Like most people, writers like to get away—take a vacation now and again. But I’d like to take a “writer’s vacation,” one of those retreats that I always see writers taking in the movies. It’s usually to a mountain hideaway, a lonely beachfront cottage, or, someplace even more out of the way, like a deserted lighthouse.
I was this way long before I made my living by stringing words together. When I was a young cop back in the 60s, I worked the area around old Connie Mack Stadium—21st and Lehigh in North Philadelphia. I can recall a night in August of 1968. My partner and I were working car 399 on our last night of 4-to-12 shift.
It was Saturday night, the Phillies were at home, and the neighborhood was jumpin’. We were flying all over the place, and we were both looking forward to midnight, because we each started an 18-day vacation when the shift was over. He was getting on a plane and flying to Vegas; I was driving to North Dakota first thing in the morning.
He couldn’t understand why I wanted to go to the Great Plains for my vacation, and I couldn’t understand why he’d want to leave the bustling streets of North Philly for the hectic Las Vegas strip. Me…I just wanted peace and quiet. And the Badlands of North Dakota provided that in spades.
Several days after that shift ended, I awoke in a camper on the banks of the Little Missouri River near Medora, North Dakota. Medora is where Teddy Roosevelt used to like to take his vacations. I don’t imagine the place had changed much between Teddy’s visits and mine.
That cool, crisp August morning, I brewed myself a pot of coffee, filled a large Styrofoam cup, zipped up my windbreaker, and went for a stroll along the river. I was alone with my thoughts and didn’t see another living thing. (You see, now that’s a writer’s vacation!)
As I strolled along the Missouri I wondered how my partner was relaxing in Vegas. Somehow I believed I was in the more relaxing venue. As I said...just me and my dreams. Then, I saw someone coming toward me. I felt as though my land was being invaded. Coming around the bend of the river bank, another man walked toward me.
As he came closer, I noticed our similarities—he too wore a windbreaker, and he too carried a Styrofoam cup. When we met, we exchanged pleasantries, remarking to each other how beautiful and peaceful it was here, and how neither of us ever wanted to leave.
“My whole attitude changes when I’m out here,” I told him. “Me too,” he replied. “This is so different from back home.”
“Where’s that?” I asked. His answer caused my jaw to drop. “I come from a pretty hectic place,” he almost apologized. “Camden, New Jersey.” After I finished laughing, I told him I was a cop from Philadelphia, right across the bridge from his home town.
We walked for a while, talked for a while, shook hands, then wandered off—he back toward his camper and me back toward mine. But as I walked back through that fresh Dakota morning air, I reassured myself that I was correct; I took the right vacation.
A Vacation should calm you down; give you respite; allow you to breathe. And the Great Plains always did that for me. I went on vacation to the Midwest for the next several years: Yellowstone, Mount Rushmore, Deadwood, Jackson Hole…
Admittedly, these are venues that might seem a tad frigid for anything but the spring and summer months, so if you’re planning a vacation over the coming holidays, the Dakota Badlands might be a tough call, although they are quite beautiful after a snowfall.
But if you haven’t visited these places, treat yourself—take a writer’s vacation, and learn how to be good company for yourself.
If you happen to be out in the Badlands some day, and you run into a guy from Camden, tell him I still remember him.