Sunday, August 7, 2011

No match for a Badlands mosquito

We are in the Badlands National Park, and spent the night camping near road’s end, in a primitive campground named Sage Creek. It is Mountain Time Zone here, although we’re constantly confused. We have gone back and forth between Mountain and Central in the Dakotas, the states given split zones to deal with. So when first light came at 5:13 a.m., the time seemed a little irrelevant.

By 5:45, I was running. The first half-mile was hell. Mosquitoes bombarded me. The night before, Gavin and I were pestered by them as we played gin rummy under a half-moon and a dome of stars. But we were somewhat protected by long pants and long sleeve shirts.

Mosquitoes have never been much of a problem on runs. But not this morning. It was still, so a breeze couldn’t be my ally, but still: I couldn’t outrun a Badlands mosquito? They were landing on my arms, my legs, my shirt, my ears, my head. I was swatting as much as running, twisting and turning, a comedic sight if anyone were up to see it.

It reminded me of a run a couple of months ago in Juba, South Sudan. I was there on an assignment for a group called MSH (to write a book on its 40th anniversary). There, I made a major discovery on a run: a two-lane bridge that crossed the Nile. So I ran across, continued another few hundred yards, turned back, and on the way back, a couple of boys herding about 20 goats were crossing the bridge as well. We entered the bridge at the same time, the boys laughing at me, and we exited the bridge at the same time.

Truth is, at age 51, my running speed is somewhere between a South Sudanese goat and a Badlands mosquito.

It’s good to be humbled.

The breeze picked up, the mosquitoes were blown behind, and I climbed a steep winding hill on a road that led out of this beautiful national park (actually stunning, as wonderful as I remembered it while hitchhiking through 30 years ago). On the hill, I encountered bummer No. 2: A skunk crossed the road ahead of me.

It was porcupine-big and it slowly sashayed across the gravel road and disappeared into the tall grass. I wasn’t sure how to proceed. I thought I could get by if I went slowly on the other side of the road, but what if I was wrong? Gavin would cry out. The whole campsite would be pissed. Still…. I walked past it, then hightailed it, faster than a mosquito perhaps, and I escaped smelling only of sweat.

I ran 55 minutes in all, under a rising sun and clouds the colors of pink, salmon, yellow, grey, and blue, across a plain of softly swaying grasslands. I spooked 10 pheasants. I saw the skunk no more. It was wonderful.
But the most wonderful thing in the Badlands hasn’t been the run, or the scenery, or the camping, but rather spending time with Gavin. He had a great day yesterday. At the beginning of a hike, as I went to retrieve my glasses from our car, he scampered up a pointy hill of eroded earth and called down to me. I couldn’t believe it. He was high, high up. I followed – part way.

More importantly, he learned to drive yesterday. He had put in 12-13 hours before, but yesterday he drove for the first time. Anyone who has taught a 16 year old to drive knows that there is a moment when it all comes together. That happened with him.  We were on a winding road through the park, and it was FULL of cars, RVs, buses, and especially motorcyclists (the Sturgis motorcycle event is just starting, drawing 500,000 motorcyclists to South Dakota). Gavin had been a tentative driver, wobbly even on straight-aways, but on this snake road I started treating it like almost a race.

“HUG the yellow line,” I would say on a curve to the left.

“HUG the white line,” as we curved to the right.

We would be midway through a turn and I’d say, “GIVE IT GAS,” and he did and he pulled through the turns beautifully. He was in charge, finally. He was a driver. At the end, he was very happy to give me the keys.

“That was intense,” he said.

“Yes, but you did well.”

He smiled. He asked to drive in St.Paul/Minneapolis “as practice for DC.”

Yes, I said.

Uncle Tom, we’re headed your way.


  1. Fantastic experience and it sounds like you guys are living through a great story.

    ...I am just a little nervous for the St. Paul/Minneapolis drivers when you yell "GIVE IT GAS"! he he. Much easier to drive here than DC, I imagine.

    See you soon!

  2. John - your mosquito tale reminds me of another bout with them in the Everglades....where your only relief was your car's air conditioner... Tom claims that the MN mosquitoes are the size of humming birds.