South Dakota Trip, 2001–and how we got chased by storm-chasers

Nyssa's Hobbit Hole

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I wrote this as an e-mail to friends and family on May 21, 2001:

Cast of characters: Nyssa, Cugan, Cugan’s brother M–, Cugan’s parents

We headed out from Wisconsin and made it to the hills of Mississippi.  We stopped in Burr Oak, Iowa at a tiny house which Laura Ingalls’ family once ran as a hotel.  They’d fit 3 people to a bed there, and the beds were no bigger than a double or full-sized bed.  And no, I’ve read that people actually were not shorter or smaller back then.

That night, Cugan and I watched cartoons (Superman, Popeye, Looney Toons) to a Led Zeppelin CD in his new Discman.  Apparently Zeppelin and old cartoons go to the same beat, because they were remarkably in sync.  Then when the cartoons ended, the last one said, “That’s all, folks”–and the CD ended.

Driving from the edge of South Dakota to Rapid City demonstrates the meaning of “miles and miles of miles and miles,” our favorite phrase during the trip.  And in much of that state and part of Wyoming, I often had a hard time finding more than one or two stations on my Walkman.

The prairies do have small, rolling hills, but that, cows, pigs, a herd of sheep, and farms are practically all there is.  Once we stopped at a scenic overlook, and it was, if I remember correctly, about 100 degrees according to the van thermometer!  The prairie is like a desert: hot in day, cold at night.  The cows would often gather around billboards, probably for shade.

Come noon, we wanted lunch but had a hard time finding it.  The towns are so small and far between, and some exits were blocked off by construction, so we finally had to stop after 1:00 in a tiny town called Murdo.

First we stopped at a Virginia’s Junction Restaurant, but not only was it a truck stop, but it was full and had a wait because of a Mother’s Day buffet (and because it was the only place around).  We figured we wouldn’t get back out for a long time, so we left.

In Murdo we found a little restaurant, Star, rated AAA, which was clean/good/only half-full.  They had delicious milkshakes (which everybody else changed their order to after I ordered one) and buffalo burgers, my first one ever.  It had a mild taste, slightly different from beef but not by much.  It was kind of curled up at the edges, and very thin, though 1/4 pound.

Now for tons more prairie, but at least we were full and Rapid City wasn’t much farther.  A sign outside Murdo boasted of 8 restaurants, but ours appeared to be the best.  Before we found Star, Cugan’s dad said some of the restaurants we passed looked “a little rough,” and one of them had a sign saying, “Welcome Bikers”!

We stopped at the Corn Palace, after much arguing between mostly the parents and M– about which way to go around some construction to get to it.  It was decorated outside with corn, as it or a similar building has been yearly for the past 100+ years, but there wasn’t much else to it.

It didn’t even have a lightswitch in the women’s bathroom.  Many looked, but no one found.  Some settled on going in the dark while someone held the door open, but I wasn’t that brave, deciding to wait for a gas station.

By the way, gas stations are far cleaner and better now than they were back when I traveled with my parents as a kid.  In those days, you always had to check for soap/toilet paper/towels/water, at least one of which was usually out.  Some were even filthy.  They seemed little better than a hole in the ground.

I don’t know if somebody cracked down with regulations or what, but these days, a gas station bathroom is generally as good as one you might find in a restaurant.  By the way, the Star Restaurant bathroom was small and old and had a sign saying “Flush twice,” but it was clean and well-furnished.

On our way to the Badlands, we stopped at an Amoco station/trading post that called itself the last chance for gas before the Badlands (a stretch of land that, according to the French, are “bad lands to cross; rocky outcroppings, starkly beautiful, and desert-like, sometimes used as a hideout by criminals”).  It had a sign out front that said, “Got gas?”  These words were surrounded by buzzards, snakes, a bison, and probably a few other such lovely creatures.

Once in the Badlands National Park, Cugan’s dad offered me his hat because the heat was baking my brains, despite my putting sunscreen even on my part.  It was 100 degrees!  Except for the occasional shade of juniper bushes, it was so hot (dry heat) that we had to walk slowly and guzzle water from the water bottles Cugan’s mom had so prudently supplied.

Though I didn’t think we’d get to the top, Cugan and I made it all the way around and up one step-filled trail.  We see why many people may have died of exhaustion out here on the wagon trains.

To my dismay, the fossil trail was closed that day, and we also didn’t have a chance to see the Petrified Forest.  At least we saw the Everything Prehistoric museum, which is so small it fits into one of those shops like you find along a main street, yet is world-renowned.

Later in the day, we went to this tourist mall called Wall Drug, born of a drugstore that attracted customers by offering free ice water.  I got a straw hat there so I wouldn’t have to keep borrowing hats to keep my brains from baking.  I need my brains.

We also saw two six-foot rabbits (not Harvey from the Jimmy Stewart movie), a jackaloupe, and other “animals” on display.  One was a bison, and those things could probably feed a whole Indian village: they’re huge.  The T-rex display, a life-sized T-rex which roared every 12 minutes, seemed corny but was surprisingly scary.

I also got a trilobite fossil, curled up in death, and a little display case for it.  They sell fossils and rocks and gemstones all over the place in South Dakota and Wyoming.

Then we watched the sun begin to set in the Badlands.  The fauna (not much flora) included red-headed ants, deer, and circling turkey buzzards.  (They circled us for a minute, but ha ha, we were young and strong and not about to drop.)

A group of storm-chasers, mostly young (they and their trucks looked like the ones in Twister), were also at the park either this time or the first time we were there.  Cugan’s dad asked M– if they were friends of his.

At the time, I just thought they were a group of ham operators like M–, and that that was the reason for the antennas on their trucks.  M– was keeping an eye on a group of clouds off in the distance.  They just looked like clouds to me, but he saw a storm.

We later found out that the storm chasers were also watching it, but were on the wrong side of it and missed it.  It even had baseball-sized hail.

The chasers got to the AmericInn hotel in Rapid City just after we did (a nice, spacious place with a guest laundry).  Cugan’s dad said to one of them, “We just saw you in the Badlands, didn’t we?”

The next morning, Monday, we had to go to Perkins because I guess they filled the breakfast room.  We joked about M– (who thinks he should’ve been a meteorologist) running off and joining the storm chasers.  He heard them use the word “ominous” and said to them, “Is there something I should be concerned about?”

Off to Deadwood we went.  It doesn’t have a whole lot besides bars and casinos, and that seemed to be where the tour trolley (more a bus than an old-fashioned trolley) took people.  It did have some interesting bits, though.

We parked at the visitor center, where each spot had a number and you bought a ticket for that spot.  Not everyone could get up the steep hill leading to the cemetery (Cugan called me a billy goat), so M– went back and got our van to drive us all up.  We also gave a ride to an elderly couple we’d met.

This cemetery is where Wild Bill Hilcock, a beloved preacher killed by Indians, Calamity Jane, a prostitute or madam “with a heart of gold,” a guy with Cugan’s dad’s name, and other interesting people were buried.  Some guys in hard hats were digging and doing things with machines; considering this was far too full and old a cemetery for new residents, I didn’t want to see where they were digging or why.

There was even a small piece of land available for sale at the edge of the hill, right next to a child’s grave.  We wondered why in the world anyone would want to sell or buy that land.  Cugan’s dad said a house built there would be haunted.  Somebody wondered if it was actually a plot for sale.  It didn’t even look like a house would fit there.  Some graves, usually children’s, were on the very edges of the hill.

When we got back to the visitors’ center, there were the storm chasers again–and one of them had taken our parking spot!  We went to Diamond Lil’s Bar and Grill and casino (owned by Kevin Costner) for lunch, and there they soon followed.

On the way out, we saw one at the bar and a group sitting at a table in the casino downstairs.  At least one saw us, too.  (Cugan’s mom said the young woman looked just like me.  I hear that a lot.)  Then after M– and his mom played a few minutes in the casino, we went back to the visitor center parking lot, and there they were, grouped outside the building.

“There they are again,” said Cugan’s dad in his West Virginia accent, and we waved and they smiled and waved back.  We joked in the van that if they followed us to Devil’s Tower now, we’d have to introduce ourselves and say, “We’re the disturbance you’ve been following,” or “Hi, we’re the harbingers of the Apocalypse” (that’s Cugan’s).  We also joked that being followed by storm chasers made us nervous–were they just touring, or was there a bad storm we were heading straight for?

By the way, the Black Hills do look black, covered as they are with pine trees.

A whole stretch of the road to Devil’s Tower in Wyoming had no road!  A flagwoman would stop us and we’d wait, then a truck with the sign on the back, “Pilot car/Follow me,” would lead us through past the road work.  There was so much road work in Wyoming and South Dakota that we couldn’t believe it.

Wyoming is also sparsely populated; one town, Alva, had only 50 people, and M– said the houses looked like they belonged to squatters–small, rundown.

Occasionally, here and in South Dakota, I’d even see outhouses in the hills.  One appeared to belong to an old, abandoned house (lots of those, too), but some seemed to belong to inhabited houses.  I don’t know if the outhouses are still in use or not.

Devil’s Tower, a lava plug over 800 feet high, is impressive.  Tons (literally) of rocks surround the base, and trails go around it.  I believe Cugan and I took part of the Tower Base Trail.  I often had to wait for Cugan, especially going downhill: I’d run with the momentum, while he’d go more slowly because of his bad knees.  He said I was like a fairy who’d run on ahead and then stop and wait for this lumbering monster following her.  We saw falcons or buzzards circle the hill and go to the crags up near the top.

After this, we went to the nearby prairie dog town, which covered a clearing on both sides of the road.  They’d frolic and look for food, and one liked to pose for M– when he clicked at it.  They clicked and barked, and squeaked like squeak toys.  If any of you have seen Blackadder III, they sounded like the squirrels that highwaywoman shot.

Two were even fighting.  Two kept sneaking up to each other, sniffing butts, and then running away again.  One appeared to bite or somehow touch the other one’s butt, and then got chased away.  Cugan bought a prairie dog doll, which became our mascot for the rest of the trip.

We did not see the storm chasers again, which was disappointing.

On Tuesday, we saw Mount Rushmore.  Many, if not most, of the rocks around the base seem to have come from the sculpting scraps; many have notches which were made while getting the rock ready for blasting.  The rocks around the trails have slate, red mudrock, granite, even mica.  There was even a tree which grew twisted.

I got a bottle of 24K gold flakes in a solution in the giftshop.  We then went to a nearby collection of stores and such, and ate in a “Ruby House Family Restaurant.”  It was decked all in red and had pictures all over the walls, one a nude from probably the 19th century.  It appears to have once been a brothel.  All the themed restaurants in South Dakota seemed to have displays of antiques, Old West clothes and other mementoes.

The hills contain gold mines–I saw doors to a mine which may have been abandoned–and shine in spots that are brown and exposed.  It could have been mica, though I wondered if it were gold, too.

After lunch, we went to the Black Hills Caverns.  Though it didn’t seem like much after Mammoth Cave (which I saw back in 1988), it was still interesting–and strenuous.  There were some pretty formations and crystals; some crystals looked like snow, and one, a River something-or-other flow, looked like caramel.

Our tour guide was a retired man who must have been in good shape, but did have to sit for a few minutes after each tour.  A little girl liked to boast that she didn’t have to worry about “headbangers,” or parts of cave walls that could bang your head, and voiced her opinions loudly.  She was cute.  At one point, she started crying “headbanger” as a kind of siren warning.

Once, Cugan’s mom got hit in the head with one of the “headbangers,” and joked to Cugan’s dad that he should’ve warned her.  Then she said something about her watching for these things, and he cried, “Oh, no, here comes the explanation.”  Then he jokingly spread out his arms and told the whole group (about 11 1/2 people, the 1/2 being the girl) that he was to blame.  On the way out, the tour guide counted the girl as 1/2, when he made sure everybody who went in, came out.

The TV feeds on cable in Rapid City on Mountain Time were all screwy.  Some stations run an hour before they even do in Eastern, some run at the same time they would if it were Central, some run half an hour to an hour and a half late, and some, like WB, run a full two hours later than they would on Central Time!

On Wednesday, we traveled the Wildlife Loop in Custer State Park.  You have to drive because the animals can get dangerous if approached.  At first, we thought we’d see nothing, and joked about asking for our money back.  Cugan wanted to see a mountain lion, and kept saying, “Here, kitty, kitty.”

Then we saw pronghorn antelopes, a lone bison who was obviously male, several herds of bison, a herd of burros right next to one of the bison herds, prairie dogs, a bunny, and a woodchuck (who was crossing the road).  The bison/buffalo/whatever were mostly grazing, but several wallowed in the dirt.  A few, I was told, tried some X-rated action, but I didn’t see that.

At the prairie dog town, as we pulled over, one dog sprang up so far he almost could’ve fallen backwards, and barked a greeting at us.  A couple ran up close to the van, but still a few yards away.  Once, one let out a warning chirp and they dived: a hawk was overhead.  The sentinels then sat up a few minutes later and each faced a different direction, watching out for that hawk, which had flown back over the pine trees.

There was road work on the intersection with the highway near the end of the loop, and some buffalo were close by there, too.  A couple of people were outside; one or two were in trucks; I’m not sure if the workers halted work while the buffalo were there.

We then drove up to Coolidge Peak.  M– had to drive because his dad just couldn’t: those are some steep and narrow roads.  Coolidge Peak is a lookout point at the top of the Black Hills.  We were so high up that we could see the earth curve all around us.  Though the view up was gorgeous, everyone was so nervous that I kept my eyes on my journal on the way down.

We went to the Crazy Horse Memorial, a carving in a mountain, which is supposed to be bigger even than the one on Mount Rushmore, once the original sculptor’s descendants finish it a few centuries from now.  In the ’50s, an Indian chief asked him to carve it, to show that Indians have heroes, too.

Crazy Horse is to be shown on the back of a horse, pointing out toward the lands where his people’s dead were buried, illustrating his act of defiance when his lands were taken and somebody asked him derisively where his lands were.  “My lands are where my dead lie buried,” he said.

Casinos are everywhere in South Dakota, even in gas stations.  One was in a station which also included a Burger King.  I also saw some major fast food chains sharing buildings.

We stopped in DeSmet, another spot with an Ingalls house/Laura Ingalls museum.  It had bathrooms outside–marked Ma and Pa–and one house was the comfortable home where the Ingalls family retired soon after Laura married.

Another house was the little surveyor’s house where the family stayed for a winter when Laura was little.  To her, it was a mansion full of as much food as you’d find in a grocery store, provided by Pa’s employer.

Out back of the retirement house was a replica of the tiny, one-room schoolhouse where Laura had once taught.  It was no bigger than maybe a big bedroom or a living room.

M– got after Cugan once for playing with his straw, saying it was childish or something, but Cugan felt better when I told him my dad plays with his straws, too.  This is sort of related to this schoolhouse, because it had a display of pictures from Laura’s books, one of which showed Laura pulling a knife impaling a girl’s pigtail out of a desk.  The culprit, a boy, laughed.

Cugan didn’t understand what was going on, and I explained that boys liked to play with girls’ pigtails in those days.  My dad had often joked about boys dipping girls’ pigtails in inkwells.

We took a circular route back home over the next few days.  We drove through Walnut Grove, Minnesota, population I think about 700, but weren’t able to stop at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum.  Part of our route was even on the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial highway, number 14.  We kept laughing because memorials to Laura were all over these states, and it was like seeing “George Washington slept here” signs all over the place.

We drove through Minneapolis, and I discovered that B96 of Chicago came in all the way up there, though nowhere else in between.  They have a great selection of stations there.

Up we went to the upper part of Wisconsin, where the Big Woods of Wisconsin still exist.  Cugan and I had a hotel room near Ashland that looked out over the bay of Lake Superior, and land stuck out on either side.

At night we could see city lights on the right side, and there were about three lighthouses shining.  Two lights, red and blue, belonged to a ship.  The shoreline glowed white in the faint city light.

In the morning, a goose family with both parents and five goslings swam along the shore, looking for food and occasionally coming on shore.  The goslings would lean over so far to grab for food under the water, sticking their butts up in the air, that they would almost fall all the way over.

We saw the waterfalls in that area.  The first was a bust, a tiny thing at the end of a mosquito-infested trail, reached after driving forever on a dirt road with no directional signs.  At least we saw a wildcat’s footprint.

The second was much better, Copper Falls and Blackstone Falls on Bad River (which looks like foaming root beer, as our breakfast waitress had remarked).  It had a bigger park with better-managed trails and fewer mosquitoes.

After hiking around the falls, Cugan and I had to wait for the others, so we swung on some swings for a while.  Cugan taught a pre-teen girl how to make a Zen garden in the sand, then showed his dad the same thing by drawing lines on the back of the now-filthy van.

The third stop was either Peterson, Patterson or Patteson Falls (there was some confusion about which name it was).  A short, dirt road led to it, and it seemed that it might be better than the first–until we stepped out of the van and into tent caterpillar webs on the trail.

They infested the place, so M– and his dad refused to go any further.  The caterpillars even covered the ground.  Some got into the van, and we kept finding them in there.  Some got on the van.  Some got smashed into the van as it drove around.  You could say we fled.

(I have always wondered if this was related to the tent caterpillar infestation in Fond du Lac that summer.)

Then we got home, and the story ends.