This morning in Cheyenne, I left Motel 6 behind (perhaps for good, because I don’t want you to leave a light on for me if all it does is show how dirty the room is) and found a nice breakfast place called The Egg & I. The server showed me to my seat, but almost the whole room was occupied with what sounded like a city council meeting.
There seemed to be a lot of gossip going on along with discussion of policy, and I wanted to work on today’s story, so I asked the young woman, Paiton, if I could sit somewhere a little quieter. I mentioned that I’m a writer and needed somewhere quiet to work. She said, “Oh, wow, you’re a writer!” and showed me to an empty room in the back. “We already closed this room, but it’s the perfect spot for you. No one will bother you in here,” she explained, and shooed off another waitress who started showing a couple to a nearby table. “Seating is closed in here except for her,” Paiton announced. Hmmm. This “writer” title carries some weight. Why haven’t I done this before?
After breakfast and finishing up some editing, I made my way through Cheyenne’s lovely old downtown to the city’s Botanic Garden. Encased in special low-e glass, the place has survived numerous summertime large-hail events and the town’s usual -20F winter temperatures.
I guess I was expecting an exhibit of the native plants of Wyoming, for some reason. But instead, the Garden showcased plants and trees from around the world, from the deserts to the tropics. That was kind of cool, though. I saw my first coffee tree, the source of the delightful elixir I consume every afternoon, and my first vanilla plant, which is actually a vine. I had no idea.
After looking around the three floors of gardens, a took a little walk around the outdoor gardens. I spotted some water across a little street and wandered over, drawn as if by a magnet to this body of water just lying around like it was nothing special. Kids played, an old man fished and dozed, and two young men talked. There was an elderly man sitting alone on the only bench, so I asked if I could share with him. We got to talking and he told me his wife of 60 years had died just a few months ago. The man, Ernie, said they’d met in high school when he first moved to Cheyenne with his family in the 1960s. “Yeah, I’ve been here pretty much all my life,” he said. I asked him how he was doing, if he had any family or friends to talk to, and he told me all about his grandson and granddaughter, ages 15 and 12.
“You know, I worked for the government here for a long time, but now I’m retired,” he told me. Ernie said he used to go Cheyenne’s rodeos and “wild cowboy things” when he was younger, but that now it's all “too crazy” for him. He asked me whether I was moving to Cheyenne, but I told him I was just passing through on my way to an island off the coast of Maine to live. He seemed surprised and a little shocked, but after a moment told me, “Well, maybe I’ll pack up and go with you.” He wiped a few tears from his eyes and we looked out at the water together. He sighed. I thanked him for talking with me and stood up to head back to the Mini. Ernie and I shook hands and he wished me a safe trip. I asked him to take good care of himself.
Mindful of the weather forecast, which predicted severe thunderstorms in the afternoon, I started my last northern run, this one of about 4 hours, to a spot in the Black Hills National Park in South Dakota. Once I was out of Cheyenne, the land opened up to endless views of hilly, grassy meadows on either side of Route 85. It got very windy, too, and the Mini enjoyed a steady push from the southeast. His gas mileage has increased from 34.7 MPG in California to 35.3 on our way here, despite all the climbing over Rockies and such.
I started to notice strange fences laid out in short sections on the southbound side of the road, and finally realized that they were meant to be windbreaks. I couldn’t imagine how these could possibly help on the miles-wide plains, but many also had short young pines planted on their east side. Any houses I passed also had embattlements of trees planted strategically around them. It must be pretty awful in the winter, I guess. It reminded me of stories I’ve heard of pioneer women out here in the early days running out of their cabins into the snow, stark raving mad from loneliness and the constant howl of the wind.
As I continued away across the plains, miles of skeletal metal electricity towers began to march across the landscape, continuing far off into the distance. Occasional big rigs passed on their way south, causing barometric explosions inside the Mini--mywindows were open as the temperature rose into the 90s. Several times I had to close them to pass through eye-watering stretches of factory-farm stench, where a strange, greenish mist clung close to the ground. I got good at spotting these hazards from a few miles away. Why are we still factory farming? It’s such an environmental and ethical catastrophe! I also passed many herds of free-range cattle lying in the sun, their calves nuzzling and gamboling around them. If we ate less beef and quit eating fast food altogether, we wouldn’t “need” those horrid factory farms.
A couple hours outside of Cheyenne, a Mini Cooper driver waved at me, like back in 2007 when they'd just come out. Unlike California, out here the Mini is a rarity. Many folks have diesel trucks that belch huge clouds of filthy black smoke every time they accelerate at a green light. I passed a place labeled with the sign “Rawhide Wildlife Management Area,” with the symbol for a gun on a placard below it. Soon after that, I came into the town of Lingle, Wyoming, where I paused to make Mini’s windshield transparent again. So many bugs. I’m sorry, bugs.
Just north of Lingle, I started to see many little wetlands on either side of the road. In the part of California I'm from, those are pretty rare and heavily protected by entire branches of dedicated and power-drunk government bureaucrats. Out here, they seem to be common and just lie around any old place. These aren’t lakes or ponds, but real wetlands—a bit of water simmers up to the surface with specially adapted plants growing out of it. There are so many new plants here to see!
About an hour from the Black Hills, I passed a big pickup carrying a 15-foot-tall sculpture of an American eagle. That was a first for me. It’s hard to pick out the politics around here. I saw a liberal Cheyenne newspaper critical of Trump, but also heard people talking in firm support of him. I guess it’s pretty severely divided, like everywhere else these days.
The land kept getting wilder and wilder as I went further north. Some sharp, stacked stone formations began appearing among the plains. The air smelled of grass and rain as giant storms swirled around on the horizon in all directions. I saw my first herd of antelopes grazing and curled up tight like little horned cats off in the distance. Llamas grazed in huge pens closer to the little towns I passed through, like Lusk. The occasional dead porcupine on the side of the road made me sad.
At last, I turned onto Highway 18 East, making my first official right turn toward my new home. I saw my first buffaloes, a pair lying together in the grass in the hot, humid late afternoon. They looked like large, dark-brown, furry boulders until I realized what they were. A short run on Highway 385 North brought me to my stopping place for the night, a little ranch called Plenty Star run by Jack and Isa Kirk in a beautiful valley just off the two-lane road. As I wound down their driveway past a small pond, a sign declared “Tarot Readings” and “Flower Remedies.” Ah. My people.
I didn’t know what to expect in South Dakota, but apparently the southern Black Hills, where I am now, beckons to healers and artists of all kinds. Many, like Isa, have gathered here and together created a new community based on the legacy of the nearby town of Hot Springs, which in its heyday used to attract people seeking cures for all kinds of ailments from its mineral-rich waters. There’s definitely a lot of power in this land. But as Isa puts it, there are still plenty of folks who "want to shoot anything that moves." She doesn't tell her neighbors anymore about interesting wildlife that shows up on her property.
After Isa and Jack showed me and a couple other campers around, I pitched my handy-dandy hydraulic tent (so easy a child could do it!) next to a young pine in the shade of a willow tree hedge growing in the creek that runs through the property. These people are wonderful and generous hosts, having run a famous horse ranch for many years together. Isa came down with cancer some time ago, so they closed the place up for 10 years, but they just got on HipCamp.com this week and people have been coming in steadily. “I never thought this would work,” Isa exclaimed, “but it’s been really busy since we started!” Funny, I just joined HipCamp yesterday, looking to reduce expense and increase adventure, and Plenty Star was the first listing I saw.
I talked a little with Jack before going into Custer to get some dinner. He’s a lovely man and seems eager to talk with visitors. At 80 and having broken his back a few times over a long lifetime of ranching, Jack says, “I could be doing more around here. I used to do more.” I mentioned that rest is just as important as work, but he wasn’t having any of that and just nodded and smiled politely. Here’s his picture.
Tomorrow I’m having a tarot reading with Isa, of course. When you’re on this type of trip, you don’t just ignore nudges like that.
It’s around 11 now, so I’m going to wrap this up. Last night I was up writing until 2, so with Isa’s permission I get to sleep in tomorrow and not check out at 11 like I’m supposed to. She mentioned she’d have coffee ready in her kitchen at 6:30. I asked, “In the morning?” and she laughed. We’ll work something out.
Meanwhile, I’m starting to hear little taps of rain on my tent. Severe thunderstorms are in the forecast for tomorrow, which Isa confirms with her extensive almanac research. Indeed, tomorrow is a “water day” for sure, she tells me. I'll stay put here and see how my little tent does. There’s always the big, open barn if it comes to that.