It has been a while since I’ve done a truly epic post, but there seems no better way to begin my writing sabbatical than to give you the full details of our recent wanderings in the Black Hills of South Dakota. I warn you, if you are hoping for a 90-second check-in, you’d probably better come back later. This might be the longest, most photo-heavy post in the history of our blogging. But I have the time, and we took more than 1,000 photos in our time out west. So here goes. I hope to get a kickback from the South Dakota Tourism Bureau if you find yourselves inspired by the prospects of a vacation there.
We rose at 2:30 on the morning we left, pulled out of our driveway around 3:00, and drove to Philadelphia to catch a 6:00 flight to Minneapolis. From there, we took a puddle jumper to Rapid City, SD, where we found our new ride awaiting, this lime green Kia Soul, an appropriate conveyance for our week in the Black Hills.
We began our wanderings by stopping for breakfast in Rapid City. Alden was not interested in eating. Kato was dismayed by the thoroughly American portions.
We had adventure on our minds, and were not to be disappointed. Both Robbi’s and my breakfast contained buffalo, both delicious and nutritious, according to the menu.
Robbi was entranced by the industrial grandeur of Rapid City.
Moments after this photo was taken, we pulled into the parking lot of a local park and slept in our seats for an hour. Refreshed, we drove on, and were lured by regular roadside enticements of advertisements for Wonderland Cave, which apparently, has been “told” by the New York Times!
After seeing about 30 signs for said cave, we consulted our map, only to find that we had been misled. The Black Hills are a big area. Wonderland Cave was many miles away. I wonder how many drivers have been swindled by the false promise.
Instead, we stopped by a roadside restaurant for nourishment. Alden was intrigued by the offerings.
Confronted with her hot dog, she wasn’t sure what to make of it.
She has never had one in a bun before. A few adjustments, and she was ready to tackle the challenge at hand.
From there, we drove north to the town of Deadwood, recently popularized by the HBO series, which, if you haven’t seen it, is definitely worth the watch.
Apparently, the Deadwood traffic is so intense that the local government has contrived a novel, safe means of getting across the street.
We climbed nearby Mount Moriah and visited the graves of Wild Bill Hickock and Calamity Jane.
We headed west from Deadwood and drove through gorgeous Spearfish Canyon. We stopped for a hike, and took a moment to smell the aromatic Ponderosa Pine, which, according to the signs by the side of the trail, smells of vanilla.
And Alden will vouch that it actually does.
We hiked to a beautiful, pleasing waterfall.
And then we headed further west, into Wyoming, where I had the single best cheeseburger of my 35 years.
We drove north, our destination Devil’s Tower, which you might remember from the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Some things can be appreciated in photographs. Others must be beheld in person. Devil’s Tower is among the later. Formed by an igneous intrusion many millions of years ago, Devil’s Tower is all that remains now that the surrounding sediment has eroded away.
It is magnificent, glorious, the sort of thing that makes you feel small and human. The kind of thing that puts everything else in perspective.
I had no choice but to jump over it, to prove my own belonging by besting the monolith. Given the springs I boast, the task was easily accomplished.
Alden was inspired by my accomplishment. She set her feet, and did her best.
I must admit, she did better than I thought she would. Give her a few more years…
Kato went next.
A good effort, but you will note that he didn’t quite clear the Tower.
Not to be outdone, Robbi took a gander.
In deference to the fragile pride of the mother of my children, I will refrain from commentary.
The next day, we headed east to the fabled Badlands. The road there was a bit dicey. South Dakota seemed to be under construction.
We stopped in the restaurant by the park entrance for some eats. I had a taco salad served on Native American flatbread.
Robbi ate a buffalo burger. Do you see a theme emerging?
As for the Badlands, they are as advertised. Michael Jackson bad, I tell you.
They are basically huge piles of eroding mud, a relatively young formation, geologically speaking, and one that will be entirely gone in less than a million years. Which means, of course, you should probably book your tickets now.
We stopped for a hike, only somewhat dissuaded by the threat of rattlesnakes.
While Robbi and I perked our ears for the telltale rattle, Alden took off to conquer the badlands.
She knows no fear. She knows no slope too steep.
I wonder where this wanderlust will lead her.
Eventually she reached the top.
Or so she thought. We didn’t have the heart to tell her about the large amount of Badlands that loomed above our heads. But the sun was hot, and we were of the opinion that she had reached sufficient heights. We enjoyed the view for a moment…
…and headed back down.
In case there is any doubt in your minds, I feel it the appropriate moment to remind you…
…that I make good babies.
I guess Robbi gets some credit, too. But she chose to wear a shirt that speaks to her interest in art, which has exactly zero relevance in the Badlands, where nature paints a more beautiful palette than even Robbi could muster.
…they go on and on.
As we drove north out of the park, we found the perfect antidote to the natural wonder: Wall Drug. Like South of the Border on the dividing line between the Carolinas, Wall Drug is a sprawling tourist trap that advertises its wonders for hundreds of miles in every direction.
An impressive collection of trinkets, food, and kitsch, Wall Drug has it all for the weary traveler. Of course, we had to have a look.
We were most inspired by the many new friends to be found there. Alden struck up with an old gambler.
I hung out with some rather hip cowpeople.
Before cozying up with a really nice lady (she was initially drawn in by Kato’s cuteness, but then recognized the dashing good looks of his Papa).
Robbi also found the time for a little extracurricular romance, though I think that I got the better end of the deal, all told.
Alden sampled cowboy hats.
And afterward, she and Kato tried their hands at riding a bucking barrel.
Shockingly, the Traveler’s Chapel was completely deserted.
We knew it was time to leave Wall Drug when Alden found the Pucker Palace, no doubt a kin to the one we stumbled on at the Washington Zoo a few weeks back.
On the long drive back to Custer, where we were staying, we saw signs for Mount Rushmore, and so we scaled the mountain for a look. The rain had stained the monuments’ faces with tears.
They were nonetheless magnificent.
Surveying the uncarved granite, we noticed that there seemed to be room for another face. If anyone asks us, we have a suggestion.
The combination of slick pavement and late hour made me feel it was not quite the right time to try to jump Mount Rushmore. We resolved to return, that I might have another chance.
The drive back offered gorgeous, open skies.
Not far from the summit of Rushmore, there is a cutoff where you can pull over and admire George’s profile.
The next day, we decided to visit Crazy Horse, the Lakota response to Mount Rushmore, and a far more ambitious project. When completed, the Crazy Horse monument will feature the famous warrior seated atop a stallion. And instead of merely emerging from the mountain, as in the case with Rushmore, the finished sculpture will be a completely liberated, free-standing affair, as shown in this model.
The project is breathtaking in ambition. Apparently, the four heads of Rushmore would fit in Crazy Horse’s head. When finished, the monument will be by far the biggest sculpture in the world. But as you can see, they still have a ways to go.
We drove north to Hill City to take scenic ride on an 19th century steam train.
The views were not magnificent, but the popcorn was to Alden’s liking.
She insisted on handling our negotiations with the conductor.
But otherwise spent much of the ride gazing out the window.
The reason for our heading to South Dakota in the first place was attending the Swanson family reunion. We drove south to Hot Springs to meet up with them for dinner. On the way, we were halted by two antelope, which apparently had some unfinished business to work out.
When we finally got to the restaurant, Alden and Kato enjoyed an upgrade from barrel to actual horse.
We didn’t have the heart to tell them that it wasn’t real.
Quick quiz: Who wears it best?
Where is the photo of Robbi in the buffalo hat, you ask? Only those who made a decent show of jumping Devil’s Tower were invited to participate in this contest.
On our way to Custer State Park, where the Swanson Family Reunion was to be held, we ran into a pack of wild donkeys, who true to their fabled nature, refused to budge from the center of the road for a full fifteen minutes.
We also had a close encounter with this antelope, who looked a bit demoralized.
Perhaps he was the loser of the confrontation we had witnessed the day before?
Once we reached the cabins where we would be staying for the next few nights, Grandma had her first chance to meet Kato.
We got Dad and took the obligatory four generation shot.
We had a great time catching up with the family. Alden and Grandma relaxed by the creek.
Alden helped dad grill the chicken.
Kato did his best to poke Dad’s eyes out.
Not far from where we were staying was Harney Peak, the tallest point between the Rockies and the Alps, so we were led to believe. Kato snuggled in for the trip to the summit.
And Alden slid herself into her personal chariot.
She seemed to enjoy the ride.
Not long after we set off, we were afforded a clear view of the distant summit.
Atop Harney Peak is a stone tower, built by the Civilian Conversation Corps back in the 1940s. It seemed unlikely that we’d ever get there.
The hike was about three miles. It was not grueling, but still not easy with a child on one’s back. At the very end, there was a tight squeeze through some rocks.
And a series of steps that felt steeper and longer than they probably were.
Eventually, we reached the tower.
Dad and Judy took a well-deserved rest.
The views were magnificent. All of South Dakota was spread before us.
The problem with climbing a mountain is, once you reach the top, you’re not quite done. There’s the whole matter of getting back down.
The next day we headed out to see Mount Rushmore under sunny skies. The roads through the Black Hills have been designed with beautiful, single-lane tunnels.
Each of which offers a perfectly-framed vista of Rushmore in the distance.
The South Dakota sun had long since washed away the presidents’ tears.
It seemed the perfect moment to show Mount Rushmore what I was made of.
Alden and Kato were both too impressed with the majesty of my jump to try it themselves. Robbi fainted away in a puddle of swooning adoration and had to be revived before we could take the guided ranger’s tour, which takes you right up to the base of the mountain.
I’ve always thought the idea of Mount Rushmore was novel, but kind of hokey. Seeing it in person, I’m nothing short of awestruck thinking about what the sculptors accomplished.
I was sufficiently inspired by Rushmore to order an ice cream cone, which like the mountain itself, was nothing short of monumental.
Robbi had no problem taking care of my leftovers. And Cousin Sarah’s. And her own.
Our trip back to camp was slowed by a herd of buffaloes that happened to be convening in the road.
Buffaloes are pretty impressive. Their babies are just plain cute.
Alden’s favorite part of South Dakota? Yes, there are playgrounds in every state of the Union.
We ran out of days, and said our farewells.
None more heartfelt than the one to our lime green Kia Soul, which carried us so ably on our western travels.
The trip home was uneventful. We launched almost immediately into Alaska preparation mode. And there you are. Provided you are still awake, you can consider yourself up to date.
Lest you worry that I’m going to spend my entire sabbatical writing epic blogposts, rest assured that I will now turn to more pressing matters, namely, getting all of this:
Into my brand new, sleek and sturdy filing system:
Wish me luck. This sort of thing doesn’t come easily to me. I crave order but tend to induce chaos.
I’m guessing I’ll end up somewhere in the middle.