Peace and natural beauty in North Dakota

This past week or so has been characterized by much calm and peace.  It seems that Susan’s reassuring and soothing words had a calming effect and really stuck with me.  Sure, I never completely shut my brain off, but I’ve done very little obsessing over things.  I’ve hardly thought of career at all, and even had a pleasant realization about my most recent relationship that I don’t mind sharing.  I’ve mentioned previously that it was a rollercoaster with intermixed periods of great times and us treating each other badly.  It was a very important relationship, the kind that leaves a mark and takes a long time to really get over.  Well, I’m pleased to say that I feel a strong and persistent sense of acceptance.  Not just acceptance that it’s over, but rather, that it all happened the only way it could.  She was doing the best she could and so was I.  Neither of us was our best selves with each other.  We are both capable of so much more.  There is no need for explanations or apologies.  It just was, and that realization brings on a new layer of peace.


Badlands National Park & Wall Drug


Two days of rest didn’t hurt in terms of relaxing either.  I don’t want to give the wrong impression.  The trip has always been amazing, but my last update included some unpleasant experiences and a small but clearly present sense of angst.  Happily, it passed.  I spent 4 days in the badlands of South Dakota, two of which were essentially focused on cleaning, laundry, cooking, bills, that sort of thing.  It was nice to take some real down time from travel and to get these chores done without feeling hurried.  There’s a campground in Wall, SD, right off Rt 90 and not far from the east end of the park.  The east end is where most of the touristy stuff is.  It has all of the hiking trails and the main scenic drive.  There are several vistas with gorgeous views.  Its incredible.  Some of the vistas have short walks.


The first day in the area, I did visit Wall Drug since it was walking distance to the campground.  It is an experience.  I’ve wanted to go here for decades, although I had a pretty different impression of it.  It was described to me as essentially a lone small wooden drug store that for some reason exists something like 400 miles down a dirt road.  What does that say about me that I’d be up for that?  It’s true that it’s in a small town, and that it takes up a reasonably large portion of the few main streets, but it’s right off a major interstate.  I guess western South Dakota is not a booming metropolitan area, but I’d hardly call this out of the way.  It has many crafts for sale in its many shops, and yes, there is actually a drugstore inside.  It’s more like a campy pioneer indoor mall than anything.  There are lots of Native American and pioneer crafts.  I wondered if the Native American goods were authentic.  Much of it seemed more like cheap touristy crap to me, but I don’t really know.  I’m glad that I went, but these goods don’t speak to me and this time in history is very dark in my opinion.  What we did to the Native Americans is nothing short of genocide.  We have numerous war criminals in our history, prominent seemingly respectable figures.  Honestly, what I’ve learned about Andrew Jackson is appalling.  What an absolute monster.  He sought to conquer countries, take their land, and eradicate an entire race of people who he considered less than human.  Can you think of any other historical tyrants with such goals?  The only difference is that Jackson and his contemporaries were successful and history is typically told from his point of view.  It bears repeating.  Andrew Jackson was a war criminal and the worst kind of human being every to exist.  In addition to harkening back to a dark period in our history, Wall Drug glorifies hunting, guns, leather products, and ranching, none of which I am for.  Still, I accept that our society is where it is, and that these are still important parts of American life.  I just hope that changes in time.  It was good to go to see it even though it wasn’t what I expected.  The campiness was fun.  So many mannequins and strange figures!  It’s worth stopping in, no matter your personal beliefs.  No one says you have to buy anything.


On the last day there, I took the long hike.  It was a hot and clear day.  You can hike the trails from end to end and back for a round trip of about 12 miles.  There are others on the trails, but they are few and far between which was perfect.  It was among the happiest and best days of the trip so far, alone in such a strange and fascinating land for hours to just explore and take it all in.  The occasional passing hiker was a welcome break, and some even paused for a short talk.  One told me about a hike in the coming days at Crazy Horse Monument.  I went there earlier and covered it in my last blog post, but I never got close to the carving.  This was an opportunity to go hike it!  I couldn’t believe my good fortune that I happened to talk to these guys and they happen to mention it!  Do check out the pictures on Facebook.  They are breathtaking, and not because I’m some kind of amazing photographer.  It’s hard to take a bad picture there.  At the very eastern edge of the park, the scenic road has a group of vistas with 3 short hiking trails.  If you’re up for hiking, but not interested in 12 miles across an arid landscape, I strongly recommend these, the Door, Window, and Notch trails.  Door and Window allow you to hike in and among these crazy features, but Notch offers something more.  It’s longer and more strenuous, but still less than 2 miles round trip.  You hike into this ravine surrounded on all sides by tall features.  Then, steps of a sort bring you up to a ledge.  The steps are really just round wooden posts on their sides held in place by steel cable.  It moves as you walk on it and is a little treacherous.  Still, I saw a guy come up them in flip flops while wearing a child on his back in some sort of pack, and this was a large child, the kind that should have been expected to do it on their own.  They were conversing!  Well, he didn’t die so you probably won’t either.  The coolest thing about the Notch trail is its end.  It terminates at a notch in the tall features where you get a unique view into the valley floor below, out over the diminishing erosion features that characterize this landscape.  It’s a gorgeous view, truly.  It’s very worth it.  Don’t pass it up.  Oh, and a final thought on this park.  This is one of the places that make the pass worth it.  I mentioned all the fees to see things like this in my last post along with the fact that the pass doesn’t cover a lot of it.  Well, it was $15 a day to enter the Badlands and I came in 2 days, so that’s $30 right there towards the $80 I paid for the pass.  As I write this, I’ve recouped $58 of my $80 so I guess it really will be worthwhile afterall.


Devils Tower


Coming up from Nebraska the way I did landed me right in the center of things I wanted to see.  As a result, I found myself headed east from the Wind Cave in the Black Hills area to get to the Badlands, and now I was driving right back through the Black Hills to get to Devils Tower in Wyoming.  This, of course, after learning about the Crazy Horse hike that would take me right back into the Black Hills before finally leaving the area.  I guess some research might have lessened the driving, but I really don’t mind.  I like driving and I get to see different parts of the region without feeling stuck in one place for too long.


Devils Tower is super cool.  If you don’t know, it’s the vertical rock structure featured in the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  It’s a small park but worth stopping at.  You can do all of the hiking trails in a day.  What I love about this part of the country is that there is a common theme to all of the geology, and yet it all looks so different.  It was the bottom of a shallow sea.  Then it was lifted up as the Rockies formed.  It dried and became a forest followed by a African Savanna like plains. This all took millions of years, and only recently, in the last half million years or so did erosion set in and create all of this wonder.  The formations and colors differ appreciably throughout and its wondrous.  Devils Tower is a great feature on its own, but if you do some of the longer hikes, you pass by interesting red rock formations which are entirely different than the yellow rock formations, which is entirely different from the plains and woodlands you pass through, all for just a 3 mile hike.  Then there’s the paved 1.5 mile trail around the monument.  It’s sooooo cool.  They know it’s cooled magma, but not really how it formed.  It might be the bottom of an eroded volcano, or maybe magma that never reached the surface and perhaps had various forms before eroding.  The mostly symmetric hexagonal columns are due to cooling of the magma, contraction, and fracture at the equidistant stress points.  Cracks formed at these points and propagated towards each other forming the columns that you see from the outside of the monument.  You can climb it, but they prefer you not in June since it’s sacred to so many tribes, particularly so in June.  That’s fine.  I’m not that good a climber.  There’s a difficulty rating system in climbing.  Climbing once a week, I can build up to a 5-11, but when not, only a 5-8.  I have not been practicing.  There is a 5-8 route, but its 500 feet high.  I’ve never done more than 100 feet at a time.  I’d need specific lead climbing skills I don’t have to do it.  It is encouraging, though, that the remaining skills I have yet to acquire to climb this could be attained with a reasonable amount of practice.


I stayed for just one night and made my way back to Crazy Horse for the hike on Saturday, June 4.  One small disappointment was that a Native American group was coming to put on an authentic dance for the park, but they didn’t show up.  A kind park ranger put on a presentation about the park which was still nice.


Crazy Horse (again) & Jewel Cave


I really don’t like backtracking.  Once I leave an area, I have found I didn’t want to go back, at least for the most part.  Everywhere is great and there’s more to see there, but there’s too much ahead to look back.  Still, I just HAD to go hike this monument.  They allow it just twice a year, and I happen to be in the region at that time.  It was meant to be!


Well, the hike was a brief 6 miles.  It was packed and not your typical hike, often traveling along dirt service roads, but walking along what will become the arm, just below the carved face was magnificent.  I’m glad such a meaningful monument is being created to commemorate the heroes of the cultures we slaughtered.  It was impactful to stand beneath his gaze.


Here again there were plenty of people to talk to.  I spent much of the time with a family from Columbus who now lives in eastern South Dakota.  I believe it was their fifth time.  Its been days now, but I believe their names were Chris and Sarah with a son and daughter along with Chris’ friend Edwin, a serviceman from the guard.  Every time they do this hike, they meet people and enjoy the day with them.


That night, I planned to drive up to Theodore Roosevelt National Park, but it was still early in the day.  We were done hiking by a little after 10 AM.  It’s a fast hike.  Since it was so early, I decided to make my way over to Jewel Cave National Monument.  This was suggested to me as an option when I was in the area the first time, but I just didn’t get to it.  The worst thing is I drove by it from Devils Tower to Crazy Horse, but I accepted the extra zig zagging as I needed to ensure I could park my big rig at Crazy Horse.  That’s why I got there so early.  So I back tracked to Jewel Cave and bought a ticket to the 2 PM tour.  That gave me enough time to hike the grounds above the cave which proved interesting.


The trail itself goes through Hells Canyon.  There’s a lot of demonic names in the area come to think of it.  There was a fire in Hells Canyon and you can see several burned and toppled trees all over.  The bottom of the canyon is flat.  It would be easy to imagine a gentle river flowing through here, but apparently that was never the case.  The most interesting part, though, is that the trail takes you by the natural entrance to the cave.  It’s gated, but you can see far enough in to tell that it’s an active tour starting point when it’s open.  It was very tempting to crawl through a small but passible size hole up the wall a little.  Concerns of both trespassing and getting stuck in a generally abandoned area got the better of me and I moved on.  I encountered a couple of other holes into the cave that I passed up until I found one that I just couldn’t.  It was too perfect.  I crawled in a little on my belly using my cell phone light.  Just inside the hole was an area where you could stand up.  Up and to the left was an area you could climb up, but the area was littered with large fallen rocks.  Ahead just a few feet was a black hole of unknown depth.  I’ve got reasonable rock climbing skills, and while that does give me confidence, it also has taught me to respect the danger.  Who knows if this area is stable or safe or if it even connects to the main cave?  I enjoyed my moment of solitary spelunking and then exited.  Rangers later described that area.  It has a name which I forget.  That hole is 15 to 20 feet deep and unsafe without ropes, and it doesn’t go much farther.  It doesn’t connect with the main cave.  In fact, it takes hours of belly crawling through a maze of dangerous cave to get from the natural entrance to the current tour entrance.  Proper spelunking requires teams of 3 and I was in no position to give it a shot.  I’m glad I didn’t.  Besides, it was beginning to get towards time for my tour.


The tour itself was cool.  This cave is distinct, which by now is not a surprise.  They’re all so unique.  This one has large caverns with interesting large and small features.  The lighting in it was great as well.  It’s worth checking out.  It filled with water and drained twice in history which has lent it it’s unique character.  In one place, thick crystalline mineral deposits grew on the wall during the first flooding, and then were left essentially free floating when a second flood dissolved the limestone on which it rested.  I guess the floods came from surface changes over time in which natural reservoirs were created and then drained into the cave.


Theodore Roosevelt National Park


The Jewel Cave tour ended close to 4, so it was dark by the time I got to Teddy Roosevelt Park.  Rest stops are a great place to spend the night in such instances as a way to save money.  It’s often against the rules to set up late anyway, and why pay for a night when most places will let you come in early if spots are open.  Having no idea where I was going to stay or if places even had availability, I started calling.  My first choice campground right near the park entrance had a spot so I nabbed it.  Before leaving the rest stop, I took Peggy for a walk and was shocked by what I saw in the daylight.  The rest stop is on the eastern edge of the park, and the view stopped me in my tracks.  There were also buffalo grazing in the grass of the parking lot divider.  No wonder Peggy was going so nuts!  We couldn’t see them at first since they were behind other trucks.  What a great way to start off the day!


I set up quickly and took the scenic drive through the park.  It takes at least 90 minutes, but longer if you do some of the short hikes and stop at vistas.  Just like caves, each section of this region has its own character, and it’s so interesting to be able to see them all back to back.  It was also a good way to spend a restful and still active day.  I had done much hiking in the preceding days and the rest was nice.




I got some great recommendations from the visitor center on hikes and mountain bike rides.  It was high time I put that new bike to good use!  There were more chores to do, so I figured I’d spend the following morning doing that and then go for a short mountain bike ride in the midafternoon, maybe 2 hours tops.  Well, that’s not how it worked out.  First, I tried to find the Maah Daah Hey Trail.  It’s very long.  The ranger wasn’t sure, but he did say that the part he knows is 70 miles long with other trails shooting off of it.  He gave me a pretty good map, or so I thought, and some vague description of how to find the trail.  In his defense, its outside the park and not something he can reasonably be expected to know.  There were multiple options of where to find the trail.  My first attempt found a section that disappeared into thick grass after a very short distance.  My second attempt found a section that required fording a wide shallow river, about 2 feet deep, and lengthy rides through deep sand.


Finally, I found a section that was to my liking.  This section was within my skill set, but was definitely a reach and took me out of my comfort zone.  It climbed and descended steeply up and down numerous bluffs along narrow trails with sudden sharp switch backs, typically with a cliff on one or both sides.  It took a lot of focus to stay centered on the trail which was at times perhaps 4 inches wide.  As with skiing, horseback riding, or even driving, you go where your eyes go.  The only safe way to enjoy the scenery was to stop.  I posted some pictures, but the most beautiful spots were the most dangerous spots, so I didn’t bother trying to take pictures there.  I was comfortable and building confidence as I went.  Anyone who does a lot of cardio will attest that when you first start a strenuous cardio exercise, its tough until you get past the anaerobic phase into aerobic.  That first bluff was so tough that I’m not ashamed to admit I almost turned back.  I didn’t think I had a second bluff in me.  Then I realized it was just that I was gasping for air and that my muscles felt fine.  I pushed through and found my stride.  It felt great and the views were incredible!  This would not have been possible on my red lead weight.  I owe this magnificent day to Fred from Door County Wisconsin and his generous gift of this bike.


The trail is clearly marked and easy to follow.  The map shows it running parallel to a road with several other vague rancher roads crossing it.  Each of these represents a bail out point.  My plan was to ride for a couple of hours and then take the main road back.  I had ridden for 2 hours and was beginning to consider turning around.  Bail out points were coming along often enough and the map showed several, so I figured I’d take one more small section and then head back.  The problem was that it wasn’t entirely clear which bail out I was at.  While the trail is well marked, the markings do not include mileage or location.  The roads do not have signs.  They all look like dirt rancher roads.  I don’t know if I road far enough to end up off the map I was given or what.  I have no idea how far that trail goes headed south of the park.  However, the next bail out point didn’t come along as quickly as the previous many.  In fact, it was so long that I began to consider turning around.  It was getting towards 6 PM.  It’s light out here until 9 now, but shadows can make riding challenging and it gets very cold at night.  I didn’t want to be riding at dusk or hiking the bike back an unknown distance through the cold night along cliffs.  I was still calm and enjoying myself, but beginning to feel increasingly tired and worried.


Finally, I came along a road, if you want to call it that.  All of the previous roads were dirt, but they were wide well-groomed things which appeared to see reasonably frequent traffic.  This was two wavy parallel ruts in the grass.  I was skeptical that this was on the map, and I suspected that I hadn’t ridden off the edge of the map yet.  There was a chance that the next bail out was right around the corner.  I kept riding for another 30 minutes.  By now my legs were getting near shot.  Thankfully I had a cliff bar with me.  That lifted my strength and spirits.  During that last leg, I did see a road in the distance, but there was no way to get to it and I’m not going cross country in snakeville.  I’ll take the cold hike thank you very much.  Well, I finally gave up.  The gps on my phone was working, but poorly.  It kept showing me in different areas, but always far from roads.  I decided that I was too tired to keep riding bluffs for much longer, so I returned to the ruts which thankfully was mostly down hill.  I tried the GPS again and this time it placed me on a road.  It seemed like it might even have me depicted on the correct road!  I began riding towards the main bail out road that I always intended.  It was hard to tell, but it appeared to be a 7 or 8 mile ride along these roads back to the truck.  This means that I had probably biked much longer over the bluffs given all of the turns, I’d say at least double but maybe more.


It was now nearly 7 PM and I had been on the bike since just after 3.  So much for a 2 hour ride.  My legs were tired and cramping a little, but I was in good shape and spirits.  I knew now that I’d be home well before sunset.  There would be no knocking on a random farmer’s door, sleeping in an unattended vehicle, tromping cross country, all of which had occurred to me as options at one time or another.  Honestly, I was never overly worried.  I was happily enjoying nature the entire time.  I reluctantly admit that I did ask the higher power for a little guidance and to get me home before dark with a minimum of pain and cold.  Be careful what you wish for.  That’s exactly what happened.  I hadn’t yet encountered the most dangerous part yet.  I finally build up a good head of steam on rut road.  I’m feeling home free.  The sun is shining directly in my eyes making it very hard to see, but I figure anything dangerous enough to hurt me will still be visible.  I even consider taking off my helmet to put on my baseball had to help block the sun, but I decide against it.  Thank god!  Moments later I come upon a barrier that remained invisible, drowned in the bright eye level sunshine until the last second.  Rapidly approaching was a fence across the road, but this was no normal fence.  It wasn’t made of wood or any substantial material.  There was no sign or warning.  The fence was constructed of a small number of barbed wires strung horizontally from ankle level to neck level and I was closing fast upon it.


I slammed on the breaks and flipped over the handle bars, my upside down backwards body slamming into the barbed wire.  It was the strangest sensation.  It all happened in slow motion.  The wires gave way and caught me far more gently than expected.  They seemed to have been there for some time, tied to a rotting fence post which broke, at least in part.  This dissipated my forward momentum in an acceptable way.  It also caught me in such a way as to dissipate my newly acquired vertical momentum, and it did so in the most peculiar way.  First, one of the horizontal wires impaled itself on my back pack.  One on my shorts, and one across the top of my helmet.  I still struck the ground with enough force to hurt, but I was essentially unharmed!  The helmet had a deep linear gash across the top. Some barbs must have made contact with my scalp, enough to draw a little blood, but not enough to matter.  The top of my forehead struck the bare ground as my helmet was pulled backward slightly, but only enough to cause light abrasions.  My arm was skinned, but not enough to bleed.  A hole was torn in my shorts and boxers, and a 4 inch scrape was cut across my butt, but it had no depth!  It bled, but really was fine.  The most significant injuries had nothing to do with barbed wire contact.  I banged my knee and right hand, both of which swelled up painfully, but all things considered, I was stunned to be standing in one piece.  Had I not seen that wire even at the last second, it could easily have slit my throat.  Had I removed the helmet or not been wearing a back pack, the injuries would certainly have been more severe and possibly life threatening, especially considering that there wasn’t a soul for miles.


I stood calmly for a moment.  I didn’t even feel symptoms of shock!  I climbed over the fence and continued on!  Oddly, the one sign of civilization here are small pumping stations.  They look like oil pumps like you see on TV or in movies, but they’re all alone randomly placed at great distances to each other throughout the bluffs.  There are small holding tanks and other pumping components.  It’s a shame to see these in such beautiful places, but I guess that’s life.  I finally made it back to the truck by well before 8.  While a little shaken, I felt lucky to have had such an astonishing day.


The next day, my last at this park, I planned to take a 10 mile hike through the petrified forest and possibly a 5 mile hike through the painted canyon.  Instead, I walked just 2 miles to sample the petrified forest and didn’t bother with the painted canyon.  I had seen it from the rest stop already and hiked sufficiently similar stuff already.  I needed the rest.  I came back, napped, and wrote this.  I guess my hand is feeling better!


What’s next


Tomorrow I drive to Yellowstone!  The main event for this trip!  I’ve got a spot at the west entrance in Montana for a week.  I’ll check out the park as well as nearby Montana and Idaho from there.  That will leave me with just 4 states to visit to complete all 50 in my lifetime which feels pretty cool.  After that comes my Boston break and then I resume with nearby Grand Teton National Park.  I hate to get overly planny, but as we get towards the 4th of July, it seems parks are in increasingly high demand.  I’m tempted to book Glacier now, but I just can’t bring myself to look that far into the future.

One thought on “Peace and natural beauty in North Dakota

  1. I enjoy your posts so much Keith! I think in the end you might turn it into a book, listed under travel or non-fiction, or even read it aloud in your own voice. It would be so great, especially for those who cannot or may not ever have the wonderful opportunity to go to these amazing places. It would be a great source of income as well.

    I cracked up (all puns intended) in this post, especially the one “Mom Don’t Read This!” I am so very grateful you were not hurt worse. Life is quite a school of learning, isn’t it?

    I also agree with your experience of Christianity. As you know, I learn through experience. It seems you do too. Sorry for the Catholic indoctrination. I shared with my children what my Mom taught me, before I also had such lived “Christian” experiences. Since then I have checked out Buddhism, every other kind of “ism,” and back to ultra traditional and even 3 years of studying with Jehovah’s Witnesses, so as not to miss anything. I come away not belonging to any of them. I now think that Catholicism is down right a false religion, for a host of reasons. I think it is really the Great Babylon written about in the Book of Revelation, and I now think all the Protestant churches are the Little Horn written about in the Book of Revelation. Still, I believe Jesus came to show us all how to Love and how to Forgive one another, which we can’t seem to master. So, my take is, to live as best you can, including Jesus as best you can, and ask Jesus for his holy spirit to guard you against any and all evil; and this is important, Love yourself and Forgive yourself for your short-comings, and everyone else too. I want to share this with you because I don’t believe Jesus came to earth and died on a cross for nothing. I do not think that any one group has gotten it right yet, so I do not want to associate with any of them. Jesus also did not say to make up our own religions, and he didn’t tell everyone to keep their own religions, nor did he promote an inter-faith approach. I find myself on my own with this, not joining any religious club, and trying to stay true.

    Happy travels! Momn

    Liked by 1 person

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