Thursday, May 7, 2015
When we were in Bryce Canyon we went on a hike across Bryce Canyon, and saw the hoodoos of Bryce Canyon. When we were in Capitol Reef, I went for my first sunrise run with mom. We also had a mindful glimpse of school in the past at Capitol Reef, and had strawberry rhubarb pie, homemade at the old homestead of the original founders.
Our focus over the last two months of traveling the USA has been trail running. We have run in some of the most beautiful places in the world. And although our gaze is set on the mountains and trails, something else keeps screaming at us and redirecting our attention: the profound poverty in America. Yesterday, we traveled through the single most impoverished town in the country, and it was the most shocking poverty I’ve ever seen. Even in the remotest, most impoverished Third World communities where I’ve lived and traveled, there were signs of life and hope. There were people engaged in productive work, preparing food and caring for children. There were businesses of some kind, even if they were only small rebottled Coke stands out of the back of a corrugated steel hut. But not in Pine Ridge, South Dakota. The scene was horrific. A handful of shops, boarded up and breaking down. A few dozen adults, high on alcohol and/or drugs, hanging around, lying around, their gaze unfocused. Graffiti everywhere, with one large message “death to the white man” scrawled across a building. Pine Ridge is a dry town. But a stone’s throw away is Whiteclay, Nebraska. According to some stats, there are 4 liquor stores and only 12 inhabitants in Whiteclay, where 12,500 cans of beer are sold every day. Pine Ridge is home to Lakota Native Americans, and located a few miles from the site of the Battle of Wounded Knee, where the U.S. Cavalry massacred 100’s of Lakota. Historical markers inform travelers of the events of years ago, but it’s the visions of today’s unfortunate souls that will impart a greater impression and lasting memory, although the two are undoubtedly connected.
After staying in a couple of KOA campgrounds as we first got our bearings in the RV, Big Bertha, we decided to avoid them wherever possible. We soon found out that most state and national parks and forests have drinkable water, showers, bathrooms, and some even have electrical hookups for the RV too. But the great benefits of staying in a park are that there are usually trails for running, you are closer to nature and farther away from other people. While I admit that staying in an RV is nothing like the “real” camping we used to do as kids where we hiked our stuff and tents up a mountain, found a flat spot to set up, went trout fishing and then cooked over an open fire, slept on the hard ground next to my snoring brother and woke up with icicles hanging from the top of the tent or a wet sleeping bag from the previous night’s rain, it is just the right amount of camping for our family. We do occasionally sleep in a tent, but the older I get the more I need my pillow (and my sleep!). So, here we are. The state parks have been incredible. We have stayed in them in Mississippi, Arkansas, Utah, two in Colorado, South Dakota, Wisconsin and Illinois. Each one has offered peace and quiet, bathrooms, trails, playgrounds and coyotes.
As we started our trip homeward, we headed north and spent a few days in the Badlands, curious to know how the area received its intimidating name and interested in experiencing trail running through this fascinating landscape. We drove through miles and miles of rolling grassland in northern Colorado, depressed and disgusted at the inhumane cattle farms that packed cows side by side in putrid conditions. We then spent the night in a lovely state park that appeared out of nowhere, and had a nice run on well groomed flat trails. We then continued through the most depressing human habitation in the middle of some of the most gorgeous rolling terrain in southern South Dakota, to finally arrive at the outcropping of crumbling mountains and deep washes of the Badlands. By the time we arrived, I was feeling queazy. The poor cows, the hopeless people, the run down shacks with piles of deserted cars and trash and mangy dogs left us all in quiet contemplation. At what point was all hope lost? Was anger and resentment and disappointment and sorrow passed down through generations, thus crippling a culture’s future? I contemplated these thoughts for 12 miles as I loped, alone, over baked and peeling clay, up and over crumbling towers, down narrow paths of grass that threatened rattlesnakes at every dip. The sky was cold and gray. As I looked around I had the feeling I was running on the moon. Some unusual characters mingled with the terrain. One man was wedged into a crack in the rocks. He looked alive. I didn’t stop to ask. Another man, dressed head to toe in desert camouflage, with a desert camouflage backpack and rolled up sleeping gear, hunched along the path. I felt uncomfortable. As this was a national park, I didn’t have my trail dog Harry Potter with me (dogs are banned from the trail), and I felt a bit exposed. I ran quickly. I was relieved to finally look up and see Izzy’s smiling face in the distance, waiting for me, looking out the RV window from the trailhead where we were parked. She had told me not to listen to my earbuds while running so that I might hear the rattlers’ rattles, and I had compromised by using only one earbud. Izzy, always nervous when I go running, looked as relieved as I felt when we spotted each other. I felt satisfied that I gained some small understanding of where the Badlands got its name. I showered and we headed eastward, toward home.