Ever wonder if you’ve taken the wrong road?
Never have I experienced this feeling in real life like I did on my solo road trip through the Badlands of South Dakota. I had just finished an amazing few days in the area; I had stayed at Cedar Pass, explored the Badlands loop complete with tourist way stations and rattle-snake warnings, and driven down to visit the historic Wounded Knee site. As wonderful as it was to be able to live these natural wonders and cross them off my bucket list, I still craved the “out-of-the-way” places.
On my way back from Wounded Knee, when I came to the main drag crossroads, I stopped. My original thought was to take the highway back to Wall, SD.
Shifting into park and cracking open a diet Coke to wash away the dust, I studied my map and calculated the mileage. (Yeah, no one to honk at me for parking at a stop sign). Wouldn’t it be more fun and adventurous to take the back roads all the way to Wall? They led through a different part of the Badlands, and how cool would that be? I had enough gas; I could still make it to Wall before dark. That was the new plan anyway. Though technically it was part of the “park”, it wasn’t part of the tourist’s loop; that’s exactly why I wanted to see it; the wildness of the road less travelled.
In my element, windows down, I delighted in the hot, dry, clear blue skies and sunshine as it caressed me, and the wide open wild land, far away from the turbulence and craziness of what constituted my life in those days. I stopped and got out of my Toyota Rav more than once, just to experience these gifts as they reached up and surrounded me with whisperings of secrets and history gone by. What stories could the craggy mountain canyons and rocks in the distance tell me?
Everything was going according to plan…until the road changed from pavement to gravel; NOT dirt, but loose gravel. Well, crap! The map hadn’t clued me in on this, and I hadn’t calculated on it. Looking at the clock as I slowed from 55 mph to 30, I said to myself,
“I may be out here in the dark after all…no big deal; it can’t be that much farther.”
When you are driving over coarse gravel at 30 mph, with lots of twists and turns, it can seem like a LONG time. The early evening shadows and clouding horizon cast warnings. I studied my gas gauge, looked at my cell phone with NO bars, and the “what ifs” started haunting me:
“What IF” I had taken a wrong turn and I wasn’t on my way to Wall, but on some back road that led to…nowhere, and I had to spend all night out here?
“What IF” I ran out of gas? My vehicle was relatively new and in good shape, but the roads were so coarse…
“What IF” I got a flat tire out here in the middle of nowhere?
I had been driving for over an hour and a half without seeing one other car; no houses, no buildings, no wires, no evidence AT ALL of civilization. This is what I wanted to experience, of course, but the butterflies were churning in my stomach as fear reached its icy little finger towards me. Every corner I turned I hoped to see some evidence that I was on the right track. Once or twice there was another road that crossed mine, but there were no signs, not one clue to calm me. What had I gotten myself into?
Turning around one of these corners, I marveled in spite of myself at another rolling expanse of wild, open land; no trees, no corn, no farms. Then I spotted something….what the heck WAS that? It looked as if mother nature had strung raisins across the prairie by the roadside up ahead.
As I got closer, and realized what was stretched out before me, I almost wept with the beauty of it.
There, a rough 10 yards from the side of the road, was a herd of approximately 50 or so buffalo, including calves. I pulled over, rolled down my windows, and basked in what was for me a miraculous gift. Considering the enormity of the possible places this herd could be feeding right now, I was consumed with thankfulness that they were here, and even more thankful that I was, INDEED on the RIGHT road. This wasn’t a tourist loop in Custer Park. They weren’t feeding on hay or anything else that may have been left by humans; they were simply making their way across the prairie.
I hunted down my Native American music, popped in the CD, got out and sat on the car for 15-20 minutes in what could be called a meditative state. In those moments, whether or not I got to Wall didn’t matter. There was nobody else in the whole world but the buffalo, the prairie, and me. If I had had to spend the night in the back of my Rav and wait for daylight to find help, I wouldn’t have traded the experience for anything.
Finally, as the sun started to set on the clouding horizon, I reluctantly got inside and pulled away. I was either close to Wall or terribly lost, but all the “what ifs” had faded into tiny bits and blown away on the breeze. They didn’t matter at all .
As I drove toward the next hill, another car actually passed me! I took that as a good sign. Looking in my rear-view mirror, I watched as this vehicle stopped on the side of the road as I had. Then, cresting the hill, I looked ahead, and there was another crossroads; it had a sign with an arrow that read “To Wall”. Standing under that sign was a huge bison with dangerous-looking horns. Wow. I very carefully made my way around him, knowing he could totally decimate me if he had the urge, and with a happy sigh, continued on my way to Wall, thanking him for his clemency. I made it to Wall with in the next hour.