After checking off one of our bucket list items by visiting the granite presidents of yester-year, Maggie and I were left with 36 hours and an open South Dakota landscape to create adventure. After waking from a surprisingly great night of sleep in our "hillbilly" tent (I say this because I had predictably forgotten the sides of the tent back in Indiana, so we had to use a tarp and bungees to cover the mesh top) we set off to find some coffee. Maggie and I drove to the only two donut places in all of Rapid City, SD, only to find that small towns really do shut down during holiday weekends. Fortunately for us, we were able to spot Dunn Brothers Coffee. After ordering the stickiest/sugariest piece of dough and the blackest of coffee, I was ready for the long drive to wherever.
In this case, wherever happened to be Custer State Park. Where the deer and the antelope actually play.
The image you see above is not taken using some sort of super-zoomed digital photography; we were actually that close to these beasts. And as these massive bison approached our vehicle, I nearly broke out into the State Farm jingle.
In hindsight, I was probably more terrified of these guys than my man-card says I should be, but my only experiences with bison involved hunting them on Oregon Trail.
These guys were everywhere. And how could I blame them? What started as a small diversion on our trip turned into one of the most beautiful nature drives I think I've ever been on.
One characteristic of the West I never fail to under-appreciate is its vastness. There is beautiful landscape in all directions, and the colors can't be replicated by Crayola 64-packs. (There also is not always a Starbucks or Chipotle within driving distance, so if you need these to survive, too bad.)
Full Disclosure: After posing for 1,000,000,000 pictures (or what felt like it) my patience began to wear thin. One thing they fail to emphasize in Marriage 101 is that there's no turning off the "supporting your spouse" button. See, when it comes to pictures in public, I'm like that toddler in the family photos who screams and cries and refuses to have his picture taken. Maybe a squeaky stuffed animal would've cured my grumpiness, but I still blame the lack of donuts from earlier. Fortunately, Maggie still managed to capture some incredible shots despite my stubbornness.
Full Disclosure #2: Had I known a picture was being taken here, I definitely would've been looking at this atlas with a little more confidence. The thing is, my wife considers me "directionally challenged," and after already getting us lost on the way out west, I needed to plan ahead and prove to her I knew where I was going. Now, I don't think I'm nearly as hopeless as my wife may claim, but thank God for Lewis & Clark because if the country was relying on me to discover a path to the Pacific, I'm sure I would've probably ended up in Mexico. At least now I can blame Google Maps.
As Maggie and I were driving through this lovely landscape, we happened upon some Mules randomly walking down the road. I know you may be thinking, Oh, mules are harmless! They're just the ugly stepsisters of the horse family. But as this guy approached our vehicle, I couldn't help but feel that we were about to be attacked. By a mule of all things!
I'd like to tell you I handled this encounter like a good red-blooded American male. I'd like to tell you this mule didn't stick it's big Ass head (see what I did there) in our car window. Fortunately, I don't think Maggie managed to capture video footage of our car getting violated by Darrell the Donkey.
We managed to meet Timon from Lion King I & II in South Dakota of all places.
First sighting of elk in my lifetime. I know they're just a more glorified version of deer, but I still found it fascinating.
The town of Custer, SD. Where people wear cowboy hats every day, not just at Luke Bryan concerts.
One of the more captivating reasons to visit South Dakota is how American it makes you feel. Especially around the 4th of July. With the stars and stripes hung on every corner of every street, you end up finding yourself lost in some small ice cream parlor or antique shop. And somewhere between the Teddy Roosevelt impersonators and cowboy statues, you imagine yourself in a world less complicated.
Another great piece of this small South Dakota town is this old bank. I found myself dreaming I was Wyatt Earp, trying to save this old establishment from outlaw bandits.
As we left Custer to pursue the next small dot on our atlas, we look up to see the side of George's face carved into the mountainside. If you look carefully, you can see the profile of his face etched in there. Also, Crazy Horse.
Welcome to the Badlands. The land of sweltering heat and cool-as-heck rocks.
Kinda wishing I wouldn't have tucked my shirt in for this pic.
The best looking part of the Badlands. (This message is brought to you by Kyle Beutler, husband extraordinaire.)
When people say "dance like nobody is watching," this is what that looks like.
Oh, hey there, guy.
One unique characteristic of the Badlands is the suffocating heat. It was about 80 degrees in western South Dakota, but the moment we took a step into Badlands National Park, it was 98 degrees. The heat gets trapped into these tall rock formations, and it begins to feel as if you're walking through a large oven. Or hell. But prettier.
A little something I call the Smolder.
As we walked through this desolate landscape, I couldn't help but feel there was something toxic and beautiful about this place. It's also completely silent, with only the buzz of cicadas and (possibly) rattlesnakes filling the air.
The Wild West.
Before leaving the Badlands to head home, we decided to take a little hike up the cliffs. As you can see, the terrain was pretty rough, but it was fulfilling to blaze our own trail in a place we didn't know. But after exploring for much of the day, reality began to set in. We needed to get home.
Now, we hadn't planned any stops on the sixteen hour return trip, but after already driving for eight hours, I began to think a stop would be necessary. I do enjoy driving, the adventure of venturing off to a new location motivates me when I am exhausted behind the wheel, but returning home to work and responsibility does not make for good motivation. After driving through the entire state of South Dakota, we stop for dinner at a McDonald's in Minnesota (because no extremely long car ride would be complete without a little indigestion). Soon after we finished our meal, we found ourselves in Iowa, just as dark began to set in. It was around this time I looked over to my co-pilot to discover she was unconscious. I couldn't really blame her. After all, it had been an extremely long day already. But it was at this point, driving through the cornfields of Iowa in pitch black night, that I had a decision to make: find a place to sleep for the night or try to make it home. The problem with stopping in North Central Iowa is that there are very few options that look safe/clean enough to justify spending $100 for five hours of semi-restfulness.
With that in mind, I decided to keep driving. Heck, I only had nine hours to go. The drive itself was very boring. And that, for me, is the hardest part of driving for extended hours. It isn't the fear of falling asleep at the wheel, considering I had three energy drinks and two cups of coffee already since morning. It's the boredom that gets to me. And boy did it get to me. As 2 a.m. rolled around, I was still in Iowa with nothing to see and nothing to do. I had already listened to Kacey Musgraves's Pageant Material album twenty or so times from beginning to end. Radio stations (at least stations that weren't playing Savage Garden or Boys II Men) were hard to pick up. So I was left with the road, my thoughts, and caffeine.
After several restless hours of driving (over 24 in all), Maggie and I finally parked our car in front of our apartment at 9:00 a.m. on Sunday morning. It was a brutally demanding punctuation to a breathtaking road trip. One that we'll never forget.