“I been a long time leavin’, but I’m going to be a long time gone.” ~Willie Nelson
We left Sheridan (and Buffalo, boo-hoo) early on the morning of the 5th with our compass (okay, GPS) set toward Badlands National Park in South Dakota. Our last sight of Buffalo and the Bighorns was from a scenic knoll on the Interstate with a meadowlark perched on a nearby fencepost, larking for all he was worth. Seemed fitting, being escorted out of the Bighorn Basin by the warbles and rolling trills of a yellow-throated songster. I stared into the distant snow-capped Bighorns and my throat swelled,too, already missing the friendly people, abundant wildlife, and epic scenery.
I almost never take photographs of informational signs. It seems silly—do people really go back and read those? Is the sign the important thing to capture? Or the sight that the sign is about? At Fort Kearny I watched a woman move from sign to sign taking pictures and never once moving the camera from her eye to actually take in what she was photographing. But on this day, on this departure, on this sign, I wanted to preserve every detail.
We planned to camp at the Sage Creek remote campground area in Badlands National Park. This is one of the National Park areas where you can camp for free but the sites are limited and there’s no way to reserve them ahead of time. We’d had good luck with the BLM sites that use the same model and the National Park website said the site was “rarely full” so we ventured forth with great hopes for a remote, scenic, and peaceful spot. The fact that it involved about 20 miles of dirt roads to get to the site seemed especially promising for weeding out the less serious campers and the big-rig folks.
En route, we stopped in Sturgis, South Dakota, the site of the huge motorcycle rally every summer and a gathering spot the rest of the year, as well. We wanted to take in some local flavor and walked around the town a bit (the temperature was right at 100 degrees, so we walked slowly) then got lunch at The Knuckle Saloon and headed out again.
When we rolled in to the Sage Creek area at 3pm, six of the ten sites were occupied and our best option appeared to be the area normally set aside for horse trailers. At that time of day, with 103-degree heat in the shade, it seemed a pretty good bet that there wouldn’t be many horse riders needing to use the area before nightfall so we pulled in and parked beside a guy who was towing a homemade teardrop and camping with his dog. He came over to check ours out (for, he said, improvements he might want to make—his was only just roughed out enough to be roadworthy, a plywood frame on a Tractor Supply trailer base) and said he had left DC in early June and was headed to California. He’d been camped at Sage Creek since Sunday, when. he said, there had been at least 200 people camped there with RVs parked three-deep in some places. Now, bear in mind that the area only included ten official sites and two pit toilets. We waited out a short squall of rain, deployed some awnings, wetted our clothes, made cold drinks, and prepared to wait out the sun, an exercise in supreme / extreme patience.
As we waited, the cars, trucks, campers, and RVs continued rolling in. Throughout the evening the telltale dust clouds approached, then turned to telltale headlight trails as each additional camping party searched for a spot to claim for the night. There were people setting up tents of every size, shape, and color, people setting out for hikes to nearby ridgelines, kids flying kites, dogs strolling around sniffing, a guy playing a guitar near us, and another sitting on the hood of his vehicle playing a pan flute by the pit toilet as the sun sank behind the hills. Len looked around, counted all the campers, and said, “It’s like Woodstock!” At first it was frustrating to have our claimed spot gradually encroached upon, but there was a really mellow vibe, everyone we encountered seemed super chill, and we relaxed into the beautiful sunset with coyotes singing backup and embraced the unique experience.
Next up: A night in Albert Lea-Austin, Minnesota.