When the buffalo came to camp I texted my mother — It was one of those “just in case” reactions where I figured that if a trampling happened, it would be better for the family to know sooner rather than later.
It was early evening when they arrived. Dozens of buffalo, or bison, whichever you prefer, trotted into the Sage Creek campground and remained nearby until dusk. The herd would get spooked every so often, seemingly by a cloud or a shadow, and would bolt in unison, kicking up dust as they relocated yards away.
At first I was terrified. First, they arrived from the direction I had left Carl at just 30 minutes earlier, where he lay napping in a hammock alone for the trees, and I had no way of contacting him. Second, your average adult buffalo clocks in over 1,000 pounds. When a herd of buffalo run, they take down everything in their path.
As hours passed, I began to feel comfortable in their presence. I read a book. I painted my nails. I heated up hotdogs upon Carl’s campground return. When a park ranger came to our picnic table I thought she may let us in on some bison tips, but instead she invited us to an atlatl presentation in 20 minutes. We stood with fellow campers, learning about the ancient spear throwing device, taking turns shuttling spears into a nearby hill (I’d give myself a D at spear thrusting, I’m more of a “gatherer”). All the while the bison watched on, unaffected by our presence. It’s their land. We’re just visitors here.
South Dakota was full of mini surprises like this — I’m not going to say this is the best state in the country, or the most interesting, but being smack in the middle of the United States, away from oceans and isolated from major cities (Minneapolis is your closest option and even then it’s still 200+ miles away from the South Dakota border), folks mistakenly think there’s nothing to see here. That it’s only plains. That it’s boring. And boring, it is not.
We drove into the state just hours after witnessing the total eclipse of 2017 — We were worked up and restless. I mean, the sun was just consumed by the moon and we had watched this apocalyptic-esque event in a Wyoming field with an elk standing nearby. To celebrate witnessing this once in a lifetime moment, we went to…Wind Cave National Park. Wind Cave may not be in the A-circuit for National Parks. It may not even make it into the B-circuit. It doesn’t bring out the 11 million the Great Smoky Mountains draw annually. Its visitor rate is a fraction of that, coming in around 100,000, but I’d consider this to be one of the most underrated parks in the country.
Wind Cave is really two parks in one — On the surface there are plains filled with prairie dogs and roaming bison. Then below ground is one of the longest cave systems in the world. And while you may see buffalo in Badlands, you’re almost guaranteed to spot them in Wind Cave.
In a late afternoon Natural Entrance tour we learned that unlike other caves which primarily contain stalactites and stalagmites, formed by dripping water building up calcium deposits, Wind Cave contains cave formations known as “boxwork”. In short, boxwork is formed by calcite filling cracks in the limestone, which remain after the limestone itself dissolves, revealing intricate patterns. Enjoy yourself when you’re down there — Unless you’re a photography pro your photos will come out terrible, so be present and have fun.
I’m semi-embarrassed to admit that my favorite part of the park isn’t the caves, nor the roaming buffalo, it’s the prairie dogs. Those humble pups who would be considered vermin if they lived elsewhere. Who pop out from their holes looking about with wet, black eyes. Who jerk their lil necks to alarming angles to survey the scene. Whose plump derrieres poke up from the ground in the most shameless and lovable of ways, like a Porky Pig cartoon come to life. In true white girl fashion I squeed and sqwawed each time I saw them scamper in the fields. The hardest thing about the park for me? Because these dogs are so abundant, they’re also a common roadkill sight. We must have passed half a dozen dogs lying on the side of the road and it broke my heart every damn time.
Much of the life of the park happens along the side of the road — Carl and I made a major road trip faux pas, running out of boxed macaroni and cheese, and on our emergency trip into the nearest town we passed the first buffalo of our cross country journey. Frequently buffalo in the wild are described as majestic, powerful beasts. This one was rubbing its balls on the Wind Cave entrance sign. We watched him for a minute, figuring he’d tire of this activity, but he seemed on a scratching mission, and we left him just as we’d found him.
Stocking up on the necessities (hot dogs, mac and cheese and powdered hot chocolate), our drive back into the park just before dusk cast the plains in gold. The grasses, tall and tufted and stretching to the horizon line reminded me of the ocean. Of watching the waves rolling out and onwards, their white crests fading into the waters, until the breaks finally meet with the sea, and it all blends into one whole. On the plans there comes a point where blades of grass are no longer distinguishable and where all turns into one glowing land.
I took this peacefulness with me to a Ranger talk that night — Wrapped in a blanket and munching on chocolate, things got real somber real fast. The subject? The Elk culling the park underwent that winter. Speaking to us is a young ranger, probably mid twenties, documenting to us the effects Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) has had on the park’s elk. CWD is an always fatal disease within the deer family that’s transmitted several ways: through bodily fluids, from mother to calf at birth, and even environmentally — i.e. when an elk with CWD dies, the grass their body decomposes on can now pass the disease onto those that eat it.
CWD has ravaged the elk population at the park, and in early 2017 Wind Cave underwent a culling to reduce the population in an attempt to help curb the disease from spreading. Almost 300 elk were killed in the culling, resulting in thousands of pounds of elk meat being sent to food banks. The path leading up to the culling was a long one — It took an act of Congress, an online lottery to select local hunters, and tests to further determine the qualified hunters, before the first bullets could be fired. Our ranger leading the talk laid out the facts and seemed both genuinely convinced that a culling was the right path, as well as truly haunted by the culling, telling the dozens of us in the audience that all those involved would now have to “live with the decisions they’ve made”.
To close out his talk he played elk calls, which when released into the darkness rose up toward the treetops in a cry that sounded so fateful it could have been a prayer.
Driving out in the morning we kept an eye out for elk, but instead were met with herds of buffalo, occasionally roaming into the roads and holding up traffic. When road tripping and camping in the midwest you never have anywhere you really need to “be”, and with no room reservation our end-of-the-day plan was to be in Badlands National Park, a destination less than a two hour drive. At 8:00am baby buffalos fighting a yard away from the vehicle is a welcome spectacle.
Between the buffalo of Wind Cave and the buffalo who came to camp in Badlands, we filled the morning with stops at Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Memorial, the two just 15 miles apart. First up was Crazy Horse, dreamed up by a crazy midwestern family whose patriarch decided it was his life’s calling to chisel the Lakota warrior Crazy Horse into a mountain — It would be grander in scale than the presidents of Rushmore (their heads would be a measly 60 feet tall compared to Crazy Horse’s 80) and the warrior’s full torso, plus horse, would be carved. His hair would be blowing in the conceptual wind and everything.
Begun in the 1948, only the face has been formed thus far — The creator and his spouse have since passed, and his children carry out construction along with the memorial’s very own non profit. I want to believe that Crazy Horse will be completed someday, but funding from gift shop sales does not a memorial dwarfing Mount Rushmore make.
Mount Rushmore is one of Carl’s least favorite places. On our drive over he had a game plan — We’d make a sandwich, eat it on our way into the memorial, look at the faces, then GTFO. He wanted to be in and out under 30 minutes. We realized this goal would not be met when we burnt through that time just sitting in a line of minivans and station wagons waiting to enter the park. Once in we spent another 10 minutes securing a parking space, slapped together a peanut butter sandwich in record time, then trekked towards the faces in the mountain.
Mount Rushmore is a perfect American icon because it embodies so much that is American. It’s massive in scale, created to make money (it was created to be a tourist draw, and though out in the middle of America, draws over two million visitors annually) and self congratulatory to a point that’s almost vulgar. I mean, we took a mountain, unblemished by man, and carved our likeness in it. I can’t help but applaud the brazenness of this monument.
In all we probably spent less than five minutes at the informational exhibits of the park and spent more time eating ice cream. Fun fact: Thomas Jefferson is credited with introducing vanilla ice cream to the United States (having discovered it during his time in France), and his very own recipe is recreated and sold at Mount Rushmore. I wouldn’t have known this, had it not been for a very confusing sign which sets an ice cream cone next to Jefferson’s head, an equals sign in between. How can you not get drawn in from afar by a sign like that?
Leaving the park we passed about a dozen fanny packs, spent another 20 minutes or so behind a group of retirees on motorcycles waiting to get out onto the road, then made or way towards Badlands.
Because I’m nothing if not predictable, I blared Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town. I sang along to the song “Badlands”, the music blaring from the window and out into the 90+ degree day. But, I turned the music down as we drove into Scenic, South Dakota.
Our last stop for gas till we arrived at the park, Scenic is a town with less than 60 inhabitants, comprised of a gas station and run-down Saloon whose sign advertises “Tobacco. Lunch. Dancing” and “Indians Allowed”. In 2011 the entire town, post office and all, was purchased for less than a million dollars. It’s the kind of place you talk quietly in, to not disturb those living behind the closed shutters in the noon sun.
You slow down, you’re respectful, but as soon as you’re back on that road you roll the windows down further and turn the stereo up louder. You sing the song of the open road. Because that’s what Springsteen would want, after all.