The furthest from the city I had ever been was the ‘burbs. What I was walking through didn’t bear even the slightest resemblance to the wildest, overgrown park I had gone into as a street rat. I figured out my first mistake even before the sun went down … water.
In the city and ‘burbs there was always places to find water. It collected in gutters, upturned junk on roofs and in yards, in concrete culverts and gutters. In the wilderness I found myself, if there was water it was hidden from me. The one thing I did remember was if there was green there was likely to be some water, I just wasn’t sure if it would be accessible to me.
I’d managed to go about five or six miles from the ranch when I reached an area full of evergreens and decided that it was as good as any to set up camp for the night. I found a stick and poked around beneath one that hung very low to the ground and, finding no prior occupants, crawled under it. The whole thing reminded me of trying to find a place in the city to flop that wasn’t already overrun with roaches, rats, mice, or something worse. I opened my pack and pulled out a sheet of rolled up of plastic, nearly brittle from lack of use, and spread it on the ground before sitting on it and pulling my pack close to my body. I also pulled out my sling shot. The plastic was an old shower curtain that I’d scavenged not too long before I had been tagged to replace and even older piece that had finally fallen apart. The sling shot belonged to my brother, I could barely remember his face these days, but so long as I had the sling shot and my father’s tool belt they were still part of me.
Trying to decide what to do next I realized it was time to put up or shut up. Being a street rat had given me some skills. I’d done extensive reading using my library pass at SEPH that gave me knowledge of more skills. But now it was time to see if I could really make it on my own like I had before I had been bagged and tagged. In the city there had always been things to scavenge. From what I read the same was true in the Wastelands if you knew where to go, what to look for, and knew what to do with it. But first I needed to find out where I was.
I pulled out my tablet and turned it on. I got a very faint signal so I turned the booster on; it ate up battery use so I didn’t like using. That helped and I was able to get into the GPS system. I only wanted to be in there briefly so I could find out where I was and then I was going to get out and take the coordinates to a map program I had.
Oral, South Dakota. Where the heck was that?! I escaped from GPS and then opened the maps program. Oral, SD was exactly where I was afraid it was … nowhere. I knew where it was supposed to be on the map but it was nothing but a dot with no information in the middle of a vast bunch of even less information. The two closest points that I had information on were Hot Springs, SD and Buffalo Gap, SD. Now to decide which one to head towards.
There wasn’t much more information on Buffalo Gap than there had been Oral but worse, I had to head sharply north to get to it. I wasn’t ready to head north yet. North meant cold and that I didn’t need. Hot Springs was more promising. It was a city and it was west of Oral. And though I know that a lot of place names didn’t particularly mean what you thought they did I was hoping that “hot springs” meant there was plenty of water in the area. I did the calculations and if I followed the road I had about sixteen miles to go. If I didn’t follow the road it might be less miles as the crow flies but I was asked for trouble in the form of the landscape.
Thinking … thinking … thinking … Why did I even bother with the debate? Hot Springs, SD it was. Before it got completely dark I went through my back pack and organized it better. It was going to be too cold once the sun went down to make do with just the coverall I was wearing so I stripped again and put another shirt on. The skirts were useless so I didn’t bother. I took care of my feet – important whether you were a street rat or a mountain goat – and added socks.
I used my plastic sheeting and leaves and stuff from around the base of the trees to create a kind of hovel to crawl into. I shouldn’t have felt safe, but I did. The sound of the wind through the trees was soothing and I fell into a light sleep.
I woke to feel something crawling into my hovel. It reminded me of the mice and rats that I would share space with in the city but whatever it was walked different. It was on two legs as much as it was on four and it felt more curious than even the most curious mouse; bigger than a mouse too. When I felt whiskers in my ear I shot upright. Whatever it was leapt off of me, banged around looking for a way out and then, once it got outside I heard it scrambling up the tree and then a bunch of noise like it was barking at me.
The only thing that kept me from laughing was the fact that I had to go to the bathroom so badly laughing would have been a bad idea. I got outside and finally found what it was … a tree rat better known to most people as a squirrel. I should have been upset that it was already daylight but couldn’t seem to muster any anger. I was free … or getting there … for the first time in two years and it felt glorious.
I sobered up after eating a little honey as my breakfast. I looked around carefully before pulling the plastic out and rolling it up. I also redistributed the leaves and such that I’d used so there wasn’t an obvious pile of them. The squirrels in the surrounding trees really liked that and came down to investigate. Listening I heard nothing … no sign of pursuit … so I took off using the sun and a small ball compass to head me in the right direction.
As I walked I thought about what I needed to do. Shelter was important but I wouldn’t necessarily need permanent shelter until the autumn, that would give me time to investigate and find the best place to winter over. Food was important but I had a stash that would last me a couple of days. I decided that night I would read up on what wild foods could be found in this area of the country. Water was the most important thing at the moment. I had enough for the walk to Hot Springs but once there I would need to find more. I also needed to find a container to hold more than what would fit in the few bottles that I would empty as I drank during the day.
It took me a lot longer than I expected to hike the sixteen miles to Hot Springs. The road I followed was damaged and cratered and there were old wrecks both on and off the road every so often. I investigated a couple of these in the beginning but they were all clean as a whistle, obviously scavenged over long ago. The whole area was overgrown and I began to wonder if I would find anything once I got to Hot Springs as it became obvious that at some point along the way I had entered the Wastelands.
The term wastelands got me to thinking as well. Junker cars and beat up roads didn’t make for wastelands. As a matter of fact I thought the cities must look more like wastelands than what I was seeing. You heard story after story – like the boogey man – on the TeeVid shows of all the outlaws, destruction, sickness, and radiation made the Wastelands uninhabitable. My reading had shown me that most of those stories weren’t completely true but I thought that where there was smoke there had to be some kind of combustion; but I saw nothing for miles in any direction.
The animals looked normal. I didn’t know about people because I didn’t see any and didn’t sense any either. My conscious whispered, but you didn’t sense that man and girl either. I refused to believe I was that rusty so that meant that the man at least had been that good, and he’d shielded the girl until she stepped around him. True or not there had to be some reason why people weren’t being resettled in the area I was traveling through.
Then I thought about the reasons given for retaking the cities. They wanted to move people back into them, so they said, so that distribution of resources would be easier. They needed to clear the farmlands so that enough crops could be grown so that our country wouldn’t have to buy any foreign crops. I suppose that makes sense but at the same time there is something there that bothers me, like that is only part of the truth and not all of it.
I suppose it could be a weather issue. It was May and pretty nice though it had gotten cool at night. “They” say that you roast and die of thirst in the summer and freeze and die of hunger in the winter. Looks like I was going to find out. From that point on I’d be taking all that I had read and heard with a grain of salt and getting firsthand knowledge; hopefully that wouldn’t kill me.
When I came out of the hills after bypassing a particularly bad wreak and landslide I found myself looking down at the town of Hot Springs, SD. It wasn’t as big as I thought it would be. By the standards I had always known it was a squirty little Podunk of a place. On the other hand at one time it also looked like maybe it hand been kind of ritzy. There were these big, old, stone buildings that reminded me of castles and lots of other old-timey looking buildings as well.
As I looked closer though I could see this town had been let to go to seed for several years. It was hard to tell if the economy did it or the war. The road into town was bad but the roads in the town just looked a little messed up. No yards were maintained and no matter how hard I strained my ears and other senses I didn’t get the sense that anyone really lived here anymore. There might be people around – it was hard to tell over all the nature that kept mucking up my personal radar – but I doubted there were many of them. What I did hear under the rustle of the trees was water and by that time I was pretty desperate.
I carefully hiked down into the town and tried to figure out where the water sound was coming from. I was getting frustrated when I saw an old tourist sign on the ground for something called Evans Plunge, “the world’s largest warm water” something or other; the sign was pretty well trashed. There was a piece of an address; 1145 North River Road. Whether it was the “plunge” or the “river” they both spelled water to me. And since a metal street sign not too far off proclaimed it to be River Rd I figured I had hit pay dirt.
Boy did I hit pay dirt, and it made me feel stupid. Apparently every time I got off the road getting to Hot Springs is when it got close to the river it was against; probably a good reason for all of the slides that tore up the road. Once I got into the town and saw the river … that went with River Road … I went down the bank and looked into it. It wasn’t very deep in places it wasn’t muddy either; in fact it was almost perfectly clear. There were minnows easily visible in the shallow places so I decided to take a chance. I filled up my bottles, climbed up the bank, and then went in search of something to boil it in.
Most of the buildings had been stripped clear down to the studs in the walls or the lathing under the plaster, but I finally found an old beat up saucepan that someone had tossed because it had a broken handle in a small, roofless shop that looked like it used to sell homemade candles. Next I started looking for a place to spend the night that didn’t give me a view of the stars. I was investigating another trashed building when I heard a man yell.
I was prepared to run but didn’t when I heard him say, “Stop moving Rosie. As soon as I’ve got their attention I want you up that tree.”
A crying voice said, “Don’t leave me Asa … they’ll eat me!”
“They’ll eat you if I don’t draw ‘em off. Now be quiet!” Then the wind drew the sound of growling to me.
I told myself, “Gurl you are going soft … soft in the head! Don’t get involved! Run!”
Only I didn’t run, couldn’t. As a street rat I hated dogs. Feral dogs were the bane of my existence in the city. They weren’t like people; they could track you into the smallest hidey holes and they were small enough to scoot in there with you and chew you up. They ran faster than people did too. I stopped counting the number of run ins I’d had with feral packs but I couldn’t forget what I’d seen them do to those that couldn’t outrun or outsmart them.
I jogged towards the voices making my head feel like it was going to explode. Finally I got to a vantage point and couldn’t believe my eyes. It was the man and girl from the barn – I didn’t figure there could be that many Asa’s in the world – and they were cornered by three large dogs. Two looked like they had Rotty in them because of their coloring and shovel-shaped heads. The other one looked almost purebred Doberman. Bad, bad, bad combination. It was the Doberman that was the obvious Alpha, if I could take him out maybe it would create enough confusion for the man and girl to get away.
But to do it I had to get closer. I edged down a steep incline trying not to get noticed by sticking to the trees. The wind was in my favor which helped. The girl was behind the man and turned when she heard some gravel but I quickly ran my finger across my throat to silence her. I had to work my way around until I found a good angle. I’d stayed in practice but even a good shooter needs a clear shot and I was having a hard time finding one; the dogs kept moving, trying to circle around and get behind the man and girl and he kept moving them so the dogs couldn’t do it.
I finally found a precarious perch that was the best I was going to get. Ammo for the slingshot wasn’t a problem as there were likely stones lying everywhere. The stone that I pulled back was a little over an inch in diameter, solid, and relatively round … nearly perfect for what I needed it to do. When I let go I was so close that I saw it pulp the Alpha’s eye before the dog even had a chance to sense it coming. I heard it give a satisfying yelp but didn’t get a chance to notice what it did after that..
Problem was that the when I let go there was just enough force that I shifted my center mass and that shifted my feet which shifted the loose dirt and gravel that I was standing in. I tried to grab a tree but all I got was a brittle branch that tore off as I twisted and fell. Not even my backpack stopped me from rolling and twisting down the fifteen feet of hill and fetching up hard against the concrete base of an old lamp post … right where the chip had been cut out. The pain flared and then I was floating.
The last thing I remember was thinking that at least I’d die free, but hating that it was going to be at the teeth of the hundred pound dog that was barreling in my direction.