All my molecules are trying to figure this out.
It’s got all the elements of a bad movie. It’s probably the sort of thing my mom was worried about when I set out on this journey; the sort of thing that I blew off as not-gonna-happen. Or maybe it would happen, but I’d be fine.
In this moment, though, I’m not convinced I’m going to be fine. I have just turned around to head back to the car after enjoying the panoramic view, taking a few photos on my camera (which I had just moments ago switched out from using my phone because I wanted a little more control over the images), I lift the door handle, and… Oh.
My mind is trying to process: The door is not opening. The lock button is down (how did this happen?). My phone – oh right. I put it in the car a few minutes ago so I could grab my camera. It is behind that window. I can see it. Right next to it are the car keys, which I put down next to the phone on the driver’s seat. There they are. The keys. The phone. On the seat I was supposed to sit in to drive back to my temporary home for the night.
And here I am: it is just beginning to turn to dusk, clouds are rolling in with a chill, and I am in the Badlands of South Dakota. Approximately 20 winding and steep miles from a highway. Probably a good 10 winding and steep miles from the nearest park ranger. I remember my hosts telling me to watch out for rattle snakes. I remember reading a weather report predicting storms for tonight. And this is not my car.
My car is the little 1990 Honda Civic that I have been driving cross-country for the second-and-a-half(th?) time since buying it in 1998. It was given a once-over by my amazing mechanic Bob before I set out; given his blessing with the caveat that of course anything could happen – but he felt good about what he saw.
So three days into my trip (spent roaring across Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and South Dakota, easily, with music and joy, and me practically kissing my car for its amazing-ness), my first startle of the day was when I piled my hiking shoes and maps into the front seat that morning and turned the key.
Nothing. No turning over, nothing.
After a moment’s pause, I decided not to let it phase me. I needed to get to the Badlands, so I would fix it. Well, that is, Bob and I would fix it.
I called Bob, back in Indiana, told him the situation. And Bob (this is one of those reasons why I am a huge fan of Bob) talked me patiently through 5 or 6 phone calls of crawling under the dashboard, unplugging a safety switch, and rigging a jump using some wire from Dallas’s shop (Dallas, of Dallas and Bonnie – whose home I had stayed in for the night, and whose generosity knows no bounds). Dallas was quite patient with my return to his shop every 3-4 minutes, interrupting his birdhouse building project.
“Um, can I borrow some wire?”
Then, “That one was too long, sorry – can I get something shorter?”
And, “Uh… that was actually too thick, do you have anything thinner?”
After a few of my intermittent appearances, Dallas just amiably turned over a handful of wire, along with cutters and pliers. In between calls to Bob, I kept wriggling under the dash, wondering how anyone taller or bigger than me ever gets under there; how anyone with hands bigger than my 2-year-old niece can possibly reach the tiny little threads I was supposed to be negotiating up in the dark corners I had never known existed in my car.
But I was adamant that somehow I would fix this. I had known this trip would bring some challenges, and here was my first real one. I would face it down. I would get that car going.
Finally, proudly, I got the plug out, and wriggled the right-sized wire in. Fingers crossed, I turned the key.
I was going to have to give up my dreams of being an amateur mechanic. Dallas recommended his own mechanic who happened to be just minutes down the gravel road from where we were. Galen, from the shop, came up to the house, looked at my jump-job, said it was well-done (yay, me!) but that the problem didn’t seem to be in the switch. Galen and Dallas pushed my car around to face the road, and hooked a rope to the front. I steered and popped the clutch at the appropriate moment so we could pull the car down the hill. Then I left my little Civic with Galen, hoping for the best.
Even without a car for the day, somehow, I was going to get to the Badlands. I had been there once, on a previous drive across country, but hadn’t been able to stop for more than one brief view. My main impressions at that time were: “This looks like outer space,” and “Someday, I’m going to come back.” I wanted to be out in the middle of that rocky, other-worldly terrain, to feel its wildness on my skin, to breathe its wild and other-worldly air.
This trip was my chance. I had planned my route around it. No little car problem was going to get in my way.
But I might have to wait until tomorrow, I now realized, and go see them on my way out of town – making a planned 8-hour journey into what I now estimated would be a 10-hour journey (oh, my naivete), but doable.
Dallas and his wife Bonnie, consummate hosts, made me lunch. I told them I would use the afternoon to write, to walk around their area, to read. I’d be okay as I waited for my car. And then Dallas looked at me and uttered some magical words: “Why don’t you take our car?”
My heart leapt. I could go! I could go today! But I’d have to get moving, given that it was now about 3pm. “That’s okay,” I thought to myself. “The Badlands are supposed to be at their most glorious in the evening. I’ll get there right on time!”
I once again grabbed hiking shoes and maps, a bottle of water, and a CD to get me there.
Soon, I was winding over back roads, headed toward my best guess at beautiful vistas. I drove. And drove. And drove. A rainbow appeared against gray skies in the distance, while sun hit the green winding hills I was driving through. I drove some more, searching the horizon for some sign of those semi-apocalyptic-looking ranges I had seen 13 years ago.
I was fully aware that it was getting later, and that I did not really know where I was going. I also became aware, as I wound my way into lonelier land, that my cell phone had no coverage. Time increased in pressure, but I still tried to play it cool. “I’m here. I made it. I’ll be fine,” I said to myself, over and over.
Finally, finally, I saw some strings of mountains in the distance. They weren’t quite what I remembered, and further away than I wished, but I didn’t know how much longer I would be out there, so I stopped and took some photos – betting against time, hoping that stopping for brief moments was the right thing to do, trusting that somehow I would get back to the highway before dark.
I came upon the little town of Interior, with its official green sign pointing me to the “Business District.” Amused, I turned onto the dirt road that wound among approximately 12 buildings. The business district consisted of a bar and a small grocery/convenience store. I was loving this place. And there, rising behind the town, I finally began to see the impressive formations I had been looking for. So I kept going.
Finally, finally, I arrived at the park entrance. It was now a little past 6pm, and my only option (other than skirting the park) was to buy a 7-day pass that I was probably only going to use for an hour or so.
But I had worked so hard to get here. The gate attendant recommended that I drive the eastern route back to the highway, which would give me 30 miles of views – versus only about 5 miles to the west. I’d get more for my money, right? Throwing all anxiety about time and darkness behind, I decided to take that long and more rewarding route.
As I started winding through the rocks, I couldn’t stop smiling. I was here. I had made it. I began counting all the ways I had been lucky that day – I had broken down at a residence, not out in the middle of nowhere. There was a mechanic only minutes away, and the car would be fixed in less than a day. I was staying with amazing hosts who were flexible with my schedule, and fed me, and loaned me their car. And their car was making it up and down these hills much better than my little Civic probably would have. If I was going to have car problems, I seemed to have encountered them in the best possible circumstances. I was exuberant, gazing at the red layered rocks rising around me, the cliffs and the channels, the shapes, the colors, the wide sky above. At a lookout, I jumped out to take it all in.
And then I got careless. Perhaps I hit the “lock” button by accident when I threw the keys next to the phone before I closed the door. I don’t know how it happened, but here I was. On a day that had been filled with twists and turns in so many ways, one more twist had my metaphorical arm behind my metaphorical back. I was stuck. Trapped outside. With night coming on. And the threat of rain and storms. And no cell service, even if I could get to my phone. In shorts and a light shirt, and a chill creeping in. In sandals (the hiking boots had remained in the car). With rattle snakes. And mountain lions, I was beginning to be sure. In the middle of a huge expanse of rough-and-tumble land, named for “extreme temperatures, lack of water, and the exposed rugged terrain” (according to the park website); originally named by the French as “bad lands to travel through.” With a car I had no idea how to jimmy open; no idea, in fact, of how I had possibly locked the doors by accident.
I had been so sure I could do this. I would make it to the Badlands, and I would do it on my own. I was adamant that I had to. Stubborn, I suppose you could say. And I had made it. But now what?
This is quite possibly the longest blog post I’ve ever written. I think it’s time to take a little break. What will happen next? Will our heroine survive?
[Hint: she’s writing this post, so not to put any spoilers out there or anything, but you can probably guess the final outcome. However: How does she do it?!]
Tune in next time for Part Two: Nine Bikers and an Engineer Save the Day.
[UPDATE: Part Two is now posted.]