America the Beautiful IV

This is the fourth in a series of posts about my LA to Chicago road trip, Aug 20-29. 


From Casper, we headed into South Dakota. I expected SD to be just as wide open and empty (100-person towns and no cell signal) as WY but was surprised to find many more farms and small cities.

Our first stop in South Dakota was Mt. Rushmore. This iconic national monument was exactly as silly as it seems. Some guy (sculptor Gutzon Borglum to be specific) seriously thought, “You know what this mountain needs? More dead guys’ faces,” and then embarked on an expensive and technically challenging mission to carve a bunch of giant busts into the side of a mountain. There is literally nothing else to see after paying the $11 parking fee and driving 30 minutes out of your way (from anywhere you might be going), except this one view of the monument, that everyone else is looking at, and secretly wondering, “What the actual fuck?” (Followed shortly by, “Is it just me, or does Teddy Roosevelt look like he’s photobombing Jefferson?”)

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Luckily, after Mt. Rushmore, we drove to Badlands National Park which was beautiful, vast, and majestic. So the complete opposite of Mt. Rushmore. The park follows “the Wall,” a series of eroded buttes and pinnacles that stand in sharp contrast to the surrounding grasslands. These fascinating geological features pop out of the prairie and constitute one of the richest fossil beds in the US. Like Teton, Badlands provides a more intimate experience with fewer visitors.

We arrived shortly before sunset at the park and set up our tent at Cedar Pass. Setting up the tent (for the second time) was interesting because the wind rolling off the grasslands was constantly blowing everything away. We only get the tent to stay in place when we attached all the stakes and guylines on the fly. After setting up the tent, we checked the weather: thunderstorms on the horizon. Literally. We sat up in the early evening watching the lightening storm in the distance before heading to our sleeping bags.

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Only to be woken less than an hour later by rain and strong gusts threatening to blow our tent away. Though we tried to go back to sleep, we eventually admitted that it was too loud to sleep under the constantly flapping and rustling fly and retreated to the car. From the car, we watched as the storm intensified, sending multi-branched lightning bolts that looked like dragons shooting through the sky. Occasionally, one of the neighboring campers’ tents would collapse and Jay would go out and help them either put their tent back up or escape from the wreckage.

In the morning, we heard that the gusts exceeded 40pmh. We were happy to see that our tent had survived the night, though others didn’t fair so well, and many people had abandoned the campground at night.

As we were repacking the car, Jay discovered that a mouse had moved into our trunk at night, chewed through our toilet paper, paper towels, and a bunch of food, and started building a little nest out of seat cushion material. We completely emptied out our car (no easy task since we were moving cross-country with a lot of stuff) but were unable to draw the little guy out of hiding.

So we packed everything back in to the car and took our new mouse friend for a ride, a scenic drive across the Badlands. My favorite part of the day was running from the Castle Trail starting point at the Fossil Exhibit towards Saddle Pass. It was a super short run, but I crossed funky geological features, into the grasslands, and through surprise canyons. I turned around when I stumbled across a few bighorn sheep hanging out, thinking about bighorn sheep stuff. It felt great to run, after driving all over Yellowstone and sleeping the car the previous night.

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The worst part of the day was driving to Sioux Falls after we left the park. About an hour out from the motel, it started to rain. By the time we reached the city, it was a torrential downpour with flash floods and many major intersections downtown closed off. It was impossible to see the lines on the road or even the cars ahead of me.

And then, in a lull in the rain, we emptied out the car again to see if we could lure out our mouse friend. We found that during our day’s drive he’d chewed through and pooped in a bunch more of our stuff. We only got him out by removing everything from the back seat and leaving him a chewed up cardboard box to climb into for comfort, then taking the box out of the car.

All’s well that ends well, as they say. Our car was mouse-free and the following morning we set off for our last long day of driving, from Sioux Falls SD to Madison WI by way of Rochester MN. We drove for 7 hours before checking in to a motel in Madison and heading to dinner at The Old Fashioned, a well reviewed brew pub downtown, across from the state capitol building. We tried fried cheese curds, a sampling a local cheeses with apple butter and walnuts, fried walleye, apple pie, and a local beer (Spotted Cow – New Glarus, WI).

The following morning, after 9 days on the open road and many surprises, we arrived at our final destination, our new home: Evanston, Illinois.


More adventures from the Prairie State coming soon! -xoxo, A

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