Tuesday, October 4, 2016

A Big Trip West: First Stop, Badlands National Park

 After years of threatening, we finally decided to make a return trip to Yellowstone National Park and the Grand Tetons. Being independent artists, it's a bit scary to take a few weeks and go on vacation--there's no vacation pay, and there's no one else who does our work in our absence. We had to pick the dates very early in the year as show scheduling begins in January. We had set aside the last two weeks in September for the trip, but for much of the summer thought we would probably not go. Then, in late August, we said to hell with it, let's just go. It will be spectacular, and we will get material to work with and from.

It was.

And we did.

Lisa and I had been out west in 2007, but it was Lori's first trip. We planned the 24 hour drive to Yellowstone in three segments of  eight hours, plus stops, which put our road time at around 10 hours a day. I'm getting too old to spend 14-16 hours driving, trying to get to a place as quickly as possible. I'm in more of a "let's take our time and enjoy it" place now.

Our first day took us to Cedar Falls Iowa, where I'd done an art show a couple times and camped at George Wyth State Park. I wanted to make the days driving out feel more like part of the vacation, so we camped rather than stay at a rest area (as we did on the way home). Our goal each day was to reach the campground before dark, and we just managed to do that here, ahead of a drenching storm. Travelling with two other people and two dogs who need to be walked and fed means each stop can take 15-20 minutes or more. It can add over an hour to a trip, but since we'd kept our days short it kept the stress down.

Our second stop was the Badlands. We'd seen similar landscapes in Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota three years ago (which I never got around to writing about), but the Badlands were an eight hour drive from Cedar Falls so it fit well. Plus, we could decide once we got there if we wanted to stay an extra day and check out the park, which we ended up doing.

We arrived at the gate about a half hour before sunset. While I wanted to capture the sunset over the Badlands, what I really wanted was to see the moon RISE over the sandstone formations--it was a full moon that night and I didn't want to miss it. We got the camper set up and jumped back in the van to find a spot to watch the moon.

South Dakota 240 winds through the park, becoming the Badlands Loop Road, and the campground lies at the junction of 240 and 377. Driving west on 240 we wound around buttes and spires and other strange formations, the eastern end of the park being the more dramatic by far. Up on Norbeck Pass we found a spot where the landscape opened up to the east, so we parked and got out our camera gear, and Lisa hooked up the dogs to walk them along the road.

A few quick shots of the setting sun, which had just dipped below the horizon, then I turned my attention to the east.

Sunset at Norbeck Pass, Badlands NP

As I rounded the edge of a butte, I looked to my right and saw this big guy eyeballing me. I stopped and took some photos, and motioned to Lori to be careful coming around the corner. There were five others laying down in the grass. He made no move towards us though, so I proceeded along the road.

Bighorn sheep ram, checking us out

I positioned myself where I was pretty sure I would see the moon, then turned back to the sunset for a moment.

When I turned back around, I noticed all the bighorns who had been laying down were now up and very curious about us.

Some mighty curious sheep!

I wasn't sure what they were looking at, but I had a moon rise to capture, so I turned my attention to that.

I wonder what they're looking at...

When I first saw the pink glow of the moon, I wasn't completely certain that's what I was looking at. It looked like a lighted sign or billboard or something.

The harvest moon peeks over the Badlands

But as it continued to rise, and I moved farther down the road, there was no mistaking it. I was so excited to be there to watch the Harvest Moon rise above the Badlands.

After several minutes the moon rose into a small bank of clouds and disappeared. I turned back to my right and saw that one of the rams had moved much closer to the road and was studying something intently. Lisa had come along with the dogs, and it seemed that they had garnered much interest from these sheep. I took some photos but then he moved around the back of a butte and disappeared from sight.

Big Daddy's got his eye on something

I turned back to the moon, which had cleared the clouds...

...then back to the sunset side.

Some other folks had joined us to watch the moon rise, and as I started to make my way back to the van, one of them mentioned that a bighorn sheep was standing feet away. I looked and saw this:

Oh! My! There he is! Hide the dogs!

I missed the drama, but apparently Lisa and Lori had gone back to the van with the dogs. Lori was holding them by the side doors. Lisa could see moonlight over a dip in the rocks and wanted to take a look, so started to climb up. Lori happened to notice, just above Lisa's head on the other side, a large pair of horns, and told Lisa she might not want to go there. Lisa looked up and was nearly face to face with this ram, about four feet apart. She jumped back and grabbed the dogs, throwing them in the van like sacks of potatoes, then climbing in herself. It was clear the sheep where not happy about the presence of these funny looking coyotes.

You can't wish for better looks at a ram than this.

I scooted around the back of the van and used it as a blind as well as a place to help hold myself still, as the light was quite low and I had not had time to set up my tripod. The ram stood stock still, waiting perhaps to see what came out of the van.

I was giddy. To be so close, to have him pose so majestically up on that rise! To be on the second day of our trip and get such great material, to be able to spend time watching and studying this fellow.... Wow. Usually, when you see these guys, their heads are down, or their backside is towards you, or they're laying down, so to see him in this way was magical.

He moved a little ways along the edge, so sure footed, so at home. Light was fading so I made a few more images then we headed back to camp. It was a great start to what would be a great trip.

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