“Stop the car.” Putting his foot on the brake, my dad maneuvered our vehicle off the curving highway and onto the piece of pavement jutting off to the side and flanked by a wooden railing. Another scenic overlook on Needles Highway demanded my attention. I felt the need to snap a few photos to try and capture the majesty of the sudden drop and expanse of ground and trees that swept out beneath the ledge of the road.
I hopped out of the car. To my right sat a long stretch of rock just taller than my waist. That’s when I noticed the plethora of tiny striped chipmunks darting over and around the boulder and group of rocks behind.
Change of plans. Quickly forgetting about the scenery, I set my camera down. A new strategy started developing in my head — to win over the chipmunks’ trust. The goal? To see how close I could get.
Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been enamored with animals. We had dogs, cats, salamanders, fish, hamsters and a bird growing up. I owned an assortment of clear plastic cages I would outfit with grass, twigs and little milk caps full of water for various creatures I would capture on lazy summer days — garter snakes, painted turtles, injured monarch butterflies. Once I event got stuck knee deep in the mud chasing after a pregnant frog on the way home from the bus stop.
Turns out 25-year-old me isn’t that much different than the curious elementary school student who roamed through the swamp pretending to be Pocahontas.
I leaned over the rock on my stomach. The chipmunks scattered into various crevices. I lay patiently, taking quiet, slow breaths to keep as still and unassuming as possible. The first brave soul ventured out with a dash, tail up. Who was this strange giant in yoga pants? Did it have food to share?
Within minutes I counted five. Twelve. Seventeen. The longer I lay, the bolder my striped friends got. Instead of zipping in circles around me, the chipmunks began to come up to my outstretched hand. Pausing. Running across my open palm.
My sister opened up her door and crept out to join me. The animal gene runs in the family. So there we sat, on a rock near the edge of South Dakota’s Needles Highway, with nearly too many chipmunk friends to count. Magic.