The Badlands of South Dakota to Alaska
By Sam Rowe
This stretch of roads covered around 3000 miles and over 50 hours of driving. I should start with a disclaimer that my writing is not for everyone. So if you are the type to be annually retentive about spelling and grammar then I suggest redirecting your moose to close the page and save yourself the pain of reading on ;) I have tried to capture life on the road in a poem and have also included some short stories from our adventures.
Dan was behind the wheel, no doubt demanding justification for some minor decision. On the spare of the moment he decided that it was time to put Richie’s precious Land Rover through some off-roading. He slowed up and swerved us off the road onto an unmarked gravel track. We followed the track for a few hundred yards alongside a wide expanse of water, the road then petered out. There was a sense of elation in our wary group, as we bounced back and forth through the long grass and found our way around thick clumps of shrubbery. We soon abandoned our normal seats with Dan running ahead to find a suitable route for Richie. I took up what would become my favourite perch on-top of the roof. From here I bounced around clinging onto bags and jerry cans as we found our way up a random hill. After we stopped to admire the view and enjoy a quintessential American snack of coke and jerky, I took my first go at off-roading. As a country boy I quickly took to interpreting the lie of the land and navigated us back towards the road through more thickets of trees and a small stream. Just before reaching the road I stopped the car as we came face to face with a steep bank, I scrambled up it on foot and wandered if it was driveable. The first attempt came to a sudden end as the wheels span on the long grass and the vehicle slid back down the slope. On round two I took a run-up and used low range with diff lock. With sweaty palms Richie and Dan watched nervously as the wheels sent tufts of grass flying and the vehicle leapt and lurched its way up and over the bank. Then a nervous but elated Richie jumped into the passenger seat slamming the door behind him. He stated for the 18th time “I can’t believe this is really happening”.
That night we arrived late in a small town near to the Yellowstone National park. Too tired to cook we found a pleasant empty bar for beer and pizza. I slumped on the bar exhausted and dosed, my ears picked up as the boys were informed by a friendly barman that snow had arrived early this year. All but 2 of the mountain roads into the park were likely to be closed by the morning (due to heavy snow). We absorbed numerous tips about driving in snow (including using cat litter if stuck on ice) and took directions to the nearest garage to buy winter gloves. The next morning we woke at dawn in a stunning riverside campsite, I was delighted to see a deep pool in a bend in the river. It was hidden from the road by thickets of birch and maple covered in golden autumn leaves. I decided to try the water. After plunging into the ice cold water rapidly swimming back to the bank for a very quick wash. Dan and Richie’s competitive streaks soon drove their pale shrieking bodies into the clear water. I took note that competitive edge should be taken advantage of as we headed further north (A week later they cursed me loudly as I struggled to break the ice for another wild swim).
That night we edged our way around a dark forest campsite with roads covered in 3 inches of soft fresh snow. Above us the pine and spruce trees lay heavy with fresh snow. As I scouted around for a sheltered fire pit I nudged a branch displacing a cascade of soft powder onto my hat and down my back. We delegated roles quickly with Dan and Richie setting up the roof tent whilst I started working on a fire and a meal consisting of cowboy beans and rice (a camp favourite). Fortunately we had a small supply of dry firewood and I cut small dead pine branches from the trees for kindling. With a dash of petrol the fire-pit was alight and hissing with melting snow, we all huddled around the fire to warm up. After a short while it became obvious we would need more wood, the surrounding woodland had already been cleared by previous campers. I set off into the dark armed with a machete, head torch and bear spray. It took some time before I found a dry standing tree in the dark at a lakes edge. I enjoyed the extra warmth provided by working to fell this before hauling it half a mile through thick woodland to the camp.
Huddled around the fire eating the spicy beans and sipping beer we discussed how this felt like a scene from Bastogne in “band of brothers”. Except we were warm and well prepared. Richie then suggested a sea shanty to keep up our spirits. I felt my throat go a little dry and remembered an embarrassing school incident. I was slightly rattled by the childhood memory of singing out of tune with a breaking voice on the first day at a new school, I silently reached for the whisky bottle. Dan quickly reassured me that I would be fine before handing me the words to “a drop of Nelsons blood”. I took an extra swig of whisky from the bottle for good measure before reluctantly singing along (completely out of tune). After all another dram of whisky never did us any harm.
We set alarms early the next morning and rose from our cosy lair to a snowy scene. After porridge we set out for a “short” walk. Before leaving I debated putting together a small survival kit and snacks. This suggestion was refuted by a risk averse Dan before we headed off into the snow. Before leaving I snatched a compass and a bag full of seeds from my bag. We would be grateful for both of these before the end of what turned into a long 10 mile trek through the snow. The highlight of this being two bald eagles perched on trees overlooking a stunning river. As we returned to the car hours later we all vowed never again would we go hiking without adequate provisions.
Two hours later in Teton National park we took another spontaneous self-directed safari. We were followed by an American couple in a truck who assumed we knew a route. Once again I clambered onto the Land Rovers roof. This time doing it by scrambling up through a window from the moving vehicle. Unfortunately the couple have refused to send us the video of this due to its commentary (presumably not wanting my head to swell from comments of how nimbly I performed the manoeuvre). I enjoyed taking in the crisp mountain scenery. Clinging to the roof rack, I was thrown back and forth and an icy craft ale was passed up to me. Eventually my hands went blue and a retreat to the relative ‘warmth’ of the Land Rover was needed to warm up.
Driving back through the park we had our first bear encounter. For those of you not familiar with bears they are considered a big deal. Especially in these parks where they have been fed by humans before so will approach and invade campsites. This is so problematic that bear proof containers are provided at each campsite and most people carry bear spray (essentially bear MACE). Our bear encounter was on a park road so the first sign as with much of the wildlife attractions was in the form of large numbers of cars pulled off the road.
We parked at the roadside and joined the small crowd of camera wielding tourists for a better view. Soon there was a flurry of excitement as the small black bear found his way around a small lake and onto the road. We retreating into the land rover giving us a closer view as it passed. The tourists were pushed back up the road by a nervous looking park volunteer. As the bear ambled along a row of cars a Chinese tourist leapt out from their cover throwing their camera in the air and ran wailing for the thick group of tourists. Fortunately black bears aren’t as attracted to running tourists as Grizzly bears so it carried on its way paying no attention. Presumably a grizzly bear would have put on a more interesting show and followed predatory instincts and given chase to him.
With low cloud and more fresh cold snow we didn’t see as much of Yellowstone National Park as we would have liked. But at least as we headed on North through Montana to the border crossing into Alberta we left the snow behind. At our first overnight stop the campsite manager was one of a handful of British immigrants who we met along the way. He told us of how Canada has grabbed him at the end of his military career and he had never looked back on life in the UK. Impressed by the Landy’s Cornish sticker and the nature of the trip he wavered the campground fee, offered us a morning shooting his guns and rejected our offer of cowboy coffee.
After a couple of days in Calgary we headed West to Jasper and Banff national parks. The land rover was recognised by many or given waves of appreciation from passers by. From here on in as the trip “quarter master” I observed a trend of increasing whisky consumption in proportion to dropping temperatures. With this my voice grew louder joining in with the nightly Shantyin’.
This poem is named after the North American system of individuals and organisations adopting or sponsoring stretches of highways.
Adopt a highway
By Sam Rowe
It was early in the morning at six,
Overnight the snow had fallen thick,
Military sleeping bags had kept us warm,
Giving us some protection from the storm,
Dan and Richie’s hands quickly went blue,
Struggling to fold the roof tent in two,
Meanwhile hunched over the stove sat I,
Stirring porridge and taking a warming sip of rye,
Soon we sat huddled in the land rover,
Wondering if the temperature would go any lower,
Onward through the states we passed,
Covering the ground ever so fast,
Autumn had quickly passed to winter,
Chopping wood at night I never failed to gain a splinter,
Bison, bears, eagles, elk, moose and deer,
Passed us by without a sliver of fear,
Meanwhile the highways smoothly passed under the wheels,
Long and graceful like a tall woman in heels,
Elegant curves between the golden trees,
Corners and dusty tracks that the Landy caressed with ease,
Montana, Alberta, BC and Yukon passed by,
A whirlwind of whisky, wildlife and a never-ending starlit sky.
Campgrounds were predominately very good along the way. One particular day stands out though. We had taken a long break for fast-food, suboptimal wifi and repairs to a broken door lock. Standing in the carpark I overhear two middle aged local couples gossiping. My ears picked up to “he came back, shot two of the dogs and told her to get out of there, kept the kids!”.
Later than night the iOverlander phone app took us to a well reviewed campground a few hours drive up the road. Driving down a small track with fading light, surrounded by autumnal trees we passed a graffiti covered shed, followed by an overturned car. Around the next corner we were faced by a picture that belonged in a war film. At least 5 cars stood overturned, and smashed in. As we looked closer at the scene we noticed dead young puppy still wearing a bright red collar caught our eyes. Filled with a strong sense of unease Dan quickly turned us around and we headed back up the road. I guess we will never know if there was a connection between the gossiping and the dead dog. Richie wrote an appropriate review for the site as we sat surrounded by chip monks at a formal campsite up the road.
As the roads continued to wind beneath us, the days passed and we became more accustomed to camping in sub-zero temperatures. Soon we would be in Alaska.