After a hearty Denny’s breakfast (Sarah had never been so it was one of our fast food goals this trip), we continued East toward South Dakota. Our first detour was the Black Hills where we took a quick hike part of the way into Hell Canyon. A pretty way to stretch our legs for an hour but we had to keep moving.
Next we came toward the iconic Mt. Rushmore onto which artist Gutzon Borghum, succeeded by his son Lincoln, oversaw the carving of four great U.S. presidents: Washington, Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt, and Lincoln. Given the final president in that quartet, it’s quite ironic that, when the elder Borghum was tapped for the job, he was in the middle of constructing the Confederate Memorial Carving, a mountain in GA with the faces of Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson along with President of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis. Still, as loyal members of the Union, Sarah and I opted to see Borghum’s second, not first, masterpiece on this road trip (its proximity to our route might have also affected our decision). At the memorial, there was also a cool “Avenue of Flags” added later. The walkway leading up to the best view of the carvings had flags of all U.S. States.
Unless you want to read about the artist or a few other minor details, Mt. Rushmore is truly one of those “get out of the car, spend 20 minutes, and get back in the car” attractions. Back in our car, we had one more detour before the Badlands – Wall Drug. When a young couple in 1930s used their inheritance to buy a drug store in Wall, SD, they soon realized that business was bad in this tiny rural town. The wife quickly had an idea to offer passers-by free ice water. Overnight, the town blew up as travelers headed West to seek a better life during the Depression made pit stops. Now, the drug store is a tiny shop amidst a massive complex of stores and restaurants under the Wall Drug logo. Dozens of billboards pepper interstate 90 en route and we even found one billboard over 200 miles away! We stopped for a quick (but unhealthy) bite of bison burger and chicken tenders.
In a couple hours, we hit our campsite in the Badlands. We knew it was going to rain that night but thought we had some time before it did. Unfortunately, we did have to set up our tent in the rain but fortunately we managed to set it up before the brunt of the storm. But the tent kept us nice and dry through the night and the next morning we were ready to explore.
The Badlands are so called because, independently, Native Americans and the French fur-trappers crossing the region in the early 19th century, referred to them as such. Natives called them bad or sick land because they were rough and inhospitable while the fur trappers had serious trouble crossing over the clay mounds that make up this ground.
After breakfast and a few questions at the visitor center, we started our day with a fossil talk. The knowledgeable ranger presented 3 fossils and 5 molds from fossils found on site. Aside from officially sanctioned teams of paleontologists working in the region, park visitors find and report new fossils every day. The fossils abundant in this park range from 75 million years ago to 30 million years ago, about half way between the dinosaur era and ours. Why are there no dinosaur fossils here? Because dinosaurs are, by definition, land animals and South Dakota was submerged in the ocean during the dinosaur age. We saw bones from ancient sea creatures and a terrifying alligator-like sea monster up to 50 feet long (you can see its jagged-toothed jawbone in the picture below). But mostly, we marveled at bones from the “Golden Age of Mammals” – when mammals ruled the earth. We saw the scull of a massive pig that was the big predator in these parts as well as tiny three-toed horses the size of border collies. One of the skull molds belonged to a sabre-toothed ‘false cat’ (real cats walk on their toes but this guy walked on its heels). Before the 7-year old park-visitor who discovered a part of this jaw protruding, we had no idea that this specie lived here!
Our next stop was the yellow mounds, which looked extra yellow after the rains! They were gorgeous and we hadn’t seen anything like it before. Nor can we remember what exactly makes these mounds yellow but they are pretty. One interesting note about the park is that unlike others, Badlands enforces as strict ‘climb wherever the hell you want policy’ so we didn’t have to stay on trails (a feature which I took great advantage of!). They can do this because their park is eroding at a very fast rate. In another half a million years, the park will be leveled so Sarah and I are glad we came when we did!
On the dive back, we saw some once-endangered big-horn sheep. The iconic older males for which this specie gets its name were not present but the animals were cute, none-the-less.
Next stop on our safari was a prairie dog town. Much more than a cuddly nuisance to farmers, these rodents are incredibly important to the Badlands. Basically every carnivore that lives in this park from eagles to foxes treats them as a delectable snack. Owls and Ferrets even nest in the holes prairie dogs dig. The animals have complex vocabulary and the ones in the pictures were chirping away to alert their communities that danger (me) was approaching. Alas, they all retreat before I could get a picture that wasn’t too blurry. And sure, my shoes got a little mudcaked in the process…
The rest of the afternoon, we proceeded down the rest of the 30 mile scenic drive, stopping often for overlooks and views. Some really pretty, unique formations in this part of the country.
After our drive, we stopped by a little museum to check out the area’s history and geology as well as watch scientists tending to recently discovered fossils. We also stopped by a dive bar in a nearby town with a population of 67 called Interior, SD. Highlights included friendly guests from the nearby Indian Reservation as well as a hostile old drunk arguing with the bartender about correct change (we got our money on the bartender). We signed a dollar and gave it to the bartender to put on the wall so now our presence is memorialized for as long as that little shack will hold up.
After our snack we had time for one final hike, a pretty fun one involving a ladder. At the end, we got some great views at the valley below but more importantly, I got to climb all around the clay hills. Probably some of the scariest climbing I’ve done in my life!
We cooked a bit of dinner at the campsite and watched the sunset. Afterwards, we walked to the nearby evening program led by a retired chemistry teacher turned park ranger, Ranger Larry. He gave us a few of the highlights of the park and as a bonus, there was a night-sky program where a different ranger talked to us about stars and space.
The next morning, we bid the Badlands adieu and started the 10 hour drive toward Madison, WI. There, my freshman year roommate from college, Sam, just bought a house and offered to host us when I told him we’d be passing through. Getting in in time for dinner, Sam and his girlfriend Leana, took us to a delicious restaurant and we stopped by a few bars on the way back sharing drinks and laughs till the we hours of the morning! After a late brunch with them, we set out for Sarah’s old stomping rounds, Ann Arbor, MI. We made a detour to fulfill my long-time food fantasy of sharing a DQ banana split with my wife! We made it in time to eat at the world-renown Zingerman’s Deli.
Finally, on the morning of 6/24, we woke up in MI and started making our way toward OUR NEW HOME IN ROCHESTER, NY!!! In a few hours, this road trip will be officially over and Sarah and I can begin building our home (literally, when it comes to the garage). Thanks to all who took the time to follow us on what can doubtless be considered the biggest adventure of our lives!