Our 2021 Road Trip #33: Valley of Gold, Valley of Shadow

Anne and Makoshika!

Anne in happier times, by which I mean ten minutes into the walk, taken at her request for her Facebook friends back home.

When recounting our disappointments about Yellowstone National Park, at the time two occurred to us: we wished everyone else in the world had stayed home so that we could’ve had the entire park to ourselves; and we wished we could’ve hiked more. We spent so many hours driving from one site to the next that we really didn’t walk a lot of long distances. We knew some exercise would do us a world of good, and yet its hiking trails — which we were pretty sure they had — didn’t stand out to us on their official, main map. It was all about dots of interest, not lines for walking.

Our next stop in Montana satisfied our urge to walk, then exceeded said urge until it began to pose safety concerns. As darkness overtook us at the close of Day Six, we stopped any and all jokes about “getting our steps in” for the rest of the trip.

Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover:

Every year since 1999 Anne and I have taken a road trip to a different part of the United States and seen attractions, wonders, and events we didn’t have back home in Indianapolis. From 1999 to 2003 we did so as best friends; from 2004 to the present, as husband and wife. We were each raised in a household that couldn’t afford annual out-of-state family vacations. We’re geeks more accustomed to vicarious life through the windows of pop culture than through in-person adventures. Eventually we tired of some of our self-imposed limitations and figured out how to leave the comforts of home for the chance to see creative, exciting, breathtaking, outlandish, and/or bewildering new sights in states beyond our own, from the horizons of nature to the limits of imagination, from history’s greatest hits to humanity’s deepest regrets and the sometimes quotidian, sometimes quirky stopovers in between.

We’re the Goldens. This is who we are and what we do.

Technically not even 2020 stopped us. We played by the new rules of the interim normal and wandered Indiana in multiple directions as safely as we could. This year the long-awaited vaccines arrived. For 2021 we agreed we had to go big. Our new primary objective was Yellowstone National Park, 1500 miles from Indy…

200 miles west of Pompeys Pillar National Park was our destination for the night in Glendive, Montana. A former 19th-century railroad town turned 1950s oil-boom town with a population that’s dwindled by nearly one-third since its 1960s heights, Glendive felt a mite smaller in person than it had looked on our maps. We had limited time to accomplish the rest of the day’s to-do list. We checked into the hotel, left my son there per his request, spent longer in a cafe than we’d hoped to, fetched takeout for my son before all the suppertime options closed at 8 p.m., filled up the tank, and made a mad dash for one last bit of tourism before bedtime.

(TOTAL ROAD TRIP MILEAGE AS OF GAS STOP #9: 2,151.9)

It’s extremely rare that we’re outside all the way till sundown on our vacations because our kinds of attractions (e.g., museums, historical sites, wacky roadside shoppes) in numerous cities and states tend to shut down by 5 p.m. as if they’re all run by office cubicle dwellers. Also, Anne’s an early bird and I’m a night owl. Enforcing an informal deadline on our runarounds helps keep a happy medium between our differences in timing. This day was an exception because, through the magic of Facebook algorithms for tourism ads, Anne had fallen in love with photos of Makoshika State Park and insisted it had to be seen, whether our heavenward companion be the sun or the moon. And we wouldn’t have time the next morning because Day Seven’s itinerary had twice as many stops planned. It was now or never.

Makoshika sign!

Note the implication of dinosaurs.

Makoshika (pronounced muh-KO-shee-ka) is Glendive’s prettiest business. The name comes from the Lakota meaning “bad land” or “land of bad spirits”. It’s a smaller encore of the Badlands and other rock formations, intermittent fossils, light wildlife, and related details we’d seen in previous states, but with one feature the others didn’t have: sunset lighting. Our surroundings at Makoshika were either basking in the golden rays of a retreating sun or enshrouded in the shadows of the neighboring peaks that dwarf them. We arrived one hour before the park’s closing time (except for campers) and well after the visitor center locked its doors. If anything went horribly wrong, we were largely on our own, barring any remaining traces of the kindness of strangers in A.D. 2021.

After paying our honor-system fees for parking, which took two tries to get right due to my momentary inattentiveness to basic math (I wanted to hurry up and walk before deadline, now now NOW), we looked at our trail options on the official map and couldn’t decide among them. We couldn’t tell them apart. Back home in Indiana, our state park maps tell you which trails are “Easy”, referring to basically dusty sidewalks that welcome the elderly and couch potatoes for leisurely strolls; and which are “rugged”, the most intense hikes where even experienced outdoorsmen have been known to get lost for weeks and consider survival cannibalism. Anne knew a few of the park’s special features recommended by The Algorithm, but we had less than an hour. I pushed for trying their Diane Gabriel Trail, which: (a) was named after a local paleontologist, which is sweet; (b) was less than halfway into the park, right off its main road; (c) the map claimed was only half a mile long, contrary to the larger estimates on multiple websites I’m now reviewing in hindsight; and (d) promised a real dinosaur fossil protruding from the rocks at the end of it. Incentives are cool.

We parked right at the trailhead, where the first leg began with descending 10-15 feet into a valley using a set of natural stairs 2-3 feet high each. Anne is five feet tall and has to be careful as such steps can aggravate her cute tiny legs. She was also still worn down from ascending Pompeys Pillar earlier in 90-degree temps. She’d stayed hydrated, but sitting in a passenger seat for hundreds of miles doesn’t quite qualify as the necessary form of “rest” after such exertion. So she carefully eased down to the lower ground level, and we followed the sporadic signage toward potential fun and sightseeing, with hopes that there wouldn’t be a lot more tall steps like those.

As the terrains took us up and down over the course of well over a half-mile, ascent and descent, over paths of dirt and rock, there were a lot of tall steps like those, requiring more than a few chivalrous lifts up-‘n’-over and down-‘n’-onward as we neared the fabled hadrosaur site. The sun continued to retreat, undecided whether it would follow us to the end of our quest.

Makoshika golden strata!

More echoes of the Badlands.

Saga Begins in Makoshika!

Echoes of that old Phantom Menace poster.

rocks and fossils sign!

More evidence of those legendary fossils.

sun and gravel!

Real gravel in its natural habitat, not like the driveway filler they breed in captivity back home.

bunny!

BUNNY!

Makoshika Cains Coulee Junction!

Only half a mile the hadrosaur bones that we thought were only half a mile from our car!

gold beyond shadows!

Gold and shadows, shadows and gold.

Makoshika cliff face.

That moving sun/shadow border up close.

gold with sign!

There weren’t many signs, but they did reassure us we were indeed still in the park and not into uncharted wilderness.

Makoshika small cave!

A small cave with cool underground air blowing out.

hadrosaur sign!

Yet another “Hadrosaur Next Exit” sign erected in the spirit of Wall Drug or Valdosta, GA.

gold and grey and other hiker!

A quartet of hikers soon came along and sped by us with their walking sticks and pounds of equipment. We wondered if they knew something we didn’t, or if they simply had plans for an all-nighter on the go.

Makoshika and Me!

A scene from my memoir Mak and Me.

A small eternity later, we arrived at the base of the hadrosaur fossil site…which was way, way up above, 30+ feet of cliff face into which were lodged a series of very tall and very narrow steps. The prepared quartet were easing themselves upward, one precarious foothold at a time, even with equipment. They had no guardrails, no park rangers, and no ADA-acquiescent smooth alternate route running parallel. These stairs were not made for frolicking, for Rocky Balboa victory runs, or for exhausted travelers with cute tiny legs who were breathing much harder and moving more slowly than when they’d started this panoramic death march.

Makoshika death climb!

Much like the Seven Thousand Steps in Skyrim, except there’s dirt instead of snow, and some old bones at the summit instead of Christopher Plummer granting you new superpowers.

Anne looked at me with her last several shreds of energy and asked if we were going up. I stared at the steps, looked at her legs, stared at the steps some more, and thought back to that classic TV moment of Homer Simpson bouncing down the side of Springfield Gorge, but my imagination replaced Homer with Anne. In that moment I pulled rank and made the command decision that we were done. I try to grant as many of her wishes as possible on these road trips, but in this moment and in her condition, there was no way I could guarantee her safety, especially not if we rushed to finish before closing time.

That sucked. We were disappointed. And we had to follow that letdown with the long hike back to the car, which required us to turn around and redo everything we’d just done but in reverse. All the same terrains, all the same tall steps, all the same chivalrous lifts up-‘n’-over and down-‘n’-onward except their vertical opposites, all the same signs reminding us how much farther we were getting from those alleged fossils on their raised tier for privileged healthy eyes only.

darker golden!

One last shot of sun-bathed rock, ominously darker.

Makoshika shadowed canyon.

A canyon we passed a few times.

Anne on Alien Planet!

An exhausted Anne on the way back, like a strange visitor to another planet and no longer worried about impressing Facebook friends.

To our dismay, we redid all the same steps plus a few new ones. The formations and flora began to blur together so much, and the signs were so sporadically placed, that at one point we took a wrong turn and found ourselves stomping through dense, knee-high grasses that neither of us remembered from the way in. I’m not sure how many hundreds of feet we had to un-retrace until we rediscovered the way back. Eventually I recognized a particular mini-box canyon and we ran with it.

Well, not “ran”. Definitely not “ran”. I was physically fine, thanks to my stronger leg muscles and extra twelve inches of height. Anne’s slow steps became a trudge, and then a slog, and then by the time we returned to those initial 10-15 feet worth of 3-foot steps leading to our car, Anne had to sit down, rest a bit more, finish her water, have the rest of mine, and then complete her Mount Doom journey by literally crawling up those final steps, exactly as she’d had to do last year when she had a similar adverse reaction at Shades State Park. All I could do was be by her side, offer gentle encouragement the rest of the way, and be ready to throw myself under her like a bouncy-house cushion if she rolled off the edge.

An eternity later, hand by hand by knee by knee, she made it. We fled to the safety of automotive A/C, cracked open a couple of fresh waters, returned to the hotel and conked out. We were still four days away from home.

To be continued!

* * * * *

[Link enclosed here to handy checklist for other chapters and for our complete road trip history to date. Follow us on Facebook or via email sign-up for new-entry alerts, or over on Twitter if you want to track my faint signs of life between entries. Thanks for reading!]

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