Road Trip, Part IV

Next morning we were up early because we looked forward to a long day of exploring.  Brad was up and had the coffee going before much more than a hazy zone of gray began eating into the carpet of stars over against the eastern horizon, signifying the advance of the sun from its nocturnal hiding place.  I have never liked rising early and to this day consider it an affront that most of the world likes to get going before ten in the morning.  Good coffee made with water from a snow-melt driven stream and the prospect of exploring new territory were, however, inducement enough to pry me from my cozy cot.  I huddled close to the fire to sip my hot, black liquid incentive mostly in silence while Brad puttered around the camp putting things in place for Ginny’s anticipated appearance. Ginny was not long in emerging.  She looked even more pretty than she usually did on this morning; a fact which I ascribed to her love of the mountains the joy at having a basket full of clean clothes, and having taken a shower the evening before.  Ginny was on full-auto when she got out of the camper; all business about getting breakfast on the table and getting back on the road.  Brad made sausage patties while I peeled potatoes.  Ginny heated up the skillets and set the camp table, and soon we had a decent breakfast before us.  Brad and I could eat a truckload of sausage and eggs and potatoes each, so we significantly toned down our intake due to our smallish cooking utensils which were tailored to fit on the Coleman camp stove.  Brad and I cleaned up while Ginny bagged up chips and nuts and other snacks to nibble on while we drove.  The sun was just peeking over the horizon when we all piled into the Mercury to begin our day’s exploring. All of us were primed to see ‘bufflers’.  None of us had ever seen such a creature although all of us had read about them.  At that time bison were just beginning to be shepherded back from the edge of extinction, and so it was a rare opportunity to see one in the wild.  Brad drove so that Ginny and I could devote ourselves exclusively to seeking our almost mythic quarry.  The bison were not immediately forthcoming however.  We craned our necks to see around every curve in the road, but all there was to see was the beautiful scenery of the Black Hills.  Poor us!  Once Brad hollered out “Bufflers!”  Ginny and I looked quickly towards where Brad was pointing but it turned out that Brad was only pointing towards a group of generously-sized tourists.  Ginny hit Brad on the arm but smiled at his joke, and it was as their horseplay was going on that we rolled around a curve and found ourselves nearly face to face with a small herd of bison. I don’t believe there were more than twenty five or thirty of them, but just one would have been breathtaking enough.  The beast closest to us must have been a male, as he towered over the four or five animals nearest to him.  Short horns emerged from a thick, shaggy  carpet of curly brown fur that covered that patriarch of the plains.  We stopped to get a better look and were glad that a fence separated us from him.  The bison’s huge head hung low, hunched between great shoulders in the front of his massive body, which was highlighted by a huge hump which rose up from his back just behind the neck.  It is said that a male bison can weigh up to two thousand pounds, and I believe that this placidly grazing giant weighed every pound of that. I stared at this wonderful creature and thought of the horrifying travesty which nearly led to the extinction of his kind.  American and European ‘sportsmen’ and ‘hunters’ cut those animals down by the hundreds of thousands every year until they were nearly gone from the earth.  Partly this was for their hides or because their bones, collected after the animals rotted on the plains, were ground into fertilizer; partly it was to clear the land of competition for cattle being raised for the eastern market, and partly it was to deny sustenance to the North American Indians who were being subjected to the same project of extinction as was the bison.  My stomach was churning as I looked at that king of the prairie, just as it is churning now by simply remembering the glory of that old fellow and the immoral obscenity that his near extinction represents.  I believe that we still owe a measure of restitution to the bison for the evil that was visited upon them, and to those who depended upon them as well. More pleasant were my thoughts of the Native Americans who really did hunt the bison and used every part of him but the deep grunt that is his voice.  It is hard to imagine riding on horseback into a stampeding herd of hundreds if not thousands of one and two thousand pound animals running at forty miles per hour with no more than a bow and arrows to bring them down.  Even more impressive is the knowledge that before the Spanish introduced horses into the plains these hunts were conducted on foot.  That is not an experience that I would like to ever have to participate in! We watched for a long while as the star of the show grunted softly and chewed the sweet spring grass that was deep on the plains floor, but eventually climbed back into the Mercury and soon were speeding along to our next stop; the Badlands of South Dakota.  Everyone who has ever read a drugstore western paperback novel knows about the Badlands.  They are a maze of canyons winding through a deeply eroded landscape which is barren, sporting only occasional scrubby growth which not even a goat would find palatable.  Infrequent springs of water pop up in these inhospitable ravines and box canyons, and the Native Americans and hardier Anglo Americans knew which ones were bitter and non-potable alkali pools and which would support life.  A small band of Indians or an outlaw or two on the run could hole up in there for a good long while, while the cavalry or a posse would either give up the chase or die of thirst lost in the labyrinth of the Badlands. We drove through on the upland rim of the badlands and would walk on the tops of spurs which would jut out into the tortured hills and valleys.  From observation sites we could look out over the mile after mile of white, chalky terrain, and occasionally hike down a steep trail into the depths of the Badlands.  We never did see a spring, alkali or otherwise, and the area seemed to be devoid of life although the plaques and information boards at the observation sites assured us that life maintained a fragile toehold even in that God-forsaken geography. After a couple of hours of enjoying the Badlands our stomachs began to growl, reminding us of the relatively small breakfast we had enjoyed many hours earlier.  The nearest town to the Badlands is Phillip, South Dakota, and to Phillip we drove in order to find some good country cooking, and that is exactly what we did find.  Even forty five years later I remember the open face roast beef sandwich that I was served; at least half of a cow on a slab of bread with enough mashed potatoes to ski down, all covered with at least a bucketful of rich brown gravy.  I know I gained three pounds in one sitting. Brad and I plowed through the feast that we had been given and even petite Ginny did justice to her portion, and as I sipped the last of my Coke and Ginny and Brad their tea and coffee the pretty young waitress, a college student on summer break, brought us the ticket for the meal and smiled her nicest smile.  Brad reached to take the ticket before I could get it, something we do to this day, and noticed that there was something written on the back.  Peering closely he saw that it was the name and phone number of the waitress.  I thought it odd that she should do that, with Brad obviously sitting next to Ginny opposite myself in that booth, but then I didn’t give it too much thought beyond that.  Brad always was able to navigate relationships with the fairer sex and I was most assuredly not, so I was accustomed to seeing things like that happen. I was always extremely shy when I was young and a bit of that remains to this day, although my friends might not normally be able to see it.  I could not bring myself to indicate to a girl that I had a romantic interest in her lest she decline my advance, which would produce in me the same heart pain that another person might feel at the breakup of a mature relationship, not that I had any idea what such a relationship or breakup would feel like since I had never experienced either.  Still, I knew that it would be paralyzingly painful and as much as I wanted to try, I could never seem to work up the courage to do so until my sixteenth year.  I was in the eleventh grade when I summoned the courage to ask a girl to go with me to a dance.  To my delight and astonishment she said “Yes”.  We hung out together that night and a true boyfriend/girlfriend relationship bloomed.  I loved that time. Patty, a delightful girl from San Diego who had just returned from Texas, where she had lived for a while with relatives, had a soft Texas drawl and was, I thought, the prettiest girl in the world.  For the next couple of months we went to parties or movies or to dinner, and whenever possible made out in the isolated darkness atop the hill in the Del Cerro neighborhood of San Diego. After a couple of months however Patty’s interest in me waned and seemed to orient towards Walter, my best friend, whom she met at a party with me.  Walter was a good friend and would not reciprocate her affections, but it was clear in spite of my attempts to reverse the tide that Patty no longer cared to be in a romantic relationship with me.  It was like a hot knife had been plunged deep into my gut.  I would not attempt any such relationship again for another six years.  The upshot of this sad story is that the possibility that this vital information regarding the pretty young waitress in Phillip, South Dakota, might be intended for me was in my mind such a remote possibility that it did not register on my radar at all.  It was many years later, while daydreaming on a lazy afternoon, that the truth of that event exploded into my mind.  I couldn’t have been more clueless on that day if I had been a rock.  I tried to snatch the ticket away from Brad but he eluded my grasp, and I settled for leaving the tip, or ‘picking up the table’ as we call it.  I am certain that the pretty young waitress was convinced that she had met the biggest loser in the western United States, and, romantically speaking at least, she was right. We had intended to go on to the capitol of South Dakota at Pierre, but at the edge of Phillip we stopped again for gas and again the transmission fluid was low, and this time a little bit lower than it had dropped before.  Brad said that it was still not a problem, but I was beginning to be sensible of the fourteen hundred miles which separated my leaking Mercury from the mechanics I knew and trusted in San Diego.  We decided to cut the day short and return to Wind Cave.  I bought a case of transmission fluid and the special long-necked funnel needed to insert it into where it was supposed to go and we took the straightest route we could find back to our camp in the Black Hills. That evening, as we smoked a couple of joints and quaffed a six pack or two after dinner, I shared my intention to rise early the next morning and begin my journey back to San Diego.  Brad insisted on accompanying me but I insisted with equal or greater force that he and Ginny should continue on their vacation.  They had planned this trip long before I returned from Vietnam and I reasoned that if I survived two years of war I could probably manage a solitary trip back to San Diego.  Brad finally agreed and I know that Ginny, whom I was growing to like very much, was worried for me but glad that their trip would continue.  We had only eaten soup and sandwiches that evening as it would take a four month hibernation to properly digest the inexcusable piles of food that we had slammed down for lunch, and we bedded down after showers to enjoy our last night together on this road trip.

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