A long-awaited vacation

After several years of not going anywhere, we decided it was time to go somewhere. So we pulled the RV out of the barn, cleaned it up, bribed our son to come keep the animals and vegetables company, and headed out to the Big Horns in Wyoming.

We took the freeway to Gillette, then headed north on a two-lane road bordering the coal mines, through some pretty desolate ranches, then along Clear Creek (a tributary of the Powder River) with irrigated rows of alfalfa and corn. on one side of the road and drought-ravaged brush on the other.

After a night in a somewhat abandoned KOA campground, we headed into the mountains early in the morning. Despite a smoky haze from the western wildfires, our route was as scenic as expected and we had fun doing some short hikes and eating at a little cafe in town.

Along a stretch of road we noticed a large set of corrals full of sheep. Vans and large trucks were parked or idling nearby, and we came to understand that the herders were rounding up the herds that had spent the summer in the mountain pastures. Soon we noticed trailers with horses being hauled up the steep slopes and large cattle trailers coming up the passes. A local told us it had snowed a few days earlier, so the cattle and sheep herders were on the move. Get a glimpse of this formidable undertaking – organizing all the equipment, pulling the horses, herding all the animals across the vast upland grasslands, loading them up, then the slow and agonizing descent through the switchbacks and hairpin bends – was pretty awesome tome.

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On the third day of our trip, we decided to leave the Big Horns behind and drive north towards the Yellowstone River in eastern Montana before heading to Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota. We undertook a route along the Little Bighorn River, with the common regional arrangement of the river, irrigated crops, the rail line and our dual carriageway. Intermittently, some distance away, the Interstate Highway, with its racing cars and trucks, appeared.

We followed the Little Bighorn to its confluence with the Yellowstone. Corn, alfalfa, barley (I think) and sugar beets made up most of the row crops, and irrigation was the reason they existed. When we reached the confluence, the Little Bighorn was barely flowing – it was exhausted.

It was the same pattern along the Yellowstone – river, crops, railroad, road and highway. Farmers were in the fields harvesting sugar beets; the corn was mostly still standing; and alfalfa/hay crops were mostly scooped. Some hay land was still irrigated for another possible cut, but the season was ending. We saw cattle in the unharvested sugar beet fields and wondered if the farmer had let them in to eat the haulms or if they had broken in.

Of course, large herds of cattle were scattered across the barren land fields above the river valleys. We saw beaten fields, but most seemed to still have at least some food available for the widely scattered livestock.

We hiked most of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park Scenic Loop as soon as we arrived. The last part of the loop was closed because it was washed away by a flood two years ago and was still not repaired. Now, like most of the terrain we hiked, the area was in drought and little Missouri was a pitiful trickle through the park. My husband didn’t think any fish would survive the winter when the puddles froze.

That day, however, the sky turned cloudy and a few drops of rain teased tourists and ranchers. Rain was in the forecast, so the next morning we turned south towards home. We passed harvested wheat fields, dry cornfields and lots of beef on the hoof. When we reached the hills, the storms were gathering. We turned to our place and unloaded. The end of our vacation was perfect, as a few hours later three thunderstorms brought us two inches of rain!

Laura Tonkyn has spent 40 years becoming as self-sufficient as possible with her hands-on husband, Art, on their eight-acre farm in South Dakota’s Black Hills. She has written/edited for a number of local/regional newspapers, including Rapid City Journal and Faces Magazine. Contact her at laura.tonkyn@gmail.com.

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