Sunday, August 14, 2011

Greggle Goes East

This evening, driving east on I-90, I came over a hill and saw a line of light blue a few degrees above the horizon. This has happened countless times this month and it always makes me wonder whether I’m looking at a line of clouds or a mountain range.

Today when I asked myself that question, I didn’t have to drive any further to know the answer. From now on, there will be no mountain ranges to spot on the horizon.

I’m back in the plains, back in Central Time, and back east of the Missouri River. That’s not to say that today was without intrigue or that I don’t have other exciting things planned for my remaining 4 days on the road, but ever since leaving California I’ve had to fight the dénouement of this adventure. After the climactic few days in Yosemite and Sequoia, I knew it would all be a bit downhill from there. While I’ve certainly enjoyed just about every destination since there (especially Mt. St. Helens and Grand Teton) and don’t regret any of the stops I’ve made, there has been a growing sense that things are drawing to a close. And in today’s moment of sudden realization, that drum beat grew louder.

I don’t want to linger on that sentiment too much, because it certainly wasn’t my dominant mood for the day.
Rather, today was a day of rushing and relaxing. Not quite hurry up and wait, but close. The rushing / hurry up part of the day began when I decided to stop at the famous Wall Drug, since I’d be passing within a mile of it anyway. So I decided to forgo the Needles Highway and breakfast so that I could get there relatively early, despite sleeping until 9:30. As promised, there were signs for about 50 miles before the exits for Wall proclaiming the glory of the illustrious Wall Drug.

Actually, there was also a sign for the place back in Wyoming but that was clearly a rogue billboard, since it was the only one within a 300-mile radius. Anyway, arriving in Wall, fighting my way through the swarm of Harleys, I made my way in one of the 3 front doors. What I saw next could best be described as a tacky Pathmark on steroids (or for those of you in Massachusetts, a Jordan’s Furniture with a Western theme and more animatronics). The main hallway is a veritable thoroughfare, lined with mannequins dressed up in Western garb, historical olde timey photos, and numerous “shops” (which appear to operate somewhat independently).

My goal was mainly to just take in the place, so I wandered. I passed a store that sold only Stetsons and cowboy boots, another that sold fudge, a few that sold art and pottery, two rock shops, and one (or maybe it was 2 that were next to each other) that resembled your typical gift shop. I also wandered into Wall Drug’s “backyard, which contains a plaster dinosaur, fountains with jumping water, a slide, and an 8-foot tall jackalope.

Aside from the gift shops, where I bought my requisite post cards and magnets, my favorite store by far was the rock shop. This place was a science teacher’s dream come true. Not only did it have real and replica fossils (up to and including an allosaurus leg for $3,999), but it also had various rocks and minerals (and not just the polished colorful ones that are just pretty – actual mineral samples that I can use in school), and a great cache of educational posters. These are the kind that just say “Trees” at the top and have illustrations and labels of a hundred or so kinds of trees. I really wanted two that featured the dinosaurs of the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods, but they were all out of those, so I had to settle for “Minerals of the World.” I also picked up a bag of fluorescent minerals for $6 (those are rocks that glow under black light), and a cast of a tyrannosaurus tooth (because what classroom isn’t made cooler by having a tyrannosaurus tooth?).

I then left Wall Drug and drove the 8 or so miles south into Badlands National Park – my final national park before returning home (unless some other random site happens to be run by the NPS, like the Gateway Arch was). That makes 14, not counting Capitol Reef, which I just drove through on my way to Moab. So my personal all-time total of places with the words “National Park” in their name (so the Washington Monument and Mount Rushmore don’t count) is 15.

I didn’t have much of a plan for what I was going to do in the Badlands, aside from drive through and do a couple of short hikes towards the end. So when signs near the entrance encouraged visitors to head in the opposite direction of the main park road, on another gravel road, so they could see a few more overlooks and some place called “Robert’s Prairie Dog Town,” I figured why not. Normally, a place with a name like “Robert’s Prairie Dog Town” would fall under the category of lame roadside attraction, but I knew that, in a national park, they wouldn’t stoop to presenting something like a dozen prairie dogs dressed up in people clothes attending to faux town business. While that would have been awesome (only if it was free), what I got was much better.

But before I got to Prairie Dog Town, I had to get through the 5 miles of unpaved road that I knew the car was cursing me for taking it on.

However, at the first turnout, someone from another car parked there told me there was a mountain goat “coming up” the cliff next to us and that I should be quiet because it would be there any moment. Sure enough, a big old (actually I’m not sure if it was big or old) mountain goat came meandering up the side of the cliff and casually wandered across the parking lot and the road, stopping to take in the scenery along the way.

A little bit further down the road, the mountain goat ante was upped significantly when a whole family of goats – including 2 babies – came marching across the road.

But, in my opinion, not even meeting Lamb Chop in person could compare to the awesomeness of Prairie Dog Town. Just driving up to it, I could see hundreds of prairie dog holes all over the place, with many of them topped by a prairie dog just sitting up at attention – the way they do in pictures but you never expect them to in real life.

These critters are great. They’re friendly, especially when you feed them, which one family did, almost prompting me to remind them that that’s a good way to kill wildlife (the whole training them to take food and not to find it themselves thing). But get to close to their holes, and they may decide not to run away, but to plant themselves in the hole and “bark” at you. Compared to a real dog, it’s not much of a bark, but it did remind me of a Gordo bark, which I suppose doesn’t say much for Gordo’s standing as a real dog.

Everywhere I looked, I could see at least a dozen prairie dogs at a time. Since there wasn’t an established trail, I took that to mean that I was free to wander among the holes freely, as long as I didn’t overtly distract the prairie dogs from their very important work of sitting at attention, barking, and occasionally yipping and jumping up in the air.

I probably spent about an hour there, just walking slowly and quietly between the holes and using the zoom lens on my camera like binoculars to watch the prairie dogs’ antics. Eventually, though, I had to tear myself away, since it was nearly 3pm and I hadn’t really seen any of the park yet.

As incredibly cool as these close encounters were, for some reason I never think of animal encounters as enough to justify a trip to a national park. There’s gotta be some scenery, too. (This was the problem my first day at Yellowstone). After getting back on the main park road, the Badlands definitely revealed some interesting scenery.

The Badlands are an island of non-level terrain amidst the Great Plains, without another mountain range for several hundred miles. The reason the town to the north is called Wall is because the strange rock formations form a wall of steep cliffs running east – west for over 100 miles, on an otherwise flat prairie. Much like the sensation at Taft Point at Yosemite, you just walk along on the north side of the wall and then all of a sudden there’s no more land in front of you, because the terrain has dropped off with no warning at all. Once erosion takes hold, strange terraces, buttes, potholes, and other unusual formations begin to appear.

However, just about every turnout along the Badlands Loop Road gave a similar view. After a few I began to lose interest and decided to head right to the visitor center area at the far end of the park, where all the trails were located.

I think they designed the trails at this park with me in mind. Most of them are less than 2 miles long, so instead of choosing the one that I wanted to do, I could just hike them all. At first I took the Window trail, which leads to a window in the badlands wall, affording views of the canyon-like desert of badlands below. The signs said that trail was a quarter mile round trip, but I don’t even think it was that. It was more like a boardwalk that was level and about 150 yards long. I think the act of getting up this morning was more strenuous than that “hike.”

The other hike I did was the Door trail, which led to a door in the badlands wall. The main difference from the Window trail, aside from the fact that this one was over a mile long and involved climbing up and over rock formations along a relatively unmarked trail, is that you can’t walk through a window but you can walk through a door. So this time, instead of just looking at the desert below, I could climb out onto the rock fins and stand at the very edge of the canyon.

This trail was also relatively level, so I knew exactly how much effort it would take to get back, which was nice. I stopped along the way to stare into a few holes about 10 feet below me in the hopes that I’d see a rattlesnake that would be too far away to eat me. I might have even kicked a pebble or two into one of them in the hopes of eliciting a reaction from the hole’s inhabitant. Alas, no rattles.

Bidding a fond farewell to the Door trail and Badlands as a whole, I continued east, back on I-90, in the general direction of Minnesota, although getting through South Dakota today was never a possibility. I planned on stopping at the Corn Palace (a palace made of corn) that was right along the way, but I had a feeling that I’d get there after dark today. So I decided that if that was the case, I’d find a spot to “camp” in the car in that town (Mitchell, SD), and hit up the palace in the morning. In the end, that’s what I’ve done. I don’t know too much about this Corn Palace, other than the fact that it’s made of corn and supposedly very cool, so I’ll let you know what I find out, tomorrow.

That’s my only real destination for tomorrow. By the end of the day I’ll be in Chicago, which is somewhat mind-blowing. South Dakota and Chicago seem like they’re light-years apart (which they may actually be. I think Custer is over 1,000 miles from Chicago). So to get from the Mt. Rushmore state to the Windy City in a day seems like a pretty herculean task, although Copina Jr. assures me it’s possible. I guess I’ll know tomorrow.

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