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Getting there

Now, you may have guessed this already, but we have finally made it to Ann Arbor. Yes, there are more than a thousand miles between The Badlands and Ann Arbor. And I’m sure there is stuff to see along the way, but we didn’t stop for any of it. Our last two days on the road were literally days on the road.

The recovery program, if nothing else, contributes to slowing down traffic all over the country through endless stretches of road work. Despite the success of freight trains in the US, I-80 is clearly a major truck road, at least in the Midwest. Just before leaving Iowa we pass by Iowa 80 – the world’s largest truck stop. In short, driving is not pleasant.

We spend the night in Illinois, and the next day brings another six hours of driving. But we make it in time to pick up our keys to our new apartment, and all of a sudden we have arrived in Ann Arbor.


The Badlands

The Badlands

Right next to Wall is our final national park on this road trip: The Badlands. The name is not enticing, but the park is fantastic. If you are in an air conditioned vehicle on a nice park road, of course. The badlands are sedimentary rock, which was once the bottom of an inland sea, and contains large numbers of fossils. While many of the fossil finds have made it to museums all over the world, we enjoy the bizarre eroded rock formations in their own right!

We don’t have much time, so we decide to take the scenic drive through the park, which is also going to take us in the right general direction, that is, East. The landscape is very strange: grassland, interrupted by spiky rock formations, eroding under our eyes. They come in different colors, too: grey, red, yellow.

Pretty colors - information please?

As always the park brochure contains a lot less information than would be desirable. Why, for instance, are the horizontal lines across the different formations perfectly aligned? Does this indicate that the sediment was distributed especially evenly? Do they indicate different types of sediment? What about the different colors?

We don’t know. They look nice, though. And we see some animals as well. Bighorn Sheep, I believe, although they don’t look very much like sheep at all.

Bighorn Sheep - I think.

Wall Drug

You’ve heard of it, perhaps seen ads for it, but I guess few of you have been to the actual place: Wall Drug. The story of Wall Drug is a lovely tale of tenacity and business success through creativity.

Wall Drug is a drugstore in Wall, South Dakota. Wall is a tiny town, along I-90. Back in the ’30s the Husteads had bought the little drugstore in Wall, starting a family and a business at the same time. Business wasn’t going well, the Depression didn’t help, and they were seriously considering leaving town, when Dorothy Hustead had the idea that was to turn the business into a major success. To lure customers from the road into their little store, why not offer them free ice water, which in the summer heat would be enticing enough. And why not advertise this on billboards along the highway?

So began the advertising campaign that made Wall Drug famous, and which continues to be copied today. Of course, Wall Drug is no longer a small drugstore, but an absurd shopping mall, including an art museum and a chapel.

They still serve free ice water and 5 cent coffee, and of course we have to have some of both. To prove that the strategy still works, though, we also have a slice of pie.

Very recent history

Visitors Welcome?

We’ve had some nature, and some history, more specifically, 19th century history. Now it is time for some very recent history: a real Cold War missile, carrying a nuclear warhead. Well, I think they’ve removed the warhead at this point. Too bad.

During the Cold War, the US military placed a number of intercontinental missiles at various points insides the US, armed with nuclear weapons, ready to go in the event of a Soviet attack. This system of missiles, called “minuteman missiles” for their short response time, were part of the nuclear deterrent system the US had built up to prevent attacks. The missiles (150!) were stationed at various facilities in South Dakota, to reduce the number of casualties in the event of an attack (or accident?), and because South Dakota is sufficiently far north to reach just about any point in Russia conveniently in about 30 minutes. If you have an intercontinental ballistic missile, that is.

We learn all of this from a self-guided cell phone tour: you call a particular number, and are guided, step by step, around a decommissioned missile silo, in the middle of nowhere. We had wanted to go on the guided tour, which would have taken us not just to the missile silo, but also to the launch control center, but these tours are small, rare, and popular, and so we failed to secure a spot. But the silo itself is simply ‘open to the public’, if you can find it, and so we at least get a look at the actual missile.

looking at a Minuteman II Missile

While the Minuteman II Missiles, the type of which this is an instance, are no longer in use, there are still 450 Minuteman III Missiles stationed at various locations, ready to go. A comforting thought?

Black Hills – IV

Our last stop in the Black Hills is the town of Deadwood – not quite as seen on TV. Deadwood is a frontier town, established in the 1870s as a result of the gold rush in the Black Hills. Finding gold in the Black Hills, and establishing settlements there was highly problematic, and some have argued, illegal, since the land had been given to the Lakota in a treaty in 1868. But of course, when there is gold, such treaties have little meaning in practice.

Deadwood quickly became famous for its lawlessness, supplying prospectors with all they needed: hardware, gambling, brothels. This early history of Deadwood is vividly (and not always accurately) portrayed in a TV-series, and so many of the characters of the town, including famously Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane, were sufficiently familiar to us to make the trip to the cemetery worthwhile.

The grave of Wild Bill Hickok

Wild Bill Hickok was another legendary Wild West character, but unlike Buffalo Bill, he was not primarily a showman. He was murdered in Deadwood on August 2, 1876, while playing poker. The term “Dead Man’s Hand” is now widely used to refer to his final hand, two aces and two eights. As one might expect, there is a controversy as to what his hand exactly was, which should come as no surprise, given that there are no less than four different establishments in Deadwood claiming to be at the exact location of “Saloon No. 10”, the place of Wild Bill’s murder.

Black Hills – Part III

The Needles at Custer State Park

We spend the night in Custer State Park, our last night of camping. Ironically, camping gets more difficult the more civilized the environment. Camping in the national parks in the middle of nowhere had been easy: take an envelope at the entrance, pick a site, fill out the envelope back and stub, note site number, return envelope with appropriate amount to the entrance. No problem.

Custer State Park, by contrast, requires reservations for all campsites. Needless to say, we don’t have a reservation – this late in our trip we had to rely on improvisation more than on planning. To reserve a campsite, you have to call a certain phone number – talking to the ranger at the campground is not enough. Of course, our cell phones don’t work, and so we have to use the public phone at the campground. Which is currently used by some other people for the exact same purpose. It is hard to imagine under what circumstances this system works better than the standard NP way of doing things.

Alistair succeeds in securing a campsite, however, and we spend out last night camping next to a creek – just like our first two. What we’ve failed to secure, however, is food. Not from lack of trying, but because all the towns in the Black Hills are expecting tourists to eat out, not buy food for themselves. In the end our meal consists in steak sandwich (leftovers from dinner the night before), miso soup (instant), and beans on toast. Not bad, but a bit of a disappointment compared to earlier feasts of steak, grilled salmon, and teriyake chicken. Not to mention fresh salads and fruits.

On the upside, we have nice neighbors at the campsite – Canadians, who come over and share their wine and stories.

Black Hills – Part II

Presidents and Rubble

Our second major destination in the Black Hills are two monumental monuments: Mount Rushmore and the still unfinished Crazy Horse Memorial.

Both of them are controversial (Mt. Rushmore is of course ‘old’ now, so the controversy is not exactly a live one), and both are outrageous at least in virtue of their size: they are sculptures carved into mountains! The controversy arises largely from the fact that the Black Hills were originally supposed to be Lakota territory, and that the site itself  is considered sacred by various native American tribes. Carving the faces of US presidents into the mountain is understandably seen as a major offense.

In response, some native American groups have decided to carve a memorial to Crazy Horse into a different mountain in the Black Hills. This memorial is still unfinished, since its supporters refused to use federal funds for its construction. However, the memorial itself is also controversial, and not all native American groups favor it. The idea of carving up a mountain face for the purpose of a monument arguably goes against the native American traditions, and, some argue, also against Crazy Horse’s personal beliefs and convictions.

presidents in the distance!

Needless to say, as a rock climber  and mountaineer, I find the idea of destroying mountains for any purpose offensive. Setting that aside for the moment, however, I will say that I found the faces on Mount Rushmore aesthetically less problematic than I had expected. The gigantic visitor center, auditorium, and flagged walkway, on the other hand, were pretty terrible.