The Beauty of the American West: Sand Surfing, Western Landscapes, Elk, From Moorcroft to New Castle, The Black Hills
Over the course of one day, I came to the realization that the first part of my trip was over. It had been a great first week meandering slowly through the hinterlands of central Idaho. However, I realized there was more to this journey then indulging in my own self-satisfaction. It was time to reconnect with some good folks I had not seen in a long while. I was missing my people.
To get to my people, I had four days of steady driving to enjoy, and I made a fairly straight forward approach to the road back to the Midwest. To me, “fairly straight forward” is dictated a lot by general direction and roads I had not driven before. If I fail at finding new roads, then I settle for new parks and places I haven’t explored before, or roads I haven‘t traveled in some time.
I love driving. I love Marvin (my van) and making steady progress with her across the spacious lands of the American west. The following photos are from my journey east. I am often distracted by magnificent scenery, and if I see something that interested me, I stopped to enjoy it. My stops usually vary from five minutes to five hours and sometimes five days. I usually let spontaneity rule the day, and I’ve yet to be disappointed.
Sand Surfing at Bruneau Dunes
The dunes of Bruneau rise 470 feet above the valley floor. In years past, I have thoroughly explored the many charms of this small park in South Central Idaho. However, despite all my efforts, I had never taken a board to the top of the dunes to attempt surfing them. Over the last two years, I thought about this every time I would review my pictures from these explorations.
I returned to the dunes to give it a try. After all, it was practically on my way (which is dangerous logic), and I had a long board that would probably work very well for the attempt. On my first day at the park, it was very windy, and looking up at the dune through binoculars, I could see a long cloud of sand blowing over the crest of the dune. I would have to wait it out. I spent the time taking my long board apart, reading, slack lining, and staring up the dunes.
The next morning, my alarm went off at 6:25 a.m., and by some miracle, I got out of bed and onto the trail well before dawn. The sky was pale pink with golden bands to the east as I began trekking toward the tall dune. It was over a mile away, and I saw the crack of dawn just as I rounded the lake. I stopped to smell the fragrant leaves of fresh mountain sage (“Ahhhhh”). Everybody should start their day like this.
I began to climb. Walking up a sand dune is not easy. The slope steadily became steeper and the sand harder to walk through. With every step I took, I lost six inches sinking into the sand. However, I made it most of the way to the top before I had to stop and take a breather, I was pleased with my efforts.
I made it to the crest and stopped to appreciate the panoramic view of the high desert plain all around me. It was splendid. The breeze was picking up a bit, but not too bad. I sat in the cold sand and ate a small breakfast of hard-boiled eggs and an orange with tea. The sun was still low to the horizon in the east, and I welcomed its warmth. It is funny how such a simple thing as breakfast in a beautiful place can make such a difference in one’s day.
I spent the morning attempting to find the right combination of sand, slope, and gravity to allow me go surf down the dunes. At first, it was a complete failure, the sand was too wet, and I barely slid more than a foot. Eventually as the day warmed and the sand dried, I was able to make a go of it, and had fun surfing the sand. In truth, it was not as epic as I imagined it, but I had fun, and caught a couple of fun rides. The best one was the last one, when I rode down the dune from the top, some 400 feet, to the valley below.
Idaho Road Scenes
Mountain Lake Scene, US 20, Idaho
Craters of the Moon, Idaho
This black, barren landscape was once an active lava flow from several volcanoes that once erupted here. I spent the afternoon hiking through it, and exploring several lava tubes.
Craters Along US 20, west of Idaho Falls
The clouds began rolling in from the north in the mid afternoon. I had just finished my explorations of Craters of the Moon, and this scene opened up before me. The thick clouds held snow, but I wouldn’t find that out until I passed over the rocky passes in northwestern Wyoming.
Elk In Winter Pasture
This was a quick roadside scene that I stopped to enjoy. These elk just north of Jackson, Wyoming spend the winter down low in the flat grassy meadows. I’d never seen so many elk in one place, and stopped to take a few pictures. Those heavy clouds I saw earlier had caught up with me, and the temperature dropped into the twenties. It began to snow as it always does when I drive this section of Hwy 26, and I made it up and over the pass before any accumulation made the driving hazardous.
Wyoming Road Scene
This road is somewhere south of Thermopolis, Wyoming. This road headed into the mountains and into a rugged river canyon. The western US is full of views just like this one. I can’t seem to get enough of them. There is something soulful in being surrounded by grandeur. My life seems to slow down and I like to take it easy.
Driving these long roads of the American west, I find myself day dreaming a lot. To be fair, I am not only daydreaming, but also thinking about events from the past, some from the future. I like to try to stay in the present, but it’s not always possible. I’ll be listening to my book, then as the narrator drones on and I’ve just passed my 200th mile for the day, my mind wanders off and I’ll be lost in my head. “I wonder what it was like to travel these plains by wagon. Wyoming… Why not, Whyoming? Wyoming’s Motto should be: Up, Down, and Brown…” And so it goes.
From Moorcroft to New Castle
To some, the hinterlands of Middle America are a never-ending hell of monotonous driving. Picture an endless day of straight roads, and billboards; the roar of passing semis, sticky fast food, chain-smoked cigarettes and boredom. I feel sorry for these people, they just don’t get it. Like any landform, the plains have a beauty all their own. They have landscapes that you will see nowhere else on the planet, and though I may not make the plains a destination, I love driving through them. My advice? Appreciate where you are at, while you are there. I can find good things to say about almost every place I have traveled to.
There is one stretch of road that runs from the small town of Moorcroft, Wyoming southward to the charming town of New Castle, Wyoming. It is a wide two-lane highway, driven fast by almost everyone who uses it (except me). I had left Moorcroft just as the sun was beginning its final show for the day. The grasslands were lit up by that magical light of late evening, which lasted roughly an hour before the sun finally set.
I pulled over numerous times, sometimes turning around to go back to view the scene again. It’s hard to appreciate something you only get to see for a hundredth of a second before you have cruised past it at 67 miles an hour. I have never regretted stopping along side of the road to watch something beautiful happening.
The larger of these two pronghorn antelope was chasing a smaller one across the prairie. It was obviously some act of male dominance, a show of force to prove to the young buck that he ought to leave town before things became ugly. I watched it all happen just on side of the road. I was hoping the antelope would try to cross a fence. I was told by Tommy and Dal (see Beginnings and Central Idaho) that antelope will not jump over a fence, but will dive under it. I wanted to see if it was true. They didn’t cross the fence. Ah well, perhaps another time.
The Red Horse
This was another roadside picture. I turned around to see if I could get a nice picture of this horse. I was lucky, and I shot this picture just before the sun past below the western hills. This was the last light of the day, and it made this horse glow. Simply gorgeous.
The Black Hills
Many people hold the black hills of South Dakota sacred, and I am one of them. The Lakota have always held these lands as sacred, and I can see why; there is a powerful peace to these lands.
I don’t know where to begin in giving a historical description of the black hills. There is too much to tell, and I’m not an expert on its history. I will say that this region has been a very contested piece of real estate between our Native Americans and those that wanted to take the land from them (and did). In truth, it is a very ugly history, and not one of our bright spots in our nation’s promise of “liberty and justice for all.”
With that being said, I am going to focus on more positive themes for this narrative. Namely, my expedition into the heart of the hills. I pulled into Custer State Park at mid-morning in mid April. I was the only car in the lot. I pulled on my hiking boots, grabbed some food, camera, the usual, and set off. I walked around Sylvan Lake. Sylvan Lake is a beautiful mountain lake, flat and serene, with giant boulders bathing in the shallows of the north side. I walked around to the north side, and climbed up on one of the giant granite islands that make up a lot of the scenery of the hills.
A red wing black bird sat on a branch high above me, and sang a pretty song. I took it as a welcome. I set off with visions of tagging the top of South Dakota’s highest point known as Harney Peak (elevation 7,244 ft). I figured this would be easy enough, and a good way to get a feel for the land.
The land was powerful. It consisted of a pine forest that grew around a changing landscape of steep rolling hills, ridges and valleys. From these hills, jut giant granite islands into the sky, some of them hundreds of feet high. Over time, they eroded, and formed massive twisted phalluses and sharp spires of intricate shape and delicacy. In and around these wonderful lands are crystalline rivers and small mountain lakes, water for birds, beasts, and man. Beyond these great hills is a sea of grassland that stretches far to the east and west. Immediately to the north and south lie the badlands, a region of great beauty and hard passage. See High Plains Drifting from March 2010 for my adventures in the badlands.
The ground on which I walked was covered in shiny metallic wafers. I don’t know what mineral it was I was looking at, but walking into the sun made the ground glitter as if there were thousands of tiny diamonds scattered about. I marveled at the giant rock formations. They were amazing, and I could feel the solemn power of the place just by sitting with my back to them for a while.
As I climbed higher onto the ridge, I saw a spur trail leading off to Little Devil’s Tower, and I decided that was where I wanted to go. I figured the high point would probably be a well-visited place, and I was looking for some solitude to sort out my thoughts concerning these sacred lands I was trekking through.
It didn’t take me long to make my way to the top, and I knew I had made the right choice. In every direction, the hills spread out before me, with the twisted spires and rock formations in the near distance, the endless plains far in the background. It was magnificent.
I spent a lot of time up on that tower of rock. I was really digging the vibe of the place, and the views were superb. I sat down to take it all in. I had found the perfect perch, with my legs dangling over the edge of the cliff. I opened a can of almonds and peeled and orange. It was time for lunch. It wasn’t long before I realized I had a guest. A small chipmunk began to silently scale the rock wall near where I was sitting. I wondered if it would be interested in sharing an almond with me, and I held one between my fingers. It climbed cautiously, testing for trouble, scurrying close, and then retreating. Finally, sensing no danger, it climbed up on my hand and began to eat.
I smiled and asked if it was the “Little Devil” and if this was its tower. I complimented the chipmunk on its choice of homes, it seemed a palace. It was a fun lunch, and I ate my food, and admired the view with the chipmunk. It’s not everyday you get to share your lunch with a chipmunk.
Then as we digested our meal, an elk bugled somewhere far below in the valley. An elk bugle is a shrill high-pitched snooty sounding blow. I had heard them before in other magical places (the south rim of the Grand Canyon), and this made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. It was really cool.
Then, a Red Tailed Hawk soared by not more than fifty feet away. It was level with where I was sitting, and it streaked by so fast and so effortlessly, I almost missed it. Given the fact I was perched up high on one of the best mountain views I have seen in such a sacred place, I couldn’t help but feel humbled. I am a very fortunate man.
After awhile, I moseyed on, saying thanks. I still had a long way to go if I was going to make it to Minnesota any time soon.