Thursday, September 16, 2010

Mount Rushmore, Wall Drug, and The Badlands

Two parks and a store. Who knew it would take all day? Who knew the store would be just as memorable as the parks?

Waking up in our motel, and enjoying the breakfast which, once more, included the sweet sweet taste of freshly baked waffles (Katherine could enjoy them this time) we packed up the car, and headed out.

Thirty minutes down the road was the last piece of Americana that were were planning to see. Just outside the town of Rapid City is one of the most recognizable monuments in the entire country: Mount Rushmore.

The faces of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln find themselves carved upon the mountain's face. Some for better reasons than others. Washington was there because he led to the birth of the Union, Lincoln for preserving it. Jefferson linked the coasts with rails. And Roosevelt – well, he certainly wasn't there because the sculptor worked for his party, or because he looked like the sculptor. No, that would just be silly. Whatever the reason, few should have problem with his choices. If they wish to complain, let them find and carve their own mountain. Then they can add Martin Luther King Jr., Susan B Anthony, Mickey Mouse, and all the others who people scream should be thrown up there too.

My only problem with Roosevelt is how they justify his presence. How hard would it be to say Washington created it, Lincoln preserved it, Jefferson linked it, and Roosevelt protected it (after all, it was he who set aside more land for national parks than all other presidents combined. It was also he who set aside the first block of land, forever to be protected.)

In the Lonely Planet we have the author clearly did not enjoy their experience, complaining about the multileveled parking garage, and avenue of state flags that one must pass before viewing the mountain. I honestly can not find fault with these things. Having the flags of all the states and territories is a beautiful way to lead up to the mountain, and as for having enough parking room for all those who wish to enjoy the sight? Well what type of fool would complain about that?

Still – I can only assume the author was having a bad day, which influenced his/her writing. I can't say I've never had one of those.

It's easy to point to the ten dollar parking fee (National Parks pass doesn't get you in here) and use that to complain about the monument, but you do not need to enter the official gates to enjoy the mountain. From the high way there is a pull off which offers just as good a view as from the inside, if not better. Not only that, but on the highway you are apart from the dozens of tourists who flock, even in the off season, even in the early morning. And, up in the black hills, there are even more lookouts from which Mount Rushmore can be appreciated, free of charge.

Why we paid to go inside? Well – we were here, when would we be back, and we wanted to experience it to its fullest.

Arriving in the morning there were only a few people milling around. No doubt a couple of weeks earlier this place would have been packed. Still, we were able get in and take pictures of ourselves, with not a single other person entering our shot. This lasted for about ten minutes before the first bus showed up and everything changed.

Part of me wished we woke up an hour earlier, but then we did get here, we took the pictures we wanted, and we saw the sight. There's little left to complain about, except for the workers who were walking around on Lincoln and Washington's heads.

Construction workers walked along the top of he mountain, filling cracks, and attempting to preserve this monument for future generations, despite the signs informing us that there was no danger of damage.

Was it annoying to have them in our pictures? Sure. Kind of. But when we were there, earlier, they were just to the side of the faces, adding a very interesting sense of scale to the sculptures. Moments later, just after the buses started to show up, when rappelling lines were tossed down over the eyes and nose of the former president, situated off to the right, then pictures became truly obstructed. Having already taken my clean shots, I was amazed by the whole process of taking care of this work. For those who just showed up? They seemed less enthused.

Best seen in the morning light, we were experiencing this location at its best. Having taken far too many photos, we walked the quick trail, stopping to watch the mountain goats. Not native to this area, the hundred or so that now inhabit the hills were all spawned from an initial group of six gifted by the Canadian government. They have become such an iconic part of the Mount Rushmore experience that stuffed animal versions are for sale in the gift shop.

Wandering through the shop Katherine was on a mission to locate a “Mount Plushmore.” A stuffed version of the rock sculpture just seemed to make sense, if only for the name alone. While none was to be found here, I told her the internet would probably be able to provide, and if not, then the opportunity was open before her. A gimmick that strong is a license to print money.

We sought out the most gaudy gifts, photo frames with the monument and sparkling hearts, considered buying them for friends and family, then deciding that we hated no one that much.

When we'd looked at the four rock faces for as long as we felt we needed to, it was time to head on out, get back on the road, and make our way towards Badland's National Park. Only two hours away, we should have been there in no time.

Of course, this didn't quite work out. First, we spent an hour driving through the Black Hills, right up the moment a fee needed to be paid. While I'm sure they were lovely, I'd seen forests before, and the best locations – a tunnel perfectly framing a view of Mount Rushmore, and a lookout, offering views of the same – were freely available outside of the paid zone.

Stopping at the tunnel, coming upon fifty people standing in the middle of the road after a blind turn, we wondered what was going on. A tour bus had emptied out and everyone was snapping away with their cameras. But at what? Turning, unsafely, as I drove through this mob is how I discovered the framed view. After fining a place to turn the car around again, we headed back and joined in.

After the hills we set out for the Badlands once more. And we would have made it there too, if not for a billboard at the side of the road. “Free Ice Water” it read. “5 cent coffee,” another boasted. More signs for Wall Drug appeared along the I-90, and something started to feel familiar. I remembered something I had read early on in this American road trip. These signs spanned across the entire country, starting many states away. This, Wall Drug, was counted as one of America's top eight quirky sights, along with Roswell, the Cadillac Ranch, and the – I can't believe we didn't get to see it – world's biggest ball of twine.

As we obeyed the signs and exited the highway, we had no idea what we were in for.

Wall Drug is a store two blocks in size. It's bigger than Toronto's Honest Ed's, an even quirkier.

Inside you'll find shops of all kinds. Some sell t-shirts, in others you can buy snacks. There's also the pharmacy which will fill your prescription. Don't fear, as you can buy many a jackalope here as well.

But that's not where it ends. Those shops are really only the beginning. Cowboy boots, leather clothes, spurs, and all other gear are for sale here. There's also the rock shop, and the traveller's chapel, for all those who wish to come in, kneel down, and pray.

Then there's the back yard, where a giant jackalope can be sat on by people of all ages. A water show explodes through the ground timed with music. There are stuffed buffalo, and statues of various people. A T-Rex attempts to break from its compound and feed every twelve minutes.

There was even a section where one can pay to pan for gold. Of course this was the one area closed for the season.

There was also a restaurant selling five cent coffee, and offering free ice water. In a place like this where a whole day can be spent, not to mention hundreds of dollars, cheap Joe, and free H2O are no big worry.

There was an area that sold one of a kind creations. One piece that caught my eye was an Alien (think Aliens, not E.T.) created from welded metal and bicycle chains. It would be the perfect addition to my growing number of such action figures when I got back home. And soon I would be back home – with less than a week to go, such thoughts were far more 'real' than they ever had been.

But, also, as home approached money no longer seemed something I could spend without thought. Each dollar unspent here could be one used towards something else in the future. Like video games. Or rent.

I let it go. Katherine would later buy it for me as a present. For her, I found the gold panning kit, which came with a book, a plastic pan, and a bag full of dirt with gold flecks in it. I also grabbed an extra packet of flecked dirt. Sure it was a silly little thing, but after not buying it back when we were in Virginia City she had been rather upset. Now, without having to justify the money, she would be able to enjoy the act of panning for gold in her own home.

While I was off looking elsewhere she returned to me with the gift of plastic velociraptor bones contained within a brick of plaster, which needed to be chipped away at, before putting the skeleton together. I could be a dinosaur guy, just like Alan Grant, now!

The toy department was my favourite area. Aside from the games, cap guns, and figures there was a rack of invisible ink game books. They type I remember from car trips, decades back. The big orange pen with clear liquid, changing the colour of what was beneath, had not changed at all. The only difference is that Sudoku's were now a part of the game – though it seemed a strange thing to add to a book where all the answers were already there, just waiting to be revealed.

My favourite game from these books was the battleship (I love battleship.) In these books the game was called Fleet. Just as I wished there was a book that was all Fleet, I looked down, seeing such a thing. I may have bought every one they had in stock. Nostalgia is a powerful thing, and the last time I saw these in airports somewhere over seas, they were nearly ten dollars. Here at Wall Drug, but a fraction of the cost.

There was an arcade room with a Who Wants to Be a Millionaire game in it. Different from the one in Vegas (everyone gets to open the cases here) I knew Kath would want to play. She claimed she didn't, but once I put in the four quarters and let her sit down she was grinning like a three year old who just discovered a secret stash of Oreo cookies. It didn't end well, but the opening of the cases was the real fun. And what's money for, if not fun?

She also, after seeing me give it a go, wanted to play the light gun shooting game. Strange, since she seemed so against touching a real gun. This was one of those games where you shot targets to make things happen – shoot the coffin, see a skeleton pop out, shoot the motel sign to light it up, the rattle snake to see it jump.

When she was done, I thought about how it worked, then – seeing the 'no flash photography' sign – had my thoughts confirmed. In seconds we had our cameras out, flashing away, causing all the lights, sounds, and devices to explode at once. A cacophony of wild west wilderness was abound. We were the only two in the room. No one seemed to mind.

No flash photography indeed.

There was even a store that sold replica casts of dinosaur bones. The urge to buy a replica skull for fifty dollars was tempting. If they had small Alan Grant Utah Raptor claws, I would have picked one up. But they only had larger versions.

What's more – they had beautiful fossil in rock plasters that would have been perfect hanging on walls, and replica skulls. These were a big more pricey. One carnivore's leg sold for three thousand. It's skull replica went for six grand. The T-Rex leg bone sold for five thousand, and as for its replica skull? Well there was no price tag – but being five to ten time larger than the other skull... Still, this is what I'd love to have in my home, as decoration. But, rather than the cream coloured versions they had here, I would want one tinted black, to look like the replicas they have in various museums. That is a talking piece.

After spending two or three hours looking, shopping, and enjoying free ice water, we finally headed out – but not before taking a few Wall Drug bumper stickers and signs. Free to those who come in, these stickers spread the love of Wall Drug even more than the coast to coast billboards do. In fact, one employee told us how a solider on leave came in a week ago, explaining that he saw one of the stickers on the back of a Humvee in Afghanistan.

The legend of Wall Drug is a far reaching one.

Then – finally – we headed off towards the Badlands National Park.

We quickly drove the scenic road, getting through it in twenty minutes instead of the hour it claimed it should take with stops. We found a tent site, then headed to the visitors centre to watch the park's movie which showed off all the life that lived within this desolate zone. After that we grabbed a bite to eat, and only then did we do the drive once more, heading out and over through the park. This time we took an hour and a half, stopping at all the lookouts, and taking all number of pictures of the eroded rock, the dry cracking sand, and jagged peaks glinting against the sun.

For Katherine, who had never seen a landscape like this before it was incredible. For me, I was reminded of my time in Dinosaur National Park, Alberta. Though it may look like an expanse of nothing, with full water bottle on hand, and comfortable place to spend both the day and night, it is a place of great beauty.

The prairie dogs ran around playfully in the setting sun, while shadows stretched all along the spiked valleys below.

Improperly named, the Badlands are a place which is unlike most others on the planet. On this day the usual yellowing blanket of grass which covered most of the ground had been replaced by an ominous black ash. Only two days earlier the grounds had been set ablaze in a controlled burn to cut back on the tall grasses, preventing future wild fires. Some photographers complained to the rangers, and staff – but myself? I thought it only added to the image of a place, thus named.

When the sun set, we headed back to the tent (fixed with the aid of duct tape, of course) and cringed as it was nearly doubled over by the wind. We made sure the pegs were in firm, then tied the tent to metal poles on our site. We also aligned the doors with the gusts. Then, secure in the thoughts that our home probably wouldn't blow away bouncing across the landscape, we headed off to the amphitheater for the night time ranger program,

We were treated to a presentation about the night sky, the planets, the constellations, and then a tribute to the 'real stars' – American Men and Women around the country serving the country to protect freedom and democracy. It was an interesting way to end the presentation, but in this country, not an unexpected one. The ranger then went and shook the hands of the three veterans in attendance.

When the slide show and talk finished, the ranger used his five mile laser pointer (the green ones that some people have been using as weapons to blind pilots) to show us various constellations, and stars in the sky above.

When that part ended we were able to look through the three 80x telescopes on hand. For the first time in my life, I looked upon Jupiter, with its coloured bands. The storm was, unfortunately, on the other side. Once more, my love of the night sky came flooding back, and I wished I had – not only a telescope, but an area free of light pollution in which to use it.

After looking at Jupiter, its four moons, and some stars, mosquito netting used to break it apart into various colour patterns, we headed back to our tent. We got into our sleeping bags – leaving them unzipped as it was actually warm – then broke out my netbook in a terribly non-camper fashion, pressing play to watch the season finale of True Blood.

As I went to sleep I realized this would be the last time I slept in a tent this trip. This would be the last national park we would visit. (We hit at least a dozen in two and a half months, not bad all things considered... wish we bought the passport to stamp off those that we had seen) Everything would soon be coming to an end. And while I may claim, at times, that I'm ok with that, or I'm not... to be honest, I'm not really sure. I probably won't know until that time actually comes, less than one week from now.


  1. Beauuutiful post. Know World Heritage Site Dinosaur Park in Alberta. Would love to see Mt. Rushmore. I sculpt and from the time I was a kid, have wanted to see it. Thanks for a good read.

  2. Wow, thank you so much for this. This is one that will be on our list later with the boys . Have been mostly travelling thru Europe, but need to go coast to coast thru the states..... great work guys.


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