Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Lost In America: The Midwest Eats And Goes On A Stroll

Last thing you knew I was headed west, straight and to the south, aimed for a state with a reputation for large expanses of desolation and not much else but a couple monuments. Interstate 90 draws a straight line across South Dakota like a well-handled etch-a-sketch; the state is bookended by two towns: Mitchell in the east and Wall in the west (though perhaps bookended isn't apt here; I doubt there are many books anywhere in the state). The latter two towns get their expendable revenue from one source each: tourists.

Thousands of corn-addled minivan families pull into the diagonally aligned parking spaces surrounding the Corn Palace in Mitchell and Wall Drug in Wall; the latter you may have heard of, as there are signs for it all around the world, or perhaps you got lost in the Midwest and took the road that had the most signs to one place. Though the themes of these monoliths of Americana are different, the atmosphere is the same: BUY. The Corn Palace has murals covering the inside and outside of the building that are made entirely out of (you guessed it) corn. It has glass cases with various decaying elements of the history of the building itself and pitcures of famous country singers who visited the building in its past iterations (corn murals, unlike strawbale, decompose over time and must be rebuilt to reflect, umm, America at its corniest). The main room in the Corn Palace is an arena where I assume some sort of sporting event or beauty contest takes place, but on off days it is converted into a giant retail floor with a labyrinth of aisles and shelves holding items that would have been appealing to Wally Cleaver. (On a side note, I have been told that I look like Wally. Do not assume that I have his taste in kitsch.) We bought postcards and left.

Our previous host, Beth, and her family had warned Liz and I about South Dakota: "It's so flat, you'll be bored out of your _____ [insert plural body part here]," or something like that. I didn't believe it, having driven across flat places before without issue.

Flat. Flat South Dakota, the flat part of the shallow inland sea that covered that part of the country so many eons ago. Flat. I guess. I don't actually remember. We drove several hundred miles with the anticipation of something called Badlands. Before our initial departure, my uncle Tony had told me about an encounter with a lone buffalo on a 115 degree day in the Badlands. The way he told it I was sweating at the end, and it was decided that we should go. They're on the western end of South Dakota, just east of Wall, and they're very earth toned.

I have to stay subdued here to avoid giving a maudlin account of "the toothlike pinnacles and unearthly, savage landscapes that come at you before you're prepared to take it all in." I can't freak out the way we did when the road started twisting and undulating between all these... badlands. I don't know how else to call them. They're not really rocks, I think, they're like really hard mud that used to be rock. They're not mountains, I think, because they're only a couple hundred feet tall. They're badlands, I don't know how else to explain it. It's like a microcosmic mountain range.

We drove through the park first, agog at every turn, then gathered some water and other supplies and went to the visitor's center to ask about trails. It turns out the actual trails are short and few. The woman we inquired to looked at us with a cheery face and said, "you can hike anywhere! Just watch out for buffalo." Our response was that of skeptical shoppers: "So we don't need a path or anything?"


That's it. You can go anywhere in the park. She didn't even tell us that we should know how to get back. We left the building feeling so liberated that our own dreams of hiking in the park seemed restrictive. We trucked back to this picnic spot that had a backcountry log, so we could write our names in the book and put a note saying where we were headed in case we didn't come back. Not that we knew where we were going. The rules were that you had to camp 1/2 mile or more from any road or trail or trace of humanity. We parked at the base of some badlands, loaded our packs with water, food, tent, and sleeping bags, and walked around a bend.

It was getting on evening, and we were walking along the small valleys between the slopes, on dry stream beds and the few feet at the base where no plants grow. At first it was fairly open space, but gradually got slimmer until we rounded one bend and realized that soon there would be no flat space to pitch a tent. My instinct said "go up," so I clambered up the side of one of these slopes to the top, maybe 60 feet, and found a little ridge with some flat spots and a good view. Liz followed shortly, using all four limbs, as had I, grasping at the lightly rooted scrub plants that must live on imaginary water reserves; the mud/rock I've described is so because there is absolutely no moisture to be found, on land or in the air. The slopes are cracked, dessicated, and tend to give way with little incentive, so an even center of gravity is important on the steep parts.

Safely atop the ridge, walking along and looking for a good place to camp, the silence rose as the sun descended and revealed on the horizon a swath of deep plum colors, the aura of the earth. No city light pollution, no traffic smell, nearly nothing at all around us but badlands to the north and west, prairie to the south and east, and the moon above. We made chili from a mix and some fresh onions and garlic, burned some of it to the bottom of the camp-stove pot, ate, and got in the tent, still agog. It was cool enough, the moon was bright enough to cast a shadow and blot out many of the stars. I put my head down and closed my eyes.

They opened seconds later, wide, and my torso convulsed with my heartbeat. "What was that noise?!" I knew there were no bears around (I am afraid of bears), but there could be mountain lions, right? We definitely saw coyote tracks on the way in. This was my thinking for the next hour or so as I imagined how I would fend off a large mammalian intruder. Eventually I settled down and slept a bit, until something else woke me up. It was Liz. She said, "the stars!"

Even through the tent screen the skyscape was more intense than I was prepared for. When I stuck my head outside of the tent and looked up my lungs were emptied, literally. To describe how it looked is impossible, but suffice it to say that I saw numerous shooting stars and four satellites within ten minutes; to spot a satellite under normal rural circumstances is rare, even if you know what to look for. I'd never seen more than one at a time, but there they were, little dots of white shimmying around the sky like they were trying to connect the dots.

Our morning routine, breakfast, was accompanied by the flutey bays of some coyotes chiming in the 5:30 hour, and after we scrambled down the least steep slope to the ground, we started following a dry stream bed that had been recently traveled by the audible-but-invisible animals. Liz's sense of adventure took us across some prairie towards the pinnacles in hopes of finding our own little Northwest Passage. Prairie grass may look short from the road, but it is waist high and full of burrs and seeds that want nothing more than a ride on your socks.

This is where it got tougher; I'll give you the highlights:

We followed a streambed, figuring it had to come from up and had perhaps worn something down to "passable" status. Along this stream we saw, in several bushes, the leg bones, spine, and skull of a deer (way cool, just like in the cartoons). After taking several impassible turns, we reached the end of the line; had we tried to scale the side of our obstable (which I took a stab at), it's possible that we might still be there. Only light creatures with specifically designed claws should climb those things.

That's it. We made it back to the truck at 10:30 am, after 4.5 hours of adventuring, and went to Wall Drug for their famous 5 cent cups of coffee and to experience a shocking recalibration to the ways of human living.

We are now in Boulder, Colorado, which you will be able to read about on the blog fairly soon (once the memories are all recovered/organized-- I gotta write more often). Boulder is great and says HELLO and HAPPY THURSDAY. Perhaps I'll make it a choose-your-own-adventure.... the next episode has actually been in the works since before this installment, and contains a surprise. It's like a Tarantino movie...

Hot but dry, sore but happy,

Lost In America

And I have to include a call for support, this time not for a ride-buddy, but for prayers and donations. Our friend Padma lost nearly her entire family in a car accident in India and has been shouldered with the immense burden that comes with this sort of tragedy. I've been asked to spread the word, and I'm already impressed at the amount of support that has been sent in every way. For more information: http://www.realitycharity.com/view_item.php?listing_id=3450 . You can also check out the Facebook group "Support for Padma," if that's how you prefer. Thanks for your time! --A

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