Day 50: Blue Mounds State Park, Minnesota to Kennebec, South Dakota
On the Interstate through eastern South Dakota, billboards lined the highway, advertising buffalo skulls, Wall Drug, ghost towns, Western wear and tack, casinos, and RVs. The landscape was undulating farms, like a wide flat sea.
I read all the billboards, as I am sure others do. They break up the monotony of the drive and provide something to look at. Advertising money well spent.
Day 51: Kennebec, South Dakota to Ellsworth Air Force Base, South Dakota
A friendly woman with a western European accent approached me in the bathroom at a rest stop. It’s always a little awkward when someone chats in the bathroom, and she started with: “are you traveling alone?” When people ask me that, my first thought is that they are confirming I am solo before hitting me over the head with something and throwing me in the back of their van, but she was a very nice Canadian resident headed south to Texas for the winter.
The scenery of the Badlands National Park was a crumbling alien landscape with spires of rock rising up out of the prairie. It is dry and lifeless. I was here twenty years ago, but it was crowded with motorcyclists in the area for the massive Sturgis rally. This time, it was quiet and serene.
It was a warm, sunny day, so I sat in a viewpoint area overlooking the chasm of valleys and made coffee. Chesky sniffed the weeds looking for groundhogs and then basked in the sun. A stream of people pulled in next to us. It’s human nature: if someone else has stopped, it must be good.
Mounds of neatly layered rock rose from the prairie. It was easy to see geologic time in the Badlands; the strata are each colored differently and readily apparent from the great height of the road where I sat.
While I sat contemplating the vast plain in the bright sunshine, I received a text that my sister-in-law had just gone into labor. I guess you never forget where you were when you hear good news, but this location was one for the ages.
Day 52: Exploring the Black Hills, South Dakota (from Ellsworth AFB)
I saved Chesky’s life today. We were at Sheridan Lake in the middle of the Black Hills National Forest, wandering around a campground closed for the winter and enjoying the unseasonably warm day. I examined each campsite, and Chesky galloped from grassy lump to grassy lump, looking for squirrels. After an hour or so, we went together out onto a floating dock in the lake and Chesky got down on his elbows and lapped at the water, almost falling in twice before getting his balance. Then he stood up, gave me that “I’m so happy to be running” grin, walked to the other side of the dock, and fell in.
He had been in deep water before and was a competent swimmer. His harness is loose on his skinny frame, and I worried it could catch on a branch, but he came up just fine and swam around in a little circle, whimpering and snorting. He turned and tried to get back on the dock, but the water was deep and he had no traction.
I could see panic set in as he realized he was stuck, and panic made him stupid. He was so fixated on getting back on the dock, he couldn’t turn to his left and swim eight feet to shore. I ran back to the water’s edge to call him, but he had tunnel vision. He started to sink, despair in his eyes as he lost his proper swimming form and became vertical. He began flailing in earnest, his head going under, and I realized he was going to drown without intervention. I dropped my things, ran out onto the dock, lay down on the boards, and hauled him up by the harness.
He landed on my legs, soaking my pants and shirt. He shook himself off and whacked me in the face with his tail, then gave me that dog head bump on the hand that means “thanks” before running off after a bird.
We started the day at a dog park in Rapid City that had been recommended by another traveler, and Chesky chased ducks through the stream, squirrels into trees, and birds through the brush. Near the end of the hour, I reached over and touched his back, and he was soft and relaxed and warm, not a ball of roiling tension like when he spends all day in the car.
From the dog park, we went to Mount Rushmore for a photo shoot. I love the Black Hills. They are aptly named: rising up out of the High Plains, they are covered with darkly thick evergreen forests and look like shadows against the sky. I’ve been here before and was very impressed; it’s not letting me down this time. I feel like it’s America’s best kept secret: the area is far from any major city with lots of featureless plain surrounding it. Denver is four hours away, but most people there travel into the Rockies. The mountains here are beautiful, heavily forested, the people friendly, the trails uncrowded, and the lakes serene.
Keystone looked like a cross between Las Vegas and the Old West, with fudge stores, factory stores, gift shops selling crystals, pottery, leather, shirts, and jewelry. It all had a new gaudiness, and smacked of businesses focused on attracting kids and families, like a reptile garden or a bear enclosure to drive through. Are we teaching kids that they must be entertained at all costs? What happened to hiking and enjoying nature? Keystone disheartened me.
Mount Rushmore had signs proclaiming drones were not permitted. It really made me want to see footage of Rushmore via drone. In front of the sculpture, wild white fluffy mountain goats the size of small horses grazed at the side of the road. I drove around the corner and saw George Washington’s profile soaring above the road, recorded forever in granite.
Day 53: Black Hills Day 2
I went to a ghost town today, but it wasn’t very scary. What was scary was the report of snow in the Montana mountains. I don't want to drive the trailer through snow.
I started the day in the drier northern part of the Black Hills to see Galena, a supposed ghost town, and Deadwood. Galena had caught my eye because of a great write up on the South Dakota website, but I thought the website was better than the actual town. I wished I had just looked at the photos and skipped the trip. Deadwood reminded me of Las Vegas, filled with bars with sexy signs and casinos.
Chesky has become much better off leash, especially in unfamiliar places. He worries about where I am constantly, and will run for a bit and then check over his shoulder. If he can’t see me, he will race from place to place guessing where I am (and he’s pretty good at it - I think he’s smarter than he lets on). He’ll run up to other women and then back away, confused.
I am tired of traveling today. I am more than halfway done, but have a very long way to go. One day at a time.
Day 54: Ellsworth AFB to Miles City, Montana
I miss those shorts-and-t-shirts days of the South now! There is a lot of the West I would like to explore further, but I’ve got to get out of the mountains before temperatures drop below freezing or snow falls. Leaving Rapid City, it was a foggy, overcast morning with light drizzle. As I climbed towards Sturgis, the temperature dropped to 37 but thankfully held above freezing the rest of the day.
Devil’s Tower was shrouded in clouds. I was right in front of it when the clouds cleared and it was there for just a moment in all its volcanic glory. I sang the “Close Encounters” alien communication ditty to Chesky as we drove up the long hill to the visitor’s center. The scene was made eerie by the remnants of a controlled burn the night before: the entire forest floor on one side of the road was blackened and smoldering. It smelled like a campfire, and bewildered deer wandered through the ashes.
From Devil's Tower, I climbed over windswept, virtually treeless hills. The landscape was stark, sparse, brown, and lonely. It was the least populated drive of my trip so far, and the shroud of winter was ominous. Signs were prepared with blinking yellow construction lights to close passes (if necessary) and warned of dire fines for disregard. I wondered how the residents of the remote passes fared when the roads were closed. Huge wooden windbreak fences with wide slats sat in the middle of the fields to prevent drifting on the roads. Permanent snow fences are a sign of serious winter weather.
Despite the coming cold, animals were in abundance. Herds of wild turkeys strolled along the sides of the road. Deer emerged from fields as I passed, hoping I would either shoot them or hit them with my car. The cows grazing behind fences were all black.
I spent the night in Miles City, a cheery little blue collar agricultural and train town filled with simple, neatly kept homes and preserved machinery. It looked to be in a long, slow decline that the locals didn’t really mind; satisfied with what they had. There’s a Walmart here that brought brings jobs and industry; it’s like a perpetual motion machine.
Day 55: Miles City, Montana to Butte, Montana
Today I saw the Rockies for the first time. Just west of Billings, I crested a rise in the land and suddenly the mountains were laid out before me, rising from the plains like majestic, snow-capped giants. Montana had its own unique culture, with old-timey western fonts, local banks, and hunters everywhere. I saw billboards for sex toys, cattle roping, and music.
People are friendly: I stopped somewhere a west of Miles City and four young people in orange hunting gear enthusiastically asked about the trailer.
I stopped for a dog park walk both in Billings and Bozeman. On a warm sunny Sunday afternoon, the Bozeman park was filled with people and all dogs were off leash. I suspect someone in Bozeman has recently struck oil. Wikipedia says there are a lot of high-tech companies based there, and that fits: the residents drove small foreign cars, wore gore-tex and none of the orderly houses had RVs parked out front. The homes and condos on the outskirts were new, the stores all brick, and investment management offices dotted the landscape.
I raced a coal train out of Bozeman an hour before sunset, the snowy mountains to my left glistening in the fading light.
The greatest danger on the road is debris: tires or couches or pieces of wood. I was on my final stretch of the day and getting tired when I had to brake hard for an obstacle: an upright ATV blocked the fast lane. Fresh skid marks shone black on the pavement next to it. It all flashed by in the blink of an eye as I stood on my brakes and put my hazards on to warn those behind me.
A pickup truck was pulled over to the right about a hundred feet further on, and an anguished man wearing a stained t-shirt had his arms spread wide. I thought about calling 911 to get flashing lights for traffic control while he retrieved his vehicle, but I could see trucks pulling off in the darkness behind me to render assistance. I didn’t want to clog up the telephone lines.
After a long climb with a dangerously low gas tank, I crossed the continental divide and coasted down into Butte. I am officially in the west.
Day 56: Butte, Montana to Missoula, Montana
I was going to move quickly through the rest of Montana and Idaho and stay in Washington tonight, but after yesterday’s long drive and how pretty Montana was, I decided to stay another day. After a short drive to Missoula, I took Chesky to Woods Gulch in the Rattlesnake National Forest and met a nice ranger from New York and had a great off-leash hike. I am glad I stayed.
The states this week, in two words:
South Dakota: Secret gem
Wyoming: Devils Tower
Montana: Sparsely populated