Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Custer, Jewel Cave, and the Badlands (and more)

Life is just rolling along and there is much to write about, but I need to get down the last of our trip from the beginning of August before it all fades away.  So this is the overview (with lots of pictures).

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.

We found the section of the memorial dedicated to the Native Americans to be thoughtful.  I liked that it was designed very differently from the rest of the site.  It had a character more in touch with the landscape and was informative.  Aden told me she was upset by a few of the visitors who made fun of the various Indian names.  I agreed that was upsetting, but added I was encouraged by the number of parents I saw who instructed their children to be respectful because people died there.

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.

The main tour is a lot of stairs and concrete paths and the structures are all attractively lit.  The lantern tour lets you experience the caves more like the old explorers did.  You go through with a gas lantern and can even crawl through some tight spaces.  There were only three tickets available for the lantern hike by the time we were able to buy them, so I sat it out since I was feeling nervous on my feet even in the visitor-friendly part of the cave, and Quinn was technically not old enough, although I suspect nobody would have cared.  Quinn and I had fun killing a little time at the car by sorting through leftover MRE goodies and using our binoculars, but he wished he could have gone with his sisters on the hike.  He was jealous that they saw bats.  I told him one day maybe he could go back with his cousin Rivyn and the two of them could do that together.

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.

Our camping experience in the Badlands was weird.  On the one hand, it was our favorite campground: The bathrooms were good, there were showers available if we wanted to pay for those, and I was even able to wash my hair with hot water in a large sink.  Each site came with a picnic table with a shelter over it, and we saw several people use those to hang hammocks and sleep that way.  There was an Oscar Meyer Wiener Mobile camped nearby!  And there were no trees to block the view of the sky at night so our meteor shower viewing was incredible.
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

One of the best things at the Badlands was the night sky talk.  There was a really entertaining guy with a green laser pointer who identified all kinds of things above us in the dark.  He pointed out the International Space Station as it passed overhead, showed us different constellations, and let us look at Saturn through a telescope.  (I can't believe I saw the rings of Saturn!!!)  I think my favorite thing I learned was that the name of the star Antares actually means "not Mars" since it's tinted red and can look more like Mars than Mars does.  He also told us that even though the two things were part of the same triangle formation in the sky (with Saturn on top), the light from Mars was taking 4 minutes to reach us, but the light from Antares was taking 500 years.  Normally I come away from talks about stars unable to remember any of it, but there were several things I came away with from that talk that will stay with me.

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.

Our last morning at the Badlands we got up early enough to make the geology hike with a ranger, and then we started heading home.  I never got tired of the fields of sunflowers.  I loved reading to the kids on the drive (we finished the last page of The Black Stallion in the driveway).  There is something fun about feeling all self-sufficient and self-contained in the minivan all together.
Our last stop before we got home was the Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota.  An attraction older that Mt Rushmore and before the Badlands or 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.

There was even a display inside explaining how they construct their ever changing corn creations.  I don't know if my children will ever expand their artistic repertoire to include corn as a material, but now they know how.
So that was our trip!  It's been quite a summer.  We spent Labor Day Weekend at the cottage again where we caught frogs and played badminton and enjoyed using a kitchen (since ours is currently torn down to the studs and not good for cooking at the moment).  Between all our activities both in and out of town I think we can say we used our summer well.  At least when I asked the kids if there was anything left to do before school stared they couldn't really name anything, so that's a good sign.

(Now on to pictures of a kitchen that looks like it's been blown to bits.)


  1. Wow!! What a summer trip! Yellowstone and Grand Tetons are on our list for next year. Also ( a little late) very glad you enjoyed DC. It's a pretty great city.

    1. It's been a pretty packed summer. All the stuff in this post happened in 3 days! No wonder we're worn out. The kids all felt ready for school. Quinn actually said he was looking forward to having a routine again. (I just wish the routine didn't involve getting up early!)

      (By the way, nice to hear from you. I've missed you.)

  2. I just love your perspective on things. What an amazing trip full of beauty and lessons (big and small). I read through both posts impressed and a little wistful that my own family didn't travel and see more of our country while we could.

    I suppose it's never too late...our kids just aren't kids anymore.

    1. I feel like we have this small window now of all our kids at home and at ages where they can really appreciate such trips, and there is so much we want to show them!

      But it really is never too late. My brothers and I went on a family trip with my parents to Italy many years ago after we were all grown and moved out and it was amazing.

  3. Thanks for sharing. By the way, there is a Mongolian Grill around us, at Bayshore. http://www.gomongo.com/ Not sure if it would live up to your vacation experience, but if you're ever in the mood, might be worth a try.

    1. Yeah, my husband told me yesterday that there is a Hu Hot in Kenosha! So someday we will go there and think of South Dakota while we eat.

  4. Is that the same tent we camped in 23 years ago?