They call them the plains states because they’re flat planes and because they’re plain Jane — except for the fields of sunflowers that Cole says look like someone has painted the Earth yellow. We’re on the last leg of the trip, the final journey home — which is unfortunately a bit of a beeline through parts of the country in which we’d prefer to linger. But enough is enough. It’s time to go home. I have an apartment to set up and a job to start.
For once it wasn’t painful to pull ourselves away from the Lake, thanks to a series of mishaps. Tuesday we were returning from a lovely dinner and beach fire at Bud’s old friends Dave and Dana’s. They’re just three miles down the beach, it was late, we were tired, and we were stupid. Cole had hurt his foot and I was sitting on the back bench holding him, instead of riding up front on deer watch, as usual. Bud had had a few drinks and didn’t see the doe until he was right in front of her. He braked and swerved — missed the deer and stopped just fine. But seatbelt-less, Cole and I went flying against the side door. I got a nice bruise and general soreness to show for our carelessness the next couple of days. Cole was upset but fine, once he realized we hadn’t hit the deer.
Wednesday was a beautiful day but the Lake kept getting rougher, as the wind increased its force. One moment, Superior can be flat as glass — then it can rival the Pacific for surf and tempest, capable of sinking freighters. (Sing “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” here.) Cole and I went wave riding on his inner tube. We had a blast getting knocked around by the waves on the sandbar. A little later, he went out again with our 11-year-old neighbor Melanie. I fretted right away that I should go out with him, but I didn’t have my swimsuit on, and I didn’t want to lose sight of them by running up and changing. Sure enough, within 10 minutes, Cole had lost control of his inflatable. He started to swim after it, and I worried he would follow it out of his depth, exhaust himself, and have nothing to hold onto. But he’s a smart kid: He realized it was out of reach, turned to look at me, and I waved him in. He swam straight back, and we ran down the beach, chasing the floatie. He swam out two more times to get it, always wisely gauging his chances and the risk. The second time, he got it. I was proud of his judgment, tenacity, and endurance. But a little mad at myself for not being more careful.
The wind kept getting fiercer Wednesday, as we started our last beach fire. The sparks blew dangerously into the woods, but we weren’t too worried about igniting an inferno, as we watched rain advance across the lake. Shortly after John and Judy arrived for the hoped-for marshmallows, the drops started falling and the wind began gusting. I was heading to check the tent stakes when I heard a crash behind me and something hit my leg. I turned to see that a 12-foot dead birch — the one Bud worried he should have pushed over before we set up camp — had fallen a foot behind me, landing on a tub of dirty dishes, some of which had flown up and hit my calf. I was relieved to see the tent still standing. Then I saw Bud, who was inside the tent, reach his hand through the three-layered hole the tree had sliced through our nylon home.
If I had been in bed, the tree would have landed on my head. As it was, I narrowly missed an ugly blow. I admit I kind of freaked out. Last year, I almost got struck by lightning. I’m tiring of near-death experiences in what’s supposed to be my Eden.
The rain passed quickly, and Bud was able to cover the holes with a tarp. But the wind remained about as strong as I’ve ever felt it there, and the sound of it whipping our wounded tent kept us up most the night. We decamped the next day. If I never sleep in a tent again, it will be too soon for me.
Paleface was naturally freaked out by the storm and the strong surf it whipped up, bringing water close to our bank. For the first time all trip, he disappeared that night. Now, Paleface has been the bedrock of this trip. He’s a sterling traveler. He makes himself home wherever he goes: van, motel room, friend’s house, tent. He throws his big body down and whips his tail contentedly. With that belly of his, he is our Zen master. Traveling has given us new appreciation of our 8-year-old pet.
He loves the woods. He’d never been in wilderness like this, and it clearly brought out his animal nature. He became fully nocturnal. Every night, he would prowl the forest, periodically letting himself in the tent’s pet door to lie next to Cole and purr loudly. The road outside our tent was his living room. He’d lie in the dirt and whack his tail, reluctantly moving if a car dared want to pass. I worried that the coyotes we heard howling would find him to be a filling snack. Instead, I had to rescue a field mouse from Paleface’s torture.
But Thursday, with the wind and water howling, he was nowhere to be seen. It was so unlike him, I thought for sure a predator had gotten him. We walked through the woods calling his name. No sign. This is why I didn’t want to travel with a cat.
We had to leave — the water was way too crazy for swimming, and I wanted nothing of the beach that day. But I came back in the afternoon to see if he had shown up. No sign. I walked the forest again. No Paleface. By this point, sleepless, sore, and generally pissed off, I was despairing. I wrote down our phone numbers for our neighbors, in case the cat decided to appear, since we were planning to sleep at Bud’s mom’s in White Pine for the rest of our stay. I started to walk to their cabin, when Paleface appeared in the road, utterly nonchalant and perfectly okay, his green slit eyes looking at me and saying, “what?”
So we’re all back together, heading home, most of us happy that way. In fact, the last two days, as I unpacked, cleaned, and repacked the van in White Pine (I’ve never cleaned so much in my life as on this “vacation”), Otis kept crawling into the vehicle, ready to go — or afraid of being left.
Paleface is different though. Before Michigan, he never tried to get out of the van when we stopped. In fact, he usually hid. But he’s had a taste of a new kind of freedom, and it’s going to be hard to keep him in these doors these next four days.
Famous last words: Yesterday, after more than 12 hard hours of driving, we arrived at Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota about an hour before sunset. I had agreed to sleep in the van, in order to keep to our budget — and enjoy this gorgeous Badlands campground. But when we arrived, there was only one space left — a walk-in tent spot. The motel in town was full, and I had to admit that, perched on an embankment above a babbling river, with the sweet smell of juniper wafting through the trees, it was an idyllic spot. So I found myself once again sleeping beneath nylon, this time in our little tent — the Wal-Mart behemoth is gone.
I didn’t know this park and it’s a find. It’s a much easier way to see the Badlands than the park of that name — it’s closer to the Interstate, less of a detour commitment. In the morning, we watched a herd of buffalo cross the road, listened to chattering prairie dogs, and even spied a wild horse. The town of Medora is a bit touristy kitschy, but it has a great bookstore, where I picked up a volume of cowgirl poetry.
Still, the camping gods hate me. As soon as we began to settle into our spot to cook, I stepped in a hole and twisted my ankle. Thank god we’re staying in Thermopolis tonight: I think the world’s biggest hot springs may just be able to accommodate this bone-weary traveler.
Now I know why Teddy Roosevelt called his pals the Rough Riders. Must have been like traveling with Bud.
We have a national park system thanks to our 26th president, and the one named after him was our fourth on this trip. Our National Park pass is one of our favorite things, although I’m sorry we’ve decided to skip Yellowstone and Big Teton this time — no room in the schedule for crowds and traffic.