JULY 24, 2016
Leaving Custer today was anchored by mixed emotions. Not having to pack up our bags and the car for days has been milk and honey. Nevertheless, I am beginning to feel the pull to get home. My check-ins about my grandmother’s condition have remained status quo to date, but I was more than ready to be there and see for myself; I was still puzzled about the initial call. Today is Thomas’ big birthday and I want to get him home soon too. I know he has a nice birthday celebration extravaganza waiting for him when he returns and it is just time to make our way. We stop at an IHOP on the way out, in Rapid City. Normally to prevent myself from overindulging in a place that sets you up to do so, I order breakfast off of their Simply Fit (reduced calorie) menu. Today, I don’t want to be good for breakfast and I choose my true love, the chocolate chip pancakes. These treats put the cake in pancakes. They are so sweet that you really don’t need syrup. Our waitress' name tag read Green, Tea. Why did her parents do that to her? Thomas asked her how her first name was pronounced. She said it is pronounced, Teá like Leah, but think of all the teachers that called her green tea doing attendance. Rough. Oddly enough, on the road we spot a company truck with a trailer with Maryland tags.
The first of our remaining Dakota stops is Wall Drug in Wall. Several pictures were taken here of the Grahams and I was curious if there was anything still standing that was recognizable from the images. Wall Drug would be best described as the South of The Border of the Midwest. Brightly colored billboards alongside the highway humorously nudge you to come and at least visit. Needless to say, the Wall Drug signs are very successful and this is one of those places you have to stop when en route to any of the nearby tourist sights. What you buy and how much you spend once you get there is up to you. Be warned, you will not leave empty handed. Opened in 1931 as a drug store, luring passersby travelers with free ice water, Wall Drug is a complex that includes an indoor mall with a pharmacy, restaurants, shops and a traveler’s chapel, as well as storefronts across the street. Homemade donuts and self serve 5¢ coffee are the hot commodities and tradition here. Folks were lined up out the door for them when we got there. After we did some initial browsing in the mall, we were ready to get our donuts. There are 3 kinds of glaze that you can get and we each selected a doughnut, to be packed away for later. In line we noticed that there were a lot of young employees in the busy restaurant of many backgrounds. While I went to the restroom once we secured the glazed goods, Thomas asked one of the young employees where they were from and what brings them here. He was told that in Jamaica, there is a work exchange program for students during the summer. Based on the many backgrounds of the employees, this must be the case for most of them. I’m guessing this recruiting includes the youth from local reservations as well. Our stop there closes with the usual troll of the stores. To be expected, I want to buy a few more standout souvenirs. Thomas and I join forces and ultimately split. I end up making a final decision on a Native American rug tote bag that screamed Frances that I had to buy. I knew when I got it home, I would show it to my grandmother and get her utmost approval. She loves anything native, colorful and rare. The rest of our purchases get jammed in the back seat with our luggage and gear and we leave for the last of our stops.
Less than 15 minutes away we find ourselves in the heart of the 244,000 acres of Badlands National Park. Most people would think that once you have seen one big old rock or gaping hole in the ground, you have seen them all. Every nuance of the topography, down to the size, shape, expanse, angle, the color and gradation could very well all be the same. But when you get down to the nitty gritty of the variations, the many combinations always creates a sight that is ultimately and fascinatingly one of a kind, much like a kid’s mix and match flip book. Soon after we park and get out at the first overlook, there was the distinct sound of a mother hollering at a kid that is obviously too far to hear and already two seconds away from not caring about whatever words are coming out her mouth. It was a fairly large group, adults with a gaggle of kids. This one particular kid out of the group, her son and probably the youngest I assumed, had already started chasing behind his older brother. There may have been no less than a 5 year difference between the boys, but in size and agility, it is ages. The older brother was taller and stronger. He was also too fearless for the conditions. By the time his younger brother was getting yelled at for being in hot pursuit, he had already run down the hill and was at the ledge. The younger brother quickly realizes that his much shorter legs weren’t going to manage the steep hill like his brother. He did the next best thing and scoots down on his butt. This little brother was determined not to be left behind.
Sherbet colors take over the hillside down the road. How does the world open up like this? While we were pondering this question on the side of the street, we saw a group of 3 women in the distance jumping on top of a hill for that hard to catch “jump shot.” It took several tries for them to get the shot. I think Thomas and I wanted to catch the joy of people traveling and this was a great candid moment. Thomas took a picture of them mid jump from across the street. At the next overlook the jumping group pull up next to us. The woman must have noticed us watching them and taking the picture. When I look over, she signaled to me with a thumbs up, questioning if we got the shot. From the passenger seat, I gave her the thumbs up back. Thomas told me to get a card. By the time I did, he was already out of the car, showing her the picture on his camera. I handed her the card as they were in mid conversation. Believe it or not, they were driving from Oregon on their way to Baltimore, Maryland. Her daughter, one of the happy jumpers, was moving there. Her fiancé is stationed at Fort Meade and she was going to go to college. The son and only boy in this caravan was not as excited about the drive, and presumably, being the photographer of this wonderfully feminine, energized group, was feeling outnumbered. His mother said that he was at the end of his days and he agreed. The mother was a high school counselor. Frances, my grandmother was one as well, at the end of her teaching days. What an unbelievably small world we live in. They all have a huge smile and so do we. I gave my elevator pitch to explain what we were doing out here. The woman mentioned that she traveled a lot with her family growing up. She asked if there was any place that we would recommend to see on the way out since our routes had already crossed in a sense. We gave a few suggestions, but it was hard to say which was best. In the end we all agreed the best plan is to have no plan.
We continue to take the southeast direction of Badlands Loop Road. Of all the parks that we have visited, Badlands is on the top of the list for close wildlife encounters. Bighorn Sheep are plentiful here and make it known that we, the people are intruding on their property. You will see them everywhere. As we drive down the road, we pass one that is keeping up with the car. Or we are keeping up with it. I do my best to capture his stride. Finally, we out pace him.
A few minutes further down the road, we see cars parked along the street in a place that is not an overlook. Our curiosity meters go off and we pull over too. This parking job is a bit precarious and I was getting out of the passenger side on a bit of angle into a ditch. I take my time. It doesn’t take long before I find out what is drawing everyone’s attention. The couple I walk towards show me their display on their camera without me saying a word. Framed in the middle was the full face of a Bighorn Sheep Ram. The woman explains to me that her husband fell and bruised himself while taking this fantastic image. At the moment, the Bighorn Sheep is not in plain view, which is why her husband fell. The rock here is dry and unforgiving. The subject of everyone’s attention is on the other side of the tall bluff. The inconvenience of his hiding spot did not prevent anyone from taking pictures. One by one the crowd dissipates and Thomas and I are still roaming about. We never had a clear eye-shot of him with all the people there. It was more or a less a glance. Now that we were the only ones there, we tried to get closer and literally went on a limb (more like a ledge) to get a picture of him. Adrenaline and the need to get an awesome wildlife shot takes over. I make a path closer to the edge of the bluff and steady my feet and look around. I saw his horns from the other side, so I felt that I was a safe distance away at the edge, or at best, we would not be nose to nose when I clear the corner. Low and behold, there he was. He doesn’t look disturbed by my presence. I take a few pictures. On my way off the corner, he begins to move slowly and comes up and over the bluff. He still doesn’t appear agitated and I continued to take pictures and film, but he does start doing this thing with his legs like he is stretching and getting ready for something. All the time, he is not facing us directly and I did not feel as though I was in danger. By the time he turns towards us, a few other cars had pulled up while Thomas and I were starting to retreat (Thomas was actually telling me to come on). Meanwhile, a woman taking a picture of the Bighorn Sheep from the safety of her pickup yells to us, “Get out of there! Those things can hurt you!” Right after, I could also hear her say not quietly under her breath, “People are so stupid. They are going to get themselves hurt.” Us being the people. All these people trying to tell me what to do. The way I see it, the worth is in the risk. Easier said when I didn’t get gored. *Our parents would have killed us if they saw what we were doing.
At the last overlook, before we get out, Thomas and I were talking in the car. Outside, I noticed this young woman for several reasons. First, she is wearing the same dress my mom recently purchased that I liked a lot and unlike the majority of travelers we have seen, she appears to be traveling solo. The last reason, being the most amusing to me, was that she was with a dog. After a while, it becomes obvious that she is trying to get her dog to sit for a photo. She would get the dog to sit and as soon as she stands and raises her phone to take the picture, the dog stands up. This went on for a few tries. It was the cutest and funniest thing watching him time his slow disobedience. The dog was not interested in sitting nor having his picture taken. She ends up resolving the issue by eliminating the sitting and picks the dog up to take a selfie of them both.
Before we leave, we ooh and awe a few more times at the overlook before we make one last stop at the Cedar Pass Lodge Gift Shop before exiting the park. This was our last official souvenir troll. From this moment on, we will be in get home mode. Hours had somehow passed quickly here. We had no intention to be there that long and are surprised at the time. Ahead of us is a very long drive. Orange and full, the sun says goodbye to us as we leave the park from the northeast entrance. The final destination for the night is Rochester, Minnesota. Somewhere in between South Dakota and Minnesota, we stop for gas. I am starving and am feeling the end of my day setting heavily upon my body and my spirit. Eating options were extremely limited in the gas station. I grab a pre-made turkey and cheese sandwich. I couldn’t vouch for its freshness but I could have kissed it. We arrive at the hotel after 3:30 am. Done, done and done.
P.S. In case you are wondering why it is called Badlands, it is because the lands were indeed bad to travel across (but too bad that you shouldn't go and enjoy with your camera at the ready). For more info on Badlands National Park: https://www.nps.gov/badl/index.htm