It all began with a plan. A simple plan that would take us from the agricultural desert of central Illinois to the temperate rainforests of coastal British Columbia to write, hike, and photograph for a few months of winter and spring, followed by a trip to southern Africa for our honeymoon. We would pack up our lives in Champaign, Illinois, put everything into storage that we wouldn't need for the next 8 months, and take the rest with us. Simple.
It did not take long for "simple" to begin unraveling as we realized that our journey west was actually going to start with a journey east to Maine for Christmas, and then south to Florida for a conference. "The best laid plans..." huh. I would like to say something like "undaunted, we continued packing and organizing our lives" but I was beginning to feel rather daunted as our departure date approached and the spatial limitations of our storage unit and car became apparent to me, as did the realization that I may have some hoarding tendencies. Throw in Tara's PhD exit seminar and defense, multiple large grant applications, my job applications and interviews, having to clean out our home of 5 years and our offices... let's just say that the preamble to our journey took on a life of its own and gifted me more than a few white hairs around my temples as an early Christmas present.
I won't belabor the details of our preparations or the trips to Maine and Florida, except to say that we managed to get some good naturing in at both places, and that in a cruel (but perhaps appropriate) twist for two people who study immunity and disease ecology, we both contracted a nasty norovirus from my nieces as a late Christmas present. Not one of the better years for unasked for gifts.
But early on the morning of January 10th, we packed ourselves into our little Kia Niro, bracing against the 16 degree Fahrenheit temperature that still permeated the car, and began our trip west in earnest. We drove away from the brightening eastern horizon, passing out of the town that we had lived and worked in for 5 years although not a place that had ever really felt like home to us. The morning light caught up to us as we sped along, tallying whatever wildlife we could see along the margins of the highway. Red-tailed hawks were abundant, perched in trees and on fenceposts, and all fluffed up against the cold. We spotted a lone coyote wandering an empty ag field, and a handful of American kestrels hovering over the frosted grasses off the road. Once we passed into Iowa we began seeing bald eagles and rough-legged hawks in addition to the red-tails, and as the sun dipped below the horizon to the west and darkness overtook us, we crossed over into South Dakota and stopped for the night in Sioux Falls.
The next morning we were up again before first light and on the road so that we would have some time to explore Badlands National Park. The partial US Government shutdown (ongoing and in its 32nd day as of this writing) had not closed the loop road to the Badlands, so we were still able to access the park. The impact of the shutdown quickly came into focus as the facilities were all closed (read, no bathrooms), and we came across a young man emerging from one of the trails dressed in a black leather jacket and cowboy hat, carrying a large antlered deer skull. Removal of any natural or historical objects is prohibited in national parks, but with only skeleton crews available for policing the national parks, I suspect this sort of thing has been a common occurrence nationwide.
Soon after passing the young man, we came across a herd of bighorn sheep grazing not far from the road. We pulled over and I grabbed my camera to take some shots of the animals. Soon after I rolled the window down, the herd began walking towards us, and within a few minutes they were crossing the road about 5 meters in front of us. There were a few large rams with massive curled horns spiraling outwards, a few females with more sharply pointed horns that angled backwards, and a few young of the year animals with short nubbins for horns. The lead ram (pictured above) seemed interested in our car, and for a moment I had visions of him using his battering ram of a skull to send us a message, but he quickly led the herd across the road and down to a patch of coarse, yellowed grasses. We watched them feed for a while, and then continued on, snaking our way through the park which we had almost to ourselves.
After another hour or so we came across a large and active town; a black-tailed prairie dog town. The town was dotted with burrow entrances, and the town's inhabitants were taking advantage of the relatively warm, snow free weather to forage on grasses and seeds. When we pulled up alongside an active area, the plump little ground squirrels would often run/waddle their way back to their burrow entrance, and then turn to look at us, with some rearing up on their hind limbs and giving chirping alarm calls (see image below). Soon they would return to their normal business of eating and socializing, however, and act as if we weren't there. We passed many active colonies as we made our way out of the park, and with a handful of hours of daylight left, we decided to pass by Mount Rushmore. We drove slowly through the Black Hills with tiny snowflakes materializing in the air. As we ascended, the scattered patches of snow that dotted the ground turned into a solid pack, blanketing the hills around us. When we were close to the park entrance, we rounded a corner and caught sight of the monument; the enormous granitic faces of Washington, Roosevelt, Jefferson and Lincoln stared out from the mountain. We continued on towards the park entrance, but unlike at Badlands, here they were collecting entrance fees even though the facilities were closed. We only planned to spend a few minutes there, so we opted to return to a roadside viewpoint, where we hopped out and clicked a few images (see inset).
We returned to the road, and made our way to Gillette, Wyoming where we would spend the second night of our journey. To be continued.
About the author:
Loren grew up in the wilds of Boston, Massachusetts, and honed his natural history skills in the urban backyard. He attended Cornell University for his undergraduate degree in Natural Resources, and received his PhD in Ecology from the University of California, Santa Barbara. He has traveled extensively, and in the past few years has developed an affliction for wildlife photography.