It wasn’t long before the clear nights of photographic activity and subsequent days of driving took their toll. I camped in the remote Sage Creek area of Badlands National Park, where the campground was an oasis in the middle of those badlands, an oasis with no water and no open fires allowed.
The sky was dark and clear, but I was exhausted. I made a feeble attempt to ready my equipment for what promised to be a beautiful evening but decided to nap instead. As I “rested my eyes”, I could hear a neighboring camper who, with more energy and an eager audience, had set up a telescope and was conducting a tour of the night sky. Someday I will return to this unusual and remote site; maybe then that night sky guide will be me…
I returned to the campground as the sky lost its deep darkness to the dawn. I was tired now and falling asleep was an easy matter. Staying asleep was not. Campgrounds come to life at an early hour and become noisy collections of waking families preparing for a new day. The commotion subsided when most campers had driven off to their destinations. The midmorning sun, radiating through a cloudless sky, heated up my tent. Even after moving the tent into the shade I found it difficult to sleep. By 10:00 I gave up and decided that I might as well start traversing some more of the miles toward my appointment in Washington.
Heading west on blue highway 14, I share the road with rural traffic and the occasional bicyclist. I enjoy seeing the bicyclists; they ignite the memory of an earlier epoch in my life when I would bicycle for weeks through beautiful countryside, carrying everything, and camping along the way. Bicycling is just the right speed to experience the land. A car travels too fast, there is not enough time to truly let in the details of the terrain. Walking is too slow, the details become stale before you reach the next vista. But a bicycle brings you close, living and breathing the environment you travel through, giving you options to linger or to move on.
Even as one exits daily life, its anxieties drag along. I headed west on highway 12, a route that could take me to Montana and beyond. The interval between rural Minnesota towns was a consistent five miles, a day’s round trip in the days of horse-driven vehicles. Although I had no need or desire to stop, I found these distances between oases of civilization annoying–my progress seemed so slow. As I crossed into South Dakota however, and the distances started getting longer, I found my tempo slowing to match. The rhythm of the car on the pavement was beginning to seem more natural. I had no appointments or obligations, other than my desire to reach Washington for the Table Mountain Star Party. And even that was not an obligation, I could change my plans at will!
Go west! Ride the road and make my plans on the run. I could go as far as I wanted, stop where I felt like it, and make my way, my way. And like the title of the book by William Least Heat-Moon, I was traveling the blue highways. Except by the conventions of today’s maps, the lesser traveled roads are marked in red, not blue. The two-lane roads serviced the rural business, farms and ranches, and the segments between the small-town hives of activities became longer as the hives themselves became smaller.