John Grisham and his buddy Scott Sowers accompanied us on the two day 550 mile trek from Walsenburg, Colorado through construction laden, jersey wall confined, darting traffic, heavy drive workload, big city Denver, into sleepy/creepy Cheyenne, Wyoming and up to Hot Springs, South Dakota and Wind Cave National Park.
On the long, trance-like stretches, they told us the story of The Confession – a frustrating fictional account of the Texas Legal System but was told like it could have been based on a true story. Their 7 hour yarn ticked away the miles as mountains merged with cities giving way to grasslands and prairies and natural solitude.
Cheyenne WY is home to the Missileers of Warren Air Force Base, a cohort dedicated to manning our nuclear missile systems. Officer housing looks like a college campus while the rest of the base is open fields where antelope graze and somewhere, deep in the prairie covered earth, nuclear ICBMs sit eternally ready in silos.
The FamCamp was hard to find and not well managed, but it had electric, two bars and a hot shower which we have come to appreciate as luxury. We did a load of laundry, killing the time waiting for an errant camper to retrieve her single towel endlessly tumbling in the single working dryer while watching Woodland win the US Open golf championship. Later, the antenna pulled in an episode of Colombo solving a murder based on the positioning of the tag on a woman’s pair of underwear. Good entertainment for Cheyenne, WY.
The roads from Cheyenne into southern South Dakota are flanked with rolling goldenrod hills, grazing cattle, crawling boxcar trains, freshly harvested farmland, clustered ponderosa pines and the occasional rural homestead. Grisham’s story, Scott’s voice and the calming landscape lulled us into that driving daze where you suddenly realize your 50 miles down the road and can’t remember getting there. Not the shocking terrain of southern Utah, but prairies from horizon to horizon with not a building in sight have their own calming beauty.
We’d never heard of Wind Cave National Park. Just 2 hours shy of Badlands National Park and near the home of Laura Ingells Wilder, it is a wildlife sanctuary for bison and home to the 6th longest maze-cave system in the country. Since it was on our way, we stopped for two nights in the no-reservation, no-hookup Elk Mountain Campground to tour the cave and hike the prairies.
Two bison, the last few descendants of a great heard of 60 million that once roamed the area, greeted us at the turn-in to the campground. They are safe now on the protected grasslands above the caves. Fields of prairie dogs chirped at us as they popped in and out of their dens like a game of wack-a-mole, none giving us the courtesy of a pose. Jim, the camp host who hails from Hilton Head SC but is escaping the heat this summer in SD, greeted us at our site. While a ‘no-hook up’ site, the camp has bathrooms with running water (cold only), a camp sink, and trash removal.
There’s no entrance fee for the park, but if you want to see the cave you have to take a $12 per person ranger tour. We chose the “strenuous” Fairgrounds tour with 450 stair steps between the middle cave and top cave that was led by Ranger Grant.
It was not strenuous which was fortunate for the dozen toddlers and their parents that accompanied us. A cool 53 degrees, it was an underground system marked by boxwork, popcorn and frost. Perhaps it was the crying and whining, or perhaps we were ruined by the otherworldly beauty of Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico, but Wind Cave looked like a blast zone covered in spores and petrified nests.
The rooms are small and felt like being trapped in an alien belly which inspires its own interesting emotional response, but not the jaw-dropping awe of Carlsbad. In the end we settled on two things: 1) it wasn’t fair to compare, each has it’s own unique attributes and 2) two-year olds cannot climb 450 stairs, even if you scold them.
This blog is brought to you by the Stop sign at HWY 385 and Wind Cave Road – the only cell phone coverage in prairie dog town.