Sunday, May 23, 2010

Good times in the Badlands

After a pleasant Saturday morning in Sturgis, a ride through the Black Hills to Rapid City and then east to Badlands National Park was next on the agenda. My friend from the Motorcycle Museum suggested a route through Deadwood, an old gold mining town that has reinvented itself as a casino gambling resort.

Named for the many dead trees that conspicuously decorate its gulch (South Dakota doesn't have "canyons," it has "gulches"), Deadwood was a famous center for prostitution, opium and other vices every since its founding in 1876 and became most famous as the scene of the murder of Wild Bill Hickok and the final resting place for Wild Bill and his girl friend, the scout and Indian fighter Calamity Jane.

Deadwood, S. Dak., is a town full of ersatz Old West charm, and lots of casinos.

The town has cleaned up well and there were no gun fights during my short visit, but it doesn't take long for me to tire of its Wild West shtick.

Several folks told me the story of Wall, S. Dak., a tiny town on I-90 -- the former US 40 -- near Badlands National Park. A Nebraska druggist named Ted Hustead and his wife Dorothy bought the pharmacy there in 1931 but found it was hard to make a living. Dorothy came up with the idea of advertising free ice water to tourists headed to Mount Rushmore across the parched prairie and business took off.

Wall, on the other hand, is full off ersatz Old West charm, without casinos.

Wall Drug Store grew into a sizable shopping center offering restaurants, gift shops, an art museum, chapel and an 80-foot long dinosaur -- all with a cowboy theme. Billboards along the highway from Rapid City still advertise free ice water and 5-cent cups of coffee. The pitch still works -- the parking lot was jammed with cars despite the fact that the highway to Wall was largely deserted.

From Wall, it's a short drive to Badlands National Park, where the ranger at the gate warned me that about half the 20-mile road through the park was torn up for repaving. "Well, that'll be an adventure," I said.

A visitor's first sight of the Badlands is breathtaking.

The landscape isn't as colorful as Bryce Canyon, for example, but it is equally intricate.

The Badlands, like the canyons of Utah, have been shaped by erosion. The material is much softer than the limestone and sandstone of the southwest. The White River flows through much of the park. Swelled by recent rains, the river lived up to its name carrying tons of white silt downstream.

The Badlands rise out of the surrounding prairie, but not too high.

The flagman directing one-way traffic through ten miles of the park got tired of standing.

In a way, the Badlands is sort of the munchkin version of Utah. There are many of the same features: canyons, buttes, cliffs, etc. But they are much smaller. Some of the smaller mesas, for example, are only five feet tall.

Badlands' scenery might be compact, compared to Utah's ...

... but it is no less dramatic.

The road through the park connects Wall on the northwest with Interior on the southeast. From Interior, I headed south into Nebraska through Indian country through Allen and Batesland near Wounded Knee and across the state line to Gordon, Neb.

I had no difficulty riding south, but when I turned to the west through Batesland a heavy crosswind began blowing me all over the road. My goal was to reach Alliance, Neb., but by the time I got to Gordon it was too windy to keep going. So, I found a motel and settled down for the night. Tomorrow, I'd check out the wonders of the Nebraska Panhandle: Chimney Rock and Carhenge.

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