I woke up after a cold and fitful night in our hard won camping space in Teddy Roosevelt National Park, pulled my hair back into a messy bun, retrieved my beanie, pulling it over my ears, and headed outside with my canteen to find some fresh water to boil for a cup of tea before we headed down the road. Everyone else was still asleep. I am always awake before everyone else. Opening the door, I stopped. Medora stopped me in my tracks. I opened the door to a group of wild horses gathered grazing by the picnic table, buffalo wandered in the distance, a chipmunk ran over my boot. The Little Missouri River ran just over yonder, a fast moving cold wide river that separated the campground from the plains and hills. The cold took my breath away, pulling my coat round me closer, scattering horses as I tumbled outside noisily, I choose to turn left, and started walking. There were no hook ups, no water and no electric in the spaces. I found a bathroom before I found a working spigot, the only one I could see was not turned on, insulated from the cold.
Seeing a fresh faced young ranger, I decided to ask him about the water, he didn’t have the attitude of the older guy the night before, this one was more leave it to Beaver meets Ed Flanders, a hey-diddly-howdy-do-dee kinda dorkishness with a shiny red face and a buzz cut. He told me he was about to turn one of the spigots on, and led me over to it, like a salesman showing a used car to a suspicious buyer that he needed to make a sale to. I wanted to tell him he didn’t need to try so hard. I just needed drinking water. It didn’t matter I might need to let it run for a while, or that the water was good in the park, I just needed water, and as long as it was clean and wet I cared little for much else. I appreciated the warnings to stay away from the horses, and the overly earnest descriptions of the educational programs, not intending to take him up on them at all. A buffalo wandered a little close as I filled the canteen, and as I was walking back to the space we were camped in, no electric, long hike to the working spigot be damned, I decided we were going to stay a while.
I didn’t really appreciate the plain necessities of live and their value, I never got pleasure out of things as much before we took to the road. I never truly appreciated the intrinsic value of a full stomach, or clean water, or somewhere just to sleep, or safely just stop and be. I never appreciated the value of a sunrise, or the relief of making it to sunset without major disaster. Nothing tasted as good as that water from the spigot in Medora, nothing so clean, nothing so sweet, nothing so refreshing. You can keep the finest Champagne and the oldest cognac, give me freezing cold water from Teddy Roosevelt park, with the April air biting my face, and the promise of a day spent doing nothing much at all. Perhaps lighting a campfire, or walking down to the Little Missouri; maybe watching buffalo or trying to spot a longhorn sheep. It is everything and nothing at the same time. I was blissfully happy. I felt at peace. I never wanted to leave.
Which is saying something after the first impression Medora left upon me that it was able to swing me around to admiration and appreciation, after the dark, desperate to stop driving, not able to go on any further beginning, and being confronted by mindless authoritarianism at its most mundanely malignant, judgmental and petty.
By the time I made it back, Billy was pacing in front of the RV looking worried that a buffalo might have trampled me, or perhaps eaten by a bear or some such shenanigans or incipient adventure. Perhaps he was concerned I had jumped on the back of a wild horse and ran off to the 1800s to live on the prairie and marry a farmer called Alonso, whichever, whatever fantasy he had created in the bowels of his imagination, he was clearly concerned and a little cross. “Hey, guys,” I called out to the sleepy ruffled, scruffy children as they came out with bags and granola bars, setting up at the picnic table, “how about staying a couple more days?” Billy scowled, “I’d appreciate it if you asked me before you decided what you wanted to do, instead you just railroad over me, making decisions for me, never asking what I want to do, or my opinion.” I thought it very unfair, unfair that I had to second guess everything I did or wanted to do, everything that might please me, every way in which I decided to express myself, and examine it for hints that it might offend him. Sober and post stroke Billy could be a bore. I apologized, I asked him if he might like a few days break from driving, if he might want to just make a fire and look at some buffalo. I guess I was so used to not being myself fully and authentically that diminishing myself and my needs and wants, my joy in life, my pleasure was not so much of a big deal. At least he wasn’t hitting me. My standards were not very high, I admit.
I put together the correct money for another night, paying by the day, as usual, unsure of our plans from day to day, walked it up to the iron-ranger box, posted it, walked back, hung the receipt on the rearview mirror, taping it there with sticky tape, humming to myself about clementine and things lost and gone forever. I had no idea about lost and gone forever at that point in time, I might have thought I did, but I knew nothing of loss and chasms and separation and heartbreak. Nothing. I was a fool, a happy fool with both children, dancing through Medora blissfully unaware of the cold harsh reality of loss.
Wild horses ran past the children, their tails swishing, hooves pounding, one sinuous stallion, leading the herd, stood there, protectively putting his huge panting steaming body between the children and his mares and foals. They stood there very still, before I rushed over and pulled them away, hugging them close to me, telling them that I knew they came close and they didn’t chase them, but to give them room, they were wild and dangerous. “How can anything that beautiful be dangerous, ma?” asked the girl, hands reached out towards the thundering herd. “Easily, baby, easily.” And the horses thundered by as I pulled her away.