Day Eight and Nine
On day eight about mid morning, I left Sturgis in my rear view mirror and headed back to I-90 towards the last point of South Dakota’s golden triangle: Spearfish.
For the pass three days, I had shared roadways, sidewalks and sleeping space surrounded by thousands of people and bikes. And on that day, I expected more of the same as I drove to my final stop in South Dakota. But to my surprise, only a handful of people were roaming the streets of downtown Spearfish, causing me to ease off the gas pedal, roll down my windows and soak in the quiet beauty of its quaint storefronts and hanging flower baskets lined streets.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to explore. Maybe another trip. Reservations and deadlines forced my return to the interstate, so I could make my way to cowboy country. Better known as our 44th state of the union: Wyoming, our least populous state. Home to the Continental Divide, Yellowstone and the Grand Teton Mountain Range.Oh, add to the list: Devil’s Tower. Okay, confession time, prior to this road trip, I really didn’t know a lot about Wyoming or this national monument. A group of riders at Buffalo Chip shared that it was a short detour off I-90 and would be worth my time. On both accounts, they were right. Thirty minutes off the interstate, I got my first view of this igneous rock jutting out like a ‘sore thumb’ in the middle of sloping hills and a circle of evergreens.
I followed behind a steady line of bikers, cars and campers to a dirt parking lot just outside the visitor’s center to snag one of the few open spaces. While in the gift shop, looking for the official N.P. (National Park) passport station, I noticed the over abundance of alien souvenirs lining its walls and aisles. There was even a life-size alien standing guard at the check out counter.
Only after reading a park pamphlet did I get the connection with aliens, the tower and Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounter of the Third Kind. What can I say, treasure hunting and Indiana Jones are more my thing.
With my passport stamp secured, I crossed over the blacktop road cut between the park office and the path leading to the tower’s base. Even without aliens, it’s hard to dismiss this amazing piece of rock with its deep lined “bear claw” markings. While walking around its base, I had the good fortune of sharing the trail with a couple from Louisiana. As we hiked we shared a few laughs about the craziness of Sturgis and the beauty of the west.
Later in the parking lot, alone and hot, I popped up the back of hatch of my car to take a rest and eat a quick snack. While I munched on a pack of crackers, I watched an oversize SUV with a black front bumper tag proclaiming in white cursive lettering “Shaggers”, squeeze itself into the parking space next to me. For those of you who maybe Anglophiles, I’m not talking about that kind of shagging. This vehicle was loaded with dancers who like to shuffle their feet to Carolina beach music. In a brief conversation with the four Alabamians, they shared that they were annual attendees of shagging festivals throughout the Southeast and on this trip out West, I was the first person who knew what the tag meant.
Leaving the Devil and shaggers behind, I made a quick stop at a town just inside the park. A prairie dog town that is.
Off in a pull over area along the roadway, I played paparazzi to a family of dogs who seemed to enjoy the attention as they popped their heads in and out of holes to sniff the air for danger before leaving the small dirt mounds to mulch on the soft prairie grass. They played an endless game of “whack a mole until this celebrity watcher had to move on.
Once again I hit I-90, following its lanes west until I exited off for the town of Buffalo. On this particular summer weekend, its population quadrupled as fans of the book and Netflix series, Longmire, gathered for a chance to meet up with the television cast members and author Craig Johnson in the town’s annual “Longmire Days”.
Confession time again. Prior to my road trip, I had never heard of Longmire. I came across the festival while looking for things to do while out west. This meant binge-watching six seasons of the show and reading the first two books in the series.
As excited as I was for the festival, there were two things that had a slight edge over it: sleeping in a bed and soaking in a tub. Five nights of tent living and six mornings of lukewarm showers had me keyed up for my overnight stay at the local hotel. From there I wish there were more exciting details about my first night in the town of Buffalo. The only excitement of that evening came in the form of fast food, reality television, tub soaking and laundry.
Friday morning, I headed out for my first ticketed event – “An Autograph Session with Craig Johnson and Cast”. The doors opened at the local civil center at noon. Once inside, I exchanged my ticket stub for a half sheet of paper with the number 163 written across it. From there, event volunteers shuffled us fans into a large auditorium where another group of volunteers gave the low down of how the event would unfold. Two hundred and fifty of us snaked between rows of folding chairs until each had claimed one to wait out the time until our row number would be waved over to the long line of plastic top tables that make up the meet and greet area. Once we arrived at the area, each of us could have two items signed, take a selfie and hob-nob with Johnson and cast members.
Two things became clear very quickly. These volunteers knew a thing or two about taking care of Longmire fans. There were skits, songs and trivia challenges that made fan participation a must and a lot of fun.
Ninety minutes in, it was announced fans could leave for bathroom break or a snack, but if the line moved without you in it, there was no getting back in. Counting at least seventy-five ahead of me, I told my new fan girl friend I was heading to the car for water and crackers. Clutching my paper ticket in my hand, I headed outside.
Less than five minutes later, I flashed my “163” to the volunteer manning the outside area and made my way towards the auditorium doors. Just before I entered, an older man in a white cowboy hat stopped me. He stepped towards me and told me with a wide smile, “This is your lucky day.”
“Really” I said as I glanced over at to the attractive blond standing next to him, who was also wearing a white hat. He flashed me another grin and he introduced himself as Harold. It seemed Cowboy Harold and his wife (the blond) had driven up from Florida for the Longmire Days. They were hoping to meet all the cast members, particularly Sheriff Walt. Unfortunately, they had been late getting to town and all the tickets were now gone.
Harold explained his love of the show was so great that he had built a replica of Sheriff Walt’s Ford Bronco complete with an Absaroka County Sheriff Department emblem on its side door panels. He even pulled out his phone to show me pictures of it.While he showed off the pictures, his wife held out a Wyoming license plate and a large tan car sun visor. He shared they had wanted to get both items autographed by the cast to make their Sheriff Walt Bronco replica complete. This was where my lucky day came into play. Harold asked if I could get them signed for him since I had a ticket. My “163” was like the golden ticket from Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.
Sure, I had enjoyed binge watching Longmire, but I realized then and there I was no where near the fan-level Harold was. Only two items were allowed per person for the autograph session I told Harold. Since I had only one myself, I could take one of their in with me. Harold and his wife had a short discussion before handing over their one item. I took it, told them the line was moving slowly and it may be another hour or two before I would see them again. Harold pointed to an empty couch against the brick wall of the hallway, saying they would be there waiting for me.
With my back pack and my new second item, I walked back to my seat. My Texas fan-girl took a look at the large tan sun visor under my arm and asked if something had happen to my car. Laughing, I replied “No” and explained how a cowboy named Harold had made it my “lucky” day. I showed her a picture of a picture of Harold’s Sheriff Walt’s Bronco. This picture I hoped would explain why I needed a car sun visor autographed.
Less than an hour later, volunteers motioned us to the signing area. With my book, the visor and my phone in hand, I approached my first stop: Craig Johnson. As I pushed the book and visor across the table, I began my spiel about Cowboy Harold and his Bronco. Johnson listened, smiled and politely took a look at my phone. He then turned and snatched a flattened Rainer beer carton from a stack laying on the chair behind him. Rainer beer is Sheriff Wal’st beer of choice. Johnson said to make sure Cowboy Harold got his second item signed by everyone. From there, Sheriff Walt, Jacob, Bob, Ruby, Branch and Fergie listened to my story and signed all three items (book, visor and beer carton) . With each autograph and selfie, I turn from fan-girl into a card carrying Longmire groupie.
With my three autographed items, I exited the auditorium to look for Cowboy Harold and his wife. Just as they had promised, they sat waiting on the couch. Waving the signed visor in one hand and the flattened beer carton in the other, I beelined over to them. For the next few moments, I shared how Johnson, Sheriff Walt and the rest of the cast loved hearing about his Bronco back in Florida and how they wanted him to have his second autographed item, the beer carton.
After a few selfies with Harold and the misses, I set off to explore the streets of Buffalo. To my surprise or more like destiny, I found Sheriff Walt’s bronco parked outside the historic Occidental Hotel. So like the Longmire groupie I had become, I asked a stranger to take my picture with it.
Afterwards, I headed to the outskirts of Buffalo to set camp for the night and take a quick nap before my next event at the local high school,“Q&A with the Longmire Cast”. What a great time. Each actor answered questions about anything and everything. As good as the Q&A was, the genuine fun and camaraderie shared between the cast and the fans was the highlight.
At dusk, I returned to the streets of downtown Buffalo to go and get a quick bit to eat. In the square, I met two sisters from Sheridan. One was a first timer, the other a repeater. We weaved ourselves in and out of the crowded streets to get into the Occidental Hotel’s saloon. More narrow than wide with its 25 foot long bar, fans were squeezed into it. Shoulder to shoulder, we witnessed the annual fundraiser auction of Longmire cast members’ items. Sheriff Walt’s wine bottle went for $5k. Other items came and went with similar bids until the auctioneer announced Sheriff Walt’s final item of the night up for bidding: an autographed Longmire coffee table photo book containing scenes from the show. I don’t remember the initial bid, but the winning one was hard to forget, $20k. Yea, that’s right, twenty thousands dollars. It made me wonder if the grandmother from Arizona was in the bar and realized what a deal she had gotten for her $20 “meet and greet”ticket.
Calling it a night, I headed back to the campground to unwind . It took a while as I laid in my sleeping bag under the soft breeze of my battery operated fan replaying my day’s close encounters with a devil, a cowboy and a sheriff.
Days Five, Six and Seven
Mt. Rushmore, Custer Park, Crazy Horse, Deadwood and Sturgis
Clear skies and a bright sun shone above me as I waved bye to the park ranger working at the Interior entrance. My window rolled down and music blasting, I watched the Badlands give away to ranch land cut in half by long, dusty driveways.
Before long, I entered Rapid City to find the needed road signs pointing to the first stop of the day, Mt. Rushmore where the four of the most famous men in the Black Hills resided. The scenery changed once again giving away from grasslands to rolling hills filled with evergreens and pockets of small hotels with welcome banners and no vacancy lights.
Thirty minutes later, I got my first glimpse of the presidents’ 60-ft of granite faces hanging from the side of a mountain. Once inside of the park, I made my way through the Avenue of Flags towards the faces of Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln. It was surreal to stand right under their noses and listen to the park rangers explain the undertaking of this project.
On a tight schedule, I left the fad four for Custer State Park’s Iron Mountain Road and Needles Highway where I drove along fourteen miles of pigtails bridges, hairpin twists and unbelievable granite cathedral spires overlooks until I got to the famous Needles’ Eye Tunnel.
Having watched videos, I knew it was a one-way stone tunnel with a narrow passage. A little nervous, I parked at a small overlook to observe bikers as they passed through. Only after watching a similar sized SUV come through did I sandwich myself between a group of bikers and wait my turn. With a quick wave from the flagman, I made my way through the eye of the needle.
From there I enjoyed the park’s beauty as headed out to my third stop, the Crazy Horse Memorial. Another moment of awe. There at I learned about the Lakota people their dedication to their heritage to finish the decades old project.
With time left on the schedule, I made my way to the last pit stop of the day, Deadwood. Fans of the HBO series and the old west are familiar with this gold rush mining town that drew the likes of Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane, miners, gunslingers and outlaws to its vices. But on this hot August day, the only metal to be found was the chrome of the hundreds of bikes lining it now bricked streets. After staking my claim on the last space in the town’s parking deck, dressed in hiking attire and not even trying to blend in with the leather and bandanna wearing patrons spilling out of the bars, shops, hotels, casinos doorways, I wandered along the streets of Deadwood to enjoy all its offerings.
Then it was back to the road where dark and grey clouds filled with heavy rains took over the afternoon skies as I headed to the day’s last stop, Sturgis.
Okay, let me stop here and share my solo trip planning technique. Every year I pick one place I really want to visit and then I build my journey around it. I’ve shared in a previous blog I venture out for three weeks every year. And yea, I could spend all that time in one place and have a wonderful experience, but I want to see it all. So, I chose one place and spread twenty-one days of experiences around it.
2018’s it was Sturgis and its bike rally. So, I planned on to join more than a half-million people for its 78th year. Do I own a bike? Nope, but I do have my endorsement. I’m just too chicken to ride on the roads. And that’s on my list of fears to overcome. I am envious of the riders cruised by me on the I-90’s straight shots of pavement or Needles Road’s body-hugging curves. Maybe in time I’ll be one of those ride free(er) bikers that the South Dakota billboards proclaim to passersby.
Just one-hour shy of my campsite entrance deadline, I entered Sturgis in a steady rain. Despite the weather, its downtown was filled with vendors and people. This crowd favored more skin than leather with halter tops and ass chaps. I kept hoping it would be more equal opportunity in the bared ass chap’s department, but no such luck as I snail crawled out to the Buffalo Chip Campground.
There I waited three lines deep with trucks, RVs, campers and bikes to park and get my wrist bands. Waved through, I got in another line at will call. While waiting, a Scottish-speaking kilt wearing biker asked for help with his wrist band. I can’t say I ever through of those two things looking good together, but once you see it in person, believe me it does.
Back in the car line, I waited again. Okay, I can admit while sitting, taking everything in, self-doubt began to creep into my mind. But before I got to too caught in it, security waved me forward. Rolling down my window, I began to ping off questions to the guy. Midway he stopped to ask if I was alone. For a second, I hesitated, but answered truthfully yes. Then he asked if I planned to attend the concerts. Another yes. With that answer he proceeded to direct me with hand gestures to an American flag pole by a parked RV, telling me to take a left and keep going I saw a chain link fence, take a right and go as far I could drive and get as close to a water tower sitting on a hill.
No problem on the left turn. I had the pole as a marker. But with the fence, there were plenty of options for a right. Needing another marker just in case I got turn around in the field of tents and campers, I finally took a right. Again, at a flag pole. Only this had two blow up dolls hanging from it, proclaiming there was lots of fun to be had at this particulate campsite. From there, I drove on the flat ground until it gave away to a low dip and a large opening between two tent sites.
In the rain, I began to set up my tent. Just as I finished up, my neighbor to the right came over to introduce himself. With a fifth of Jack stacked on top of a Budweiser, he offered me a drink. I learned he had ridden up from Florida while the rest of his group had ridden in from Oregon. And like me, he was a first timer, too.
Still light outside and now with clearing skies, I made the rounds to meet my other neighbors. As a solo traveler, this is best part of trip. Meeting people and learning about their lives. In front of me, there was a young couple from Michigan who had a won nine-day pass to Buffalo Chip from their local radio station. Neither rode bikes, but it was a free trip with music and people watching. Having four days on me, they shared where the free showers were, which port-a-john to avoid at the top of hill (#3 & #4 had busted wood planks in them), where to dump trash and some funny stories like the guy who zipped line across over the amphitheater area dressed in only one sock.
Behind me against the fence, two middle age couples sat under a shade tent in lounge chairs watching the coming and going around them. They shared they have been coming since their teenage years and never missed a year. This year would be their teen aged children first time, but they only go to the Kid Rock concert. I also learned they lived on the Pine Ridge Reservation. I told them I had met a woman at the Badlands campground who was also from there. As I said her name, one of the women swiped through her phone to show me a picture of a woman in bike gear, asking if this was her. Confirming it was her, I stood there amazed how small our world really is.
After a quick power nap and dinner, I geared up for the main event of my evening, Lynyrd Skynyrd. With a flashlight in one pocket and mace in the other, I walked up the hill, towards the water tower and through amphitheater’s gates. Once inside, I found it to be more like a mini-town with its adjoining buildings and concert stage. There were stores selling souvenirs and biker gear, eateries, even a Domino’s. All built in a semi-circle around the concert stage. A large yellow Buffalo Chip sign hung over the stage area while rows of bikers sat on their chrome machines in the pit area. It was an awesome sight and sound as Lynyrd Skynyrd rocked forty years of southern rock classics to the roar of throttles, shouts and claps.
Hours later, I made way back pass the gates, water tower and port-a-johns on the hill, looking for my tent. The glow from the amphitheater gave off some light, but even with my flash light, I had a hard time finding my tent. Remembering, I had my car fob, I pressed down on it turning my car into a lighthouse.
Weaving between campsites, I listened to music filtering from the bars. As I got closer to my own campsite, I realized how quiet it was around it. No lights. No noise. None of my neighbors were home yet. Unzipping my tent, I sat on the edge of the cot, waiting for some noise, any noise. That self-doubt I had earlier at the security gate started to make its way back in the darkness of my tent. I couldn’t go to sleep with no one around. Should it had made a difference? Probably not, I really didn’t know them, but for some reason it just made me feel safer. I had two choices. I could wait out in my tent or the car. The car won out. Covering the driver and passenger windows with beach towels, I pulled my sleeping bag over me as I settled into the reclined car seat to face off to a line of smiling emojis on the car shade blocking the car’s front window. The plan was to stay awake until I heard someone.
That plan worked as I awoke to the low rumbling of bikes. Only it was around seven the next morning. I sat wrapped in a sleeping bag in a smiley face, towel lined windows, Rubbermaid packed car listening to others discussing the day’s plans. I smiled back to the emojis as I thought about being pushed outside my comfort zone and how I made it though.
With nothing on that day’s agenda, I explored the campground beginning with the amphitheater. During the daylight, it appeared tamed as a handful of people wandered through its shops. Workers were busy shifting fences around to set up for the afternoon races. I mingled and talked my way around the grounds before finally arriving at bikini beach to grab a slice of pizza and watch sun bathers perform cannon balls and dives into the cool water. While eating I met another first timer. She was from New Jersey. Through our conversation, I learned her best friend lived near my hometown. From there, more walking and talking until I hit the smoothie food truck. I guess bikers like smoothies, too. While standing in line, I met the campground security and programming head guys. It was interesting to get a bigger picture of what happens behind the scenes to pull off something this big.
My take away from the day’s explorations is how easy it is to fall for stereotypes portrayed in media, television or movies making us forget we have more in common with each other than not. We’re working jobs, taking care of families, paying rent/mortgages, saving for homes and vacations. Despite our outside wrappers, we’re all just people trying to live our lives the best we can.
The day’s walking and talking took its toll on me. Translation: afternoon nap time. No need to bore you on how fast a tired, sweaty body can fall sleep in hot tent under the low breeze of a battery-operated fan.
A lazy day fell into a lazier evening as I sat by the tent listening to The Marshall Tucker Band bellow out, “Fire on the Mountain”. Based on the interact with the crowd, they came to Sturgis for a good time and had no trouble finding it. Then later, I headed up the hill same as the previous night, pass the port-a-johns and water tower to the stage area to listen the night’s head liner, Aaron Lewis. Again, on repeat, I trekked my way back to my tent to find myself the first to return. What had freaked me out the night before, the silence, now had no hold on me as I readied myself for bed. Maybe because the unknown had become the known.
On my final full day, I found I need something more than Sturgis could offer. Starbucks and Target. So off to Rapid City, I head for a morning of wifi, caffeine and shopping. On my way back, I stopped to mingle with bikers and tourists on the streets of downtown Sturgis in the hot, muggy afternoon air.
Returning to Buffalo Chip, I navigated my way to my campsite using the pole hugging blowup dolls as landmark. As I re-organized storage containers and cleaned trash from my car, I heard a voice coming from a large SUV stopped behind me asking if the spot to left was open.
And that’s when I met the Montana fun girls. You know that moment when fate gives someone you can be yourself in a no judgement zone and just have fun. That who the Montana fun girls were. The three of them had come down from Billings for the Eric Church and Kid Rock concerts. What was great about them? They were my age, loved music and wanted to have fun.
I introduced myself while they set their tent and asked to tag along with them to the night’s concert. Despite having talked to a lot of people over the past week, I had not hung out with anyone. I needed girl time. Lucky for me, they said yes.
Over dinner and drinks in a BBQ joint at the amphitheater, we shared stories and insights of Netflix shows, serial killers and sex. Strange intertwined topics that made great conversation. Afterwards, we headed up to the second floor of the bar next door to claim our piece of real estate for the concert. Eric Church had a hard time completing for our attention between watered down sea breezes, zip liners, go-go dancers and our laughter. Finally, in the early morning hours and one Domino’s pizza later, we called it night.
The next morning, I shared a farewell breakfast with my new peeps. Exchanging contact information and a few more laughs, I left South Dakota where presidents, bikers and fun girls came together to make Great Faces, Great Places more than an advertising motto.
I-90 Sights and Badlands National Park
Day four was the official kickoff of my westbound solo trip. For the next eight days, there were great faces and great places for me to explore in the great state of South Dakota.
Just before dawn, I left Mitchell and headed back onto I-90 west. For several miles, I owned that side of the road. It was a little surreal not having to share pavement with other drivers, truckers or bikers.
Long, flat fields and billboards stretched along the surrounding countryside. Then standing like a beacon, I saw this large, multicolored statue with open arms perched on top of a hill off the east bound lane of the interstate. My curiosity took over as I exited the road to what the signs said was the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center/I-90 Chamberlain information center. About fifteen vehicles filled its parking lot, a few of us came off the interstate together, others seemed to be overnight guests as they were still a sleep in their cars.
Once parked, I made my way to the the fifty foot statue of a Native American woman holding a blue and steel colored star quilt. I learned her name was Dignity and she represented the Lakota and Dakota cultures. Standing with the rising sun in the background, I managed to captured her in all her splendid. I then followed a walking trail behind the center to an awesome panoramic view of the Missouri River, the Chamberlain Bridge and I-90.
Back on the interstate, I crossed the “Mighty Mo” to find hills tinted with black dirt taking the place of the flat farm land. This landscape tease went back and forth for a while until the flatness won out. But there was not complaints on my end. Because now the grasslands were replaced with acres and acres of tall, yellow sunflowers for as far as the eye could see.
By this time traffic had become thicker, not allowing me to do a pull over for a quick photo. Cars, trucks and motorcycles had taken over my quiet piece of real estate. Did I mention motorcycles? Single riders, couples and groups of Harleys appeared everywhere in every color and style in both westbound lanes of traffic. More bikes were strapped down in the beds of supersize pick ups or being towed in haulers or open trailers . Every now and then a BMW or Indian rider was thrown into the mix of HOG riders. And all of them seemed to take the 80 mph speed limit as a suggestion rather than a requirement.
As I got closer and closer to my first official stop, I found myself in an quandary. Either take the exit and go directly to my stop or do a 20 mile detour. You see I had fallen victim to roadside advertisement. Since Sioux Falls, large billboards shouted out to me the awesomeness of a place called Wall Drug Store. There were so many signs along I-90, I stopped counting, but not reading. These signs assured me there was free ice cold water to be had at Wall Drug. Not only that, there was pie, doughnuts, coffee, gold, western clothing and more. They had me at the doughnut sign.
An 80 foot green dinosaur at the top of the exit ramp pointed the way to the water and other goodies. Once I staked my claim in the crowded town center parking lot, I went to see if the store lived up to all those green and yellow billboards’ claims. Lucky for me, the first door I opened led to the doughnuts. With a fresh, chocolate frosted doughnut in one hand and a free ice cold water in the other, I wandered through Wall’s fifty thousand square feet of merchandise filled stores.
A few hours later, I backtracked on I-90 east to my original exit and made my way to Minuteman Missile National Historic Site. This stop turned out to be a double win. Not only did I get my second parks passport stamp, I also ran into the Vermont couple from my hotel stay in Mitchell. From there, I followed behind a group of HOG riders to enter my first official planned stop in South Dakota, the Badlands National Park.
Along its looped road and many pull offs, I followed wooden boardwalks and climbed up for a close view of the multiple layered beauty of the Badlands. Tufts of grass and random sprinkling of sunflowers spouted up from its dry, chalky floors while gray, tan and white formations claimed its sharp, jagged peaks and rounded flat tops. Golden colored prairies and grasslands fill the open space between the formations. After several short hikes, I arrived at my first official reservation.
Every solo trip I plan something outside my comfort zone. This years was tent camping. The last time I had camped was on my first solo trip into the Grand Canyon. But that was with 14 other people. This year it was just me. But I was only brave enough to do front country camping (aka you drive rather than hike to your camp spot). At the Cedar Pass Campground I found my reserved spot and began setting up camp for the night. While unloading my car, I met a nice lady who worked for the park. She gave me some bits of information about the Badlands and campground. She also shared she was Oglala and lived on the Pine Ridge Reservation.
By now the early start had caught up with me. With the help of a battery operated fan and occasional puffs of wind filtering through my tent, I managed to take a nap. A few hours later, I woke up to the sounds of slamming car doors and voices of children as they ran between the tents. My campsite (#36) was grand central station as it was located directly across from the showers and toilets. To be honest, I was fine with this. Several phone calls later, I was ready for dinner. Not wanting to eat from my stash dry goods (tuna fish, crackers, protein bars and trail mix), I made the easy decision to walked down the road to the small restaurant outside the campground.
Around 9 pm with dinner and a shower behind me, I made my way to the amphitheater for the park ranger talk on star glazing. The only problem was dark, heavy clouds covered the night time sky along with flashes of heat lighting off in the distance. Just as the weather had changed so did the night’s topic. Now our small group listen as the ranger shared how the Badlands were formed and how its wildlife adapted to survive its harsh environment.
With a flashlight strapped to my head, I trekked back to my tent. I began to have moments of uncertainty about the weather and camping alone. Rain I could deal with, lighting not so much. During the short walk, the lighting stopped, but the wind picked up. Thoughts of sleeping in my car entered in my mind, but as I watched others head into their own tents, I reminded myself this is why I do these solo trips. To push myself to the unknown and out of my comfort zone. Before I could have second thoughts, I unzipped my own tent flap, flipped off my shoes, stripped down and buried myself in my sleeping bag.
Even with the soft glow of the bath house lights, it was really dark. I lay there waiting for my eyes to adjust to the darkness and the silence. Because camp fires aren’t allowed in the park, by 10:30 pm, most campers had settled in for the night. The only sound came from mother nature in the form of large gulps of heavy winds pushing across my rainfly cover. A lot of thoughts creep through the mind when you are lying alone in the middle of a campground in an area of the country called the Badlands. Finally my eyes, ears and mind had enough and decided it was best I just sleep my way through those scary thoughts.
That is until around 3:00 am when the flaps of my rainfly cover began lift up and down, beating against the top and sides of my tent. I continued to lay tucked in my sleeping bag, listening and waiting. Thinking others had to heard the strong winds too. And if so, I would wait and see what they did. I assumed the other campers were more experienced and hence I would follow their lead. But after 15 minutes of no unzipping or hushed voices, I began to think the other campers were either heavy sleepers or just braver than me.
And then just as quickly as the wind had started, it stopped. In the silence that followed, my body relaxed enough to be claimed again by sleep. Just before dawn, I woke up. This time not to the wind, but to the sounds of a fellow camper’s quick unzipping. Peeping out of my window, I watched the sun do a slow rise over the jagged edges of the formations surrounding the campground. By 6:00 am, I had broken down camp, packed up and headed out of the campground to the new day’s adventure.
Reflecting back on my first night of solo camping, I like to believe I’m like one of those random sunflowers sprinkled throughout the Badlands. No matter how strong the winds may blow or where I may land, I would still find a way to blossom.
Click on the link below to view scenes from I-90 and The Badlands.
Day Two and Three
St. Louis to Omaha to Sioux Falls to Mitchell
Leaving St. Louis, I picked up I-70 west with no particular stopping point. The plan was to drive until I was tired and only stopping when my interest was peaked.
I would love to tell you those first hours were filled with amazing scenery, but that would be a lie. Heading west from one city to the next one in Friday afternoon rush hour traffic looked the same as back home. Bumper to bumper lanes filled with drivers jousting for the quickest path to their own destinations.
A slow rain joined the setting sun as I changed interestates in Kansas City to head north on I-29. An hour out, I pulled over to eat and plot where to sleep for the night. Two hours later in a downtown Omaha hotel parking deck, I managed to squeeze my mid-size SUV between a super sized pick-up truck and a tight row of motorcycles. And that’s all I can tell about Omaha.
Day three started early with clear skies. This day would be a repeat of day two. Drive, take a break, gas up,and drive some more. Although outside Omaha, the scenery did start to change for the better. Crossing into Iowa, long, green fields with large irrigation rigs began to dot the roadside landscape. Traffic also began to thin out while the number of motorcycles sharing the road started to pick up. Sometimes in sets of twos,threes and even ten or more, riders filled the open spaces between the cars and tractor trailers.
Three hours later, I crossed my third state line of the morning. The state of South Dakota welcomed me to Great Faces, Great Places. It was at Sioux Falls, I finally find a place that peaked my interest enough to pull off. There at Falls Park I visited the namesake of the city. This particular Saturday it teemed with locals and tourists playing homage to the flowing stair-stepped waterfalls. With flip flops, I made my way to the water’s edge where a little girl tossed rocks into smooth waters beneath the first set of falls. After a quick toe dip, I introduced myself to her mother who shared they were transplants from Milwaukee now living in Sioux Falls and visited the park often with out of town family and friends. This day they had the grandparents with them.
An hour later, I was back on the road. Five minutes out of Sioux Falls, I switched interstates and directions to I-90 west. As the speed limit jumped from 65 to 80 mph, I felt the adrenal rush as I pushed the gas pedal down to keep up with the traffic. But the rush wasn’t just about the need for speed. It was the realization I was one day away from my first official planned stop in this west bound journey.
At this point, I decided to make it an early day. I wanted to check into a hotel during daylight, wash some clothes and get a good meal. Up to this point, I had only eaten packed sandwiches from my cooler or protein bars, chips and fruit from my food bin.
In Mitchell, I got that meal. Burgers and fries. At the hotel while doing laundry, I met a couple from Vermont who were riding their bikes to the Sturgis Bike Rally. Notice I said bikes. The wife shared this was their fifth rally and she always rode her own bike. There was no trail hauling for them. She said it was a long ride on a bike but so worth it once they got to South Dakota.
Later that night, I pulled back the curtains from my hotel room’s window to look out on to a parking lot crammed with bikes, trucks with haulers, vans, cars and tractor trailers. I couldn’t help but think we were all road warriors and maybe even a little like Lewis and Clark, knowing it was a long haul but the final destination would be so worth it.
Check out my pictures from Falls Park
St. Louis and The Gateway Arch
Originally St. Louis was going to be a quick pit stop on my drive west. Then I learned the Gateway Arch had just re-open in July including the tram ride to the top. And it was now part of the National Park system which was a double win for me since the tram was closed on a previous visit and my brand- new National Park passport was itching for its first stamp.
Ten dollars got me a ride to the top with two with a family of four from from Mississippi. During those few minutes, we chatted about the usual things, where you from and where you’re heading, but it was the space shuttle inspired pod holding five seats in a tight semi-circle where we really bonded. I guess with no circulating air and claustrophobia one breath away, bonding among strangers is a good thing.
Leaning over a small metal beam, I peeped out of the Arch’s small glass windows to see the thick, muddy waters of the Mississippi River to the east and to the west the mixed architecture of downtown St. Louis. After several minutes of looking and picture taking, I made my way back to a pod this time holding a family from Chicago to make the 630 feet trip back to the base of the arch.
For the next hour, I wandered around the new museum learning about the Westward expansion and the many people who played willing and unwilling roles. Then like Lewis and Clark and the pioneers who followed them, I crossed the Mississippi to see what the west had to offer an east coast girl looking for adventure.
Oh, yea, I got my first stamp in my national parks passport. That life list I got going, just grew: collect all parks’ stamps.
Click below to see pictures from day two’s adventure
Home to St. Louis
After weeks of planning and packing for my solo trip, I pulled out of my driveway early Friday morning. This was after having spent the day before filling the rental with camping gear, food, clothing, various electronics I couldn’t live without, and anything in between. It was good thing I was travelling solo. The only empty space left was the driver’s seat.
Leaving my driveway in a light mist of rain, my emotions ran all over the place. Yes, there was excitement for the adventure ahead as well as the feeling of freedom of getting away from the mundane day to day tasks. There was also some sadness. Leaving your family for three weeks is a long time. Phone calls and texts are good, but there is nothing like the real thing. And then there is the fear of the unknown.
When I tell most people about my solo tripping, there are the usual comments of “Wow, I could never do that. You’re brave to go out on your own,” or “Why do you want to do that alone?” I am being honest when I reply, “Yes, you can do it and no, I’m not brave.” You see I do have the fear of the unknown, but the excitement of the unknown outweighs it. And that answers the why question too. I love the challenge of going alone to overcome fear of trying something new and exciting.
After a few minutes of the emotions, I started up my road trip playlist, leading with “Life is a Highway” (Tom Cochrane version). And that’s when excitement took over.
But after six hours of driving in light rain, intermit rain, heavy rain, no rain and back to heavy rain, light rain and no rain, some of the excitement had waned a little. At this point I just wanted to get to Nashville, the first major point of my journey.
Two hours outside it at rest stop, eating my packed ham sandwich and cheese nips, I get a call from my husband. After checking to see how it was going, he informed me our mechanic finished repairs on our youngest son’s car, but the tags and registration was outdated. Somehow the car had been inspected, but last years tags were on the license plate. With my half-eaten sandwich on my lap, I racked my brain how was that possible. No problem my husband informed me. He had checked online and found we could bring everything up to date by paying a fine along with the original tag and taxes fees.
Leaving from there, I made Nashville just in time for the early rush hour traffic. I had two choices: stay or keep driving. I compromised by cracking open my windows while I snail crawled down Broadway Street watching drenched tourists run along side the country music blasting honky tonks.
Thirty minutes later heading west on the interstate out of town, I watched the sun break through the clouds at the same time my eyes spotted a half moon on the side of the road. The human kind, not the celestial one. Off on the right shoulder, hooking up a car, a tow truck driver flashed so much butt crack it made me wonder if he was even wearing underwear.
Five hours late, I pulled into the hotel in St. Louis tired and a little red eyed. A long first day for sure. Reflecting, I realized that trips don’t have to start off sunny and happy, mundane tasks don’t get left at home and that some cracks need more speckling than others.
I love exploring new places and meeting new people. Two years ago, I was approaching a major milestone. The big 5-0.
Fifty is a liberating number. By this age you have learned what really matters in your life and you own who you are. What others think be damn. Yes for some of us, it can take a while to get to this point of self discovery.
Fifty is also a time of reflection. You realize there is still a lot of living to be done. We find we have more time to take care of ourselves, invest time in the things we have pushed to the side and yes, we have a few more dollars in our pockets to make those things happen. That when we start a life list or some call a bucket list. I really prefer the first one. Life implies living, bucket, well you know, not so much.
First thing on my life list was solo traveling. Several friends had shared their experiences of traveling on their own. I became so intrigued with the idea of going to new places by myself I decided to make my 50th the year of my first solo trip.
This August, I will head out to explore the Midwest, West and Southwest parts of the US for three weeks. Some of it planned, other parts I am waiting to see where the highway will lead me. I do know the best part will be the people I meet along the way. Every year, I meet strangers who become friends.
This year I will blog my way cross country. Each day I’ll post an update on where I am, what I am doing and who I am meeting. Be sure to sign up for my blogs or you can follow me on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
You can check out pictures from my previous solo trips at Cate Dixon Photo Blog 2017 I visited Iceland, England and Spain. 2016 I hiked the Grand Canyon.