March 18, 2018: Very rarely do my journalism assignments geographically coincide with highpoint opportunities. But the women’s Division II college basketball Final Four was in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and a team I’d been covering all year was headed there as the #1 overall seed.
Sioux Falls was only a little over an hour from Iowa’s highpoint, Hawkeye Point, so my fiver-year streak of doing at least one highpoint (HP) in winter would continue.
It was a solid 13-hour drive from Buckeye to Hawkeye, passing through Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota and then back into Iowa. I took a little nap in Blue Earth, Minnesota, around 3 a.m. The back seats of my Nissan Rouge folded down so my mobile hotel was ready for rest at any point.
I’m a Midwesterner, so it pains me to say this, but the landscape on the approach was sooooo boring. Different color barns showcasing the same farm landscape. A barren wasteland of cultivation and rectangular fallow fields.
Close to dawn on the last day of winter, I arrived beneath the silo of Hawkeye Point. Like many drive-ups, it’s great to check another HP off the list, but the views weren’t stunning and there was no real sense of accomplishment.
I was alone and watched semi trucks disappearing into the distant highway void. There’s the touristy feeling, too, as being involved with the highpoint community you’ve seen Hawkeye Point pictures hundreds of times, but don’t fully feel it until you’re actually there.
Not sure why the backroads of Iowa, near the South Dakota line, were pink, but I took them into Sioux Falls. Ashland University, the team I was covering, won their Elite 8 game on Monday and practices were closed to the press on Tuesday, the first day of spring.
What to do on my off day?
T’was 400 miles due west on I-90, across the Louis-and-Clarke-famed Missouri River that divided the state, and that distance was my last thought before I crashed out in my crappy studio Super 8 motel room.
With the time change, I was mentally awake at 5:30 a.m., and tossed and turned with stomach pain concerning what do to about Black Elk Peak. No way I could get back in the box (what I called my car on long road trips, “spend a night in the box,” Cool Hand Luke style) for another 12 hours of highway time.
Coming from Ohio, what’s another half day of driving? Plus the vistas of the Great Plains, Black Hills and Badlands awaited.
A quick Facebook message was sent to HP legend, Stony Burk, concerning road closures leading to the Black Elk trailhead.
I’ve done the majority of my highpoints in winter, and a lot of the time, the hardest obstacle is just getting to the trailhead (see: driving along the lake-effect-blizzard conditions of Lake Superior on route to Eagle Mountain, Minnesota, for example).
Usually, I only ask for assistance on super technical routes, but I simply didn’t have time to research. Burk directed me to the Custer State Park Facebook page, where they wrote, “Adam, Hwy 87 is still closed however, Hwy 89 will take you up to Sylvan Lake and the trail heads for Black elk Peak, Sylvan Lake, and Little Devils Tower.”
At 8 a.m., I was back in “the box” going 84 mph (80 speed limit, hell ya!) across the plains.
It would be super tragic if Wall Drug burned down. My perfect prairie landscape was saturated by billboard after billboard showcasing its novelty nonsense. Hey look, there’s Laura Ingalls Wilder’s house that inspired “Little House on the Prairie.”
Rapid City in the summer is a cesspool of RVs and fat tourists attracted by the iconic Mt. Rushmore.
One should check out the Crazy Horse Monument or go hiking in the Black Hills or hit up the little outpost towns like Hill City as well.
Off the interstate, it was still about an hour drive of winding through the Black Hills to the trailhead, which was in Custer State Park.
Beside Sylvan Lake, there was a yellow school bus with students from Wounded Knee. I don’t want this to be too political of a trip report, but considering the massacre at Wounded Knee and the Native American holocaust as a whole, the fact that those kids have to drive through Custer to get to their sacred peak is disheartening. At least the mountain’s name was recently changed from Blarney to Black Elk, a trend seen across many summits, like Mount McKinley to Denali.
The trail to the summit was an easy Class 1 hike through western pines with early views of the stone castle that sat at the top. Talk about a fortification. I can’t imagine any army being able to take that sentinel structure. It reminded me of the Moorish strongholds built in the Spanish hills during their occupation of the Iberian Peninsula from 711-1492 AD.
At over 7,000 feet, there was still plenty of snow on the trail for the spring equinox. The heavy foot traffic and thawing had compacted the snow, so it was all ice. The microspikes made all the difference.
There was some regret concerning how fast I ascended, perhaps failing to let some naturescapes seep through my pores. But I was on a mission, and wanted to burn off some fat that had accumulated throughout the winter from a lack of exercise, a surplus of alcohol and no big climb for which to train.
Near the summit, the only way to get inside the castle was through a small hole between two boulders. That was followed by a zigzag pattern of ascending stone steps to the viewpoint.
Black Elk Peak easily and instantly made my Top 10 Highpoints list. Views of the Badlands and Great Plains to the east, rock-dominated Black Hills to the west, and the still-open terrain to the north and south.
I didn’t stay at the watchtower too long, as I was still hoping to have dinner in the Badlands at sunset. The 6.5-mile-roundtrip hike was completed in 2 hours, 17 minutes.
I took the eastern route through Custer State Park and drove passed a bison in a little grass field, a couple feet from my car. I also learned the proper way to say bison is “bye-zen” (and if you call ‘em Buffalo, there’ll be hell to pay).
Still in the Mountain Time Zone, I rolled into Badlands National Park an hour before sunset. The place had been ghosted. No people at the gate to collect money, no line of cars. There was a sign telling you to place your rip-off entrance fee at the park office. I, umm, like, umm, totally did that. For sure. I even, like, gave an extra $2,000 dollars. Ya, that’s what I did.
Without people or traffic in sight, I pulled over along one of the park roads to cook food. This was accomplished by screwing the metal head of my pocket rocket (it’s a stove!) into the fuel canister. I opened the propane line, lit a match and heard the flame ignite.
The intensely hot snow-blue flame was nearly invisible against the background of the setting sun. Dehydrated spiral pasta with broccoli and powdered mash potatoes made up my supper menu. People often ask, “Doesn’t that food taste bad?” When you’re starving and in the wild, all food tastes amazing.
The mule dear (look at those floppy bunny-like ears) barricade in the middle of the road let up, and I continued through the Mars-like landscape, waiving at two coyotes on a slight prowl-jog through the open terrain.
Night overtook the road on I-90 and I was mentally and physically beat when I got back to the Super 8, close to 11 p.m.
Having to still complete a story, I cracked a tallboy of Budweiser and began writing. At 2 a.m., I sent the finished product to my editor, entering a sleep coma as I simultaneously hit send.
Ashland won it’s Final Four game and I will spare you the details of the isolation hell I entered inside my hotel room in the two down-days that followed. It was similar to the beginning of Apocalypse Now, when Martin Sheen is locked in his motel quarters, and you hear the voiceover from Brando saying, “I watched a snail crawl along the edge of a straight razor. This is my dream; this is my nightmare. Crawling, slithering, along the edge of a straight razor — and surviving.”
When I finally freed myself from the ice buckets, bumpy over-used hotel towels, foot traffic noise from the hallway, and saw people and sunshine after days, it felt good to be packed up, ready to return to my family and mind.
Ashland University lost in the NCAA championship game on Friday, and after the post-game presser and my story was sent in, the road welcomed me at midnight for the 14-hour return jaunt.
Last winter, however, I must have pissed Minnesota off something fierce, because five minutes across the state line, I hit a blizzard. The forecast had that storm heading south, through Iowa, so I was going to be fine. But Minnesota trapped the 30 mile-an-hour wind and snow right on I-90, so I couldn’t retreat or progress.
Around 2 a.m., I pulled into a rest area and climbed into my Everest-rated sleeping bag that my father finally gave me after constantly borrowing it every trip.
There were two other cars that had to make an emergency stop as well. One left their vehicle run as they put the seat back and I worried they would run out of gas mid-slumber. On the other side of my car, I could just see through the chalk-coated windows that the other passengers from the coupe were frantically rearranging their luggage to accommodate a long night ahead.
The wind rocked my car to sleep, but I wasn’t so fortunate.
At dawn, I was envious of the coupe’s crew having an ice scraper, as they prepared to hit the road again. The snow had drifted around my Rogue and I was concerned I’d get stuck before I started.
While the blizzard had become light flurries, I-90 still wasn’t plowed and 30 mph was the top speed with only one usable lane. There were so many wrecks. Not totaled cars or anything, just a loss of control sliding off the road into a sea of quicksand snow. I can’t imagine the wait time to get a tow from the nothingness of southern Minnesota.
Halfway through the state of 1,000 lakes, my car wouldn’t accelerate past 45 mph. A warning light came on: “chassis control system error.” What the hell does that mean?
I’d accelerate and then it was like the transmission was thrown into neutral, and the RMPs would shoot up, but I couldn’t move forward.
Conveniently, there was a rest area in two miles and I pulled in. Took a metal curtain rod from my backseat and started beating ice off of my lower areas and undercarriage of my car. The wind coming across the plains turned the bottom of my ride into a glacier.
All I wanted to do was get home, and I didn’t care about increasing the damage. Iceberg chunks began to fall off the frame and onto the snow. There were no cars at the stop and you couldn’t pull into the drifted-over parking area, so this was done in the middle of the road.
The chassis control issue subsided for a half-hour, then started again. So I’d pull off again, beat the tar out of my car (even the inside grill looked coated in freshly blown clear glass), drive more, repeat.
My speed increased as I wondered if I secretly wanted to wreck, so I could put a rag in the gas tank, blow the car up and walk home. That probably would have been faster.
After eight total hours of driving through Minnesota, I hit the Wisconsin state line and it was nothing but budding trees, clear roads and an absolute need for speed. My mental fatigue nearly had me broken, but I didn’t use the drug caffeine that much, so after pounding coffee I was back to human.
I drove so fast through Madison and Chicago that my temperature gauge began to rise towards overheating near Gary, Indiana.
Finally, 23 hours after I left Sioux Falls, I pulled into my driveway at 11 p.m. There was an Airstream in my yard as a dear friend and famous documentarian filmmaker and his family had arrived for a visit.
I hugged the wife, kissed sleeping kids on the forehead, cracked a beer and got ready to party.
Read HP #35:
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