Friday, May 20, 2011

Tea In the Badlands

Some years ago, on a personal pilgrimage, I drove my shiny new Ford Ranger to the Badlands to camp. I trailed in from the west following a massive plains thunderstorm, epic in beauty and breadth. Luckily for me, I arrived at the campground after the storm because those camping in tents were rain soaked and windblown and sitting in their cars with the heater at full blast. Not me. I was dry.

'The German Shepherd, Nuke, was my good companion. He did not say much and as the miles rolled away we achieved a comfortable, companionable silence. As the days of my pilgrimage progressed, I spoke fewer words to less people. Silence has its mighty virtues.

I had purchased a new tent, a cot, and best of all, a small two burner Coleman stove. The stove meant I could have hot water to wash up every morning I was roughing it. Washing your face each morning in the wide open spaces of our great country is one of the best small pleasures any American can have. It starts the day out with a perfect note of fresh optimism and good feeling. The stove also meant I could heat water for tea - even in camps where open fires were prohibited - another grand small pleasure.

I had arrived late in the day with just enough time before sunset to set up camp, cook supper and sit in the clear, wind-swept beauty of the Badlands refreshed by the thunderstorm. Two young men were camping directly across from me. Every time I looked up, they were staring at me. They did not frighten me. Nuke slept inside the tent and anyone would have to get past him first. I slept with an oak ax handle under the cot, as well. But, there was something unusual about those two guys. Maybe they were on mushrooms or something. They did not behave like normal young men. They were not threatening, just unusually quiet.

I slept the sleep of the dead that night in my tent. Even though it was zipped up tightly against the chill night air, the oxygen and magic of the Badlands got in. Awake at first light, I was snug in the warm sleeping bag, listening to the land wake around me. I did not have to do a single thing that whole day, not one freaking thing if I did not feel like it. Funny thing about freedom - it makes you want to get up and roll! Such freedom is a heady experience for a cube farmer.

I dressed quickly in the snappy cold air and went about setting the water to boil on my little stove. I fed Nuke and set a cup of herbal tea to steep. I had purchased the tea the day before at Crazy Horse Mountain. I was drinking steaming, fragrant tea as the golden light of day spilled into the flat open spaces of the prairie, lighting the strange geography of the Badlands. It was one of the most perfect moments of my life.

If that peace and contentment, the beauty of that moment, could be shared, we would have world peace.

By the time I had my breakfast potatoes the sun was well above the horizon and the wind commenced to blow as it can only blow in the wide open spaces of the grasslands. I packed up everything and had only the tent left to take down. I knew it would be a challenge in that wind. I did not want to look foolish in the eyes of my two neighbors who had resumed their silent staring. Sure enough, the moment I removed the last stake, a mighty blast ripped the tent out of my hands and it went bounding away - a giant blue tumbleweed picking up speed. I chased it for a few yards but I was not young and knew it was futile. That damned tent was racing away embarrassingly fast and there was nothing to stop it for miles and miles and miles. I stood there, a foolish woman looking after that runaway tent, thinking of all the hours I had spent in the cube farm to pay for it. But the neighbors sprang into gallant action. On strong and sure legs the young men chased down the escaping tent, wrangled it to a stop and brought it back to me. I was delighted! I was so happy that I repeatedly thanked them, far beyond what was needed. Even then, neither of the men spoke a word nor did they smile. They just nodded.

To this day I have no clue about those young men. Were they tripping? Were they from a foreign country? Brothers who did not need to speak? Deaf? I should have asked because now I will never know. They were excellent, if stoic, tent wranglers.

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