Black Hills and Bad Lands (Home Leave Phase Five)

South Dakota. I have had this on my list of must-sees for a long, long time. I remember even when living in Japan in the late 90s, plotting out a possible visit. Way back then I barely had an email account and there was no internet in my small 2DK (two tatami mat room with dining room and kitchen) apartment on the Western Japanese coast. It was just me, some maps, pen and paper. Needless to say I did not go then, but the planning continued.

Of course I have had loads of opportunities to travel in the past but I am, or at least was, more prone to travel outside of the US than in. Lured by exotic locales like Cambodia and Thailand or Italy and Croatia or South Africa and Moldova, I just could not resist. (Yeah, Moldova; I’ve been there.) Home Leave however must be taken in the US and from the beginning I knew mine this summer would include South Dakota. I worked all the other destinations around it.

Funny though, whenever I mentioned South Dakota as part of my Home Leave, it’s this part which received the most quizzical looks. Why South Dakota? Wow, really? Have you looked at a map? The concentration of National Parks / Monuments / Forests / Grasslands / Landmarks / Natural Sites near Rapid City is amazing. It’s an area steeped in tangible American history and incredible natural beauty.

Our transition from San Francisco to west South Dakota was not so smooth. Our flight out of SFO departed two hours late so we missed out connecting flight. Luckily there was a second flight soon afterwards, which departed on time. However, my aunt and uncle, who we joining us on the phase, had their flight out of Chicago cancelled arriving at midnight instead of 4:30 pm. A Juarez colleague, also on an amazing home leave, sent me a message to tell me not to forget to relax (which is not easy when traveling to so many amazing places and seeing so many amazing things). I thought then C and I would have a quiet first evening but less than 10 minutes in our hotel room and C fell off the settee (the cushion slid out from under her) and she hit the base of the bed, hard. A ping pong sized lump swelled up on her right temple. So being the relatively new mom I am I rushed her to Urgent Care. Thankfully she was fine but that was all the excitement I needed for our first day.

We had an amazing trip! Although I had planned to see many of these sights for years, I did not fully grasp how extraordinary it would be to actually see them. Badlands National Park and Devils Tower National Monument were incredible. I loved visiting Mt. Rushmore (although the parking charge of $11 seemed excessive to enter an otherwise free park– I hope the money does go to the NPS). I have heard people express disappointment with how small the monument seems in person. I was not disappointed at all. Not even when we could not complete the Presidential Trail, which takes visitors closer to the monument. The walk with 250 stairs was a bit much in the heat for my uncle who has a heart valve and me with an active toddler who wants to climb 20 steps and then beg for a “huggie” (pick me up) the rest of the way.

My aunt and uncle selected our accommodation for our third and fourth nights at the Blue Bell Lodge cabins in Custer State Park. We entered the park by a scenic back road after visiting Mt. Rushmore and had lunch in the park at the State Game Lodge, a historic building which once served as the Presidential summer residence for Calvin Coolidge and F.D.R. There are four lodge areas in the park and we stayed two nights in a cabin in Blue Bell Lodge area. It too was very lovely and our cabin came complete with 2-3 cotton tail bunnies that lived under the porch and which C enjoyed chasing.

The park is beautiful and teeming with wildlife. We took both a late afternoon and early morning drive along the Wildlife Loop Road and saw prairie dogs, mule deer, Pronghorn deer, wild burros, wild turkeys, and bison! Seriously, bison! Who does not get excited about seeing bison? And I had zero idea I would be seeing them in South Dakota as I have only ever associated them with Yellowstone. But there were A LOT of them in the park and not just along the Wildlife Loop road. We also saw them grazing on the grounds of the State Game Lodge and other campgrounds. It turned out they were hanging outside our own cabin at night as we heard their heavy footfalls, pawing at the ground, chewing, and snorting in the night!

We also visited Wind Cave National Park just south of Custer State Park. Unfortunately, we did not go inside the cave, one of the largest in the world, as the shortest tour, an hour long, did not seem the best of ideas to do with C. When we inquired if a ten minute “toddler friendly” tour might be available the park ranger had a good laugh at our expense. Well, we tried. Still, we did walk out to the small (dare I say *tiny*?) natural entrance to the cave where a strong cool breeze blew. We also saw bison and prairie dogs and every place you can see those gets high marks.

Our next stop was the Mammoth Site in Hot Springs. Originally, when it was just C and I on the trip, I had planned on staying in Hot Springs. I am SO glad my aunt and uncle joined us and suggested the state park. Hot Springs looked really tired. So, I started to worry the Site too would be a disappointment, but it turned out to be very interesting! It is designated a National Natural Landmark and is where the most mammoth (Columbian, not Wooly) bones have been found – an estimated 61 different animals! It’s an actual working archeological dig, museum, and research facility.

We passed the Crazy Horse Memorial in-progress on our way from Custer State Park to Deadwood. I had wanted to visit but the price tag, level of completion, and the number of museums C would no doubt not really let me see made the decision to stop for only a from-the-highway-photo easier.

Deadwood too is of course a famous historic area, even more so since the airing of the incredible HBO series, which I finished up just weeks before leaving Juarez. The entire town is designated a National Historic Landmark. I just wanted to stroll the streets where the likes of Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane, and Seth Bullock had once frequented. I took part in a reenactment of the shooting of Wild Bill at the reconstructed Saloon #10 (though not at the original location). I rarely put my hand up for such things, but there I was, at the poker table posing as Charlie Rich, who refused to switch seats with Wild Bill (and I have no idea how to play poker, which may have been the funniest part of my reenactment). We took a tour of the Victorian Adams Mansion (a 45 minute house tour with C!!) and visited Mt. Moriah Cemetery.

Spearfish followed Deadwood. From here we visited the Devils Tower National Monument in Wyoming and the Center of the Nation monument in Belle Fourche, the town founded by, yes, Seth Bullock of Deadwood fame. The town is the closest to the actual geographic center of the nation including Alaska and Hawaii. Then I ran a half marathon down Spearfish Canyon, decreed the most magnificent canyon in the west by Frank Lloyd Wright after his 1935 visit. You did read that right though. I ran 13.1 miles through the canyon from Savoy to the Spearfish City Park. Not on my own, mind you, it was an organized run. A crazy idea that turned out really well.

On our last day we stopped by a fish hatchery in Spearfish before returning to Rapid City for our late afternoon flight. A fish hatchery! Yet while in the Tri-State Visitor’s Center in Belle Fourche, we learned that our darling Seth Bullock helped to secure this federal facility. Today it is a Historic National Fish Hatchery and on the national register of historic places! We spent over an hour there and would have stayed longer if we had not needed to catch our flight.

I am tired. I will not lie about that; this home leave plan of mine is a little daunting. Yet it is also so amazing. This week in South Dakota exceeded all of my expectations. Our country is incredible.

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