Day 7: The American Road Trip
7 June 2015
In my opinion, 4 am is the best time to get up. You get camp packed and hit the road before anyone's out, and before the sun makes its ascent. We got lucky with an amazing sun rise over the plains.
I also prefer to forgo breakfast until later, riding the 2hrs or so of wakedness that follow an early morning. We pulled off at one point to view the largest brontosaurus recreation I've ever seen - it had an entryway and an interior space like a small house, about 2.5 stories up. We were close to Wall Drug, made famous by bumper stickers everywhere, so we wiggled our way there from the highway, finding it closed for another hour or so. Luckily, the café was open, so we hunkered down in a booth for some coffee and breakfast. Once we were let in, we wandered the halls of the indoor mall, perusing leather goods and fine hats.
Further in, there's an interior courtyard with a few kid's rides and giant rabbits, which I found incredibly disturbing (despite my frivolity with them). I saw Watership Down at preschool once, and I've never been the same since.
As the sun got some legs, we made our way a little South to the Badlands. This is a pretty simple park to navigate, considering some of the National Parks in the West. Of course, it helps that you can see basically all of it from each lookout. It is expansive, foreign, and ancient. Like a seashell made by a crab underneath the soil, it rises and falls, striped with centuries of sedimentation and erosion. It's a gentle place, contemplative. Be sure to checkout this photo that Nick made. Mine, like the landscape, are a bit more gentle.
We drove about an hour and a half to the Black Hills to see Mt. Rushmore, atop those great earthen undulations, peaking in bare rock. It's kind of like driving up to a mall: you park in a garage, walk through open hallways (like Universal Studios LA, if you've ever been there), pay at a booth, and eventually get to a long cement causeway that leads to views of the desecrated mountain. The parking ticket is good for a year, so come back! Buy more crap from the gift shops dotting the runway!
I found the whole place to be quite surreal, in a very dystopian way. This place was once a sacred site: "Natives dubbed the granite mountain Six Grandfathers in honor of the four directions as well as the earth and sky" (source). Desecrated in the name of manifest destiny (was it imperial? neocolonial? autocolonial, as Amit Ray would have it?), the KKK helped kill the Six Grandfathers and put in their place four white europeans, most of them incredibly racist and malicious. I didn't know this history at the time, but these weeks were when Denali was reclaimed in name, and Bear Lodge became a hinge topic for me. Regardless, though, it's a disturbing theme park of the American West: stairways into the forest, scree (the natural corporeal elements of the Six Grandfathers) left as refuse, cameras overseeing, even under the watchful eyes of the hawkish Washington, et al., and the necessities of consumerist place-making intruding everywhere in the form of snaking tendrils of wires, bolted down to the rock, which seemed so soft in contrast to the harshness of the techno-industrial infrastructure.
I want to provide a full picture, so I'm painting it in my own way. I wasn't so outwardly critical in the moment, however, and we had a good bit of fun
We then drove down into the hills, South, towards Custer, enjoying the commerce of animal parts that seems to still thrive, at least as trinkets - nothing like the old traders that used to fight these lands tooth and nail for pelts.
It got on in the day, so we headed back north in the hills, stopping for a few bison burgers.
The whole area is BLM land, so we drove deeper on chipstone forest roads, talking with an old woman in her truck camper along the way. She lived this way full time, and loved it. We ended up hitting asphalt again, running South a ways to a town nestled in the gullies of the streams, so that T could use the bathroom before we set up camp. I accompanied her into the bar, dark and without space to breathe, let alone walk, with hats and things hanging from every inch of wall, covered in years of dust and cigarette smoke. It was backwoods beautiful. It was the meeting place for the area, and locals hung around on the porch, joking and relaxing, as they always do, I assume. We went back north and pulled off in a spot of gravel, an area recommended by the wise woman on the hill (she had a clear, long view out over the hills). It was just a pull-off, just next to a cattle grate, but it had a gentle slope on beautiful grass, with a nice view of the pasture. We put the tent door away from the road, towards the hills, and where the sun might rise.
I wrote my only journal on this evening, just before the sun set. I'll post it once I get that hard drive from home. Passing pickups in the night stirred us the first few times, but no one ever slowed or bothered us. If nothing else, it was convenient, and, if you didn't look in the direction of the road, it felt quite back country.