Where the Buffalo Really Do Roam

Trip Start May 28, 2007
Trip End Sep 10, 2007

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Flag of United States  , Wyoming
Saturday, June 30, 2007

Since the last update, we finished our tour of Minnesota - from Sleepy Eye we continued west, headed toward South Dakota. Before leaving MN, we stopped at Walnut Grove to check out the Laura Ingalls Wilder museum. Our only knowledge of her is from the Little House TV show, and it turns out that wasn't too accurate (shocking, I know!). It seems she only lived in Walnut Grove for a short while, and even her memoirs are considered a little unreliable as far as the reality of the place is concerned. Today there's nothing left of what was around in the late 19th century, and apparently there are several other Wilder museums all over the west. The one in Walnut Grove wasn't very impressive, though, so we decided not to bother with any of the others as we continue heading west.

Next stop after MN was SD, and the plan was to just drive across the border and stop at the first state park off the interstate - Lake Herman. According the only-sometimes-reliable guidebook I brought along, "any lake in SD is a welcome sight", so we stopped at Lake Herman first (turns out SD is covered with lakes). The campground at the park was obviously set up for RV use, with no trees or other obstructions between sites to allow for privacy, but just gravel parking spots that aren't very tent-friendly. We checked the map and saw a string of parks south of the interstate, so we decided to check those out instead.

Along the way we checked out four more parks, and a disturbing pattern began to form - all the state parks seem to have the same layout! When we did find sites that we grassy enough for tent camping, they were still out in the open, with no trees for shade or even shrubbery to divide them from the next site. They were little more than grass-covered parking lots, and that would not do at all. As we approached hour 10 of a drive that was supposed to be done before lunch, we entered the beautiful Missouri River valley and my spirits began to lift - surely such a gorgeous landscape would have some equally gorgeous campgrounds...

Not so, though - the next to last park in the area was just like all the others, and I was about to settle for a wide-open grassy spot when Bob encouraged me to cross the river and check out the last park in the area, Buryanek State Park. As we crossed, the river the landscape continued to encourage me with its natural beauty, and when we turned onto a gravel road to get into the park I was even more encouraged - surely nobody would drive their huge RV onto such a road! The campground was three miles from the main road, right along the river. The setup was about the same as the other parks, but unlike the other parks this place was empty, so we decided to go for it. We picked a riverside site, set up camp, and had a quiet, star-filled night along the Missouri, right along the route that Lewis and Clark followed in their exploration of the area.

All was fine until the next night (Thursday, I think), when a pickup pulling a camper pulled in and parked themselves right next to us -in an empty campground! I was once again perplexed at the way people think, until I realized that the mistake had been mine - all of the sites at this campground are reservable, and I hadn't taken that into account when picking our site. Each one had a tag showing when the next reservation began, and I had parked next to a site that was reserved for the coming weekend! Turns out the folks who camped next to us camped in that spot every weekend, and after dinner they invited us over to share their fire. We got some good insider info on what to do and where to go in SD, and the whole thing didn't turn into the tragedy I'd expected (after I saw their yappy little dog and the DirecTV dish set out beside the trailer, I had begun to think the worst!)

Most of what we wanted to see in SD was along the western border, so we decided to head for Custer State Park and use that as our base of operations. The park is considered the "crown jewel" of SD's state park system, and I was just hoping it hadn't been laid out by the same guy who'd designed the parks we'd seen in the eastern part of the state...

Driving across SD was a pleasure, even though we took the interstate just about the whole way. Once again, the drivers of the Midwest have impressed me. Beginning in Wisconsin, I started to notice that folks out here actually drive by the rules - they obey the speed limit, but more impressively they "Keep Right Except to Pass", just like the signs say. This is a huge change from driving in NJ, where everyone just picks the lane they want to be in and then drive as slow or as fast as they choose, with no regard for people in the other lanes around them. Out here, everyone stays in the right-hand lane until they decide to pass, and then they pass on the left and get right back into the right-hand lane! There's no tailgating, no old lady going 45 in the left lane, no cars flying in and out of lanes passing on whatever side they feel like. It's a great thing to be able to set the cruise control and glide along without having to keep your guard up against the idiot drivers approaching from behind you...

Anyway, we finally arrived at Custer, and it is by far the best state park imaginable - I can't believe the place isn't a National Park. There are about a dozen campgrounds in the park, and we found a nice site at one of the few non-reservable ones. There's also a Wildlife Life Loop Road, which is just what it says - the park is home to over 1,000 roaming bison, a few prairie dog towns, and several different species of wild deer, plus a small herd of wild burros! We saw all of these, and I can tell you that driving down the road and coming across a small herd of grazing buffalo doesn't get old, no matter how often you see them...

From the park we also checked out Mount Rushmore. We tried to avoid going during the weekend, but by Saturday night we had been in Custer for 3 days and were a little bored, so we headed over to Rushmore. It was late in the day, and there was hardly anyone there - each night there's a lighting ceremony, though, so as night approached, a few hundred people showed up, but still nowhere near as many as I'd expected for a summer weekend. The monument itself seemed smaller than I'd expected, but it was still impressive. There was a short film in the amphitheater below the monument leading up to the lighting of the mountain, and overall the whole evening's program was quite good. When we returned the next morning to see the park in the daylight, it wasn't quite the same, so I'm glad we saw it at night first...

We also squeezed in a visit to Deadwood, SD, before leaving the state, and the town has a very interesting local museum that gives a good idea of what life must have been like in this gold-rush town in the 1870's. I had first heard of the town from the HBO show of the same name (one of the best TV shows ever, IMHO), and once again the TV show wasn't quite historically accurate (but closer than Little House on the Prairie!). Before we headed out of town we even caught a gunfight re-enactment outside the location of the saloon where Wild Bill Hickok was killed...

One of our last trips in SD was to Badlands National Park, and it is one of the most harshly beautiful places I've been to! The craggy rocks creep from the horizon up as you drive toward the park, until at last you leave the prairie and are surrounded by a formidable desert landscape. The place deserves its name, and it must have scared the wits out of the early pioneers who realized they had to try and cross it!

After SD, we continued west into Wyoming. Out first stop was Devil's Tower, made famous in the Close Encounters movie. It, too, was smaller than I expected - I'm beginning to think that TV & the movies have spoiled my sense of scale! I was a little unsettled to learn that the area is considered one of the most sacred sites to the Native Americans in the area, and as we visited it I felt a little uncomfortable, like we were trespassing on someone else's holy site (we basically were). There's a voluntary climbing ban during the holy month of June, but that didn't stop the ignorant white folks from scaling the Tower - as if it isn't bad enough that the government stole all their land back in the 19th century, even today some people just can't wrap their little brains around the idea that maybe we should respect another culture just a little bit - is it really so much to ask for one month out of the year when a holy site can be left un-desecrated? I just don't get people...

Overall, the whole Black Hills region of western SD/eastern WY is an amazingly beautiful place, probably the most striking we've seen so far (seems like I say that about every state we visit!)

Today we're in the Big Horn Mountains, finishing up a 4-day camping trip before detouring up to Montana. I had planned on going straight across the state to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks until I realized that this Wednesday is July 4th - no way I'm going to deal with summer and holiday crowds at one of the most visited National Parks in the country! We decided it may be better to head north first, check out Montana and Glacier N.P., then head back down next week for Yellowstone & Grand Teton before continuing ever westward...

Be sure to check out the photos - there's a lot that didn't make it into this entry that's well worth checking out. Also, if you haven't already, please sign the guestbook or send me an email - I see that there's a lot of traffic on the site, but I'd love to know who all is checking this stuff out...
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