Carla Brennan's Blog

Reflections and Photos from The Big Trip and Beyond . .

DAYS 290-293 Badlands National Park, South Dakota

Leave a comment

(The Big Trip is over for us . . . but not for you! I am still putting together blog entries that cover the rest of our sabbatical adventure. I hope you enjoy this continued travelogue.)

July 16-19, 2013

From Custer State Park we drove south to the town of Hot Springs to resupply before heading onto Badlands National Park. About eight years earlier we had been to that park and enjoyed our stay. But this time I doubted the wisdom of visiting in mid-July during the hottest weather of the year. There are few trees in the park and none in the campgrounds. The thought of constant exposure to unfiltered searing sunshine was depressing. At least the Black Hills had elevation, forests and lakes to mitigate the oppressive heat.

This led to repeated cranky discussions about what we should do and whether we should go at all. I do not do well in hot weather, becoming dull, irritable and pathetically enervated. Eventually, through lack of a better idea, we continued on, entering the park from the remote southwestern entrance and stopping at the primitive Sage Creek Campground. It was early evening and we took the last site available that had a covered picnic table, affording a little shade.

The campground was a simple small dirt road loop on a flat dried grass area surrounded by low hills. A few small groves of trees could be seen outside of the campground, the closest one hosting a loud chorus of cicadas. The sun was setting and the air temperature was slowly decreasing. The persistent prairie wind helped to blow some of the day’s heat away. Still, I glumly imagined the stifling heat that would settle over us by the next afternoon. The camper would become a solar oven and I would cling to the outside edges of the truck following the small shadow it created.

Next to us was parked a commercially made pop-up truck camper about the same size and design as ours. The owners were not there but their license plate said they were from Ontario. When the couple returned from their evening hike they approached us smiling and came over to talk. Our similar modes of travel created an immediate bond. Eventually they retrieved some camp chairs and we spent the evening sharing stories of travel and life. Although I was fatigued and listless from the long day and the still lingering heat, it was a pleasure to chat with others on a similar journey.

They were a week into a year of travel, their trip including camping throughout the American West with additional overseas excursions to Cuba, Turkey and India. Both were school teachers and enrolled in a payment program offered by the Canadian government: work for 4 years at 80% salary and get the 5th year off. Every five years they travel for a year.

They let us in on the best secret of this place. A few days earlier there had been an unusually large downpour and it had created large pools of water in a nearby, previously dry, stream bed. This seemed like incredible good luck. Against all odds, in this arid, hot, mid-summer prairie was water for a refreshing dunk. A true oasis, a miracle. I might not shrivel up into a scorched, desiccated, grumpy lump after all.  Cool water, as deep as a few feet, awaited us. Our neighbors said they had slathered themselves with the fine, silty mud, let it dry, and splashed each other with refreshing water. People in Calistoga, California, pay a lot of money for the mud bathes like that.

The next morning was pleasant and the breeze refreshing, but by 1 PM the shade from the camper had disappeared. The sky was devoid of clouds, allowing the sun to blast the area with its ferocious intensity. The wind became strong, constant and hot.

We headed to the watering hole – a five minute walk – hoping the bison hadn’t taken it over. It was simply, totally fabulous! Nature offers unimagined gifts. The water in the deepest part was almost cold, and the surface layer, though warmer, was still refreshing. A section of the pool was over two feet deep and allowed for short laps back and forth. Nothing – nothing I tell you – could be more wonderful than this.

The water was opaque – latte colored – hiding any aquatic life within. Periodically something would attempt small “bites” that were more like kisses, like being gently, but noticeably, gummed by something. This was a bit startling, sometimes amusing; we never discovered the source.

Our neighbors on the other side were young newlyweds on their honeymoon from San Francisco. We talked “Californian” together. They were enjoying their trip but clearly also missed the lively, inner city, drinking, party scene. When we suggested they try the waterhole they recoiled a bit, not wanting to immerse themselves in the muddy water. Oh, the joys that city folk miss!

After a couple nights at Sage Creek Campground and numerous trips to the oasis pool, we left to visit the rest of the park and see the namesake badlands. Eight years ago the national park had been almost deserted, making it seem quiet, undeveloped and remote. But this time, even with the oppressive heat, the visitor’s center, parking lots and roads were abuzz with crowds. A huge hatching of large flies had also arrived and they covered the walls and entrance to the park buildings, turning pale colored bricks to solid black. Despite efforts to keep them out, many followed people inside causing frantic slapping and swiping to get them off bare skin.

We slowly drove the scenic roads stopping frequently to explore and photograph. However, there would be no long hikes this time. We thought we might stay in the developed campground but were turned off by the crowds and by the thought of camping in shadeless heat without watery relief. Not to mention the flies.

We decided to return to Bear Butte State Park in Sturgis, and then head to Wyoming.

On the way, we stopped in Wall, SD. Debilitated by the 100+ degree heat, we descended into one of our few fights. (Yes, despite being together 24/7 in a small space we had few disagreements over the year.) All I wanted was air conditioning, a cold drink and the internet but we couldn’t seem to find these together. I fell into a immobilized, disoriented stupor. Chris tried to investigate the entire enormous Wall Drug, while I sat zombie-like at a small table in the dining area. I was impatient to leave and he wanted to continue his exploration of this unique and quirky South Dakota landmark. Tempers flared.

Eventually we got on the road again, calm and tired, and arrived at the quiet state park after dark.

This gallery contains 22 photos


The Big Trip Has Come to an End

October 4, 2013

The Big Trip has come to an end.

Just as it was hard to believe during the few weeks before starting our trip that we were actually going to leave home, it has been hard to believe over the past few weeks that we were going to be home again. We ended The Big Trip the same way we began it. Our first and last nights were with Chris’s sister in Menlo Park and our next and previous nights were at Mercey Hot Springs. This symmetry seemed fitting for re-entry.

Although I have written mostly about the outer journey – places and events – it is the inner journey that has been most important. I will continue to complete a record of our travels through stories and photographs, but my big job now will be to understand and integrate what has shifted inwardly. I do not know yet how much of that process I will put on my blog. It may take months, if not longer, to fully survey this new inner landscape.

During the past two week I noted that many of the tasks we had done so many times we were doing for the LAST time. The last time washing my hair under difficult conditions, the last grocery shopping in an unfamiliar supermarket, the last withdrawal from an ATM machine, the last time collecting quarters for a laundromat, the last trip photograph and, of course, the last supper. Some of these I am happy to leave behind, but others I will quickly miss. Endings, change, transitions, all hallmarks of impermanence. But beginnings and birth are also part of impermanence and I will be starting life afresh in Santa Cruz.

I had many reasons for going on this extended “drive-about”. To restore myself after a few too many years of demanding work. To re-evaluate, re-assess and re-vision my role as a Buddhist teacher. To clarify my deepest intentions for what I have left of this life. To give freer rein to the “wandering monk” within. To step out of routine and schedules and into immediacy and spontaneity. To be awed everyday by the natural world. To create space for my writer’s voice to speak. These were all fulfilled to varying degrees.

A deep bow of gratitude to the many wonderful people who supported this sabbatical year of travel and introspection. May the rewards of this trip be worthy of your faith in me. And thank you to those who spent time reading this blog; it helped me feel that the effort was worthwhile!

Chris said philosophically the other day, “The trip will continue once we’re home, it will just change.” Yes, we will still be on a journey, the mysterious trip of the unfolding present.

I will continue to be a student of Nature: inner nature, true nature and wild nature. And I will always be a student of wonder.

DAYS 287-289 Custer State Park, South Dakota

Leave a comment

(NOTE: Today is 10-2-13. We have one more day on The Big Trip: we will be home in Ben Lomond on Friday, Oct. 4. I plan to keep at it after our return and include blog post for the rest of our trip.)

July 13-15, 2013

After driving all day from North Dakota, we reached Sturgis, South Dakota. Darkness fell and the sky became ablaze in color as we pulled into Bear Butte State Park. We liked the small park (and would return there later) but continued south the next day to Custer State Park. Custer had been recommended to us and I hoped we would like it enough to spend several days there exploring the Black Hills.

As it turned out, we stayed for only two nights before heading to Badlands National Park. Custer was just too crowded. The forest service visitor center had said the area was unusually busy this summer. The campground was packed with large noisy families making the most of their annual vacation. Traffic on the roads made getting around and parking difficult. Big tourist buses sat idling loudly at some of the stops. Lines formed in the campground stores. All of this created the sensation that we were at an amusement park whose theme was Nature, rather than at a place where people come to appreciate nature and take refuge in what nature offers.

However, seeing the families camping together reminded me of my childhood camping trips. Few people I grew up with in Pennsylvania camped and perhaps fewer traveled to the West, including these very Black Hills, as we did. Those early vacations predisposed me to a lifetime of enjoying travel, camping and wild majestic scenery. The vast landscapes of the mountainous west triggered a deep sense of wonder and magic that has never left me. I hoped that the children I saw gallivanting in packs around the campground were having seeds sown toward a love of nature, its beauty and a wish to preserve it.

During our full day there we drove to Sylvan Lake and went on a 4 mile hike. Big views and beautiful flowers. To get there we took the Needles Highway, a scenic curving road that winds up the Black Hills and around tall granite pinnacles, sometimes going right through them. This trip continually reveals the countless and unexpected forms that the earth element can take, so varied in shape, color, composition and complexity.

On our way to the Badlands from Custer, we drove through Wind Cave National Park and witnessed more herds of bison. I particularly enjoyed watching the buffalo interact. Many red calves followed their mothers closely while bulls hung out in small groups, often resting on the ground. Occasional skirmishes resulted in half-hearted head butting. Regular rolls in the dirt sent up clouds of dust that drifted slowly through the herd. Clumps of fur still clung loosely to many of the animals giving them a scruffy look. The ones who had completely lost their winter coat looked intentionally shorn, like a poodle, with nearly bare skin next to thick puffy fur on the front body, head and forelegs. The males in particular looked like powerful mobile mountains, their great hulking bodies cresting in their massive shoulder mounds. I did not know it then but these would be the last wild bison I would see on this trip. May the great American Bison flourish, spread across the West and return to its original home on the range.

This gallery contains 54 photos