NOMADIC TRUCK TRAVELS
While deep in the undisturbed heart of the Gallatin Forest, Tex — a camper from Idaho with a personality as big as Montana, would reveal to us the true nature of being bound for nowhere. Whether it be an invite to a peculiar wedding or venturing off towards an undiscovered mountain range, the upturned brim of his hat and wide-framed glasses could not hide his enthusiasm for being outdoors and remaining to be wild in spirit whilst doing so. In fact, it's this very thing — his robust and unfettered spirit that is common amongst us remote travelers. Not everyone here at this campsite had the look and sweat stained appearances of Tex, but the inner desires remained the same. We were answering a call and whether anyone realized it or not, we were attempting to reconnect with the severed chords of nature and spirit in doing so.
For twenty-seven days now, my travel partner and I had been moving with an unobstructed freedom. Connected to the road with a penchant to wake up each day in a new place, with a new elevation and embedded into an entirely different atmosphere. Just like Tex, we were bound for nowhere and that is, essentially, the true nature of nomadic truck travel: To be going both nowhere and anywhere.
Bella and I had first met near water while in Florida and for thirty-three years, water has been shaping my existence. I’ve recognized the impact it has had on me and so I strive to keep myself near to it, no matter what. While away from the coast and traveling these landlocked regions, each and every campsite I’d choose would have been touched by water in some way. If it didn’t have a creek or river flowing through it, then it would likely have been butted up against a lake or reservoir. And if for some reason it didn’t have any water at all, it would reveal itself to me through the carved geological patterns of past eras.
History has a funny way of trying to make itself a part of the present, while we do our best to ensure it remains in the past. When it comes to geology, I’m amazed at how much this planet has been touched and shaped by water. When you look at a majestically carved mountain and realize it was once a part of the ocean floor, its not so hard to imagine myself as a scuba diver most anywhere I go.
Our first stop was to Cordell Hull Lake Horse Trail. The spot outside Nashville that I always seem to find myself starting and ending each of these trips with. There we slept, with the windows to the hard shell camper open wide to the sounds of the night.
Having begun the trip last time in the dead of winter, I was already off to a much better start slumbering along in the near eighty degree heat of the night. It was always my dream to be someplace cool enough to sleep with the windows open, but not so frigid or buggy that it would force the closure of said barriers.
With this trip taking place during the peak months of fall, I not only wanted to enjoy the exploits of the last few remaining weeks of good weather, but to also take advantage of the riveting animal activity that would be happening this time of year. Buffalo would be nearing the end of their rut season and that would also mark the time in which elk would begin theirs. Bears, wolves, coyotes and all sorts of other furred animals would still be scampering around trying to make the most of things before the harsh winter season sets down on them all. The great, large western expanses would be the epicenter for this scene and we were headed straight for it.
Gathered here in a series of journal-style installments, are the forty days we spent truck traveling from Tennessee out to the greater Yellowstone area and back.
Some spots excited us more, and some days were spent dreaming of getting to the next big thing, but hopefully in reading this, one can tell, there was always something new and profound waiting on us around the corner. AHO!
Night 1: Cordell Hull Lake Horse Trail, TN
Wednesday, September 09, 2020
AM temp: 66º — Elevation: 516 ft
Camped at Cordell Hull Lake Horse trail I drove down to the same spot as before and had seen a couple of cars with their packable lawn chairs out fishing along the bend of the Cumberland River. I wheeled through the turnaround and one of the river persons gave me a friendly enough nod. They didn’t look like overnighters, so I considered coming back to this little strip of land that juts right out into the bending river. However, back up the way was a few other campsites that were just as good and a little more secluded even. I remember the last time I was here I had seen a 4WD pickup towing a 5th wheel get stuck along the rivers edge. They had lost traction trying to make their way back up the steep grade and while the truck made it up and over, the trailer did not. I could still see the muddy tracks left behind.
The campsite was beautiful and rugged. A picnic table, fire ring and even a trashcan. Two porta-potties not worth bragging about, but its certainly a step up from digging cat holes, depending on how you like your camping. Bella had seen the truck before, but never camped from it and so I began hurriedly rushing through all the features of it detailing where I keep things and what I refer to those areas as. She looked at me eager to learn, but there would be plenty of time for her to gain her own comfortability with the setup. The evening hour dictated we first toast a beverage and get to dragging out the cooking elements to start dinner. It would be mushroom street tacos with cotija cheese and salsa atop. Typical stuff for this traveling truck guy.
She watched me as I scanned the campsite wondering if I would make use of the picnic table or not. It was a little bit closer to the water’s edge, which meant more walking back and forth to the truck, but a more spacious arrangement than the tailgate. I bustled back and forth grabbing items, knowing she’d have no clue where things were at this point, she’d only been exposed to the truck for less than five hours. I finally completed the meal by near darkness and never were accosted by any bugs. She told me she’s not a fan of the cold nor bugs, so I hoped I could make her as comfortable as possible as we were absolutely certain to encounter both. The tacos were delicious as always and I was tanked from driving and ready to turn in.
As it happened, sleeping alongside the river, even near to a few stagnant water spots, we were able to sleep with the windows open in the shell and remained bug free for the most part. The new 12V, 3-speed fan really helped push the air through and maybe even kept a few of the bugs at bay throughout the night, but neither one of us dared to say it was not buggy for fear of invoking some sort of looming bug-filled wrath.
Before dawn, in the beginning shades of light, we watched as the river held a thick coating of fog that had erased the entire treeline. Before long, the omen was coming true and I had to close up the windows as a marauding band of mosquitoes were attempting to make their way in. We laid there for a bit longer, but soon were up and moving. I set up the solar shower atop the truck for us to rinse off with, however the sixty degree night had cooled the water down considerably. I was unsure how long Bella’s spirited enthusiasm was going to last with cold showers and mosquitos dancing around our heads, but suddenly that all changed.
As we quietly moved around the vehicle getting ourselves ready for the day, the scattered sounds of rain drops began plunking the leaves with loud orchestrated pops. You could look over to the still gray river and see them happening in full succession, but here within this lush, forested canopy, we were quite protected and immediately all the feelings of discomfort were replaced by the sensation that this was going to be quite an adventure. We wouldn't always have things our way, but the excitement would come in us finding our way through it.
Land Between Lakes and Bison Refuge, KY
A large chunk of our day was to be spent motoring west towards Kentucky and then on up through the scenic, Land Between Lakes Byway. There were supposedly elk and bison prairies located within this 170,000 acre peninsula. The Land Between Lakes nature preserve was practically undeveloped and when viewing from a topographic map, its landmass looked as though a miniature version of Greenland had floated down a river and lodged itself between a series of lakes.
Lunch was looming and so we pulled in to one of the lake access areas to make a quick meal. There was a jeep down at the waters edge and I pulled off high along the ridge above it where we could watch their dog playing fetch and enjoy the relief of the shade in this hot, eighty-six degree afternoon. I seasoned up some cubed potatoes in the cast iron skillet and cracked two eggs overtop. With it, I tossed in a bit of leftover mock sausage and then garnished it all once again with cotija cheese and salsa. It was a fantastic and comprehensive meal, but lounging in the warmth nearly put us both to sleep. I still had bison on my mind and so we soldiered on knowing we needed to put miles to the motions if we were to see them and make it to our next campsite.
My initial thoughts about this preserve were that the bison roamed freely about, but apparently they were only located within a seven hundred acre, high fenced area within the preserve. Within it, there roamed about seventy bison and equal amounts of elk in this drive through wilderness area. It was stated the animals were most active during the twilight hours and we rolled in at 1730.
More and more cars started flowing in through the looped drive signaling to us that we were in the right place and something special might occur. In our first loop, I had found a big stomped out animal path and elk rubs along the trees. So far there were plenty of indicators of animal presence, but no live ones had appeared just yet.
We crept slowly along, following the road and while looking down into a valley I thought I’d seen a dark colored animal casually move into the brush. As I drove down the hill, sure enough a VERY large bull elk was standing right out in the open smacking his lips. He was unaffected by the truck and we were amazed at his presence. His antlers were so impressive and massive!! We couldn’t believe our eyes and when he slowly walked back to the tall brush and simply laid down to take a rest right in front of us, we sat back flabbergasted. As he walked, his limbs lumbered awkwardly, indicating he was an old bull. Moments later, another, much younger bull emerged from the woods. It seemed we were in the right spot to maybe see the whole herd move through. I also thought the bigger, older bull might make a charge at the younger one, or vice versa, but instead the younger elk only walked over to lay down right next to it without a care in the air. I imagine in a few weeks time these two could potentially be fighting each other to the death. During this rut period, the male elks will be bugling constantly and the louder and more disruptive their calls are, the more likely they are to get a mate, or twenty. It’s common for the bull elk to be in control of forty upwards to fifty female cows. From within their harem, they will sire calves, dictate where the group will move to and aid in keeping them all away from any looming dangers and/or advancing and challenging males. Before the rut, the non-controlling males will link up and roam around together.
We sat watching the two bulls for nearly an hour allowing the stream of cars to stop, take pictures and continue on past us. Apparently their tactics were to make a few passes around the looped drive versus sit and wait. A gentleman that lived down the road and visits the place often, especially at this active time in fall, said to us that the herd of buffalo were up in the valley and that a mother elk was also further along out in the open with her two calves. Hard as it was, the allure of seeing the other members of this sprawling community drew us back into the vehicle to go in search.
Just over the next hill was the big momma cow and her little tiny calf still with ruffled and well-licked fur. They were grazing in the blooming grasses with ease. Not a single one of these animals seemed scared or daunted by the stream of vehicles and gawking observers that were passing them by. When the animals are present and close to the road, you’re supposed to stay in your car, but if they’re off in the distance you can get out and watch them. Docile as they may seem, this is a treacherous time to be gambling with 1000 lb wild animals loaded up on hormones.
We wanted to see the bison and so we circled back all the way to the start and spotted one more elk rubbing his antlers in the woods along the way. Then, as we climbed up and over the top of a hill, we saw the herd scattered along the road up ahead. It was pandemonium and our excitement was through the roof. We pulled in behind the other four stopped cars and looked at these giant ungulates grazing. You could hear the earth being torn from its hold and getting chewed up in a sort of animalistic cadence. A true vision of how this animal once migrated its way across the country, grazing as it went. I could not leave this place. It was too magical to be INSIDE a buffalo herd, watching as the young calves would walk up to their mothers, butt their head up into the udders to draw out more milk or see them rolling on their backs itching their dry, bug covered hides. One of which, happened to be the most absurdly large male. Most looked proportionate and more or less like a dark, fuzzy cow accented by short, obsidian-colored horns. However, this one had been rolling in the dirt so much it had stark white patches on its hide and its body looked as though two bison had been sewn together. It’s head was as large around as a fifty-five gallon barrel. The fur buckled and rippled around its head, but most all the bison had lost their winter coats. The elks as well. It was very puzzling to me that these high prairie animals were present in this hot preserve, but apparently that was a misconception on my part that elk and bison were only found in high altitudes. The bison roamed these areas in great numbers once, an estimated population of 60-70 million while at their peak and it spread all over the continental United States.
The cars slowly pushed through one by one while the bison roamed back and forth with impunity. Darkness was setting in and we were, what I thought, the last car to leave. We finished the loop, passing by where we’d seen the first two elk and in that valley held a most amazing scene of fog tucked low unto the grasses. In the middle there, a faint silhouette of one male could still be seen. He stood motionless in the night sky with the chirping insects growing to a tranquil roar. Through the whirring noise of an active grassy meadow, the low, squealing, honking bugles called forth.
We pulled around to where we’d seen the other male scratching his antlers and there too he stood, emerging and disappearing in a fantasy depiction of fog and grandeur.
There was dissidence between the fainting twilight and emerging night sky. The eyes would lose traction with where his figure was and then as they adjusted, would see that he remained cast there, motionless.
The bugles rang out through the cool air. Its sound, both intimidating and shrill, like that of a tyrannical beast, but then also, it signaled the purity of this space. They rang out like messages to the inhabitants of earth, that they were resilient and intending on sticking around. That, year after year, would return to answer nature’s own call and serve out a simple purpose of persevering. If only we could all answer this call with such ease and abounding resonance.
NIGHT 2: Higginson-Henry WMA, KY
Thursday, September 10, 2020
AM temp: 63º — Elevation: 473 ft
Higginson-Henry was another familiar campsite that stuck out to me in the last run I took out west. We had been traveling out towards Illinois and the truck landed once again at the gravel loop atop the the state sanctioned WMA. It’s a small patch of woods nestled between rural, interconnecting state roads, but within its trees is a very small lake with boat access and a place to park and camp for the night. Just as it was the last time, I was running on fumes and verging on a fitful breakdown from running into a series of campsites that had been completely flooded. During the start of the year, the Midwest suffered immense rainfall for months on end and all three of the major rivers (Ohio, Miss and Missou) had been flooded.
When I’m searching for campsites, I’m mainly using three different tools when searching for an area suitable for sleeping. I use google maps to tell me what areas are remote, but also interconnected and not impeded by any great obstacle. I import these coordinates into GAIA, which has multiple digital map overlays and then I use either a site like iOverlander or freecampsites.net to see where others have gone.
I prefer remote, but they still exist within a forested land that has regulations. Knowing what sort of land I will be on and doing a bit of research on it ahead of time saves me from any uncomfortable knocks on my window. Things like: fees, closures, amenities, terrain and other such things are inspected as much as I can ahead of time, but nothing can tell me that they are under water besides driving out there.
Due to the struggle of trying to find a non-flooded campsite last time, I had searched and searched and ran out of options ultimately driving past and seeing the signs for Higginson-Henry as a last second saving grace. Like the flood waters, all the names of these previously tested sites that did not work out flowed through my mind and I wondered if anything had changed since then.
To view the previous visit, Click HERE for E08 New Mexico: Finale
Seeing the Ohio river between us and a town name I now remembered, I realized I was once again steering us toward that inevitable failed misery. I cancelled the route and immediately detoured us back towards the HH-WMA before I got stuck trying to find a way across these flooded passageways and become Ill-i-noid. The site was one I knew and could feel comfortable wheeling into after dark and soon, we were parked at its familiar gravel loop and on our way to sleep.
NIGHT 3: Hunnewell Lake Conservation area, MO
Friday, September 11, 2020
AM temp: 62º — Elevation: 690 ft
Lake Hunnewell’s recreation area had pull in spots along a looped road that went down to a defunct marina of some sorts. Its perhaps more active in the summer months, but for now it was all closed up.
I did a circle, investigating the scene and checked what other campers I wanted to either be closer or further from. I chose a spot in the middle and backed in tight to a set of pines. There were six other campers in campgrounds and for some reason the occupants of this site like to drive in and out of it constantly. Bella amusingly pretended to be a police officer clocking the speedsters coming through the loop and signaling to them their excessive speeds.
It rained all night and swarms of bugs hung out around the trucks entryways. The shell began to collect numerous damp spots and the vault toilets here were way overused. The feature attraction of this site were a litany of john boats down along the shores of Hunnewell lake. They were free to use and if I’d been here any other time or under any other circumstances, I would have definitely been out there paddling around in one. I assume, their intended usage is for fishermen, but don’t tempt me with free access to a boat.
We goofed and laughed through the night as we sheltered away, hiding from the on and off downpours. The next morning we were up and moving, as there was no reason to stick around a damp, soggy campground.
It’s official now.... we’re truckers!! We took our first truck stop shower out in corn-country Missouri. I kept a tally of the expenses thus far, logging every coffee, fuel stop and snack we purchased, but if these $12 showers were to be the norm, we’d have to make concessions elsewhere as that’s just too much to expend for daily.
Corn country goes on for forever. I kept trying to imagine myself amongst these endless rows of corn stalks that nay a tree impedes. With only a tiny cluster of silos or a lone brick house to break up the monotony of it all, I struggled to see the novelty of it. Perhaps I was seeing things wrong. Perhaps these people just live out here to serve a purpose, making a living to meet the demand we as a nation have for corn.
By morning, the heavy rains had left a saturated terrain, but atop it rose the most brilliant haze. I started to envision the beauty of this place once seen as a dweller instead of a remote traveler. It wouldn’t be my ideal farm image, but every so often, when the eye becomes lost to the lush fields stretching out as far as they could imagine, a misty haze hung above the tops of these tall, upright pillars and one could take in the subtle majesty of the scene. One that I suppose a sun-wrinkled person could look out upon and hang their hat on.
NIGHT 4: Clay County Recreation Area, SD
Saturday, September 12, 2020
AM temp: 47º — Elevation: 1,171 ft
Arriving at the RV camp with all its motor homes spread out through the tall, wavy trees, we walked around checking out the extravagant and seemingly long-term camping displays. Everyone had kids and an assortment of toys ranging from bicycles to motorized OHV’s. A couple of white labs came strolling up to us without any owners and one sat near a tree disturbed while the other ran off mischievously.
Before sunset, we took a stroll along the cornfields hoping to get a look at the Missouri river. We got turned around, but did manage to find a lonesome deer staring back at us along the trail and a bunny rabbit that was chewing away on a stolen corn husk.
We came upon a shooting range and just as the sun was going down behind the endless stretches of beans, I invited Bella to climb atop one of the field irrigators and watch the view from high above. The rapid pops of ammunition behind us had our bellies full of laughter as we quietly sat juxtaposed between these two, seemingly opposite scenes. It would go on to be one of my favorite sunsets.
Strolling back to camp we cooked into the waning light. Bella, now more comfortable with where things are, brought me out cooking items to help ease the process. The site had hot showers similar to that of a public rec center and no one was in them at this hour. While the temperatures were still warm throughout the day, we were steady gaining in elevation and this caused the evening hours to take a serious plunge.
Showers, like kitchen space, are genuine luxuries, but the fact of the matter is, its quite simple to remain comfortable when one considers all that they have. Also, part of the fun is not having things. Losing service, learning how to bathe without much water, how to carry enough food and meal plan on the fly. All of these things keep us active, sharp and learning to excel with a minimal amount of creature comforts.
In the morning, I made us a quick cup of coffee and we sipped it slowly enjoying the views of our “backyard.” The trees continued to impress and we felt ourselves getting physically closer to the more exciting and upcoming parts of this adventure.
We stopped off in a nearby town hoping for a few city items like a breakfast diner to enjoy, a grocery store to stock up on a few items and of course more fuel to push us out further towards the Badlands. The diner was closed, as was most of the one street town, but folks were coming and going, with quite a great frequency, from this one, lone grocery store. I figured if there’s life in this town, this has to be it.
It was quiet and small, but didn’t appear outdated in the slightest. Along the shelves were typical long-lasting items like canned goods, spices and boxed meals, but the butcher looked like it held local cuts and the produce appeared the same. The people working the store were quite nice, but kept their heads low and focused with an understood sense of responsibility towards their tasks.
As I was searching through the produce thinking in my head what meals I could plan, a nice little lady said to me quietly through her face mask that she wished I lived closer so she could give me some tomatoes. I laughed and said, “Well, how far away are you, we’re willing to travel.” She said, “Ten miles,” and she took a second look at me asking who I was. I said, “Someone you wouldn't know, just passing through."
We smiled and separated, but just as I had my bags in hand exiting, I felt a little tug at my sleeve. I see it was her there, gazing up at me emphatically. She was a short, little woman and so I had to really look down to see what she was up to. She was pushing a folded twenty dollar bill at me saying, “I want you two to have a good time on your trip.” I was astounded at this gesture and we both stood there in awe, thanking her for her generosity. I couldn’t believe her kindness and resolve in approaching us like that.
Bella had been commenting all the while that the people of South Dakota carry an abundance of kindness and it was playing out better than one could have ever imagined. We filled up the gas tank and exited this little dusty town to head over to another, similarly dusty town to park and eat a tomato and avocado sandwich down by the Missouri river. Having not found it on our first attempt, I was disappointed, so before I left the area I wanted to have seen one of the great rivers of our country.
I was blown away at how majestic the scene was with its curving waters interlaced by roaming patches of tall, marsh grass. The river was so captivating and the landmark that brought me to it from the GPS was a military memorial. A man walking a cute little pup stopped his walk to inform me of this sites history. Turns out, it was paid for privately by one of the town's individuals and the special rock that was used to engrave the benches and names was brought over from Africa. It may or may not hold special metaphysical properties he said to me with a smile as he continued on after his attentively sniffing pooch. The memorial drew lots of visitors to the area, despite there being two other war memorials not ten miles from here. The stop off was rejuvenating and set us back on our western course with smiles on our faces.
Along the way, we were still immersed within the monotony of corn fields, but it started to become segmented by more lush and scenic landscapes. There were intermittent rolling hills that drew me in, and suddenly we came upon the Francis River and its huge power dam. It was such a sight that once halfway over, I decided we had to turn around and inspect its views more closely and free from the vehicle.
The visitors center was closed, but soaring high in the air was a magnificent bald eagle. It looked as though other eagles were in the distance fighting with each other for air space and down below in the great, flattened span of water there were lots of different little boats floating along hoping for an expected nibble.
As we strolled back to the truck an elderly couple caught our attention. We chatted for awhile asking where they were from. The man, wearing a St. Louis Cardinals hat flopped delicately onto his aging head, said his wife, who was sitting quietly a few feet from him on the bench, was from here (South Dakota) and he was from (you guessed it) Missouri. He stated he was from a part of Missouri we probably never would have heard of, but as we started to relay our most recent tracks to him he got excited and said, “Ohh I bet you drove right through my area!” I said, “Well, sir, we camped out at lake Hunnewell...” and before I could finish my sentence the two of them sat up attentively and looked at each other with a tickle on their faces. I smiled knowing I had touched on a town we both did in-fact know. He chimed in, “That’s exactly my my little part of the world," he says. "You probably drove through Macon, which is the town I am from.” I had remembered seeing this name as we passed by it on the map and we smiled at the novelty of it all there beneath the big, shaded oak tree.
The couple, who was enjoying their Sunday here at this fine spot filled with sunshine, put the questioning back onto us again, asking what we did for work. Once answered, they adorned quite a cute and innocent expression of confusion for how a captain and nurse could be spotted out here in nowhere town together. As if professions dictated this sort of thing.
They asked how we met and I put my arm around Bella and said, “Ohhh, well, I just happened to be in the right place at the right time.” I could feel Bella warming up beneath my arm, not from the sunshine, but by the swooning feelings of joy she got from hearing me say that out loud. She held onto my arm, and I could tell she was fondly remembering that time, as was I.
The elderly couple explained to us that every Sunday they pick a new spot to travel towards, something close and not too far to go spend the afternoon together. I really appreciated their modest approach to travel and we then wished each other farewells as we moseyed back up to the truck, arm in arm.
NIGHT 5: Sage Creek Campgrounds, Badlands SD
Sunday, September 13, 2020
AM temp: 52º — Elevation: 2,539 ft
The terrain was certainly shifting. The ground, while no longer remaining completely flat, lost most of its vegetation and began to appear barren. And while the opportune farmers still kept their private lands stocked with cash crops like corn and wheat, I could tell not just by the map, but by the actual geography that we were entering into a new part of the country.
It takes some time to cross these great expanses and this was actually the two hundred mile stretch of prairie and grasslands that the Sioux and Lakota tribes occupied. We’d be seeing snippets of their ancestry and cultural significance all along the way, but it wouldn’t be until our journey back that we would finally get a better understanding of their true history and why they regarded these lands as sacred and did their best to hold onto them at all costs.
In the last snippet of civilization, we pulled in for fuel and a bit of provisions, before heading into the great expanse of South Dakota known as the Badlands. The name sounds awful, like trash-lined, trucker-filled highways, and the Lakota meant just that when they named it this due to its scattered and rugged terrain. When viewed from above on a colored, topographic map, it resembles that of snow covered peaks, despite there being no snow here at this time. The coloration of these serrated peaks and why the main river, The White River, are colored as such is particular to the ash, clay and sand composition that began forming some sixty to seventy million years ago. Layering of sediments and thus the inevitable erosion of it (from ancient rivers of course!) have carved into it the mysterious and perplexing shapes.
As we came in on highway 44, an unofficial entrance to the park brought us into the Badlands. We were met by groups of Bison and scattered all along the ground were patches of prairie dogs sticking themselves out of the holes sounding the screeching cries of awareness to our presence while others scrambled from one hole to the next.
We stopped to take pictures and celebrate out entrance into the unique and captivating scenes the west was now sure to be unloading in a regular and successive fashion. Finally, after enduring all those days of cornfields, we were finally within a rugged and adventurous terrain with a bounty of go-anywhere type dispersed camping land, free for the choosing. This was the subject of my desires and here we were, greeted by the great and mythical guardian to these lands. The animal that so much of the area gave focus and credence to, the roaming Buffalo.
We carved our way in through the jaw-dropping spires of eroded cliffs and came upon our intended campsite for the night, the Sage Creek Campgrounds. It was a free site, but would start filling up quickly. There were two bathrooms and in the center was a ring that the “settlers” would park their rigs around. We chose to be within the empty RV lot that was nestled up against the hills, just off from the circle.
That evening as we hiked up a nearby hill and listened to the coyotes calling down into the canyons below us, I looked at this circled encampment and thought how appropriately fitting this scene was to remind us of the times settlers before. Of wagons trains and coaches that similarly were in conquest of western headings. Still coming as pioneers and eager explorers, we enacted the ancient principle of setting ourselves up in a circular manner to feel comfort and security from its design.
The people camped here were all very friendly and eager to engage one another on a more conversational level. We noticed very quickly that we were in the company of many other like-minded 'pioneers' that were also drawn from their homes to view the undeniable beauty and splendor of this travelers paradise.
The next day for lunch we drove up to Sheep Table mountain overlook where we could see way down into the canyon. In a cast iron skillet I cooked seasoned potato cubes and covered them with black beans, wilted spinach and tossed with tomatoes seasoned by habaneros. The potatoes were then topped with an avocado and cotija cheese and served with a glass of Proseco, to celebrate the day as it was Bella’s day of birth rite. It was totally fantastic and I had worked so hard to gain us the necessary miles to put us somewhere unique and awe-inspiring for her special day.
While camped there for the afternoon, a four-wheel drive van entered into the loop and told us about a 4WD trail up the way. He gave us a few landmarks to shoot for and where to turn. Said it was a good run of trails, but for him and his van, he was all tapped out on driving the bumpy, un-even and often rutted roads. He looked at me and my machine and made a determination that it would be fun for us, though. And rightly so! We set off in his gestured direction and sure enough, had some of the best off-roading experiences of the entire trip! We bounced along on windy trails that lead right across, daring and dubious ridge tops. In either direction was breath-taking views of plummeting drop-offs and distant vistas filled with the irregular and constantly perplexing beauty of the Badlands.
NIGHT 6: Sheep Table Mountain Overlook, Badlands SD
Monday, September 14, 2020
AM temp: 57º — Elevation: 2,907 ft
Instead of returning to the pull off we had lunch at, we decided we would back the truck up to a finger in one of the ridges that drops way down into the canyon. Taking turns using the solar shower, we had a nice warm scrub each and then pulled out our camp chairs to look on into the gulch as the sun was setting behind the magnanimous and colossal structures. Coyotes yips started to echo out from within the valley and we tried to make guesses at where their elusive dens might be. We sat here until all of the light disappeared, drinking in the fresh and warm air.
From the Badlands we continued on through Rapid City, where a few, big-city errands could be tackled like grocery shopping, wifi usage, laundry and planning our next moves into the Black Hills. With enough time to reach camp by sundown, we set off into the windy hills. With, of course, a stop at the Crazy Horse Monument.
Crazy Horse Monument, which is still underway with its construction is right around the bend from Mount Rushmore. After endless amounts of information on the plight of the natives in this area, it is both striking and disappointing to see that we would choose this spot to carve into the land, gigantic faces of white land owners.
The Black Hills is a piece of hotly contested land between the original inhabitants and the pursuits of US governments and leading industries. The Black Hills, after gold was discovered by Custer’s search parties, were illegally seized by falsified and forged documents stating the sale of it from the Lakota. Since then, they have offered it back and then attempted to purchase the land back legally by offering atrociously low offers for what value it holds (both economic and spiritual).
When that wasn’t enough, our government decided upon tactics of creating discord within the tribes to hopefully drive them from the land by wars of attrition. Denying their rights, disrupting their culture and hoping somehow that they would just self-terminate and go away forever. Lucky for us, the Lakota’s have persevered and stand tall amongst their lands still to this day.
Crazy Horse, a prominent Lakota warrior led many battles against the US. He was involved in many skirmishes riding his 'crazy' horse into battle. He served as the decoy militia for the Battle of Little Big Horn and was also a major leader in the Sioux Wars of 1876 as the US tried to seize land, violate treaties and set up forts within the Lakota territories. He, along with Red Cloud, led the bloody massacre of Fettermen and his troops and has been honored by being on the 13 cent postage stamp.
I was happy to have supported this cause and to help put Crazy Horse’s image into these Hills as his likeness represents the true history of this area. The sculptor, Korczak, was an interesting mountain man as well, having five boys and five girls who have all helped carry forth this project since they were children.
We then cruised on into the Black Hills, to take in what truly makes this place so magical. It’s forested terrain hosts such an abundance of wildlife we could have ended the trip right here and been quite satisfied. However, as the night was cooling and the sky was darkening, we hopped into the shell and awaited a new day to take it all in.
ENTER THE BLACK HILLS
NIGHT 7/8: Castle Peak Campgrounds, Black Hills SD
Tues-Wed, September 15-16, 2020
AM temp: 42º — Elevation: 5300 ft
We were up at six to take advantage of the wooded forest to hopefully catch a glimpse of some wildlife. By 7 AM I had a thermos filled with coffee and a bag packed with mandarins, water and binoculars. We decided to walk along the forest trail that continued on past our #9 campsite. The air was cool and we both decided on wearing three layers with thick socks to go into our boots. It would be at least another hour before the sun would make its way over the top of these towering tree-filled ridges.
The tall ponderosa pines shot straight into the air like the smoke trails of a thousand rockets. Gray, broken sheets of slate were spilled all along the steep angled slopes. Broken trees were littered all over the place giving the looming sense of impending danger from one of these soon to be next trees. We could only imagine the speed at which they must topple and fall, sliding overtop the smooth pieces of granite.
We walked along, passing the single thermos to take sips from with our gloved hands. We talked and continued to learn about each other, but also sharing what all we like and reminiscing about what all we’ve seen thus far on the trip. It’s only the start of the eighth day, but once you drive straight into an adventure, it doesn’t take long for the story to begin to compound and leave the participants scratching their heads at what all has already taken place. We passed by a nice area for birds and so we stopped to share the binoculars hoping to see something new and interesting. A lot of the birds were unfamiliar to me, but some, like the rust colored robins or black-spotted chipping sparrows were easy enough to identify.
From the corners of our eyes, swift darting chipmunks would scurry across logs with barely a chance to see their striped backs. We laughed asking what caused them to run so fast, and then we realized its probably what goes after them that makes them move with haste. Before long, we’d get to see just that, what animal is out here giving chase.
As we walked, still on the slightly illuminated, packed-gravel road, running directly at us was a vibrant and colorful, yearling mountain lion. It stopped dead in its tracks and in one absolutely entertaining move, puts on a genuinely surprised face and lept directly over to the side to disappear into the thick forest with a crashing sound. We stood speechless in complete disbelief for what had just happened. The image of its striped and slightly-checkered body, with long careening tail and eerily dark paws held suspended in our minds. It’s face, in that flash before it became the dopey, scared kitty that we laugh about still, was tenacious and held ornate lines running down from its pointed ears to its large, puffy jowls. We couldn’t believe our luck to have come within twenty feet of this elusive and awesome animal.
The fun continued as we later spotted a mule deer along the road and then two more in a field that froze in their tracks to investigate what we were. Its always fun when they can never tell and have to chuff their way into misery as they run off disgruntled. With an hour and a half of walking accomplished, I decided to turn around after the second set of deer and start to make our way back. I could feel my stomach growling like a hungry panther and wanted food.
After having an all-day errands day, I don’t think either one of us minded having an all-day camping day. We spent the entire day afterwards making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, more coffee and did a bit of catching up on the writing front. I fixed the shower hose and then we took turns filling up the water reservoir via a gravity-fed filter. We’d walk down to the creek, scoop up a bag of water and hang it upon a nail in the tree. The dirty water bag rests above the second (clean) bag and receives the water after it has passed through an in-line filter.
We had expired nearly all of our seven gallons of drinking water and so, two liters at a time, we filled back up the reservoir. We would have to continue the process for the five gallon shower bag too if we wanted the water inside to hopefully heat up in the beaming sunshine. Speaking of warming up, the warm sun had enticed me to do a cold plunge in the creek. I scouted out a spot and then waded in. As I took in the coldness around my feet and shins, I found a deep spot to sit down in and then lean back to let the crisp, mountain water cascade overtop of me. It felt so good that I was compelled to turn around and do it again, but it took the breath right out of me and I was scampered out of the water quickly.
As I strive to never arrive at a new campsite after dark, that meant we either had to leave this place early or plan to stay a second night. Judging by the fun we were having, we opted to stay another night in this serene, animal-filled forest.
Day two at Castle Peak was filled with camp activities. We walked nearly twelve miles spread out across two different hikes. We saw more mule deer scurrying up the hills, over the road and out munching in the tall grass. There were so many little multi-colored and striped snakes in the road, but most had been squished. we found a couple vibrant and alive ones, however.
The ground bees were out in a flurry and what I thought were nice, fun friendly bees, and mostly they were aside from their pesky and pervasive curiousness were, ended up stinging me on the arm. Just as sure Bella was to the kindness of South Dakotan's, she too thought it that bees were out to get her. The sting hurt and I wasn’t offended by the act, but I did take a bit of precaution with them from then on.
We wrote some more and then finished the day off around a campfire while the sky turned to a cool, mellow blue and never darkened due to the glowing full moon.
To encapsulate the journey thus far, check out Part 1 of the video series: