SOUTH DAKOTA   (October 2015)                            

South Dakota: "How Did We Get Here?"
We had no intention of going to South Dakota, neither of us had any longing at all to go to South Dakota, and yet there we were, almost half way across the country in South Dakota. 

Visiting the Grand Teton National Park before diving deep into the SW for the winter was our plan, a plan that was slightly deformed by needing to dart back to Portland to take delivery of a truck on some unknown date, hopefully in November. So, while we waited for news about our truck that was already late, we kept driving east in the unusually good weather to the next national park, to the next iconic road trip destination, realizing that there was a good chance that we wouldn’t ever come this way again.

It was the prospect of hiking in the Black Hills that had pulled us to South Dakota and of course, once we got closer, other attractions popped up on our radar.

Sturgis, SD
While we admired the view of the 12,000’ high tundra from the warmth of our truck in Rocky Mountain National Park on our arrival afternoon there, an enthusiastic construction worker from Washington who was in transit from a job in Texas dropped in, almost literally. He saw our Washington plates and that made us family. By the end of the conversation, the cheery guy was hanging part way through our door window.

He was bubbling over with excitement about everything in his path and, upon noticing his Black Hills baseball cap, Bill asked him how he liked them. More accolades ensued. And then he was on to talking about Sturgis, SD like we knew all about it. We slowly learned about the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally—one of the largest in the world. “Sturgis” easily rolls off of the tongues of middle-aged men in the region and within a few days, we were nodding knowingly, learning a little more about it with each enthusiastic encounter.

Off-Season Sturgis: a few fancy motorcycles on display but the broad streets were empty.
We were relieved to discover that Sturgis's big event is sometime in August, so we wouldn’t be inconvenienced by it given it was on our route. And because this year had been the 75th anniversary, the week-long confab had extended an extra week in both directions.  Our Washingtonian elaborated as to how all categories of lodging are booked-up for a 100 miles around for the gathering, so we were all the happier to be in the region in October.  “Next year will be smaller” I was later told by a local.

Once on the road again from visiting Rocky Mtn NP, signs for Sturgis started appearing on the freeway. We were driving by its exits just about lunch time on a sunny day so we abruptly pulled in for our daily picnic.

It was hard to imagine how this sleepy town of 6,700 people could host 3/4 of a million guests. The only telltale signs that something different happened there were the 5 little-used lanes on main street; massive parking lots on the main street that weren’t labeled or associated with any business; and large, lovely civic facilities that must have been financed by their brief, annual guests.

Sturgis’s enthusiasts come from around the world, with many arriving by air, having sent their bikes ahead by ground transport. The Rally generally draws about 600,000 people though they topped 750,000 in 2015. We don’t know what went wrong, but the hosts had expected to receive over a million visitors for this year's event.

There really wasn’t much to see in Sturgis but we’ve made it a policy to be fascinated travelers when we can. Honoring with a visit to that which other people value is both a way to expand our world and is a good bonding activity. When visiting Turkey years ago, we made a point to visit Rumi’s Tomb, a revered poet, and that deeply pleased some young Turkish men we later briefly befriended. So, we’d done our bit, we made the pilgrimage to Sturgis to be respectful travelers in the region.

Charming parking structure, isn’t it? Unfortunately, this is THE best angle to view the faces.
Mount Rushmore National Memorial, SD
Mount Rushmore wasn’t on either of our bucket lists but given it was in the Black Hills, it was in our neighborhood, so it became a “must see before we leave” site. We looked for a window in the rain forecasts, packed our gear hoping for a short hike on the federal property, and headed out before the next storm hit the area. 

Our jaws dropped when the “Parking $11” sign appeared on the highway. The park service had relegated the parking to a concessionaire and the big "$11” price suddenly made Mt Rushmore a drive-by for us. “Out in the middle of nowhere…$11…for parking for a site you basically can see from the’ve got to be kidding.” 

We have spent days in a single museum but figured that, even for us, there wasn’t going to be a lot to do or see at Mt Rushmore. But being diligent tourists, we had done a little preparation for the visit. There were the usual “why, why here, and when” questions to be answered. In addition, I wanted to know more about the Black Hills geology and Bill was anticipating learning more about hiking in the area since the other visitor’s centers had been closed. But $11? Unlike any other outdoor National Park Service site we’d visited, you couldn’t even get the handout or talk to a ranger before you ponied up the $11 and parked. 

We drove on by, turned around at a pull-out with a reasonable view of the guys in stone, and started taking photos. We cruised back to the Memorial, defying the series of “No Stopping, No Parking, No Standing” signs to snap more shots from the truck window, something that is surely only possible in the off season.

We learned from another “photo poacher” that we’d come at the perfect time of day—the late morning—when the sun nicely illuminates the SE facing Presidents. We’d planned to come rain or shine and scored by being there during the brief interval of blue skies for the day, so we were doing well by some measures.

OK, here is a prettier picture of Mt. Rushmore.
Annoyed by what felt like a rip-off but still a little conflicted as to whether I’d been too cheap or not, Wikipedia put my mind at ease. I’d declared to Bill that we’d consult Wiki to fill-in the facts that we’d missed by not paying $11 to park in either the Washington or Lincoln structures and there in Wiki was my vindication: the Mt Rushmore project was conceived solely to promote tourism. Indeed, even more than 70 years later and from the road, it had felt like a major tourist trap to us. 

The original concept was to depict regional heroes on a different hill but the artist selected his own figures and his own hill for his own reasons. A brochure we picked up later in the day showing the grounds behind the parking structures made it look like a mini theme park. The only trail on the premises was a mere 1/2 mile long. Wiki shared that the rock substrate was granite and between Wiki and a sign at the turn-around, we answered all of our questions except those about hiking in the greater area. 

Maybe we were overly sensitive to the pricing given that we’d already caved-in and paid $6 to ride on a bike trail the day before, but almost all of our outdoor entertainment as snowbirds the last 4 years had been free and this was just too annoying.

When we’d entered the Black Hills, I’d been alternately snickering at and being appalled by the roadside kitsch entertainment including: Bear Country,  the Reptile Gardens, Christmas Village, and the Cosmos Mystery Area. They seemed out-of-place in the wilderness and slightly disrespectful of the Memorial. But as we drove out of the area on the same road after our drive-by of Mt Rushmore, I realized that they were actually perfectly in keeping with what was ahead for the Mt Rushmore visitors.

Harney Peak Hike
A Dying Forest
Bill did his best to cobble-together a long hike to Harney Peak in the Black Hills. We were starting around 5,000’ above sea level but there wasn’t anything high enough in the region to give us the big elevation gain hike we craved every week but at least it was a hike.

Too short on “Wow!” to come this far again to hike.
It didn’t take long on our first day on the trails in the Black Hills to determine it wasn’t going to be a hit for us even though we know many people love the region. The routes meandered through forests and didn’t provide many interesting features. Bill’s favorite online trail guide had recommended allowing a full day for hiking on this cluster of trails because of many great views that would surely slow us down, but we kept waiting to have that problem.

We admit it, we’ve become trail snobs. We now distinguish between “big panoramas” and “great views.” The trail and the peak delivered big panoramas but not great views because there wasn’t much to see. Ponderosa pine forests, whose dark color is the source of the “Black” in the Black Hills name; some rock outcroppings; and distant prairie lacked any “Wow!" factor for us. One website mentioned that "The Black Hills region has been described as an island of trees in a sea of grass” and that pretty well described our limited experience of them.

We felt the same when at the 11,000’ high point above Palm Springs: it was a huge panorama but lacked the interesting elements needed to be a great view by our standards. We thought back to the enthusiastic construction worker in transit who had loved the Black Hills but we couldn’t recall any details of “Why.” For the driving time spent getting to hiking regions, the “Wow factor” for us is definitely higher at Colorado Plateau venues like Zion NP, Bryce NP, and the Colorado National Monument than in the Black Hills.

Along with what we regarded as 'ho-hum' scenery, the hike was on the creepy side because we were walking in a dying forest. There were more dead trees than live ones, with many of the dead trees downed and forming mats of criss-crossing trunks. All day was a “high stepping” event because of the many toppled trees blocking the trail. Most of the standing dead trees were missing their tops. “Death and destruction” was the primary experience of nature that day.

All the dead & dying trees made the forest a little creepy feeling.
The trailhead signs had warned of the danger of falling trees at anytime, but especially in high winds. The pine beetle epidemic here and in other national forests we’d visited had weakened the trees. Later we learned that the blizzard of October 2014 had also added to the carnage.

But it would be a respectable hike of over 11 miles and of 3,000’ gain on the last decent weather day in the region, perhaps until spring, so we were grateful for the opportunity to be on the trail at all. Little did we know at the time, our trek to Harney Peak would be a truly memorable experience, not for being in the outdoors but for the experience of the people.

But A Lively Crowd
Almost alone on the trail, we expected to have the peak to ourselves as well but instead, it was a convergence zone. At the old fire lookout station at the summit, we learned that Harney Peak was also a destination for a shorter, easier hike and the pleasant Sunday weather had brought out the hoards.

Our first long conversation was on the lookout stairs with “Wilson,” the 40-ish year-old’s chosen name for the Appalachian Trail which he had completed this summer. His body was “still broken down” from the effort but he was steeped in the glow of his notable accomplishment. Curious about how we could afford to be full-time travelers, we told him the long story. A high-up in an investment advisory firm, Wilson was quick to agree that most of his colleagues were corrupt and “don’t care about people” and was impressed that Bill had mastered the art of managing our investments without his kind.

Eager to find a private place to pee and dig into lunch, the next long conversation was 20 steps higher on the platform of the Harney Peak Lookout Tower. Here the young Phoenix, AZ woman was quick to tell us what a terrible fall it was for rattlesnake encounters back home. She told of a colleague who was chased by a rattlesnake when out with his family. They managed to kill the snake with a rock and he was so angry about the episode that he took it home, skinned it, and dissected it with his son. Her details about the specimen’s trachea rings and internal organs, plus the risk of “losing fingers and toes if bitten by a rattlesnake in an isolated location such as ours," revealed a substantial medical background that she hadn’t directly shared.

The fine lookout the CCC built in 1939—the classiest fire lookout station I’d ever seen.
Finally, we were able to eat and pee and just when we thought we’d be on our way, an oversized young man perched on a rock shouted to us “Where are you from?” An Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest Trail wannabe, he’d had his photo taken with  Wilson. He was from Eugene, Oregon but had lived in South Carolina the last 6 years taking care of his grandma. All topics with him came back to weed and Oregon’s new laws regarding marijuana. It was clear that he was ready to use us as foils in his endless ramblings, so we excused ourselves to head back the long way down the trail.

Laughing about the unlikely string of conversations and commenting that traveling from Portland, Oregon was provoking reactions that felt like people were thinking “When did they put the road through?” we were again stopped in our tracks. Our overhead mention of “Portland” was the opening line for the upward-bound, middle-aged couple from the region who had been in Black Butte, Oregon a week ago visiting their son who was there on a temporary assignment. They loved their visit to Bend and drinking the locally brewed beers and, predictably, their son was trying to figure out how to live there permanently.

It was absolutely amazing to have so many long, detailed conversations at the turnaround point on a hike. Everyone at the top but us had done an easy hike, it was a lovely Sunday afternoon, the panorama itself wasn’t much to talk about but still, the unexpected string of social experience bordered on bizarre. 

Our experience on Harney Peak was like that at every destination in our short visit to South Dakota: we found ourselves being slightly taken aback and curiously wondering “What’s going on here and why?” Sturgis and its motorcycle rally; charging to ride on the bike path;  the Mt Rushmore tourist scam; the creepy dying forests; and the odd convergence zone of chatty people on Harney Peak were all a little odd but memorable.

Along with chortling about the range of conversations on our way down the path less-traveled from Harney Peak, we were still reeling from the facts on the memorial plaque there. We nodded knowingly that the lookout tower was completed in 1939 by the CCC, as we had guessed on the way up, but raised our eyebrows upon reading it had its own little onsite dam and pump house. The real surprise at the top however was the reference to the Pyrenees. 

The bronze plaque on the wall stated “The peak [7242’] is the highest point east of the Rocky Mountains and west of the Pyrenees Mountains of Europe.” I instantly thought: “Pyrenees? Those Pyrenees that we’ve been to in France and Spain?! They are a long ways away….OMG, it’s time to stop heading east if this is the last of the mountain peaks before the Pyrenees!” That wildly unexpected fact plus the wind, rain, and cold arriving the next day made it easy to curtail our unplanned but now shorter-than-expected exploration of South Dakota’s hiking venues.

OK, we lingered too long: snow on a new favorite trail near Laramie, WY on our drive from S. Dakota to Colorado.
Nash in South Dakota
The winds in South Dakota and Wyoming were great for appreciating how well our new trailer behaved in wicked winds, both on and off the road. Our tall Arctic Fox camper made us extremely aware of the wind when driving and we abided by all of the wind warnings for “high profile vehicles.” We’d watch the big rigs ahead of us on the road to help anticipate segments of freeway especially susceptible to gusts and often matched their decreasing speeds to be safe. When parked at night, whether the camper was on or off the truck, our sleep was usually disrupted on windy nights because of the buffeting we experienced.

Nash however, is lower to the ground and is far less affected by the wind (though we aren’t entirely sure as to why). Only when the winds were over 20 mph could we sense them by the handling of our vehicles. We were never whipped around but only could feel some resistance from winds. And when parked for the night we primarily heard, not felt, the wind in Nash. And even though our Nash is a notch down on the quality scale compared to our former Fox camper, it is actually tighter. Even in pesky winds, we didn’t feel drafts from around the slide-out when exercising on the floor like we did in the camper.

Unfortunately, Nash developed a hiccup in South Dakota when the 110 power suddenly went out. Already familiar from our 4 years in our camper with how quickly the amperage draw can hit the 30 amp limit for our rigs, we were taken aback. We didn’t pop the breaker but the power cut-out. After about 36 hours, we’d narrowed the symptoms down to a single sentence. Wayne, the service guy back at the Oregon dealership, diagnosed it as a “bad transfer switch" without asking us for more details. Gotta love that Wayne—he is so reassuring. And we patted ourselves on the back for an excellent job on the “differential diagnosis” of the problem. Implementing the solution, however, would be much harder. And, wouldn’t you know it, just before we took Nash in for a service call in Colorado, the problem evaporated—hopefully for good.

An About Face
Still with no news about our new truck’s delivery date and having been deflected by the knowledge of no high peaks in our path until the Pyrenees, we headed back west hoping to make it over the Rockies before the first big winter snow storm hit the region. All the advice that Bill had read said to avoid driving a trailer in the snow and we were intent on heeding that warning.