Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Manifest destiny

So we've been in South Dakota for a week now,and it has become woefully obvious just how much our trip pales in comparison to what those who preceded us have endured. We're talking about the explorers, settlers and Native Americans who broke the ground between the Appalachian Mountains and the Pacific Ocean, those who suffered through harsh winters and crossed mountain ranges on horseback and with wagons to arrive at places we now reach in a fraction of the time. It has been an education and a vacation at the same time, and we still have a lot to learn.

I'm writing now from the front porch of the Horsethief Campground in the Black Hills after having spent the day at Wind Cave National Park. Since leaving the quiet rural confines of Salem, SD, we've seen a lot and have a lot to catch you up on. So while Alyssa is doing laundry, I'll do my best to summarize.

Between Sioux Falls and the Badlands, there isn't much more than road and prairie. But there is the Corn Palace. If you're not familiar, the Corn Palace is a building with enormous art displays made out of corn cobs - words cannot do it justice. We stopped in Mitchell for little reason other then to visit here, and though the detour was a short one, it was definitely worthwhile. It's amazing to see what the determination of a few citizens can accomplish in bringing tourists to a place they would likely not visit for any other reason. And after the Palace, what else could we do but eat? And on the recommendation of the owner of the campsite we had stayed at the night prior, we tried our first burgers at the Midwestern chain called... Oh, wait. I'm saving all the food stuff for later!

From Mitchell we continued on I-90 west, and stopped off at easily the most spectacular rest area I have ever seen. Just outside of Chamberlain, with sweeping vistas of the Missouri River and the valley below, we were treated to yet another exhibit dedicated to the exploits of Mssrs. Lewis and Clark. It seems that each state wants to be sure we know the explorers were there. We traveled further into Chamberlain to visit the Akta Lakota Sioux Museum and Cultural Center. The facility provided an interesting alternate viewpoint to many of the tales I was told of late 19th century westward expansion in my history classes through undergrad, and put a very human face on the cost of pioneer greed. It would not be our last lesson on the legacy of the Sioux nation.

You can click on any picture for an enlarged version!!
Finally we arrived at Badlands National Park, our home for the next three nights. Upon entering the park and reading the brochures, Alyssa remembered that this would be one of our stops with no showers. That's right - three days, no showers. I couldn't talk her into the campground with pit toilets though, she insisted on flush toilets and sinks. Imagine!! Upon our late arrival, we took in a couple of the initial viewpoints and then pitched camp and made dinner. The evening's park ranger show focused on Sioux views of astronomy and how they relate to Western concepts.

The next day, we woke early to take in the ranger Geology talk, and then did a few of the shorter trails before our lunch break (read as "Andrew went climbing on rocks all morning"), after which we started a driving tour of the park road. Much like Shenandoah, you could drive through and see plenty, but it is only when you stop and wander a bit further into the park that you get a feel for its grandeur. The lines of sedimentary rock exposed by the continuing erosion of the Badlands Wall seem like lines painted across the landscape with meticulous precision by Mother Nature. Wildlife was not easily seen, but we did get to stop at Roberts Prarie Dog Town, where Alyssa found her new favorite cute and harmless animal.  At a later stop, we came upon a group of bighorn sheep who seemed to float on the narrow ledges along the Wall. Driving past the Badlands Wilderness Area made me wish I hadn't shortened our planned stay here, even though I knew Alyssa would be reticent to join me in off-trail wandering.

On our next day, we had planned to do the park's longest trail, a scant 10-mile round trip with a couple of spurs. Little did we know that we were choosing to do this on what a ranger would later tell us was the hottest day so far this year. And considering this is nearly desert terrain, we were out in full sun with precious few chances to steal some shade. Luckily we got an early start, and were done by the time the mercury peaked. And for those who think I rush into these adventures without thinking (*cough* Dad *cough*), we had five liters of water on us and returned to Sylvia with a liter to spare! The trail was not nearly as exciting as either one of us might have hoped, but it was still some spectacular scenery. Our last ranger program was again an astronomy session that evening, and we headed back for the tent knowing we would be leaving this beautiful place only too soon. Well, not too soon to want a shower...

The next day, we drove the scenic route through the park again, mostly because we failed to see any bison on our first go 'round, but also because Alyssa wanted another visit with her new friends the prairie dogs. And as we drove along the gravel Sage Creek Rim Road, we saw the brown hulks of the bison sparsely dotting the landscape and got excited - only to crest the hill and see them everywhere. We joked that it seemed impossible to have missed them two days before as there were just so damn many of them! Funnier still was when we turned the corner to Prairie Dog Town and saw that we would not be pulling over for a stop: the parking area was filled with still more bison. As a lover of all things western (well, except interior decor), seeing bison is a huge treat for me. They represent so much of what was wild about the wild west, and its great to see them flourish again, though sadly in far smaller numbers. Where there were as many as 20 million of these creatures 200 years ago, there are only 200,000 now - a terrific recovery if you consider that number was only one thousand just 75 years ago. More pioneer greed...

After leaving Badlands, we visited an honest to goodness nuclear missile silo, less than a mile from I-90 (yes, the  very same road as the Mass Pike). It is staggering to think that weapons capable of such destructive force were hidden in plain view for over thirty years as a generation of vacationers whisked past. Having taken Defense Policy in college, learning about the Minuteman missile deployment was a refresher course for me, but all new to Alyssa. And we also learned just how much they got right in the opening scenes of WarGames (just not the "shoot your fellow missilier part, they made that up).

We arrived in Rapid City around mid-day and found that yet another South Dakota city has retained much of its frontier charm while still seeming fresh and lively. We poked around a bit downtown, but wanted to get to our campsite and just relax, for the next two days, we would be underground!!! It was here we learned that our time in South Dakota was scheduled a bit too close to the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally though, as the thunder of straight pipes assaulted our eardrums every stop we made.

Yesterday (notice I can't use actual days - I've lost track completely). we went to Jewel Cave and made on the fly reservations by phone for their Lantern Tour and Scenic Tour. Jewel is the second longest cave in the world after Mammoth, but has a character all its own. And the experience was much different as well. the Lantern Tour was closer to my "Intro to Caving" tour at Mammoth than the Lantern tour we had done there, and the cramped confines of the cave were not sitting well with Alyssa. Making things worse, our gung ho ranger guide got so far ahead of part of the group that half the group actually got lost!! Well, not so lost, just left behind until we could figure out the right way to go! Not a pleasant feeling though. The beauty of the caves made up for the challenges of the tour, and the later tour - Scenic Tour - was much more enjoyable. We both agreed that we might have thought Jewel the better cave than Mammoth!

Crazy Horse: The model on the left, the work in progress on the right.
On the return trip, we pulled off to visit the Crazy Horse Monument. I had completely misunderstood and thought this was another US government sponsored project, but was surprised to learn it is completely privately funded through admission and donation funds! When completed, the monument would tower over Rushmore, the Washington Monument, and even the highest pyramids in Egypt! However, the project has been underway for 75-plus years, and due to the nature of the funding, it'll be slow going. So maybe by the time my 2-year old nephew makes it out here, it'll be done. We returned after dinner that night to see a laser show that helped fully demonstrate the vision of the whole project.

Today, we had another early start as we were headed for Wind Cave. Alyssa and I did another scenic tour here, called the Fairgrounds Tour, and got to see the terrific boxwork that is somewhat unique to these caves. What we've found though, is that vising caves is an experience that pictures just cannot capture. The depth of field of a photographic image just cannot translate the feeling of staring through layers of stone into the darkest reaches of the earth. Having now gone to four different caves now, we are becoming cave junkies. I did the "Wild Cave" tour that afternoon - a four-hour, hands and knees climb and crawl through some of the caves tightest crevices. I learned more of the history of Wind Cave, and the ranger staff's affection for its earliest explorer, Alvin McDonald, who died at the early age of 20, thinking there would be no more found than the 10 miles or so he discovered. His cave is now 134 miles and counting...

Tomorrow is another day. We visit Mount Rushmore in the morning before hitting Deadwood, our last planned hotel stop before two weeks in the Wyoming wilderness. I've loved the idea of visiting Deadwood ever since owning a "choose your own adventure" book on the town as a child (I thought it was a fictional place at the time!). Now I get the chance to see a western town that is still supposed to be very much alive and kicking and I'm looking forward to it! We even took Alyssa's friend Mike's recommendation on our hotel, which is a historic renovation reborn as a Holiday Inn. Overall, our week in South Dakota has gone beyond every expectation that I've had, and the Black Hills are the first place we've visited where I can say I'm already planning my return trip.

Sheez, we're still on vacation and I'm already planning the next one...

1 comment:

  1. I am so jealous and so excited for you two at the same time. I LOVE South Dakota, and would plan to go back every year, if we could take our dogs with us. Thanks for sharing your adventures!