I once got lost in the Badlands of North Dakota. I was working the wheat harvest as a hauler with a crew that ran fourteen combines and we were working our way up to Regina from Topeka, Kansas. One of the drivers, Mitchie Vanderbush, dared me to go camping there after he saw I slept in a tent. The rest of the crew stayed in cheap motels but I was trying to save money to buy a Linhof 4×5. He told me the place was haunted and said most people that go in don’t come out. “You stay in there three nights,” he said, “and I’ll split my bonus with you.” Most of the crew thought it was funny, but the foreman had some choice words when I informed him I was leaving early. He said I could just haul my ass up to Canada at the end of the season if I wanted my pay.
I drove off after we finished work around Minot and headed to Medora. The first day I hiked in about six or seven miles and ran into a couple whose camp looked well established. They were friendly but quiet, which is what that place will do to you. It’s a landscape that shouts Shut Up during the day and renders you mute at night. That evening I shared some tequila with them and the woman said they’d been hiding in that spot for two months. “He’s running from the law,” she said. “I’m running from just about everything”. The man had a shaved head and looked like someone who knew his days were numbered. The woman looked at him like there was no hole she wouldn’t go down if he asked. When I woke the next morning the sun was coming up in the West. When I said something the man told me not to worry. “It happens all the time. It’s like god didn’t finish creation out here,” he said. “I think he needed to work an eight day, lazy bastard.”
I hiked eleven miles the second day and found another camp. It was more spread out, maybe big enough for ten or twelve people, but abandoned. I found a few crudely made wooden crosses, a partially burned pocket new testament, and a mostly empty sketchbook with several drawings of a nude woman. They weren’t accomplished, but you could detect an honest effort. It was obvious that the artist was passionate about the woman, but difficult to tell if she was a model or they were done from memory. Underneath each figure was a bible quote: She is more precious than rubies; Kindness is on her tongue; Behold you are beautiful and your eyes are like doves; You are altogether beautiful and there is no flaw in you. I stayed there that night and in the morning I stuffed the sketchbook in my pack.
The next morning I headed back to the entrance, figuring I would spend my third night with the silent couple again. By late afternoon it was clear I didn’t know where I was, and that night I camped on a ridge overlooking a burn that didn’t look too old. I thought I heard distant voices, and argument maybe, but in the morning I wasn’t so sure.
I had no better luck the next day and was beginning to get worried. Around dusk on the fourth night a man walked into my camp and told me he was a park ranger. He wore torn jeans and a dirty Led Zeppelin t-shirt but I decided against asking him for his badge. When I told him I was lost he just shrugged and said, “everybody’s a little lost kid, worse places for it to happen than here.” When I asked how he got there he grinned and said, “They helicopter me in and out. Can’t tell you the coordinates though,” he laughed, “they’re top secret.” He paused and added, “Besides, just a two man chopper anyway.” Before he left he charged me ten dollars to draw a map in the dirt, but it didn’t make any sense and I went to sleep discouraged. In the morning I discovered I was only about three hundred yards from the entrance. There was a hand written note on my windshield that said I had parked illegally and I should come to the sheriff’s office in Medora to pay the fine.
When I caught up with the harvesting outfit in Saskatoon, most of the crew had left, including Mitchie. They all got laid off early because of the gas shortage on account the OPEC oil embargo, which was on account of Nixon giving the Israelis new jets, which was on account of the Russians giving the Syrians arms, which was on account of the Arab-Israeli war, which was on account of nothing we’ll ever get to the bottom of. I never did have enough money to buy that Linhof, but I still have the nudes, which all these years later I appreciate more anyway.