. Hitting the trail in search of fresh water, I wondered whether it had even been a bear I’d heard. Then five minutes later…
There was bear scat a bit farther down the trail. Yep, so that was my official close encounter with a bear. I started singing or talking to myself as I rounded corners or walked into the wind. …
I woke up at the trailhead. It was 35 degrees and I couldn’t feel my fingers. I still had food to sort out; I knew I’d overpacked, but didn’t know by how much.
At the picnic table I sorted everything out and filled the waterproof, odor-proof bag with what I thought was five days’ worth of food, tossing out extra bags of couscous and Clif bars. Olive oil, peanut butter, tuna packets? Y’all can stay.
One of my last to-dos: repairing my broken pole strap, with its useful but amusingly vague built-in compass. (“North is, uh, that-a-ways. ish.”) I managed to do this in the process:
Just as I was finalizing everything, I heard the clop of hooves, and marveled as an enormous line of pack mules sauntered past me and onto the trail. It was bad-ass old-school cowboyery in effect.
Final pack weight: 52 pounds. I was hoping for more like 45. But I could still stand upright. With a warm weather forecast, I made one last risky decision and left behind the waterproof REI jacket that I’d paid dearly for.