Just a few miles out of Mitchell, South Dakota got real beautiful, real quick. It was a nice surprise to find a free campground in the Badlands where I met an adventurer named Alison on a trip very much like my own. On the road indefinitely while soul searching and taking in the countryside. She taught me some things about the birds and the stars and beauty in general. Her father passed away fairly recently. He was a reclusive painter, but they were very close. She said that he always wanted to live out west, so she is spreading his ashes along her way. She had a little collection of knives, some of which were here father’s. I was moved close to tears when she insisted that I take one. I now possess this Finnish gem from Alison’s father and feel slightly more empowered with it on my hip.
I passed along to her my audio copy of Eat. Pray. Love. which felt like a lesser reciprocation, but it has been the perfect companion on this trip and after all, the trailer for the film was a catalyst for this journey. We are keeping in touch along our respective journeys and it is a great comfort to know she is out there, hopefully experiencing similar majesty.
While in the Badlands, I found a scenic spot, climbed up onto Ms. Liberty’s back and painted for a few hours before sunset on my first day. On my way back to camp I got stuck in traffic with upwards of 150 of these stubborn beauties.
I worked in some great hikes and a farewell hang with my new friend and headed west toward Montana. A detour through the Black Hills seemed in order as it would include a drive by on Mt. Rushmore and more importantly! the city of Deadwood. I was such a huge fan of that series and had to see Deadwood. While it wasn’t the most amazing place, it was still quite beautiful and I found a great junk shop where I found loads of treasures to bring home to my friends that I miss terribly. The owner of the shop directed me to Beulah, WY for free camping where I found another peach of a spot, right on the waterfall at Sand Creek.
I bathed in it’s crystal clear, icy cold water after my morning run and felt… no words. On my hunt for firewood I was directed to The Trading Post where I found no firewood, but a massive entry way into the coolest dive bar EVER called, brace yourself, Saloon No. 333. You may or may not know that I am mildly obsessed with 333′s. I was born at 3:33. I always manage to look at the clock at 3:33. I see them everywhere! To stumble on this smokey little 333 dive bar in the middle of nowhere where the vodka tonics are pint sized and only cost $3 a pop, brought me great pleasure. And I have to note that the exit number for this heavenly place I am currently writing to you from… its 333. But I’ll get to that.
So, I pick my barstool and to my left is a nice looking, friendly fellow in his 50′s named Ron. Yes, another Ron. Ron is that guy. The one that everyone in town knows and loves who has lived in Spearfish, SD, about 5 miles down the road, for his entire life. Ron became my accidental tour guide for the following 48 hours during which he carted me all over Bell Fouche and Spearfish, SD on the back of his 1970-something Harley Davidson shovelhead? whatever, is was cool. He took me to breakfast, coffee, helped me find firewood, let me raid his garden and introduced me to his best friends, Dom & Kim, who invited us over for dinner.
I went back to my campsite, painted for a few hours, then Ron picked me up on the bike at sunset. We headed back to Dom & Kim’s for a delicious chicken dinner with cucumbers and yogurt, tomato basil salad from Ron’s garden and sweet onions and vinegar that cooked in the belly of the chickens. mmm…
Kim is one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen with long dark hair and legs up to her ears. She is an incredible Mother, cook, weight lifter?, wine drinker, Elk gutting artist with two of the coolest teenagers on the planet. Rudy, her 16 year old son, wants to be a screen writing metro sexual or maybe a gynecologist. He has an arsenal of handguns and buck knives in a safe in his bedroom that he was very excited to show me, and clearly has one of the biggest sweetest hearts of any 16 year old I’ve ever met.
His younger sister is Dominique. Dominique, or Isabella Swan, as she proudly introduced herself, has Downs Syndrome and is totally obsessed with Twilight. I fell completely in love with this 14 year old girl who showed me her sketchbook full of horses and whitetail deer, cuddled with me by the fire and let me braid her hair.
She sang songs in the kitchen while Mom danced and Dad played backup guitar. That snapshot of this beautiful family is the same one that brought tears as I hit the road the next morning to Montana.
I find myself weeping a lot recently. The tears keep coming in these moments of overwhelming joy like I haven’t felt for a long time. Too long. The next wave of tears came after I took exit #333 into Livingston, MT. I’m driving up the mountain on a little gravel road listening to Bill Callahan’s “Too Many Birds” flanked by horses and its right at the peak of sunset. I had to stop about every 50 ft. or so to take it all in. You must witness a Montana sunset before you die.
My friend Wynn has a dear friend, a sculptor named Amber Jean (www.amberjean.com), who lives here in the mountains in a magical little log cabin. I am not exaggerating. This place is a spiritual Mecca. Amber has lived here since she graduated from art school about 14 years ago when she met a logger named Cliff. This was Cliff’s place. They met fighting forrest fires when she was a parks ranger and now they are like family. I have not met Cliff yet, but am eagerly awaiting the opportunity to share a glass of whiskey with him as I have been strictly instructed by Wynn.
AmberJean is living the life of most artists’ dreams. Her work is in high demand, she was recently flown on a private jet to Texas to put her magic touch on the lives of some wealthy entrepreneurs. Her reliquaries are magnificent and presently her main focus. They are carved out of massive 12′ logs that open like giant upright coffins, and house all sorts of goodies inside. She is a bright golden smiling beauty and tough as nails manhandling these monstrous logs in her warehouse studio. She has already been a generous ambassador for me in the local gallery scene. I spent half the day yesterday following her directions to recommended galleries and introducing myself while taking in some killer artwork in downtown Bozemen. The other half was spent at the warehouse where Amber and Stacy share studio space. Stacy is a burgeoning encaustic painter that let me play in her studio and try my hand at wax media. I am not good at wax media. Stacy is gifted with wax media and was generous, patient and just generally cool as hell.
There is a separate little cabin down the road from Amber’s nicknamed “Granny’s Place”. Cliff built this little hideaway for his mother years ago and it will be my home for the next few days, it’s front deck will also be my studio. I will remain here in heaven until Saturday morning when I plan to power through to Seattle. Who knows where I may stop along the way.