Sunday, November 17, 2002

Not to Scale

After buying out the gift shop and book store at Mammoth Site, we pulled out the tourist map which had directions to local sites and Custer State Park. There were several options for getting to The Lodge in the state park, which was one of the only places, in the area, still open to campers. It seemed logical to take the straightest, most direct route. Once in the campsite we would be able to fill our depleted water tank, and do the other necessary RV chores. We felt relaxed, and confident.

We found our turn off from the main highway, and began our drive along the narrower, more isolated road. We stopped once to take a picture of the frozen prairie with forested and rocky hills. We watched for buffalo. "Boys," I brightly announced, "keep a lookout for animals. They like to come out as it's getting dark." Happy family. Happy, ignorant, in to the woods, at dusk, family.

"Check the map again. This seems too winding to be the 87. Where are the signs?"

I double checked the 87; on the map it made a straight line from the highway up to the Lodge, but this 87 turned and curved, it climbed and descended. The light was fading and there were more and more stretches of iced road. Ahead we saw a slim, and ancient bridge, crossing a deep and icy gorge.

"Why haven't we seen any other traffic? How long have we been driving on this road?" Geoff asked.

"Off-season, week night, poor weather; take your pick." In truth we'd probably only been driving 30 minutes, but for the sake of anxiety, we'll call it an hour. One hour with no cars, no hikers, no park rangers. One hour driving cautiously, and occasionally slipping, along a remote and lonely snow blown South Dakota road. "This map is not to scale!" As the navigator I feel my duty deeply, but this situation is unjust, "It's totally not to scale."

We had passed several curvy arrow signs, and a few 'slow-ice' warnings, but the curvy arrow that turned back on itself was our undoing. The steep and slippery grade turned corkscrew around and under its bridged self. Geoff pulled over, "Let me see that map." It was no use. The map offered no more information, suggestions or sympathy. It was the bold faced liar map. We all peed, and then I sat the boys with pillows all around them and smiled at them with what I hoped was pure confidence and maternal assuredness.

Custer State Park is beautiful and someone later informed us, the largest state park in the United States. No kidding. I can assure you, it is quite large. To say the sights were breathtaking would be a literal description. We gasped at every twist, and turn. In the deep, dark valleys were vivid displays of fall color. In the same deep valleys were black and jagged rocks and rich green pines. Every so often one of us would say, "Beautiful. Nature," and gesture randomly at the scenery.

Twice we were confronted by herds of big horn sheep. They were vagrants really; standing defiantly in the road, with their backs to us. First we took their picture and then said, "Shoo, shoo, little sheep." Then Geoff tooted the horn, which I thought was a bit much. But they thought very little of it. They stood, indifferent. When snow is falling and night is too, and there is very little evidence that your map is any good at all, the wonder of nature and the majesty of rebel sheep fail to invoke a 'wait and see mood.' We pulled forward, tooting gently and imploring urgently, "Get off the road sheep. Go home. Freakin' sheep."

Okay, so feeling ever more anxious about seeing no sign that we are remotely any where near anything, we dial the Park Headquarters. They are nearly as indifferent as the sheep. "Yes, the roads are bad. Yes, we are still open. You're probably only 3 miles from us, and there should be a lodge coming up." And so of course at that moment we drove right passed a lovely little meadow with lovely little cabins and a few cars and lights, and we grinned at each other, "Okay then. We're almost there." But the drive from The Blue Bird Lodge to the main Lodge was up Coolidge Ridge; getting there on an icy road was nerve frazzling torture. And in fact it was impossible. We were a slow drive mile in to the ascent when we saw a car backing down the hill, a woman stood aside and gestured the driver. They had driven backwards for a mile. There were no places to turn their car on the solid ice grade. If a couple from Wisconsin, driving a car, couldn't manage, then we would have been in terrible trouble if we had proceeded.

We crawled back to The Blue Bird. It was night, and the snow was falling steadily and covering the ice on the road. The Lodge was closing for the season. We were just in time to see the last of the late season crew leave in a 4 wheel drive pick up, and also to meet Ed, the winter caretaker. He warmly shook hands with me, and invited us to park anywhere. There were no hook-ups. Hoses were turned off to keep pipes from bursting. The general store's shelves were empty, the restaurant closed. Ed offered, "You can work for me, shoveling snow, if you get stuck up here for long. Well, good night."

Geoff took a drink, his hand shaking, "Did you ever see The Shining?"
"No, why?" I shouldn't have asked.

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