Melody was on summer break from her nursing studies at the University of South Dakota. She wanted to be an operating room nurse. She also wanted a ride on my bike, and asked if I’d take her out in the morning. I looked over at dad and he approved with a shrug and a nod.“Sure, where do you want to go?” I asked.
“The badlands!” she eagerly responded.
I knew nothing about the badlands, but I loved the idea of riding there with Melody.
Melody’s dad had several cabins around his trout pond and I was happy to sleep off the ground that night. The city campgrounds in Spearfish are nice, but a proper bed and a private shower was a welcome respite.
The bright sun woke me at 6:30 am and Melody was at the door by 7. “Breakfast is ready!” she exclaimed in an eager voice, surprised perhaps that I hadn’t yet jogged around the pond.
The whole family was sitting inside their log house at a large, heavy, rough-hewn wooden table, along with several paying guests. Heated trays of eggs, bacon, ham, cottage style potatoes, toast, and a large pot of coffee greeted me. I wondered how so few people could eat it all.
There was lots of laughter and storytelling. The guests were excited about going to, or having visited, the sites in the area, especially Mount Rushmore. Melody related with fervor the story about what a hero I was for dealing with the “morons” in her dad’s bar the day before. The guests were transfixed. They knew there were a lot of Harleys around, but they hadn’t heard what happened in the bar.
“What would you have done if the dad and son hadn’t shown up with the shotguns?” one of them asked. “Don’t want to think about that,” I responded.
“In fact, I didn’t think at all, I just reacted. It wouldn’t have been pretty. Thank god for the shotguns.”
“What if we just ban all civilian-owned guns,” a well-meaning lady reacted; “everybody would be safer!”
“Ma’am, in 100 years of vigorous enforcement, we haven’t been able to control illegal drugs,” I responded. “What makes you think that we’ll ever be able to control illegal guns. You can’t make the bad guys harmless by making good guys helpless.” She didn’t respond, but several people nodded in agreement.
Through the window, I noticed a van pulling up. It was marked with the name of a retirement village in Rapid City. The driver unloaded fishing poles and tackle from the back of the van. Six or seven seniors got out and made a beeline for the breakfast table. Now I understood why the hot plates were so large.
One of the seniors had stopped to look at my bike. In a thick accent, he told me about the BMW he had in Greece. It was a sidecar rig abandoned by the Germans after World War II. Seems they were in a hurry to leave ahead of the advancing Red Army.
He had no love for the Germans, but he loved that bike. He removed the sidecar basket and replaced it with a flatbed. Now it was a three-wheeled pick-up truck used to haul produce to the local market from his family’s farm. He said he used that rig for over 30 years and raved about its reliability.
Melody was getting impatient to go for a ride. She kept popping her head into the dining room and signaling. When I returned to the cabin to get my gear, she was there in a flash, wearing a rawhide jacket, tight, black leather jeans, and carrying a satchel.
“What’s that?” I asked. “Just some extra clothes,” she responded.
The temperatures had warmed up nicely and we were off. What a joy to ride those scenic hills. There weren’t many Harleys on the road as it wasn’t yet noon.
The hills flattened out to grasslands before we hit Rapid City.
Melody insisted on showing me around the campus of her school, an open, treed, spacious quadrangle with a mixture of modern and traditional buildings. There wasn’t a Che Guevara T-shirt anywhere in sight, and everyone was friendly and polite. That stroll turned out to be delightful.
We gassed up and she directed me to the freeway, despite the fact that highway 44 looked to be a more interesting road on the map.
In less than an hour, we got to a place called Wall. Who the hell names their town “Wall”; maybe Wall means “paradise” in Swedish, or something. I wondered why they didn’t they call it Spring Valley, Crystal Lake, or Paradise Hills. In that case, it would have been as misnamed as Palm Springs — which should be called Furnace Gulch.
A better name for Wall might be “Floor,” as everything around there is flat. At least that name would be accurate.
We stopped in some tourist trap called Wall Drug. That’s why Melody wanted me to take the freeway! I knew it was coming since first leaving Rapid City because billboards announced it every 10 miles.
Located in a rambling wooden building which had expanded into adjacent stores through entryways cut into the interior walls, it was packed with motorhome tourists. Everything was available there from lawn chairs to Laphroaig.
It was getting very hot, so she purchased ice and sodas and we headed south towards Badlands National Park nearby. This turned out to be a desert landscape of sharply eroded buttes and pinnacles. I wondered why Melody was so keen to visit.
She directed me off-road for a few miles onto a single-track lane that led to a very secluded gully.
“Just park anywhere,” she said.
I found a level spot and a flat rock on which to set the bike’s side-stand. She grabbed her tote and the ice from the saddlebags and led me up through the pinnacles and onto a small butte. It had a panoramic view over the surrounding desolation, dirt and rock formations in pastel grey, beiges, reds, and browns. There she laid out a blanket, some glasses, and a bottle of vodka. Only then did I notice the sodas she bought were tonic water.
She mixed a couple of drinks in plastic cups and even flavored the rims with lemon wedges.
“To my courageous hero,” she toasted; “I don’t mind telling you that I was as scared yesterday as I’ve ever been. Other than my dad, I don’t know anyone else who might have done that for me, not even my brother. You’re amazing, really!”
It was more reflex than bravery, I thought to myself.
After a drink, she pulled off my shirt and covered my back and chest with sunscreen. Then, to my surprise, she did the same thing, and asked me to cover her back. It seemed like the most natural thing to do. Then she casually poured another round.
“Hope you don’t mind? I’m a naturist,” she said, “I sometimes come here with my friends from school to spend Saturday afternoons.”
I’d never heard the term “naturist.” I knew about naturalists, but I was pretty sure the Park Service didn’t actively employ naturists. I hoped no naturalists came upon us to spoil the mood.
We shared bike stories, then life stories. She’d enjoyed an enchanted childhood, but had to face a very difficult identity crisis in college which she hadn’t quite resolved. I suggested that she shouldn’t be too surprised if it was never resolved. Even if it was, how would she know? “Life doesn’t come with an owner’s manual. You are what you think you are, or whatever you make of yourself,” I told her, “The important thing is to not let others define who you are.” She liked that.
She went off behind a rock for a break, and came back totally au naturel. I followed suit (or suitless) and we slathered each other with sunscreen, continuing our conversation as if everything was normal — which seemed to be the case for her.
We baked like croissants under the relentless sun. As it receded behind the Black Hills, the sky turned pink and yellow in a surrealistic light show. It was almost a surrealistic experience. We reveled in everything nature had to offer.
After a perfect rib dinner in Rapid City, and a magical, midnight ride under a bright moon, we pulled into the parking lot of the trout pond. Fortunately, my cabin hadn’t been rented, so Melody got the key and I had the cabin for another night. I was grateful as I really didn’t want to ride another half-hour to Spearfish.
As I was incandescent with sunburn, I expected it to be a long night. Then I found a little vacation-sized bottle of aloe vera on the bathroom counter. Thank you Melody’s mom! After my shower, I used it all. It was sufficiently effective to allow me some sleep.
Melody was at my door at 7 am just like the morning before. We enjoyed another great breakfast with the guests and family, and I told her that I’d better get back to the Spearfish campground before the renegades sent out search parties. She asked to go with me.
I looked over at her dad. He approved with a shrug and a nod.