(NOTE: Today is 10-2-13. We have one more day on The Big Trip: we will be home in Ben Lomond on Friday, Oct. 4. I plan to keep at it after our return and include blog post for the rest of our trip.)
July 13-15, 2013
After driving all day from North Dakota, we reached Sturgis, South Dakota. Darkness fell and the sky became ablaze in color as we pulled into Bear Butte State Park. We liked the small park (and would return there later) but continued south the next day to Custer State Park. Custer had been recommended to us and I hoped we would like it enough to spend several days there exploring the Black Hills.
As it turned out, we stayed for only two nights before heading to Badlands National Park. Custer was just too crowded. The forest service visitor center had said the area was unusually busy this summer. The campground was packed with large noisy families making the most of their annual vacation. Traffic on the roads made getting around and parking difficult. Big tourist buses sat idling loudly at some of the stops. Lines formed in the campground stores. All of this created the sensation that we were at an amusement park whose theme was Nature, rather than at a place where people come to appreciate nature and take refuge in what nature offers.
However, seeing the families camping together reminded me of my childhood camping trips. Few people I grew up with in Pennsylvania camped and perhaps fewer traveled to the West, including these very Black Hills, as we did. Those early vacations predisposed me to a lifetime of enjoying travel, camping and wild majestic scenery. The vast landscapes of the mountainous west triggered a deep sense of wonder and magic that has never left me. I hoped that the children I saw gallivanting in packs around the campground were having seeds sown toward a love of nature, its beauty and a wish to preserve it.
During our full day there we drove to Sylvan Lake and went on a 4 mile hike. Big views and beautiful flowers. To get there we took the Needles Highway, a scenic curving road that winds up the Black Hills and around tall granite pinnacles, sometimes going right through them. This trip continually reveals the countless and unexpected forms that the earth element can take, so varied in shape, color, composition and complexity.
On our way to the Badlands from Custer, we drove through Wind Cave National Park and witnessed more herds of bison. I particularly enjoyed watching the buffalo interact. Many red calves followed their mothers closely while bulls hung out in small groups, often resting on the ground. Occasional skirmishes resulted in half-hearted head butting. Regular rolls in the dirt sent up clouds of dust that drifted slowly through the herd. Clumps of fur still clung loosely to many of the animals giving them a scruffy look. The ones who had completely lost their winter coat looked intentionally shorn, like a poodle, with nearly bare skin next to thick puffy fur on the front body, head and forelegs. The males in particular looked like powerful mobile mountains, their great hulking bodies cresting in their massive shoulder mounds. I did not know it then but these would be the last wild bison I would see on this trip. May the great American Bison flourish, spread across the West and return to its original home on the range.