Out of the Badlands an into the Black Hills. It was only about 100 miles to our next campground, but we stopped at the Rapid City Regional Airport to pick up a rental car. There was just so much to see and a lot of distance to cover, and having a car would be a nice change.
The Rapid City Regional Airport is pretty small and easy to navigate, even with a 32 foot RV. Nick and Bella stayed in Arvie while I took care of business at the Avis desk. The Avis representative told me that there had been a lot of hail storms, and people were bringing the cars back with significant damage. I figured that she was just trying to get me to buy the $30 a day insurance on an already expensive rental car, and politely declined the coverage. I walked out with the keys to a brand new Chevy Malibu with less than 500 miles on it. I climbed into the car and followed behind the RV to our campground, about 20 miles away.
When we entered the campground, it look like a bomb had dropped on the place. Tree limbs and leaves littered the ground. All of the cars and RVs had broken windshields and windows. They were covered with dents. People were on top of their RVs, spreading tarps over broken skylights and leaky roofs. A hailstorm had hit the campground the night before. It only lasted fifteen minutes, but the tennis-ball sized hail had pelted the cars and RVs, leaving destruction in its wake.
As we talked to our new neighbors, you could tell that they were traumatized. Throughout our 5 day stay at this campground, people were still dealing with the destruction and trauma that this storm left behind.
As our neighbors picked up the pieces, we quickly hooked up, turned on the air-conditioning in the RV for Bella, and headed for Belle Fourche for the day. Pronounced “Belle Foosh”, you might remember this town from the movie “The Cowboys”. In the movie, Will Anderson (played by John Wayne) hires a bunch of school boys to help drive his cattle 400 miles from Bozeman, Montana to Belle Fourche. If you’ve never seen this movie, it’s one of The Dukes finest.
Belle Fourche is the home of the Black Hills Round Up. This was the 99th year of round up ,and they kick it off with an old-fashioned cattle drive through the center of town. How many opportunities do you get to see that? We weren’t about to miss it.
It’s hard to describe exactly how charming Belle Fourche is. Not in a fake cowboy, touristy way. It’s exactly what you would hope an old cowboy town to look like. It’s a small town. The Main Street is lined with small stores where the local folks really do shop. People are genuine and friendly. Most of the men had well-worn cowboy boots on. They wore cowboy hats, too.
The whole town lined up on the Main Street to watch about 30 cattle and 10 cowboys make their way down the street. I can only imagine the spectacle of hundreds or thousands of cattle being driven through into a railroad town in the old west.
After the cattle drive was over, we bought a couple of tickets to the BlackHills Round Up for that evening. The fifteen dollar tickets included a free barbecue dinner. It seemed like a great deal!
After a little boot-shopping on Main Street, we headed over to the Round-Up arena. The actual event was still a couple hours away, but we enjoyed watching the cowboys and cowgirls move the horses and cattle into their pens in preparation for the evenings events.
With military precision, the barbecue dinner was served at 5 PM. It was delicious. The first event of the evening was called “mutton busting”. Little kids as young as 3 years old were loaded onto the back of a sheep and sent out into the ring to see how long they could stay on. No protective gear, no helmets, these young cowboys and cowgirls-in-training were cheered on by the announcer and the crowd.
I couldn’t help but think how horrified our East-coast friends and family would be at the sight of these kids being thrown into the dirt from the back of a sheep. But these kids were likely growing up on a ranch, where they would be expected to know how to ride a horse and help with the cattle. Most of them got up from the dirt, dusted themselves off and walked out of the arena with a smile. Growing up on a ranch in Belle Fourche seemed like a wonderful life to me.
Our next stop in the Black Hills was Mount Rushmore. This time Bella got to go, too! I knew that dogs weren’t allowed at the monument, but there was a parking garage and it wasn’t too hot. She would be safe and comfortable in the car in the parking garage for a little while.
As Nick and I approached the monument, we noticed that it was dog-friendly right up the the entrance to the promenade! We agreed to enjoy our visit to the site, and then let Bella out of the car for a bit, and hopefully get a picture of her with the monument in the background.
We visited on a Monday, but the site was pretty crowded. Even so, there was plenty of space to take in the stunning view. There’s a solemnity about it, seeing these 4 great men immortalized on the mountainside. Each of them represent a different but critical moment in our Nation’s history.
Just down the road from Mount Rushmore, the Crazy Horse monument is under construction. While they have an impressive museum, the monument is definitely a work in progress. The day had heated up and it was too hot to leave Bella in the car. She accompanied us through the museum and out on to the terrace.
An Oglala Lakota woman and her niece were preparing to demonstrate a traditional dance. Before the performance, she told us quite a bit about her own background. She was learning the Lakota language, because she had not learned it as a child. Previous generations had been punished for speaking it it school, and it was disappearing from their culture. Now the kids learned it in school and she was learning it too.
She told us that they did not call themselves “Sioux”. That was a word that white people used, but it was not a Lakota word, and they did not like it. It was moving to hear her story, but the sun was beating down on the terrace and Bella was getting overheated in her dark fur coat. She needed some shade and a bowl of water.
Nick wanted to take the bus ride to get closer to the monument. Bella and I found a shady spot ant sat for awhile to cool off before heading to the car to crank up the air conditioning.
After seeing the two monuments, we were getting tired, but I wanted to go to Custer State Park. This is a huge state park, and is well known for its bison herds. I was determined to see a bison. We entered the park and followed the signs to the Wildlife Loop. The Wildlife Loop is an 18. mile road that wanders through grassland and through forests of Ponderosa pine. You are just about guaranteed to see Bison, especially if you go in the morning or evening. But we were there in the heat of the afternoon, and the wildest thing we saw were the burros, who were panhandling tourists for treats.
I was disappointed about the bison, so I suggested that we take one more drive to see Sylvan Lake. I turned our trusty rental car onto the “scenic Needle Highway”. I guess those words should have tipped me off that this was going to be a scary goat path through a mountain pass, but they didn’t.
Even though it was by far the scariest drive I’ve ever done, it was worth it. The views were spectacular. By the time we arrived at Sylvan Lake, I tumbled out of the car, exhausted from the stress of the drive.
Sylvan Lake was a small lake surrounded by pine forests and rocky hills. There was a little beach that was teeming with families. A path circled the lake. Bella and I headed down the path as Nick settled onto a bench to enjoy the view.
As Bella and I made our way around the lake, I heard a Native American man, chanting on the other side of the Lake (sound on to hear it in this video clip). He was in the woods on the edge of the lake. I couldn’t see him, but his chant was carried clearly across the water and could be heard by all. This was not a staged, tourist performance, but a man respecting his heritage. It was very moving. Bella, on the other hand wanted nothing to do with it. As we got closer to the source, she dug in all four paws and refused to go any further. I’d never seen Bella so determined to prevent me from going somewhere. I respected her wishes and we turned around to head back to the beach.
As we retraced our steps, Bella saw Nick walking towards us. We all sat on a rock on the side of the lake, mesmerized as the man finished his chant. That was the best part of the day. Bella ran through the water and played fetch. Nick did a bit of rock hunting. I soaked up the sun and the peacefulness of Sylvan Lake.
It was getting late and we still had an hour and a half ride home. Thankfully, the road out of Sylvan Lake was short, flat and easy to drive. And there were bison. Behind a sturdy, tall metal fence was a small herd of bison and a single elk. One of the bison kept chasing the elk away. There was another bison who was standing right next to the fence, posing for glamour shots. A steady stream of tourists (including me) lined up to get their pictures of this guy,
The fourth of July was the last full day we would spend in South Dakota. We still had our rental car, so we headed to Deadwood to check it out. What a disappointment! I’m sure this was a charming western town not to long ago, but it’s been Disney-fied. There is nothing genuine or charming about it. We drove through it without stopping, and headed instead to Spearfish.
Spearfish is much more low-key than Deadwood. You get the feeling that people really live, work and shop in Spearfish. It’s also the home of a historic fish hatchery.
The fish hatchery was fun, interesting and pet friendly. We took our time exploring it and enjoying the grounds. The large trout in the big ponds are permanent residents, but they still raise trout for release. If you ever find yourself in Spearfish, plan to spend a couple hours at the hatchery.
Our time in South Dakota had come to an end. I’m glad that we took some time to explore this wonderful state. It was memorable in it’s beauty and in the spirit of the people who live there. This may well be one of our favorited stops on this road trip.
Lynne, Nick and Bella