Sweets at a place called "It's Just Perfect" and then a swim in the hotel pool before dinner from our magic box of food (pre-purchased ready-to-eat meals). The next day was a long drive with a stop in Pipestone, MN. This site on the otherwise open prairie is a formation of red stone that was prized by the Native Americans for making ceremonial pipes.
They have been quarrying at the site for thousands of years and continue to do so using traditional methods today. This sacred ground is now home to a National Monument, and protected as a cultural treasure. We hiked along the trial that winds through the prairie landscape, quarries, by a pond and along a stream to short cliffs of stone which have been exposed. Also took in the visitors center which catalogs the history and significance of the place (including a rare treaty exception which has left Native American access to this place virtually unimpeded).
A long trip across Route 90 took us to western South Dakota, home to many natural wonders. En route, the agricultural plains opened up into wide range on the prairies, most trees dropping out.
A thundershower we passed through left a grand double rainbow in its wake, which we dually admired. After a night at a pleasant roadside Best Western, we were ready for our first National Park.
We entered the Badlands first thing in the morning to get a spot to camp. The benefits of camping gear are many - more flexibility with lodging, $ savings, and most importantly, a chance to be a little closer to nature. The Badlands has a campground with no hookups, no running water, and no reservations. We got there early, setting up camp amongst the sagebrush and prairie grass.
We looped around the park on a scenic route to the visitors center, then drove along the road taking in the sites. Our goal in the National Parks is to enjoy the famous sites, take the scenic drives, and enjoy an area off the beaten path. In the Badlands, we hiked up a steep wall of formations, then across a prairie plateau with formations along it. It was a lovely jaunt, though HOT in the full sun, and the trail was often nearly grass covered, leading us to look intently at our feet to watch for rattlers.
The Badlands are part prairie, part heavily eroded desert-like formations. The formations 'drop out' of the prairie hillsides where erosion has taken away topsoil and carved into the landscape. The formations are and ancient seabed eroding away to reveal stunning layers of colors, which harbor the fossils of both land and sea creatures, most of which are now extinct. Our drive along the park road revealed many varieties of formations, and our hike gave us a chance to explore them up close.
With the sun setting, we returned to our campsite, which was nearby a prairie dog village. We loved watching these friendly little creatures. The campsite was full, but quiet, and we cooked up some pasta as the sun set over the prairie. Fell asleep to the sounds of loud insects, millions upon millions of grashoppers included.
A new National Historic Site, added in 1999 is the Minuteman Missile. Brian, inquiring about this stop said to me "Minuteman missile? as in THE minuteman missiles?" Yes, THE missiles, the nuclear missiles designed to travel to Russia in 30 minutes and release a single charge equivalent to 60% of all the firepower total used in WWII.
Turns out the South Dakota plains during the Cold War were a war zone, and the most heavily armed area on the planet if you consider firepower. These SD locations have been de-activated under the 1991 treaties but the US still has about 450 in the midwest. I had wondered why this park was unfamiliar to me and I realized that the last time I was here with my family, the missiles were active and the Cold War had not ended. I know I am still young comparatively, but that made me feel like I had lived through an era. Same feeling I got in Europe, looking at young eastern European countries formed after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the breakup of the Soviet Union.
Wall Drug is an obligatory stop on your way through South Dakota. We saw the first sign for it just outside Pipestone, MN about 10 miles before we crossed into SD...and at the time Wall Drug was 250+ miles away. And the signs don't stop coming once you are on Route 90.
Hundreds of them. If you have been through the area you are familiar with the Wall Drug phenomenon. So we stopped to ensure Brian didn't miss this capitalistic wonderland. I think we stayed 20 minutes total - the stress sets in right when you exit: traffic. Then parking. Then people, crowds of people. Then the cheesy gifts and crazy lines. We checked out a few spots, decided to eat lunch on the road, ate dessert first (ice cream) and were out of there. Incidentally, although today it is a tourist trap, Wall Drug had humble beginnings as an actual drug store in a small town off the highway. Struggling to survive, they put up a sign on the highway advertising free ice water, and people started coming. The rest is history.
Badlands, Minuteman Missile and Wall Drug. What do these three places have in common? It strikes me that they are different parts of what it means to be an American. Wall Drug may be a tourist trap, but it was first the American dream. Make what you can with what you have, and you may find that gem of a capitalistic venture like the Wall Drug founders did when they put up billboards on the highway that said "Free Ice Water." The Badlands get their name from the many unsuccessful farm claims due to the harshness of the environment. Today they represent the American frontier, our hate to love relationship with wilderness, and scenic wonders unique in the world found in our country. Missiles in a sense, defend the place and the dream (perhaps to our dismay), and our ability to inhabit this landscape as free people. Interesting connections, no?
Our car window, as you might remember, was smashed in downtown Minneapolis. We spent the day waiting for it to get fixed, and then went to another hotel, where things were promptly back to normal.