I spent a long, hot, itchy and buggy night in the van near Waukesha, Wisconsin after the Milwaukee Brewers game.  The weather had finally decided that summertime was upon us and the cool evening temperatures of spring had given way to the stifling mid-western air of summer.  I spent the majority of the day catching up on writing for my blog and searching for cheese which I could bring home.  Sorely disappointed, all the wonderful, fresh cheese I found in Wisconsin needed to be refrigerated (one of the downsides to travelling by van is the lack of a refrigerator).  There was no practical way to keep anything on ice for the eight days that stood between me and my arrival in Seattle, or even the next four days to my next destination in Salt Lake City, Utah.

There is no major league baseball team in Salt Lake City, but I have close friends there who were willing to put me up for a few days while I waited for the Colorado Rockies to return from a road trip.  My plan was to spend the next two days driving from Wisconsin to Utah, spend a day or two in Salt Lake City and then head back east to Denver for the second to last stop on my Major League Road Trip.

When I finally left Waukesha it was mid-to-late afternoon.  The sun’s rays were filtering in with an orange-hued glow as I travelled west, first back up the I-94 and then onto I-90.  Salt Lake City was approximately 1,500 miles from my position and by my estimation that would be two and a half days of driving.  I didn’t stop until I hit the Minnesota state line which was marked by the flow of the Upper Mississippi River.  The great river looked so peaceful and nondescript here in the north before being fed by countless tributaries along the way south through St. Louis and New Orleans. 

Dusk filtered through the atmosphere as I stopped for a break and a few photos.  The quality of light that evening was some of the most unusual I’d experienced.  I captured the strange phenomenon with a borrowed Canon G9 camera, which I barely knew how to use.  Then I drove on, racing the setting sun until darkness enveloped the van as she rattled along the highway.

When I finally stopped at a small rest stop along the I-90, the wind had picked up quite fiercely.  I spent what remained of the night listening to it whip through the leafy branches of the tall, spindly aspen trees.  The cool air flooded through the window vents on the van and kept me cool enough to doze off and get some decent sleep.

South Dakota

Prarie in South Dakota

When I awoke in the morning, the wind had cleared.  I set out eastbound on the I-90 again and quickly crossed the state border between Minnesota and South Dakota where I briefly stopped in Sioux Falls.  As the van rattled along the freeway, I was awed by the beauty of this Great Plains state.  The rolling hills of grass seemed infinite and the blue sky, dotted with clouds as white as a freshly laundered chef’s apron appeared to stretch on forever.

 Semi-trucks rumbled along in the right lane as the van and I chased the ever-distant horizon on cruise-control.  My driving gaze was interrupted every mile or so along the highway by signs and billboards for local road-side attractions, starting somewhere around 400-500 miles from it, most of the hand-painted signs reminded me that Wall Drug lay ahead.  The notoriety of Wall Drug has been immortalized in my memory by countless bumper-stickers emblazoned with the moniker: “Where in the HECK is Wall Drug?” The more the miles ticked away, the closer to Wall Drug I got. 

 

I drove all day, and the sun began to tilt toward the west. The light gained the orange hue of late afternoon. I passed one of the brown, National Park Service road signs which said that Badlands National Park Loop was just ahead.  Checking the GPS, I found that the loop took only 26 miles, came out farther to the west and intersected with I-90 again.  On a whim, I made the fateful decision to take the detour.

 

Badlands National Park

Badlands National Park

Upon entering Badlands National Park, I was immediately struck by the wide canyon before me. In every direction there were distorted geological formations.  The crags of misshapen earth bore the marks of ancient age: horizontal lines of ancient sediment stripped across the valley to create a terrain that I imagined might be fitting of a distant moonscape or inhospitable planetoid. As I cruised along the narrow and winding, single-lane road through the park, I encountered a plethora of wildlife: big horn sheep nonchalantly grazed along the side of the road almost close enough to touch, and antelope wandered about in the distance.

Dusk turned to twilight as I continued through the park, realizing that I needed to find a place to park the van and sleep for the night. Abruptly, I almost ran into a construction site. Road workers were working in the darkness.  The flagger kept us stopped for quite some time, long enough for me to turn off my engine and strike up a conversation as we waited for the pilot car to return.  As I stood, eating canned Chef Boyardee ravioli freshly heated on my engine block, she recommended a camping area about 5-6 miles off the main road ahead.  I took her advice and followed the pilot car into the night and turned where a dirt road split off from the main road. 

Chef Boyardee a la Dodge Caravan

Chef Boyardee a la Dodge Caravan

 

As the van rattled along the bumpy thoroughfare, entrenched in darkness which my headlights were barely able to penetrate, I thought I saw two or three enormous shadows cross the road up ahead.  Warily, I stopped the van and rolled down the windows.  With the pocket-sized LED flashlight charging in the van’s empty cigarette lighter slot, I shined the small but powerful light out into the night. I was greeted not by a pair or two pairs of eyes, but at least two hundred pairs of golden eyes reflecting back at me from a distance of less than 20-30 yards.  I had encountered the park’s resident bison herd, huddled together for defense in the darkness.  It is one of the most eerie feelings to stare into the darkness at so many bright, shiny eyes, every one of them fixed on you.  Knowing that these beasts are enormous and not being able to gauge their reaction to my presence made me a little nervous. I watched for a while and moved on to the campsite when my curiosity waned.

Later, I would learn that the reason an animal’s eyes reflect light in the darkness but a human’s do not is because animals have a tapetum lucidum, which is effectively a light-reflecting membrane in the eye. The tapetum lucidum gathers light and allows animals to see much better in the darkness, but is also related to why their vision isn’t as precise in the daylight.  

 

The Badlands Bison Herd

The Badlands Bison Herd

In the morning, I awoke early. The sunlight streamed through the windows of the van and warmed my face to the point of discomfort.  I slid into the driver’s seat and pulled the van around the cul-de-sac of tents and campers.  Not more than one hundred yards down the dirt road leading to the camping area, I encountered (presumably) the same buffalo herd.  There were more of them than I had estimated the night before, and they had spread out over a few surrounding acres on either side of the road.  All manner and shape of bison lingered and lounged in the grass as I slowly rolled the van past them, taking photos from its relative safety.  Cows and calves mixed along with the numerous bulls.  The mid-morning sun shone down on the big ungulates and I could see them shake their ears and thick fur coats as the insects tormented them.  On a hillside in the distance, a big bull rolled and kicked in the dry dust to try to cool down.  The day ahead would be hot out there in the Badlands.

I said my good-byes to Badlands Nat’l Park and continued on.  A little town called Wall, South Dakota sits at the cross-roads of I-90 and the access road through the National Park.  Not surprisingly, this is the home of Wall Drug.  Considering the persistence and ingenuity of their marketing campaign and the coercion from all those silly “Where the heck is Wall Drug?” bumper stickers, I felt like this place would be a reasonable exception to my ‘No-stopping-at-roadside-attractions’ rule.  What I discovered however, was a vast labyrinth of tourist swag tucked away inside the faux-prairie-style building on the main street of Wall… perhaps they should have called it Wall Street?

At any rate, I waded through the displays of gimmicks and merchandise to purchase a few post cards and try out a hot dog made from Buffalo meat.  My order was taken by a fresh-faced teenage European girl, and as I observed the rest of the staff, I realized that they were all teens from various countries around the world.  Striking up a conversation with one of them, I was informed that they were all some sort of work-exchange students and that the company obtained most of their seasonal employees from other countries. I was struck by the brazen exploitation at hand: what a miserable way to spend a summer for a young foreigner. Imagine being accepted into a foreign exchange program in a glamorous and exotic country, only to be shipped off to one of the most desolate regions and forced to work in retail customer service at a notorious tourist trap for the duration of your stay.  In my opinion it was a dirty trick played out on these unsuspecting kids. Nevertheless, I took my free bumper sticker same as the rest and went on my way.

 

Mt Rushmore

Mt Rushmore

After the vapid experience at Wall Drug, I got back on the road and headed west again.  It was roughly about noon when I hit Sturgis, home to the infamous annual motorcycle rally which the townsfolk appeared to be gearing up for already.  In this area, my cellphone coverage had finally disappeared completely and I had to rely on good, old-fashioned maps to navigate.  Perhaps I was a little rusty because in my attempt to get to Mt. Rushmore, I ended up driving through the historic gold rush town of Deadwood.  Deadwood and Mt. Rushmore are situated deep in the Black Hills, an area of roughly 125 by 65 miles of thick pine trees that differ drastically from the environments that surround them.  The Lakota-Sioux believe that the Black Hills are sacred and belong to their nation as their ancestral homeland.  I found that the area had a unique beauty and an unmistakable energy that seemed to radiate from the ground itself.  It is no wonder that despite the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision that the Sioux were unjustly deprived of their home and that compensation exceeding more than a billion dollars was due them, the Lakota-Sioux refuse to accept the money and are still holding out for their land to be returned to them.

Ironically, the placement of Mt. Rushmore within the Black Hills seems to add insult to injury to the Sioux claims.  I found the Mt. Rushmore National Park to be a disappointment in the way that commercialism seems to have corrupted most things of such nature:  crowded and over-priced.  However, just a few miles to the south stands the half-built monument to a Native American hero: Crazy Horse.  The great warrior chief occupies a much larger position on a south-facing rock face.  Although the sculpture is far from complete (and may take generations to finish) the unmistakable face of a proud leader emerges from the rock.  Perhaps the unfinished status of the Crazy Horse monument is a silent reminder to all of the unfinished business that the Lakota-Sioux wait for in trying to reclaim their heritage.

I pressed on and the late afternoon sun waned as the pines of the Black Hills gave way to the rocky and barren landscape of Wyoming.  The long, straight highway from Newcastle to Lusk was interrupted only by a semi-truck which had jack-knifed and blocked both lanes of the road. Presumably, the trucker had fallen asleep at the wheel and lost control of the trailer.  While a cadre of state patrol officers and a tow-truck dealt with the obstruction, drivers stuck in the line of traffic took the opportunity to stretch their legs, myself included.

The darkness finally came about the time that I reached Lusk.  I turned west on Highway 18 toward Douglas.  The hours passed as the dashed lines on the road ticked by and the radio tuned to fuzz. My eyes blinked repeatedly as fatigue overwhelmed me.  My eyelids closed, my mind drifted to sleep and the van rumbled on.  I was awakened by a jolt as the tire collided with the warning track on the other side of the road.  I swerved back into my own lane and slowed down until I found one of the many turnouts along the highway and pulled the van over.  I climbed into the back and immediately fell asleep.

Sometime during the night, I was awaked by headlight beams intruding into my sleep.  My eyes fluttered half-open and I gripped the hatchet wedged under the mattress.  A silhouette in the shape of a man cast a shadow on the roof of the van.  Half asleep I shouted, “What do you want?!? Get the fuck the outta here!!!” With a few seconds the headlights arced away and the stranger disappeared into the night. Immediately I fell asleep again, too tired to investigate the intrusion. Perhaps he had stopped just to take a leak or perhaps he wanted to investigate my vehicle; either way, the fact that the van was occupied deterred any greater intrusion and I’ll never know who it was out there that night.

The next morning, I awoke with the dawn and continued my journey westward across the state of Wyoming on the I-25 through Casper down WY-220 to Interstate 80.  The day was filled with driving, but I allowed for one stop: the Fort Bridger Living Museum.

As a child, I read a biography of Jim Bridger, the mountain man who explored the Wyoming territory.  One of my heroes growing up in Alaska, I always felt a kinship with the persona described in that book.  Fort Bridger brought many memories back from my childhood when I pretended to be on grand explorations deep in the wild.  I learned that Jim Bridger was likely the first white man to see the Great Salt Lake and led many wagon trains into Utah, where the Mormons would eventually settle.

I climbed back into the van and made my final push to cross into Utah.  The interstate climbed over the mountain pass.  The color of the soil changed drastically to more of a rust color as the atmosphere thinned.  Finally, the van crested the pass and I dropped into neutral to coast.  Salt Lake City was just a few minutes away, where my friend Sunit and his family waited for me.

Salt Lake City is home to the Anaheim Angels Triple-A affiliate baseball team, the Salt Lake Bees.  We got tickets for the Sunday game against the Reno Aces at Spring Mobile Ballpark.  Sunit’s daughter was three years old and this would be her first baseball game.  We signed her up for the Knothole Club, which included an adorable ‘Little Bee’ t-shirt which we immediately changed her into. 

Our tickets were on the first base side, a few rows behind the visitor’s dugout.  The Bees kicked off the game with a run in the first inning.   Our Little Bee was enjoying the game, when an unanticipated turn of events made things weird.  Turns out that the mascot with the really big head (a caricature of a lineman for the local utility company) is really intimidating for a toddler.  Sunit’s little girl hid her face and cried every time the mascot was in the vicinity.  We walked around the stadium instead, which I must say is a rather nice park for a triple-A team.  We missed most of the game, but did get to witness a fantastic 8th inning rally by the home team, which consisted of two 2-run home runs. 

Since Spring Mobile ballpark has a grassy lawn beyond the outfield, home run balls land amidst the spectators lounging on the grass.  It’s fun to watch the folks out there chase down the balls as they crash down and bounce around among them.  The bottom of the ninth was unnecessary, as the Bees were ahead 5 to 3.  We left the stadium in good spirits and our Little Bee fell asleep in her car seat on the ride home.

The next day, I said my good-byes to Sunit, his wife and the Little Bee then climbed into the van for the final leg of the road trip.  It was 579 miles to Denver by the southern route through Provo, and I had five days left to get back to Seattle before my target return date of June 30th.  Time for “Bat Outta Hell” mode. Engage!