Back to the Badlands

I considered my last trip to the Badlands in May to be my first official trip as a nomad. Though I had obviously traveled before, it was the first trip I took with the mindset and intent of becoming nomadic. It was also the first minimalist-styled trip I took – packing a single bag with little preparation and sleeping at a rest area in my truck.

Because it was a trip of firsts for me, the Badlands have earned a special place in my heart. So last Friday, when I got antsy to get out of the house again – I chose to come back home to the Badlands.

New Levels of Spontaneity

I spent most of Friday morning thinking about taking a trip, but the weather forecasts were not in my favor (too hot, especially with Remy in tow). But the desire to get out of the house gnawed at me. At 1 o’clock, I had an “aww, fuck it” moment and decided to go anyway. In less than an hour after I decided to go, I had packed a bag, ran errands, and was on the road.

My bag was a lot lighter this time around. For as little as I packed for my last trip to South Dakota, I still found that I over-packed. This time, I brought only the following:

  • a small tent
  • a self-inflating sleeping pad, 2 blankets, and a pillow
  • a folding chair
  • a cooler, mostly containing ice and water, plus a couple of snacks
  • one duffel bag, containing a single change of clothes, a towel, a knife, a flashlight, a phone charger, toothpaste, deodorant, sunscreen, a notebook and pen, a book, dog dishes, a leash, and a tie-out leash.
The Galactic Center

I finally satisfied a major item on my bucket list this weekend. I had always wanted to see the center of the Milky Way galaxy. It’s not easy. You have to be in a location with very little light pollution – easier out west, but still a challenge. But you also need to be in a place and time where the constellation Sagittarius is above the horizon and not obstructed by clouds.

The route is pretty straightforward, and I was trying to navigate without the aid of GPS this time. But I took a wrong turn somewhere near Mankato, and wound up working my way down toward I-90 via a series of country roads in Middle-of-Nowhere, Minnesota. As I was driving down one of these roads – something caught my eye. I looked out my window and realized that the night sky was full of stars – more than I had ever seen before.

I pulled over to the side of the road and hopped out of my truck. What I would have done for a high-exposure camera just then! I noticed a particularly dense patch of stars and realized that I was staring at the galactic center. I am neither religious nor spiritual, but words cannot describe the sight my eyes beheld. As Incubus’ lyrics go…

♫ The sky resembles a back-lit canopy with holes punched in it. ♫

I could have stayed there all night gazing at the stars.

And now, a word from our sponsors…

I want to give a quick shout-out to Jason Moore of the Zero to Travel podcast, who kept me company for most of the trip. I had spent the summer catching up on the archives and was able to get current by the end of the trip.  Appropriately, Jason had just posted the first part of a two part series: Why Road Trips Rule. I encourage you to listen to those two episodes.

By the way – did you know that for just $80, you can get a pass that grants you unlimited access to the U.S. National Parks system (and other federal recreation lands) for a full year? Depending on which parks you visit, the pass can pay for itself in just a few trips. Check it out here.

The Badlands

Badlands National ParkI didn’t spend quite as much time in the Badlands, since I had been there once already. Mostly, I was just looking to absorb the ambiance. I didn’t get to do that last time because I buried my nose in my cell phone to take a bunch of pictures.

There were two other points of interest within a stone-throw’s distance of the Badlands. Those two spots were justification enough to return to the Badlands, and returning to the Badlands was justification to visit these two spots. (Hooray for symmetry!)

As forecast, the weather was indeed hot. But I won’t always have ideal weather conditions during the North American Tour, so it made sense to get used to such discomforts now.

Nearly Killed (Seriously)

Speaking of discomfort… I had a rough time sleeping on this trip. I stayed at the same rest area near Sioux Falls, but this time I pitched a tent behind a tool shed where I knew no one would spot me. It turned out to be too cramped for my 6’2″ ass plus the dog. I spent four hours trying to sleep, and I dozed off once or twice for a moment. But for the most part, I was conscious and freezing.

The next night, we slept in the truck. I experimented with a new configuration – letting the smaller dog sleep up front and I laid in back. It proved to be worse that way, plus the sweltering heat left me sweating like a horse. I got about 3 hours of real shitty sleep.

With virtually no sleep, and all the hours I was logging behind the wheel, it eventually got to be dangerous. To be honest, I’m lucky to be alive right now and here to type this post. During the drive back, about 27 hours into the trip and with 9 more to go, I lost consciousness a couple times and nearly veered off the road each time. Fortunately, this was around 3am and I had the interstate to myself.

Next time, I’ll have to be less stubborn and plan my rest stops better.

Wind Cave National Park

The allure of Wind Cave National Park was that it had caves, and I had never been inside a real one. It wasn’t critical for me to come here, since I already have a trip planned a few months from now to go to Mammoth Cave National Park. But I figured it wouldn’t hurt to come here, too.

Unfortunately, I didn’t really know what to expect here. I imagined caves near the road that I could just hop out and walk into. But there were no visible cave entrances from the road, and I didn’t realize that you need to go on a guided tour to get into one.

I might have been willing to go on a tour, but the park seemed to be hosting some sort of derby race, and the visitor center was crowded with people. Since I don’t like crowds, it didn’t seem to be worth the stop.

However, there were some truly gorgeous vistas on the way into the park. There was one spot in particular that I regret not having stopped at to take a picture. I can’t find it in Google Street View due to gaps in coverage, but based on GPS records and satellite images, I’m 99% certain the area I’m thinking of was along 7-11 Road in Buffalo Gap, South Dakota. Roughly at 43°31’8″ N by 103°20’46” W. I’ll have to go back and see next time I’m in the area.

Mt. Rushmore

I decided to drive by Mount Rushmore since I was in the neighborhood. Although I had no special interest in this tourist trap, I felt that I would have a hard time explaining why I had never been there given the number of times I’ve been in close proximity to it.

I approached from the south, and I didn’t know until I got there that the monument was facing north. I didn’t want to stop and pay a lot of money to park there, but because of the winds and twists in the road, the heavy traffic, and the fact that I was driving in the wrong direction – I only got a glimpse of Mt. Rushmore for a brief moment. It doesn’t bother me, and at least now I can honestly say I’ve seen it.

An Ill-Conceived Detour to Montana

There’s something you should know about me. I am absolutely rubbish when it comes to units of measurement. My mind distorts things. I often over-estimate how much time a certain activity will take. I couldn’t guess somsone’s age or weight to save my life. And in the case of this trip, distances may appear to be shorter or longer than they are in reality.

In all of my research and while listening to various podcasts, I’ve come to realize that certain localities are friendlier to nomads than others. Both Sioux Falls, SD and Missoula, MT were on my radar for some time. While spending the night at the Sioux Falls rest area, I grabbed some literature on the city to take back home with me.

Before I headed off for the Badlands, I was at my truck, studying my atlas. Montana didn’t seem too far off. A little detour to Miles City meant that I could find a rest area in Montana and find some literature from Missoula.

Or so I thought.

This “little detour” added 450 miles, six hours, and a full tank of gas to my route. To add insult to injury, the one rest stop between Miles City and the North Dakota border had no literature. No nothing, in fact. It was little more than a bathroom in the middle of nowhere.

Even if that rest area had been stocked with useful information and services like the Sioux Falls rest area, it would not likely have had information on Missoula, which was 500 miles away on the other side of the state. And 450 miles was a long way to go for something I could just as easily have ordered online.

But I still had fun. It was an adventure, and a spontaneous one at that. The ridiculousness of my decision makes for a funny story to tell now. And, I got to cut through Wyoming, a state I hadn’t set foot in before.

The Drawbacks of Being a Wallflower

One of my main goals is to become more social and outgoing in the course of my travels. Perhaps it was the spontaneous nature of the trip that had me energized. I had myself convinced I was going to meet and talk to other travelers on this trip.

But when I got out there, my introversion kicked in and I did what I always do – I kept to myself. I was particularly disappointed with myself in Sioux Falls. I saw four guys – metalheads, based on their apparel – that I probably could have had a fun conversation with.

Don’t get me wrong – my antisocial tendencies have served me well in my lifetime. I just feel that I’m missing out on something if I carry those tendencies with me on my travels. A nomadic lifestyle can be inherently lonely. But I think it’s to my benefit to try to be as social as possible on the road.

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