In early spring of 2007 I decided to quit my job, sell my house along with nearly everything else that I owned, and to live out of my car while traveling the country. These are my stories (and pictures) of life on the road.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Them bad Badlands

What was supposed to be a relaxing little stop in the badlands of South Dakota turned out to be a little more adventurous then I'd planned. After spending some time driving around the crazy formations and doing some light hiking I decided to head more to the western side of the park where it was more prairie like. I wanted to do some camping that night and one of the park rangers recommended the area and said there aren't ever very many people there and that there are no roads through it so it's just a vast expanse of rolling prairie. It was a very pretty area and I pulled into the small campground at around six in the evening. I was very happy when I got to the park and found out you could walk or camp anywhere you wanted in the park; you didn't have to stick to the trails and campgrounds. So I planned on just hiking back into the prairie with my hammock and sleeping bag until I found a couple nice trees next to the creek where I could sleep the night.

It was a beautiful, sunny evening and I packed what I needed in my backpack, made a peanut butter sandwich to eat in the morning, and made a turkey sandwich to eat on my hike. I thought about grabbing my new rain jacket but decided against it since my pack was already pretty full and I had my tarp with my anyway. Not to mention the weather was really nice and earlier in the day they weren't talking about any storms (those of you with the ability to read foreshadowing probably have an idea what's coming).

I hiked a couple miles out into the prairie while ate my sandwich, was scolded by prairie dogs, admired the flowers on the prairie and watched the buffalo grazing on the prairie. I found a nice little spot with a couple trees for my hammock in a wash next to a steep bank. The wash was dry and a little out of the way so I didn't figured I'd have to worry about any buffalo coming to visit me in my sleep. I'd just set up my hammock and tarp when I began to hear some rumbling from the clouds and could see it darkening a little to the west. I wasn't too worried though and just hoped it would pass by.

I kept an eye on the storm and it kept getting closer, darker, and louder. Now this definitely wasn't the most menacing thunderstorm I've seen but when you're in the middle of the prairie that tends to make it look a little more ominous. Thankfully in the wash I was lower then the surrounding prairie (good thing); but I was also surrounded by trees, not to mention I was planning on sleeping under a couple (bad thing). There was no way I was going to try walking back across the prairie to my car and getting stuck out there in the storm so I decided I was in it for the long haul. As the storm got closer I got as far from the neighboring trees as I could and crouched down in the wash to be in the lowest spot. Thankfully it wasn't raining (yet) so I could just hang out and see what happened.

As I sat there watching I was trying to figure out what I'd do if/when the storm hit and it started raining. The thought of wrapping the tarp around me and huddling on the ground didn't seem to appealing, nor did sitting under the tarp attached to the trees. I had a couple metal poles with me (which I left over by the tarp) that I could use to set up the tarp without trees but I wasn't so sure I wanted to be around a couple 7 foot metal poles in a thunderstorm either. The storm was getting close now and just before it started raining I realized I could stretch the tarp across the wash, stake it down, and have enough room to climb under it with my pack. I untied it from the tree and set it up over the wash just as it started to rain really hard.

It was very uncomfortable but at least it was dry. The bottom of the wash was muddy so I couldn't really sit in it and the banks were pretty steep, plus I had to lay down because there wasn't enough room to sit up. I had to lay on one side of the wash with my feet planted in the opposite bank to keep me from sliding down. The wind began to pick up and whipped the tarp around a bit, it held in place though.

The storm never got really bad but there were a couple really close and really loud cracks that lit up the tarp like daytime and that I could feel rumbling in my belly. After about 30 minutes the storm had passed but it was still raining. Although I wasn't cold yet I knew I would be by the end of the night since I wouldn't be able to use my sleeping bag, unless I wanted it full of mud (the wash had a little standing water in it now). I also knew there was no way I'd be able to fall asleep and my butt was really starting to hurt.

After another 30 minutes went by the rain slacked off and the wind died down. I'd brought my GPS with me and had mapped my course from the car. I decided that I'd leave my tarp and hammock and hike back to the car in the dark and come back for them in the morning. I figured it should be easy with the GPS and as long as I didn't step in a prairie dog hole or trip over a sleeping buffalo I'd be fine.

I started out and the GPS worked like a charm. My flashlight wasn't the most powerful and along with the drizzle that fell now and then made it hard to see real far. But it kept me from tripping in holes and I saw a couple late night prairie dogs out as well. I was within 1/2 mile or so of the campground and I could see the lights from it as I was walking through a little valley. As I came to the end of the valley I saw a pair of eyes to my left reflecting back at me. I stopped and stared at them to try and see what it was, figuring it was just a prairie dog or racoon. Then another reflection appeared just a couple feet from the first. I quickly scanned the area and saw 2 more reflections off to my right. No big deal, must just be a prairie dog colony and they're all looking at me.

Then the eyes to my right started moving in unison and I could barely make out a very large silhouette stand up and face me. That's when I realized that what I thought were two separate sets of eyes were just one set of eyes attached to the same head. An expletive quietly escaped my lips as I started for the hill that I knew was just to my left. I kept the light shined in the buffalo's face thinking that the light in his eyes might temporarily blind him and because if he decided to come after me I wanted to know it. Then I realize that the light would make an excellent target in the dark so I shut off the flashlight.

After a few more steps the thought crossed my head that maybe there were more buffalo sleeping here and that I could be running right into one that I hadn't noticed. I flipped on the light and saw nothing but grass between me and the hill. I looked over my shoulder and didn't see anything bearing down on me so I was relieved as I started climbing up the hill. I was a little freaked out and the detour made for a little longer hike back to the car. The rest of the hike was uneventful but I was keeping an extra close eye out.

In the morning I got up early and hiked back to get my stuff. As I walked through the valley where I'd seen the buffalo the night before I found where the one that stood up had been laying and I also knew where I'd been standing, it was only about 100 feet away. Those suckers are big and although I'm sure for the most part they're unaggressive that was way closer then I ever wanted to be to one.

As I came to the top of a small hill before going down to the prairie I had to wait while a buffalo walked past below. After it has passed I continued my hike and just as I rounded a corner I saw a buffalo just on the other side coming my way. It hadn't seen me yet and I scurried up the hillside. Once it came around the corner it noticed me, stopped for a couple minutes, and then continued on it's way.

I saw a few more buffalo on the way back to my campsite from the night before. Everything was still intact and how I'd left it. I packed it all up and took a different route back to the car that would keep me away from where all the buffalo had been hanging out. It wasn't so bad though; it was a nice prairie and I ran across some nice flowers.

You can see a few more pictures from the Badlands if you follow this link


Kim said...

Just goes to show you that South Dakota isn't for the faint of heart. I'm glad you survived our state and will take with you such wonderful memories. Did I ever tell you about Wyoming, the abandoned dance hall and the ghostly piano player?

debbieuu said...

Geez, Alan! You're gone only two days and your life is already too exciting for your mom. Please be careful. And thank you for having a level head on your shoulders.

BernardL said...

Make sure you have a regular compass as backup to your GPS, Alan. The small Mag-lite which takes two double A batteries is the best to have along. It's durable as hell; and the spare batteries don't take up much space, so you can always have a couple in your pocket. Have fun.

B.j.Ruland said...

Great to see you out and about, Alan. Your dad sent us to the blog and I'm sure I'll be keeping track of your adventures.

If you pass threw Southern Wisconsin in the future your more then welcome to get some chow and a place to stay.

debbieuu said...

Someone told me that buffalo kill more humans each year than any other animal. I didn't like hearing that.

Alan said...

At least you heard it after I left buffalo country. Now I'm just in bear territory. :)

Edith Clarken said...

Al - Buffalo can run very fast and move sideways - avoid them at all costs. Mike loved your escapade. He says to buy a bivy cover for your sleeping bag (whatever that is).

Anonymous said...

Al, I asked your mom how you were and she gave me your blog. It love it! I will be following your adventures. I LOVE your landscape photos. I looks like it was a beautiful day by the calm water. The waterfalls were awesome. I hope you don't have anymore adventures like the Badlands. That was to scary for me. It is a good thing you have a level head on your shoulder.
Deb Weston

You've reached the end of the page but that's not the end of the stories. If you want to read more (and who wouldn't!?) then click on the archive links to the right hand side of the page. They're listed by month; the adventure starts in May.

The February archives aren't actually from this trip but are previous adventures I've had, which are worth reading as well.