There’s something magical about traveling alone. Yes, there are more risks involved, but it pays dividends in nimbleness. Eventually, though, you get tired of talking to yourself (or your GoPro), you have trouble following your audiobook, and you’ve been through all of your pre-downloaded music. Having an ally on your mission allows you push harder, try dicier things, and keep moving even when you break a rib while driving.
But let’s back up.
When we last left off, my friend Jeff had just impulsively decided to join me for the Badlands, we just weren’t sure which Badlands yet. He arrived in Minneapolis at midnight, and I swooped him up in the van. I polled my Twitter/Instagram/Facebook followers: Which way should we go, North or South Dakota? There were some strong opinions, but the majority said to go south because of the more dramatic formations. Done. Neither of us were particularly tired, so we decided to get a couple hours of driving under our belts. Eventually we passed out in a Walmart parking lot.
Right away, there were some differences from when I was traveling alone. I have filled every nook and cranny of my van (Ashley, aka The Beast) with gear, clothing, food, equipment, etc. Suddenly, here’s this other person, and he has stuff, too. Where does this stuff go? Then simple things like, walking back and forth down the isle becomes an awkward do-si-do. The full-sized bed was plenty big enough for us both, but because you sleep across the van that meant one of us might have to crawl over the other one if we needed to take a leak, open a window, or turn off a malfunctioning smoke detector. It’s also harder to get work done when you’ve got a friend there and all you really want to do is run around and adventure.
That said, the positives definitely outweigh the minor discomforts. Aside from having an actual human to talk to, I finally had someone to share in the driving. So while we laid tracks across the less scenic eastern half of South Dakota, I was able to finally get some writing done and make a tiny dent in the hundreds of emails I had accumulated.
For internet, by the way, I’ve been using a Verizon Jetpack MiFi 6620L and it’s been working like gangbusters. Basically, anywhere Verizon has 4G LTE I have a mobile office. I’ve been uploading photos and videos, and it’s been going smoothly so far. It doesn’t work everywhere I’ve been, but I’ve got a T-Mobile phone with me, too, which is mostly fine in the cities but holy crap it sucks in the sticks. Basically my recommendation is if you’re contemplating a trip like this, seriously, just switch to Verizon. It’s more expensive, but totally worth it so far.
The first attraction Jeff and I hit was the Corn Palace. Please understand that I am using the word “attraction” very loosely.
It’s a building with some big murals made of corn. If that’s your thing I’m not going to judge you, but personally, I give it a low C. This was where we started seeing the first signs of the Sturgis Bike Rally that would take over South Dakota. The further west we went the louder the omnipresent roar of tailpipes grew.
It wasn’t until near sundown that we got our first taste of the Badlands. We were just blazing down Interstate 90 as we’d been doing all day and suddenly holy crap what planet are we on? Out of nowhere these crazy formations appeared on our left that contrasted sharply with the grasslands we’d been staring at for hours. It made us do a double-take. Here were these jagged, mean-looking cliffs that came out of nowhere, all with distinctive layers of color that were perfectly level across miles and miles, evidence of the rising and falling waters that once covered this part of the world.
We pulled into the Badlands National Park, where I purchased my annual National Parks pass, and right away we were greeted with a stunning overlook. It was the first time we got any sense of the scale of these formations. They go for as far as the eye can see, and we were only at the very entrance of the park. We just stood there for a while, jaws agape, and then we started taking photos before the sun went down.
I found myself imagining being an early explorer trying to make my way west and suddenly coming face to face with this landscape. There would be no getting through this with a wagon, that’s for sure. I imagined staring up at these raw, crumbly cliffs and feeling panic set in. Had I brought enough water? Food? We’d have to backtrack and find a way around. Is there a way around? As I was thinking all of this Jeff came within just a couple feet of a rattlesnake stalking a bird. This place is rough. There’s a reason it’s called the Badlands.
And yet it’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. The topography doesn’t look real. The color scheme is diverse compared to the more solid reds of Zion or the granite palate of Yosemite. There are these perfect layers of reds and ashen grays. There are green hues here and there and then a random splotch of sulfuric yellow. It’s nuts.
We ran into a pair of Canadian ladies, one of whom was working on hula hooping her way across the U.S. and Canada at various landmarks (which made for a fun video). They said I should look them up when I get to Toronto. As the sun fully set we made our way to another lookout to try our hand at long-exposures. There we met a couple who manage some cabins that serve as fire lookouts high in the mountains of Washington state, and they offered me some time up there. The generosity of strangers on the road continues to humble me.
Jeff and I spent that night in a rustic campground called Sage Creek. It was more than 10 miles of rough dirt road to get there. The road had an aggressive washboard to it which made everything inside the van shake like crazy. I thought it was just going to start coming apart at the seams, but it seemed to make it through unscathed. We saw a couple gigantic bison along the way, but we weren’t fast enough to snag a picture.
When we woke up and headed back out we realized that there were prairie dogs everywhere. Adorable little bastards. I tried to set a GoPro at the edge of a hole while we went off and explored, but alas, they weren’t ready for a close-up.
The rest of South Dakota was cool, too. We found a beautiful campground on a lake in the Black Hills (above). We checked out Jewel Cave, which is the second longest cave in the world (as far as we know). We hit Mount Rushmore, whereupon I waxed nostalgic on Instagram. We checked out Sturgis during the bike rally in all its leathery glory and we stopped at Wall Drug. It was all good stuff, but nothing compared to the Badlands. So we went back.
Again we were arriving at sunset, but we were going to hike anyway. We had headlamps, we had water, and we had my Sony A7s and a tripod. We were determined to get some real long-exposures. Up until this point literally every night of my trip had been overcast, but finally the skies were clear. Jeff wanted to go off trail and check out some formations, and had I been alone I wouldn’t have gone for it, but here was yet another advantage of traveling with a friend. He could run for help if I broke a leg or was eaten by a carnivorous buffalo, so we went for it.
We found ourselves a nice little perch, but the sun was still bright. So we sat down, drank a little water, and decided to try pass the time by meditating (we grew up in the Bay Area, what do you want?). In the distance we could hear coyotes baying, which sounded all too much like human screams. After a while Jeff nudged me. I looked up, and there was the sky I’d been waiting for.
[Sony A7s, 24mm, 30 sec at f/3.5, ISO 800]
For the next three or four hours we scrambled around on the various rock formations, using our headlamps to make sure we wouldn’t step on any rattlesnakes. I had two lenses with me, neither of which were quite ideal for what I was going for. The 55mm would open up to f/1.8, which was nice, but it wasn’t wide enough to capture the scope of the surroundings. The 24-240mm zoom gave a nice sense of scale at its widest, but it could only open up to f/3.5. That one was producing better shots, though, so I stuck with it.
[Sony A7s, 24mm, 30 sec at f/3.5, ISO 800]
Since I was stuck at f/3.5, and I wanted to keep the ISO as low as possible to prevent too much noise, that meant shooting 25 and 30 second shots. That lets a nice amount of light in and really allows you to see the milky way and other celestial features, but there’s a catch. The Earth rotates fast enough that if you shoot the night sky with more than a 10 second exposure the stars start to blur. Just a little bit at first, but at 30 seconds, they’re noticeably less crisp.
[I screwed up the white balance on this one, but I ended up liking the weird reds it produced. Also, Jeff is being attached by satellites, meteors, or aliens. Sony A7s, 24mm, 25 sec at f/3.5, ISO 1000]
I’m now on the hunt for a 16mm prime lens that’ll open up a little more. Samyang makes a 14mm f/2.8 that I might check out. That said, I’m still thrilled with the results. It’s really the first time I’ve had the chance to shoot a nice sky with so little light pollution, amazing features in the foreground, and a full-frame camera on sticks. The A7s is just amazing in low-light situations.
[Sony A7s, 24mm, 30 sec at f/3.5, ISO 800]
On our way back out we heard a pack of coyotes, and they were getting louder and louder. I flipped on my headlamp and sure enough, I could see two glowing eyes, staring back at my from 20 yards away. Coyote packs don’t usually attack humans unless they’re really desperate, but with the raging drought in the west we decided not to take our chances and buggered off, after taking my favorite photo of the trip so far.
[Sony A7s, 24mm, 25 sec at f/3.5, ISO 1000]
On our way west from South Dakota we hit up Devil’s Tower in Wyoming. It is one truly awe-inspiring hunk of rock. High above us we could see several climbers making their way up different routes. They looked like tiny ants wearing bright orange and blue shirts.
It’s not the least bit surprising that it’s so sacred to so many. For a sense of scale, I’m standing in the above picture. Can you Where’s Waldo me?
[Moments before “The Incident.”]
We’d planned to spent our last night camping at a lake in a Wyoming state park, but then while driving merrily down the road… I sneezed. And everything went wrong.
You may recall from my last update that I had a nice little mountain bike crash in northern Michigan a few weeks ago that resulted is some very painful ribs. We thought they were just bruised, but as I was driving down that Wyoming road and I sneezed, I felt my back expand and then compress, and then there was pain. Sharp, blinding pain, easily three times worse than the original injury.
I was so grateful that Jeff was still riding with me. I pulled over. I said he needed to drive. The rib made it impossible for me to turn left, making my van into a giant Derek Zoolander. I tried to pick something up off the floor and nearly blacked out the pain was so intense. And so, instead of spending our last night at a beautiful campground, Jeff drove me to the ER in Sheridan, Wyoming. The rodeo was in town, which we could tell because a guy was still wearing his number pinned to his back as he limped out of the waiting room, eyes crossed in a daze.
The x-ray still didn’t show anything, but it was told that rib fractures generally don’t show up on chest x-rays anyway. They just wanted to make sure my lung wasn’t collapsing or that my chest cavity wasn’t filling with fluid. The doctor’s guess was that I’d had a light fracture from the bike crash and then the sneeze broke it the rest of the way. I was given anti-inflammatories, pain meds (which I couldn’t take except at night because of all the driving I had to do), and was told to take it easy.
We slept in Sheridan’s Walmart parking lot, and in the morning I drove Jeff up to Billings, Montana to drop him off for his flight.
It was so great to have a travel partner for this leg of the journey. Yeah, I found it tougher to carve out the time to sit and write, but it also pushed me to adventure more, and I got a ton of photos I’m really happy with that I never would have taken had Jeff not come along for the ride. He even snapped a few of my favorites (see below).
Next time, I’ll be talking about my adventures in northern Montana, Idaho, and a charming alternator failure in Oregon. As always, thanks for reading and for participating.
-Brent “It Hurts to Cough” Rose
[Photo credit: Jeff Lane]
Connected States is a new series from Brent Rose about living a truly mobile life. Brent will be traveling the U.S. in a high-tech van, telling stories from the road. New episodes will appear every week on Gizmodo, with more content being released in between. He is currently soliciting ideas for places to go, things to see, and people to talk to. Follow him on Instagram,Twitter, Facebook, and ConnectedStates.com