T007 South Dakota

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Shortly after entering South Dakota we noticed the car immediately to our right was matching our speed. We’d glance over every minute or so and the car was still there except for its disappearance behind a hill or grove of trees. Our companion car was traveling two roads over and about two miles away. We quickly came to the conclusion that there wouldn’t be much of a reason to get off of I90 to shun pike.

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Corn Palace—an image that most Americans immediately think of as a South Dakota icon. We rolled in, checked out the half ears of corn nailed to the outside walls of the convention center. The fascinating designs have been changed every year since the late 1800’s. Close up we discovered the distinctive onion domes were bright paint instead of being corn covered. Originally it had been a wooden building that allowed greater use of corn; but of course, wasn’t a particularly safe building. Ruth had remembered the building from her family’s trip here when she was a teen and got a kick out of seeing it again.

Dumb luck brought us into a bit of Lewis and Clark history at, of all places, a rest stop along I90. The uniqueness of the stop hadn’t been advertised, but drew us in for an extended visit. The rest stop, accessible to both west and east bound vehicles overlooks the Missouri River near a spot where the Corps of Discovery stopped to reprovision both on their way west and on their return. Part of the visitor center juts out as a reproduction of one of the boats the Corps used along this portion of the river. We extended our stop and slipped back in time to enjoy a bit of history.

The Wall, a ridge of raw rock and bare earth abruptly poking up out of the prairie announced we’d reached the Badlands. As we got closer raw gullies, gulches and canyons added to the desolate feeling of the land. We stopped and walked a few of the trails getting a feel of this intriguing landscape.

Finally we went off in search of a spot for the night. A few houses turned out to be the town of Interior and a few miles past we found a RV campground in the middle of rolling prairie where we could see the Badlands in the distance. As we pulled into the site horses in the pasture across the road drifted over to the fence to watch us set up.

A magpie set the morning’s theme. We braked to a stop and watched it standing in the middle of the road, totally unconcerned about the Trek twenty feet away. It continued for a number of minutes pecking away at some treasure on the road. A half-mile further we spotted big horned sheep just off the road near the Wall. We poked along having the road almost to ourselves while enjoying the morning sun playing with the Badlands unique landscape.

Castle Trail works its way along the prairie edge where it runs into the Wall, gullies and canyons at its base. The easy walk provided a close up view of the dramatic intersection of grasslands; raw soil and the jutting Wall still resisting nature’s erosion. A couple of miles along the trail we met up with the Saddle Pass Trail. We struck off for a bit of an adrenalin thrill as we picked our way along the steep trail up the Wall. From the top it was evident the down trail to the road was both further and steeper than our up hike. Slowly we skidded and slid our way down the steep rough trail to the road we traveled earlier in the Trek. We stopped, looked back up and agreed we wouldn’t have climbed the trail from the roadside because of its steepness. We turned and walked the two miles back to the Trek feeling quite pleased with ourselves.

After years of seeing the signs, we visited Wall Drug. It is the largest employer in Wall, SD. It fills most of a city block and is pure tourist trap but fun to see. The Huestead family started it in the 50’s by offering travelers free ice water at the drug store. From there it grew and grew, and they still offer free ice water.

A stop in Rapid City for some Trek maintenance (a second fix of the air conditioning) gave us an opportunity to rent a car. The rental car windshield seemed tiny and confining compared to the Trek’s but we quickly got used to it. Our waitress at Bob’s Diner in Sturgis filled us in about bike week as we enjoyed a great breakfast. Sturgis may be the focus, but all of western South Dakota fills with bikers for the annual gathering.

I90 took us to Spearfish and our first scenic highway, the Spearfish Canyon Road. Traces of snow lingered in shadows of the awesome cliffs. An occasional sign popped up to let us know a film scene had been shot in the area. Lead rated a stop to learn about their gold mining history. Deadwood, which has a fascinating gold mining history, is now devoted to casinos so we just drove on through.

Mount Rushmore was fun to see in person. The engineer in me drew me to the details like how the glint in the eyes was created. Gutzon Borglum had created a stunning achievement in mountain carvings. The mountain carving of Crazy Horse a few miles away was a bit disappointing; not because of the carving, but because of the distance we were held away unless we paid more money for a bus ride. Slowly the privately funded carving and the expanded visitors center is turning into a major monument to Native Americans.

The buffalo didn’t seem to mind that we were sharing the road. We stopped and watched him approach, and then slowly pass us and amble on down the shoulder of the Needles Highway. The encounter was very personal with the buffalo at eye level with us. We continued on, enjoying the Needles Highway magnificent scenery and squeezing through tunnels way too low and narrow for the Trek. We were in a campground in Custer owned by a fascinating fellow with tales to tell. He and his wife let us use their car to tour the roads the Trek couldn’t handle.

Custer turned out to be one of those dual personality towns. The “been heres” are upset that the town and surrounding area has been discovered and the “come heres” are showing up to build huge vacation homes. The “come heres” spend money in the upscale shops that are appearing. The “been heres” don’t like what is happening to their taxes. For us it was interesting to see the both the local shops and the new shoppes.

On our way to Wind Cave National Park we drove through Custer State Park which is home for prairie dogs, begging burros and pronghorn antelope all of which we enjoyed seeing and photographing. Needless-to-say, it has been very fascinating for our “eastern eyes” to see western landscape, animals and birds—all new to us.

Wind Cave National Park broke our string of private campground stays. We toured the Wind Cave enjoying its uniqueness. We spent two days enjoying the almost empty campground where evenings bought deer to graze just outside the Trek. Using the park as a base we headed out to visit a mammoth archeological dig at an ancient sinkhole. The sinkhole’s steep slippery sides trapped any creature that happened to fall in while trying to get a drink of water. It is one of the largest sources of mammoth bones in the country.

Scotts Bluff was our only stop in Nebraska. At the bluff the Oregon Trail is barely visible in the grass. We followed the trail for a half-mile or so speculating about what life had been like trekking across the country dealing with all kinds of hardships heading for an unknown future.

Many days earlier we’d stopped at Ellsworth AFB and walked around a B1B bomber, and a mock up of a missile silo control room. Both are cold war relics and objects of technology pushed to extremes. Now we stopped in Cheyenne, WY to see Big Boy–a steam engine that was one of the largest ever made standing as a tribute to iron working in a large scale. Cheyenne was our only Wyoming stop, and then we were off for Colorado.

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