Mega America Trek 2006: South Dakota, Part II
So where were we? Fleeing out of Deadwood in the setting sun, after a full day of exploring the tourism haven The Black Hills. On to the Badlands and Rapid City, the largest city in South Dakota but just 60,000 people or so, a town perched on the edge of vast prairie.
Rapid City really doesn't make a tremendous impression (I was appalled with the Sunday newspaper there – the one I'd worked for back in Oregon in a much smaller town was yards better). But one thing about it is exceedingly cool – downtown, to capitalize on the whole Rushmore/Presidential history of the area, they've been gradually erecting life-size bronze statues of every single president, from Washington to Warren Harding to Clinton. I found this bizarrely cool. They haven't finished all the presidents yet – about 25 of them so far, I think. I would support this use of my taxpayer money for the simple geeky oddness of it. (You can find pics of most of the statues here.) They're all clustered in a section of downtown on various street corners. We all walked around downtown in the evening and looked for statues. The Jimmy Carter statue was a particular favorite, pictured here. The Nixon one is in a total "Dr. Evil" pose, though. Rapid City also has a mysterious Dinosaur Park on a big hill overlooking the entire town, which boasts some rather run-down and cartoony giant dinosaur statues. It's a bit peculiar to look up and see a brontosaurus on a hill watching your hotel room.
We used Rapid City as our base to zip eastwards, away out of the Black Hills and toward the raw and rugged Badlands National Park. On the way, we had to stop at the amazingly self-promotional, "world famous" Wall Drug. You'll find signs for this store all over the Midwest – we spotted them in the middle of Wyoming – goofy little "Burma shave" type signs advertising their "free ice water" and "5 cent coffee". My dad went there once in the 1970s and told us we had to go. This store is a piece of true Americana, kitschy and sprawling and kind of amazing – it's actually several dozen stores crammed into one city block in the wee-tiny town of Wall, about 40 minutes east of Rapid City. It's all owned and run by the same family and has been since the 1930s, and has a kind of cowboy-western theme going on – rambling shops, museums, restaurants, even a giant mechanical T-rex that scared the beejeezus out of Peter. Definitely a lot more fun than your typical Interestate rest stop.
If the foresty, rambling Black Hills are the opposite of the prairie, the Badlands are the Bizarro inverse. You head east from Rapid City for about an hour, and the land flattens out like a huge tan blanket, gently rolling hills. The Badlands erupt slowly out of this calm, fragmented chunks of land like out of a Cormac McCarthy novel – they were created by erosion over millions of years. The effect they create is startling – it's pure chaos of geology and astoundingly vivid and detailed, sunken down into flat prairie. One of the richest fossil beds in the world, it's like visiting the moon or something – especially when you drive right down into the pinnacles and spires themselves, which form some astoundingly jagged shapes. The only place I can compare it to is Southern Utah, which has the same unearthly allure.
At Badlands, we also got our first glimpse on this trip of the American icon of the Great Plains, the bison. It's amazing, and more than a bit sad, to think that kazillions of these huge beasts used to roam the fields before we human beings wiped most of them out. They're being reintroduced in national parks, though, and we came across a small group of 4-5 of them here, including one obliging fellow who was, um, scratching himself on a fence post not 10 feet from us. Seen up close, these monsters are really impressive – nothing like meek, boring cows, they're huge grunting slabs of meat and muscle that look like they could easily knock your mid-sized SUV over a cliff if they wished. It was actually a little scary being so close to one without a fence – hope that scratching kept him in a good mood! (We'd end up seeing a huge old herd of nearly 100 bison in Yellowstone National Park a few days later, which this served as the appetizer for.)
The town of Wall was as far east as we got on this mega trek of ours – and yet, looking at the map, despite the thousands of miles we drove, we barely hit the halfway point of America. To quote Yakov Smirnoff, "What a country!" Our three days in western South Dakota had lots of fine sights that we'll long remember.