Some Bad, Bad Lands Filled with Drugs and Nukes

Badlands National Park in South Dakota was one of the primary places I wanted to visit on this trip.  Usually Stephanie is the one who gets all excited about national parks, but The Badlands is yet another place of which I have fond (albeit patchy) memories from my childhood camping trips with my father.  The badlands are totally unique, and completely beautiful.  Unfortunately, by the time we rolled in, the sun had set, and all we could see were silhouettes.

This was the first time on this trip that we actually camped instead of couch surfing.  Being the off-season (a running theme on this trip), even the main campground provided only “winter facilities”.  For those of you whose idea of roughing it is showing up at the Four Seasons without a reservation, “winter facilities” means no running water and no electricity.  There were bathrooms, but again no running water – just a seat over a hole in the ground, and some hand sanitizer in a dispenser.  (I’ll bet you’re changing your mind about wishing you could travel like us right about now.)

In all seriousness, it wasn’t as bad as it sounds.  We pitched our tent by lantern light, cooked up some hot dogs on our camp grill, and then proceeded to have one of the chilliest nights we’ve ever had camping.  Even with our sleeping bags zipped together and winter hats on for warmth, it was still pretty cold.  But on the plus side, we could see about a zillion stars in the black, black night.  The next day warmed up nicely,  and we stopped at the visitor’s center where there IS running water for a quick freshen-up before we set off for the day.

Rather than start with the Badlands themselves, we went to nearby Minuteman Missile National Historic Site.  If you’ve ever wanted a chance to come face-to-face with the Cold War, you can do it right here.  It turns out that South Dakota (and North Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, and Nebraska) are full of nuclear missile silos.  This location was chosen since it would only take a Minuteman II Missile 30 minutes to fly the 5,000 miles to Moscow from here.

At the site, you can first tour a decommissioned launch facility.  The tour goes underground into the hardened control center where you can see the red locker that contained the nuclear launch codes as well as “the button” which is actually a pair of keys located too far apart for one human to turn by hand.

A few miles away is a decommissioned silo where the lid has been replaced by a glass roof so you can look down in at a Minuteman II missile that once stood ready for launch.  It was definitely a sobering sight, and made us glad all over again that cool heads prevailed during the 80s.

After all that seriousness, it was time for some lightheartedness, and where better to find it than at Wall Drug!  After all, they’d been luring us in with billboards for over 200 miles during the past 24 hours.  Wall Drug originated as a drug store just off the interstate in Wall, South Dakota.  They had a lean few years until they got the idea to offer free ice water to parched passing motorists.  Now it’s a huge and wonderfully tacky complex of shops, arcades, and restaurants that reminded us of “South of the Border” but with a western theme.  And yes – they still offer free ice water.

We got there around lunch time, but as I may have mentioned, we are traveling off-season, so large parts of Wall Drug were closed or almost empty.  Fortunately, the shooting gallery that I remembered was still open and functional.  The Wall Drug T-Rex is also still roaring every 15 minutes.  We enjoyed lunch there complete with homemade apple and blueberry pie slices.

On the way back to our campsite, we took the scenic route and were able to take in more of the stunning scenery of the Badlands.  We even saw a few of the elusive bighorn sheep and a coyote!  We took a decently long hike in the late afternoon, returning just as the sun was setting.  Along the way I had fun making up names for the formations, like the Egyptian City and the Prairie Dog.  (It really did look like a dog on the prairie – not a prairie dog.)

Night two in our rustic tent was MUCH warmer than the first night, but windy.  Our tent fly flapped so much that we went and anchored it down in the middle of the night.  After a solid night’s sleep, we were ready for a day of hiking.  We hiked most of the rest of the trails through the Badlands, and we marveled at how these otherworldly formations alternated with stretches of open plains.  We also noticed how cracked and parched the ground looked, and wondered what the area must look like just after the rainy season when the grasses are green instead of brown, and the earth is not so cracked.

As we headed out of the Badlands we passed an enormous prairie dog “town.”  The little critters were everywhere – scampering around or keeping an upright watch of their holes.  Every now and then, they would sort of stand up on their hind legs and chirp a warning to each other.  After watching them for a long while, we took the long way out of the Badlands to see if we could spot the herd of buffalo that lives there.  We eventually came across one lone buffalo right by the side of the road who seemed intrigued by the girl who came to visit him.  (I was worried he might charge, so I didn’t let Stephanie get too close.)  We did see the rest of the herd, but they were too far away to get any decent pictures.  Eventually we found another herd of buffalo a little closer.

Once we left the Badlands on our way towards Rapid City, we started to get low on gas.  No problem – we’re taking the road less traveled, so we’ll just fill up in the town of Scenic.  A slight problem with that plan soon was soon apparent:  First of all Scenic, South Dakota is decidedly not scenic, and secondly it barely qualifies as a town.  Certainly to be called a town you should have…say… a GAS STATION.  Running on fumes, we had no choice but to press on to the next town, and hope we found fuel before coming to a sputtering stop on a deserted back road somewhere.

After another 20 minutes, I was “concerned.”  (I believe “flipping out” is the phrase Stephanie used.)  We had gone over 45 miles since the fuel light came on, and I was already wondering how long it would take AAA to find us once we called, when what to my wondering eyes should appear, but a little restaurant in the middle of nowhere with two  gas pumps in front of it.  These pumps were so old they still had analog reels that turned as you pumped.  I thought at first they were antiques strictly for decoration, but no – they were real, and what’s more, they worked!   This was the kind of place where everyone inside was wearing a 10-gallon hat, and when I started talking to the lady at the register, all other conversation literally ceased for a moment.  But we once again had a full tank, and now knew we could push that empty light further than we had ever thought…  With the car well fed, it was only another half hour or so to Rapid City – our next stop.

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