North Dakota: A True Solo Adventure to Remember
Trip Start Aug 16, 2011
1Trip End Aug 18, 2011
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"How long did that take you?" I inquired, with the proverbial light bulb over my head. "Nine? Ten hours?"
"Seven." The man replied. "Boy, the rally was absolutely nuts, it --"
Seven hours? I started drifting off in my own head. Not having the least bit of interest in the details of a motorcycle rally, I began considering possibilities for a road trip to North Dakota.
North Dakota can't be more than two or three hours from Sturgis. I had always wanted to visit Sturgis to see what all the fuss was about, but never wanted to go during the obnoxiously-busy and debaucherous rally. Held typically during the first week of August, the rally congregates motorcyclists from around the country. In my head and from stories recounted, I imagined the event to be one enormous bar fight among Hell's Angels members and a whole lot of beer drinking. Despite that, I tried to keep a tabula rasa attitude for the time being.
I sped through my homework that Tuesday morning, fueled by a triple grande caffeinated beverage of some sort from Starbucks. Joanna met me briefly to say goodbye in their parking lot before I hit the road shortly after noon. All I brought with me were a couple outfits, a three-person tent, a cooler filled with my camping specials (aka several cans of Modelo Especial beer), pre-packed peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, an eight-pack of Gatorade, and of course, my still-new Lucchese cowboy boots.
Crossing the border into Wyoming, I noticed for the first time Cheyenne's Frontier Days stadium. As I drove through Cheyenne, I felt like I was in a city with a population of 5,000. This is the capital of Wyoming, and I only recall seeing a few exits with little-to-no businesses or signs of life. I then remembered that, although a large state in size, Wyoming is the least populated state in the union. When one drives north through Wyoming, he or she should be well equipped with music or be ready to be alone with one's thoughts for hours. No cell phone reception. No decent radio. If that is your style, I meant no insult; but for others, you've been warned!
I made it all the way to a small town called Guernsey in eastern Wyoming before filling up for gas. These towns were all blending in, as they contained a maximum of one stop light (if any), and I was out of the town by the time I had finished my yawn. Highway 85 runs north along the eastern border of Wyoming, and on into the Dakotas. It is governed by a speed limit of 65 mph, although the speed of the average traveler ranges from about 85-95mph. I would say I averaged about the mean of that (I'll let you do the math). Fortunately for me, a cocky guy in a BMW flew by me early and I stayed hot on his trail, using him as "cop bait". We hate those people, but we've all done it.
No, Officer, it wasn't me. That guy in the BMW was driving like a bat out of hell! Hurry and get him before he endangers more lives!
Thanks to BMW guy, I was in South Dakota by 5 p.m., and in Sturgis by 6:00 p.m. (seemingly in record time). When I sent Joanna a text picture of my tent all set up at the campsite, her response reaffirmed that notion: "Wow, you're already set up and everything?" Pulling into Day's End Campground and RV Park, I expected slim pickings for a good site, with everyone probably already set up for the night. Not the case at all. There were maybe five tents in sight (all occupied by bikers), and the rest were RVs.
"You wouldn't by chance be able to recommend a good bar around here, would you?" I asked the large woman behind the counter in the campground office, who smelled fresh from her bath in cigarette smoke. She had the kind of look on her face when one's shoes are about two sizes too small.
"Where you from?" She shot back, as if already having a list of places in her mind that might be acceptable answers.
"Virginia?" My answer sounded Ron Burgundy-esque, although I had no reason to really think about that.
"Hmm, I like Virginia." She declared, putting her hands on the globe atop the counter, spinning it quietly for several seconds and sending me into further confusion.
"Thank...you." I said. I was becoming progressively more uneasy with this conversation, all while simultaneously trying to take small breaths inside this nicotine factory. I imagined the conversation alone had knocked off a year of my life. "So," I continued, "you were about to recommend a good bar?"
"Ah, yes." She snapped back into reality. "Knuckle."
"Excuse me?" Responding puzzled, I thought I had heard the word "knuckle", but just wanted to double check.
"The Knuckle Saloon is right up Lazelle here, about a mile on the right. You drinking?" Her question caught me off guard. I nodded.
"Here." She handed me a business card reading: Ace Taxi - Sturgis' Favorite Sober Driver! "The guy's real nice. I think he used to be a drunk but sobered up to capitalize on the crazy need here. It's only $7 one-way."
I had been in a car for six hours at this point, and all I wanted to do was walk and see Sturgis on foot. Wearing my cowboy boots seemed like a good idea, as the locals seemed very country. Without them, perhaps I could have been persona non grata, and walking alone on the sidewalk in a country town filled with boozing bikers, it is probably best to fit in. I spent the mile-long walk talking with my friend Mike about his dental school pursuit, and I called Joanna briefly to share with her the funny taxi story. I think I scared her more than made her laugh. Whoops.
The town was deader than the men on Mount Rushmore. I finally made it to The Knuckle, where the setup was precisely as I imagined. The bar stools were lined with motorcyclists wearing leather jackets pledging allegiance to some biker gang, and the tables were filled with elderly locals and lone bikers still clinging onto the embers of the rally. The looks I received when I walked in were reminiscent of those my friend Josh and I received when we strolled into a locals-only joint in eastern Idaho, The Trouthunter.
When I saw that the Redskins preseason game from the previous week was on the bar's TV, my eyes lit up. It was short lived, as I knew I wasn't about to ask the rowdy stool pigeons to move over. I asked the server who brought me my delicious steak tips where I should go next, because I was on a road trip looking to have fun.
"Ehh, ouch." Her response and look she gave me were as if I was being told I wasn't going to get that Christmas present after all. "You might try the Loud American down the street, but that's going to be an older crowd...much older." She could sense my disappointment and disbelief. After all, I had thought this town was going to be wild no matter what. "After the rally, pretty much everything shuts down. You could always stay here and get drunk?" Her last suggestion was laughable.
No thanks. I shook my head with a smile, and asked for the check. It turned out those cowboy boots either needed to be broken in more or I needed to add some padding, because my feet were killing me. The walk back to the tent made me regret not keeping the taxi guy's business card. I called Joanna to have a laugh with her about a phrase she had just used with me the previous Friday: "My dogs are barkin', Babe."
The next morning came early. Well, not really, but it seemed so because I shivered my way through two hours of sleep and the movie "Boogie Nights" playing on my iPod. I noticed those gleaming golden arches right next to the campsite when I walked out of the showers, and McDonald's breakfast, a treat I never get to enjoy, sounded damn tasty. I pulled my car up to the campground office to grab some ice for the cooler and ask a couple questions on my way to the drive thru.
"Do you know of anything fun to do in North Dakota?" I asked the attendant, a different person from last night.
"Oh my." She giggled. "I've only been to North once, and that was just driving through to Minnesota." She proceeded to pull out a bunch of literature and go over dozens of options for me to do, none of which actually being in North Dakota. I briefly explained to her my goal of seeing all 50 states by the conclusion of 2012, and that I wanted to make North Dakota an interesting time, because this town was incredibly uninteresting.
"Yeah, I know. I was born and raised here. There is nothing to do; the entire town just turns off after the rally." She went on into more detail, but I just got lost in the fascination that a little town of only 6,000 people balloons into a mini country with the insurgence of over 700,000 bikers.
"Tell me about it." I sighed, trying to conclude the exchange. I felt like Adam Sandler in "Big Daddy", glancing down at my watch and imagining that delicious bacon, egg, and cheese biscuit slipping from my grasp before I could order it. "So--"
"I had been living down in Austin with my brother." She threw that one out of nowhere. "You been there?"
"Yeah, actually, I--" Shit! Why did I open up that conversation box? "I was just there, but it looks like we switched roles, and now I'm here to enjoy your homeland." I hoped I recovered as nicely from that one as it seemed. Looking down at my watch, it was 10:25, and I still had five minutes to order breakfast. I was going to make it.
"Sir!" Her midwestern voice caught me just before the door slammed behind me, and I reluctantly turned around. "Your ice?"
"Right! Thanks." I had to go around back to grab it, enduring another brief round of interrogations in the process. Hurriedly walking up to the counter inside McDonald's, the look the cashier gave me already revealed the bad news. It was 10:33; and McDonald's makes no exceptions. Retreating back to my car, I perused North Dakota destinations on my cell phone's Internet, munching away and spilling mayonnaise-drenched lettuce flakes from my McChicken onto my lap. When I decided on Theodore Roosevelt National Park in Medora, ND, the GPS indicated it would take me about three hours to get there from Sturgis.
Seeing that North Dakota sign was almost surreal, as I always wondered what would bring me up there since I didn't know anyone. I stopped at the state sign, and chuckled at the notion of the whole experience being "legendary". Arriving at the park, the visitor's center was stationed atop a magnificent view of a canyon, bringing to mind a smaller and more colorful version of the Grand Canyon. The ranger at the station told me to go back-country camping because the park was free roam. The idea sounded wonderful, until I saw the signs everywhere of wolf activity on the premises. I often ask people when hiking, "Would you least rather encounter a bear, a mountain lion, or a wolf?" My answer is always "wolf", because they travel in packs and aren't likely to be outsmarted. Recalling my justifications, back-country camping was no longer an option.
Driving further into the park proved to be an interesting experience, with bison creating a bit of a traffic jam. There was a quiet serenity about the Little Missouri River, and I found its banks to be the ideal location for my tent and reading chair. I left the Cottonwood Campground to hike the Lower Paddock Creek Trail, about a few miles up the back roads in the park. My Mustang pulled into the barren parking lot around 1:00. With not so much a hint of human life for miles, I pondered whether this trail had been decommissioned years ago.
A rotting, wooden sign barely displayed: "LOWER PADDO CR K T AIL", and under which was a notification posted on a piece of coffee-colored paper, hardened by time and the elements.
"Recent wolf and coyote activity in area. Be advised. Also, do not approach bison. Extremely dangerous when provoked; can run up to 35 mph, and can turn quicker than a horse."
"Shit. Are you kidding me?" Those were the first words I had spoken out loud to myself in hours. Fully lubed with sunscreen and bug spray, I was not about to turn back now. Reaching into my Camelbak, I found my pocket knife equipped with a very large, serrated blade, and placed it in my right pocket. The trail gave way to two directions, with either way offering desolate grassland enveloped by aesthetically pleasing buttes and chirping prairie dogs warning each other of my arrival.
After hiking for about twenty or thirty minutes, I began to feel like Louis and Clark in this mini grand canyon of sorts. I imagined what they must have felt like, paving their way through this majestic frontier and not knowing what they could encounter next. Finally reaching the apex of a steep hill, I thought perhaps other forms of life could be awaiting me on the other side. A blast of brisk wind punched me in the face, throwing dust in my eyes and mouth. I took a drink of water for relief and splashed some in my face before looking around.
Nothing. Absolutely no one. I could see for miles in every direction, with nothing but hollow winds traveling through my ears, the chirps of the prairie dogs a mere memory. I stood there for about five minutes in appreciation of the gorgeous panorama. You could close your eyes and spin around, extending your pointer finger in any direction, ready to explore. No matter where you ended up pointing, anywhere you looked was unscathed wilderness that aroused childlike enthusiasm for discovery. On top of it all, I was alone. It was like experiencing the confluence of complete solitude, contentment, and fear.
My iPod was playing a random combination of songs like Chopin's "Revolutionary Etude", Meatloaf's "I would do Anything for Love", and Megadeth's "Symphony of Destruction". Occasionally, I would hear something that could have been a wild animal, and I would rip my headphones off as fast as my heart was beating, only to find my imagination playing tricks on me. At one point, I swore I had heard that deep grumble a bison makes, and I pulled out my blade and clutched it firmly in my right hand as I raced up this embankment to get a better view. Again and again, it was nothing.
I was beginning to feel like Christopher McCandless from "Into the Wild", sporting an irremovable smile of enchantment with a heart racing in preparation for a beastly encounter. The trail had long since faded along with my sense of direction, and now I was just trekking among God's land. It was during these moments where I would stop and tell myself that I was proud. Most people would have stopped at the sight of the wolf warning, but I continued on into the uncertainty that seemed to be a felicitous metaphor of my life at present.
"The universe tends to unfold as it should." The modus operandi by which my life seems frequently governed saved me yet another time. At the crest of this sizable butte, I could distinguish a small, white speck in the distance.
That has to be the 'stang. My camera's 10x digital zoom function proved me right. The rocky butte on which I was perched was certainly steep and perilous, but manageable for a properly-planned descent. After calculating my route, my feet slipped a bit at first, but I scrambled to the base in about six minutes. With each step towards the green ocean at the bottom, the prairie dog barks grew louder. When I stopped moving, the wind was amplifying the sounds, creating a reverberating echo of prairie dog clamor and making me feel like a celebrity on nature's red carpet. I danced along through the green pastures like Mikhail Baryshnikov, savoring this moment of accomplishment and gratitude for natural beauty.
The town of Medora was like something out of the old west, each establishment looking like it had spawned out of an old saloon from the Doc Holliday era. I ate dinner at a local's spot called "Boots" before watching the sunset over the park.
Despite the array of bugs and the illegality of campfires, the scenery was unbeatable. My portable iPod player was providing good background music while I dove deep into a good book. My sleep was a bit turbulent, as my dream of a late-night bear attack was all-too-real. Popping up like Dracula in his coffin, I emerged from the sleeping bag in cold sweats and confusion. My brief sense of relief dissipated when I heard a loud noise that could not have been human.
What the hell? I came outside the tent to find wild horses foraging for grub along the river bank. It nearly scared me half to death at first, thinking it was a bear. Not many people are so fortunate to have wild horses as morning companions. Joanna texted me good morning, and I told her I would be heading back, and that North Dakota was, in fact, legendary. The GPS said it would take eleven hours, so I told her I'd see her in nine.
Karma bit me on the drive back. A large truck was following right on my tail just as I did that BMW. Determined to lose it, I decided to skip the town of Lusk, WY and get my much-needed gas refill back in familiar Guernsey, about thirty-nine miles down 85 South. My digital fuel meter read "50 Miles to E"; surely enough time...I thought. It turns out the 100-degree heat and blasting air conditioning were causing my meter to plummet rapidly. Before I knew it, I was cruising in neutral every chance I got, cruising in the triple-digit heat with the windows down.
Eeking my way into Guernsey on fumes with swallowed pride and sweating bullets, I found my way back to the same gas station. If that wasn't enough of karma's evil doing, I discovered some horrifying news at the station. They were out of "premium" gasoline, so I turned to the manual to see if it was feasible to use 87 octane just this once. Turns out the car prefers regular ol' 87 octane after all, and I had been spending at least 20 cents extra on gasoline for over four years now. Who's laughing now? BMW guy!