Our first major stop on our East Cost Road Trip was Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The park is made up of three different units, but as our route took us directly through the South Unit we focused our energies there. After a brief stop in the Visitor’s Center to pick up Junior Ranger booklets, we started out on the impressive loop road to see prairie dogs, wild horses, and the expansive vistas of the Badlands. Next we got back on the highway to continue on to the nearby Painted Canyon region for a hike. The Painted Canyon Nature Trail gets universal praise as a worthwhile, family friendly hike down into the canyon itself. As we sized up the crowds around the Visitor’s Center and heading toward the Nature Trail, however, we decided to strike out on a more solitary route and hike part of the Painted Canyon Trail just east of the parking lot. The picture below captures perfectly the initial trusting, youthful optimism before it was sucked out, step by step. All started out well with a sign post advertising Painted Canyon Trail. From there we meandered past some fenced-off government buildings along an unpaved road signed with “No Vehicles Beyond This Point”; considering ourselves pedestrians and not vehicles, so far so good. Footpaths started heading off left toward the canyon rim, but none seemed certain to be the path. We soon reached another post with a motion-activated camera from the University of Southern Somewhere, and thought it a good place to take stock. As we didn’t consider ourselves wildlife, still so far so good. The path to the canyon rim from this post looked the widest, and lacking any printed guidance we walked to the edge and saw a somewhat steep track heading down. So we descended, and there was mud. Lots of it.
High Five raced ahead unfazed, but audible grumbles could be heard from the rear questioning the choice of this particular route, the fact that we kept pressing on instead of turning around, and expressing a general lack of faith in Five String’s ability to find his feet in the dark, let alone the trail we were supposed to be on. Parental words of wisdom such as “Mud makes memories” had no discernible impact. As High Five followed some mysterious inner guide to decide which of the numerous game trails to lead us down next, the only thing heavier than the tension was the thick layer of mud coating our sandals. As the prospect of a muddy fall increased in lockstep with the desire to push Five String down the hill to form a rolling mud ball, the majority stressed that they would not (and in all likelihood physically could not due to the weight of the mud) take another step.
The hike back up was fortunately free of any slipping or sliding, which fortunately still assured all of us a seat on the continued journey eastward. The added resistance of the mud and the fact we all had gained about two shoe sizes made for a strenuous, though some would say character building, hike back to the top. Just as relief spread that the labored steps were behind us, we reached the gravel of the verboten road. As we quickly learned, the only thing stickier than mud to sandal is gravel to mud. As we reached the parking lot with our shoes having doubled in width yet again, there was laughter, free of mirth but full of exasperation.
Fortunately, nature provided the ideal tonic for the soul: parking lot puddles for us to wade through and wash away the weight (though not the memory) of our time in the Badlands. If Five String’s new adage was correct, then the Younger Fives will definitely have impressions of Theodore Roosevelt National Park for many, many, many years to come.