By Andy Christian Castillo
The day my bus home to Massachusetts from Rapid City, South Dakota, was canceled, I crashed in a Panera Bread and gorged myself on breadsticks, washing them down with cups of Doctor Pepper. That day was long, and I was tired.
I ate a lot of breadsticks.
Thick grey clouds nearly suffocated a hot sun when I pushed open the door a few hours later. It was around 5 p.m. in December, an unusually warm day for that time of year. I shouldered my backpack and started walking to nowhere in particular.
I was on the tail end of a Greyhound backpacking trip around the United States, meeting interesting people and hitching rides when I could. So far, I’d been to the Grand Canyon, spent a few days in Las Vegas, and stopped at various cities along the way. Earlier, I’d caught a taxi to Mount Rushmore.
Traveling by bus had allowed me to fully experience the natural and cultural diversity of the U.S.: rocky mountains changed to stretching landscapes, devoid of life; breathtaking mountain ranges contrasted rolling hills. It was a trip of a lifetime.
But after a week sleeping on uncomfortable seats and in sketchy hostels, I was ready to return to my own bed. Thus, it was frustrating to discover my ride home had broken down somewhere in Arizona.
The day my bus home was canceled, my feet wandered up a small mountain, to a rocky ledge. There, I set up my camera on a tripod and took long exposures of a quaint valley below. Lights blinked on in the distance as dusk settled over the Black Hills. Wind shook the trees behind me. Waning rays of the evening’s sun blinked below the low clouds.
It was getting late. Raindrops started to fall, and I began packing up my camera equipment.
The day my bus home was cancelled, two men, obscured by darkness, suddenly emerged from the treeline behind me. One slouched heavily against a tree; the other, to his left, hands in pockets, took a step forward.
Behind me there was a two hundred foot drop: in front, an unknown menace; I prepared for the worst.
“Where are you from?” he asked in an unfamiliar accent, words slightly slurred.
I didn’t want to reveal my purpose.
“I’m just taking some photos. It’s a gorgeous sunset out there,” I said, with a glance over my shoulder at the almost dark sky.
“Yes, this is beautiful country.”
The other man grunted, slipping down the tree. I hefted my backpack over my shoulder, thinking of the knife buried under clothing, wishing that it was more accessible.
While answering a few more awkward attempts at conversation, I sidled off the ledge to the trees. I said goodnight and turned to leave.
“Hey,” the first man said in a definitive and no-bullshit way. I stopped and turned around.
He continued: “My friend is really drunk. We need help down the mountain.”
I didn’t say anything. He added, “he needs hands-on help.”
Then I understood the situation. They were both Native American, from a reservation not far away, the first man said. He was drunk; his friend, drunker; they couldn’t navigate the descent to level ground on their own. They needed my help.
The day my bus home was canceled, I gripped the arm of Jim Elkfoot, and walked down the mountain next to his brother, Gerard Elkfoot.
We talked about life; the meaning of it, and the struggles both men faced. And about their culture, and how western civilization threatened to destroy it.
“I like being out here, where the trees bend down and hear you whisper. Buildings don’t do that. You can’t find medicine in the city. Not like here. Here, there is medicine everywhere,” Gerard said with a broad sweep of a hand, as we walked.
I learned they’d been given $40,000 from the government a few years earlier. Compensation, Gerard said. Jim had purchased a Chevy Corvette. Gerard didn’t say what he did with it.
Gerard was a translator for archeologists, well spoken and opinionated. Jim was very drunk, and said “fuck you, Gerard,” a dozen or so times.