We pulled into a small parking lot off the only road that stretched through the wilderness of South Dakota's Badlands. We had spent the day languidly driving through the park, awestruck by the other-worldly landscape of buttes and bluffs. In the diagonal light before dusk, the gray-white mounds turned golden yellow, scored with rose and tangerine bands.
This was the first week of a six-month couch-surfing, car-camping road trip with my new enterprising boyfriend. Our plan was to tour the entire western United States doing research for a non-profit we intended to start together. We had whittled down all our possessions to what we could pack into a VW Jetta.
Introduced by a mutual friend, we had become acquainted via email. He, typing from Paris, and me, from Milwaukee. After bonding over a concern for the state of the earth, he invited me to join him in his oversized Parisian loft to help file the non-profit paperwork while he finished out his commitments. Under the influence of the city of romance, we quickly fell in love. For two months, we dined on French cuisine, frequented fantastic clubs, and admired painters' creations as we walked along the Seine and through open-air markets where flowers perfumed the air. We showered daily, wore fashionable clothes, and used the bathroom with the door closed. It was like we were on an extended honeymoon.
When we left Paris to embark on our road trip, a new phase of our relationship unfolded. An intimate familiarity between us grew from being together in an enclosed space for days on end. After a week on the road, the car smelled of gas station food ground into car mats and dirty clothes infused with campfire smoke and lake water.
Despite the lack of privacy, I was still working to put my best self forward and keep my gory insides under wraps. A tall order with no door behind which I could hide my bodily functions as we all prefer to do at the beginning of relationships. My friend, Emily, the one who introduced us, kept her guys believing for at least the first six months of a new relationship that she magically did not poop.
Despite my efforts at concealment, my raw humanity was leaking out. The veil of romance that enchanted us in Paris was lifting. I had reached that moment in a relationship when I start asking myself questions like: can I live with the smell of this person's morning breath for the rest of my life?
As the sun was touching down on the horizon, we hopped out of the car and walked through a grassy meadow into arid terrain looking for a camp spot. Only one other car was in the parking lot. It seemed odd to me that so few visitors were in the park in July. Maybe they knew something we didn't.
Pressed for daylight, we jogged past a sign warning BEWARE OF RATTLESNAKES with a black-and-white drawing of a large, ominous rattler beneath. The dominance of erosion was apparent on the geography where wind and water wore down the landscape's resolve over the ages. We shuffled over ground covered in the chalky sand and broken-up rocks that fell from the buttes. We found a private camping spot on the far side of two small buttes buffered from any road noise. On the edge of a bluff overlooking the expanse, the badlands stretched for miles in front of us. Perfect, we agreed.
We worked together to set up the dome tent New Boyfriend picked up at a sporting goods store. It was a car camping luxury tent, large and roomy enough for us to stand in. Pounding tent stakes in with large rocks, we managed only to bend them when the firm ground refused their entry.
"Ground's too hard. Let's just pile a few rocks on the loops to hold the rainfly down," New Boyfriend said.
We watched a herd of bison grazing on short-grass prairie on the other side of the chasm. A bighorn sheep eased its way over rocky outcrops, its cloven hoofs clacking on the slopes. The last light of day faded from the sky and washed the buttes clean of color. New Boyfriend and I lingered outside as the sky blackened into a moonless night. The hazy Milky Way rose from the horizon into the darkness above. Stars stretched deeper into space than either of us had seen before.
Without a fire, the cool night seeped into my bones. Fast moving clouds obscured the stars on the distant horizon. We retired to our tent and slipped into warm sleeping bags. Lying next to each other, we listened to the silence of the barren landscape as sleep overcame us.
Crashing thunder rang in my ears and startled me awake. Drips of water hit my face. In the darkness I could make out New Boyfriend sitting upright with his arms outstretched as if performing an odd prayer.
"What's going on? Are you okay?" I said.
"Serious storm. The wind keeps blowing the tent over and rain's coming in through the window," he shouted over rumbling thunder. "I'm getting soaked trying to hold it up."
"It's getting wet over here too," I said. Lightning struck nearby, shaking the ground and lighting the tent. The air had the peculiar ozone smell of electricity in motion. Grasping the power of the storm on the other side of the flimsy nylon walls, panic started pulsing through my body.
"Holy crap, that was close!" I shrieked.
"It's all right, it will pass," he said.
"Maybe we should go back to the car. I heard that if you get struck by lightning in a car, the wheels absorb the electricity," I said, suddenly wanting to be anywhere but there.
"Yah, that's a myth. As long as you don't touch anything when lightning strikes, the electricity dissipates from the body of the car. Doesn't have to do with the wheels." He was working hard to hold up the tent, which violent winds were now threatening to fold in half.
"Ugh! We don't have a flashlight, remember? Even with the sky lighting up like this, it's too dark to find our way back," I said.
"We'd be lightning rods standing out there in the open anyway," he replied.
I nodded, wiping rain from my face with my flimsy t-shirt.
"If I don't hold up these poles, they'll snap. Then, likely, the wind will blow us right over the bluff. But I might get struck by lightning, holding onto metal like this in an electrical storm." He was way too calm, talking about the ways he might die in the night.
"I guess the rocks didn't work," I said. He craned his neck and shot me a glance that said not helpful. "Doesn't matter," I backpedaled.
My mind was closing in on itself from fear. "We have to stay away from tall trees," I mumbled, remembering the advice of an outdoor guide I once camped with.
"Good thing there are no trees out here…at all." He was looking at me, wondering if I was losing it.
Think, think, I thought, exhaling hard to reign in my panic. "What if you put your shoes on and hold up the poles with your feet. The rubber soles will keep the lightning from burning through you." Worth a try, I thought.
He eyed me dubiously, but decided going along with me would calm me down. "Okay. Throw me my shoes. I'll try it." He secured the tent poles lying on his back with his shoes up in the air.
"Grab your shoes, too. Help me hold up your side of the tent," he said motioning with his chin. "Okay," I said, wiggling out of my sleeping bag.
Trapped between being blown 200 feet over a bluff and getting struck by lightning, we lay next to each other, hands and feet in the air and thighs pressed against our bellies for support.
Then, whether I let my guard down because of sheer exhaustion or due to the fact that I was lying in what in yoga class we call the "wind-relieving pose," I farted. Even the noise of the storm couldn't conceal it. I scrunched my face up in embarrassment.
Great, I thought, just let it all hang out—panic, losing it, and now this! Our journey together had taken us from flower-perfumed Parisian markets to fart-sealed tents in only a few short months. Here is where our romance has come to die.
"Must be those damn barking spiders," he offered. "They follow me around relentlessly." And then, in a gesture of solidarity, he farted, too. We looked at each other sideways and giggled. It was not a terribly romantic moment. But in the place of romance, I realized, something deeper was rising up. A more intimate, real, and yes, smellier relationship was blossoming.
"We look like fried possums," he said.
"At least we'll fry together," I said, still giggling, my panic dissipating. I curled against him and dropped my legs—one unanticipated gas release was enough for the moment. We stayed like that until the howling winds began to subside and we fell into an exhausted, soggy sleep.
The blazing sun woke us a couple hours later. Hot sunbeams pierced through the tears the storm left in our tent walls, spearing my skin like lasers. We dragged our wet sleeping bags back to the car in the light of day and threw the tent into the first trash can we found.
"Wait," said New Boyfriend, "let's keep the bottom, we can use it as a tarp."
After that, we relaxed into our road trip and each other. We wouldn't face a storm of that size or force again. But just in case, we invested in a low-to-the-ground four-season tent with sturdy poles, trading in the idea of a luxury dome for functionality.
Our journey together stretched from months into years, and New Boyfriend turned into Long-term Husband, to whom I am still happily married. Although we've seen some storms in our relationship over the years, none have been quite like the one that knocked us out of new relationship bliss and into a real life together. Storms these days, after ten years together, are fewer and father in between.
About the Author
Christina Selby lives in Santa Fe, NM, with her husband and two young sons, where she co-founded an environmental non-profit organization and is a freelance writer currently working on a fiction novel. You can find her writing online and in print at Green Money Journal, Journal for Sustainability Education, Sustainable Santa Fe Guide, Mother Earth Living Blog, Lowestoft Chronicle, among other publications.