I was caught in a bit of a predicament to start out my western adventure this year. After dropping through my folk’s house in Pennsylvania to grab a few supplies, I beelined it straight to one of my favorite spots in the world, Sheep Mountain in Badlands National Park, South Dakota. This is the same place where I had the most incredible, supernatural experience of my life back in 2012, and the same place where I had the first and most potent vision of the White Wolf.
I arrived on a warm and sunny Saturday, and made a vow to stay in the park for 11 days abstaining from all intoxicants and all forms of media and enterntainments apart from books and audiobooks. I also committed to meditating twice daily and chanting eleven Rudrams a day. I did this with the intention of purifying the body and mind to start this leg of my journey on the right foot. Just after I committed to the vow I checked the weather and saw that the temperature was about to drop into the low twenties and that snow was imminent. Seeing that my van wasn’t really designed for below freezing temperatures which could cause my pipes to break, I considered postponing the vow and taking safety measures, such as driving to a warmer climate or emptying my water takes and blowing out the lines, then staying at my friend Rene’s house in the Black Hills for a few nights. But the forecast in the Black Hills called for temperatures twenty degrees colder with more snow, and due to a large cold front, I would have had to drive nearly all the way to Arizona to escape the cold. So I decided to stay put, proceed with my vow, and just hope that my propane would keep my van sufficiently warm to keep my pipes from breaking. That night the temperatures did indeed drop, and Sunday morning I awoke on the mesa top to about 7 or 8 inches of snow. To make matters worse, I had made the mistake of driving about a quarter mile off the dirt road to my favorite camp spot, and now I was hopelessly stuck and would have to ride out the multi-day cold front and wait for the snow to melt before I had any chance of getting out. Even after the snow melted, I would probably have to wait a day or two more for the ground to dry because the silty soil of the Badlands becomes a notoriously soft and sticky mud soup when wet.
Unfortunately, both the water and propane tanks of my van are quite small, and the level guages for both are pitifully inaccurate, almost worthless. Before the snow fell I had purposely but foolishly used up quite a bit of water, thinking that if the tank levels were lower there would be less chance of damaging the tank should it freeze. So I only had about five days of water left. My bigger concern however was how long my small supply of propane would hold out while running constantly to keep the van warm enough to prevent damage to my pipes. If my pipes were to break it would be a huge hassle. Not only would it be quite expensive to repair, but I’d probably have to wait a month before I could even get a service appointment. It was a bit intimidating to know that I’d have to huddle in my van in the barren wilderness for several days, constantly worried about my propane and water, but there was no way out; I had to face the challenge and weather the storm.
I immediately regretted making the vow to abstain from both intoxicants and media and entertainments. I had plenty of supplies to sooth my nerves and expand my mind, as well as a whole library of my favorite shows and movies on DVD to pass the time with, but all were useless to me now. I had to sit in the cold basically twiddling my thumbs and worrying for the foreseeable future.
Over the next few days the daytime temperatures were in the thirties, but each night the temps dropped down to the high teens or low twenties. I was very conserving of my water in propane, keeping my van just warm enough to prevent my pipes from breaking, but not warm enough to be comfortable. During the days I entertained myself by bundling up and trudging through the snow hoping to film and photograph wildlife in the snow. I did encouter a herd of mule deer and watched them bounce on all fours in unison into the distance. I was beautiful to watch, but they were quite skittish and too far too get any good footage. I also encountered a herd of bighorn sheep running across the mesa top, but they were skittish as well, and before I could get my camera out, they already dived over the cliff edge to the safety of the canyons below. I only got a few photographs of a quail in a tree and one of the mule deer in the distance.
I was happy to discover that my dirtbike motorcycle did surprisingly well in the snow, so I was able to cruise around the vast mesa top. It was pretty fun actually. The bike was real swimmy. It felt more like riding a jet ski than a motorcycle and I had to be very vigilant to keep my balance and not dump it. Unfortunately, it was so bitter cold that I could only ride for about ten minutes at a time before my fingers felt like they were going to fall off.
By Tuesday enough snow had melted that I figured I’d give a try at driving out but failed miserably. I did nothing but spin my wheels and sink into ruts. Not having a shovel, I had to get real creative and work hard to get out of the ruts, but doing so only put me into a worse position. My van, being front wheel drive and extremely heavy, did better at going backwards than forwards. It also didn’t help that my van was facing a slight uphill. I was parked not far from a sheer cliff edge, and moved a few feet closer to the edge backing out of the ruts. Later in the day I tried moving again, desparate to get out before my propane expired, but only to get stuck again in fresh ruts. By the time I got out of those, I was a few more feet closer to the edge, now only about 8 feet away. This worried me incredibly. The Badlands are all about erosion, constanlty shifting in formation. It’s part of what makes them so beautiful. As I said, the soil is very soft and silty, and gives way easily. I was deeply concerned that the weight of my van combined with the wet soil could cause the whole edge to break off sending me and my van plummeting. Now I was thinking I might really need to call for help, but I wanted to try one more thing.
Tuesday night was supposed to be the coldest yet, getting down into the teens. I thought that if I try moving the van first thing in the morning when the ground was hard frozen, I might have a chance. I woke up groggy at 7am to brave the bitter cold and try again. Alas, I immediately became stuck in ruts again. I worked all morning to get out, riding my motorcycle back and forth to the dirt road to bring back pans full of gravel to put in the ruts, and digging on my hands and knees in the ice with a hatchet. I was finally able to back out of the ruts, and now I was 6 feet from the sheer edge. I tried to go forward but only dug fresh ruts. I gave up and called my park ranger friend Rene for help. Her roomate had a truck and was willing to come pull me out, but they wouldn’t be able to make it until about 6pm. It was also a 4 hour round trip for them and I felt really bad to have to put them through all the trouble.
Throughout the day however, the sun came out and melted off a lot of the snow and dried the ground a bit. I decided to give one more honest try to get out, wanting to spare them the hassle and save face a little. It was a hell of a lot of work. I took a blanket down to the dirt road, filled it with gravel, folded it up and strapped it to my bike. I spread the gravel as best I could and did more tedious digging with my hatchet in the slosh of mud and snow. This time, thankfully, I was finally able to get the van moving forward. Though I was moving, my wheels were still spinning like crazy and there was no way I was gonna make it up the hill so I had to resign to driving laterally into the field of wet grass and snow. Once I got around the hump of the hill in front of me, it was about 300 yards slightly downhill to the road. I had a chance. My wheels were still spinning like crazy and I knew that if I stopped or slowed I would definitely be stuck again, so I just gunned it, said my prayers, and aimed for the road. I made it about two thirds of the way before I finally got stuck again in deep wet grass and snow. I was smart enough at least to let off the gas before I dug fresh ruts. Now I was stuck in the middle of a field with about 100 yards to go. But things were starting to look up. Once the field dried a little more I should be able to just drive out. I called Rene and we decided that we’d wait a day before she came to see if I could get out on my own when things dried more. It was a hard call to make. I only had about one day’s worth of water and propane left and I really didn’t want to stay another night huddled in my van, but nor did I want to burden my friends with such an effort, especially if there was a chance I could get out on my own. Fortunately by the end of the day, the grass dried sufficiently and I was able to drive out on my own. I still had to gun it through a marshy depression and up a 3 foot bank to the road, but I got ‘er done. Man, was I relieved. What an ordeal that was.
Even when I made my vow to stay in the Badlands for 11 days, I allowed for the fact that I’d probably have to make one run to town to refill my tanks and fridge. So last night I drove over to Rapid City and stayed at a KOA where I knew they had hot showers (I hadn’t bathed in a week to conserve water), laundry, and propane. This morning I got a few supplies (including a folding shovel I wish I had had) and then headed back into the park. Now I’m staying at a free primitive campground in the middle of the prairie where there’s a solid gravel road instead of up on my enchanted mesa, and I think I’ll ride out the rest of my 11 day vow here. I like it here. I’m camped in the middle of both a prairie dog colony and a large herd of bison grazing in and around the camp, and I look forward to filming both in the days to come. There are beautiful walks in all directions, and plenty of mule deer, antelope, porcupines, and coyotes to be seen as well. And the night sky is crystal clear.
This was certainly an interesting start to this summer’s western adventure, but it was an informative and character-building experience overall. It taught me about both the limits of my van and myself. I did notice in the mirror at the KOA though that my sideburns are much whiter than they were last week, and my beard has more salt mixed in with the pepper. I think worrying up there in the cold on the cliff’s edge aged me a bit, but that’s okay. I mean, I’ve always known that White Wolf would have a white beard and hair before too long. It’s my destiny.