Friday, September 8, 2017

Eclipse Overture

Our second day involved less highway grinding and more pleasant touring. I'm tempted to call it our wildlife day. After making a few stops at pullouts along the upper rim of the Badlands, we took a gravel road twelve miles to Sage Creek Campground. Along the way we saw a big horned sheep, hundreds of prairie dogs, and a ferruginous hawk—a species I'd never seen before. It was probably looking for a careless prairie dog to eat for lunch. At the spur leading to the campground the other car spotted three red-headed woodpeckers in a small grove of cottonwoods, while just ahead, we were coming upon our first magpie, which it hopped into the shade under a hippie van as we approached.

It was hot in the noon-time glare of the treeless campground, and I was glad we hadn't spent the night there. A few tents were scattered over the dusty expanse, but one of the women hanging out in the shade of a ramada said, "Last night this place was packed!"

On our way out we were stopped by a herd of buffalo desultorily crossing the road. I should have been admiring them but I was impatient to get going, and I started to wonder if the two cars bollixed up ahead of us were enthralled by the beasts or simply too timid to make their way through.

Studying the map a few minutes earlier, we had decided to have lunch in Farmingdale. When we arrived we discovered there was nothing in Farmingdale. We next chose Hermosa as a rendezvous, but the most appealing place we could find there was a deli in a casino-cum-truck-stop called the Flying J.

It was 2 p.m. and we were glad to get in out of the sun for a while.  I got a ham and cheese sandwich in a cellophane wrapper and a plastic container of baked beans. They both would have been better if I'd micro-waved them—the bun was on the verge of being frozen—but with loads of mustard and mayo and a big bag of bar-b-que potato chips, the "meal" was satisfactory.

Tim and Carol, more adventurous, purchased a chicken-fried steak sandwich, with the thought that if it was good, they'd buy a second one. They each took a single bite and then, by mutual consent, tossed it in the garbage. Hilary, going further out on a limb, bought a sausage wrapped in pastry dough with jalapeƱos and cheese that was sitting under a heat lamp —a glorified pig-in-a-blanket, one of the specialties of the deli.

I think the do-it-yourself root beer floats oozing out of a big do-it-yourself machine may have been the hit of the occasion. "We're going to get one of those for the house," Tim said.

Just south of Hermosa we turned west on Highway 36 and were almost instantly engulfed in a wonderland of rising hills, green pastures, and shadowed pine woods. The sudden contrast was extraordinary, and welcome. We forked over the entry fee at the park gate—$20 per car—and made our way along the narrow and winding road through the open woods to the Needles and on to Sylvan Lake.

At one point we spotted some mountain goats on the rocks just above the road. And at the Sylvan Lake Lodge we ordered drinks and sat on the terrace in the late afternoon shade discussing whether there might be a limit to how many birds could bear a single individual's name. For example, after the Swainson's hawk and Swainson's thrush, does the ornithological union cut Swainson off? But what about the Wilson's phalarope, the Wilson's thrush ... and Wilson's warbler!

The subject came up because I'd mentioned that I was surprised there weren't any Clark's nutcrackers anywhere nearby—it seemed like perfect habitat—and went on to say, in case anyone was interested, that the bird was named after William Clark of "Lewis and Clark" fame.

The lodge is small but nice—a large field stone lobby with timbered furniture, a quaint bar, and a well-lit dining room beyond—but the terrace doesn't have much of the view. And they were piping pop music out past the ponderosa pines! I think the Sons of the Pioneers or Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen would have been more appropriate.

On our way back to the car I spotted three big whitish birds attacking the cones in a tree alongside the parking lot.

"What are they?" Carol shouted. (They were parked on the other side of the lot.)

"Clark's nutcrackers," I replied.

"Next time, we should bring up the subject of ivory-billed woodpeckers," she said.

It was a ten-minute ride south to Custer, the attractive tourist town where Gayle had booked a "family suite" of rooms at the Rocket Motel six months ago. It was actually a single long room with the bathroom placed in the middle, which made the two sleeping areas more private. The rooms were immaculate, and the tile work in the narrow bathroom was superb.

The receptionist had only a single key to give the five of us, which proved to be a problem later. But the motel's great strength was its covered terrace, where, as the sun went down, we could sit at wrought-iron patio tables and watch the world go by on Main Street just below us.

A winsome couple from San Diego sat down at the next table to eat a pizza they'd picked up in town.
"This isn't the pizza we ordered," the man said as he opened the box, though he didn't seem very upset. "There's no pineapple on it."

"That means someone else got our pizza," his son said astutely. "Well, I guess we might as well eat it."

"So, you're here to see the eclipse?" the man called over to us. "Where ya from?"

We told him. He and his wife had flown to Denver from San Diego with their two kids. "Did you hear they banned double-semis from the freeways in Colorado and put construction projects on hold to alleviate congestion on the freeways? They say a million people are headed this way. We decided it would be easier to drive north of the totality line and ease back into it from this direction."

They had been hearing stories as they passed through the small towns on the path of totality. "In Agate," the woman said, "they've been discussing such things as what kinds of ordinance is in place to respond to someone who wants to sacrifice a chicken during the eclipse. Is that legal? These towns aren't used to all the attention. They've been preparing for years."

The outdoor terrace and hot tub
The eclipse had been calculated to commence at 10:30 the next morning (mountain time) and we were two and a half hours away according to Google Maps. I had been thinking that under normal conditions we'd have plenty of time if we got up at 6, but after a bit of discussion we decided to set our alarm clocks for 3:30 and try to leave Custer by 4. Carol located an all-night convenience store in town on her phone—the Corner Pantry—where we could get some coffee before setting out, and we spent a few minutes relaxing in the hot tub adjoining the terrace, confident that all the pieces were falling into place nicely.

It was at this point that we inadvertently locked ourselves out of the room.

*   *   *

I love the muffled sounds of early, early morning, when your mind is like cotton and your body is stumbling around on "safe" mode, not yet fully booted. Get up, get dressed, get packed, and get out: that's all you have to do.  Stepping outside into the cool night air, I noticed that on the street below, someone had driven a big white pickup truck up onto the curb. (I think he may have been delivering papers to the corner news stand.) We were soon headed downtown on Mt. Rushmore Blvd. to the Corner Pantry, which turned out to be a well-lit Conoco gas station stocked with plenty of sugary donuts and rubbery breakfast burritos. The coffee pots seemed to be empty, however.

The magic before dawn

"I'm making some more right now. It will be ready in a second," the manager said. She was thin as a rail, heavily tattooed, and looked to be about sixteen. Several of us noticed that the cream dispenser squirted cream sideways, and when I mentioned it to her, she said, "I clean that every hour. It just sticks out of the bag funny." She was definitely on the ball.

We headed out of town going south at 4:15 (I looked at the clock on the dash). The main drag soon turned into Highway 385, otherwise known as the Gold Rush Byway, which would take us all the way to Alliance. It was pitch black, and there were very few cars on the road. The landscape was shrouded in fog. The tail lights of our companion car soon disappeared around the bends ahead of us, only to reappear on the straightaways, growing ever smaller.

Rounding one bend, we came upon an elk standing in the road, but he moved aside into the ditch a split second before I tapped the horn.

The town of Hot Springs seemed to go on forever in the dark, and it struck me that many of the limestone buildings whizzing by in front of the headlights as we wove our way through it might have been worth looking at more carefully in daylight.

Semis caught and passed us occasionally, but as light came gradually to the sky and the fog lifted, the tone remained hushed. Gayle, who was in the other car, texted Hilary as we approached Alliance, and we pulled into the Conoco station on the outskirts of Chadron where they were already parked.

We were now an hour north of Alliance. Traffic continued to be very light, almost nonexistent. As the sun rose it transformed the fog itself into a thin diaphanous blanket.  At one point four large dark birds flew across the highway ahead of the car. My first thought was cormorants, but then I got a better look at the bills. "Hey, look," I said, "Ibises!"

That was the only unusual thing we saw until we passed a makeshift sign pointing the way to Carhenge. At the next intersection three men were ushering cars into a field. The fee: $10. It was easy to see that the "guests" were being lined up like sardines in anticipation of a big turnout, but the field was less than a quarter full. It was not an appealing scene. 

We turned left on the gravel road past the makeshift gate and continued east, passing several similar pay-and-park operations, and turned south on the next section road. We were looking for Madison Road, which sounded important but was no different from the other gravel roads in the vicinity. A mile or so east and we arrived at Sugar Farm.

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