Today, coming across South Dakota via I-90, I fought the wind hard, my hands cramping as I clung to the steering wheel. Gusts up to 30 mph came out of nowhere, pushing Roadcinante into the other lane while I muttered, “Holy shit,” and wrestled her back into her own neighborhood.
I left Bozeman, Montana last Friday, headed for Billings for the weekend to do some pondering. I was having second thoughts about Denver.
In Billings it was 96°F, heading for 99°F by Sunday. The campsite backed up to a tall dirt barrier beyond which was the Yellowstone River, or at least you could get there by walking over about 1/8 of a mile of river rocks. The dogs and I picked our way down there. I’ve never seen a river that lapped at the shore like a lake, but the Yellowstone is wide enough and busy enough to do that.
An aroma rose up, of animal and musk, but it was just the mud-dried banks releasing its scent. We wandered along for a while, the dogs sniffing and piddling.
Back at the campsite, I heard locusts for the first time since last summer, and the black flies swarmed and bit, taking small chunks of skin from my bare legs and leaving beads of blood. We fled into the confines of Roadcinante, closed all the windows, and turned on the AC, which worked for a while until it didn’t. The campsite’s electricity, hovering on the edge, could not keep up with the demands of a full campground with everyone running their AC. After mine blew, I opened the windows, turned on the ceiling fan, and lay on my bed, fanning myself. The dogs, watered and fed, panted themselves to sleep.
Saturday morning, I woke to the sun beating on my face. Inside the rig it was stuffy and hot. Outside, a dark haze filled the air. I could taste the burning. Wildfires.
Friday, when I’d left Bozeman, the distant mountains, so crisp and beautiful in the sunshine on previous days, were shrouded with smoke. “Fires in Idaho, I think,” a friend told me. Crossing along I-90, the haze became heavier, wildfires cropping up and spreading across Montana.
Now, in Billings, I faced a decision. On to Denver?
Timing was turning out to be way off for Denver. And the heat. My God, the heat. The map showed it spreading everywhere I wanted to go. I looked toward Minnesota, where it was cooler, and just a couple days’ drive away. If I could stay ahead of the heat, we’d be fine, and I’d read about the International Wolf Center up there and thought I’d like to see it.
Even though I had paid for two nights at the Billings campground, I felt an urgency Saturday morning, the smoke in my throat and nostrils, stinging my eyes. Knowing we couldn’t be outside, knowing the electricity might not hold for the AC unit, I decided to leave a day early.
Minnesota it would be. I logged onto a weather map just to be certain of the decision, and found…red warning signs for the eastern part of Montana which I-94 – the route to northern Minnesota – cut straight through. “Wildland Fires! Low Visibility!”
Back to square one. Where next? My energy was flagging. My shoulder hurt. My leg hurt. Connor’s eye was looking worse.
Oh. I haven’t told you, yet.
One night last week I decided to park and stay overnight in the Bozeman Walmart parking lot. Friends and been putting me up, and it seemed a good time to spend a night on my own without pestering anyone.
There were about twenty other rigs in the enormous lot, plus some people sleeping in their cars, as well as folks who apparently slept under bushes in the grassy area surrounding the brand new store. Cool. Everybody doing what they needed to do for the night.
After the dogs had been fed and after I finished my dinner – salami and cheese sandwich and some chips and blueberries – I walked the boys along one of the wide green medians for their evening poop.
Let me back up and say, earlier I had seen a black pick-up truck towing a collapsible trailer roll by, with about six dogs in the back of the truck. Noted it. That’s about it.
Well, here I am walking the dogs, a cool evening breeze beginning to blow, thinking, this night is going to work out just fine, when we passed a forty-foot motorhome and hidden behind that was the pick-up truck, and in a hot second one of the dogs, a big black lab, jumped out, barking, and came tearing after my dogs.
I started shouting, “No! No! Bad dog!” like that would help, and trying to back up, tugging at the boys to come with me as the dog came at us with bared teeth, snarling and barking.
I don’t remember exactly what happened next. I think Connor, being Connor, said basically, “Oh, HELL, no,” and lunged and the dog passed him by and went for Beasley. Sweet Beasley. Who had slipped his collar. So I’m holding onto Connor who wants to rip this goddamned dog a new one, and trying to corral Beasley, who is freaked out, and the other five dogs are going crazy in the truck (owners nowhere to be found), and I get tangled in both dogs’ leashes and fall hard.
Like I said, I don’t really remember what happened. I know I looked at my right leg, which immediately formed an avocado-sized contusion just below my knee, and I tried to get up gracefully (hahahahahhaaaa!!!) and found my shoulder was fucked up again. Plus I was: Pissed. Off.
A nice man stopped to help, and I said, “I’m fine, I’m fine,” and thanked him for stopping.
By now the dog had returned to the truck, and I got hold of Beasley and with shaking hands got his collar back on, and basically dragged both dogs back to Roadcinante, where I got a bag of frozen sticky rice from the freezer and put it on my leg and took three Ibuprofen, and lay there cursing the dogs’ idiot owners, the misaligned stars, and the bum luck.
It took a couple of days for my joints to stop hurting all over, for my lower back to stop twinging and my neck to cease with the shooting pains. After that, it was, and is, basically my shoulder, torn or strained or whatever, again, and my leg, which could have been worse. I keep slathering it with Traumeel, which I think has helped immensely, but it still hurts like a mother.
Oh, Connor. He has an ulcer in his right eye, almost undoubtedly from Beasley’s ultra-lethal weapon of a tail slamming him in the face once too often. You cannot blame a happy dog. Not really. But it’s unfortunate. And the eye does not seem to be healing, despite drops I’ve faithfully dosed him with since my vet back in Boone did a long-distance prescription for us back in Spokane.
So. You are brought up to speed.
Anyway, Saturday morning. I’m in Billings. There are wildfires behind me. Wildfires to the east of me. Montana and Colorado are about to get hotter than Hades.
And all of a sudden, something in me just gives. Like the way a muscle you’ve been holding releases, and you didn’t know until it did how hard you’ve been flexing it.
“Let’s go home,” I say to the boys, and they say, leaping and wagging a little, “Well, okay, if you really want to.”
And so we do. We leave Billings and head for Rapid City, South Dakota, fleeing the wildfires that by Monday will grow to twenty-nine separate fires encompassing hundreds of thousands of acres and leading the governor of Montana to declare a state of emergency. I leave the triple digits behind and land in Rapid City in the early evening, where I get a hotel room and let the boys sleep on the bed.
Sunday I drive up to Mt. Rushmore, because it is practically right there. (I miss Crazy Horse because 10% grades and brakes and quivery hands.)
Then I come back to the hotel and lie around the room, reading and napping and trying to cope with the idea I am actually headed for home.
Which brings us to today. Monday. I have basically crossed the whole damned state of South Dakota. Gone are the mountains; I am now in the Great Plains.
To the west, the terrain is rolling and open with rocks and buttes and cattle – the Black Angus of Montana have given way to Black and Brown Herefords, gazing out at the freeway with their white faces. Giant rolls of hay are everywhere, even in the small triangles made by the interstate overpasses and exit and entrance ramps, as if every square inch that can grow anything grassy is utilized.
In the distance, the Badlands rise up like something from a sci-fi movie. Later, I pass signs for the South Dakota Tractor Museum and “The World’s Only Corn Palace.”
About two-thirds of the way across South Dakota, the wide fields and wispy grasslands give way to green oceans of corn and other crops, and flattens out so that I know I am back in the Midwest.
And, thank the gods and goddesses, it has cooled off as I’ve tacked east. This morning in Rapid City it was 81°F at 9:30 a.m., headed toward 101°F by 11 a.m. Halfway across the state I stopped at a rest area thick with “poisonous snakes” warnings where it was 95°F.
Here in Sioux Falls, it is a delicious 80°F with the stiff breeze blowing on my neck. I am sitting outside Roadcinante watching a passel of kids ride their bikes and sipping a Black Butte Porter. The smell of manure and urine is in the air – horses or cattle or both, that we are downwind from. Buried in the aroma is a tad of sweetness, a memory of the hay grown in the wide-open prairie.
I’m tired but happy. There are still some more stops before I’m back in North Carolina. But it looks like it will be August rather than September when I hit the foothills and climb the Blue Ridge Mountains to home.
Later, after the dogs and I have all had our dinner, I stroll down to the laundry room and do a load of laundry. Coming out of the building, I hear the locusts tuning up and turn to look at the evening sky strewn with cotton-candy pink clouds, and I gaze to the west, holding my warm laundry, and think and think and think of all the places I have been and all the wonders I’ve seen. I stand, watching, while the light goes out of the sky and a few stray lightning bugs rise up from the ground.