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Close Encounters of Another Kind


Morning time and I still had to have breakfast food. For the sake of my stomach, we found a Country Kitchen. Pancakes! I had not been that happy to see a large plate of cakies (pancakes), sausage, eggies (eggs) and even the hash browns I don’t normally eat. Quite frankly, I don’t normally eat that much food for breakfast (unless it is brunch), or in one sitting, but I was feeling a need for major refueling. I was so overjoyed; I even took a picture and sent it to someone who I knew appreciated breakfast foods. It was a nice lingering breakfast in spite of how speedily I devoured my food. After breakfast, we stopped at the gas station next door to fuel up for the day. When we pulled up, I noticed an elderly couple fueling up their Class C RV (Class C is the kind where the camper portion of the RV extends over the cab area). No surprise, I was curious. While I was inside the station store to buy some things, I was in line behind them and overheard their conversation with the cashier about going to the lake. When I walked out of the store, I took the opportunity to ask them how long they have been traveling. I also shared with them how my grandparent’s travels by trailer brought us to North Dakota. They said that they had been traveling since their youngest child was born, who is now 48. They were in their 80s. They love it. They told me that they go to the lake every year. I wished them safe travels. As I watched them load up in their rv and pull out, I thought about my grandparents and how much joy traveling by trailer had brought to their lives.

Our destinations today were Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota and Devil’s Tower National Monument, Wyoming. On the way to Theodore Roosevelt NP, we unknowingly stopped at the Painted Canyon, the place that came highly recommended by Mike we met in Rugby. It is a stop not too soon after you enter the official property of the massive park. If I remember correctly, they also referred to it as the Badlands, which makes it a little confusing because the “Badlands” are everywhere. The overlook was pretty busy with carloads of people coming and going. There were a lot of pictures being taken at the stone ledge, including selfies. Even I was guilty. Thomas assisted a young couple whose arms weren’t quite long enough. It was quite a wonder in the daytime, but I could see why Mike said that you had to see it at sunset. I bet the rays of the sun illuminate all the colors of the stones. Our time there wasn’t too long. We had a lot of ground to cover. The park alone consists of three units, with over 70,000 acres combined.

We got back on the main road and bumbled around. The funny thing about people is that our curiosity takes over in most situations, if permitted, sight unseen. For instance, in parks, most of the time, if you see at least one car pulled over on the side of the road, you assume that something is happening worth investigating. If there are at least 5 cars, it’s guaranteed. Monkey see, monkey do and the next thing you know, you are pulled over. With not much space to park along the elevated rock edge of the road, I squeezed out of the passenger side. Off we went and we both sprung across the street. As we walked over and began up the hill, standing there like statues was a herd of the most beautiful horses. Under the silent eye of everyone was a mixed group of mares, colts and their foal. Physically they are stunning and strong. Hardly any two looked the same. They were crowded in a group, some with their eyes closed, almost all of them using their tails to swat flies. These feral horses are called Nakota horses and are indigenous to the Badlands of North Dakota and heavily protected at the park. I was very moved to be able to stand there among them. One foal in particular reminded me of the horse from the movie The Black Stallion. Oh, how I loved that movie as a kid. I always remembered the bond between the child character, Alec and the stallion. I couldn’t take my eyes off of it. Coal black with equally coal black eyes; its hair glimmered in the sun. Everyone was considerate of the animals and kept a reasonable distance as we admired and photographed them. If allowed, I would have stayed there all day. When we left, new inquisitors took our place.

Photo courtesy of Thomas Huggins

Further down the road we passed and pulled over at one of the many prairie dog towns in the park. This has to be how the inventor of the Whac-A-Mole got their idea. Although both moles and prairie dogs dig holes, those little faces that pop up in the game are definitely prairie dogs, not moles. I suppose Whac-A-Dog doesn’t have the same ring. Tons of animals popping in and out of mounds in the ground, in a syncopated time are comical. What do they do all day, and what is going on underground that we can’t even see? Every 5 feet was a mound with a little mousy face and round behind and bird chirpy vocals, all far beyond what the eye can see. For some reason a park police officer had a car pulled over, or at least that is how it appeared. I hope the person didn’t do anything foolish. They couldn’t have been speeding with all of the people slowing down to a crawl to watch the prairie dogs.

Photo courtesy of the Grahms Photo courtesy of Thomas Huggins

We checked in at the visitor center at the Southern Unit and I went to the desk to ask if they park staff could identify the location of my grandmother in the wildflowers patch, since the writing identified it as being taken at this park. Immediately they said it was not here based on the trees in the picture. Amazing that they could tell that quickly. According to them, the types of trees in the photo do not grow at the park and perhaps not even in North Dakota. That would explain why it was impossible for us to find it based on our blind search of the park. Also, without me telling them the date, the park staff was able to tell me approximately when the picture was taken of my grandfather and aunts standing in front of the Maltese Cross Ranch Cabin (the temporary, relocated home of Roosevelt while on his ranch on this land). I was delighted that the young staff was tickled by the images of my family from decades ago and that they asked questions. Those questions were soon followed up with my elevator pitch about the documentary and I made sure to give them cards when we came back through after retrieving the cameras from the car; you had to walk through the visitor center to get to the cabin. Oddly enough, for as crowded as the visitor center was, there were no people outside at the cabin. I guess it may have been too hot for some and they could have been sucking up the air conditioning. For a while it was only Thomas and I, which was ideal. We took quite a few shots and he filmed me entering and exiting the cabin. My contentment expanded knowing that this is all paying off.

In Montana, on Route 7 there was road construction. I found it odd that there was a portable stand-alone traffic light. Feet before the sign it said, “be prepared to stop.” Thomas waited for 2 minutes and said he wasn't going wait. He couldn't see why we had to stop here. Since I was not the driver, I didn’t see the point in saying anything. We continue through and over the top of the hill and alas, there was the issue. The once asphalt road was now a long stretch of dirt with varied construction trucks milling up and back. Eventually Thomas pulled over. I assumed when we saw a line of cars finally coming from the opposite end that there was a pilot car we were to wait for. Sure enough, in a few minutes, she drove down from the hill. When she got closer, both sets of windows rolled down. She said she would come back to get us after she took this group across. I still never said anything. I only chuckled to myself as we followed her car up the road, especially when Thomas decided he was going to retake his proper place in line, in front of all the cars that waited behind us, that were now behind her.

Nothing much to happened for a while. We saw a deer on the side of the road and we slowed down as a precaution. This land is so flat and vast in this part of Montana; it was hard to imagine where this animal could have possibly lived with no trees or forest in sight. Not to mention it was 105 degrees out at 6:00 pm. On this same road, there was also a medium sized dog balancing on the edge of a pickup truck bed. I have no idea how it managed this, or why the owner would have even allowed it if they cared about the safety of their pet. The truck was traveling at least 55 miles per hour and this stunt dog with long brown hair flowing, balanced itself practically halfway on the ledge as if it were surfing the air. He looked more untroubled than any dog I have seen simply sticking their head out of the window. I called him the original Moondoggie (Gidget reference). Of all the things I wish I could have taken a picture of, this is at the top of the list. I know for a fact that only because he saw it too, Thomas will be the only person that believes me.

Route 7 ended up being the ride. Still driving, we spotted yet another anomaly. To the right side of the road these strange rock formations materialized. For miles there had not been much to look at besides open fields, a random deer and one madcap canine. Strange and obvious, the tall rocks stood alone and had holes in them; rock swiss cheese. Of course we slowed down and noticed that it was a park and we pulled into the parking lot. Medicine Rocks State Park was desolate, much as the road itself had been. It took some time to decide if we were going to fully enter the park, which was further up ahead and flanked by a larger cluster of formations. By the time we started taking a lot of pictures of what we could see from the car and the standing in the parking lot, it only made sense to see what else we might be missing. I put the money in the envelope and we drove up. Upon closer examination, I would describe the rocks as Planet of the Apes meets cheese, meets rock. As galactic and unique as this landscape was, I don’t think we ever got out of the car. All of our pictures were taken from the car and we marveled from our seats. Evidently, as remote as this park seemed, camping was available. There was one trailer parked and no one else, or at least not now. Time as usual, was running away from us.

Wyoming’s state line appeared reasonably fast at the end of Route 323. It almost snuck up on us. A picture at the state sign was in order for the project and for my friend Kelly and back in the car. By now, we are mindlessly driving, observing our environment. Devil’s Tower National Monument was not going to be too far of a drive and I began to get excited. Close Encounters of the Third Kind, is without a doubt a classic, especially if you ever once thought that there is life beyond our planet. Not to mention, anything directed by Steven Spielberg and scored by John Williams is going to be brilliant. For those who have no clue what I am talking about, you have to see the movie. Devil’s Tower National Monument is a prominent feature, dare I say a main character in the movie. As we begin to see it in the distance, I am mesmerized and staring out of the window. Finally seeing something as iconic in person that you have seen in movies, television and books is thrilling. During this time I missed a call from my dad. He left a voicemail message and not too soon after texts me. Both messages, although it didn’t seem urgent, were still unusual in that the request was to call him back when I had a chance. They were aware that I was far out of town and I knew that they were out of town camping and hanging out in Virginia with my niece and nephew. While we begin to approach the parking lot right before the official entrance of Devil’s Tower National Monument, I was able to get through to him on his cell phone. He tells me that they got a call from my aunt, my grandmother was in hospice care as of today and I cried out, “No!” My parents happened to be driving back at the time a few days early with my niece and nephew because they had all worn themselves out much sooner than anticipated. Therefore, this information was secondhand because they weren’t home yet. Words were getting lost at this point. I only remember Thomas pulling into the parking lot and him leaving the car and hearing my father say that it could be a matter of a few days to a week. I think my mom suggested that I call the Grahams and talk to my grandmother. I just needed to get home, I wasn’t going to make it in time to say goodbye. I felt guilty that I had gotten too busy and stressed to call or not visit them right before my trip like I normally do. I got off the phone and continued to cry, uncontrollably.

Thankfully Thomas was in the shops for while. By the time he came back I had gotten myself together, somewhat. Quite honestly, I don’t remember what, if anything that I said to him at the time. Next thing I can recall was that we continued on as the sun was starting to drop further in the sky and it began to introduce a new color palette in the horizon. In the street there were a few deer that boldly took their time deciding which way they were going to run off, square in the middle of the road near the entry gate. Thomas must have paid our entry fee because I didn’t move an inch while we drove. Every part of me was frozen stiff and I had to keep it together. Here we are driving at the base of this magnificent place and I didn’t know how to take it all in. Functionally only partially at this point, in my mind, I knew that this was a place we were going to be a while. This was indeed the money shot. A time-lapse sunset here is worth its gold for a photographer like Thomas and for the film too. Driving further up around the road I was debating if I should call to speak to my grandmother like my mother suggested. So many excuses: I am in Mountain Time and it is already late on the East Coast, I will be too upset to talk to her, I don’t know what I am going to say. All of these thoughts eventually couldn’t compete with the guilt I knew I would have felt had I never been able to speak to her again.

Please forgive me if this comes off as insane or macabre, but something clicked in my brain. Maybe it was that I was still very subconsciously aware of the fact that I am in this huge, unbelievable place at that very moment because of her, that I was on this journey to tell their story and ultimately, this is yet another chapter. In that moment, I came to the realization that I am part of this story too, whatever it looks like in the end and no matter how personal. I should film the conversation. Documentarians that I admire the most and whose work I want to model my own after, have put themselves in their stories and presented their vulnerability to the world and the outcome is the most sincere. At that moment, I would have much rather had what could have been my last conversation with my grandmother on film than not and had the option later to use it instead of having any regrets. The only caveat to this idea was that I was going to set up the shot and film it myself. Urgently and robotically, I setup my tripod, did a test shot to make sure I was in frame, adjusted the focus, hit record, took the deepest breath I could and sat in the passenger seat and called. It was very late at home and my grandfather answered and had to wake her up to put her on the phone. If nothing else came out of this, I wanted to hear her voice and tell her that I love her. The conversation was brief and my grandfather got back on the phone. As best we could, we talked about it but didn’t. In his voice and silence, I could feel his sadness and it was too much. I sent him my love and said goodnight and cried all over again. Thankfully, the sunset kept Thomas thoroughly occupied and at a distance. I have yet to watch this film.

Here I am, at what could almost be considered the middle of nowhere, in the midst of a beast of a rock that demands your respect and admiration and I am standing at my car facing the other direction. I got myself composed enough to live in the moment and appreciate my surroundings; if for no other reason; because I know my grandmother would want me to appreciate the view. I don’t know when I will come back here and I it would be a waste to not make the most of it, at the least the best I could. I moved my tripod on the other side and began taking pictures and filming and stood in awe as the sun continued to go further and further down, casting shadows and colors I had never seen before. Witnessing this transition from day to night was moving. Regardless of how unsteady my hand, I did my best to document the moment. It is understandable how many American Indians revere this place as sacred. Amid the grief, I was still enchanted.

Before we left the park, we stopped at the gift shop back at the entry gate. Unfortunately, they were getting ready to close. There were still other folks here and there outside the stores but we were the only ones inside. Thomas and I both took a quick look and picked up a few things as quickly as possible. The cashier was a young black woman. I wanted to ask her what was she doing here, but she was turning lights off, locking things up and probably wishing we would hurry the heck up and make our purchases. I imagine she wouldn’t want to be engaged in a conversation when it was time to punch out. Thinking ahead, Thomas did some quick research and made a call to a gas station listed nearby to make sure it was open. It was getting dark and late and there was no need to drive off in the distance if it was going to be closed, mainly if it meant using gas and going out of our way. It was pretty easy to find and we filled up and got right back on the road. Fortunately, our stop that night in Custer, South Dakota was a reservation and for several days. There was a lot on my mind and the last thing I wanted to do was worry about was leaving in 12 hours. It took two hours to get to Custer and it was 11:00 pm when we arrived. Not a place was opened to grab something to eat and we found ourselves at the Exxon gas station with a bunch of other people who were most likely doing the same. It was not the largest selection of healthy or delectable food, but I was hungry and ready to eat my emotions. I picked up a deliciously sodium laden red hot beef burrito, the kind that rests easily in any gas station convenience store, a strange hybrid of cookie stuffed with brownie and a green tea to wash it down with. Thankfully there was a microwave and I smugly ate my late dinner watching tv and went to bed.

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