Great American Road Trip- Part 3

July 23, 2017 ~ SD-WY (605 miles)

Wall, SD; Badlands National Park; Rapid City, SD; Black Hills National Forest; Hot Springs, SD; Casper, WY; Rawlins, WY; Rock Springs, WY

At 6:15am in Wall, SD, I sit outside my cabin on the patio drinking coffee and writing on the two-person bench. The sun rises quickly behind me and casts long shadows that stretch toward the nearly empty interstate. It’s going to be a hot one in the Badlands. Heat rash has become a normal part of venturing out in high summer for me. Heat exhaustion can creep up too. Sunscreen, bug spray, water, and my straw hat are a must today.

National parks, small towns, the highways and byways… the great outdoors… people think it’s flyover territory but I know better. There is so much life happening not on the internet- parks, museums, cafes, wilderness. This life is a little bit of heaven for me- a porch, a coffee, a sunrise, my journal. This is what vacation should feel like- adventure and exploration.

I drove hwy 240 south out of Wall, SD, to hwy 377, to hwy 44, to hwy 385, to hwy 18, to I-25 west, to hwy 220, to hwy 287, to I-80 west, to Rock Springs, WY. Here are some highlights along the route:


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Wall Drug in Wall SD is the king of tourist traps. I must stop in. According to Wikipedia, the small-town drug store was purchased in 1931 by Ted Hustead. Business was very slow until his wife, Dorothy, thought of advertising free ice water to parched travelers heading to the newly opened Mount Rushmore monument 60 miles to the west. From that time on business was brisk for the cowboy-themed shopping mall.

It’s different then I remember twenty years ago but a lot of the original animatronics still preside over the stores. There are a lot of souvenirs and kids and their tired parents. I seek silvery state shaped stickers like they used to sell to decorate my journal but they only have patches. I don’t have a writing vest so I pass.


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Established in 1939, Badlands National Park protects 242,756 acres of sharply eroded buttes, pinnacles, and spires blended with the largest undisturbed mixed grassprairie in the United States. At the Pinnacles Entrance, the first thing that greets you is a sign that reads, “CAUTION- PRARIE DOGS HAVE PLAGUE!” and by plague they mean sylvatic plague which is the same bacterium that causes THE plague, bubonic plague in humans. So there will be no kissing the wildlife no matter how cute they are.


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Badlands National Park offers incredible landscape. There is something otherworldly about it. According to Wikipedia, for 11,000 years Native Americans used this area for their hunting grounds. Toward the end of the 19th century, the U.S. government stripped Native Americans of much of their territory and forced them to live on reservations. In early winter of 1890, one of the last known Ghost Dances was conducted on Stronghold Table in the South Unit of Badlands National Park- an attempt to restore native hunting grounds. The climax of the struggle ended with the Wounded Knee Massacre.


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It is very dry and hot but a lot of grasses, trees, and shrubs still grow here as well as thriving wildlife populations. I cannot stop myself from pulling my car over at every scenic overlook, around every bend. I don’t bother to turn my camera off and by mid-day I am exhausted from taking pictures.


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I pull over to eat a sandwich and drink some water at one of the picnic areas. There, I am stalked by three yellow breasted Western Meadowlarks who want my bread crust. A small family in a rented camper, native French speakers, are also taking a lunchbreak. I hear their younger boy sing-song “Prayer-ree-dawg, Prayer-ree-dawg” with his thick accent and tiny voice. Kids get excited about the same things, no matter where they are from. I fed the prairie dogs Cheerios myself when I was his age and we were on the way to see “The Faces” (Mount Rushmore) back in the 70’s.


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In Rapid City, I face a decision: do I take the faster, more sensible hwy 79 to Hot Springs or be a dumb tourist and take 385 through the Black Hills? Black Hills it is! Soon, there were signs for big horn sheep crossing though I saw none. I stopped at Pactola Dam and marveled at its incredible reservoir. I got a nice view of the Crazy Horse Memorial as I sped by. It depicts the Oglala Lakota warrior, Crazy Horse, riding a horse and pointing into the distance.


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In Wind Cave National Park, three bison stood by the side of the road- A bull, a cow, and her calf. The calf was about the size of my car. As I admired them from my stopped vehicle, the cow and calf moved away from the bull and directly toward me without any sign of slowing down. If you have ever seen bison, you know how big they are and they are not afraid of anything. I got out of their way.


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I finally arrived in Hot Springs, SD still 420 miles from my destination. It was time to stop being a tourist and get serious. I spent the rest of the daylight hours hauling ass through the unfamiliar landscape of Wyoming, worrying about the many herds of antelope and mule deer I saw running by the side of the rural highways.


Thankfully, summer offers long daylight hours but I still drove about 1.5 hours after dark. I had pre-paid for a room at a chain hotel in Rock Springs, WY so I sort of felt stuck. I had to get there or pay twice for the night’s lodging. A long drive but hey, I am a member of the rewards club for the hotel chain and they gave me a free item out of the canteen for my loyalty when I arrived.

Free wine at 11pm… this is what vacation is about, right?!?

-Copyright C.M. Mounts, September 2017

Also See:
2017 South Dakota Gallery
Great American Road Trip- Part 1
Great American Road Trip- Part 2
Great American Road Trip- Part 4
Great American Road Trip- Part 5
Great American Road Trip- Part 6
Great American Road Trip- Part 7
Great American Road Trip- Part 8

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