Day Sixty Three: Baby Did a Bad, Bad Thing: South Dakota (Custer State Park, Wall Drug, Badlands)

Events of Sunday, May 17th, blogged Tuesday, September 15th.

It rained a bit more overnight, which was lovely to listen to tippity tapping on the roof of the van as we dozed in the early morning hours, but by the time we crawled out of bed it was sunny skies all around. And this is when I made the most egregious of errors! I neglected to fully peruse the schedule to see that there was in fact ANOTHER FREE PANCAKE BREAKFAST being offered! Amateur!

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We got a relatively early start as I was hoping the animals along the Wilderness Loop Drive would be more active closer to dawn. And, as luck would have it, we spotted a pronghorn antelope right by the side of the road, a cool looking cow, and even some buffalo enjoying their morning ablutions.

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Our intended destination was an area of Custer State Park known as French Creek, which was supposed to offer a pleasant wooded hiking trail. As we ambled along the path, we encountered a very friendly older couple who turned out to be local farmers. They regaled us with stories of how inexpensive and low key Mount Rushmore used to be –  in the not too distant past you could just drive up and enjoy a cup of coffee or simple breakfast while basking in the glory of the giant heads. All for the low, low price of free. The farmers were suitably unimpressed with the fancy new plaza and behemoth parking garages with attendant massive fees. They were also suitably unimpressed with Ted Turner, who, I came to learn, is the second biggest land owner in the country and holds claim to almost 150,000 acres in South Dakota alone. His total holdings equate to roughly three personal Rhode Islands!

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While the humans were chit chatting, my intrepid explorer dog had sussed out that our trail was coming to an abrupt end only about 1/4 mile from where it started.

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The rains of the previous few days had created a creek overflow and a current even my newly minted water dog wasn’t willing to power through.

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So we were soon back in the campervannie and headed out for another long day of driving . . . destination THE BADLANDS!!! (cue ominous music)

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The highway offered up its usual array of eccentricities, not the least of which was the random appearance of Presidents Reagan, Bush, and Kennedy randomly rising out of a field like some sort of bizarre Great Pumpkin Head Diet Mount Rushmore Lite aberration.

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That was cool and all, in a rando sort of way, but I was on the hunt for the Big Kahuna of shlocky roadside attractions, the granddaddy of them all . . .

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That’s right people we were headed straight for Wall Drug, the South of the Border of the West, the one of which Bill Bryson wrote: “It’s an awful place, one of the world’s worst tourist traps, but I loved it and I won’t have a word said against it.”

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For the uninitiated, here’s the backstory. Way back in 1931, a dude named Ted had just gotten his pharmacy license, and he was looking to open his own drugstore. One problem –  the only place he could afford was in a town even smaller than mine (231 people) smack dab in the middle of podunk nowheresville South Dakota. Oh, and it was the Depression, so people were flat broke. OK, maybe two problems. All may have been lost were it not for our newest BAWOTD . . . MRS TED! Mrs. Ted (aka Dorothy) came up with the brilliant idea of offering free ice water to tourists traveling by on their way to Mount Rushmore. Fairly soon business was booming, but the two were not ones to rest on their laurels. Stage Two of their brilliant marketing scheme was to erect catchy billboards up and down roads for miles around, and even into neighboring states. The billboards had clever slogans and posed curious questions, and Ted and the Mrs basically invented social media back when the information superhighway was still just an actual highway. Wall Drug went viral midcentury style! By 1981 they were giving out 20,000 cups of water a DAY, folks around the globe were erecting “X Miles to Wall Drug” signs, and the place had become a veritable theme park. Today there are myriad gift shops, restaurants, animatronic displays, a giant brontosaurus, and even a chapel.

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I treated myself to a buffalo burger and a blueberry pie but once again, just like in Graceland, there was every cheap souvenir imaginable (including socks advertising their 5 cent cups of coffee), but nary a pet accessory in sight.

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After taking our leave of Wall Drug, it was a short but unbelievably blustery drive to our final destination of the day –  Badlands National Park.

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The wind literally took my breath away.  (You can see Annie’s ears are practically in flight in that last photo) It was like a physical entity – ripping the van door out of my hand and pushing me down walkways. But it was exhilarating! If the wind hadn’t blown my mind, the views would have –  it was like no place I have ever seen before. Totally hostile, inhabitable, barren . . . and totally amazing.

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Every twist and turn of the 20 mile drive through the park revealed a stunning new rock formation, but my hands down favorite spot was this grouping of stunningly colored mounds, gleaming like jewels amongst the arid white wasteland. They’re called the yellow mounds, and the different colors represent the different types of soil laid down over hundreds of thousands of years.

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It’s hard to believe much life can survive in this treacherous place, but a variety of mammals, including this pronghorn, call it home. Centuries ago rhinos and sabre tooth cats wandered these rocks, and they now contain the country’s richest fossil beds.

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Did I mention it was REALLY FREAKING WINDY?!

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It was so miserable out that there was barely a soul to be seen anywhere, so we scofflawed the rules a bit and Annie and I took a tiny walk out onto the Door Trail. The term “trail” is used loosely on this parched, cracked moonscape – as no actual path can be maintained, you have to keep your eye out for numbered markers and scramble your way between them. You can’t get too lost as the area is so wide open, but I’d still not want to wander out very far alone. It was truly otherworldly.

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Before long it was getting dark, and the wind seemed to be picking up, if that was even possible. We headed to the campground area, and with the park dude just about to leave for the day he instructed me to have my pick of sites and then “feed the Iron Ranger” with my payment. I was stupefied to see that some mad fools were actually camping in tents! It couldn’t have been more than 50 degrees, and the wind was probably gusting to that number as well. I spotted one poor tent that had blown over and it’s occupant had been reduced to sleeping in the front seat of his tiny hatchback car. Annie staked out our spot, ears and bandanna a’flapping, we gobbled a quick meal, and Marigold gently rocked us to sleep.

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4 thoughts on “Day Sixty Three: Baby Did a Bad, Bad Thing: South Dakota (Custer State Park, Wall Drug, Badlands)

  1. I can almost hear and feel the wind! We were just talking about South of the Border last night. Will definitely add Wall to my list of must sees when planning my cross country trek.


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