Our visit to South Dakota marked the third day of the post-grad cross-country road trip I took with two of my best friends, Katelyn and Stephanie. We had covered a lot of ground in those first two days since leaving the East Coast, arriving in Cleveland on the first night and spending the second night in Albert Lea, Minnesota. After a late-night stop at a desolate, attendant-less gas station where Katelyn grew so scared she dropped the gas pump on the ground in her haste to get back into the car, and then arriving at a similarly desolate hotel located next to a truck stop, we awoke early the next morning and proceeded to inadvertently drive two hours in the wrong direction-in the rain. So there was somewhat of a collective sigh of a relief as we entered South Dakota later that afternoon. The sight of a sign welcoming us to a new state was always a cause for excitement, and this was no exception. It seemed that nothing could bring our spirits down in South Dakota, and for the next 24 hours we had enough fantastic experiences to make the Mount Rushmore State a strong contender for the dark horse of our trip.
South Dakota was like a blind date you were set up with but didn’t have very high hopes for. That date may not have been described as particularly attractive, but he turned out to be pretty cute. And even though the date, on the surface, didn’t go well-maybe your date’s car broke down on the way to the restaurant, maybe the restaurant lost your reservation, maybe the waiter spilled wine on both of you-there was still something about him that you couldn’t resist, and you ended up having the time of your life. That was South Dakota; we may not have caught a glimpse of the sun the whole time we were there, but our moods couldn’t have been brighter.
After our extended detour earlier that morning, we were anxious to get to our next destination, Badlands National Park, so we drove with purpose and without stopping for the first 300 miles of I-90 in South Dakota. Despite the constant drizzle, I couldn’t help noticing and admiring the scenery, which was unlike any I had ever seen before. It is astonishing how perceptible the subtle differences in landscape and character of a state are almost as soon as you cross a line. In South Dakota there was a noticeable decrease in the number of strip malls and chain stores, which were often the only signs of civilization we had seen from the highway in other states. On either side of the highway in South Dakota were endless rolling brown and yellow fields, spotted with wandering cows and patches of red, black and green grasses. Our main sources of entertainment for those 300 miles were the succession of huge billboards, noteworthy not only because they were the only man-made objects we could see, but because of the strangeness of their content. There were advertisements for random attractions such as the Corn Palace, and PSAs to “Wear More Fur” to control the wildlife population, as well as countless religious messages. And of course there were the billboards for Wall Drug, a place we previously knew nothing about, but how can anyone resist a place that publicizes “Free Ice Water” at steady intervals for more than 200 miles? We were hooked by their 70’s-era graphics and enticingly priced coffee (5 cents), and our eventual visit more than exceeded our expectations.
But our first stop was at the Badlands, where we had been planning to camp that night before departing early the next morning to head down south through Wyoming after a quick stop at Mt. Rushmore. Reaching the park by mid-afternoon, thanks to the gloriously novel 75 mph speed limit on the interstate, we excitedly purchased our National Parks Annual Pass at the Ranger Station and drove in, watching the landscape change drastically yet again. I pulled into one of the first parking lots we passed and parked next to the only other car in sight. Donning rain jackets and rubber boots, we emerged from the car and clambered up the side of a small ridge to gain an appropriate vista. I had seen and been intrigued by friends’ pictures and reviews of the Badlands prior to our trip, but hadn’t really known what to expect in person. Even in the bleak weather conditions, however, the landscape was breathtaking. Standing on the perimeter of the ledge and looking down was like taking in an aerial view of a maze. In the grey distance rose rocky outcrops striped with shades of red, green and brown. Wet with rain the strange red, clay-like material of the ground was slippery under the rubber of our boots, which lent a childlike, splashing-in-the-puddles feel to our exploration. We ventured out into fields and down into gullies until we were cold and soaked through with rain.