In which Katie faces problems with percolating, pronunciation, paying fees and potential prairie predators.
I woke up in my backseat cardboard cocoon this morning at around 6:30, amazed to feel fully rested and almost too warm and cozy in my mummy bag. Anyone who has camped in October knows how rare that is.
My vantage point from my campsite in Makoshika State Park put on a spectacularly starry crescent moon display while the sun rose on the other side of the sky. Planets were clearly visible, but I sadly couldn’t identify them…partially because I lack knowledge of astronomy and partially because my “Field Guide to the Night Sky” was one of the books leveling out my makeshift bed, which rendered it inaccessible.
The simple mastery of my camp stove has turned me into a butane animal. Making coffee was a science experiment with a delicious reward at the end, but the road to success was a windy one. I didn’t know my percolator wasn’t actually a percolator until the Internet informed me I had in fact bought a moka pot, and I burned the grounds so badly on the first try that I considered pouring the acrid liquid into my half-empty gas tank.
The rain and wind came back with ferocity, just in time for me to pack up my truck and leave. But a gloomy uncomfortable truth hung over my head.
I hadn’t paid my campsite fee the night before.
I’m a child of the 21st century. I never carry cash, and somehow I’ve managed to avoid needing blank checks up to this point in my life. So I had snuck in the night before, after the visitor’s center had closed, and prayed I wouldn’t wake up in the night to an angry Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Compliance Enforcer kicking me over the side of the canyon (probably not an actual job title, but I pictured a pissed-off Brawny paper towel guy with size 15 Chippewa boots and a distaste for freeloaders).
So I meandered into the Loaf ‘n Jug across the street and purchased tortilla chips, salsa and trail mix. I tried to joke with the cashier about my healthy choice in breakfast foods, but when the punchlines didn’t quite land, I explained my camping faux pas and need for cash. She chuckled respectfully but informed me that I was pronouncing the name of the park incorrectly…apparently the emphasis is on the “ko.” “Shika” isn’t “SHEE-ka” but “shi-KUH,” spoken like some snotty teenagers snapping their gum and saying “duh…” as in “duh, of course you have to pay campsite fees in cash.” I got my money, reset my camping karma and hit the interstate before Glendive, Montana could make more of an ass out of me than it already had.
I crossed into North Dakota and aimed my truck towards Theodore Roosevelt National Park, dead set on getting a trail run in before the rest of my drive. The temperature was plummeting, and by the time I was changing into my running clothes in my backseat, my dashboard read 44 degrees. I bundled up in an eclectic mix of colorful running performancewear and Mossy Oak camo and set out across the prairie to the chirping of hundreds of prairie dogs.
I stayed alert for bison throughout the entire five-mile jaunt, but didn’t lay eyes on a single one. I breathed a huge sigh of relief when I got back to the trailhead and the solace of my truck, finishing off the last fraction of a mile on the dirt road just beyond the trailhead. But as I walked back up the dirt road, cooling off and catching my breath, I looked up to see a lone mature bison 30 yards equidistant from the truck on the other side. He kept an even pace towards the vehicle, and he had seen me before I saw him.
I forced my heart back down into my chest and slowly started widening my path. I could escape into the sturdy vault toilet building and wait for the bison to pass, but it could take hours, and I could probably still make it into the cab before he really got close. I made the instantaneous decision to walk calmly but purposefully towards the truck.
I averted eye contact at all costs, like the totally inferior beta animal I was, and listened closely for any sound of hooves breaking into a run. Nothing. In one graceful sweep, I rounded the front of the truck, unlocked the door and tucked right inside before the bison could decide I was too close for comfort. His boulder-sized body moved across the line of view on my backup camera as I slowly pulled out of the parking space. I’d avoided tractor trailers, shopping carts and humans in parking lots…but never a full-sized bison. He raced alongside my truck for a short bit, before crossing the dirt road behind me to wander off onto the land on the south side of the road. I stopped and watched as he roamed, a dark brown mass against the sage green and dusty light colors of the prairie. He was hypnotizing in his size, sturdiness and his bold and assured demeanor, and I was just proud to be beta.
I took the interaction as a sign for the rest of the trip. I will probably find myself accidentally close to wildlife on a few occasions over the next month. And every species I cross, I will treat with the respect and distance that I would a 1700-pound bison, even if they don’t have the same power to maul me. A fuzzy stuffed bison from the visitor center now perches on my dashboard to remind me that I am, after all, just a tourist.