3. Road Trip 2008, Day 2-3: Heaven is a Place On Earth

“It is very easy to be underrated, because all you need to do is nothing. Everyone wants to be underrated. It’s harder to become overrated, because that means people had to think you were awesome before they thought you sucked. Nobody wants to be overrated, except for people who like to live in big houses.”

Chuck Klosterman, Klosterman: IV

Now we had a new problem before us – finding a place to camp for the night. Before leaving Crow’s Peak and saying goodbye to our new drinking buddies, we asked where we could set up our tent without having to pay. They told us we could probably park on Tinton Road without being hassled by cops or land-owners. They also recommended we check out Spearfish Canyon before leaving the next morning. We thanked them for their advice and company, then took to the darkened hills of Spearfish in search of Tentin Road.

We drove around for quite a while before accidentally finding Tentin, a winding gravel road leading into darkness. There weren’t many houses along the drive, so it seemed like a pretty safe area to set up shop for the night without getting disturbed. Once again I had a scare when we almost hit another animal, this time a cow running across the road and into the woods.

“Was that a wild cow?” I asked.

“Wild cow?! You’re a dumbass,” Paul answered. It just seemed strange to see a cow running all willy nilly up into the wilderness of South Dakota. We found a gravel inlet and decided to park. As a precaution, I parked the Element amidst some bushes. We scarfed down some crackers and hummus, and commenced setting up the tent Paul borrowed from a friend by flashlight. Once inside, it quickly became apparent that the cramped 6 x 5 floor plan wasn’t going to work very well for the two of us. Paul fell asleep instantly, and I was left, tossing and turning, trying to find comfort. As a sleeper I’m a sprawler, letting my limbs stretch out full length. This didn’t bode well with my 6’4 frame trying to stretch within the 6 ft length. To add to the discomfort, Paul began snoring and gradually overtook the already cramped space, pushing me to the edge of the canvas floor.

After about two hours of restlessness, I found a nice fetal position. Just as I was slipping into sleep, I heard screaming in the woods. Not human screams – the screams of some type of creature. High pitched and shrill, the shrieks echoed in the night air, moving me away from any semblance of drowsiness. What could it be? Bats? Raccoons? Or could it be the dreaded wild cow I’d seen earlier? Soon the cackling was coupled with other strange warbles and grunts. I couldn’t fathom what kind of creature could make such a plethora of obnoxious noises.

By three in the morning, laying in a huddled, shivering ball, exhaustion finally overpowered the fear, and I fell asleep. Even in a state of R.E.M, I dreamt about not being able to sleep; talk about a nightmare.

Around five in the morning, I awoke to a rustling noise outside our tent. I nudged Paul.

“Paul…Paul….you hear that?” I whispered. No movement. He wasn’t waking.

“MOOOO!” I sat up and looked out our screen window to see a black and white cow, five feet away from our tent, staring at me with big glossy eyes. Behind her were four other cows, all roaming around my car.

I would have been scared if it weren't for her pretty eye-lashes that reminded me of The Cown-tess on "Pee Wee's Playhouse".

“Paul, wake up! There are cows all over outside!” Paul opened his crust covered eyes slowly and glared at me. “They are surrounding my vehicle dude!”

Visually annoyed, he grumbled,” You woke me up because of cows?” He rolled back over. I was on my own. I cautiously unzipped the door, and stepped out into the dewy grass. The cows didn’t flinch. As I stood up, more and more cow faces appeared from behind the trees, reminiscent of when all the sasquatch appear at the end of “Harry and the Hendersons”. I looked down toward the road and found a herd of orange and white cows moseying up the hill. Did we park in someone’s ranch? Seeing that I didn’t want to sit around and find out (the arrival of a rancher with a shotgun is never a welcome sight) I again told Paul that we’d better get going. He reluctantly got up and helped me take down the tent as our audience of cows looked on. I thought cows were scared of humans, but this cattle just watched us with annoyance. By the time we packed everything in the car and ate breakfast, the cows were mostly gone; they were all following in the direction of the others on the road, like some type of cow cult marching to their mass suicide.

On the road we could see Heifer's Gate, walking like lemmings to their death.

With our path finally clear of cattle, we began heading back down the hill. As we came to the end of Tinton Road, I noticed a couple peacocks in the ditch. Where the hell were we? Wild cows, mystery creatures that scream and grunt through the night, and now peacocks running rampant in the ditches? I decided that the peacock must be the pheasant of the Dakotas. This belief disappeared quickly when we saw the sign in front of the next driveway: Animal Farm. The sign’s images of monkeys and donkeys explained the strange noises that kept me awake the night before.

We rolled into downtown Spearfish around 6 a.m. Thanks to my cow encounter, we were way ahead of schedule, so we decided to take the advice from the night before and go check out Spearfish Canyon. As we rolled up the hill and around the curvy path, we quickly understood why the insisted we check it out: splendor spread from one rocky wall to the next. The grey rock ledges went straight up like walls enclosing us. Trees, defying the laws of nature, were growing right out of the cliffside. With the sun peaking from over the top of the wall, I decided the perfect music was Fleet Foxes with their calming My Morning Jacket meets CSNY sound, fitting perfectly alongside the stunning landscape. We stopped several times to look at waterfalls, cascading down the canyon wall.

"Days are just drops in a river to be lost always-" Fleet Foxes

After stopping and starting the car for the 20th time, we decided to escape the confines of the Element to go explore the magical canyon.  We found a pull-off when hiking trails and decided to try one out. After walking down a path for a while, Paul decided to go on a morning jog, which was fine with me. I was so overcome by nature’s dazzling display. The intimacy of being alone heightened the experience. Ducks swam by in the pond, hawks circled above, and deer trotted alongside me in the trees: it was like something out of a Disney movie. I wouldn’t have been shocked if two cartoon birds had sat on my shoulders and sang to me.

The only things missing were Brer Rabbit and Uncle Remus.

When the sun finally exposed its self to the majestic scene, spot-lighting the glory of the land, I stopped, sat on a boulder thinking, “This might be the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.” I must have sat there for 15 minutes, just basking in nature at its finest. As weird as it may sound, I felt like I was meant to be there, on that stone, at that moment, like God or Mother Nature, or whatever is in charge of this world had created this painting, set this scene, put on this performance, all just for me.

When I finally decided I’d better go find Paul, I began to wonder how I’d never heard of Spearfish Canyon. Why hadn’t we seen tourists running amuck? At a rest area in Eastern South Dakota, Paul grabbed a ton of brochures on the Black Hills, but I didn’t remember seeing anything about the canyon. What is wrong with this state? There were at least 500 signs for Wall Drug and not even a mention of this glorious retreat? The more I walked, surrounded by waterfalls and remarkable rock formations, the more irritated I became. Who cares about a bunch of man made faces in the side of a cliff when you’ve got more beautiful sculptures formed by the hands of nature?

The path ended at one final waterfall, more spectacular than any I’d seen all day. The crystal water poured over the ledge like something out of the blue lagoon and formed smaller falls at its foot. When I reached the top of the spouting waterfall, I could see Paul waiting for me. We exchanged looks, no words were necessary for what we had both witnessed on this glorious morning.

As we looked down from the top I noticed a cave-like inlet beneath the showering water. When I pointed this out to Paul, he began grinning. “I’ll be right back.” Before I could respond he was jumping over the edge of the platform and working his way through broken branches toward the water’s edge. When he disappeared from sight, I looked back over the edge of the platform to see Paul tip-toeing through the water toward the giant falls.

He cautiously approached the splashing liquid and then in one quick movement, he stuck his head under the frigid dowfall,  instantly jerking back. “Whooooooooo Hooo!” he howled, echoing through the canyon. He dashed under the falls and into the inlet, out of sight. I had the sudden urge to join him as the cascading water taunted me. I hopped over the platform and followed the path Paul had already created.

Once on the shore, I stepped into the chilly water and began walking carefully on the slippery rocks. When I reached the falls, hypnotized by its beauty, I walked right under its path without hesitation. I stood there for a moment, like a coach relishing the Gatorade raining over his head. After a moment, I stepped forward into the inlet where Paul was smiling at the magnificence around us. The inlet didn’t go in very far, but that didn’t matter. We were in a place far from the trappings of the modern world, a secret sanctuary hidden amongst the tourist traps of the Black Hills.

When Paul finally left the inlet, the freezing water once again shocked his body. “WhoooHoooo!” he howled. He turned back toward the falls and shouted joyously,” Hey Andy, that’s what it feels like to have the Pixies injected into your bloodstream!” . I stood in the cave for a moment, giggling at Paul’s comment and realizing that this canyon really was like the Pixies in many ways. Grand and inspiring, both were underappreciated by the masses. While over-weight tourists roam around Wall Drug and listen to the likes of Kid Rock and Kenny Chesney, the real gems go unnoticed by the masses, only to be discovered by those willing to search out something not plastered on billboards and played incessantly on the radio. In both, we had found something beautiful, original, and untouched by commercialism; havens providing escape for those seeking shelter from a bloated society.

Yes, the Pixies are an underrated band. And I’d like to keep it that way.

These monkeys have gone to heaven.

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