Sunday, July 15, 2012

Bike America Day 29: Inside the Discovery Channel

Thursday, July12, 2012

Day's distance: 64.15 miles
Overall distance: 1,476 miles

I was sad to leave Custer State Park on Thursday morning without having rock climbed or kayaked but was ready for another day of riding. We headed out from the gas station where we’d ended on Wednesday just after 7:30PM. My mom and I rode the first 30 miles together and she told me stories about her childhood, my grandparents, and their parents. The first half of our ride was on ugly, busy highways but the second half was along a pretty, less-busy road with views of the black hills in the distance as we rode away from them.

My parents switched and my dad and I rode the remaining miles together. We were riding toward the Badlands but our destination for the day, Scenic, SD, was right at the edge of the park. My dad was antsy to get into the park and see the sights that day so we decided to tack an extra ten miles onto the ride and see what was so bad about those lands. We wondered why we were still surrounded by farms when we came to the top of a steep hill and I got my first view of the badlands.

Right at the bottom of the hill was Scenic. We rode a few blocks off route to see the downtown strip which was nothing but a ghost town. A man in a truck stopped and told me some history of the town. It had been quite the party town until the 1980s when it turned into this ghost town. He said, “it was as if aliens had come in and swept everyone out.” He said if you looked in the window of one of the bars, you could see beer cans still sitting on the pool table. Nobody had ever even cleaned the bar.

 We turned around and headed into the park. My dad had been to the Badlands on a cross-country road trip in the 60’s and I had asked him earlier why they were called the Badlands. He said he thought I’d know when I got there. I don’t know what it is but he was right- there was something dark and foreboding about the terrain that gave you kind of a bad feeling. It was incredibly desolate and a little depressing, with what looked like strange sand dunes all around. It wasn’t pretty like I’d imagined it.

My mom picked us up and we drove down a long, bumpy gravel road to Sage Creek campground. This was a free camp in Badlands National Park, but outside of the rock formations, that sat amongst vast bison ranges. The things that stood out from the reviews we’d read were:

  1. No showers, running water, or flush toilets
  2. Best views of stars and sunrise you’ll see on your west coast trip
  3. Buffalo will roam right through your campsite

Sure enough, 30 minutes after our arrival, a lone buffalo wandered within 20 yards of us, amongst the tents and cars in this open field. It made me a little uneasy, given the size and strength of this supposed friendly animal, but nobody else seemed concerned so I played along.

Before making dinner, we drove up to Wall Drug which was cool but a little too touristy. We made sure to try the maple doughnuts, per the recommendation of Amy, our host in Rapid City who’d worked there in college. I’m not a doughnut fan but I did think this one was pretty delicious. It rained while we were inside and then cleared up and got sunny instantly. The weather sure can be strange out here. On our drive, I got a picture of the rain from a distance.

Back in our quirky campground, we set up for what we called “cocktail hour”. We drank beer and wine and eventually stayed put for dinner of turkey, tomato and cheese sandwiches.

 As time passed, we noticed the bison in the distance migrating north. Massive herds of them were slowly roaming in a pack and eventually splitting up to feed in different places. A group of them jutted down a hill to a creek and back up toward us, where they ate grass just across the gravel road from the field that was our campground. It was very surreal to be watching them that way. It was exactly the kind of thing you’d see on Planet Earth or the Discovery Channel. We joked about being inside the discovery channel, watching the nature and wildlife unfold before our eyes. It was truly remarkable and I was really sad Josh wasn’t there to watch with us because I knew how much he would have loved it. He’s the one of us who actually watches the discovery channel at home.

It made me sad to leave the west part of the country because I couldn’t imagine anything like this happening as we headed east. I told my parents that, even though it sounds like more of an accomplishment to have ridden your bike all the way across America, I wished we’d considered spending the same amount of time riding around different places out west. There is so much to see and so much that I haven’t and this trip is making me crave so much more adventure in this part of the world.

We also got a kick out of our neighbors who were having a really hard time setting up the oldest tent I've ever seen in my life. It was bright and old fashioned, with stripes making it look like a circus tent. My dad made jokes about it being a prop from the set of Lawrence of Arabia. He also said that they'd be setting up their falafel stand in the morning. I was very sorry to not have any falafel for breakfast the next day. Shame on him for getting my hopes up...

Behind us we saw that the sun had set over the hills. I wanted a better view so I took off running up one of the steep hills on the west side of the campground. My mom said that I shouldn't do it in flip flops but my dad yelled after me, "she is born to run!" (I gave him the book for Father's Day and he loved it even more than I did, if that's possible.) Had I known there'd be cactii atop the hill, I may have reconsidered the shoes. It was the most running I'd done in a month and it felt wonderful! From the top, I had a good view of the sunset and an even better view of our cozy little campground.

I took this to give you some perspective as to the steepness of the hill. It just kind of falls away down to the flat ground below. Walking down without tumbling down on my face was actually harder than running up.

On a bigger hill next to mine, I saw two little bodies walking along the ridge. You can see them as little dots right in the middle of the picture. I'm sure they had an even better view than I did.

There were buffalo pies everywhere in our campground, a very clear sign that they walk through often. I took a picture of one with my swollen foot for size reference. I wear a size 9 womens, in case you want to get really specific.

 Then we walked over to some feeding bison to get a few pictures with ourselves in them. I decided to jump for one and as soon as I did, the animals scurried away, startled by the movement. I thought that I was supposed to be afraid of them, not the other way around.

Wednesday may have been one of the best days of the trip but Thursday turned out to be up there with the best nights. I still can't believe that the whole scenario was real and if I'm ever back in the badlands, I will surely stay in Sage Creek Campground. I highly recommend that you do the same. I'm really not sure how you could  get the same experience anywhere else.

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