Where we left off last: The middle of the Badlands, on a winding road, with a cool wind picking up, potential rain on the way, dark is coming fast. Keys and phone are in the car. I am not.
I am at the edge of the road, near a small cliff. In shorts and sandals. At least ten miles from a park ranger; twenty miles from the edge of the park. Even if I had my phone, I wouldn’t have service to call anyone.
But I am not alone! Luckily, this thing called Sturgis has been going on, with motorcyclists flocking to South Dakota, ever present throughout the state. Right now, a group of bikers that was taking photos by the vista is just about to leave. A woman who had smiled at me earlier walks by as I hear myself saying out loud, somewhat bewildered, “I just locked my keys in my car.”
I’m not really talking to her, but I know she can hear me.
Within seconds, she is in action.
“Hey,” she calls out to her friend over by their motorcycles. “Bring me some bungee cords.”
She has noticed something I did not: one of the back windows is cracked open! Just slightly open – just a couple of inches, not enough to reach through to the lock, but it is open!
Immediately, both women are next to the car, discussing the relative merits of one size of bungee cord over another.
Soon, more of their friends have joined us. We have short bungee cords, long ones, bungee cords with metal hooks, plastic hooks, small hooks, large hooks.
My first friend has put one into the window, swinging it towards the little plastic lock below. A rounded lock. I’m not sure how this is going to work. I’m not sure she knows either, but she’s trying.
Someone suggests swinging the bungee cord up into the front seat. It doesn’t reach. Now there are three or four people working to wrap several bungee cords together so that they don’t fall apart, making a long snake of green and black, plastic and metal.
I look down at one point and see that a tool kit has materialized. A set of wrenches sits open and ready. One person wonders if we might be able to attach a wrench to the end of the cords, but that person is talked down.
Duct tape is procured – don’t want to lose a valuable bungee cord into the abyss of the Ford. The bungees are linked and taped.
We aren’t sure the cords will reach to the locks. I suggest aiming for the keys instead – could we snag them off the seat?
We wrap the end of the last cord with duct tape, inside out, to stick to the keys, and slide the ropes in through the window.
But the seat belt is in the way. Because my arm is the narrowest, I am nominated to reach into the car to overcome the seatbelt obstacle.
My arm may be narrow, but my body is short. A man lifts me up and urges me on. “Slowly, slowly,” he says as I inch the bungee over the seat.
I get it over the seat.
But I can’t get leverage to swing it forward. Now my arm needs to be both narrow and long – a feat I can’t quite pull off.
We back out and regroup.
One woman notices the code keys by the door. She asks me if I can remember what it is.
“Oh,” I say. “This isn’t my car.”
Everyone looks befuddled.
Kenny, the man who had held me up to reach the window, keeps bemoaning the fact that no one has a coat hanger. This, it seems, would be the miracle solution, although I’m unsure how it would work.
While we brainstorm various ideas, several bikers are flagging down every car or van or motorcycle that passes, asking if they have a coat hanger.
(“Be nice!” they remind each other. “Everyone’s going to think we’re trying to break into a car!” … “We are trying to break into the car,” I say, somewhat under my breath.)
One of the bikers rides off into the sunset, promising to return with either a coat hanger or a park ranger.
Another woman is punching every combination of numbers she can come up with into the emergency code buttons on the car door.
“Do you know any dates that are special to these people?” she asks me. I have no idea.
“What was your factory setting code when you got it? Maybe they’re all the same!” one man calls out to a woman. “Hold on!” she answers. “I’m looking it up!”
Someone asks if I could call Dallas and Bonnie (owners of the car). I don’t know their phone number. Their number is in my phone. In the car.
But then I remember: I could call one of the only phone numbers I still have memorized: my parents’ landline. They might be able to look up Dallas and Bonnie’s number.
I am handed one cell phone after another, each one certain they have just enough bars to get a call through. But none of them connect.
A man who stopped to take photos at the vista (and decidedly did not have a coat hanger) comes over to us with a hopeful look on his face.
“I’m sorry, my English isn’t very good, so I hope you can understand me,” he says. “I have a telescoping tripod – that might help!”
Everyone is impressed.
“I’m an engineer,” he admits. “This is how I think.”
He pulls out his tripod, which would be long enough, but is too wide to fit through the narrow crack in the window.
“Hey,” a woman says. “We have a tripod. Why didn’t we think of that?”
She runs to one of the motorcycles and pulls out a somewhat shorter, but narrower tripod.
Kenny tries reaching it through the window towards the front lock, and then towards the latch, and then towards the passenger side, everyone offering suggestions and encouragement. But it won’t go far enough – it keeps getting caught on the window where the three legs of the tripod join before it can reach the lock or the keys.
We joke that maybe they could all lift the car and tip the keys back towards Kenny and the tripod. For a moment, it seems like an almost reasonable idea.
I ask if the whole tripod would go through the window, so it could reach further.
“Yes,” Kenny says, “But my arm won’t.”
“Mine will,” I remind him.
He looks at me.
“If you drop it, we’re done here.”
I’m pretty sure he’s serious.
“Okay,” I say, up to the challenge. “I won’t let it go.”
He sizes me up and decides to trust me.
A woman kneels and says, “Here, step up.” As I step onto her knees, Kenny lifts me again, balancing me against the car. I reach slowly into the locked-away space, inching my arm forward towards the seat. Others direct me: “A little higher… Okay, a bit to the left…”
“It’s like one of those machines where you try to get one of your favorite animals,” one of them laughs.
“Only more important,” I think to myself.
Slowly but surely, I get the tripod in, and I can go further than Kenny because my arm fits through the window. First I try to push on the unlock button. I am touching it with the tripod, holding my breath, hoping desperately that this will work. I sense everyone holding their breath with me.
But I can’t push down – again, I can’t get the leverage I need.
“What about snagging the keys?” someone asks.
I am able to bring the keys slightly toward us, which seems exciting for a moment – there is movement!
But really, that actually makes the keys harder to reach – they are now at an awkward angle for the tripod.
Everyone steps back again. Regroup. Thinking hard.
Am I going to end up staying here all night, with the wind and the rain and the snakes and mountain lions, freezing to death in my shorts and sandals? Or will I walk pitifully back down the steep road the ten miles to the ranger station, as night falls?
“We won’t leave you here,” a woman tells me firmly.
I believe her.
Suddenly Kenny has another idea.
He takes the tripod, and duct tapes a small bungee cord to the end of it. Now that the keys are closer, he can reach them with the hook at the end of the bungee cord.
Three people are on the opposite side of the car, looking through the windows and calling out instructions: “Slowly!” “Yes, that’s it!” “The hook is facing the right way!” “Lower, just a little lower. Okay, stop. Now – yes – yes – slowly!”
Through the shadow of the windshield, I see the silhouette of the keys slowly rising, dangling precariously from Kenny’s makeshift fishing line.
“Okay,” he says to me, his eyes still on the keys. “It’s your turn.”
He holds the tripod/bungie hook steady inside the car as I reach up (no extra lifting help this time) and through the window. What if I lose my balance and knock the keys off? What if because of me, they fall to the floor, or down in a crack where we can’t find them again? What if I completely blow this?
I reach in slowly, slowly. Kenny is holding steady.
I touch the keys.
I hold my breath.
I fold my hand around the keys.
I bring my hand out of the window.
With the keys.
I am hugging Kenny and then jumping up and down. Everyone is cheering, laughing, patting each other on the back.
“She’s trembling,” someone laughs.
“You saved my life, I think,” I say with a smile.
“Tell everyone bikers are nice people,” a woman says.
“Oh, I will,” I say. “I would have anyway.”
As I drive away, they wave and cheer.
And then for the next ten miles, I am laugh-crying, exhilarated, shaking, thrilled to be headed back to US-90, back toward Bonnie and Dallas and safety.
But first: I watch the sun set over the Badlands. I am there for the most beautiful time of day.
I made it.
And now I am on my way home.