Last night, I slept at a KOA Kampground to duck out a hail storm -- $32 to imprison my quirky Honda Element in a gravel lot surrounded by metal-sided bullies. I bolted from the RV lock-up before sunrise.
I drove east through Montana -- by its own admission, a state where “you have to push a lot to get through it.” After six days on my cross-country road trip, I hadn’t had any wow. No a-ha. No soul-filling moments that I normally felt on road trips. The Honda was comfortable for both driving and sleeping. Gas station attendants, travellers at rest stops, camping neighbours -- all were friendly and fun to chat with. The land was pretty. Quiet reflective time while driving was okay. Should I not be here? Am I pushing too fast to reach the Atlantic ocean? As my shuffle mode spit out tunes from Elton John to the Sex Pistols, I crossed another state line.
"It's not going to happen in North-freakin'-Dakota."
At a view point, I looked out across the National Grasslands. Black cows chewed in the shade of large trees. I thought about the goats that became treasured camping companions during my hike in Turkey, less than three weeks ago. When I was nine, I would talk to cows for hours on my great-grandma’s farm near Vimy, Alberta. It's been twenty-seven years since I've eaten beef.
As the sun dropped in the sky, I stopped at a Visitor Information Centre.
“Hi! What are my options for campgrounds in the next hour or so?” I asked.
“Theodore Roosevelt National Park is 30 miles away in Medora,” she said.
“Is Medora a town where I can pick up a few groceries too?”
“Yes, it’s a cute little town.”
A half hour later, I drove off the highway towards Medora. Within a few minutes, I saw the RV jail and refused a visitor's pass. Along both sides of Medora’s two-lane Main Street were cars parked close enough to make the bumpers blush. The storefronts had artificially faded wood siding and saloon swing doors. The road signs had phony aged letters. Neon signs flashed in windows -- Tickets for the Medona Musical! Take-out! Ice Cream! Souvenirs! Preteen girls squirted out between idling tour buses, followed by baseball-capped fathers who waddled across the road without looking right-left-right.
Get me, the f*ck, out of here.
I u-turned back to the highway and fourteen miles away in Belfield, I followed a tent sign into a truck stop attached to a log cabin hotel.
“Hi! Do you have camping for tents?”
“No, just a cement RV lot, you might try Medora," said the woman at the desk without looking up.
“I tried there already, do you have any other suggestions?”
“Dickinson is going to be packed with RVs too," she said to the desk top, "it is, Saturday night, you know.”
I slammed the door a little too hard and the bell convulsed.
In Dickinson, I couldn't find the campground so scouted the streets for possible stealth camping options. Residential cul-de-sac lined with trees? Maybe. School parking lot?
I'm so not supposed to be in Dickinson, but it's been a long day, where, where?
Back on Highway 94, I squinted at a brown sign with a white triangle -- Schnell Recreation Area -- attached like an afterthought to the large green mileage sign. I peeked at my open map on the passenger seat for a red tent icon after Dickinson.
Please be close, please be close. I lifted my visor, no longer needing it for the setting sun.
At the first stop sign off the highway, I saw the second sign – 3 miles.
After a mile, I turned onto a hard-packed red dirt road. The highway hum vanished. Green grasslands swooshed and arched up to the sky. Yellow signs with black arrows – curve right, curve left -- completed the primary colour palette. Wire fences had signs nailed to each post which I thought read Keep Out. The Schnell Recreation Area gate had the same sign but as I coasted closer, the signs became clearer -- Public Land, Welcome.
My body jerked forward as I braked -- a turtle inched across the road towards the duck pond. "Oh hi turtle!" I said, the legs of my silver turtle ring jingled as I waved.
I stopped at the entrance gate -- “Two-thousand acres of grasslands acquired in 1993 by The Conservation Fund from the Schnell family. Six sites. First-come, first-serve. $5 per night. Maximum 14 days”. A travel trailer was set-up in the first site -- we waved to each other. The only other vehicle, a truck camper in the last. Each site was the size of a neighbourhood baseball diamond and had a circular driveway more at home in front of a plantation manor. Mowed lawns. Outhouse cabins with covered cement patios. Fire rings, stand-up barbeque grills. And two wooden picnic tables each -- one open, one covered with a heavy-duty timber canopy.
“Hi cows!” I yelled through the open passenger window.
Site #3 welcomed me. I looked at the 7 o’clock sun and I jumped into my black nylon running shorts, pink tank top and lime green Nikes. I sprinted along the barbed wire fence towards the entrance gate. The cows lifted their heads, black muppet ears flared out, yellow ear tags twitched. Eyes stared, jaws gyrated.
I smiled as one cow started to run alongside the fence. And another. Then two more. Then five more. Grass blades as tall as wheat parted as the cows thundered through them. Thirty-seven cows joined my team as we raced towards the main gate.
"Yeaaaah!" I yelled, "whooooo, yeaaaaa--!"
Their hooves roared next to my silent footsteps. My nose burned and twitched as my eyes filled with tears. I cupped my left hand over my mouth -- as if my choked-up cries would embarrass my burly team mates.
As we neared the main road, the cows pivoted left and trotted up the ridge. I waved goodbye and ran through the gate to meet my new team of black song birds with wings the color of traffic cones.
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