Adventures, Travel

Keystone, South Dakota to Buffalo, Wyoming

After the Badlands, I hit the road again with the intention of stopping off to see Mount Rushmore. My mother told me that I’d enjoy the little town of Keystone and Mount Rushmore is basically right there so I veered off Interstate 90. That area of the state is basically a hot spot for tourist sites, adventure and fun activities. It would take at least a week to see all there is to see there. Just in the thirty minute drive from Rapid City to Keystone there is the Reptile Gardens (the 2014 Guinness World Record holder for having largest collection of reptiles), Bear Country (a drive-through wild game park), some sort of Scandinavian village, a mystery spot and various other goodies. And speaking of the drive into Keystone…all I can say is that I almost simultaneously filled my drawers and puked at the same time. It was soooooo steep that my newly serviced brakes were hanging by a thread. I’m no stranger to downshifting on hills instead of riding the brakes. That’s my usual deal but this was way beyond my driving ability. The road went straight up and down mountains, with blind hairpin turns thrown in there for fun. I was forced to downshift AND ride my brakes just to stay in control. And Keystone was right at the bottom of one of the mountains. I have no idea how people escape getting smeared by runaway RV’s when trying to cross the road.

Needless to say, I had a hard time enjoying Keystone knowing that I had to endure another near death experience on the way out. To make matters worse, I was baking in the sun (Yes, I applied sunscreen twice to no avail and no, I wasn’t using Sweet Pea’s sunscreen. I decided to use up another brand before I dipped into mine. Never again.) and I ate at perhaps the worst restaurant ever. You know it’s bad when there are hundreds of tourists around and you’re the only one in the joint. People were walking in, looking around, grimacing and immediately leaving. It’s crazy what health & safety violations you’re willing to overlook when you’re hungry. I walked around for a bit, tried to make peace with impending food poisoning, felt my skin burning, and dreaded the trip out. I decided to get the heck out of dodge and totally skip Mount Rushmore. Yup, I was about two minutes from the national landmark and I skipped it. I was having a moment. Not wanting to retrace my steps, I took a back road to Hermosa and then back to Rapid City. This would be my suggested route if you’re looking for a drama-free approach from the north. There was only one scary spot and I held my breath through it. I never thought I’d be so happy to see Interstate 90 again but I was over the freakin’ moon.

Soon after that I hit a storm with 60 mph winds and quarter size hail. Yup, this was not my day. Eventually, I made it to my regular KOA stop in Buffalo, Wyoming and was able to shake things off a bit.

Adventures, Travel

Wall Drugs & The Badlands, South Dakota

After 1880 Town, I stopped by Wall Drugs because….well you just have to. It’s an institution and the hundreds of billboards starting from the state line serve to create an insatiable pavlovian urge to visit. I took pictures of the inside last year so check out this post if you’d like to see them. Wall Drugs is basically a circus for consumers, making it all too much fun and easy to spend your hard-earned dollars on a rubber tomahawk. It’s a tourist trap but it’s infinitely amusing. Then I ambled across the street to eat at the Cactus Café. The buffet didn’t blow my mind but for $10.00 I was able to go competitive eater on the place. Once my belly was full and my head was aching from the sugary margarita my server talked me into, I was off to set up camp in Badlands National Park. I had no idea what to expect but I was up for adventure.Badlands National ForestBadlands National ForestBadlands National ForestBadlands National ForestBadlands National ForestBadlands National ForestBadlands National Forest
I decided to stay at Sage Creek, one of the two campgrounds in the Badlands. Sage Creek is a no-reservations, primitive campground with a wealth of covered picnic tables and two pit toilets. The feature I was most interested in is that it’s free to camp here. Aces! After a few death-defying moments on the winding, unpaved roads, I arrived in a valley to find the campground full of people from all over the globe just hanging out. I thought I was in a smaller, more vegetated version of Burning Man. It was glorious. Added to that were the bison just roaming around the tents, all laid back. The thought crossed my mind that one may decide to set up shop on me in the middle of the night but luckily they kept their distance. I set up my tent amongst the 50+ other campers and bison and fell asleep to the unsettling sound of coyotes howling nearby. I find coyote communication to be terrifying. Don’t ask me why, I just do. Despite the coyotes, I had the best nights sleep ever. It was perfect. In the morning, I tore down camp and went for a hike on a nearby footpath. Although it was glorious, I wish I had more time to explore because I only experienced the northern most edge of the Badlands. It would take at least two more days to do this place any justice.

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This guy has it going on! I want his setup.
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The view from my tent.
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There was a bison snoring just a few feet away. Nite nite.
Adventures, Travel

1880 Town, South Dakota

 

On Interstate 90, just a few hours west of the Corn Palace is 1880 Town. It’s basically one of South Dakota’s many over-the-top, crazy, unexpected roadside attractions. I’ve always scoffed at 1880 Town because it seemed like a tourist trap. It boasts a large collection of Dances with Wolves paraphernalia–which I never saw. Costner makes me feel yucky inside. But I was still riding the Corn Palace high so I figured I’d just check it out for once instead of driving by like a poop. Yup, I’m stepping out of my poopy comfort zone. Well, my gamble paid off. I went, I saw, I walked around, I flirted with the help (a rugged fella in cowboy gear) and I fell in love with the place. If you like old buildings, tiny homes, antiques and history then you’re in for a treat! Dances with Wolves memorabilia aside (which was actually impressive, detailed and seemingly historically accurate–although I’m no expert), some of the actual buildings comprising the town were from an old movie set but others were old buildings from around the state that were rescued from destruction. So you can actually tour around an old bank from the 1800’s, for example. The town has a church, a saloon, a doctor’s office, a barber shop, a hotel, a jail, a general store, a homestead, a bank, a tiny home, a blacksmith…pretty much everything and they’re all filled with antiques authentic to that particular structure or time period. All of the buildings are so small and yet they served their purpose well. It’s such a contrast from the build-big mentality we have today. Needless to say, this visit made my tiny house fetish sooooooo much worse. AND I also noticed that I have a thing for old heat stoves. I took a million photos of stoves while I was there. It’s just another weird, newly discovered, little quirk I have.

There’s also a gas station, train car diner, gift shop and museum (with a working player piano–they freak me out a bit) on the premises. Plus a ranch with several Texas longhorns, horses and even a very friendly camel. Yup, I escaped without getting spit on. That’s always a bonus. Admission was $12 but it was well worth it. I even took home some longhorn coat hangers for my future tiny home. I saw a bucket of them in the museum and inquired in the gift shop if I could buy two of them and they let me. They were $2.00 each and now I have antiques from 1880 Town. I cannot suggest this stop enough. I plan to make this a yearly visit.longhorns

 

Adventures, Travel

The Corn Palace, Mitchell, South Dakota

 

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Just to review: After Lily Dale, I headed to Chicago to stay with a friend for the night. Then it was off to Myre Big Island State Park in Albert Lea, Minnesota for some camping and hiking. I finally, begrudgingly, left the park at around 3:30 pm and headed west until I hit a KOA in Mitchell, South Dakota. For some reason, I always end up there. It’s the place where driving fatigue always compels me to stop. After a very rainy night in the tent, I headed to the world’s first and only Corn Palace. It was free, so why the heck not? Here are some factoids about Mitchell’s glorious monument to maize:

  • The corn palace is redecorated every year with a different theme.
  • 600,000 pieces of corn are used to decorate the outside each year.
  • 3,000 bushels of grains and grasses are also used to decorate the outside each year.
  • 9 different colors of Indian corn are used in the murals.
  • Over a ton of nails, staples and wire are used to secure it all.
  • Approximately $100,000 is spent each year in the redecorating process.
  • It’s open year round and free to enjoy.

It was well worth the brief interlude off Interstate 90 to see this. The Kremlin-o-corn is basically a large auditorium inside, including stadium seating, a gym floor and a stage. This leads me to believe that the corn palace pulls double duty. What a pain in the arse it must be to move an entire gift shop when you have an event! Every last inch of wall space on the inside is covered with detailed corn and grass murals. On the floor is a gift shop in which the proceeds go to keeping the palace free and open to the public. All-in-all, it’s corny but pretty cool. I happily did my part by purchasing some Corn Palace post cards and then it was back to the beloved old grind.

Adventures, Travel

Myre Big Island State Park, Albert Lea, MN

2014-06-08 14.51.412014-06-08 14.37.38IMG_20140608_0915352014-06-08 14.07.04Two posts in one day!? Wtf?! Yup. Don’t get used to it. After I wrote my first post, I took a hike around Myre Big Island State Park and had the best, most relaxing time. Fantastic wildlife viewing opportunities abound. A racoon hiked along with me, I ran into a mouse, and I accidentally scared off several white pelicans and one magestic heron. From their brochure, I gather that pelicans are an increasingly common treat. They must have finally put this place on their migratory map. It’s funny because me and the pelicans are probably both heading to the same destination. I wish I could hitch a ride on the back of one (ala Neverending Story movie poster). They have a six-foot wingspan, they wouldn’t even feel me. I had such a good time that I pondered staying another night but….Yellowstone calls. I got a huge kick out of their brochure. Since when have turtles been amphibians? Cornell, I want my money back! All this time I’ve been completely misguided. In fact, I feel lied to and betrayed.2014-06-08 15.58.42

I finally made it to South Dakota. This is when the drive becomes extremely amusing: roadside attractions that you didn’t even think possible, kitschy Wall Drug signs mixed with anti-abortion manifestos, extremely windy roads that leave me wanting to poo my pants with every gust, great hard rock radio stations (even heard my hometown hero, Ronnie James Dio), motorcycles up the wazoo… It’s a really interesting state. I’m debating over whether I should hit up the corn palace tomorrow or drive on through to Wall and the Badlands. It probably should be experienced at least once, right?

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Yup, that is a bull’s head by the road. It’s a roadside sculpture park. One of the infinite many in South Dakota.

Right now I’m hunkered down in Mitchell, SD (yup, the home of the world’s first and only corn palace) at a KOA for the night because…well…this old lady is beat. When I checked in, the office was closed but an older gent in a golf card swooped by to save me. Apparently, he owns the place and lives right here with the rest of the campers. I asked him what time I had to leave by and he told me not to worry about it and invited me to stop on in for coffee in the morning. I warned him that I may never leave to which he replied that I could stay until November but then he goes south for the winter. So I’m faced with the dilemma to stay with my new boyfriend in Mitchell or to continue going west. Decisions, decisions.

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Base camp for the night. Clean showers, free wifi…it’s about as close to glamping as I’ve come!

Now its off to enjoy jammies and some tent Netflix (tentflix!).

Odometer: 204609
Miles travelled: 844.4
Gas for today: $28.32
Mitchell KOA campground: $24.27

yellowstone national park

Crossing the Country

DSCF2274Greetings from 7,744 feet! I made it safe and sound to one of the most glorious places on earth, Yellowstone National Park. Our very first National Park. It took me four days to get here from Cortland, New York but I took time to visit friends and just maintain a chill pace. I can’t say this enough, I love Big Horn National Forest. The drive through there made the entire, rather geographically boring, trip worth it for me. My last night on the road was spent camping in the foothills of the Big Horns in the town of Buffalo, Wyoming. It’s a quaint little place with a wealth of history but it isn’t like most of the tourist traps along the way. They didn’t re-make their downtown to look like the wild west or anything cheesy like that–which is much appreciated. The drive on Route 16 West from Buffalo through Greybull through Cody and on to Yellowstone was just lovely with all the canyons, snow-covered mountains, and rivers flowing throughout. I spotted two sandhill cranes wading in a ditch next to the road. There were a plethora of antelope and mule deer grazing and scampering about. And if you know me at all, you know I love cows. It was nice to see so many cows out grazing in the prairies. Being from the east, we just pack them into confined feeding operations like sardines and if we do let them graze, the land is usually a few scant acres and the vegetation is usually picked over. It was heartwarming to see the babies being cared for by their mothers. I spotted many mother and calf playing in the fields together along the way. On a sad note, just outside of Greybull, Wyoming there is a tiny town (population of 10…I’m not joking, that’s what the sign said) called Emblem. In the front yard was a dead calf. It looked like it had been dead for a few days and two cows were standing over it–presumably one was the mother. The rotting calf was about 100 feet from the house’s front steps. I don’t understand how that is okay to someone, to anyone. I’ve worked in the range lands of west Texas where farmers had hundreds of acres of grazing land and large herds of cattle to keep track of. I’ve seen several cows who’ve died from being entangled in fencing far away from the farm. All pain and suffering is terrible but what I saw in Emblem was even less acceptable to me. They only had two cows to care for (three if you counted the calf) and about an acre of grazing land. How could you miss a dead calf or do they just not care? How could you just leave the body of a baby to rot while the mother stands over it grieving? It just seems so heartless. Do people really believe that we are the only beings gifted with emotions? Anyways, I didn’t mean to depress you. Just some food for thought.

Sunday afternoon, I reached the Yellowstone gate, showed them my research permit, the ranger offered directions at which I politely declined (challenging myself to make it to the dorm by memory) and I was set free to roam. Yellowstone is just as I left it back in 2006, apart from a few more burnt areas–which is to be expected in this flammable ecosystem. I found my way to the dorm without a problem and that too was exactly the same. Researchers come and go but for now I’m living with four German geochemists studying the Park’s thermal features, one sociologist studying risk behavior at bear jams, and then there’s me and my field partner, Andrew. We just completed our first full week of work and besides the unpredictable weather, it went off without a hitch. We’re re-visiting many of the extremely rigorous sites Polly and I surveyed back in 2006, including one where we had to shed all of our gear and swim across a river. This should be interesting and I will do my best to keep you posted. There is no free internet access here and my cell service doesn’t work. However, they do offer internet service for $4.95/hour so I’m trying to streamline my internet use to only one hour/week. Thus, my blog posts may be limited. I’m choosing to embrace being cut off from the rest of the world. It’s a nice change of pace but I certainly do miss having my friends and family just a text away. I have a feeling this is all going to go by so fast though so I’m doing everything I can to savor each and every second. I’ve been keeping a journal to remember my experience here and so the rest of my posts will be my journal entries.

Below are photos from my trip to Wall, South Dakota. Home of the enormous store, Wall Drugs. It was certainly a sight to see!

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The blue skies of South Dakota.
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Fluffy…
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Billowy…
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Does anyone else see a Phantom of the Opera mask in the upper left?
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One of the million road signs to Wall Drugs.
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Oooh reptile gardens.

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Inside Wall Drugs.
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The Wall Drugs chapel.
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My new lady friend.
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A hungry T-rex at Wall Drugs.

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My campsite in Buffalo, WY.