I listen to the radio in my car maybe three hours a year because it’s all used car commercials and bad music. Trying to find something good on the radio is like trying to find something good in a cluster of angry hornets. But for the hell of it that day, June 4, I turned my car radio on, hit scan, and – bam – through the speakers came the beginning of Pantera’s “Cemetery Gates,” one of my favorite songs of all time. The lyrics hit home as I’ll tell why.
“Is this some conspiracy?
Crucified for no sins…
It all seems so unreal
I’m a man cut in half in this world”
I turned the volume up as loud as it would go, got up to eighty miles per hour, and drove like a man on a mission. And, I was on a mission: to get straight to the West, straight from the East. Surrounded by heavy metal from the 1990s I thought back to the past few months of my life, which had been very hard on me and my family. Despite becoming an award-winning outdoor educator at a university in Upstate New York, I lost this job for others’ political gains under less than ethical circumstances. Despite colleagues and students fighting for my just reinstatement, administrators hid under their desks while another resigned. Before I knew it I found myself turning in the keys to my office. Reflecting on this recent history, Cemetery Gates struck a chord.
When the song was over I turned the radio off. My ears were ringing. I was ten miles closer to my destination, Little Missouri State Park, North Dakota, where I would spend the next two months building trails. The same week I lost my job in New York I was offered a sweet trails job in the Badlands. The opportunity to return to my roots of trail building and be 1,800 miles from my former employer was too good to pass up.
I arrived later that day at Little Missouri State Park and met one of my coworkers: John, an Illinois native making a name for himself as a trail builder. I assessed my surroundings, which were equally beautiful and remote. I was sixty miles from the nearest stoplight, would use a two-gallon pot for a shower, live in a tent in a primitive campground, and work every day it was not raining. Life was good.
My other colleague, and longtime friend, Steve, arrived at the park a day later. We were happy to see each other since we hadn’t worked together since 2005. We shook hands and hugged. Then, Steve eased into his role as project manager by asking me to be ready at 7:00 a.m.
The State of North Dakota manages money better than any other state. Amassing a 1.2-billion dollar state surplus in 2010, North Dakotans decided to invest part of their savings in trails. The style of trails they chose – sustainable design – was a particularly smart choice. Sustainable trails, those that do not exceed an average grade of ten percent and follow the natural shape of the terrain to aid in drainage, pay for themselves since your only cost is construction. Being void of nearly any maintenance obligations, these trails enable customers to sit back and watch recreational bliss blossom.
It was good to be back in the trails business. Sunny, cool days for work and black, cool nights for sleep. My two-person tent seemed roomy and showering out of a bucket was quick and effective. The physical work sculpted my former office body into the body of a woodsman. Life was good. Until the ticks.
Where I’m from, the East, ticks are synonymous with Lyme disease. In North Dakota they’re regarded as harmless annoyances since they are dog ticks, not deer ticks. But, annoyance took on a new level. Walk through just a quarter mile of tall grass prairie in the wrong place at the wrong time and you’ll have more ticks on you than a hundred hound dogs do. After getting used to having ticks crawling all over me (one time I picked fifty off me in one go), life again was good. Until the poison ivy.
Wading knee-deep through poison ivy to clear trail corridors had a fascinating result: Nothing. I didn’t get poison ivy. But, then I remembered it takes a few days for the caustic oils to take effect. Within a week a third of my body was covered with sore blisters. I itched during day, woke from my sleep and itched during night, at work, off work, you name it, I itched until I bled. An hour drive to the nearest hospital for three prescriptions and a steroid shot in the butt was worth the trip. I was soon on the mend and life was good again. Until the snakes.
North Dakota has only one species of venomous snake, but one is enough. The prairie rattlesnake grows as fat as a can of Coke, big enough to devour rabbits and prairie dogs. Gulp! Belch! Tired of riding an ATV to the worksite each day I decided to hike, which entailed walking across trailless prairie. The first rattlesnake I almost stepped on was a black specimen the size of my arm. He stood his ground coiled up, and then “stood up” to look around, hissing as he stared at me. If death could look like a reptile, this was it. The next week I encountered another rattlesnake but he was nice, even slinking out of the way for me. A beautiful pale yellow, he lay calmly outstretched, displaying his full length. We watched each other for twenty minutes, and then bid each other fond adieus.
The season went by fast, one workweek stacked on the other. With one day left until the end of the project the ticks were dead, the poison ivy was behind me, the snakes went into hiding, and life was good. Until the storm. As I tell people back East, “There are thunderstorms and then there are Plains thunderstorms.” With twelve hours left until my departure from North Dakota, the campground host, Lynn, came over to our camp. She said to Steve and I (John was on a well-timed vacation), “There’s a tornado warning over the next hour and they think there’s something coming this way.” We had no idea who “they” were or what that “something” was, but Steve and I figured they knew more about tornadoes than we did and that the something was not good.
Within the hour the sky blackened, becoming so dark that a streetlight came on despite it being ninety minutes before sunset. Steve and I looked at each other and abandoned the picnic shelter we were under. Instead, we climbed into the heaviest thing we could find: our Ford F-250 work truck, which was anchored to a 3,000 pound equipment trailer. During the following hour the storm dumped 2.5 inches of rain and peppered our camp with hail the size of buckshot. During one five-minute period I counted sixty lightning strikes.
At the maelstrom’s apex our canvas wall tent was destroyed by winds we estimated at seventy miles per hour. The tent was mashed into a heap of fabric, poles, and stakes, and then all of the tent’s contents – everything Steve owned – flushed out from underneath it. His mountain bike cartwheeled across the lawn and slammed into his Subaru wagon while books, clothing, work boots, letters from home, diesel containers, cooking pots, and a cot blew in circles. The last time I saw Steve’s sleeping pad it was thirty feet in the air, flying towards Manitoba. The storm moved away by 9:00 p.m., searching for new campgrounds to destroy and new lawns to flood.
While picking through piles of soaked, random things that belonged to Steve the next morning, my last day in the Dakotas, Steve looked at me and said with a smile, “I bet last night you were thinking to yourself, ‘Shit, I can’t believe I’m gonna die in North Dakota.’” By noon I collected my seven weeks’ worth of pay for helping build 18,000 feet of trail and drove towards the Rocky Mountains, leaving the ticks, poison ivy, snakes, and storms behind. I learned why they are called the Badlands and not the Nicelands. I had earned a vacation.