(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!
THE REST OF THE PARK
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.
LEAVING THE PARK
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.