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Our Lewis and Clark Journal – Day 14

August 30, 2013

Day 14: Badlands and Black Hills     (August 9)


Midway between Platte and Pierre (pronounced peer), South Dakota, the Missouri River passes under Interstate 90. It continues on from there into North Dakota where Lewis and Clark wintered over with the Hidatsa and Mandan peoples. There they met Sacagawea, the Shoshone woman who was key to the success of the endeavor. Sacagawea had been kidnapped by Minnetaree near present day Three Forks, Montana at the age of 11, sold to another tribe, married to a French fur trader named Charboneaou, and when Lewis and Clark met her she was eight months pregnant. She was now 15 years old. That winter  she gave birth to a child, Jean-Baptiste, who would become the youngest member of the expedition. More on them later.

Instead of following Lewis and Clark and the river North, we followed Interstate 90 West. Being all the way out here in South Dakota, it seemed a shame to miss our chance to see Mt. Rushmore and the Black Hills. In fact, August and I have an appointment to go rock climbing on Sunday; this is something we have spent an year getting ready for. By noon, our detour brought us to the eastern entrance to the scenic loop through Badlands National Park.

Before entering the park we had the opportunity to visit the Minuteman Missile National Memorial. This was an opportunity to stamp August’s Passport to the National Parks and have a crash course on the Cold War. The film was both engaging and frightening, and ended with Pete Seeger singing “Little Boxes.” Just a reminder that we are open to whatever the road brings us, and grateful that our plans are a bit loose.

Half a mile down the road was a site for getting up close and personal with prairie dogs. Lewis and Clark were the first U.S. citizens to encounter these creatures, and one of the men on the expedition named them. The Corps spent the better part of a day trying to catch one. They were eventually successful, and managed to cage and keep it so that it could be sent back to President Jefferson in Washington. Jefferson was thrilled. The prairie dog was eventually moved to a museum run by “Mr. Peale’s” museum in Philadelphia – now Independence Hall.


The better part of our day was spent walking, climbing, running and playing tag in the surreal landscape of the Badlands. (All of my photos were lost when my phone died later in this week, but Noelle got several great pics. No picture does justice to the landscape). August wore his new bison horns and I got to hunt him up and down hills and across little arroyos. Signs everywhere warned of rattlesnakes, and dry rustling sagebrush can sound just like a rattle. It was exciting.


The Visitor’s Center was great for a child. It had everything: dinosaurs, geology, native peoples and early explorers, much troubled history – and lots of hands on ways of engaging. We also took the fossil walk, and got caught in a rainstorm. The later was really fun because we just shut down the RV at a scenic overlook and Noelle cooked dinner. We had a delicious pasta while nature provided a light show in the clouds and on the horizon, and the wind blew through our cabin.


After the obligatory stop at Wall Drug, we were on to the Black Hills. And this is where we had a real adventure. We arrived after dark, and could see the lights illuminating Mt. Rushmore, though we could not see the presidents. Our goal was Sylvan Lake Resort, a uniquely beautiful and isolated section of Custer State Park located at the midpoint on Needles Highway. For those who don’t know, Needles Highway is a 14 mile stretch of South Dakota Highway 87 featuring stunning rock formations (the needles) reaching toward the sky. It is extraordinarily narrow, single lane (with turnouts) road and features several tunnels through the rock.  Even motorcyles treat it is single lane and give way to one another. (We learned this first hand: our visit to the Black Hills coincided with the end of the annual Sturgis Rally).

BTW, the photos here were pulled from the web, and taken during the day. We made our ascent late a night, in the rain. When all was finished we wished we had taken pictures, but were too freaked out at the time.


There IS a passable way to get an RV up to Sylvan Lake. However, when we followed signs to the camp and began our ascent of the mountain, we we warned by signs to turn back if we could not navigate narrow switchbacks and low tunnels. The tunnels range from 8ft 10 inches to 11ft clearance. Our RV is easily 12ft high. So just to be sure we were on the right road, Noelle called the South Dakota Parks Department. We were told to proceed. THIS IS IMPORTANT, because that assurance allowed us to ignore the warning signs as we kept negotiating narrow switchbacks and climbing narrower and narrower roads, assuming the signs referred to tunnels beyond the camp.


So we found ourselves at midnight, in pouring rain, on a narrow road without guardrails and a perilous drop beside us, facing this:


I emphasize dark and wet. No way to go forward. No chance of turning around. The only choice was to back down the mountain and hope there was room enough to turn the RV around at the last switchback. If not … I didn’t want to think about it. So I simply shut off the engine and contemplated camping out at the tunnel, hoping (naively) that no one else would try the highway after midnight. Visions of being featured on the news swam before us.


It wasn’t fifteen minutes until a bridesmaid on here way to a wedding at the Sylvan Lake Resort this weekend came up behind us. She was annoyed, but we had her back down to the last switchback, and beyond. Here headlights actually helped us navigate the route ourselves – Noelle with a flashlight keeping me on the road and from tearing into the rock on the other side.  We were able to negotiate a multi-point turn and head back down the mountain (after letting the now four cars behind us head up), and sought the first RV park we could find. There was no way we were negotiating our way up to Sylvan Lake this night.


Recommended Reading: For children, Who Was Sacagawea? by Judith Bloom Fradin and Dennis Brindell Fradin was our early introduction to Sacagawea. We brought it along for summer reading practice. At the Badlands Visitor Center we picked up a copy of Shirley Raye Redmond’s Lewis and Clark: A Prairie Dog for the President, illustrated by John Manders.

The INDEX of blogs from Our Lewis and Clark Journey can be found here.


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