50 States Project Update: Dakota Days

By Editorial Team on September 14, 2021

This news brief is an update of Kate Fleming and Tom Woodruff’s 50 States Project.  You can read about the first leg of their journey HERE.


From Kate and Tom:

Dear Friends and Supporters,

Hello from Montana, our 40th state! We’re here with only ten states left because of YOU — thank you, thank you, thank you. Every dollar goes directly toward finishing this journey we began nearly two years ago.

The past month has been packed with adventures as we’ve made our way from Minneapolis to Missoula across our country’s Great Plains. We hope you enjoy this story about three very hot days we spent in North and South Dakota.

Day 1: Interior, South Dakota/Badlands National Park
Forecast: 99/66

I woke up hot and sweaty despite the van’s ceiling fan running on full blast. We were parked in a pebbly and barren excuse for a campground in Interior, South Dakota, in the blazing sun. An above-ground pool sat baking in one corner of the lot. A few spindly cottonwoods clung to life nearby, casting miniscule shadows over bloated RVs whose air conditioners hummed around the clock.

Tom and I are hot weather people, but the forecast had me nervous: highs in or near the triple digits for the next three days. It’s one thing to experience high temps at home when you have access to air conditioning and cold showers and swimming pools — it’s an entirely different thing to camp on a dusty, exposed prairie in 100-degree heat when your primary shelter is an elaborate, dark blue tin can. I thought maybe we should drive to Colorado or Minnesota to wait out the heat — it would only be a 12-hour detour! Tom assured me that although we would be uncomfortable, we would not die of exposure. (And I mostly believed him).

We spent the day at Badlands National Park, meticulously reading every sign and didactic in the (air conditioned) visitor center and cruising around, looking for shade. By 3:00 the temperature had climbed to an oppressive 101 degrees. The car’s interior got so hot that things began to fall off the walls; the adhesives were melting. We were lethargic and constantly thirsty. I impatiently counted down the hours until sunset.

In the evening we attended ranger programs at the park’s outdoor amphitheater, trying to delay going to bed as long as possible. By midnight, it was in the mid-80s but our well-insulated van hung onto the day’s heat. We lay in bed with the windows down and the back doors wide open, trying not to move or — worse — get too close to one another.

Day 2: Interior, South Dakota to Medora, North Dakota
Forecast: 102/61

We woke, immediately donned our sun hats and sunscreen, and began the 300-mile trek northward to Theodore Roosevelt National Park. For scenery, Highway 85 offered miles and miles of dry, yellow grass punctuated by the occasional field of sunflowers. As the temperature outside soared into the hundreds, I kept obsessively checking the engine temperature gauge, sure that the car would overheat. I put my hand to the window and it felt hot to the touch despite the air conditioned interior.

We pulled into Sully Creek Campground in Medora around 7:00 pm. The campground looked mostly empty, but the ranger informed us with an apologetic North Dakota smile that all the sites were booked. It seemed many people had reserved their sites in advance — but the extreme weather had scared them into not showing up. The ranger kindly allowed us to stay in the nearby horse camp (for a neat sum of $32.00).

As I started to cook dinner, a fierce wind whipped up in the darkness, scattering our belongings. We threw everything back inside just as a clattering of raindrops pounded the van’s fiberglass roof. At home, summer thunderstorms wash away the heat and humidity. But in North Dakota the storm passed as quickly as it had come, and the temperature hovered stubbornly around 90 degrees.

By midnight, we were worn out. But it was still too hot to sleep. We laid, spread eagle, on our campsite’s picnic bench — just waiting. A rustling in the cottonwoods brought anticipation of a cool breeze to follow. Instead, a hot wind blasted across the prairie — as if someone had pointed a giant hair dryer in our direction.

Hiking on the Maah Daah Hey Trail in North Dakota

Day 3: Medora, North Dakota/Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Forecast: 104/66

I awoke battle-ready. This was to be the last and hottest of these hot days. I went for a walk on the nearby Maah Daah Hey Trail while Tom somehow managed to continue sleeping in our oven on wheels.

By the time I returned, the flies had arrived (see: horse camp) and we rushed to pack away all our things once again. We fled Sully Creek swatting madly at the dozens of uninvited hitchhikers buzzing around inside the van. The heat and the lack of sleep were beginning to wear on us. The flies weren’t helping.

Wildfire smoke had blown in from Montana overnight, giving the landscape a yellowish, otherworldly hue. After thoroughly exploring not one, but two, different visitor centers, we found our sweaty selves draped across a bench overlooking the smoke-obscured Painted Canyon. Even with the smoke, it was spectacular. But we were hot. And tired. And even a little bored. We agreed that appreciating what you have is the hardest thing in the world.

That evening as the temperature dropped into the low 90s, we felt sweet relief. We went for an evening hike through prairie dog villages and crumbling badland formations. Every step scattered red-, yellow-, and black- winged grasshoppers with a crackling sound. The sun dipped toward the horizon and turned an unbelievable crimson in the smoky sky. I laid down on the smooth-pebbled bank of the muddy Little Missouri, looking at the sky and listening to Tom skip rocks. “We are lucky,” I reminded myself for the millionth time. And we truly are. We may occasionally be hot or cold or in desperate need of a shower, but I wouldn’t trade this for anything.

The Painted Canyon of Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Tom walking along the banks of the Little Missouri
Sunset in Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Hiking in the Badlands

Kate’s Recent Work

Sturgis, SD
Sturgis, SD
Douglas, WY
Glacier National Park, MT

Tom’s Recent Work

Sturgis, SD
Sturgis, SD
Sturgis, SD
Sturgis, SD
In other news…

You can still catch Kate’s work on view at The Phillips Collection in Washington, DC until September 12th! Visit the exhibition website here and view the digital publication here.

Kate recently spoke to Cara Elvira for her YouTube series on art and Unconditional Positive Regard. Watch the interview here.

In case you missed it, our virtual exhibition Where We’ve Been is still viewable here.

(Source: Kate Fleming and Tom Woodruff email.  All images and text courtesy and copyright of the artists )