Mushrooms and cactus are out. Bison and prairie dogs are in.
Bison are the largest land mammal in North America. They weigh up to 2 tons and stand as tall as 6.5 feet. Extremely agile, they can jump up to 6 feet high and reach speeds of 35 mph. We didn’t see them do anything other than eat grass and wallow in the dirt, but Sheri is obsessed with their big furry face and “here’s me lookin at you” stare.
Similarly, acres of prairie dog towns stretch across the landscape. The social animals never shut up, chirping and waving their arms, attempting to get your attention. They’ll boldly stand chirping at you but as soon as you try to snap their picture, they retreat into their hole only for a more distant neighbor to pop up. They’re so darn small and fast you need big zoom lens and vampire speed to bring them into focus. Proving once again the resilience of man over beast, one woman, one hour, and one bag of Ritz crackers tricked this camera shy creature into posing for this award winning shot. Obsessed with their cuteness?!
The 125 mile drive to Badlands National Park, with the first 50 miles on scenic 16A, was perfect for motorcycles and sports cars, not so much for 34 foot Bettys. Eric held the driver’s side wheels against the dividing line on the road while Sheri tried not to fixate on the steep drop-off on the right. A 24 foot Class C or two passed the other way in the next hour, but no one else thought to take their large Class A into the winding hills. Directed away from the narrowest of passages by ominous signs listing maximum widths and heights far smaller than Betty, we eventually exited the park to the east, taking an early break to hike Rankin Ridge. It’s the highest elevation trail in the ponderosa pine forest with interpretive guide map to teach about things like snags, doghairs and forest ecology.
The second break came at Custer State Park Visitor Center, where we watched a Kevin Costner narrated commercial for the South Dakota outdoor theme park, got bison educated and made a tuna salad lunch before the next leg to Ellsworth AFB in Rapid City.
There’s not much to see in Rapid City other than travel plaza type stores, apartment complexes and manufactured communities, so it’s best to move rapidly through. Ellsworth is a strategic bomber base, home to the B-1B Lancer. On break #3, we skipped the museum and went straight to the commissary to re-up on the must-haves, then gas-up at $2.71/gal. Betty is averaging 7 mpg and North-Central US is nearing $3 so when we see less than $2.80 we stop.
At some random point on I-90, the landscaped changed from cattle strewn plains to golden, rolling prairies. It’s also when the billboards for Wall Drug (the town that has not changed since the early settlers came west) started popping up, like Pedro and South of the Border. Since the exit was the same as for The Badlands Scenic Byway, it was a quick break #4 to check out the free ice water, 5 cent coffee and Gold Diggers native jewelry. Surprising to us, the place was packed. Folks were scooping up small figurines – hand–made flip flops, and genuine Western wear from Vietnam – just like the days of Little House on the Prairie.
The town was packed. Betty rolled in and was really too big for the streets, so she cruised on back by the grain silos. Wall was cleaner, bigger and more well kept than South of the Border, but filled with the same “crap” that tourists love to buy. What surprised us most was that while every parking spot in town was taken, none of the Tesla drivers had yet to arrive. In fact, since leaving the west coast, we had seen less than 5 Tesla autos. Whether the infrastructure will be needed that was put in to support the Tesla fleet on cross-country drives is anybody’s guess.
Eric was growing weary of winding roads, starts and stops, wind and sun. But first, break #5 – Minuteman Missile National Historic Site. Reliving the days of the Cold War, the museum proudly explained how the men, women, and nuclear missiles of the central United States fought the good fight against a silent foe 6,000 miles away.
Finally, around 5:30pm, we pulled into the Badlands with scenery so stunning, we forgot to take pictures. Checking into site 19, we hit the Visitor Center. The other-worldly terrain is eroding away at up to an inch per year. In 100 to 500 thousand years, the landscape will have returned to flat plains and prairies. We gathered maps and guides to plan our next day before it was gone.