All Aboard!! Badlands National Park

Ever since I saw photos from friends’ vacation at the Badlands, I’ve wanted to go. If people thought I was crazy to take the train in an indirect route, those friends drove all the way from the East Coast. Direct, but speedy, it wasn’t.

I didn’t know what to expect. I just saw photos and was enamored with the notion of taking equally cool photos. I didn’t know whether the cliffs went up or down.

I didn’t expect the Badlands to be so vast and sudden to the landscape.. yet so contained. It felt like I was still driving on flat midwestern plains when the ground suddenly opened up and dropped into crevices. Then half way through, it felt the other way around.. I descended down and was looking up at the colorful array of the buttes.

I was startled to see so many motorcycles. It took a while to realize, belatedly, that I am in South Dakota the time when it seems the most people in the year: Sturgis motorcycle rally. What a backdrop it was, with the swarms of motorcycles thundering by the ancient sandstone landscape.

I climbed up Saddle Pass.. and the shape felt exactly like it was called, a saddle. Steep at times, I found myself glancing below my toes nervously. I know it’s bad when I adjust to sling my camera across my chest so I free up both hands and knees. I didn’t hike beyond the actual climb. A true disadvantage of traveling alone is needing to plan my hikes so that I end up back where I left the car. The path was surprisingly solid. I don’t know why I had the impression the ground would be softer, I just did.

I was determined to hike more of the park, though. The landscape leveled out to grassy plains on the western end. I started using every pull over to explore for walking paths. The loop road that traversed the park took less than an hour to cover and, yet, with 244,000 acres of natural wildlife, I itched to explore the place more. Especially given its claim as the largest expanse of protected prairie ecosystem in the American national parks. Near the west entrance, I found myself looking at the flat plains, hankering a good walk.

I found a nice wide lot perfect for parking the car. I pulled over and stepped out to examine if there were signs of any beaten paths to follow. I had barely walked five steps when I levitated, jumping up a good distance into the air, as a rattle snake snapped at my flipflopped toes.

Right then, my desire to hike disappeared and I scampered back in to the car to drive back for the day.

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Tales of the Wanderlust Daughter: South Dakota

I started this series last year.. and forgot about it for a while. It was born from sharing some stories with my mother to show how I encounter so much kindness and care, especially as a lone female traveller.

I have seemed to rid of my writer’s block and wanted to revisit the memory lane with these stories. Furthermore, having recently experienced some bad, I needed to reassure myself and many travellers out there, that I had experienced the goodness of humanity and those far outnumber the evil.

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On a cross country vacation I took back in the USA between my moves from Asia to Europe, I stopped through South Dakota. I got off the train in North Dakota, and drove to South Dakota. I wanted to see the parks in the area- Badlands National, Mouth Rushmore, Wind Cave, Custer State…

I found a charming bed and breakfast run by a sweet couple who still maintain the working ranch it sits on. I hadn’t paid attention to the fact that it was SD’s busiest two weeks of the year- the Sturgis rally. As a last minute booking, they worked to accommodate me, asking me to move from their main B&B building to a separated coach house usually rented to families for one night in the middle of my stay. No problem.

I completely underestimated the distances I had to drive to get to all the sites I cared about. As a native New Englander, I completely lost perspective of how large some of these states are. So I found myself driving longer and later than anticipated.

One morning, the day I stayed at the coach house, I slept in. I had a particularly late return, the night before, barely awake enough to grab my pajamas out of my packed bag to change into before collapsing on the closest bed to the entrance. So I took my time getting up the following morning, rummaging around my new surroundings to find the kitchen and prepare a breakfast. I also took advantage of my access to laundry machines to do a couple loads.

I heard car tires rumbling up the dirt road and looked up to see the owner pulling up. He popped his head in, apologized for intruding, saying his wife asked him to check on me. They hadn’t seen my rental car turn in before they went to bed last night and wanted to make sure I was OK before they call the cavalry.

I was surprised, but pleasantly so. Even I knew I had returned at an extremely late hour. But, as B&B owners, they didn’t have any responsibility over my coming and going, as long as I paid for the lodging I booked. Knowing that they were concerned on my behalf was both embarrassing and comforting. The fact that they were willing to notify someone if I wasn’t present after one night alone, gave me the assurance that despite the vast and seemingly desertedness of the state, I wouldn’t have been stranded unknown for long, were I to encounter any troubles.

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Other posts in this series:
Italy

All Aboard!! Williston, North Dakota

Williston was a chance choice. I needed to stop somewhere and drive down to South Dakota which had all the destinations I wanted to go to.In fact, my preferred stop was Minot, where I would drive south then west, and come back up to North Dakota and get on the train at Williston. Unfortunately, Minot was affected by the flooding and the station was in a state of disrepair with the platform damaged.

What I didn’t realize was how much significance Williston holds in America. It was oil town and the town was going through a huge boom. It’s like a 21st century version of the expansion out West for gold. Only there really was oil to be had. Even driving through, I got that sense. It’s small, with one main route cutting from the train station through “downtown”, to the airport, onward to roads leading out to the fields. The housing is quite new, many of them built up hastily as if out of a instruction box.

The train station itself was bare.. with only two Amtrak stops a day, the town would come down to meet the passengers and the place emptied out quickly after all the pick-ups. No platforms, just step stools the conductors places by the train as it came to a stop. Construction material and freight cars sat nearby, collecting dust until the oil companies had a shipment to make.

I got a taxi to take me to the car rental shop, the only one being located at the small airport. The taxi was a personal car, charges calculated based on mileage. I haven’t seen that since my hometown! Clearly, Williston has grown faster than the infrastructure and services industry could keep up. That might explain the trucker I met on the train who was debating whether to purchase a satellite phone plan.

The floods extended to Williston, the far western side of the state. Perhaps the flooding was more manageable.. or likely the need to keep business going trumped the inconveniences of a lot of extra water, the roads were open and usable. And well used. On my drive out, I found myself following a caravan of trucks, oil tankers, construction vehicles. In my small car rental, I really worried that I’d be smushed over like a bug on a windshield.

Williston was a short drive away from Theodore Roosevelt National Park, also affected by flooding. But the park featured a beautiful getaway, lush with all kinds of native plants and animals. A side benefit to the recent natural disaster was free access to the park, since a large portion of it was inaccessible. The few trails that were open made me wonder if the locals in their frenetic pace  of oil business growth had ever allowed themselves a day to relax, and pay a visit to a natural haven right in their own backyards, a gift given to them by the same Mother Nature that gave them the oil.
Other articles from this series:
All Aboard: Introduction
All Aboard: New York
All Aboard: Dakota floods

All Aboard! Traversing the North Dakota floods

Remember the North Dakota flooding of spring of 2011? We went through them.

Amtrak had raised the tracks just weeks before after being closed for a while. The train couldn’t maintain regular speed, having to slow down to a literally crawl as I watched kids bike past.

Some of the standing water came up to the track bed. Other areas that have dried looked abandoned with water marks up above the garage door tops. Cars littered dirt mounts, sitting askew and rusty. Our quite crowded train god very quiet as the passengers took in the sight. We could practically hear the imaginary harmonica music from the scene of an empty Wild West town street streaming through each others heads.

Our news media cover international natural disasters.. and more often than not, the reporting comes with the subtext of “look at those poor countries.” Yet, right in front of our eyes, in our own front yard, we saw destroyed livelihoods and homes.

For all the advances we made in technology and living, Mother Nature likes to remind us that we’re not really in charge here.

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New York City