As we drove out of Wall, South Dakota the excitement in the car began to mount - we were on the way to Badlands National Park. A very helpful Mr. Joe Jansen recommended the park to Tom while we were still in the planning stages of this trip, and once Joe showed Tom pictures from the area he was committed to the idea.
During our senior year in college, Joey and I jumped in his trusty Xterra and raced across the country with only a GPS and a desire to get as far as we could before we had to turn back. As a result of this no-plan-just-go attitude, we drove through the Rocky Mountains at night and pretty much skipped the middle of the country all together. Wicked. Bummer. As we toiled over our route decisions for this trip, Joey and I were very excited for the opportunity to right our past wrongs and see this magnificent part of the country during the day, in the summer, and in its full glory.
Now, growing up in New England I know all about beautiful scenery – rolling hills and distant mountains, trees whose leaves burst into fiery oranges and reds each fall, shimmering lakes, babbling brooks and- way out in the country- the most amazing display of shining midnight stars you can imagine. So as a New Englander I like to think that I know how to appreciate a good view – but – New England doesn’t have scenery like this.
The highway drive towards the park turned into small log cabin ranger stations where we handed over our America the Beautiful National Park Pass, gathered some park info (including a map) and pulled slowly into an amazing scene. Our eyes were met with an expanse of mountainous earth stripped in grey and red bands revealing the passage of time. Long expansive prairie rolled to the horizon and kissed the wide blue cloud spotted sky at the meeting of the two beyond the curve of the world. Lazy black cows lifted sleepy eyes towards our passing car as they lackadaisically masticated the green grass around them. The sun was hazy behind a thin veil of puffy white clouds and magnificent mountains were vying for our attention ahead of us as the Xterra rolled on. Joey had us pull over right away so he could set up his video camera outside of the car to capture the whole drive through the park. Get excited America, this was an amazing ride. That video will come soon - I know - the suspense must be unreal.
The four of us jumped out of the car at each pull off and climbed up the dusty pale grey rocks. Joey marveled over the loose topsoil wondering why the whole mountain didn’t just blow away and Tom and I played the daredevils as we stepped one foot in front of the other on a skinny bridge between plateaus of flat steep mountain pillars, then turned, smiled for somebody’s camera and carefully retreated to wider ground.
The scenery lay out before us and kept everyone’s face pressed to their respective windows. As a result of this vigilant watch over the passing countryside we saw several wild animals. We saw an antelope first (well…most likely… no one in the party was quite sure what an antelope looked like, but if it was going to look like anything, that animal over there was probably it). It walked a little then gracefully lowered its head into the tall grass and nibbled on the vegetation. We pulled over and got out of the car all quietly stepping closer and snapping pictures. Joey followed closest to it taking pictures and wandering maybe 100 yards away from the road in pursuit of his elegant subject. I turned back as soon as the antelope moved more than a few feet away from the road - the "beware of rattlesnake" signs posted in the crunchy dead grass deterred me from moving too far away from safe ground.
We continued on, tracing a finger along the map to see how far we had come. The road was quickly running out in front of us but had one more thrill in store for us. We pulled up next to a field of grazing bison, and, awestruck, pulled our cameras to the ready. We turned down the Grateful Dead’s jam and pulled off to the side of the road. The giant beasts, like the cows, lethargically munched on the field below them and slowly meandered below the summer sky. A few flopped themselves down in the dirt and vigorously thrashed around - the best way to satisfy an itch if you lack opposable thumbs I guess. Content with our million and a half pictures and videos we piled back in the car and, disappointed for the end, we moseyed on.
When Joey and I were on our senior year race-across-the-country road trip we made it to South Dakota to check out the mightily famous, immense Mount Rushmore. A demonstration of American pride, this monument rests on the sacred ground of our country’s native people as a testament to strength, wisdom, country and perhaps a bit of oversight… On this road trip we thought we would end up too far from the monument to make it worth it to stop but as we pulled out of Badlands National Park and plugged Mount Rushmore into my GPS we realized it was closer than we had previously thought. We made the quick jaunt over to the large, serious faces in the side of the mountain, took a few pictures and hurried on.
Today was a sad day for A100 traveler, Tom, despite the beautiful views. His special lady, and our featured guest traveler, Bernadette, was scheduled to fly out of Omaha the next morning. We made a hotel reservation, thanks to “Priceline Negotiator (!)” (you have to sing it like the commercials for it to be effective), near the airfield and planned on finding a good place for a good-bye dinner on the way to Omaha. I looked up restaurants on Google and found a few places whose menus looked pretty good. We decided on a place called Hot Rod’s which advertised sandwiches and burgers as well as fried chicken gizzards as a local favorite (we were interested in the new experience…) and pointed the GPS towards the establishment.
Well… Hot Rod’s didn’t turn out to be very good - go figure I guess. We tried the gizzards and barely managed half the basket before admitting they were terrible. We also tried “American Fries” which were just potato wedges and seemed a little silly. We paid our check and all but ran out of the dump before continuing on.
Most restaurant kitchens don’t stay open past 9 p.m. or so in my experience and trying to squeeze in at 8:50 is likely to get you a lugee in your burger. So as the sun sank lower in the sky and our restaurant search became more desperate we decided we would have to settle on a farewell breakfast for Bern and headed towards our hotel with only nasty gizzards and lame potato wedges in our stomachs. We arrived at our nights lodging and went to our separate rooms for some brief TV watching and a good night's sleep before a riveting day in Omaha (I’m kidding of course). More on that later, so until next time America.