Wednesday, September 9, 2015

CHASING MARY--The Good with the Bad(lands)

Who knew that North Dakota would be such a welcome sight?! A mere half hour into my introduction to the state on I-94, I pulled into Painted Canyon Visitor Center and tried to ignore the heat as I jumped out of my car to take in the three-dimensional wonders in the canyon. For as far as I could see, buttes and mesas popped up from the canyon below. My phone camera failed to capture the 3-D spectacle; instead, the images collapsed in the lens, creating one sweeping, “flat” mass of browns, rusts and dark greens.

Sometimes you have to put the damn iPhone away. Sometimes you have to forget about your next Facebook or Instagram post and just experience your surroundings.

This is the kind of view I would expect farther south in New Mexico. As I’d done no research, this southern portion of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park was a glorious surprise. I was grateful I hadn’t pre-Googled my journey. The sense of wonder is exponentially greater when making such an unexpected “discovery”.

I retreated into the visitor center to take shelter from the heat and the midday sun and then noticed a path at an opening in the protective fencing. I dashed back to the car and undertook the ordeal of swathing myself in sunscreen. A trail trek awaited. The sign at the top indicated it was a one-mile loop and casually mentioned to let the bison be, should I encounter any. They can be dangerous. Hmm. Dangerous in what way? From the tourist lookout, all seemed quiet in the canyon but the sign and its lack of specificity alarmed me. Immediately I imagined a massive herd. Would they trample me? Gore me? Snack on me? Could they be hiding amongst sagebrush, waiting for a feast of Canadian bacon?

Would they come from behind? What sound does a bison make? Moo? Neigh? Did buffalo ever live in Buffalo? Clearly, I was unprepared. And unfocused.

I decided to push my lucky streak. I’d avoided Montana rattlers and couldn’t recall any gored-by-bison stories on Yahoo (that supremely reputable news source). The hike was on.

There is no suspense. Clearly I lived. No bison encounter. I did, however, suffer a mosquito bite to the neck. Very, very unpleasant.

During the first five minutes on the meandering path down the canyon, I came across two small groups ascending. Then, no one. The canyon was all mine to experience. It wasn’t long before the tourists lining the wooden fence above faded from view. How strange that they should be satisfied with their road stop selfies and rumble on. They’d driven for hours—likely, days—and still they hadn’t experienced the badlands at all. What a waste.

I took in the terrain as mesas seemed to change in perspective with each footstep. The hues subtly mutated as the intensity of the sun varied. I lingered on the canyon floor just as cloud cover offered needed shade. I mused as a couple of clouds hovered over a butte, offering a mirror image. So much to be gained when slowing down and letting nature speak.

Eventually, I hoofed it back up, more aware of the heat as a layer of sweat shellacked my skin and soaked my t-shirt. Sunscreen sweated into my eyes. (Always hate that.) I shifted my thinking to an air conditioned car and recalculated my E.T.A. for Bismarck, the resting stop on Mary’s Eve. I imagined returning here some summer, exploring the badlands further on a camping trip led by a bison-wary travel guide with the last name Doolittle.

Yes, next time. Isn’t that what we tell ourselves? “Next time” gives us permission to leave a place we shouldn’t. At least, not so soon. But the badlands were never the destination. An extraordinary pit stop, for sure. If not for Mary Richards, I’d have never had this experience. Alas, I cannot think of a circumstance that will bring me back to North Dakota.

“Next time” can be such a comedown.

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