Friday, July 13, 2012

High Plains Drifter

I hope you read part I....

"Beyond the wild, impartial skies."
-- Michael Williams, "Solamnic Death Chant," Dragons of Winter Night

July 4th, our nation's independence day. I was celebrating it by driving across the unforgiving high plains, somewhat following the Lewis and Clark trail, a lone woman in a little four-banger turbo sedan, equipped with enough electronic gadgetry to put even my high school students to shame.

I left Spamtown USA around 7AM, hitting I-90 and continuing west into the high plains of South Dakota. I didn't have a particular itinerary until I was coming up on Rapid City, and this time, I was determined to be there early enough to see the Badlands. I wasn't sure how long the trip through the park would take me, nor was I sure what exactly there was to do besides see the land, but I just knew I wanted to do it.

Stopping at a welcome center/rest area, one of the welcome center staff gave me a bunch of information to take with me, some of it for my parents (since my mom is still trying to convince my dad to go further than the Mississippi in their conversion van RV). The woman at the welcome center was very helpful, giving me a map, highlighting the best route to take from the Badlands to Mt. Rushmore.

My only stop after that was at a scenic viewpoint in the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands, just before the Badlands exit.

A lone tree on the plains, Buffalo Gap National Grasslands
Cactus hiding in the grasses
Little blue flowers
I 90 stretches away in the distance
I arrived at the entrance to the Badlands National Park around 2PM Mountain Time and paid my park entry. Within the first few miles, I was astounded. Greg McCance's description of it being a "very cool, humbling place" doesn't do it justice.
Big Badlands
Big Badlands. This is the first viewing point when entering on the east side.
The Wall
Just beyond Cedar Pass. It smelled incredibly cedar-y here.
This place just has a harsh beauty to it, like the salt flats.

I went by the visitor center to look at postcards and the fossil workshop. I picked up some hot sauces and a book on stargazing in the national parks.
We'll see how "hot" this is...
Then, I was off again. At one point, I put the GoPro on the roof of the car too.

Along the fossil trail, they had displays like this showing examples of some of the fossils they'd discovered in the park.

The Yellow Mounds (with the bit of pink above the yellow) were strange.

I can't imagine what the first Europeans to come across this land must have thought. Many tried to scrape out a living here -- for $180, the US government gave settlers five years to survive on plots of land in the West -- but many failed. In the middle of summer, it's hot but dry, and the winters are not very easy either. People who tried to live here, whether they succeeded or not, must have really needed to escape from where they were.

All in all, I spent nearly four hours in the park, and I didn't stop at every viewpoint. From the Badlands, I meandered through Rapid City up through Keystone and to Mount Rushmore. My initial impression was that it was smaller than I'd envisioned, but after the vast expanse of the Badlands, I may have just been expecting too much.

It's odd how the idea of a lens really makes it look like it's there

So much of what was said by Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Roosevelt still holds true today.... but no one wants to listen, much less live by it.
Original idea
From the Presidents' Trail
I debated whether I wanted to stay until dark, as I hadn't eaten all day, and I wanted to make sure I made it to Bozeman, Montana at a reasonable time on Thursday. There wouldn't be any fireworks because of the dryness of the area (and there were enough wildfires in Colorado and Montana already), but I thought it would be neat to stay until the lighting ceremony. I grabbed a bison burger and a Moose Drool and waited until dark. 
Andy might not like it, but I did
The lighting ceremony had technical issues, so instead of starting at 9PM and finishing around 9:30, it didn't actually start until close to 9:45PM. By that time, I was essentially committed to spending the night in Rapid City, so I made the call to Choice. Unfortunately, rooms weren't cheap, so I just used hotel points instead.
Twilight on the historic viewing terrace
I should have brought a tripod to get some decent night pictures with long exposures on my DSLR (especially of the night skies), but I didn't think about it until too late. After the lighting ceremony, I dawdled a bit to let the crowds leave, and swung by the gift shop. 

And so we see the character of too many politicians....
One of the other things I got was a pair of small flags, one Maryland and one Nebraska. The cashier said to me, "From Maryland? Whereabouts?" I told him Baltimore to which he responded, "Westminster here." I was incredulous.

"Really? I grew up in Union Bridge, and went to Western Maryland College!"

"Union Bridge is basically owned by Lehigh, aren't they?" When he said that, I knew he was a for-real Carroll County guy. Such a small world.

It took forever to get out of the parking garage, and once I did, it was a quick thirty minutes back to Rapid City, where I checked in to the hotel and crashed. Montana's a big state, and that was next on the slate.

So, bright and early Thursday morning, I set out for Wyoming and the US212 cut-through to Montana. I gas the WRX up in Belle Fourche and kept moving, and just outside of Broadus, I see a roadblock ahead.


The turn off to 59 is right there, and I see a sign saying the I-94 junction is some 70 miles away. I don't have cell service, so I can't bring up my Google maps to see how far out of the way this is going to take me, but as water trucks are passing me to go by the road block, I know I don't really have much choice, other than to go back the way I came. I take 59.

Before long, I can actually smell the smoke, and looking to my left, I can see trails rising from the wildfires creating a hazy storm-cloud effect.
Smoke rolls into the sky
It takes over an hour to reach I-94, putting me east of Billings. I could still smell the smoke, strongly, from I-94 up until I met up with I-90 again.

I plug along, touching base with "findurpath" from NASIOC, whom I'd be meeting for a late lunch in Bozeman. He'd seen that I stopped in Livingston last year, and wanted to meet me in person, so we arranged to rendezvous in Bozeman when I came through, which would be about 3PM. In the meantime, I get a phone call from Sam Strano... "Where are you?"

"Um... partway between Livingston and Bozeman.... Why?"

"How far is that from Glasgow?" 

I'm thinking, How am I supposed to know... Montana's big. I say, "I don't know. Why?"

"The train ahead of us derailed, and I don't think I'll make it to Packwood before Saturday since they have to load us on busses to get us to another train to get around the derailment."
Sam's picture of the derailment of the BNSF freight train
Yikes. I look at the Sparco Evo passenger seat with all the junk in it, and start thinking of how to help. "I'm supposed to meet up with someone in about 20 minutes. Let me look at where you are compared to me and I'll get back to you."

I check my Google maps, and see that Glasgow is about 3 hours away, north and somewhat east. I call back, and he says that he's also been talking with Shelly Monfort about how she can help out too. He is pretty sure that she's going to come out and pick him up. "If you're sure on that, that's good, but let me know if anything comes up," I tell him.

I meet up with James Jong in Bozeman and we head over to 406 Brewing for some drinks, then downtown for a late lunch at Santa Fe Reds.
The tasting room at 406 Brewing

Outside Santa Fe Reds
I wanted to get further west before stopping for the night, so we opted to take some photos of our cars in nearby Lindley Park rather than hang out for the weekly music-in-the-streets thing that was going on.
CGM Subies rule! Photo by James Jong
They look like siblings! Photo by James Jong
After trying to help a guy out whose battery was dead ("Do you have a 10mm wrench?" "Why yes, I do!... Oh wait, okay, just try this adjustable wrench"), we parted ways, me with a growler of 406 Brewing's Belgzman IPA.

I drove as far as Missoula that night, grabbed a six pack of Bayern Amber Lager and struggled to fall asleep. I'd be in Packwood the next evening.
It didn't help me sleep any better, unfortunately.

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