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  • Writer's pictureEric Spitz

National Parks - Badlands, South Dakota (Part II)

Updated: Sep 22, 2020

Joel drove the long trek on I-90 W as we shared stories and ideas for our upcoming adventures out west.

While his leg was meant to be a time for me to catch up on sleep to drive through the night, that naturally didn’t happen, as we were both excited for the beginning of our journey. In addition, I made sure to pack ItWorks Energy Drinks for the drive to counteract the fact I probably wouldn’t be sleeping much during the drive. Joel had worked that day throughout the morning, so the plan was to switch off driving duties around midnight.

We stopped at a rest stop in Beloit, Wisconsin just after 11 to switch off. As strange as it is, nothing made me feel more alive than brushing my teeth in a highway rest stop before hitting the road again. Upon taking the wheel, the areas we’ve encountered so far on the drive were familiar to both Joel and I, but we were right on the cusp of reaching uncharted territory and seeing entirely new features of the Midwestern landscape. I had my local alternative radio station set and my energy drinks handy, so I was ready to close out the seemingly never-ending 17 hour drive.

As I sat in the driver’s seat with a stomach ache from the energy drink, convinced I was hallucinating objects in the road, I knew I was hitting a wall around 8 am. In my delusional mental state, I pulled off at the closest exit I could find and immediately pulled in at a gas station somewhere within South Dakota. Joel was caught off guard by me stopping, and had to quickly put on some clothes from being buried underneath a pile of blankets sleeping in the back of the car. A 60 year-old woman sat outside the gas station smoking a cigarette, staring at Joel in the backseat. I could only imagine what was running through the woman’s head as my brother put pants on, and took over driving for the remainder of the journey toward Badlands National Park.

At this point, the sun was slowly making the landscapes more visible as we continued our drive. With this being the first time Joel and I have been to South Dakota, I was blown away by the serene landscape of rolling hills and grassy terrain. As our trip to the Badlands came within arm’s length, we were getting very hungry, and stopped at a diner for some breakfast. While the name of the diner and town escapes me, I remember it being very rural, and exactly what I pictured a small town diner to be. With this being the first breakfast spot we’ve seen for hours, this stop wasn’t exactly diner out of a choice of many, but rather, the diner.

As we sipped our slightly burnt coffee (very burnt if you ask Joel) and overheard the conversations around us, it was pretty evident that this diner mainly housed locals of the area. Any discovery of travelers coming from out of the area of South Dakota was welcomed with a hospitable nature (except for us, which our waitress much have assumed were local midwesterners.) After our breakfast of home fries, steak and eggs, we were off to see our first South Dakota destination: Badlands National Park.

Nothing was more satisfying than finally pulling into the parking lot of our first destination. Having not much knowledge of the Badlands before the trip, I was intrigued by the landscape when viewing pictures. When I gazed from the first overlook, I was absolutely blown away by the surreal terrain, placing it into a category that pictures don’t do justice and words cannot convey. The general consensus I heard from travelers prior to reaching the Badlands was eerie, in regards to its general aesthetics. After taking in the energy around me, eerie was the only word my mind could muster.

The Badlands were the first destination where I witnessed a warning sign for rattlesnakes. Naturally I was a bit paranoid, as snakes are one of my biggest fears. Joel of course knew this fact, and tried acting like he saw a snake as soon as I started to get comfortable. However, the fears eventually subsided as I took in all of the never-ending landscapes that surrounded me.

After experiencing sensory overload from all of the beauty that surrounded us, Joel and I ate sandwiches we had packed for the trip. Upon having our lunch, we struck up a conversation with a gentlemen who was taking his motorcycle through the Badlands today, and was then headed to go to Devils Tower – the nation’s first national monument. Upon meeting this individual, I couldn’t stop thinking about Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig, a fantastic philosophical/autobiographical novel that in part inspired Joel and I’s western road trip to begin with. After saying our goodbyes and witnessing a drove of sheep grazing at the bottom of a foothill, Joel and I loaded back up and started the venture toward our second South Dakota destination: Mount Rushmore.

Running off of an internal high of euphoria from the Badlands, I knew Mount Rushmore would be hard to top. As weird as it was, I became a bit apprehensive as my GPS told me I was within five minutes of Mount Rushmore. I’ve always envisioned Mount Rushmore in my head, but never thought I’d be witnessing them at the tender age of 25. As we turned the bend toward the memorial, the indentations in the rock formation was unmistakable. Joel and I pulled the car over on the shoulder of the bend as the features of Mount Rushmore just began to become distinguishable, zooming in our phones to max capacity just to capture the initial moment. Once we were both satisfied, we continued on the path toward the entrance.

As we approached the viewing center for Mount Rushmore, Joel and I took in the atmosphere around us. The vast amount of names who contributed to the completion of Mount Rushmore, whether physically or financially, was nothing short of awe-inspiring. After being typical tourists and getting pictures from every angle imaginable of the magnificent monument, and having complete strangers take our pictures as well, we made conversation with an older couple stating their stops and destinations within South Dakota. Their journeys included a salt mine and Crazy Horse – the world’s largest mountain carving that’s still a work in progress. While Crazy Horse was a stop that was roughly planned beforehand, the energy captured from the couple compelled us to make Crazy Horse a mandatory stop.

As we left Mount Rushmore and headed towards Crazy Horse, we both grew excited to witness the sculpture first-hand, after all of the conversations about the magnitude of the sculpture, and the ideologies it represented. Watching the provided videos and reading the literature on the monument made us both appreciate the work on a much higher level. It was hard not to be inspired by the man who started the sculpting of Crazy Horse to begin with: Korczak Ziolkowski. Ziolkowski’s determination to protect the culture of North American Indians was admirable in the highest sense. In addition, the fact that Crazy Horse does not accept funds at the federal or state level, and relies on admissions and contributions to stay financed, makes the journey of its creation that much more inspiring to witness.

When Joel and I first started posting pictures of our travels on Facebook for South Dakota, we received comments from individuals telling us to check out Wall Drug. Pretty much as soon as we entered South Dakota, we couldn’t avoid advertisements for this eclectic, one-stop-shop attraction. From the listings on the billboards that included a lunch stop, five cent coffees and a shooting range, it was as if there was truly nothing you couldn’t buy or do at Wall Drug. While Wall Drug sounded a bit touristy for us, and wasn’t originally a planned stop, we felt intrigued and compelled to witness the shop first-hand. All of the advertisements convey the establishment as the thing to do while you’re in South Dakota, and a staple for the state in general.

Wall Drug was nothing short of hodgepodge, meant in the best sense of the word. Joel and I felt like there was nothing we couldn’t find in this intermixing of consumer goods. Among the most notable of assortments is the five cent coffees, of which, I was most excited for after the incredibly long drive. While consuming the cheapest cup of coffee I’ve ever had, I struck up a conversation with the gentlemen selling the coffee, and found out he was originally from Denver, Colorado. We started talking about concerts, of which, he was envious of all the wonderful tours that go through Detroit and Grand Rapids, which made me appreciate being born and raised in the mitten.

After an incredibly long and euphoric adventure, Joel and I began the drive to our sleeping grounds for the night. While we didn’t know exactly where we were staying upon departing Wall Drug, we soon found ourselves in the quaint town of Newcastle, Wyoming. Joel was the most excited for our stay in Wyoming, as it was this type of serene landscape and escape from tourists that drove him to want to take part in this road trip to begin with. The mountain goat that we passed in the car as we entered Wyoming was indicative of how untamed this area was, and perfectly foreshadowed all of the tranquil landscapes and wildlife we were soon to encounter.

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