Author Theresa L. Goodrich presents Two Lane Gems, Vol. 2: Bison are Giant and Other Observations from an American Road Trip in serial form. Enjoy!
Is there anything as supremely peaceful as sitting in a camp chair by a wild and scenic river, sipping a cup of coffee while birds sing and skip from branch to branch on a tree that’s a mere two feet away?
For me, that morning, the answer was no.
Nature orchestrated the soundtrack. No constant drone from a nearby highway, no speed boat cutting through the water, no chatter from neighboring campers, although that would come later. I was the first one up, again, and I reveled in the early morning solitude. Gradually, I began to unwind from the tension of the last several weeks.
Just under the surface, the knowledge that we had no home poked at my comfort, but I knew we’d find someplace to live and that it would be better than what we’d had before.
In the meantime, I sipped my coffee and watched the water flow.
Smith Falls State Park straddles a portion of the Niobrara River that’s been declared a National Wild and Scenic River. If you didn’t know there was such a thing, it’s probably because less than a quarter of one percent of the nation’s rivers have received this designation.
Established by President Lyndon Johnson in 1968, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act preserves free-flowing rivers with clean water that are mostly in their natural state, and that also have shorelines that are fairly easy to reach. Rivers also need to have “outstanding remarkable values.”
Niobrara’s are the quantity of fossils buried in its banks, the largely undisturbed views, and the unique combination of both western and eastern flora and fauna that find a home in this region’s microclimates. The surrounding sandhills are semi-arid, but the many canyons that cut through the bluffs are cooler, so much cooler that trees survive here that can’t be found anywhere else in the state.
The land was last sculpted during the Wisconsin Glaciation around 10,000 years ago. A few tree species from that colder era remain in the microclimates within those canyons, including the paper birch. Those species are threatened. Increasing temperatures due to climate change have kept the trees from reproducing, and the ones that remain are dying.
We noticed several fallen paper birches on our return walk to the falls that morning. Their white bark, peeling like curled parchment marred by slashes of brown, was striking and we couldn’t miss them discarded on the canyon floor.
We followed the boardwalk that protected the fragile environment. It was before 9am and for a while we were the only people in the canyon. The falls, the tallest in the state, were an antidote to the previous days, weeks, and months. We inhaled the spray. We kissed and I said “yes.” Jim had proposed by a waterfall, so whenever we’re near one I have the urge to let him know I’d still say yes.
(I should probably warn you now that we saw a LOT of waterfalls on this trip.)
Amy, the Park Ranger we’d met the previous evening, strolled up the boardwalk. She told us she was off that day, but she liked hiking out to the falls before anyone else was there because it’s so peaceful. (Sorry, Amy!)
She lived in the middle of nowhere, with no cell service, so close that when she first moved in she thought she could hear the falls from her house. “My family thinks I’m crazy,” she said, but as we left her to her solitude and returned to camp, I wasn’t so sure. She just might have the right idea.
Fifteen minutes west of Smith Falls State Park is Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge. Before entering, we pulled off at an overlook and drank in the sight of the transition from wooded canyons to flat grasslands. After the rain from the night before, the expanse before us was a thousand hues of green. You’d never know there used to be an actual military base down there, but then again, it had been gone for more than a century.
The U.S. government established Fort Niobrara in 1879 to protect white homesteaders and keep the peace, which to them meant keeping the Lakota on their reservation lands seven miles to the north. A few years later, the railroad came through and brought settlers who established the town of Valentine to the west. With up to 500 soldiers, the fort was a lively place until the Spanish-American and Philippine-American Wars pulled men to those conflicts, dropping the population to about 100.
In 1902, the segregated black 25th Army Regiment came back from the Philippines and stayed in this remote Nebraskan fort for the next four years. The population grew to nearly 800 men, but that wasn’t enough to keep the fort open. By 1906 those Buffalo Soldiers were shuttled to Brownsville, Texas.
For the next five years, the Quartermaster and his men supplied horses to the army from the fort. By 1912, they were gone, too. President Roosevelt ordered the buildings razed and set aside the land as a game preserve, making Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge the 27th in a system which now has more than 550 preserves.
We entered the refuge itself and kept our eyes peeled for bison and elk. We didn’t see either of those giant mammals, but we did see our first prairie dog town.
Prairie dogs may be a vital part of the plains ecosystem, but they’re also gosh-darn cute. They’d pop up, take a look around, scurry to another hole and dive in. The wind was tearing across the flat lands so we couldn’t hear them chirping, but we’d catch a glimpse of movement as they reared up on their hind legs or twitched this way or that before scampering across the gravel drive. It’s a wonder we didn’t run over the little buggers.
We left Fort Niobrara and followed the Outlaw Trail Scenic Byway to its terminus in Valentine. After we got a few gallons of gas – but not enough – we turned north for South Dakota. We were going to the Badlands.
The change from Nebraska to South Dakota was so subtle we didn’t even notice until we realized we were on reservation land. “We’re in South Dakota!” I grinned. I’d never been in the state before. It was one of many firsts for me on this trip.
We drove north through Rosebud Indian Reservation until we got to Mission and turned west. We’d passed a gas station, but prices seemed high so I suggested we skip it. Surely there would be another gas station between where we were and Badlands National Park.
You’d think I’d never been on a road trip before.
There are two cardinal rules of road trips: go to the bathroom before you have to, and never pass a gas station when you’re below half a tank in the middle of a place with no cell service. It was not my first rodeo, yet here we were coasting down hills because the distance-to-empty was precipitously low.
Jim watched the fuel gauge and I watched the scenery. We entered the Pine Ridge Reservation and for the first time in more than 24 hours saw arable land. In the Midwest it’s rare to drive more than an hour or two without seeing a field, a farm, or a town. Technically, South Dakota is the Midwest, but it certainly didn’t feel like it. I knew from that point on, until we made our way back and reached Minnesota, the sight of fields would be more of a rarity than a certainty. This was unknown territory and I gazed out the window in wonder.
I breathed a sigh of relief when we pulled into Wanblee’s gas station. Jim didn’t say a word, but then again, he knew he didn’t have to. I wasn’t about to make that mistake twice. We filled up again in Interior, South Dakota, at Cowboy Corner, a relic of a station with mechanical gas pumps, a painted horse, and the shell of a covered wagon. In the background, the spine of the Badlands beckoned.
Fourth day. Fourth state. Third night camping.
The Ben Reifel Visitor Center at the Interior entrance to Badlands National Park was a madhouse. We’d already picked up our National Parks Access Pass, which would get us into that park and all future ones for a year, and now we needed to find a place to sleep for the night. We dodged Junior Rangers and families, finally making our way to the counter. I asked about campsites and the Ranger pulled back and eyed me like I was all sorts of crazy. “Oh, they’ve been filling up every night.” He looked at the clock. 4 pm. “They’re probably all gone by now.”
Our plan had been to camp at Sage Creek Campground, which was free and first come, first served. However, that was clear across the park and he told us it would take at least an hour to get there. We tried Cedar Pass Campground, since it was right there. Pulled up behind an RV. An RV that took the last spot.
Crap crap crappity crap.
We turned around and drove towards the other end of the park. I don’t think I can describe how frustrating it was to take one of the most scenic drives in the country and not stop at a single overlook or pull-out. Priorities. If we found a place to sleep, we’d have time to drive the Badlands Loop State Scenic Byway. For now, we needed to get to Sage Creek.
Despite my tension, as we neared the campground I could see where it got its name. The landscape had migrated from bluffs and spires to calming sage-colored ripples. We turned off the main road and down into a relatively flat plain filled with bison and tents.
So many tents.
The campground itself was one big oval. There were a few sheltered picnic tables, some tables without any cover, and a couple of pit toilets on opposite sides of the oval from each other. It was basically just a field, and campers staked their claim wherever they could find an open spot. It wasn’t quite a free-for-all, though. There’s a code among campers, one that includes allowing a certain amount of space between you and your neighbor.
We circled twice, finally deciding that a space we weren’t sure about really did have enough room for our tent. Other hopeful campers circled after us, and we realized we’d gotten the last spot.
It wasn’t the first time we’d underestimate the popularity of a place, nor the last time we’d luck into the last place available to sleep for the night.
What I’ve failed to mention is that outside that oval, a whole herd of bison was milling about as casually as a bunch of cows along the side of the road. But these weren’t cows. They were bison. Those HUGE GIGANTIC TRUCKS of the animal kingdom. The ones they warn you about with big signs. “Stay away,” they say. “These are wild animals and they can kill you,” they say. And then they put a campground IN THE MIDDLE OF THE BISON.
We gamely attempted to ignore the beasts while we set up camp and made dinner. As we dined on Wisconsin brats and bagged salad, we noticed a ranger stopping to talk to each camper before approaching our table. She was inviting everyone to the evening program, where she’d be demonstrating how to throw an atlatl.
My eyes bugged out and I scarfed my brat. Jim smirked and said something along the lines of “So, you want to go see this?” and I replied “YES YES YES I WANT TO SEE THIS!”
Before you think I’m totally off my rocker, I’d read about atlatls in my teens. I think the first time was in Jean Auel’s Earth’s Children book series. Anyway, these spear throwers were one of the first hunting tools used by humans, as in 30,000-years-ago first tools. This ingenious invention could propel a dart more than the length of a football field. Most importantly, it could pierce the thick hide of a bison.
We made our way across the campground, dodging bison pies along the way. Kathleen the Ranger had already begun her demonstration, explaining the physics of the instrument to the growing crowd. Kids stood in front and we all followed along with rapt attention, distracted only by a heckling prairie dog that chirped incessantly anytime she spoke.
After her demonstration, we threaded a path back through the minefield of giant piles of dried poop and jumped in our car. We were in the Badlands and we were going to see the sunset. Driving back along the main road, we figured we’d pull over at one of the many overlooks we’d passed in our rush to get to the campground. Most of the road in that part of the park was on the rim, so we knew there wouldn’t be a bad place to stop.
Unless we had to because there was a giant bison in the middle of the road.
I realize that “giant” and “bison” are redundant, but I feel the sheer size of these creatures needs to be emphasized. Often. They. Are. Giant.
A line of cars coming the other direction stopped as the beast sauntered a few steps, turned a bit, strolled a few more, and began loping towards us. Oh crap oh crap oh crap. Jim backed up slowly. Did you know that bison can run up to 40 mph? That’s as fast as a horse, but these suckers are the biggest mammals in North America and have an average weight of 1,400 pounds.
Our SUV, our suddenly petite Jeep Cherokee, was perched on the spine of a butte and that charging animal had more than enough power to push us over the edge. The beast slowed, and as we looked to our right we saw the reason for his aggression.
He had a friend, and she was stranded on the side of the road all by herself.
When we’d backed up far enough (thank goodness there were few cars behind us and they backed up, too), Mr. gathered up Mrs. and they loped across the road to the other side. Exhaling, we drove until the next overlook and watched a glorious sunset over a wild and majestic land.