After leaving Yellowstone we stopped at the battlefield site of "Custer's Last Stand" in South Dakota. It's not a place I would have thought to stop on my own, but Ian being a Lt Colonel in the Army is fascinated by such historical sites and his insight always brings them alive. It's kind of amazing to stand in such a place and try to picture what people on both sides saw in that landscape as things unfolded.
The area is beautiful but looks like an unforgiving place to live. The memorial and graveyard are in an official park service space, but the larger drive you can do to follow the historical markers are on someone's private land. It was a hot day and this was a relatively small stop so I was glad to do most of it in the car, but we did get out and look around periodically as Ian told us the story of the battle from various vantage points.
The trail is dotted with headstones roughly in the spots where people fell. There were a few for the Native Americans who died there. There was one for the horses that were killed and used essentially as shields.
The whole thing is disturbing. "We" (as in the U.S. government) were wrong, so it's hard to know what "side" to relate to. The machinations of the battle are indeed interesting, especially as you factor in the limitations of the time, but mostly the whole thing was just a ghastly mess. It's hard to know what to learn from it because all of it just seemed pointless and horrible.
From the Custer Battlefield we moved on to our campsite in the Black Hills. By then we seemed to have leaks in all of our mattresses and that made for a long night, although we saw lots of shooting stars every time we got up to pump them again.
Another thing that disrupted a bit of sleep was the number of motorcycles in the distance. I'm going to take a second here to simply complain about motorcycles.
After a couple of ranger talks in Yellowstone where we heard various tales of things that used to be standard practice in the park that now seem insane (purposely encouraging bears to eat at the dump, promoting fishing in spawning areas, etc.) Ian asked me what I thought would change in the future that would cause us to look back and say "What were we thinking?" and I said the vehicles in the park. Yellowstone is too huge not to have a way for individuals to get around it with a certain amount of freedom, so I don't foresee a time where people can only be bussed in or that kind of solution, but the amount of noise and pollution caused by vehicles currently is disruptive. I can imagine a day where there is an emission or decibel level limitation imposed on visitors, though, where maybe there is a fleet of electric vehicles for rent outside the park for use inside, or a way to muffle the sounds of a motorcycle temporarily during a visit.
I get why people are attracted to riding motorcycles even if it's not something I want to do. I live in Milwaukee where there is a giant Harley-fest every five years, so I certainly see enough of them and appreciate their appeal. But I do not understand how people feel entitled to impose their excessive noise on others. If you want to listen to loud sounds put on headphones and keep it to yourself. Why force other people to have to hear it? For many of us it is incredibly unpleasant, and in Yellowstone and the Badlands you couldn't escape it. I find it selfish and obnoxious. I'm sure those are satisfying places to ride, but on top of the sputtering engine noise many people also had music blaring loud enough to hear above those sounds. It just felt incredibly rude to impact other people's experience like that, and because we were so close to biker Meccas like Sturgis and Custer it was everywhere all the time.
Okay, done with my biker rant.
Jewel Cave! We camped just a couple of miles from Jewel Cave, but because we were so tired we didn't manage to get up and packed in time to make the first lantern hike. That worked out just fine, though, because we did the main tour as a family, and then Ian and the girls were able to do the trickier lantern hike afterwards (while Quinn and I sat that one out).
Jewel Cave is the third largest known cave in the world, and only a small fraction of it has been mapped yet. It's a cave with an elevator! And the temperature inside was a comparatively pleasant 50-some degrees or so, compared to the 90-plus above ground. It's fascinating and beautiful and I recommend it to anyone in the area.
After Jewel Cave we swung by Mt Rushmore mostly because it was there. Entrance to the memorial is free, but parking is $20, so we decided observing from the road was good enough for us. I remember my dad saying Mt Rushmore was the desecration of a perfectly nice mountain because he wasn't a fan of actual quality of the sculpture, and I tend to agree. But it's certainly a place that gets referenced a great deal so I thought the kids should see it. After the wonders of Jewel Cave they were underwhelmed, but agreed they were glad we stopped briefly just to say we did.
For dinner we stopped at a restaurant called Hu Hot! I wish we had one at home. It's a Mongolian grill place where you pile raw food from a buffet into a bowl, add whatever sauce you like, and then take it to a huge grill where someone cooks it all for you and hands it back to you on a plate. Really good and a lot of fun.
The drive the rest of the way to the Badlands we followed an impressive storm, and at one point a rainbow stretched out completely over the road.
We made it to our campsite in the Badlands with just enough light left for setting up our tent.
But we arrived at our site to find an abandoned tent that had been ripped literally to shreds by the wind. That was foreboding. And after the ranger talk that evening the storm in the distance was looking less distant and the wind picked up dramatically, so we tried to put up the rain fly. We discovered that wouldn't work, because the large tent we'd been using for all five of us was in danger of being blown apart if we added that extra cover, so Ian suggested we strike the tent, wait for the rain to pass, then put it up again. But the rain never came.
We lay outside for a long time watching the lightning and admiring the Milky Way and the shooting stars, and eventually I decided I was too tired to wait any longer and I set up our tiny tent. I have a trusty two-person tent that I bought more than 20 years ago and its rain fly attaches lower than the one on our big tent and was not affected the same way by the wind. Quinn and I decided to sleep in there, Mona took the backseat of the minivan, and Aden said she would be okay in the driver's seat. Ian wanted to try sleeping on a mattress outside, but both mattresses were still leaky and needed to be pumped up again about once an hour. It was a long night.
The next day we were able to successfully patch (most of) the air mattresses, and we didn't need the rain fly so we set up the big tent again. Aden and Quinn slept in the little tent, Ian and Mona and I took the big one, but when Mona's mattress failed she went back to the car. At about 4 a.m. when I was coming back from the bathroom I found Aden had pulled her sleeping bag out of the little tent and was lying outside to look at the stars. I lay with her for a little while. It was beautiful.
But aside from feeling a little wrecked after less than adequate sleep on that part of the trip, the Badlands were amazing. The formations are eroding at the rate of about a centimeter a year, so geologically speaking the park is disappearing fast. As a result it's one of the few parks where there is no limit on where you can walk. You can go off the trails as much as you like because there are no vulnerable seedlings to be careful of or animals you may threaten or rocks you can harm. In fact, the number of fossils that can be identified with the extra eyes around the park is a plus, so walking off the trails is encouraged.
We admired views, kids climbed, we saw prairie dogs and big horned sheep and antelope. In the visitor center there are people meticulously eking fossils out of stone, and even though they must get asked the same questions endlessly they were all gracious about it and happy to explain their work.
|beautiful rock I found in the prairie dog field|
We also took time out of the park one day to visit the Minuteman Missile site. We didn't get to tour the silo, but we were able to peek in from above and walk around the visitor center. Since we were back near Wall Drug again we also took a moment to pose with a dinosaur when we refilled the gas tank.
Devil's Tower were official parks, the Corn Palace is a testament to working with what you've got and making it special. It's both silly and impressive and I'm glad we stopped. This year's design was music related, and included Elvis Presley done in corn.
(Now on to pictures of a kitchen that looks like it's been blown to bits.)