America the Beautiful: Part 4
Well, here we are, at the final part of our excursion across the Great American West. We traveled through twelve states, across 39 straight days and fell in love with the country as much as we did each other. Bella and I had met while we were both working contracts in Florida and visited each other a few times after that but had only spent a couple weeks together initially before heading off on this grand adventure!
It was a wild time to be experiencing something so raw and formative on both sides of the axle. Above the wheels, we cherished the time getting to know one another further, and below, we crossed into amazing corners of the country, visiting parts neither of us had been before. Our shared appreciation and love for being out on the road and in unfamiliar, yet completely intriguing and spellbinding places left us with a thirst for more. Obviously, our adventure did not end here with these final few campsites and there's a whole lot more tales (and tails!!) to come.
Thank you for coming along on this journey with us. It's a lasting record in the start of something great, and it touches on what beauty this country holds. I hope you all gain a proper glimpse of the magic and mystery that is way out beyond, in the wild American frontier!
Night 30: Luvell Campground, Wyoming
Thursday, October 8, 2020
Am temp: 50° — Elevation 3,822
We began our circling, traveling arc back towards civilization and landed at a municipal park that seemed more like a RV park than anything else. Through the night we heard the distressed howling, yipping and whining cries of what we could only imagine to be a puppy farm at some nearby house. We chose to escape the paved, city streets and return to the wilderness, but it served us well for a free, overnight stop-off as we ventured further east.
Night 31: Barry’s Landing, Big Horn NP, Montana
Friday, October 9, 2020
AM temp: 53° — Elevation 3,734
Excited to see more national parks, we pulled into one of the main entrances for Big Horn National Park. The covid shutdowns had the visitors centers closed, but we were lucky enough to encounter an eager ranger that had his table set up in front of the closed-off doors and was even kind and willing enough to run inside and bring back a selection of park patches for me to choose from.
This huge, 120,000 acre sprawling recreation area had scenic byways, canyons to the most magnificent degree and was rife with both roaming wildlife and various, loosely contained livestock. The long stretches of road passed though Montana’s golden, rolling countryside. We saw pronghorn antelope, mule deer, big horn sheep, eagles soaring through the sky and cattle roaming throughout the leased sections.
The traces of wildlife were only slightly offset by the raw, industrial human elements with their coal transports chugging along the railways. We finally figured out where all these railcars were going and what cargo they were carrying.
Our campground was a large cliff surrounded by deep canyons. At the bottom, tiny boats fished along the shores. They looked like grains of sand from atop the five-hundred foot cliffs. There were Big Horn sheep roaming nearby and by morning, we had seen the entire thirty-plus herd being re-joined the bulky rams.
There were a few other motorists spread out along the open camp loop. On one end was a boat ramp that somehow sloped far enough down to the waters edge that it was a perfect spot to pull in with a boat trailer to camp. There was, however, some ungodly smell permeating the air upon certain wisps of wind. I finally tracked down the fish carcasses that had been stewing inside a central camp dumpster. Good grief, it was a foul and unpleasant smell. I held back the wrenching impulses to let everything inside me come out and crawled back into the camper shell.
Night 32: Weston Hills Camp Area, Wyoming
Saturday, October 10, 2020
AM temp: 60° — Elevation 4,012
Along these roaming, curving, bouncing over the hills backcountry highways, one lone county cop car saw me go past in the opposite direction as I was approaching the final turn for the day. They whip the cruiser around and immediately positions themselves up our tailpipe.
I imagined the struggle to get a proper read on my plates as months of dirt had been piling up on the out of state specialty tag. The lights go on and as I pull over, I take a look around not seeing a single vestige of civilization in sight. I wondered how on earth this would go. I kept my hands at the wheel as I felt the nerves start to rattle around inside. I never know what to expect and always hope my pleasantries and law officer background would find myself in the company of fair and exercised justice.
I was not met with pleasantries and was not even told why I was stopped. Simply asked for driving credentials and the young sheriff walks away. He returns after some time and says that he clocked me going ninety in a seventy. My jaw drops and I repeat what he had just said. Ninety, I kept asking him. Knowing full well I had a GPS navigation tool open and tracking my course, along with other meta data like elevation gained and current and max speeds for the day. Nowhere on that page did it ever pick up a speed of ninety, much less moments before I was about to make a final turn after a long, hard day's drive.
I started asking how this number was derived and was the device calibrated and effective. He began to tremble, holding out the citation feeling unequipped to defend this position of absurdity. I explained my current, loaded cargo weight and wouldn't dare travel at those speeds along these bumpy and unfamiliar roads. I can hardly get my truck up to the posted limits, let alone doing twenty miles over it with moments to spare before needing to find an obscure, often unmarked dirt road turnoff.
I was reluctant to accept this violation, but hesitant to argue. The officer told me he doesn't have to show me anything and I look back at the cruiser to see through the dash another, more senior officer sitting shotgun. This one outside my window was likely out learning the ropes of how to reel in out of state vehicles for senseless infractions with no viable way of returning to fight it in a court of law.
I made one last attempt to get him to crack at his lie and he responded with, "It doesn't matter what I think, I can contest it in court on this date or pay the fine." I ask again, ninety flat? He says ninety. I ask him why he can’t show me the radar with this speed on it and he repeats himself again that he doesn't have to. I could see myself losing this situation badly and didn’t want to upset him, and all the while he continued to tremble, shaking with the citation in his outstretched hand. I accept the rural county shake-down and say have a nice day, returning to our route and making the final quarter mile down the road to our campsite turnoff.
Having grown up around officers, I can understand the pain of having people lie to your face, but it was tough to having it done back to me by the very one’s thought to protect and uphold the law. And for what, new uniforms or something? He never even stepped forward to glance an eye at the passenger of our vehicle, therefore wasting a moment to observe any details or perhaps investigate a scene. And the meager attempt at his “drive safely” at the end was proof he had his guts tested in this highway robbery. Wyoming is one of the highest states for writing out-of-state citations, as they know there will never be a chance people come back to contest a simple driving infraction. They pocket the money and proceed as planned.
There was no courtesy, no conversation, just a citation and back on their way for more. It makes no sense and was an unfortunate memory and financial setback from an otherwise flawless trip.
Night 33: Timon Campgrounds,
Black Hills, South Dakota
Sunday, October 11, 2020
AM temp: 50° — Elevation 5,605
Heavy winds gusted over the tan hills through the night as I lay flopping uncomfortably, still fuming about the days encounter. We pulled up camp early and while at a bustling fuel stop just outside the Black Hills, I overheard some people discussing nearby campgrounds. We’d be making a return to one of our favorite camp spots in the Black Hills. As we rode into the forest, all the colorful aspens were actively losing their leaves, and most were already all the way bare.
The weather from our first visit had switched from warm weather with a cool breeze to slightly cooler with a warmer breeze. Still, the ground bees were out and the sites were quite full. Our first option, the Gun and Rod campground, was full so we back tracked up to Timon where there were still a few sites open. We picked a back spot on the short loop and tucked the truck away behind a tall conifer tree. It was early on in the day, so I pulled out the tools and did a few adjustments to the camper shell. From all the bumpy off-roading the shell had slid back a solid three inches and I loosened its clamps and scooted it back flush against the cab. We cranked some tunes and chatted with the hikers passing by. It was good to be back in the hills that our western excursion had started in.
We met a guy in a newly acquired van home and he was visiting all the campers. He insisted we have a campfire together tonight and so I set off to gather firewood. He stepped on branches while I made work with the hacksaw and hatchet. He wrangled up a few more campers from a teardrop and they too would join us for the fire.
Night 34: Buffalo Gap Dispersed Camping, Badlands SD
Monday, October 12, 2020
AM temp: 36° — Elevation 2,467
It was Native Persons Day and so we visited the Atká Lakota Cultural Heritage Center in Chamberlain, SD to learn more about the Lakota's strong and eventful history, as well as support the museum's preservation efforts by purchasing a few authentic totems from the gift shop.
Regarding the use of the term Sioux or Lakota to refer to this wide stretching group of Plains Indians, its identical to the terminology used when defining Anasazi or Ancestral Puebloan. The terms are still used interchangeably, but there is a rather not so subtle difference: the former was given to them by outsiders, typically enemies or oppressors, while the latter is the term used by the group themselves. Big difference, right?! In the native Ojibwe language, Sioux means "little snake," whereas Lakota and Dakota mean "friend." And in Navajo, the Ancestral Puebloan tribes were given the name Anasazi to mean explicitly, "ancient enemy." So, it's pretty understandable which term would have its preference. Both groups, the Lakota and Ancestral Puebloan, have smaller bands existing beneath that larger tribe name.
Stretching two-hundred miles between the Missouri River and the Black Hills to the west, were the great plains of South Dakota. It was here that a band of "horse people," the Lakota, lived and claimed it as their tribal homeland. Also laying claim to this rich grassland, was the American Bison that stretched from Alaska down to parts of Mexico. The Lakota, being some of the first tribes to employ horses and dogs to transport their camp and goods, were a nomadic tribe that followed the bison across the plains.
While their history is intriguing and important, the feeling I left with was melancholic, as the events displayed began to stack up and created a charred history of existence for these native persons. It was great to see the resiliency in their spirit to adapt and muster on, despite it all, but it was a tough pill to swallow. The constant infractions upon treaties and warring on both sides was a difficult life to imagine.
The tribes began as more evolved descendants of the first ones who walked the continent, and while their hardships then were based out of necessity, it was all contained to their own tribe and matched against the natural elements they sought shelter and promise from. As the simple world drove itself into a more complex reality, so to it came the outside influences of Spaniards, settlers, trappers and traders that make the story so convoluted it's difficult to decipher how it all could have gone so wrong and so quickly.
Continuing on in our own journey across the great plains, we ventured towards the backside of the Badlands to an area not yet explored by us and discovered an OHV Recreation Area; a four-wheeling paradise. OHV stands for Off-Highway Vehicle and is an area marked open for use of dirt bikes, four-wheelers and the all too popular side-by-sides. There was absolutely no one here at all.
We entertained ourselves with the high, cresting hills of sand, zipping up, over and any which way as the options were endless. We drove out along the, barely there trails that divided the wide, sprawling fields of prairie grass. Seeing one of these trails leading out to a giant mesa, set right before the badland's white ridges, we ventured towards it as the sun began to set.
We were parked high above, in the middle of absolutely nowhere. The Badlands name gives such a reflection of an undesirable place, yet it holds the imagination like watching scenes from Star Wars. The air was cooling and the winds gusted heavily. The skies all around us were fading into the iconic hues of pinks and purples. I could feel this night being one that brought me even closer to Bella, as our trip was nearing completion. Our first batch of real, western excitement on this trip began here in the Badlands. We had celebrated her birthday here back in September, and now, nearly a month later, we had returned more seasoned and certainly ever-more connected.
Night 35: Clay County Campgrounds, South Dakota
Tuesday, October 13, 2020
AM temp: 50° — Elevation 1,151
Returning to another, beginning-of-the-trip site, we made our way again to the Clay County campgrounds, which hosts a lot of permanent and long-time guests. We were starting to become those ourselves! We had gathered supplies for a nice pasta dinner and while trying to be helpful and pour out the pasta water, Bella dumped both the water and the noodles into the grass and leaves. She stood stunned, still nervous enough around me to wonder what my reaction would be. I smiled and remembered one of the stories she told about her mom dumping a giant, 5lb bowl of freshly made pad thai on the floor and without missing a beat, says "Well, I guess we’ll call for pizza!” I learned a lot about Bella from her stories of home and was enamored with how fun and nurturing her life was. It was, like most of us, carried about by the ups and downs, but those moments truly shaped her into an incredible being, that people are always impressed, and equally enamored by.
Realizing I was standing there with a smile on my face, she decided she wasn't going to let our dinner go to waste and began picking up the pasta noodles, one by one. I crouched next to her, fishing them out from the leaves that conveniently gave them a modest cushion from any dirt. We gave them a rinse in the adjacent water fountain and considered them double rinsed and proper to eat. With the amount of roughing it we had done thus far, this would certainly be no turn for the worse.
Through the night, we heard scurrying at our trash barrel as a possum rummaged about inside, poking its narrow snout out a couple times to gaze its beady, reflective eyes back at ours, which were peering from within the shell. In the morning, huge flocks of Robins came and went in unison. The campground was so scenic with its tall, swaying ponderosa pines and this spot in particular held a great, initial memory of when we'd first visited and sat upon a giant irrigation arm and watched the sunset.
Night 36: Anita Lake Campgrounds, Iowa
Wednesday, October 14, 2020
AM temp: 55° — Elevation 1,338
We were still not yet through the Midwest, and made our final stop before crossing the Mississippi and being truly back East at Lake Anita in Iowa. It was a big, sprawling campground with hundreds of electric and water RV and pull-in, dry sites. We walked along the paths that bisected the lake and seen what could only be described as a Zombie Deer carcass, struggling to decompose. It was an odd site. In the bathroom, I made sure Bella saw the incredibly huge wolf spider hiding in the corner that left her nerves rattled the entire time and would definitely not go back without a flashlight. The stars were out in full display, giving a great read on the milky way. The campsite cost us $6 and had flush toilets and showers. Nice to be treated so well, but it came at the cost of being a lot more urbanized and populated. Still, it was low season and the crowds were thin.
Strong winds in the AM continued on through Missouri as we traveled East and South. The fall colors were warm and exciting. The leaves danced along the road as we pushed through small town after small town. The fields of corn were in the process of being harvested, if not having been collected already.
NIGHT 37: Hunnewell Lake Conservation area, MO
Thursday, October 15, 2020
AM temp: 51° — Elevation 713
Yet another re-visit of a site we'd once come to, Lake Hunnewell was now warm with daylight and dry to our favor. I goaded Bella into joining me in one of the available aluminum rafts offered and we paddled out into the waters, figuring out how to steer and move the craft. Lake Hunnewell is a conservation area with an adequately sized lake, but the winds were howling and rowing became a real challenge. Bella, never shy of an adventure, was ready for this one and we were off the shore and immediately getting shoved around by the heavy winds. I turned the boat's nose into it and did my best to maintain course, but it was constantly getting swept side to side and we would often lose much of the distance covered. Instead of venturing out into the wider, more wind-swept parts, I decided we’d just cross over to a grassy landing and explore the quieter and more sheltered part of the shoreline.
The grassy bank was filled with vultures and along the beach were lots of deer tracks. I walked barefoot through the forest but back promptly as I had once again found myself jumping into an adventure slightly unplanned and unprepared. I wanted to get back across to cook our dinner before it got too late. Food is always on my mind, and when it comes to travel, the timing of it has to be accounted for.
I ask if she wants to row us back, which she of course does not, but I let her try to steer it around for a bit in the sheltered cove. Once the wind hit the nose of the boat though, we were spinning in uncontrollable circles and I took over. Across the way, I’d seen a guy with his three family members coming down wind in their own raft. I started making a path to race them in, a game only observed in my head. He had the inside angle on me and pitched his boat so I could not gain the first spot on the beach. I had to swing the raft wide of his landing and secured a spot further down giving him the unnoticed victory. It was a close second.
I did my best to cook in the wind that still prevailed at the north end of the campground. I forget what we had. Was it stir fry, was it a cheese sandwich? I recall breakfast being elaborate the next day, utilizing the picnic table and warm weather to extend our morning by quite some time. But alas, the drive time on these final push days are long and necessary, so we were off and rolling before too much daytime had passed.
NIGHT 38: Indian Celina Lake Campgrounds, IN
Friday, October 16, 2020
AM temp: 38° — Elevation 745
Hoosier Nat Forest. A proper fall forest. The campgrounds were on their last day for routine services, which meant we had access to the showers for another few hours before they’d close them down for the winter season. Quite lucky on our part. The overnight rates would drop significantly, but it meant none of the available camp services and the vault toilets would not be looked after until the spring.
It misted lightly but the tree cover barely let a drop fall. Still, I rigged up a tarp cover for the rear of the truck and cooked our final meal for the trip. It was a bombastic Asian noodle dish that boasted tenacious spices and succulent sweetness overtop. Plenty of fresh vegetables mixed into the buckwheat soba noodles. It was quite the creation and the leftovers had made it all the way home with me to eat when I returned to NC.
The next morning our drive would take us through the rural parts of Kentucky and I said before it even started happening, to take a count of the churches we'd pass along these winding backroads. Between two of these rural counties, we had encountered thirty-six different churches. They were showing up in the two’s and three’s and we recorded their names as we went. Their names went as:
Eden, Zion, River Worship, Providence, Mt Hill, United Methodist, Cedar Grove, New Hope, Concord Mission, Beaver Dam, Bible Baptist, Kingdom Hall, New Harmony, Slay Creek, Pathway, Cromwell, Oak Grove, Green River, New Liberty, Walnut Grove, New Beginnings, Motown Naz, Holy Trinity, Church of Christ, Jesus Christ, Carve Rock, Sandy Creek, Richardland. Logan County: Gupton’s Grove, New Zion, Sycamore Liberty, Chandler’s Chapel, Oak Grove, Plainview, First Baptist.
NIGHT 39: Cordell Hull Lake Horse Trail, TN
Saturday, October 17, 2020
AM temp: 39° — Elevation 516
Bella and Rog: Two Beets in a Taco, ☠️ 💉 ❤️
It was, however, our last day together and we would be returning to Nashville to get Bella onto a plane just as we’d done at the start of this trip 39 days ago. We arrived to Nashville early and found a sweet, southern-fried vegan restaurant dolling out platters of collards, mac and cheese, spicy chicken-substitutes and other fantastic soul food creations. Bella got a BLT that I was quite envious of and I had a spicy mock-meat sandwich. I ordered a second platter to go for my dinner alone that night.
Continuing to retrace our steps, we ventured back to the marina we hung out at during the beginning of our trip. I was trying to wrap this all up with a remembrance of where it all began. Time flies when you’re out there wheeling and its shocking to be brought back to a spot that seemed like ages ago.
Before long, the time came to get her to the terminal. In an instant, she was on the curb with her bags and I was looking over the top of Deborah, sad to see it all end. She held back tears as I pulled away, making my way towards the campsite that started and ended it all, Cordell Hull Lake Horse Trail. It’s a quiet town, but this is a rock-solid campsite that I have grown very familiar and fond of. Darkness was settling in and as I drove down the final road, I passed by the restaurant that was part of the lake lodge. It had people slowly venturing out from the dinner table towards their cars, but it looked quite active this evening and so I decided to pull in and make a stop.
While looking for a trash can to pitch the food waste in, I noticed a lone campfire burning in a covered, stone seating area. No one was around it, but other lodge guests had occupied another one nearby. It seemed as if these fires were setup by the lodge as a nice, friendly addition to the amenities and so I approached the one sitting empty, as if it were intended for me to find.
A group of happy dinner guests were walking up the sidewalk, moving in a well-fed, drunk and jovial manner. They had their arms wrapped around each other and I sat quietly observing. Before I had a chance to greet them, the woman in front says hello loudly, but with kindness in her tone. I respond and the woman in the back asks without provocation, "Is that Tyler?" I sit dumfounded, with a perplexed shock and say, "It is Tyler." I don’t think they understood or took it as senseless humor and so they continued walking without any further remarks. I felt as though God had come over from one the New Faith Baptist Ministry of Zion churches and uttered my name.
It was cozy sitting there, in front of a fire seemingly destined to catch my eye. I thought, sometimes, after long, arduous journeys through the unknown mountains and many unfamiliar miles, these are the divine touches that come to finish out a story. Just as Higginson-Henry had caught my eye the last time I was making my way back home.
As I sat writing in our wildlife notes about a little gray fox I'd seen dart out from a bush, I see a note from Bella planted at the top of the text file. It read, she hopes whatever put us onto the same path to begin with, does so again. I teared up, heavy with emotions feeling my incredible travel partner flying through the air to some distant part of the country without me.
What a great and special time we had! By the same brave and daring winds that crossed through Crazy Horse’s hair, I thanked those forces that set this trip in motion and sat in awe of the story that just came to be a part of my life.
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