Alliance, Nebraska

On my third day in the Badlands I woke inside a sleeping bag covered with frost; the weather’s one thing I can’t defy for long. I was up before the prairie dogs and walked through Prairie Dog Town without incident. When I came back through later all the little dogs popped up and down out of the ground shrieking at me with the natural music of a fieldfull of car alarms. Now I understand the inspiration for that game where the gophers pop out of holes in a table and you try to whack them with a mallet — it’s actually an old western fantasy.

From the hill I could see the buffalo running around. I get the impression that they enjoy being buffalo, unlike cows whose body language says to me, “I’m just a bag of meat. I’d rather be slit open now than walk another ten feet.” The low quaking call the buffalo make carries eerily, so even though it wasn’t loud I could hear it clearly from a half mile away. Some deer disappeared up the slope above me; a coyote ran up the gully below.

I spent all morning wandering through the grass. It was a great relief to walk through so much land just covered with wild grass, many different grasses of different heights and textures and colors flowing in the wind like hair. State after state after state I’ve ridden through land that’s worked so damn hard — we work every last inch, lash it down and harness it and make it work for us. Sure, we have to eat, have to raise food somewhere, but every last inch? Do we need corn EVERYWHERE? If it’s not corn, it’s wheat, if not wheat, then cows, if not cows then Wal-Marts. For at least the last thousand miles all the land I’ve ridden over has worn a mask.

Under the grass was clay, some white and some brown depending on the hill and height. The white clay yielded up smooth brown rocks as shiny as if they’d been lacquered and polished. The brown clay gave forth what looked like white quartz flowers in sizes from peas to potatoes, each rough with petal-like crystals packed against each other. Some had rose-colored crystals too, and some had rose and yellow and white; it took all my willpower not to pocket one. I only spent a few hours in the grass, drifting over the hilltops in the wind, but the wind made rippling streams and pools in the grass where time ran differently and I stumbled back to camp as tired as if I’d spent a whole day hiking.

The next day I rode through the Black Hills and past the giant heads of Rushmore and Crazy Horse. The land was beautiful and familiar, conifers-over-granite like northern New Hampshire, but this granite was whipped into high needles and fingers that rose out of the trees. The Black Hills used to rumble, but they stopped before anyone found out why.

Right at the entrance to Rushmore there were mountain goats in the road- ten in a ragged white goat-chain, the foremost almost to the woods while the hindmost was still just emerging… from the parking garage. They were utterly surprising to me since I’d never seen one before and it hadn’t even occurred to me that I might. They were gorgeous animals, bright white and fluffy and agile, showy ballet versions of regular goats. When I looked one right in the face, though, it looked like the Devil.

The Carhenge and Car Art Reserve sits in a field outside Alliance. If it was in South Dakota there’d be billboards advertising it the length of the state and once you got there they’d make you watch a movie about The Artist Jim Reinders; in Nebraska, though, it just sits there in all its whacked out glory- no admission, no gate, just a replica of Stonehenge made out of junk cars stuck end-up in the ground and painted grey. As if it just had to be made. I couldn’t help but laugh out loud and run around the whole place grinning like a fool. There are some supplementary works of car art; while the spawning trout is awesome, most of the others are totally inscrutable, apparently just excuses to beat the crap out of a car and then stick it in the ground. The welcome board acknowledges that beer was a factor in Carhenge’s construction. On the other side of the board are a number of displays about the real Stonehenge, as if the two are interchangeable, or maybe you might forget which one you’re at. There’s a “comment box”, a mailbox with a little sign that says, “Who are you? Where are you from? Where are you going?” which gives me the impression that the Friends of Carhenge are lonely.