Must See List, Revisited

Several months before I left on my trip, I made my Must See List. The places on this list were places that I felt I had to see. Now that I’ve seen them all, which ones were worth it?

Arms Stretched1. Grand Canyon

This was a highlight of my trip, and is consistently one of the first things I bring up when people ask about my adventures. However I can’t separate visiting the Grand Canyon from hiking all the way to the bottom and back. And I can’t separate the hike from being there with my sister, which was a huge part of what made it so fun. So I can’t tell you whether or not a simple trip to the edge of the Grand Canyon would be worth it. I can tell you that pairing up with a good friend and doing something you weren’t sure you were capable of is a definite must-do.

2. Niagara Falls

If for no other reason, I’m glad I saw Niagara because I was finally able to correct my childhood picture of the place. When we’re little we often get an image of famous places in our minds, and so long as nothing directly contradicts them, the images stay. It’s strange to think one could have a false image of Niagara. There are so many photos and videos and scenes from movies. But I had somehow managed to turn everything about 90 degrees clockwise, and switch the Canadian and American sides. Now that the mental image has been righted, Niagara seems like a real place, and less like a something I saw in a dream.

3. San Francisco, CA

I’ve always been told I’d love San Francisco, and I did. I had a great time there. It reminded me a lot of Seattle. Too much, it seems, as part of the charm was lost in its familiarity. I suppose it’s nice to know that if I ever had to move, there’s another Seattle out there waiting for me.

Alabama Theater4. The Deep South

Perhaps in my head I thought I’d find myself driving along a dusty road and happening upon an old general store with hillbillies on the porch. While I’m sure such places exist, my time in the South was more nuanced than that. It wasn’t what I was hoping to find, though it was exactly what I was looking for. I was hoping to find a dynamic and interesting landscape on which to set future fictionalizations. However what I was looking for was a perception of the South that wasn’t based on movies and books. I was looking for some deeper truth that’s harder to swallow and harder to sell. That’s exactly what I found.

5. Roswell, NM

I suppose I saw Roswell as a sort of X-Files pilgrimage. I had to see it to pay homage to a younger version of me, a girl who loved the paranormal and the mysterious. I’m not sure I could recommend it as an important stop for anyone without a similar past.

6. Memphis, TN

I honestly can’t remember why I had to see Memphis. It’s a famous city, I suppose. Graceland, perhaps. Or maybe I just wanted to to hear Walking in Memphis where it was meant to be heard.

7. Glacier National Park

I was very excited about Glacier, and I had the whole trip to look forward to it. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to see most of the park due to bad weather and a rockslide. While I enjoyed my trip and what I saw was lovely, I don’t really feel like I’ve been to Glacier National Park yet. I’m hoping to plan another trip to Glacier this summer or next, maybe with my boyfriend and my parents.

Entrance Sign8. The Oregon Vortex

I can’t justify telling others that they must see the Oregon Vortex. I do feel that everyone should see AN Oregon Vortex. What I didn’t realize before this trip was that these supposed “vortices” and “mystery spots” are all over this country. Most Americans are probably less than a four hour drive from one. They’re weird little tourist traps, and you don’t have to believe in them to have fun. Just come with a smile on your face an enjoy nature’s magic show.

With all that said, I thought it was time for an updated Must See List. So here it is – a few places I went to that I think everyone should get a chance to see:

1. Arcadia National Park (specifically a sunrise from Cadillac Mountain)

2. National Music Museum in Vermillion, SD

3. Crater Lake National Park

4. Mountain View, Arkansas (be sure to drop by on a summer weekend to hear the musicians playing all over town)

5. National Holocaust Museum

6. Yellowstone National Park

7. Savannah, GA

8. Highway 61 along the Mississippi River

Moonshine Gulch, Part Three

Snack BarA man walks into the Moonshine Gulch Saloon in bike shorts, and two friends quickly join him. I don’t know how long they’ve been riding, but I know Rochford isn’t near anywhere else so it must have been a while. All three men order a beer, which seems like a strange choice to me. I’m not a fan of beer anyway, but I can’t imagine having one in the middle of a long bike ride.

I sit and enjoy my Dr. Pepper as Betsy busies herself around the bar. The bicyclists have all opted to sit out front on the porch, but I think she still feels the need to get back to work now that she’s got more customers than just me. There’s a police scanner on in the background. I hear them say that a woman has been getting calls from a man in Deadwood. He’s claiming she owes him money on a car and is threatening to come down. She’s at the post office waiting to make a report.

Time passes and one by one the bicyclists come back inside, each ordering a second beer and returning to the porch. As Betsy gets their drinks I start to examine the wall behind the bar. In addition to being a saloon, Moonshine Gulch is something of a general store. At least, a general store for non-perishables. On one side there are tins of spam, bottles of ketchup, cans of fruit cocktail, and just-add-water chow mein. On the other side are snack-sized bags of chips and several rows of candy bars. There are sandwich bags full of in-shell peanuts that were clearly divvied up by Betsy herself. Of course you can also buy boxes of sandwich bags.

In addition to the food, the back of the bar is covered in pieces of paper spouting cliches and political opinions, like “Who you hang with in life is who you are,” and “I’ll keep my money, my freedom, and my guns and you can keep the CHANGE.” They’re the kind of thing the old man at the hardware store might repeat to you with a laugh. “We ain’t everybody’s cup of sunshine.” Maybe something you’d read in a chain email from 1998. “It’s not the edge of the world, but you can see it from here.” Nearly every phrase is hand-written, indicating these truisms are spouted nightly by the bar’s patrons.

A set of six bikers ride in from Minnesota. The first one walks up to the counter while the others are still removing their gear. He looks at the menu and the beers and decides to get an ice cream sandwich. Betsy walks around the front of the counter to get to the back room, and she emerges holding a single ice cream sandwich. As the first man pays two more enter. They see his sandwich and decide to order the same. Again Betsy walks around the counter to get to the back room, and comes out with two more sandwiches. Just as she’s arrived the last three bikers enter, and all opt for ice cream sandwiches. I am the only one who sees the humor as Betsy goes to the back room for a third time.

Everybody SmileThe bikers join the cyclists outside, and I say my goodbyes to Betsy. She tells me it’s a shame I couldn’t come by on a Sunday afternoon when people gather in town to play music. I tell her about Mountain View in Arkansas, where they play in the park every night. The bicyclists come back in briefly to order another round, and I walk out of the dingy darkness and into the bright South Dakota sun. I turn around to take a picture of the bar, and both sets of riders smile at me.

I recommend you stop by Moonshine Gulch when you have the chance, even if it’s not for many years. I imagine they’ll still be there. Like the scrap of paper says,

“Here today and probably tomorrow.”

Moonshine Gulch, Part Two

Betsy and the Mop GirlBetsy Harn is wearing three pairs of glasses. The frames on her face are pale pink, and propped up on her head are a set in dark, reddish brown. She has a third pair tucked into the front of her shirt. Her hair is curly and blonde, but turning equal parts grey and brown at the roots.

“Can I help you?” she asks, as though I must be lost. I tell her about the woman I met in Rapid City, and how she told me to visit Moonshine Gulch. Betsy is astonished.

“I didn’t know anyone told anyone to come here,” she says. “Well, what can I getcha?”

I order a Dr. Pepper so I’ll have a reason to hang around. I sit at the bar next to where Betsy has planted herself. The whole place is dark. It has that cold glow all bars have when the sun is bright outside. She gets my drink and we chat for awhile. She tells me she’s making some soup in the back for her own lunch, and asks if I’d like any. I suddenly realize it’s been hours since I’ve eaten, and I tell her I’d love some. As she’s getting the soup I notice that there are hundreds of baseball caps nailed to the ceiling directly above me, and a collection of dollar bills covering the ceiling a few feet away. The chandelier is made from an old wagon wheel, and there’s an upright piano in the corner. The walls are covered with photos and tin cans and leopard print bras. One side of the room has a fire place and the other side has a wood burning stove, though I can’t tell if they’re for use or for show. There’s an old border collie at my feet which is never acknowledged and never moves.

Dog in MoonshineBetsy comes out with my soup. Despite assuring me that it is just something she put together and not an item off the menu, she’s still dressed it up like a restaurant dish and added a side of crackers. The two of us sit together at the bar eating our soup while she runs through the phone book. Betsy has a property in Edgemont, a town 70 miles away. She recently got some squatters out of her building, but they broke a 6 ft window and she doesn’t think she can fix it herself. She’s going through the phone book and calling nearby towns, looking for someone who can handle a window that size. As I listen to her conversations I find out that the property is an old church, which she explains to people as being “across from the bar.” I flashback to my childhood vacations in Montana.

Betsy and I aren’t the only ones in Moonshine Gulch Saloon. There’s another woman who’s been moping the floor the entire time. She reminds me of Megan Cavanagh in A League of Their Own. She’s short, round, and quiet, with red hair pulled into a side braid. Her stature is slumped and her eyes are wide and beautiful. They’ve got that big, quiet brightness of eyes that don’t know their own worth.

“This mop’s about had it, Betsy,” she says, “I’m picking up strings.” She takes a few of the gray, old pieces of mop off the floor and sets them on the counter next to me. I finish my soup and Betsy still hasn’t found anyone who can replace a six foot window.

Piano in the Corner“It seems like there ought to be an easier way to look up businesses when you don’t know their name,” she sighs.

“I thought businesses in the phone book were already organized by type.” There’s uncertainty in my voice. It’s been a long time since I’ve had to use a phone book.

“Yeah, but not everyone can afford to be in the phone book,” she says. This is news to me.

Having given up on finding anyone for now, Betsy tells me more about life in Rochford. She says they get a lot of bikers driving through on day rides out of Sturgis. When they turn south out of town, the locals take bets on how long it will be before the riders come back, since the pavement ends just down the road. Betsy and her mop woman are the only two people I’ve seen in the last two hours, and I’m intrigued at the prospect of seeing other locals.

“How many people live in town?” I ask.

“In town? Nine,” she says, “And it’s three too many if you ask me.”

Moonshine Gulch, Part One

I’d only had a smart phone for two months before I left on my trip. I made the upgrade specifically to help with my travels, and it was a real lifesaver. After three months on the road, I had become confident in, and dependent on, my little iPhone to see me through the toughest times. It told me what to do in a thunderstorm and how long before the current traffic would break up. I could ask Siri where the nearest wifi was when I needed to stop and do some writing.

But there are still inhabited places in this country that no cell phone can reach. Case in point: Moonshine Gulch.

The recommendation had come from Barb, the friend of the mother of the girlfriend of my Couchsurfing host in Rapid City. She told me the wildflowers near Deerfield Lake were lovely, and that I should visit Moonshine Gulch. In hindsight I probably should have asked for specifics. For example, “What is Moonshine Gulch?” would have been a helpful inquiry. But in my mind I was sure it was a geographic feature, probably part of a state park.

Deerfield LakeI was about 20 minutes out of Hill City when the map on my phone stopped loading. I could still see the little dot representing where I was, but I could no longer zoom and I couldn’t pull up any new directions. I was smack dab in the center of Black Hills National Forest, and there was no signal. I managed to find Deerfield Lake without much trouble, mostly due to the fact that it sits right on Deerfield Road. After taking in the simple beauty of the lake, I pulled out my computer to look at the Google Maps screenshot I’d taken the day before. The screenshot was only meant to be a reminder of where to go next, not a replacement for real directions. It didn’t include any specific roads and was zoomed out too far to show details. I stared at the map on my computer, then at the roads leading away from the lake. Without directions on the computer or signs on the roads, all I had to go on was angle and proportion. I made a choice and started to drive. I made another choice and continued to follow the shape on the map. I ended up on a dirt road, which is my least favorite place to be when traveling alone. I kept going.

Rochford ChapelA half hour went by before I found pavement again. There were a couple of old houses and a lot of grass. By now I figured I had to be near my destination. I drove slowly past the houses, trying to find a sign that pointed to Moonshine Gulch. I turned the corner and came upon a spot where one road created a T-junction with another. There were about five buildings and it was the closest thing to a town I’d seen in miles. I saw a large sign on one of the buildings for the “Moonshine Gulch Saloon.” I figured I must be close to the gulch if there were businesses named after it. I started driving down one of the roads away from town and found a park. I figured it was the place I was looking for, but a brief exploration proved it was not. I went back towards town and took the only other road out. I passed by a chapel and not much else. I turned back.

Rochford AntlersIn the center of town there was a small building labeled the Rochford Mall, with the caption “The Small of America” on the side. I parked my car and walked up to it hoping for a friendly store owner, but the shop was closed. There didn’t seem to be anyone or anything around. The chapel sign had referred to Rochford as well, so I knew that’s where I had to be. I turned back to face the saloon again. It had the false front of an old-timey building and a soft drink machine on the porch with an outdated Dr. Pepper logo on it. A Miller Lite banner declared “Welcome Bikers.” I read the main sign again in my head: Moonshine Gulch Saloon.

This was the place I was looking for.

Crazy Horse Dreams

I first saw the Crazy Horse Memorial when I was nine years old. I was on vacation with my grandparents, and we went to it right after seeing Mount Rushmore. Crazy Horse is only a few minutes from Rushmore, and is intended as a mountain memorial to the great Crazy Horse, the war leader who lead the Lakota people to victory at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. I remember being so excited as a little kid. Mount Rushmore was a permanent symbol of the greatness of the past. It represented the hard work of men from decades before my time, most of whom were long dead. But Crazy Horse was a mountain in progress. I imagined being an old woman and taking young kids to go see it. I would tell them about the day I first laid eyes on crazy horse, and how back then only a bit of the face and arm had been completed. They would marvel in the way that little kids do, amazed that I could remember something so far in the past. Visiting Crazy Horse, I felt like a part of history.

I was excited to come back and see it again 18 years later. I was excited to see how it had changed. I hoped that the visitor’s center was still laid out in roughly the same way, so I could remake photos that I had taken as a child.

Posing with Crazy HorseI paid my entrance fee at the gate and drove up to the parking lot. From the lot a person can get their first glimpse of the mountain, and that’s where I got mine. My heart sank. It looked exactly the same. Though work had been going on the whole time, the progress was virtually undetectable. I was filed with shame. The white presidents had their mountain made in less than 15 years, but Crazy Horse was permanently stalled. Where were the funds to remember the people who were here first? No where, it seemed. No one cared about Crazy Horse.

I went into the Visitor’s Center to see the collection of local Native American artwork, and to watch the introductory video. The video told the story of one man, Korczak Ziolkowski, who started the project in 1948. When he first began his work, Ziolkowski was completely alone. He built a log cabin near the mountain to live in, and constructed over 700 wooden stairs to get him to the top of the mountain to begin blasting. He worked alone for years before marrying a much younger woman and having 10 kids. The whole family became involved in the project.

Ziolkowski’s wife was interviewed for the video, and mentioned how he had been offered federal funds of more than $10 million on two occasions, but turned them both down. “He believed you don’t stand around with your hand out waiting for the government to give you money.” I did some research online later that suggested he was also suspicious that any federal money would mean federal control, and he didn’t want to risk his larger vision.

The full plan of the Crazy Horse Memorial was something my nine-year-old brain had tuned out. You can see the grand idea in a series of scale models inside the visitor’s center. In the shadow of the great mountain they hope to construct a university campus, a medical center, and a museum. The visitor’s center already includes the museum’s introductory artifacts, but one look at the site plans and you can see how huge the sculpture’s dream really was.

Master PlanI don’t mean to mock Ziolkowski’s belief in private enterprise, but it’s hard to see something remain stagnate for so long knowing the funding was there all along. The great monument to Crazy Horse looks no different now than it did 18 years ago. I even checked my memory against old photos in the gallery to be sure. While Ziolkowski is long gone, his wife, his children, and so many individuals who have become passionate about the project are forced to fight for it, and fight for it using his ideals. Outside of the occasional wealthy philanthropist, the Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation must raise all its money through ticket sales and gift shop purchases.

Before leaving Crazy Horse I bought a souvenir shot glass – my small donation to the cause. Perhaps the lesson I was supposed to take away from Crazy Horse is that sometimes worthwhile work outlives those who know it to be worthwhile. At the current rate, it’s unlikely that anyone working on Crazy Horse today will live to see it’s completion. Like the pyramid builders, they must have faith that future generations will benefit from their efforts.

As I walked out the door I saw a small, laminated sign printed out on plain printer paper. It was given a place of honor right under the sign that says, “Push.” It proclaimed the line Ziolkowski is most well known for, and the one true take away visitors get at Crazy Horse:

Never Forget Your Dreams


Wind Cave

“When it’s too cloudy to see Mount Rushmore, everyone comes to Wind Cave.”

Or so the ranger told me as I went to get my ticket for the cave. I knew the weather wasn’t great, but I hadn’t thought about it obscuring the mountain. I was one of the few people who came specifically to Wind Cave that morning.

Shadows and BoxesWhen I walked in only one man was in line, but he was buying tickets for him, his wife, and three kids. His five tickets were, in fact, the last five tickets sold for the 10:30AM tour that day. Upon seeing me there alone, looking for only one ticket with no one else in line behind me to turn away, the ranger at the counter formed a look of pity. She turned to the man behind her, who was focused on the radios at the desk.

“It’s your tour, could we do one more?” she asked him.

“I won’t tell anyone,” he said nonchalantly. I was in.

Wind Cave National Park is located about 30 miles south of Mount Rushmore, and most of its visitors haven’t heard of it before. Local native tribes (specifically the Sioux and the Cheyenne) always knew of the cave’s existence, and some even considered it a sacred gateway to the underworld. But the first evidence of any human venturing inside was in 1881, when Tom and Jesse Bingham happened upon a rushing noise coming from a hole in the ground. Upon closer inspection, the wind from the cave opening blew the hat right off of Tom’s head.

Man and CaveThe largest natural entrance to Wind Cave is only about a foot across, and it’s mind boggling to imagine any human thinking it was a good idea to try to fit inside. It’s one of the ways in which the natives were smarter than the white man, I suppose. On our tour the ranger took us over to this entrance and pulled a bright yellow ribbon out of his pocket. He held it up and the ribbon hung limply from his fingers. As he brought it towards the opening, the ribbon instantly shot towards the hole, the wind sucking it into the cave. The ranger explained that the phenomenon is a result of the difference in barometric pressure. Like most caves, the interior of Wind Cave is a fairly constant temperature, regardless of outside conditions. When the weather outside is warm, the difference in pressure causes a wind that rushes into the cave. When the weather is cold, as it must have been the day Tom and Jesse stopped by, the wind blows outward. In theory most caves experience this change in barometric pressure, but the strong wind only happens when the change is squeezed through a small opening. This simple and fascinating scientific fact has been very helpful in my regular life, allowing my office mates and I to understand why our reception desk gets so cold whenever people shut the door to the conference room.

Cave mapWind Cave has a few other claims to fame. For one, it’s the sixth longest cave in the world, though only a tiny portion is wide enough for humans to walk through. Even in the public section, the passages in the cave are often extremely narrow. I found myself feeling the squeeze in a few sections, and I’m not a very large individual.

Secondly, it’s the largest concentration of boxwork formations in the world. More specifically, 95% of the world’s known boxwork is found in Wind Cave. To understand boxwork, imagine you were building a wall with empty milk cartons for bricks and regular cement for mortar. Imagine you then wait several years for the milk cartons to slowly fall apart and rot away. What you have left is the cement, formed into thin walls around the empty spaces, looking a bit like a honeycomb. This is how boxwork is formed. Strong calcite fills in the cracks between the normal rock, and over thousands of years the rock erodes away and the calcite remains. The walls of Wind Cave are full of these honeycombs. They look fragile, like they’re made of cardboard.

BoxworkThe main tourist path through Wind Cave was built in the 1930s. If there’s one thing traveling the country taught me, it’s that the Works Progress Administration got things done. Depression-era workers built roads and bridges all over this country, and occasionally they built them in caves. Just imagine being a labor worker in the United States in the 1930s, with the kind of technology available. Imagine navigating some of the narrowest passageways you’ve ever seen, pouring concrete by candlelight, and looking up to see rocks as thin as paper lining the walls. It sounds awful and wonderous, but at least we all can benefit from their work. I’m glad so many tours at Wind Cave are sold out, and so many people come to visit. Even if it is just because they can’t see the faces on the mountain.

Call Your Mother: Safety Advice for the Solo Traveler

Be easy to follow but hard to track.

If you intend to make your travels public, consider making them tardy. During my trip I never published any post about a city I was still in. When I did post things immediately relevant, I kept the details purposely vague. The whole world doesn’t need to know where you are when you’re traveling alone with several thousand dollars worth of camping gear and electronics in your car.

Train yourself to be startled correctly.

The vast majority of pickpocketing and street theft relies on the victim being too distracted to notice what’s happening. The most choreographed of these crimes often involve startling the victim, since it tends to draw focus from even the most diligent of travelers. This is why I’ve trained myself to put a gentle hand on my bag whenever something happens. And I mean anything. Subway finally arrived? Hand on bag. Ticket taker is here? Hand on bag. Tourists need their picture taken? Hand on bag. Any time there’s a change in my surroundings I confirm that everything is where it ought to be. This alone is enough to ward off most potential thieves. Pickpockets aren’t usually in it for the challenge. Don’t be an easy mark.

Hide everything so it looks like you’ve got nothing to hide.

My car was a thing of beauty by Trunkthe end. I had managed to fit almost all of my stuff into my trunk, which meant the cab looked like it could belong to anyone. I made the vehicle as pedestrian-looking as possible. I never left valuables in the cab unless I could conceal them under something innocuous. I also did my best to never open the trunk at the a location I intended to park it. I didn’t want anyone to see me walk away from a car full of goodies.

Make sure someone will come looking for you.

Before I left, I gave my boyfriend the passwords to my email and CouchSurfing accounts. If he couldn’t get a hold of me and was worried something had happened, he could easily look up who I had been communicating with most recently. I tracked where I slept every night in a spreadsheet, and I shared this with both him and my parents. I updated it regularly, and at any point they could pull it up at home and see where I was staying that evening. I’ll admit I wasn’t very good at calling my mother specifically (I don’t like talking on the phone), but I made a point to stay in contact with people back home on a daily basis, if only through facebook.

Befriending strangers isn’t a bad idea either. If you’re going on a hike, talk to a ranger first (the park may even have a check-in program for solo hikers). Ask the hotel manager where the best attractions are in town, and make it clear which ones you’re leaning towards. More than actual safety, there’s real piece of mind in this. If I were to be injured or abducted, there are eye witnesses who can say when they saw me last and what I said I was about to do.

Be like NASA and assume the worst.

I recently heard an interview that Commander Chris Hadfield did on Fresh Air. Terry Gross asked him about being scared in space, in light of all the danger. Commander Hadfield explained that no matter how scary the situation gets, no problem surprises you in space. As an astronaut you spend months beforehand working with the ground teams to think of ways you might die. You go over every disastrous situation from every angle to determine the best solution. Then you assume the first and second solutions fail and you come up with a third. No matter what happens to an astronaut in space, there’s a good chance he or she planned for it some 12 months back.

DangerWhile I don’t think you need to pour over every possible danger, planning your reactions is a great way to guarantee you’re prepared. Let’s say you’re worried about getting a flat tire in the middle of no where. First you’d probably try to fix it yourself – do you have all the supplies you need in your vehicle? Maybe you’re worried you won’t remember how – could you watch a video on youtube to refresh your memory? Perhaps your tools will break – could you bring extras of anything? Maybe the spare is flat too – do you know who you’ll call to get roadside help? Perhaps your phone battery is dead – could you get a car charger? Maybe you don’t have service – do you have shoes that could handle a long walk?

The list could go on forever, and mine often did. But once you know you’re prepared to do things like walk by yourself for miles, recover copies of everything in your wallet, and palm-heel an attacker until he deciders you’re not worth it, a lot of problems aren’t so bad. You don’t have to be a safety nut to be a safety guru. Just live your life, pay attention, and every once in a while, call your mother.

My Kind of Crazy

I walk into a backyard scene straight out of a 1990’s family comedy, something Netflix would recommend because you liked “Beethoven” and “Cheaper by the Dozen.” Two kids are jumping on a large trampoline while a third child sprays them with the garden hose. Water is getting everywhere. More children are running around – I’m not sure how many because they’re moving too fast. There’s a zip-line strung between two trees, and dog poop all over the yard. A small, homemade skateboard ramp built from mismatched pieces of wood is nailed directly into the patio.

Jumping out the WindowAs I step off the deck, I see an eight year old boy approach an older woman. He’s shirtless and his arms are covered in marker, with a unibrow drawn on his face. I don’t notice this at first though, because there is a deep red chunky substance covering his legs up to the knees. He looks like he’s been wading around in a pool of internal organs.

Eventually Arik walks out from the detached garage to greet me. He’s my couchsurfing host, though this isn’t his house. His house is a three minute drive away, where I’ve just come from. This is Karen’s house, and these are mostly Karen’s kids. She was the first host in Rapid City I contacted about housing, but she was already having several travelers come through that month and she tries to give the kids a few days every week without someone new sleeping in their home. Arik was the next person I contacted, not realizing that he and Karen are sweet on each other, and have been for some time.

Karen pops out of the garage before too long. Both she and Arik are young, at least at heart, since they don’t seem old enough to each have kids as old as theirs are. I never learn much about the other birth parents of any of the children. It feels a bit rude to bring it up and Karen and Arik don’t seem particularly interested in explaining.

Stirring the PotArik takes me back into the garage to see the cause of the young boy’s bloody legs. They’re making homemade choke cherry jelly, and the kid wanted to stomp the cherries like wine grapes. Karen assures me that they washed his legs and feet before doing it. The pot they are using is huge, and they’re stirring it with the handle of a garden hoe for lack of a four-foot spoon. I’m introduced to a friend of Karen’s who is stirring the pot. Most of the other kids running around belong to her. Once the smashed cherry goop comes to a boil there’s nothing to do but wait.

The friend gives her goodbyes, and Karen, Arik and I sit at a picnic table as the remaining children continue to run around the yard playing. Every ten minutes an alarm goes off, signaling one of us to get up and stir the cherry pot. At the table we talk about couchsurfing and world traveling, two topics I often discuss with hosts. During our conversation the oldest boy (who’s probably around 12 or 13) is practicing a twist maneuver on the edge of the skateboard ramp. The eight year old walks up behind his mom and grabs her beer, flinging it back in a high, fast swig. He slams it down on the table and walks off, and all three of us look at the beer as it foams up to the rim with bubbles.

“You gotta teach that kid how to drink a beer,” Arik says.

“I know,” she replies with a sigh. “We talked about it the other day, but …” Her voice trails off in that distinctive way parents have when they’ve acknowledged the futility of instructing the young.

We wait too long after one of the alarms, and the bottom of the cherry pot burns. Arik starts to worry that we’ve ruined the whole pot of jelly. We grab spoons from the kitchen and everyone has a taste, but no one can say for sure. Choke cherries are bitter, and it’s hard to tell if the flavor we’re sensing is bitter or burnt. To be safe we decide to empty the pot and clean off the burnt bits of the bottom. We help Arik with the arduous task of emptying several gallons of boiling jelly into a giant rubbermaid container so he can give the pot a thorough cleaning.

While Arik works, Karen and I go into the kitchen so she can clean up the remains of the family dinner. The stereo in the living room starts playing the Avett Brothers.

“You swept me away,” she sings sweetly along as she glides from one thing to the next. She tells me about her mother Mary, and how she’s trying to get Mary to change some of her eating habits.

“She needs to get rid of that non-fat crap she’s on, and go down to the co-op to get some raw, whole milk,” Karen tells me. “But I suppose she also drinks those Ensure things, and that’s a lot of dairy for one day.”

Occasionally kids run through the kitchen. None of them ever stop, except to pick up a quick snack.

“The other option is to get her off dairy completely,” Karen continues. “I told her, ‘Don’t give up the cream in your coffee, because that’s non-negotiable.’”

People tend to have the most interesting opinions about food, even when they don’t think they do. In fact, especially when they don’t think they do. I keep talking to Karen about her nutritional values, and she explains how they never have white sugar in the house, because her family doesn’t need it. She gets some raw brown sugar from the co-op for guests to use in their coffee, but that’s it.

Standing around in the kitchen I begin to feel a bit useless, which I objectively am. I start to walk aimlessly around the living room, doing what I always do: trying to find the least invasive way to look at all their stuff. Our possessions tend to reveal a lot about us. For example Karen had a lot of books on the shelf, including this small sub-section:

The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Better Birth

The Pregnancy Book

The Birth Book

Gentle Birth Choices

I combine the books with the other evidence to create a fuller picture of Karen. She’s very happy to be a mother, and considers it an important part of who she is. She thinks her job as parent is one that ought to be approached purposefully and with knowledge. But she also doesn’t restrict herself to modern science and traditions. She’s interested in what is natural and what feels right. She’s looking for wisdom, not just intelligence.

Dog EatingHer youngest, an adorable girl around five years old, comes into the kitchen. She’s curious and self-motivated like her older brothers, but so quiet I often forget she’s there. Without words she informs her mother than she would like to be lifted up and put in a nearby cardboard box, where she proceeds to play games on her mom’s phone. The box is tall and skinny, and Karen has to use her foot to prop it up against the counter to keep the little girl front falling flat on her face.

Outside Arik has cleaned out the pot, and bits of burnt jelly are strewn about the yard. The dog starts to eat them.

“He’s gonna get the shits,” Arik says. No one intervenes.

At the end of the night I say my goodbyes and head back to Arik’s house. He’s opted to stay with Karen and the kids, and it’s probably for the best. Arik’s house only has one bedroom and it belongs to his teenage daughter. Arik’s bed is in the living room, partially blocked by a screen. I sleep a few feet away on a bed that’s been pushed up against the front door, blocking it completely. The screen door in the back is the only way in and out of Arik’s house. This works out well for the house’s other occupants, Buddy and Mama Katt, who can come and go as they please. Mama Katt is fluffy and insists on rubbing against everything I own. Buddy is a shorthair and seems absolutely unconcerned with the intruder in his home.

Pouring JellyI spend the next day exploring the Black Hills on my own. I’m only home for an hour when I get a call from Arik inviting me over for pizza back at Karen’s house. After dinner I help them process the 120 individual jars of choke cherry jelly that they’ve spent the last 48 hours making, and we talk about how Arik might sell them at a local farmer’s market. One of the boys runs around the back yard acting like a ninja, but he has a tough time being sneaky. The dog has a particular aversion to the boy’s mask, and it follows him around, barking and trying to pull the thing off of him.

After another long night of good conversation, Karen says she’s ready to go to sleep. It’s clear to me that the older kids are all still up and running around, and Karen tells me that they don’t have a bedtime. They are responsible for managing their own time. Karen home-schools all her children, so they don’t have to be ready to go at 8AM every morning, they just have to get their work done on time. I say my goodbyes as Karen and Arik head for bed. The boys are playing games in the living room.

Arik, Karen, and their kids are living lives that might seem slightly outside the social norm. To a certain extent, this behavior is praised. We love to hear about entrepreneurs and artists and other great people who throw off the shackles of mediocrity and go against the grain. But we only like it when they deviate in one specific way, not in a million tiny ones. Each individual step away from societal norms is reasonable, it’s only when a person tries to do too many at the same time that we call them crazy. Of course in some respects they’re just as ordinary as the rest of us. They have kids and houses like most adults. The kids skateboard and play video games like most kids. With a different measuring stick, I become the crazy one. I’m the one who doesn’t plan to settle down and start a family, the one who isn’t really interested in owning a home. We’re all our own kind of crazy. They may be the ones welcoming strangers into their homes, but I’m the one sleeping with strangers.

Of course, I’m also drinking that non-fat crap they sell at the grocery store.