Gorgonzola does America* in a Month
Day 6: Murdo to Sheridan: a slight erosion problem, the main biker nest, with a giant mound of mashed potatoes on the side!
Tuesday dawns on Murdo, South Dakota with yours truly in the last available hotel room in town. In the old days, they would have called Murdo a "one-horse town". Today, it exists because it's on I-90 and a convenient jumping off point for the natural attractions. Besides half a dozen motels, there are four streets and one grocery store to serve 600-odd people.
At a rest stop about an hour west of Murdo, I take a 360 degree panorama of gently undulating yellowish-brown rangeland. Since the rest stop is at a high point the vista stratches an impressive distance and you can spot cows 5 miles away. Towards the southwest there is an impressive formation of what appear to be greyish-white mountains. This is actually the remnant of a layer of fosslized soil sitting on the lip of an intricately-eroded escarpment known as "the Badlands". The soil is made up of sand and silt, washed onto central North America as the Black Hills were being pushed up 23 million years ago, and volcanic ash, from a rather famous large volcano that we'll be getting to eventually, but not today. Despite the layer's age, it is not very well consolidated, and as the layer became uncovered about a million years ago, rain began to eat away it, washing the ancient soil into the White River to the south. About 11,000 years ago, some people showed up and created a culture which lasted for thousands of years until, very recently, some other people showed up and nearly destroyed it in their thirst for land. The latecomers were so eager to get west, that rather than going around the Badlands, they decided to go straight up the escarpment; any travelers headed for Oregon had to contend with the "Wall" they had to climb.
Our "mountains" are actually outliers of the Badlands; the gently sloping flat terrain fools us into thinking they're "higher". Turning off I-90 at Cactus Flat I drive towards the entrance to the park, but on the way, I am distracted by the "Prairie Homestead", a small roadside attraction recollecting the backbreaking lives of the people who climbed the wall and settled to bust prairie sod the late 1800s. $1.50 lets you through the fence into a back yard filled with rotting Conestoga wagons, rusting farm equipment, sod houses, and rodents. The whole thing is
built on a prairie dog town. No wild prairie dogs, these. Rather than standing up in their holes keeping an eye out for predators, these are aggressive panhandlers who follow you around for a bit of kibble (which you are supposed to buy for them in the gift shop). A cheesey tourist trap, but one whose cheesiness is its charm. In the days to come, some of the more sophisticated tourist traps I visit will make me look back on this time as an idyll.
So we reach the main business of the day, driving the Badlands loop road. Hiking trails crisscross the park, but as you recall, I'm packing a lot into one month and so I avail myself of only a few of the shorter ones. I drove down the
escarpment to the Visitor's Center at Cedar Pass, then along the bottom for awhile, then back up to the top and drive along the rim. As you look south from the top at one point, I saw what appear to be trailer parks in the far distance. Well, they actually are trailer parks, people's homes: We are peering down into the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, home to the a large part of the Oglala Sioux Nation. Somewhere within view is the site of the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre. My sightseeing tainted by crass voyeurism, it's time to get back to the interstate. And maybe some free ice water; it's blisteringly hot.
Not surprisingly, the road back up from the wall to I-90 leads you to the town of Wall, home of the famous Wall Drug Store. This started as an actual drug store during the early days. By combining a phenomenal rate of sign placement, an offer of free ice water, and being the only place to stop for hundreds of miles, Wall Drug grew to sprawl over several block of the town of Wall. There's not actually much space left for a town. Inside the building is a maze of bars, refreshment stands, souvenir shops, and cheesey sideshow attractions that you pay extra to see. But again,
cheese is charm, and for all of Wall Drug's koyannasqatsi, it seems to fit. And the ice cream wasn't half bad, either.
I'd been seeing more and more motorcycles as I headed west, but the sight of several dozen motorcycles parked in the street in front of Wall Drug hammered home my poor choice of timing. You may recall that motorcycle enthusiasts supposedly gather in Sturgis in the northern Black Hills for a week every year. In reality, 450,000 motorcycles converge on southwestern South Dakota; there's no way they could all drive through Sturgis in four months, much less a week. Wall Drug, 75 miles away, had several hundred of its spillovers.
I-90 is really the only road you can take and get anywhere. Next stop is Rapid City, gateway to The Black Hills. Here, I something spotted on the map that day: the Museum of Geology at the Dakota School of Mines and Technology. There are no signs to the museum as such, you simply park in a huge parking lot and follow green dinosaur footprints painted on the sidewalk to the museum, which takes up the second floor of a building. Bikers don't appear too interested in geology museums and I had the giant ammonite fossils, dinosaur skeletons, and the display of samples of each chemical element (with dummies standing in for the radioactive ones) to myself. You have to trust that the vials for the gaseous elements actually contain something, I guess.
I head down US 16 into the Black Hills next. I realize I'm descending into the heart of darkness by now, but my
course is committed now. US 16 crawls along at about 25 MPH, chocked with cars, RVs, and above all, motorcycles. Keystone, South Dakota is only a crossroads but hundreds of motorcyclkes I round a bend and there are George,
John, Paul, and Ringo Tom, Abe and Teddy staring at me. This was all I really needed to see of Mt. Rushmore but stupidly, I enter the site, wasting an hour and a half searching for a parking spot, walking up a paved concourse with several thousand other people, getting with in 1/2 mile of the maountain for a really close up photo, and retracing my steps back to the highway, all the while dodging more motorcycles.
The Crazy Horse Memorial is about the same if not quite so monstrous in concept. I might have felt better about spending money to get Standing Bear and Korczak Ziolkowski's vision closer to reality but it seems most of the money went into building the sprawling visitor's Center. At the sight of A Sioux teenager in full warpaint standing net to a guy autographing books, it was time to go. Dodging. Motorcycles.
US 16 turns west at Custer, after which the biker action dies out. I pull into another dot on the map, the National Museum of Wood Carving. The museum hosts woodcarving classes throughout the year, but the museum proper isn't so much about wood carving as it is about the Wooden Nickel Theater, a collection of mechanical dioramas created by the same guy who brought you It's A Small World and left ot the museum in his will.
After all this, I arrive at Jewel Cave National Monument 15 minutes after the last cave tour starts. Of all the things I missed and want to go bakc and try to see, that is the top of the list.
With some time freed up by not seeing Jewel Cave, I decide to go for Devil's Tower. This is about 75 miles away and I'm getting low on fuel, so I stop in Newcastle to fill up for an outrageously high $1.90 a gallon. Two hours later (it's about 7:30) I reach the place where some hunters escaped a giant bear by calling on the Great Spirit to cause the place they were standing to rise into the sky. The bear clawed the mountain as it rose, creating Bear's Tpip or as we call it today, Devil's Tower. The mountain is sacred to most to the tribes of the West and it would be unkind to point out the basalt columns identifying the tower as a volcanic neck. It would be even more crass to claim aliens caused you to sculpt a replica of the tower from mashed potatoes, as happened in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
At any rate, diverting to Devil's Tower made for up missing the cave, to some extent. I did get a great shot of the sun setting behind the moutain.
Which reminds me, I've still got 100 miles to go yet. My gas gauge problem still persists and I top off again in Gillette just to play it safe. Just west of Gillette are gates, lights, anbd a sign that says "If lights are flashing, turn around and go back to Gillette." This is to close the interstate in case of unusually high snow drifts. We're in the lonely barren country of the upper Powder River and there's nothing to do but zip along the highway. Eventually, the Bighorn Mountains begin to loom above the horizon. At a rest stop just east of Buffalo I take a panorama of the range, just as the sun sets. It's pretty dark and the mountains are a dark smudge above the prairie.
It's been a very long day: 450 miles and more experiences than the rest of the trip. In Sheridan, I check into the most interesting accomodations so far, a motel built into an old grain elevator. It's dark and there isn't much activity in town, but I have to get something to eat and walk to a pizzeria across the street. 5 pieces of pizza, walk back, crash.