Saturday, July 12, 2014

Couchsurfing & Camping in the Midwest

The demolition derby in Casper, Wyoming smells like dirt and exhaust and fried food. Tressa is wearing an absurd red cowboy hat she got from a thrift store for four dollars and an old man calls her cowgirl, so we know we’re not blending in. It’s hot and loud and thrilling for a while. We see mothers bouncing three-month-old babies at intermission, while the announcer says not to go nowhere, corrects his own grammar, and then does it again. The little boy behind us is cheering for his mom, driving a red white and blue striped beater that gets shoved out of arena.

Hot Springs, South Dakota is like traveling back in time, all faded red brick facades in one little strip. We drive to the Cascade Falls natural pool and swim for a while, hoping the chilly water will wash some of the sticky Midwestern heat off our skin. We are officially in the Midwest. We see bumper stickers like, “Don’t blame me, I voted for the American” and big billboards proclaiming, “Life is a gift, not a choice.” We park in what we think will be a quiet neighborhood to sleep, and are perplexed by the voices carrying up and down the street, footsteps at 1am on a Sunday in a town less than four square miles in total. We wake up between roadblocks in a construction zone and while Kelsey jogs Tressa discovers that the two coffee shops in town have both been shut down.

The Wind Cave National Park is obviously renowned for it’s cave, but tours are expensive so we opt out and amuse ourselves photographing bison, meandering through the hot, windy hills and trying to get close to prairie dogs. We have a couchsurfing host in Rapid City that warns us that parking for Mt. Rushmore is absurdly expensive, so we cruise past the monument, which is strange and small in the face of the awe-inspiring black hills, all that immense rock, jutting out in round, bulbous formations. We pull to the side of the road and take a few photos.

Every now and then you meet a person and you wish they were a character you had invented, that their life was a story you’d written. Our host in Rapid City is like that, this tattooed twenty something with a beer in hand, two kids, and a quiet tow-headed friend that lives in a tent when he’s not sleeping on the couch. He shows us the wine he’s making, the kombucha he’s brewing, the greenhouse he’s building and the aquaponics system he envisions for it. He shows us the squirrel he is training squirrel to eat from his hand, and takes us to Cabela’s in his beat up hotwired Ford with a chair nailed to the floor as a backseat, a much more legit rape van than even our bulky Chevy. At Capela’s we lay on cots, try on absurd camo outfits, photograph the stuffed bears and buffalo, and Skyler shops for his new home — a hefty 16x14 tent with a chimney. All he needs now, he says, is somewhere to put his couchsurfers.

We don’t know what to expect when we head to The Badlands National Park, and it blows our minds. It’s insanely gorgeous, chalky red striped rock formations where big horned sheep take leisurely naps and then rolling prairie hillsides full of more bison and more prairie dogs and unfortunately, biting flies and mosquitoes for days. But their primitive campground is free. We camp there for two days, hike around, enjoy an incredible sunset over the rocks and some beautiful clear starry skies. On the second night, we nearly run into an ENORMOUS bison that’s lurking in the ditch, contemplating crossing the dirt road we’re driving down in the pitch black. Later, we read that the bison is actually considered more dangerous than a grizzly bear. Terrifying.

We find a couchsurfing host in Sioux Falls, one of the easternmost cities in South Dakota, and actually the biggest city in the state. We arrive loopy and full of weird energy and are excited to find that our hosts are a group of fabulously entertaining goofy men. They try and teach us to play a drinking game that we fail at miserably, and we all go to the bar and have a wonderful night involving PBR, Phil Collins karaoke, and riding in the trunk of someone’s car. In the morning, we indulge in pizza and Lord of the Rings before rousing ourselves to head to a little lake for some lazy fun in the sun. Now we’re headed South to check out Omaha, Nebraska before spending some time in Iowa. 

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