The key to not spinning out on a dirt road at 55 mph is to follow the ruts. Allen Road is a wide thirty mile gravel track leading north from the rather minuscule hamlet of Martin to the Badlands. On both sides of us are empty expanses of plains: scorched buffalograss, mixed stands of tawny cordgrass and eastern bluestem. There’s a two mile stretch of pavement when we pass through the Pine Ridge Reservation, home of the Oglala Sioux. The place looks deserted and soon enough, we hit the dirt again. I begin to wonder if we’re one of those couples who blindly follow GPS into an empty space on the map only to realize that we’ve run out of gas on a mining track from the 1940’.
The trip began promisingly enough–high speed burns through large swaths of Colorado, Wyoming and Nebraska. Near Alliance we saw signs for Carhenge and, bowing to the whims of the Travel Gods, stopped to marvel at Cadillacs and hatchbacks hoisted into bizarre geometric positions that have something to do with the sun. Our path then zigzagged north and east; the towns waxed smaller and the countryside emptied out into endless tracts of farmland ravaged by drought. Then Allen Road, which, despite all of the bumps, fishtails and prayers on behalf of our windshield, we safely traversed.
Badlands National Park: Many millions of years ago the White River cut an escarpment into the layers of sandstone, clay and ash underlying the High Plains. Flash floods then scoured the cliff face into an array of pinnacles and buttes. Over time the Badlands has receded from the river until it stands alone, a sandcastle of rose, copper and off-white. This was a favorite hunting ground of the Sioux.
Cedar Pass campground isn’t much to look at until the sun goes down. After dusk the smattering of familiar stars is reinforced steadily until the lights in the sky are countless and you can make out the smear of the Milky Way. The Perseids were just getting started that week in August and we saw at least a dozen shooting stars On our second night, a thunderstorm rolled in from the west, mammoth bolts lighting up the sky and thunder rippling off the rocks. Our Camp Dome 4 stood up to it and the patter of raindrops on the fabric overhead made for excellent sleep.
Sage Creek Road is a North American safari. At first the way rises through eroded ash formations that look like sand dunes until you get a sweeping southward vista. Just past the Sage Creek campground we stop for some big horn sheep, which were enjoying the view and the fading daylight on a grassy hill top a few hundred yards away. Just over the next rise a dozen more line the road and we move through their midst at an idle. The young rams have short horns and look like goats. Their muddy eyes look through you.
After driving through miles of what can only be described as a prairie dog conurbation, we see our first buffalo, a shaggy, unimpressive specimen caked with mud standing in a gravel overlook. The rest of his herd is not far ahead. The cows trot along side us while some of the bulls take exception to our presence, rising to their feet and snorting. Obediently, we drive on.
Deadwood: The transition from the parched grass of the Badlands to the green forests of the Black Hills was an abrupt and welcome change. Intestate 90 begins to undulate and suddenly there are pines and farms and motorcycles. Our trip coincided with the Sturgis Morocycle Rally and all along the highways we saw bikers of every stripe. Despite its moribund moniker and association with the Old West, Deadwood was humming with action when we pulled into town. The bars, restaurants and casinos did a steady business from the rally and everywhere we went chrome machines lined the curbs. After a stroll down Main, we climbed up Mount Moriah, which dominates the southern flank of the town, to pay our respects to Wild Bill Hickock and Calamity Jane, who are buried there. Lunch was at the Deadwood Social Club where the grub is cheap and the floors creak. Downstairs at saloon number 10 they’ve got the chair in which Wild Bill was murdered (he held two pair, Aces and eights, now known as the Dead Man’s Hand).
Sheridan Lake: There are many tranquil lakes scattered like jewels through the Black Hills: Horsethief, Pactola, Michell and Sheridan, where we spent the night after leaving Deadwood. Sheridan is surrounded by campgrounds and the best option for swimming water sports. There’s a number of boat launches and every few minutes a small craft will speed by trawling a skier hanging on for dear life. From the elevated nook of our site it was great entertainment. That night it insisted on raining and I got to fry sausage and peppers in a downpour.
The Cosmos Mystery Area and Mount Rushmore: It wasn’t my idea so I asked something to the effect of “What the hell is this place?” We drove through five miles of dense forest to get here so I had a right to know. On its website the Cosmos claims to be an area where the force of gravitation functions a little bit differently. The tour leads through a series of cabins built on a hillside. Things are constructed on a bit of a slant but it doesn’t seem like much until you step inside. At once there’s a general feeling of being pulled toward the back wall. Our guide demonstrates how tennis balls roll up hill in here. There’s also a pull-up bar from which you hang diagonally. Reason it out for yourself (it’s probably an optical illusion) but the experience is definitely worth the eight dollars.
We reached Mount Rushmore through the town of Keystone: hotels with neon signs, fast food chains and ice cream parlors. There are some travel experiences that are so freighted with preconceptions that it’s impossible to have an objective experience. For me seeing the Mona Lisa, Times Square and Mount Rushmore were all like that. There was no angle from which I could see those four faces that didn’t feel like I was checking out someone else’s pictures from Flickr, so I looked at it for ten minutes, took several iPhone pics and then walked back to the flag pavilion to look for the New Jersey flag.
Jewel Cave: It was discovered by two brothers who thought they had found riches in the glittering studs protruding from the walls. What they really found was calcite–beautiful but worthless. The brothers assuaged their disappointment by offering dime tours into the earth by candlelight. Today its a national monument and the second longest cave system in the world While the infrastructure has vastly improved in the intervening century, a lantern tour is still the best way to do it.
We had our tour guide, Beth-Anne, all to ourselves, which made us faster, and we were able to see more. We descended the Heavenly Passage, which requires a great deal of monkeying down ladders with a kerosene lantern in one hand. Thrusting out your butt or back against the rock face is a useful for stability. At maximum depth, about 80 feet underground, we extinguished our lanterns to try on pure darkness. I remember my mind trying to perceive shapes in that soup of black.
Custer State Park: Car camper paradise. Each campground has showers (our first in four days), running water and flush toilets. The camp stores carry food and propane There are even restaurants if you don’t want to do it yourself. The park’s forests are a mix of ponderosa pine, aspen and Black Hills spruce The lakes offer fishing, boating and swimming. Finally, the buffalo meander up the road at their pleasure in search of the most succulent patches of grass. One bull caused a traffic jam of Harleys and Winnebagos when it stopped for a bite along the road abutting our campsite.