The summer before I embarked on my collegiate adventure in Chicago, my brother Dave took me backpacking for the first time. Well, let me go back. It was “backpacking” in the sense that yes, we did indeed load up backpacks with tents and food and camping stoves and many socks and trek out into the natural world. But it was in the Black Hills of South Dakota. This wasn’t exactly Tibet. But it was my first such trip doing anything remotely like this and the Black Hills is a gorgeous place to spend 3 days traipsing around the woods.
We headed out in the summer months, a damn fine time to do it. After the first day of hiking, we set-up camp, cooked our dinner on the camping stove, and enjoyed some simple brotherly comradery. My brother is 4 years older than me, so we never went to the same school after St. Margaret Mary’s parochial elementary school. When he was high school, I was still at St. Mag’s. When he was starting college at Creighton University, I was a freshman at Creighton Preparatory School. We never really had any of the highs or lows involved with brothers who were in the same school at the same time. I don’t remember why he suggested we make this trip, but it was a helluva an idea and we’ve been pretty close ever since.
Our first morning in the “outback” (seriously, Mt. Rushmore and it’s tourist trap Keystone, SD were literally just over the next tree line) we munched on some trail mix and fruit for breakfast and I made my cup of instant coffee. My brother is a not a coffee guy. I am a coffee guy and sipping my mug in the woods really does have a special air of “This is Livin!” about it. However, anybody who does drink coffee knows of its diuretic effects. When you are hiking all day, your digestive system is kicked into 3rd gear and coffee ups that to 4th. Shortly after we began hiking, I informed my brother of my physical demands.
“What do you do when you have to ahhh …”
“Take a dump?” he asked and produced from his bag a roll of toilet paper and a garden shovel. “Make sure you dig the hole deep and cover it with dirt when you are done. And go pretty far into the woods.”
Okay. No problem. All part of the adventure, I guess. I shuffled off into the woods while he turned and sat on a rock. I walked into the woods, did my thing, shoveled some dirt onto the pile, and returned to the rock. Dave stowed the shovel and T.P. Within a minute of us heading off again with Dave in the lead, I heard him exclaim “Dude! I said go far into the woods!” I walked past where he had just been and saw my deposit not 10 feet from the trail. And apparently I hadn’t covered it very well because there was 3 dozen or so flies buzzing around the pile. Okay, first time. I’ll know for next time.
The next morning, same routine, except this time, two days of walking in the woods had kicked my system into 5th gear. Again, not 5 minutes after we started hiking, I needed to act and act fast. I rooted in Dave’s pack, got my supplies, and squelched my cheeks together as I baby-stepped into the rough and found what I thought was a suitable spot. With my ass in the air and my shorts around my ankles, I heard giggling. No, wait, this wasn’t giggling, this was gut laughs. I turned and, again, I hadn’t walked far enough it the woods. But this time, I hadn’t just not walked far enough. I had also walked in the wrong direction. I was squatting pretty much smack in the center of a small crossroads in the paths with my bare ass exposed in many directions and Dave was just nearby practically doubled over with laughter. Whatever. I finished and at least this time, I dug a deep hole and covered it with dirt, rocks, a few branches and a dead groundhog I found nearby. Later that day, Dave and I stumbled upon a lovely little lake with a park restroom (I told you it wasn’t much of a “backpacking” trip). Dave smiled at me, took the t.p. and went to go use the relatively nice facilities offered by the South Dakota Park Service. Shitting in the woods: Andy – 2, Dave – 0.
On this our third day, Dave looked at the little map he had obtained and determined that we could either take one path and hike for another day or take another path and be back at our car in a few hours. We opted for the second alternative and, upon returning to the car, used another restroom to change clothes and proceeded to the nearest bar to the park and put down a few beers. Well, even that isn’t really true. We went to Keystone and put down many bottles of the white man’s firewater (Dave’s words, not mine. And actually he confessed to that being a horrible thing to say right after he said it). The next day, we said goodbye to the Black Hills and headed for the Badlands and my first real brush with death.
My brother and I trekked off to Rapid City after our short sojourn through the Black Hills. Because we had another day on your trip we wouldn’t be spending in the Hills, we decided to journey down to the Badlands. Dave had a friend who was studying to be a Jesuit (think Pope Francis) at Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, so we decided we would spend the night at the top of Sheep Mountain in Badlands National Park nearby
That photo above is what the entire park looks like. It is simply breath-taking. And in the summer, it truly does carry the aura of this desert wasteland on the South Dakota/Nebraska border. I found this video of the view from the top of the mountain to help paint a picture:
On one side of the road leading to the top was the drop-off to the valley below. In some places, there was a few feet of grass and sand before the drop. In others, one could open the door and nary a foot would touch the ground before
you plummeted to your death. I don’t know how far the drop actually was as this was a long ago, but to my untrained eye, it looked like miles.
The drive to the top of the mountain was spectacular. Just spare desert everywhere you looked. I’ve had a thing for this area of the country since before Dances with Wolves, I’ve read Crazy Horse and Custer by Stephen Ambrose (same guy who wrote Band of Brothers and Saving Private Ryan). And if I didn’t already have plans to retire to Alaska, this is where I would spend the last of my days on this earth.
When we got to the top, it was really a ceremonious last night to our first real trip together and my brother and I threw our arms over each other’s shoulders and wept (okay, not really, but looking back, we really could have.) We didn’t suit up for a day hike or anything as it had been kind of late when we got there. Instead, we cooked up the last of our food and spend the rest of the evening and into the night laying on our backs and sharing our dreams for the future, for love and the roads that lay ahead (okay, again, we did no such thing. We’re guys). We pitched the tent and crawled on for one last night, paying little attention to the dark gray clouds that we’re moving in over us.
At some point in the night, I awoke and Dave was sitting up in the tent. He was staring at nothing that I could tell, but his look was intent. He appeared to be gauging something. The sound of a soft rain on the tent was peaceful, as was I. But Dave wasn’t going back to sleep.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“Well, I was just thinking.” He said.
“About that sign.”
“Impassible when wet. It was by the side of the road as we were going up.”
The electric sensation of a bucket of a fear splashed over me. “What?” I was fully awake now.
“Well yeah, and I was thinking of we could …”
“If we could what?” I asked. I was growing quickly frantic.
“I was wondering if we should but out the pots to catch water. Y’know, in case we’re up here for a while.”
Was this guy serious? Should we catch rain water in case we’re stranded in the desert?! In South Da-fuckin-Kota?!
Dave might have still been in the tent when I started packing it up to put in the car. I’m not sure. What I do remember is blathering something about him being out of his mind as I shoved everything we had taken out of the car back in the car, then getting into the passenger seat. I wasn’t sure how long it had been raining, but I sure wasn’t gonna be drinking rain water two days later because my brother wanted to be Davy freaking Crocket and live out his little “Riders on the Storm” fantasy with me. No sirreebob.
When we started our gradual descent, the road was still safe and stayed that way for a little while. I cursed myself for being a Sally May Tenderfoot (apparently I carry my mother’s neurotic gene, at least a little) and dozed. I was jolted awake when Dave had to do a small correction in his driving to keep us stable and looked out my window to stare into the inky blackness of the sharp descent that started where the road ended only inches away. In front of us was about 3 feet of lit road, then nothing beyond. I don’t remember much about the ride down to the base of the mountain, but I do remember saying the entire rosary from the Joyful Mysteries to the Glorious (this might be the only part of the story that is most likely true) until we reached terra firma. Once off the mountain, we drove to the small house where Dave’s friend the Jesuit was living and caught a couple hours of sleep in the car until morning.
I never thought I’d be so happy to see a priest’s house in my entire life.