South Dakota 2010: AKA, The Sort of Trip Journal You Write When You're Too Damn Lazy To Write A Decent Trip Journal
As a kid, I was lucky: my family traveled every summer. I still have dim memories of these trips: California, Maine, Texas, New Orleans, and so on. These were the classic family road trips, a little like National Lampoon's Vacation. I'm not sure how much I appreciated it at the time, but in hindsight, I know I was lucky: by the time I was 17 I'd been in most of the 48 states, plus Canada and Mexico.
My wife grew up in Cambodia, and although she's lived here for almost two decades, she still hasn't seen much of the U.S. Nor had our children. As a family, we'd traveled a bit in the midwest, and out east, but we'd never been west.
That bothered me. I had this voice in the back of my head saying: they need to see The West. The West, with a capital W, the West with mountains and canyons and deserts and all of that stuff.
The problem? When you live in Chicago, the West is far. I started wondering: what's the most eastern part of the West? Eventually, I decided: the Badlands.
If you really wanted to, you could drive to the Badlands. But trust me: you don't wanna do that. One of the lessons from all those family vacations of my youth was that there is a very wide, very boring stretch of nothing right in the middle of the United States. And if you're driving, you've gotta cross it twice.
Far better, I think, to bite the bullet and pony up for some plane tickets. Chicago to Rapid City is about three hours, and when you land you've got that fantastic feeling of being somewhere different, because, yes, South Dakota does not look like Chicago.
I'm too lazy to write a complete account of the trip, plus that's pretty damn boring anyway. So, let's hit the highlights:
Mount Rushmore: What's not to like? A giant mountain with colossal faces carved into it. Very cool. Strictly speaking, it's unfinished. Early plans called for more complete sculptures, showing most of the torso in addition to the Presidents' heads. It's likely that the monument will be left as it is, and that's a good thing. Do we really need to see Lincoln's lapels? Nah. Meanwhile, nearby Horse Thief Lake is a good spot for photos, and you're allowed to swim there, too. Very cool: how often do you get to swim in a lake next to granite cliffs?
Jewel Cave: This is a nice cave, and it's worth seeing if you're nearby. I'm not sure if it's worth going too far out of your way if you've been to see some of the "competition." Mammoth Cave has a far more interesting history, and other caves like Wisconsin's Cave of the Mounds have prettier formations.
The Badlands: Very, very cool. Barren, harsh, and thoroughly picturesque, there are lots of scenic overlooks and several hiking trails. The photos decribe it better than I can.
Ellsworth Air Force Base: Definitely worth a look, and it's free. There's a small museum with a number of well-done exhibits, and outside there are many historic aircraft. My wife posed for a picture next to what she called "the Monster," a giant B-52 bomber. Everybody who grew up in Cambodia knows about the B-52.
Dinosaur Park: One of those family vacations from my childhood involved a stop at Rapid City's Dinosaur Park. I loved dinosaurs (what boy doesn't??), and a return visit was essential. Dinosaur Park is quirky, silly, and wonderful. Perched atop a hill overlooking the city, it was built in 1936 by the Works Progress Administration during the Depression. It's nothing more than a bunch of enormous, slightly-goofy looking concrete dinosaurs, and shame on you if you don't love it.
Horseback Riding: By pure luck we stumbled across Spirit Horse Escape, along U.S. 16, a few miles west of Custer, on the way toward Jewel Cave. It was a nice 40-minute ride through tree-covered hills. The kids gave it the thumbs up, and were deeply impressed by gravel-throated Jack, a genuine wrangler. Put the Marlboro Man next to Jack, and you'd realize what a pathetic male-model poseur that cigarette salesman really is.
Bison near Wind Cave: If you're lucky -- and we were -- you'll see some bison in the area near Custer State Park. There's something surreal and magnificent about seeing a car stopped in the middle of the road, waiting for a giant buffalo to cross the road. (OK, I know that, strictly speaking, they're bison, and NOT buffalo... but damn near everybody calls them buffalo. "Buffalo Bill" has a much better ring to it than "Bison Bill."
Wall Drug: OK, it's not exactly a "highlight" of the trip, but I'm sorry: you're just not allowed to go to South Dakota without stopping at Wall Drug. By the time you've seen two hundred signs advertising everything from five-cent coffee to western wear, your curiosity is going to get the better of you. It's really just an oversized souvenir shop, but what the hell: it's worth stopping just to reward the proprietors for what must surely be the world's most inexplicably successful advertising campaign. A friend once told me that he saw a sign advertising Wall Drug at a train station in Kenya. Kenya. Hell, I'll stop and buy lunch anywhere in South Dakota, so long as that place has the audacity to advertise in frakking Kenya.
The Mammoth Site: OK... this place is cool. Way cool. This place is so cool, that I can't for the life of me understand why everybody in the world hasn't heard of it. Back in the 1974, a developer bought a parcel of land at the top of a hill outside Hot Springs, South Dakota. They began bulldozing the land in preparation for building a new housing development. Early on, however, the dozer scraped something beneath the surface. It turned out to be a mammoth bone. They called in experts, who began digging... and they found an entire mammoth skeleton. And another. And another, and another and and and...
They quickly realized that they'd found something worth preserving. They built a structure to shelter the site, and continued digging. To date, they've found the remains of 55 mammoths, a bear, a camel, a llama, and a handful of other creatures. The site is still being excavated. A core sample suggests that there are far more remains below the present level of the dig.
Why did so many mammoths die at the site? The question becomes even more intriguiging when one learns that the mammoths didn't all die at the same time; instead, the oldest remains are thousands of years older than the newest remains. What happened to them? And why were there so few other animals? Sites like the La Brea Tar Pits, for example, contain remains of many different types of creatures. Why is the Mammoth Site different?
Although the Mammoth Site is currently at the top of a hill, it began as a pit. The area around Hot Springs is undercut with caves. A collapsing cave left a sinkhole at the surface, which eventually filled with water. The soil in the area is a slippery mixture of clay and shale, and mammoths -- whose feet are flat and clawless -- would be unable to climb back out once they had descended into the spring. Other animals, however, were more fortunate: their clawed feet allowed them to climb out of the pit.
Over time, silt began to fill in the spring, and the pit became shallower. Eventually, the pit probably became shallow enough that it would no longer trap mammoths. At that point, mammoths walking in and around the spring tended to compress the soil below, making it harder and more resistant to erosion than the surrounding areas. The end result? What had once been a pit gradually became a hill... a nice little hill that looked like a fine spot for a few houses.
Three of the mammoths are wooly mammoths; all the rest are Columbian mammoths. These animals, incidentally, were larger than modern-day elephants. A modern African elephant would be able to walk beneath a Columbian mammoth without even touching its chin.
The exhibits at the mammoth site are informative and well-designed. Particularly intriguing is a mockup of a mammoth house. Not a house for mammoths: a house made of mammoths. Prehistoric men sometimes used the bones and skin of mammoths to build tent-like homes. The remnants of many such homes have been round in Eurpoe, particularly in the Czech republic.
Good: The Chief Motel in Custer, with a friendly staff, nice location, plus a hot tub and an indoor pool.
Good: The Hyundai Elantra rented from Budget, via Hotwire. Admittedly, I wouldn've rather been in my beloved old Maxima when trying to accelerate while going up the side of a mountain. Over the course of more than 500 miles of driving, however, the Elantra averaged almost thirty miles to the gallon. Not bad.
Bad: Priceline and the Econolodge in Rapid City, for putting us in a smoking room when we had reserved a non-smoking room.
In summary: Go to South Dakota. Admire massive president heads. Ride horses with Jack the Cowboy. Visit the Mammoth Site. Hike in the Badlands. But don't bring home a prarie dog.