Crossing South Dakota & Badlands National Park

First I have to apologize for taking so long between posts.  We were actually in Badlands National Park way back on Sunday July 30, driving from the The Corn Palace in Mitchell, SD headed to Rapid City.  The Badlands were an incredible stop on the way and I wish we could have spent more time there, but it was cut short a bit…more on that in a moment.

We pick up our journey on I-90 headed west through South Dakota.  If you look at a map, it’s a straight shot, not many curves, and looks like it would be a boring drive. Nothing could be further from the truth.  For this southern boy, born and raised in and around Appalachia, landscapes are fairly close-up.  Green, with lots of oaks, pines, rolling through the mountains and even when you get a “vista” it’s only a few miles.  The world is close at hand, horizons are described by jagged treelines and subdivisions.

The west is BIG

South Dakota is where we started seeing a completely different planet.  Driving west, the land got flatter and the sky bigger.  It’s impossible to describe the scale of what we were seeing, but if you’re a southerner like me try to imagine being on an ocean of land, with swells of green around you, and the world looks like it goes on forever.  The horizon is 20, 30, 50, 100 miles away and the air is crystal clear.  Absolutely amazing – my jaw got tired from the constant dropping.

Paraphrasing one of my favorite authors, Douglas Adams, “The west is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to the west.”

Chamberlain and the Rest Area

As I said the land was getting flatter and bigger, and the sky was more than you can take in.  Then as we approached Chamberlain, we needed a stop at the rest area and walked smack into a place we never expected.  This is where the Missouri River bisects South Dakota and it is considerably lower than the surrounding land.  When we decided to stop at this rest area, we had no idea what was there.  Total luck.  Gobsmacked, I think, is appropriate here.

This was at a rest area!  It’s on a bluff overlooking the town of Chamberlain.  The statue is called Dignity and is a 50-foot stainless steel tribute to the Lakota and Dakota peoples.  Amazing.  We stayed at this rest area for a good 30 minutes, walking around and just trying to take it in.  There were also a lot of motorcycles there, on the way to Sturgis for bike week.  I really liked this one.

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The Cold War in the Great Plains

After leaving what is quite possibly the most amazing rest area in the country, we drove across the river and further into South Dakota.  As we traveled west the landscape kept changing, gradually getting hillier but still BIG.  Next up, was The Minuteman National Historical Site, and the entrance to the Badlands National Park.

The Minuteman site was very interesting, with a nice museum and of course tours of the silo and command center.  But it was booked solid for the next two weeks!  So I contented myself with a quick trip to the museum and a few pictures.  Maybe next time.

Badlands National Park

The Badlands.  I’ve been struggling with just how to describe this otherworldly, incredible, impossible landscape.  This was one of my bucket list items on this trip, a place I have wanted to see for a very long time.  I’d always pictured it as canyons dug into the landscape.  I was wrong.

It’s like the most incredible castles of rock, rising from the landscape.  I expected dragons to start rising from the peaks.  And it’s quiet.  Amazingly quiet.  Very little wind, hot and dry, and the only sounds are the occasional car driving by.  I can’t imagine getting lost in this place.  You’d never find your way out.

Surreal.  That might be a good word for it.

WAIT, turn here!!

That’s what I heard and so I did.  You see we had it planned out, drive through Badlands, and then turn right on 240 and head straight into Wall, SD.  My intrepid navigator, Peggy, was watching the map as we drove through (because I was all gobsmacked again), and apparently our turn came up suddenly.

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Or did it?  What she thought was 240 headed back to I-90 and Wall, was in fact Big Foote Road, and left the Badlands right in the middle of open range and a couple large ranches.

Yes that is a dirt road.  With no way to turn around.  In a 34,000lb motorhome.  With a car towing behind, preventing us from backing up.  We reached a crossing (more like a cattle trail), and I stopped the rig.  “Ok we will unhook the car and I think I can do a 3-point turn around here and head back into the park.”  Peggy (somewhat mortified at this point), jumped out and ran back to start unhooking the car.

Imagine my surprise to suddenly hear a Georgia accent, “You’re a long way from Cobb County!”  A local rancher had pulled up beside us, hopped out and was at my driver’s window.  Turns out he was a transplant from Tifton, GA just up the road a piece from my hometown of Thomasville.  Small world, even in the great big west.  About that time Peggy climbed back in saying she couldn’t unhook the car because it was jammed.  “Oh don’t worry about it, this road goes for 7 miles and then you can get right back on 90, no problem.  You don’t need to turn around at all.”  Well then, there’s our solution.  I never got his name, but if a young guy from Tifton GA, working a ranch in South Dakota, ever reads this blog – THANK YOU!

Of course it was 7 miles at 15mph over washboard roads in the aforementioned 34,000lb motorhome with a car towing behind.  But we made it, got back on 90 and continued to the west, with a great story to tell everyone.  Next up, the Black Hills and the Needles.

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