Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Day Ninety-Four, Suck and Blow

There were thunderstorms in Montana. They rolled in almost every day. But they would pass in five minutes, rarely more than ten. I barely even got wet. Let alone struck by lightning or soaked to my shorts. They were a nice break in the day.

So I did not much mind the morning rain. It was a nice excuse not to walk. I squirted some cheese on a hamburger bun and listened to Morning Edition. Seven or eight, it's the same to me. I would still get an early start. And I was up in the woods; no rancher was going to run me off of his land.

So I settled in to wait out the storm. I made another cheese sandwich. And another and one more after that. I ate up all of my food. But this is South Dakota and when it rains it means to rain all day. I took a nap and drank half my water. I crawled outside for a pee. My mountain was surrounded by clouds. It was by now one PM.

Thing is, I was hungry. My water was low. Hot Springs was eighteen miles away. I couldn't last up there forever. I thought about walking back to Pringle. But they'd laugh at me; I do have my pride. I headed southeast in the rain.

In fact, I waited until it had stopped. It stopped for all of two minutes. By the time I got my gear packed up you would think I had fallen in a pond. And it was cold, bitter cold. My pack weighed a ton. I thought about putting my tent back up.

I hadn't used my raincoat for weeks. It is heavy to carry around. But I strapped it on and worked my way down the hill. It was awfully slippery. There was lichen covering every stone. The algae bit can get slick. And years of bone dry cow pies were every last one reconstituted. At the barbed wire fence I put a gaping wound in the back of my one left hand.

I must have hit a vein or something. You have never seen so much blood. I must have lost a quart and a half. Perhaps as many as two. For our international friends, that is nineteen litres, or enough to fill a small pool.

It is a lovely road, this 385, wide and not too well travelled. It snakes up and over some beautiful hills. I didn't enjoy them as much as I should have. I was too busy feeling sorry for myself. I worried about my computer. I keep it wrapped up but it was in with my gear and three or four gallons of water.

If it dies I cannot afford to replace it. I am not walking for the thrills. I am walking to meet girls and record my thoughts, at least the ones fit for wide distribution. I have kept a lot back, the juicy bits. For those you will have to wait. But even these fairly benign reports mean all the world to me. If a tree falls and no one's there to hear it, you might as well just stay home.

Man, I tell you, it was pissing down. It takes much of the fun out of walking. But at the same time I was enjoying my martyrdom. There is a joy in feeling sorry for yourself. And, like I said, it was bitter cold. I glared at each passing car. I like driving, warm on a cold rainy day. I wanted to give each one the finger.

I am not speaking metaphorically. I really wanted to do it. I thought somehow it wojld cheer me up. In the end I controlled myself.

A couple of miles took me to Wind Caves National Park. I confess I had never heard of it. It is a few thousand acres of mixed grass praire, more or less as it once was. From the Mississippi the Rocky Mountains, from Mexico to Canada. Wind Caves now is all that is left. It is, trust me, beautiful.

Beautiful. Really. And it smelled fantastic, I guess because of the rain. Like a cross between a really fancy shampoo and Willie Nelson's bus. There were roiling clouds flinvg the sky. The whole place had a Hobbit vibe. It was cold and rainy and magical. Maybe it was the contact high.

Entering Wind Caves you cross a cattle guard. That is, for our international friends, a series of bars placed over a pit. It works as well as a fence. Cows worry about breaking their ankles. So do I, as a matter of fact. The most likely way I will injure myself is crossing a cattle guard.

There were too a number of warning signs. "Watch Out for Buffalo. They'll Kill You Just As Soon As Look At You." "Buffalo=Death." "If You See a Buffalo, Lock Your Doors and Drive Away Fast."

I really wanted to see a buffalo. I've got no use for the nanny state. They couldn't scare me; what are they? Just cows, after all. Cows love me, I will have you now. I am a hero to cows. And while there were once sixty millions of them, there are now just five-hundred or so. But to see just those thundering over the praire would be quite a moving sight.

All I saw were praire dogs. I am rather fond of them, too. But most of them had a little more sense than to be standing out in the rain. And there were a few drowned snakes; good riddance, I say, vile and hateful beasts. But no buffalo. I was feeling let down. I kept my eyes on the horizon.

So I almost missed the one buffalo, eating pansies by the side of the road. Rather startled me, she did. A big gal, too. Not fifteen yards away. The warning signs all flahed back to me. I was just a.little bit scared. Manfully, I'll have you know, but this was a government warning. I was preparex to see them on the next hill, not standing a short pass away.

I gave her all the space I could. The road was narrow there. I don't really want to be trampled to.death, no matter what I might say. I was too worried she would follow me. She is but a cow at heart. But she didn't and I passed unscathed. Her friends were waiting over the hill.

A good dozen of them. They were lying down, except for one grumpy bull. There are no fences in the National Park. I had his full attention. I was wearing a bright red raincoat. He scraped his front hoof on the ground. Some tourists pulled up to take his picture and his vanity won out.

Even domestic bulls don't like me, jealous cratures that they are. A big old bearded buffalo would not hesitate to mash me flat. I was even concerned about the cows. They have not been bred to be gentle. There is an intimacy in the act of milking which they have never experienced. For all I know they are meat-eaters. For all I know I am prey. And they've just got them running around loose. God bless America.

Even without the adrenaline boost I was making good time. It was either make it all the way to Hot Springs or drop dead on the way. Or get awfully cranky, at the very least. The boy has got to keep fed. And I got a ridiculously late start. And it was still raining.

Wind Cave, by the way, is named for its caves, which underlie most of its praire. There are a hindred-some miles of passages down there, and one or two good-sized lakes. They breathe, too, in and out. Apparenty with some force. I do not know the mechanics at work. The visitor's cented was too far off my road. It is, nonetheless, my favorite National Park. I hope to return one day.

In a Land Rover, with rhino bars. And a couple of kids as bait.

I did make it all the way to Hot Springs, in one long long soggy run. It was dark and I was beat to hell. I was chafed and had a case of the snoofles. I spent some money that I don't have to check into a hotel.

It was my intention not to, you know. I have been inspired by Lee, the recumbant cyclist. He never sleeps indoors. He has only one shirt. He sleeps under parked cars and eats pinecones. But he is tougher than me, what can I say. I was starting to shiver.

I needed a hot bath and to dry out my gear. I needed to eat and take a hot shower. I've got laundry to do and I've got groceries to buy to prepare for tomorrow's walk. I did get a fairly good deal on a very comfortable room. Whereas I have been trying boyish charm, today I was all business. Listen buddy, I said to the little man, it is late and late in the season. Give me half price or I am out of here. He did not know I was bluffing.


CHEERS to the generous man on the road, who helped fund this luxury. A little soft living will do me some good. Don't be ashamed of me.
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