South Dakota: The good, the bad, and the good bad.

South Dakota sent out a wildlife welcoming party as I crossed the state line as darkness set in.  Deer were lining the highway, and though I was on alert, and though I tried to swerve when I saw the ones getting too close and even closer, I clipped one of them at a fairly high speed.  I saw it lying in the road in my rearview mirror.  I stopped and turned around and thought I should drag it off the road.  But it got up, hobbled and collapsed anew.  As I drove back toward it, it got up again and hobbled into the bushes out of my vision and to its unknown fate.  I inspected my car and fortunately I avoided a head on, so the front and the headlights were fine, but the passenger side fender was dented, and the mirror completely ripped off.  I collected the mirror and broken casing from the highway.  Welcome to South Dakota.

With only some cosmetic denting, and a missing mirror, the car was still perfectly drivable and I had little choice but to keep going.  I entered Sturgis, expecting to find a raucous town, but either it was late in the season or too late at night, but there weren’t many motorcycle gangs nor people for that matter.  I went to The Knuckle Saloon and Brewery, and was pleased they had a large outdoor area that was dog friendly, though it was largely empty.  Yet the size of the bar and patio, along with similarly grand arena bars in town gave hints that this town must be a huge party during the motorcycle rally.

After spending the night at a Black Hills National Forrest trail head, I drove at sunrise through Deadwood looking for a good breakfast diner.  I was optimistic when I saw that many lights were on in the main street, but upon closer passage, I saw it was a string of small frontier themed casinos rather than local diners.  I pressed on and was surprised to see that the National Forrest was actually quite commercial and residential – the surrounding hilltops and rock formations hinted at public lands in the interior but the roads passing through seemed to be spewed upon by kitschy tourism.  I did eventually find a really great breakfast at Hill City Diner and filled up at the buffet and enjoyed the banter of eccentric ladies who worked there.  Though it has a lot of tourists, it still felt very local.

When I finally reached Mount Rushmore, I expected to be liberated from the tackiness of private tourism interests, but learned that the “entrance fee” was actually a “parking fee” managed independent of the park service, and my Annual Pass I bought for all federal sites, would do me no good.  In protest, I exited and parked at a nearby wayside and just walked in with El Guapo, and to find that dogs weren’t allowed beyond the parking lot.  The view of Mt. Rushmore was already fairly impressive and I couldn’t imagine that getting closer would enhance it that much, unless you wanted to look up the presidential nostrils.  So I just took my photos from the parking lot and very unceremoniously said to myself I’d seen it was ready to keep going.

I often find myself quizzing myself on random facts, just to keep myself entertained. Leaving Mt. Rushmore, I wondered why the sculptor Gutzum Borlgum put the Presidents in a non-chronological order, and that led to testing myself to see if I could name all the presidents in order (I am a US History tour guide by the way if you did not know it).  I also needed to keep my mind active as I was feeling very droopy while driving.  After many pauses, I counted all 44 of them out on my fingers, and I thought that at my next stop in Rapid City, I should look them up on my smart phone to see if I was right.  Upon entering the city, I realized I wouldn’t need to consult the internet, as every corner in downtown was decorated with a statue of one the presidents.  So I parked and enjoyed a stroll around town, and enjoyed identifying them one by one to see if I was right in my tally and my order.  I was, although Rapid City seemed to be missing Chester A. Arthur 1881-1885.  I liked how the statues were in casual rather than stately poses, and that even the obscure and awful ones were represented.  Warren G. Harding 1921-1923 might have been our worst president of all, but even he looked likable with his dog and an open chair to sit in.

I drove a remote highway to the town of Scenic, which was not aptly named, and its gas pumps were not functioning, but it did provide a dirt road that eventually connected with the Rim Drive in the Badlands National Park.  This National Park was a return to the non-commercial, undeveloped end of the spectrum of the NPS:  a lot of open and un-used land.  The day was overcast, but the true goodness of the Badlands revealed itself as a setting sun highlighted to eroded hills, ravines and peaks with shadows and golden light.  It was really beautiful and helped give me a much better impression of South Dakota than I had received from the rest of the short time I’d spent there.

Before heading south in Nebraska, I fortunately was able to find gas at the little town of Interior, and as I drove to the outskirts of town to get a shot of the sunset, I happened upon the Wagon Wheel Saloon, and decided I’d just go ahead and eat there.  There were a few tourists there, a few rancher locals, and a few Native Americans, and surprisingly a Colombian exchange worker behind the bar.  I’ve seen a lot of international workers in and around the national parks, often from Eastern Europe, but this seemed like an odd place for this young girl to end up.  When I saw that the opening game of the NFL season was on TV, I decided to order another drink and keep visiting with the locals and our foreign bartender.  I suppose if I was to do a work exchange in another county, it wouldn’t be my choice to end up in a podunk village, but that could be a good thing as I’d become a part of things more fully than if I was in a cosmopolitan city with an expat community to tap into.  Come to think of it, my Peace Corps assignment was about as an isolated small village as you can find on the planet.  I wouldn’t do it again now, but I’m glad that’s how the cards were dealt to me then.


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