This past week has been all about National Parks and Monuments. I’ve visited Scottsbluff National Monument, Agate Fossil Beds National Monument, Toadstool Geologic Park, Wind Cave National Park, Mount Rushmore National Monument, Crazy Horse, Custer State Park / Black Hills National Forest, and have moved on to Wall, South Dakota. Who needs drugs when nature gives you such a high? Every one of these places inspires books, music, and art. They inspire the soul. For starters, I once again recommend checking out my pictures on Facebook. Sure, I put a couple on Instagram sometimes, but that hardly does these places justice. Rather than focus this blog entry on descriptions of the national beauty, I’ll be sharing more stories of the wonderful people that I’ve met and still more incremental progress in what I’m coming to see as my awakening process.
I arrived in Scottsbluff, NE too late to see the monument, so I parked in a Walmart parking lot for the night. A wind storm popped up just as I was arriving. It was so fierce that I began to worry about the trailer tipping over. Peggy was not happy. I was considering parking the wrong way in the lot in order to turn my trailer into the wind, but it passed and the remainder of the night was peaceful. Scottsbluff Monument is small. You can take a shuttle to the top or you can hike, although right now the midspan of the hiking trail is closed due to a rockslide. You can hike most of the trail if you’re willing to come at it from both above and below. The trail is paved, making it easier to spot snakes. This became a much bigger concern while I was there. After eating lunch in my trailer, I stepped out and nearly landed on what I thought was a rattle snake. It turned out to be a non-venomous bull snake who lazily slunk away, but I am not ashamed to admit that it scared the crap out of me. I wouldn’t let Peggy walk in the grass at all. The original Oregon Trail goes through the site and you can hike along that for a bit as well. A couple I was walking near also spotted a snake slithering into the grass. I guess the rangers are aware of the snakes in the area but never really have a problem since they are all shy and docile. I really didn’t have anything to worry about. At the top of the monument I met a large group of family and friends. The only name I got was Rhonda, so I’ll refer to them as Rhonda and Friends. They were great. Up from Texas on a road trip, we talked for a while and then headed down as another wind storm started to come through. It was such a pleasure meeting them.
The ranger at Scottsbluff recommended I buy the national park admissions pass, but he did caution me. They find ways around it and will charge you for all sorts of things like parking and tours that the pass does not cover. It’s an $80 pass, and he was confident that I’d still make my money back. He even recommended that I flash the pass even when I know it won’t be accepted because some people will just give you a discount. This seemed to work when I went up to wind cave. I camped for half price and everyone seemed fine with it. At this point, I’ve already made back $35 on the pass. The ranger had other helpful suggestions, too. I had considered going to see Carhenge. It’s junk cars stacked up like Stonehenge about an hour from Scottsbluff. I didn’t know it was there and drove right through the town where it is without stopping. I could proceed on to it, but he and others recommended against it. They described it as lame touristy trash that had started as a joke and then caught on. I don’t mind seeing such things, but followed their advice to go a different way, passing by Agate Fossil Bed Nationjal Monument.
While I think I would have Carhenge, heading to Agate was definitely the right call for me. That was a busy day for me. I saw Scottsbluff, made a quick stop at a Plains History Museum, and saw Agate all on the same day. It wasn’t that much of a stretch. The museum was largely closed due to remodeling and expansion. I’d love to go back at some point. They let me in for free so I could watch their 10 minute video. They also echoed the recommendation to go to Agate. I made it their just in time to see the visitor center before it closed at 5 PM, but the park and trails were open until sunset, more than 3 hours later. I followed a 2 mile paved path (yay snakes!) through gorgeous rolling plains up to two hills, and yes, there were snakes. Well, I really only saw one little baby snake on the path, but I was worried that it’s momma was around. This one looked even more like a rattler than the first bull snake which was much larger. It didn’t move as Peggy and I ran / jumped past it. We were very brave. I actually like snakes, but I know so little about them that I don’t know how to be safe in their environment. The little guy didn’t even move so I wondered if he had died there, but he was gone when we got back so I guess not. The hills are naturally exposed and then excavated fossil beds that were once at the bottom of watering holes. Both the visitor center and hillside exhibits were very fascninating to me, although Peggy was much more interested in the rabbits. She damn near tore my arm off! I guess that’s what the snakes are eating, the rabbits? I don’t know. Peggy did manage to grab a hold of some little mouse like rodent, but she dropped it when I yelled at her.
Two rangers at Agate, Al and William, recommended that I stop for the night about an hour north in a small town called Harris. The town is a grid of about 5 streets by 5 streets with a single bar owned by a woman named Becky. The town has a couple of free RV spots with electrical hookups. I found the town and the spots easily enough. I was even excited to see the bar. It’s been a goal of mine to go to a bar in the middle of nowhere and sit with real local locals, and this town was the most middle of nowhere I had been so far on the entire trip. It’s hours of driving to the nearest interstate. I walked in to fine Becky’s son, Justin? Jason?, behind the bar with absolutely no customers. He was happy to talk and we shared stories for a while. He’s from Oklahoma and moved up several years ago. He had worked as a hunting guide and had some interesting stories. We got to talking about how to deal with grizzlies when hiking. He recommended against bear spray (supped up pepper spray) since he knew a guy who was attacked and badly hurt after using it. The bear had attacked two hikers, one with a gun and one with spray. The bear went for the guy with the gun before he got a shot off. Spray guy used the spray. Instead of running away, the bear charged spray guy and attacked him. Gun guy got up and shot the bear a bunch and it finally left. Both men survived although badly injured. A ranger I encountered later still says that, statistically speaking, bear spray reduces attack frequency and severity more times than not. It is the recommended method. He cautioned against bells since bears are inquisitive and that can actually attract them. Shooting a bear only works if you have a big gun and are a good enough shot to accurately hit their few and well shielded soft spots.
Anyway, the conversation was going well and soon others started to slowly filter in. The first couple was straight out of a western. I loved it. They had clearly been working with cattle all day, and the woman’s spurs clinked as she walked. They seemed friendly enough with the bar tender but not totally open to a stranger jumping in on their conversation after a long day so I left them alone at first. Then, more people came, 2 locals and another employee. The conversation opened up and I was able to chime in a little here and there organically. I didn’t get a negative vibe, but still didn’t feel entirely welcome in the discussion until 3 more locals came in. These folks sat right next to me and were down right friendly. Lastly, 2 traveling petitioners came in to get signatures from their captive local audience. They had been hired to travel the state seeking signatures on a petition to allow casinos. They were not from the area at all. James was from Connecticut originally but most recently lived out in California. He had a very California vibe about him. With these later additions, the room really livened up. It started to feel like hanging out with friends. We were all very interested in each other’s stories. However, it was noticeable that some of the original patrons who came in earlier remained quieter and less involved. I wonder if they were annoyed to have outsiders in their quiet little town. That night, someone banged on the back of my trailer pretty hard. It was just a quick three bangs all at once. I was still up and some lights were on, but I was watching TV in bed. Peggy barked, but then there was silence. The door was locked and I was relatively safe, but it was still a little unnerving. This was the first real hostility of any kind I’ve encountered anywhere, but I think I got the message. You’re not welcome here. To be fair, I don’t think that was the sentiment of most of the people I met. Most people were quite friendly. I think it was likely one of the two guys who came in after the first couple, and likely the one that looked like he gets in fights more often.
After the banging incident, I was tempted to pack up and leave the next morning, but one of the locals strongly recommended seeing the local Nebraska Badlands before leaving, and I wasn’t about to miss something cool because some bully chased me out of town. I looked up the options and found Toadstool Geologic Park. This place is amazing, perhaps the coolest place I’ve been so far in terms of strange and interesting natural beauty. There are large rocks perched on narrow pedestals, rolling green hills, start stone vistas and coves, river beds, cliff walls. Its otherworldly. I’ve never seen such a place and I was in love with it. If I lived nearby, I’d go their often. What a great place to meditate! I wish I hadn’t spent the morning cooking and doing chores. I read that it was small and took only about an hour to see. This is true and not true. If you’re up for it, there are longer trails that actually leave the park but the gorgeous scenery continues on for miles to another visitor center. This felt like the most remote place I’ve ever been. After following state and local roads, you get on a 15 mile dirt road to get there, but its totally worth it. The resulting second night in Harris was totally uneventful. I kept a lower profile mostly just because I was tired and had already done the small town bar thing, but I’m sure that also helped.
From there, I made my way north to South Dakota. I originally planned on hitting Badlands National Park first and heading west from there, but my route had landed me in the middle of destinations I planned to visit with things 2 hours east, 2 hours west, and 5 hours north. Oh well, I’ve done a lot of zig zagging already. What’s a little more? I headed to Wind Cave National Park. It’s a small park, but still cool. The first thing I did was take a tour of the cave. The weather was not great so it was a good cave day anyway. Like Mammoth Cave, this cave is large and interesting, but is not filled with stalactites and stalagmites as you might expect. It has different formations called boxwork, and is one of the few places in the world where it exists. Mineral water seeped into cracks in the limestone. The minerals turned into a rough grid of harder stone. Then water eroded the limestone leaving behind the grid. Its mesmerizing. Honestly, it felt like I was in an art gallery. I’d have been happy to sit in front of any one of these formations and just stare at the complexity and beauty for hours.
Wind Cave is a central place from which to check out a few interesting spots, so I decided to spend a couple of days here. I travelled a short distance south to check out the town of Hot Springs. It was cute little shops and a small river with a stunning waterfall running along the main street. The river is warm, coming from the hot springs. At 86 degrees, the water is not overly warm. You wouldn’t go swimming on a cold day in it. It’s just not as cold as a regular stream. They dug out a space for a pool and constructed a building around it. It looks like a regular pool, but the water filters through the pool every 5 minutes. I checked it out but didn’t go in or stay. It just felt like going to the local pool and it was filled with kids. The town was filled with friendly locals, perhaps the friendliest of these at the local organic boutique grocery store. I spent a while in there talking with the owners and a couple of their friends. They recommended that I join the town in the “Wine Walk” that was going on from 5 to 8 PM that night. A handful of establishments along the two main streets were participating. Some had beer, some wine, and some had miniature golf for some reason. Little of the beer and wine was local for some reason. One place was just tasting Mike’s Hard Lemonade! It was still cool. I met many locals, connecting with most for just brief but fun conversations.
The guy at the visitor center was particularly enthusiastic, seemingly well placed in his occupation. He gave me great travel advice. Wildlife Loop Road and Needles Highway in Custer State Park are some of the most beautiful drives in the country and are a decent way to get from Wind Cave to Mount Rushmore. Harney Peak, also in the area, is the highest peak between the Rockies and the Alps, and it includes a number of unique geological features and amazing hikes for all levels. You can even ride an 1880s vintage train for about 45 minutes in the area. Even in Hot Springs, there’s a Mammoth Site. I followed most of his advice and saw everything he mentioned but the train. I’ll get to those in a moment, but first, the rest of the wine walk.
Amy, Andy, and their kids were enjoying the wine walk with their friends, Stacey and Jeff. They were later joined by Alexis and her mother who’s name I forget. They were an extremely friendly bunch. We hit it off and they suggested that I join them for the rest of the walk. Later, they invited me to join them for dinner and then to head back to their place where the group would enjoy a back yard fire under the stars. We spent many hours together and discussed several topics. Naturally, veganism came up over dinner and it was a short step from there to politics. The group is strongly red, and I’m pretty blue, but I found that they were well informed and able to have a calm discussion on the topics. Early blog entries describe how I’m interested in learning more about how good and well meaning people come to different conclusions than I have. Clearly the group was not monolithic in their opinions, but I found that we had a lot in common. Amy had been vegetarian and even now eats little meat. Alexis, on the other hand, has had bad experiences with judgmental militant vegans and was, at least initially, a little hostile. Once she realized I wasn’t harassing her she became more friendly. I don’t blame her. Aggression is seldom an effective tool in winning hearts and minds. It’s no wonder she was defensive. The group appeared to be entirely socially liberal and fiscally conservative. They backed up their opinions with facts which led to an interesting and stimulating discussion. I learned that we have a lot in common, but we’re motivated by different priorities and assumptions. This is what I find most interesting. I’m not going to get into specific controversial topics like abortion here. Rather, what I’m really interested in is what makes these people tick. The lessons for me were that they don’t want to end all social programs. They just can’t stand people taking advantage of them. That’s both similarity and difference number one. I hate it too, but I’m willing to accept it as collateral damage in order to maximize the number helped. They genuinely want to help those in need, but are so bothered by people milking the system that they’re willing to live with less government aid to the needy. They would have the rest made up for by charities. That’s a second disconnect. They think charities do enough and I don’t. I think charities existed before government programs, and government programs were started specifically because charities were not enough. Also, if we collectively agree that there is a legitimate need, is it fair to let generous people satisfy the need with donations while greedy people horde their money and don’t donate? Government programs seek to prevent that from happening. Despite my opinions, was able to discuss and understand their views in a relatively open conversation. I loved it. A few other interesting disconnects are that they think our military is weaker than I do, that the militaries of other nations are stronger than I do, that diplomacy is less effective than I do, and that military action is more effective than I do. It’s no wonder why these differences in baseline assumptions lead to dramatically different political viewpoints. Still other disconnects became apparent, but it’s not necessary to unpack them all here. The point is that this was my first encounter with reds that didn’t reduce to “because I said so”. I think the root cause for differences in assumptions has a lot to do with the media. Who do you trust? What studies? What media outlets? Once the seed of an idea is planted, it’s easy for it to grow and thrive under the natural selection bias in our information intake. What a stimulating evening. It ended well and on a friendly note, although I did get the impression that one or two of the group were upset with me for espousing views that they consider to be crazy. Still, I think everyone enjoyed the night.
Small Town Mindset
One of the other topics we discussed was life in small towns. Amy and Andy have lived in other parts of the country and traveled extensively. It’s not surprising that they’ve ended up where they have in terms of beliefs. Now they live in a small town and are loving life. Still, they have new challenges that became apparent as we spent time together. For instance, during the wine walk, one vendor was offering food samples on the sidewalk. It was pretty obvious, even to me as an outsider, that this vendor snubbed the group as they passed. It was explained to me that this was an incidence of a local being rude to another local for not being local enough. These were transplants, outsiders, and they didn’t even live in the town. They lived in the county. That’s a foreign concept to me. Massachusetts has counties, but they’re largely useless designations. They have little influence over citizens’ day to day lives. Every square inch of Massachusetts is a town and the local residents identify with the town they live in, not the county. I understood this wasn’t true in rural America, but I didn’t realize the practical implications. At dinner, I found myself sitting next to the mayor of Hot Springs, a super nice lady. I learned that you can’t run for mayor if you live out in the county and not within the town limits. The people in my group live in the county, and that’s another reason they were snubbed. Combined with the banging experience in Harris, I’m starting to get a sense of small town life in rural America. It’s wonderful in so many ways, but it’s got its dark side for sure.
This mindset came up at Wind Cave Campground. Everyone is in everyone else’s business. I see life as one big gray area. Everything is negotiable. Nothing is black and white. Here, there’s right and wrong and that’s it. You’re a Trump supporter or your mistaken. You’re a local or you’re an outsider. Everyone knows everyone else’s business and busy bodies let nothing slide. This is the first place I’ve ever been where someone cared that Hank was walking around outside unattended. Sure, it’s against the rules, but what’s the big deal? He’s a cat. He’s quiet and mostly sleeps under the trailer. I’ve seen him catch a critter once and let it go. At most, he’s going to kill a rodent, and even that’s unlikely. There are signs up about mountain lions. Clearly this is the land of predatory cats. What’s the big deal if Hank wanders around the campsite? He never goes far. Now, I realize that rangers and campground hosts have to adhere to regulations. They can’t make exceptions for pets because some dogs and cats can be a real nuisance. However, so far I’ve been to places where good common sense has prevailed, where people realize there are bigger fish to fry. In small town ville, they fry all the fish. By the time I got back from the campfire, the campground host had snagged Hank and kept him in the trailer for hours. Then they called the rangers who immediately took him to the local shelter. Next they duct taped a note to my trailer which I didn’t notice until the next morning. The ranger was very friendly, but gave me a $75 leash law citation. It was fine. I get it. It just struck me as making a big deal out of nothing, the sort of thing you find in many small towns across America, not just here. There were a handful of other vaguely unpleasant experiences where people were friendly, but not terribly so. The parking attendant at Crazy Horse or the guy behind the information desk there. Don’t get me wrong. I love it here, a lot. It’s beautiful with many excellent and friendly people. There’s just also this ugly side that takes the shine off it. Cities have their problems, but country folk are kidding themselves if they think they’ve got a monopoly on kindness and compassionate living.
The Wind Cave people weren’t even done harassing me after the Hank situation. I decided to stay an extra day and called the park to be sure it was ok. I had left the park that morning and decided while I was out that I was going to make a longer day of it. My trailer was there after the official check out time and they duct taped another door to my trailer, this time over the handle so I couldn’t enter without seeing it. They hadn’t gotten the word from park headquarters that I had called. Once again, I get it, but it struck me as passive aggressive and mild but unpleasant harassment, the work of small minded and inflexible people. This is a great example of me struggling with non-judgment. I see people acting in a way I disapprove of, but I don’t truly know their story. Perhaps they’re sick of people breaking the rules and getting away with it. People with unruly animals running free or overstaying without paying. That sort of thing. It’s good to be challenged in these ways. The lesson here seems to be that it’s ok to disapprove of someone’s behavior, but it’s important to leave room for understanding that they’re probably just doing the best they can given their own life experience. Almost as a parting gift, they also decided to pester me about being sure to clean up after Peggy, which I was doing correctly already. So much nagging.
Rushmore, Crazy Horse, & Custer Park
Well, I don’t want to focus too much on the negative. This is a great area full of fantastic people and wondrous beauty. From Wind Cave, I visited Mt. Rushmore via the scenic roads of Custer State Park. The roads really are beautiful, but I would say that there are other beautiful roads in the country, and I’d hate to oversell it. The Kancamagus Hwy in New Hampshire and the Pacific Coast Highway in California are each equally beautiful, just in different ways. In Custer, I was greeted by a heard of buffalo, adults and calves, meandering from a field into the road. They were very close to the truck, and it was awesome. Other cars stopped to enjoy the view as well, and fortunately everyone was smart enough to remain in their vehicles. I also saw some kind of deer from the road, so sweet. Mount Rushmore is cool, but it doesn’t take long to see. There’s a half mile paved trail that brings you from the visitor center closer to the monument. Signs and a small museum provide additional information. I swung by on two different days since the first day was a bit raining. Drizzle had fallen on the upward facing surfaces of the carvings leaving dry areas beneath. This gave the appearance that the presidents were crying and had runny noses. I returned the next day to get some better pictures under a bright blue sky. It’s easy to pop in and quickly move right on to the Crazy Horse monument.
Crazy horse is much larger than Mt Rushmore. All 4 Rushmore heads fit in Crazy Horse’s head, and that monument will depict him riding a horse when it is done decades from now. It will be colossal. The Crazy Horse site also has a more extensive museum, although it is largely devoted to the creation of the monument and to exhibiting artifacts rather than to sharing the story of Crazy Horse. A bus takes you to closer to the construction zone on the weekends, provided there is no lightning anywhere within 30 miles. This means that very often, you can’t get close, but it’s totally fine. It’s easy to see from a distance, and still quite impressive. Additionally, the statues in the museum clearly depict what it will look like when it’s done. Native Americans are on site selling crafts. I spoke to one for a bit to learn more. It turns out that Dakota, Lakota, and Nakota were different tribes in the area. We talked about the preservation of Native American culture and how much has been lost forever. According to this woman, only 2 tribes in the entire country have managed nearly complete cultural preservation, the Lakota and the Hope. Even within those tribes, there is a very small minority who speak the language and understand all of the practices enough to the point where they might be able to blend if they were able to travel back in time to the peak of those civilizations. At least within these tribes, there is hope that the entirety of the culture that is left can be preserved indefinitely. Even though only a small number of practitioners are experienced in all arts, there is a greater number who are experienced in at least some (e.g. dances). It’s sad that so much has been lost, but I’m glad that a substantial amount has been preserved in at least some tribes.
Among Hot Springs’s attractions is an active archeological dig. Similar to Agate, this was a watering hole where mostly mammoths fell in, got trapped, died, and were buried. The bones are not petrified, but are still old enough to be considered fossils. A guided tour is available which includes a movie, but I found it unnecessary. They’ll give you a thin binder with all of the tour narration text. I overheard the last tour of the day from across the room. I had missed it, but still gotten there early enough to see the entire exhibit and read the binder in its entirety. It’s really quite short. A building was constructed to shelter the entire excavation site, and there’s a lot more digging to do. They’ve gotten through about 65 feet in some places, but there may be as many as 90 feet to the bottom. This seems a little unclear to me since the watering hole supposedly wasn’t 150 feet deep. Hmmm … maybe you should take the tour. Whatever. I liked it. You get to see these fossils up close and personal since many lie right where they were discovered, still half buried, just a couple of feet from the viewing walkway.
The day trip I made from Wind Cave was to hike Harney Peak. This is the highest peak between the Rockies and the Alps. Mount Mitchel, the summit I climbed near Asheville, is the second highest. Harney is an easier hike than Mitchel since it starts so much higher. There’s only about a 1000 foot elevation gain vs a 3000 to 4000 foot elevation gain to Mitchel, a summit just 600 feet shorter or so. All that being said, I still think the hiking in New England is more challenging than any of these, specifically Mt Washington and Katahdin. All that being said, Harney is the most beautiful of these I’ve mentioned, at least in my opinion. Sure, the other mountains have breathtaking vistas, but Harney has a huge variety of landscapes and views. Some areas look like New England, with rocky mountain tops as far as the eye can see. Other areas look like a strange version of the southwest with black stone spires reaching towards the sky. There’s even a feature called Little Devils Tower you can climb to the top of. Trails range all through this part of Custer State Park. Oh, and don’t listen when they say dogs are not allowed. No one else listened. Peggy didn’t get to go on this hike, but I suppose it was nice to have a hike to myself. Here again, I met a variety of interesting people like Quin and Regina, students from Iowa looking ahead to life’s next chapter (actuarial work and med school). One person, Susan, stands apart from anyone I’ve met in a while.
Susan, nearly 60, is a transplant from northern Minnesota. It was an accident that we even started talking as I moved to pass her on the trail about half way back down the mountain, but it couldn’t have been a better timed meeting. She told me about her life journey and I her about mine. There were parallels and she had many words of wisdom. We walked the rest of the way down together and I felt enlightened by the time I reached the parking lot. We have very similar backgrounds and philosophies, and while our life experiences are different, there is commonality. She is catholic with a small c, she says. She has come and gone from the religion. At times it has suited her and at others it felt confining. We talked about many related topics; how to be empathetic, how to let things go, recognizing when someone else’s behavior is really about them and not you, not overthinking things, patience, how to be your best self, letting life / god / the universe guide you, etc. Many of these concepts harken back to the concepts I explored in depth on my Costa Rica retreat. She shared many thoughts, but a few things really resonated with me, things I already knew but needed reminding of. After getting to know each other a bit, she asked some probing and challenging questions. Am I thinking about life after this trip too much? Am I getting too wrapped up in what career will look like? Am I putting too much emphasis on career as a means to have a positive impact on the world? Am I keeping myself so busy for a reason, perhaps to drown out the thoughts in my own mind and avoid something, anything, that I might not want to face? I think the answer to all of those questions is yes. She was very perceptive and it had a calming effect. I can get very wrapped up in keeping my mind and body very busy. When I focus on it, I can slow down. Meditation helps, but I need to practice it much more consistently. It was refreshing to be reminded that it’s ok to let a lot of what I carry around go, to calm my mind and body and just be more present. That’s hard for me sometimes. I was very lucky to meet Susan when did. I feel like I was starting to wear myself out.
Along those lines, I’ve decided to give myself a few days off from the trip altogether. First, I moved on to Wall, South Dakota and set up camp near Wall Drug, just outside of Badlands National Park. I am writing this whole entry from the campground. I haven’t gone out at all today except to the grocery store to get a few necessities. I plan to do essentially nothing today, and probably tomorrow. I’ll do mundane things like laundry and bills to get those out of the way, but even that will feel good. Giving myself time to do chores at a relaxed pace instead of squeezing them in is nice. I finished watching Game of Thrones and am now current. In a couple of weeks, I’m going home to see friends and family. I’ll hit a few fun things between then and now which is fine, but this feels like a good time for a break.