The Watchman and the National Park

The gates to heaven, Medora are guarded by rabid Rangers. All photos copyright @thepaltrysum unless marked otherwise.

It gets to a certain point in a drive where your driver starts to glaze over, no wind, from the east or west, through any open window is going to revive them, and things get shaky and a little dangerous. This is the time when as navigator you have to take over and find somewhere to stop, to sleep, to revive, or else end up in some ditch waiting for a gentleman with a truck and chain to haul you out, demanding fist-fulls of cash in exchange for rescue. After my visa ran out, my husband refused to divorce me, leaving me in legal limbo, unable to remarry, stuck between a rock and a hard place, any such blips turned into huge terrifying walls of potential disaster. Cop lights became threats to existance. I lived in a state of anxiety and gratitude for each day I was allowed to remain with my loved ones. It is a shame upon society to do this to people, to otherwise law abiding people fleeing violence and fear, but I am no politician and though I sit here, waiting on lawyers and legal aid, VAWA visas and mercy, in the loving embrace of the city that took me and the boy in, I am never quite secure, never quite safe. On the road in North Dakota, even if it was under the benign rule of Obama, things were not quite as safe. We had to pull over and we had to do it before Billy started to weave dangerously, sleepily behind the wheel.

You would think there were ample rest areas, there simply are not. You would think camping was plentiful, but in late spring much of it was still closed and what was open tended to be picky about the standard of campers they allowed into their hallowed fields full of $200,000 class A’s: no rigs older than 2000. No tarps allowed. Gotta keep up the standards when sitting in a field, gotta not be an eyesore. They don’t want your money, if you don’t have enough to keep up with the Jones’s and their camping equipment. Our house was just too old. I made a decision, took control, told Billy to turn off to the left in 100 foot, I turned down the music and told everyone loudly that we were going to camp in Teddy Roosevelt, there was no electric, at a guess, but at least we could just stop, it would be fine, just hold on, five more minutes.

Sitting down by the river, watching wild horses I felt more alone, smaller, more alive than ever.

We pulled up the twisting turning road of the national park, with its narrow rough road, and cattle grills keeping the buffalo in. It was dark, and we could not see much, just a whole lot of blackness and night and stars in the endless sky. The road was so narrow, that I feared we would fall off it, as tired as Billy was and as dark as it was. Eventually we came up to a payment booth with a man in a uniform and a ranger’s hat, full on mustachioed machismo and military manners. I winced. This never went well with Billy, some ancient scars from drill sergeants yelling in his face, spittle speckling his skin, daring him to answer back to fight back, and Billy, devoid of the ability not to do so, connecting his 17 year old fist with the older man’s face in defiance, in disgust, in anger at his life being interrupted by some old man’s war. I decided accent or no, I was going to have to do the talking. I cleared my throat, did my very best ‘we look like shit, but we really aren’t bad people’ calm voice, and went to war for him.

Oh if my man was fighting in some godforsaken war, I would be right there beside him. If there is anything anyone knows about me, is that no pride about it, I am no coward, I am no push over, and despite my brittle feelings that lay me open like a skinned cat, righteous anger is never entirely pushed under the surface, at least not with any success.

“Good evening! How much is it for just one night, we have the retired persons golden pass?” I pulled out my purse, and started to count out fives and ones. A thick drawl and snapped to attention to the rules upright and proud of it man stared back at me, leaning threateningly through my drivers side window, crowding the tired and grouchy Billy. “Well, it would be $12, ordinarily, but we have no spaces, we are fully booked for the night, there isn’t a space available.” I looked coolly back at him, regarding the lie dripping from his mouth like poison. “Sir, I’m very sorry, but we have driven a very long way today, there is no way we can drive further, are you quite sure there is nowhere left to camp up there?” He sneered and leaned in further, arm resting on the open window. “I just told you there is no camping, there are no spaces, you will have to move on.” Well, could we just stop in the rest area for a few hours, and get some sleep. I fear it will be dangerous for us to carry on up the road, for who knows how far, until we do find another place to stop.” “You can’t camp here.” He pulled backwards, hand on his hip, legs askance, shoulders back. “Just where are you from anyways?” I figured it would go this way. “Timbuctoo, originally, though I have been here for some time, I retain a hint of the accent, so I am told. Are we allowed to proceed to sight see? We have the Golden Pass, which I believe allows us to do so?’ He stopped, put his hand to his mouth, wiping a smile from his lips, “The Golden Pass does allow you to enter all National Parks, under the terms and conditions, Ma’am, but there is nothing to see up there, it is nighttime, perhaps you might want to return in the morning,” The sneer returned with a vengeance. I asked him for a pass to drive through, to put on the windshield. He threw it at me in disgust. “I think we will just drive on up a ways, Sir, thank you for your time, I understand there are no camping spaces, but I think we will just go see what we are missing. With that I rolled up the window, Billy sitting there agog. “Drive, Soldier, I said, just fucking drive before I get out of this damn thing and tell him to stick his attitude up his….” Billy put Beastie into drive and did exactly as I asked. I shined a flashlight out the window, trying to read signs. “It says left here, to get to the campgrounds, we are going to go there first, and if it is truly full, there are a few more in the park. He was bullshitting, some authoritarian power trip. Just drive. He following?” “No, Ma’am he is not,’ Billy was looking dangerously tired, this had to work. “Billy,” I replied, if we can’t camp in the campground, if I’m wrong, then we are going to pull off into one of those layby’s, ok? I’ve seen other cars stopped there. Look, like that one there. We will just stop. No one will bother us until the morning. Promise.” I was not enjoying North Dakota, I had this view set in my head that I was in hostile territory, that it was a place to pass through, not stop, that it was full of cowboys and ranchers and possibly entirely populated by Sheriffs and Rangers, in some weird society where the only profession allowed was enforcing bullshit rules and lies over each other. Good luck to ’em, we just needed to rest a while and would get outta town.

Crawling up the pathways and trails, we came across a campground, camp hosts sat outside round a fire, I asked Billy to stop, and jumped out, my legs like jelly, after so many hours cramped up, adrenaline coursing through my veins making me feel lightheaded. “Hello! The dude down at the gate said there was no camping available, you were all booked up tonight?” I looked around at the empty spaces of an empty campground. They snickered embarrassedly, “oh we have no idea why he would say that, there is space.” I obtained an envelope, flashed Billy’s old man pass, gave them a handful of fives and ones, and triumphant, hung the permit to camp on the rear view mirror. I knew it! I knew it! Oregon plates, a shitty banged up old RV, and then my Timbuctoo accent made the prick want to drive us out of his town. “Probably thought we were cooking meth in here, old boy,” I joked to Billy, laughing. He stared back blankly.

We pulled into the nearest space, my backing us in and almost getting run over in the process, grabbed Billy by the paw, and led him to bed and a sleeping bag. The children were peering out the window, awake and perky, after sleeping for much of the journey. I kissed them both on the heads, wrapped them in blankets, turned on our lanterns and radio and told them to be good, and headed next to my driver and friend, grabbing a blanket and wrapping myself up in it, jeans and coat and woolly hat and all, wrapped my arm around him, kissed him on the top of his bald-spot, putting my hat on his bare head, and wished him goodnight. He was already sleeping.

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