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Getting Out There:
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Road Trip into the Heartland
South Dakota
by Peter Thody

Peter Thody
Carole Thody
"So tacky it's brilliant:" The author at Wall Drug

Carole Thody
Wall Drug memories: The author's wife Carole with a friendly fiberglass bear

Badlands vista
Carole Thody
The author at Badlands National Monument

Badlands National Monument
Peter Thody
The Badlands: Harley country

Midwestern prairie dog
Peter Thody
Photogenic prairie dog

Badlands panorama
Peter Thody
Indescribable geologic beauty

Bighorn sheep
Peter Thody
Bighorn sheep


The next day has an early start: up at 5:30 with the aim of reaching the Badlands while the light's still good. Walk into the hotel breakfast room, pour some waffle mixture into the griddle and find ourselves a table amidst the even-earlier-rising fishing parties. Catch sight of the news and learn that four or five bombs have gone off in London. Too early to say how many casualties yet, but it's clearly not good news.

Hit the road in a slightly somber mood, but our spirits are raised once more by Highway 14 which continues to make its way through coarse grassland that must have looked exactly the same to the settlers who opened up this country in the nineteenth century. Stop to take a photo and, not for the first time, a pick-up slows down to check that we're okay for gas.

We're not going to make the Badlands much before ten, so we'll miss the best light, but we get it here instead. Empty roads, changing colors, the occasional bird bouncing off the car to join the deer, raccoons and other unidentified road kill that are visible from hundreds of yards away on the otherwise perfectly flat road ahead. And the Wall Drug signs.

Back in 1936, owners Ted and Dorothy Hustead had the bright idea of tempting travelers to stop at their drug store in the small town of Wall through the offer of "Free Ice Water." The idea proved so successful that people were already arriving as Ted returned from erecting his first signs. Before this spark of inspiration, Wall Drug was struggling for customers. The next summer they had to employ eight waitresses. Today they get as many as 20,000 visitors a day, and their highway signs are world famous.

The store itself is so tacky it's brilliant. There's a chapel, a pharmacy, what seems like dozens of specialty stores, and a large café, still offering free ice water and coffee at five cents a cup. The most memorable and certainly the most photographed aspect of Wall Drug is its collection of novelty items: a life-size bucking bronco you can sit on, a T-Rex that roars every few minutes, various fiberglass characters sitting on benches, and a whole range of animated groups that can be activated for a quarter. It's not subtle, but it makes no pretence to be. And after a few hours on the road, the offer of free ice water still works.

If Wall Drug is the ultimate plastic attraction, a hugely entertaining but essentially pointless diversion in the middle of nowhere, then the Badlands provide the perfect antidote.

Created over the last four million years through a combination of wind, rain, and river erosion, the Badlands is a quarter of a million acre National Park of almost indescribable beauty. At first glance, the undulating layers of sandstone look like waves on the sea. Walk a few hundred yards further on, look over the edge, and the same formations have suddenly become sharp and craggy, like the spines on the back of a lizard. There are soft, smooth, rounded formations, pinnacles that look like long-lost eastern temples, sheer drops, moonscapes, distant rivers, patterns made up of different layers of stone, and formations that appear so regular that it's hard to imagine how they could have been created.

Every corner reveals a new scene, even more stunning than the last. Look back at where you've just been and you get another view. And when you think you've seen it all, look ahead in the distance and there's a whole new set of rock formations to explore, walk, climb and wonder at.

There are buffalo, mountain goats, and prairie dogs. There are fossil trails that let lazy tourists like us feel like we're experiencing a bit of off-the-beaten-track wilderness without actually going more than a few hundred yards from our air-conditioned rental cars, and there are real trails for those who've come prepared with boots, maps, and water. There are viewpoints with railings where you'll find a handful of other people ooohing and aaahing in whispered amazement, and there are endless opportunities to escape the crowds and enjoy the silent, tear-down-your-face wonder of the place.

As we overheard an old guy saying to his family as we were returning to our car, you sure can't beat Mother Nature. And this was Mother Nature at her very best.

Later that day, sitting on the bed in our room at the Holiday Inn Express in Rapid City, while the thunder rumbled in the hills and the rain came down in buckets, the map shows us that we'd seen less than half of the park.

Tonight's entertainment -- on the recommendation of the reception team at our hotel -- is provided by the Colonial House Restaurant & Bar which is "just over the road". Looking forward to a little leg stretching we set off but realize that not only is there no pavement but, unsurprisingly therefore, no pedestrian crossing point either. Our options appear to be either to return to the hotel and drive the no more than 400-yard journey which, apart from being crazy, would mean an evening's abstinence, or to brave it out and hope for a gap in the multiple lanes of traffic flowing in either direction.

To this day I honestly don't know whether it was incredulity at this middle-aged couple's stupidity or old fashioned South Dakotan courtesy (I really, really want to believe it was the latter), but to our amazement first one driver then another pulled up to a standstill and smilingly waved us across.

This was a feature of our entire journey, particularly noticeable in South Dakota but apparent wherever we went. For years now, we Europeans have joked about what we perceive to be the shallow insincerity of the "How may I help you" American culture. It's only when you experience it for yourself that you realize that, for the greater part, it's 100 per cent genuine. There's an endearing warmth and friendliness about the people we encountered, one that we in the UK seem to have lost.

Next: Rapid City to Deadwood>

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Peter Thody
January 8, 2006


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