A MOTHER'S RITES
by Steve Carr Thursday before the last weekend in August, hot wind perfumed with the drying golden grass that covers most of the roadside mounds of heated earth blows in through the open windows.
The rush of wind fills the car's interior. It's Harriet's normal speed on this stretch of interstate headed east, and she knows it well, having traveled it often throughout the years. Dying quick deaths, bugs splatter on the windshield leaving blotches and streaks. His face stuck out of the back window, long ears dancing about his head, tongue extended lapping in the scents of summer decay, Lucky wags his tail, a satisfied partner to the viewing of the open countryside being passed at seventy miles per hour. At the turnoff to Wasta the car is slowed and here Harriet turns and decreases the car's speed to forty miles per hour and then decreases it even more as she enters the small town. Wasta has changed very little over the years. A few ramshackle buildings line what could be called the downtown area. At fifteen miles per hour she cruises through Wasta and continues out of this throwback to dreams that never happened of becoming a traveler's stop, usurped by the clever marketing of ice water offered in nearby Wall. Outside of Wasta few houses stand along the road she takes, it being an unlikely and almost desolate environment in which to encourage homesteading. It leads to the dried muddy banks of the Cheyenne River where dead trees submerged each spring in the yearly floods remain rotting in place.
Here, she puts her foot on the brake pedal and the car comes to a stop alongside a rusty barbed wire fence, a boundary marker for some land owner protecting his wasteland from - what? Harriet gets out of the car and then lets Lucky out. The dog runs off toward the river, his barks muted by the silence that hangs over this place like a death shroud. Harriet steps over some fallen fence wire and treads across the gray cracked earth, headed toward the river.
No grass or weed or wildflower grows along the river bank, only varying hues of dried red mud provide color. The river is barely a stream that moves slowly on its way to wherever it is destined to end. The water is brackish and unappealing, only tempting to Lucky who bounces over it and through it with abundant energy. On the opposite bank, a lone cow, head bent and moving slowly, makes its way upriver. Lucky seems unimpressed with it and continues his frolic to and fro across the Cheyenne. Harriet's son, Jeffrey, thought this place magical, the name Cheyenne bringing to mind, the days when the Sioux Indians roamed these parts in search of the great herds of buffalo, a place where movies were made to recall the glorified struggles between land seeking settlers and the noble Indian. Here he had searched the ground for arrowheads, never finding one but always hopeful. Lucky was his companion, sticking near him awaiting a friendly pat on the head or encouragement to join him and run along the muddy river until both were coated with thick globs of wet soil. Inhaling, the air was dense with the almost fetid odor of lifelessness, that and the drying cow pies that dotted the ground like drying black pimples. Harriet too is entranced by this place. She had happened on it quite by accident one summer when Jeffrey was very young and inspired by him being enamored with its other worldly quality, they had returned every year at the same time, finding nothing changed, nothing new except an occasional fallen tree or the carcass of a dead cow. While all else seemed altered by time, this small stretch along the Cheyenne River never did. Lucky responds to her whistle, rushing to her side, his fur matted with mud, his eyes bright and if it is possible for a dog, full of joy. She leads him back to the car and there she opens a large thermos of cold water and douses him with it and rubs the mud and grime off of him. He is cleaner but not entirely free of the evidence of the excursion. She opens the back door and he leaps onto the seat. She takes her place behind the wheel, starts the car and turns back toward Wasta and back to the interstate. Fifteen minutes later she pulls into Wall, stops at the corner convenience store and fills her gas tank, refills the thermos from a faucet extending out from a wall outside the store, then heads into town. Cars line the Main Street, parked at angles on each side of a median strip. Storefronts on each side of the street, most built or remodeled to look like a nineteenth century western town, are crowded with tourists gaping in the windows at shelves upon shelves of western and frontier souvenirs. Harriet pulls off on a side street, finds a shady spot to park the car, rolls down the window to give Lucky some air in the late afternoon heat, and fills his water dish and sits on the floor in the back. He knows the routine and doesn't complain other than to look longingly at Harriet as she closes the door and heads toward Wall Drug Store. Glaringly commercial, overstocked with cheap trinkets, it's room upon room attached to make a good-sized mall of useless paraphernalia for a town of less than 900 people, and crowded, it has come a long way since its inception as a simple place for people to stop and get a free glass of ice water. She knows her way to the cafeteria and without stopping to look at Indian headdresses or plastic colt 45s as Harriet might have done had Jeffrey been along, she goes straight to the counter and in quick fashion given the length of the line that was ahead of her, orders a buffalo burger and fries and a Diet Coke. She takes her tray with her order number on a small placard placed on it and goes into the large dining room. Surrounded by dark paneled walls covered with original works of western art, she takes a seat at a long table in the center of the cafeteria, in between a hodgepodge of men, women and children noisily living up the experience of being in this amusement park that has no rides other than a horse that requires a quarter to make it buck for a minute or two while a child sits on it. The food arrives quickly, delivered by one of the students from a nearby college hired for the summer to supplement the workforce that Wall and the surrounding area was lacking. Of three places in this journey, this was Jeffrey's second favorite, owing to its stacks of useless junk and lack of shame in providing nothing authentic other than the paintings on the wall, which he had studied as carefully as possible, reveling in those that were of mountain men, stallions on their hind legs, Indians on snowy plains and ragged buffalo in raging stampedes. Harriet eats only half of the burger and few of the fries, wrapping them in a napkin to be carried to Lucky. She stops at the counter again and buys two of Wall's cake donuts, considered by Jeffrey to be the best donuts in the world, bar none. She leaves the drugstore though a different door than the one she came in by and makes her way down the street to a very wagging tailed dog pleased with his treat which he devours almost as soon as it is offered to him. At the end of the street and before leaving, Wall is the only local grocery store, a small mom-and-pop place with five aisles that provide the basics for the locals and anything that someone who intends to camp at the nearby Badlands National Park would need. Harriet buys coal for a grill, two bags of ice and a variety of smaller items and some Slim Jims for Lucky. She leaves the store carrying two bags, one with the ice, the other with there remaining items. At the car, she opens the trunk and moves aside the folded up tent, a shovel, and a small cardboard box with the top neatly taped closed and lifts out the ice chest and places it on the ground. In goes the ice, several bottles of orange juice, a pack of hot dogs and a package of bologna. She repacks the trunk and sets off again, leaving Wall.
From Wall to the entrance of the Badlands National Park, it is only a few miles, and the famous rock formations begin a few miles beyond the turnoff past the entrance, the right handed turnoff that Harriet takes after buying a pass to allow her to camp until Sunday. Small gray clouds of dirt and gravel kick up behind her as she drives slowly past a broad stretch of prairie on the right and a ridge overlooking a deep valley with rolling hills of rock and stretches of barren land and yellow prairie grass to the right. Even before arriving at it, the wooden signs with silver lettering directs her toward the prairie dog town straight ahead. Cars are parked on each side of the road, with people milling about with cameras pointed at the prairie dogs who stand at alert on their hind legs atop their mounds a hundred feet from the edge of the road, or they dash in and out of the hundred or so holes that beneath constitute their habitats. Harriet drives by the parked cars and the prairie dogs very slowly, swallowing hard agains the rush of emotion that is overtaking her. Beyond there, she picks jump speed and takes the turns and stretches of straight flat unfinished road all the way to the campgrounds barely noticing how little anything has changed, after all, it had only been a year since the last time she and Jeffrey had been there.
An oval shaped space the size of several football fields bordered on one side by a wall of rock and a stretch of land cut through by a dry creek bed on the other, the campground is busy but not crowded. Harriet pulls into the closest available spot nearest an old dead tree that Jeffrey had cut his initials into, and parks the car. Keeping Lucky in the back seat, barking to be set free at last, she unpacks the trunk, sets up the tent and lays out the sleeping bags as well as the ice chest inside it. When set up, she hooks Lucky's leash to his collar and lets him out of the car and walks toward the creek bed, stopping to let him survey the myriad of scents, and to relieve himself. Harriet is tired now, and she sits on a ledge of rock and watches small birds, terns or swifts, she wasn't sure which, circling overhead, occasionally dipping down to the creek bed and scooping up something much too small to be seen by her. In the distance, she hears the one bird sound she knew at some deeper level, the call of a meadowlark, his short melodic warble echoing from some nearby stretch of grass and down the creek all the way to her heart.
Saturday morning, Lucky is curled in a ball by her side and breathing heavily, Harriet awakes and sees the moving shadow on the side of the tent. She undoes the zipper on the sleeping bag and crawls to the tent door and unzips it and sticks her head out. Five feet away, a large, mangy buffalo is nibbling at a small tuft of grass as its dozen or so companions do the same not much further away. Lucky is now up, attempting to push his way past her. She quickly zips up the tent door and sits back down on the sleeping bag, quietly opening the ice chest and taking out a bottle of juice and twisting off the cap and relishing the coolness of it as she drinks. Buffalo are unpredictable and dangerous, so she makes as little noise as possible, opening a package of Slim Jims from their noisy plastic wrapping with great care then feeding it to Lucky. Exactly when she falls asleep again she later does not recall, but it was near noon when she awakes in the hot tent with Lucky jumping about eager to take care of business. The buffalo are gone.
Throughout the day she takes brief walks to the creek bed, mainly to give Lucky exercise, but mainly stays near the tent sitting on an Indian blanket she had purchased at a small store in Scenic years ago, and reading Willa Cather's "Oh, Pioneer." She snacks on bologna sandwiches and fig Newton's. The campers around her are cordial without being intrusive and tend to their own activities without pressing her to join them, which is exactly how she wants it to be. As evening approaches with purple skies and silvery clouds fading away in the darkness, she builds a small fire in the grill that had been built by the park service, basically a pit dug in the ground surrounding by a small circular wall of iron and topped with a grill of metal bars blackened by the fires that had been built beneath it. When darkness sets in she places two hot dogs on the grill and listens to the grease crackle as it falls into the fire. She opens a can of Lucky's favorite dog food for him and they eat together, seated next to one another on the Indian blanket. While others in the campground are still awake, she crawls into her tent with Lucky and pulling him to her, settles into the sleeping bag and falls sound asleep. Harriet is awake even before the Sunday morning sun rises over the campground. She lies in the sleeping bag rubbing Lucky's ear much to his apparent delight and listening to the distant sounds of a coyote, and the nearer sounds of birds in the nearby trees giving song to the beginning of day. As light begins to creep across the tent, she hooks Lucky to this leash and takes him down to the creek bed and unhooks it, letting him run about free for nearly an hour before calling him to her side and walking him back to the campsite. Other campers are preparing to leave, with tents being taken down and folded and stacked onto car tops or in car trunks. Some weekend holdouts like her, are taking it slower, fixing a final breakfast of eggs and bacon prepared in a cast iron skillet placed on the grill, or heading off for a final walk down the ravines or up to the hilltop hoping for one last sighting of buffalo. "This is it," she says to Lucky, realizing that she had barely spoken more than those three words all weekend. She opens the trunk of the car and takes out the shovel, then goes to the tree that had Jeffrey's initials and at its base, she begins to dig a small hole. Once she makes her way down about two feet, she stops digging and sits the shovel aside. Lucky is tied to the car and is whining and straining his leash. She pets his head and then takes the small box out of the trunk of the car and carefully peels the tape from the two flaps at its top. She lifts out a bundle, and carefully removes the bubble wrap and cotton and throws the wrapping items into the trunk. In her hands, she holds a bright blue earthen jar decorated with a variety of images; footballs, cowboys, spaceships, and one of Lucky. She retrieves the two donuts from the car, then walks over to the hold and removes the lid of the jar and puts ashes from the jar into the hole. Once the jar is emptied, she places the donuts on top of the ashes, then replaces the dirt in the hole and pats it down. She thinks that maybe she should say a few words, but none came to mind. This is not a time for words.