Summer Trip to South Dakota


Renewing a friendship can happen anywhere.
Renewing a friendship can happen anywhere.

Back in February, I was e-mailing or messaging old friends to update my address book and get back in touch. The older I get, the more I realize how important it is to refresh and retain those friendships. My college friend Sam, whom I hadn’t seen in five years, responded in her typical fast and friendly way. She gave me her address and then invited me on a camping trip scheduled for Memorial Day weekend. After living in California for several years, she and her husband (whom I hadn’t met yet) had moved to Vermillion, South Dakota last year. They were planning a trip to Custer State Park for the long holiday with day trips to the local attractions like Mount Rushmore and hikes on area trails. It promised to be a fun weekend and it’s wonderful to have an event on the calendar to anticipate.

My South Dakota friends had a six and half hour drive, just as I did rolling in from northern Colorado. They left on Friday, spent the night in a little town along the way, and arrived on Saturday morning. With chores and errands at home eating up most of Saturday, I drove in and arrived Sunday afternoon. I was greeted and hugged by Sam, promptly hugged by her husband Kevin, and I waved to their friend Ken, also up from Colorado. I stretched and set up to be part of our little tent town of three tents on two campsites at the Stockade Lake North campground.

The park is beautiful and busy, but large enough so the amenities like campgrounds, fishing spots, and hiking trails are spread out; you don’t feel like you’re on top of anyone while visiting. We were tucked into a great site, in the shade and beauty of ponderosa pines, and all of our camping neighbors were quiet and pleasant. I arrived just in time to drink wine and help with dinner. Kevin and Sam are passionate campers and devoted camp cooks, so I was lucky to partake of their gourmand abilities. Ken is a master campfire manager, so he was in charge of flames, while we split up food preparation duties. Potatoes wrapped in bacon and onions, then covered in foil roasted in the fire embers while beautiful marbled steaks cooked on the iron grill above the fire. We cut vegetables for salad and dug into the scrumptious evening dinner. Food always tastes better over fire and with friends. Clean up was quick and easy and the leftover steak and potatoes were stashed away in a cooler for a head start on breakfast. It was a slightly chilly early summer evening. We sat around the flames, enjoying the warmth like millions of others have for most of humanity’s history.

That night I slept like a rock, snug as a bug in my sleeping bag and tent. Kevin woke up early and had coffee ready. We emerged from our tents for leisurely morning rituals of breakfast, coffee, chatting, and cozying up to another fire. We were slow and sleepy in our decisions after breakfast. My three camping compadres had visited Mount Rushmore the day before (I had visited nine years ago on my move from Minnesota to Colorado), so Ken opted for a quiet cozy day of reading and stoking the fires at camp. Kevin, Sam, and I wanted to look around and hike. Not too far from our campsite was a restored stockade known as the Gordon Stockade. We stopped to take pictures, read the signs, and poke around among the cabins. A light rain sprinkled down on us, the mist made for a beautiful morning and added mystique (or mist-tique, couldn’t resist the pun!) to our surroundings.

Glimpsing into rain and back in time.
Glimpsing into rain and back in time.

The rebuilt stockade is in its fourth incarnation, counting three restorations. The first was built in the winter of 1875 by the people of the Gordon Party, a group from Sioux City, Iowa. They moved in after an expedition led by then Lt. Colonel George A. Custer found gold in the Black Hills in the summer of 1874. The cabins and the surrounding fortress were built to house the gold seekers who were living on the land illegally; under the Treaty of Fort Laramie (1868) the lands belonged to the Plains Indians. The white settlers were removed from the area by the U.S. Calvary just a few months after their arrival. However, it’s hard to keep people from gold and the possibility of striking it rich, and over the next two years more than 10,000 settlers were living illegally in the Black Hills, making it impossible for the Army to keep them out. The land is steeped in history and controversy with conflicts over land and settlement among the whites and Native Americans. I couldn’t even begin to cover the controversy in this space, but that story has been repeated and relived in countless places across the continent, and in many ways that controversy and conflict continues. Custer himself is controversial, and yet there’s a state park and nearby town named after him, a storied landscape indeed. Among the pile of books by my bed, I plan to read Crazy Horse and Custer by Stephen Ambrose, about the epic battle at Little Bighorn in Montana Territory in 1876 to get to another part of the story. It’s another tale and another chapter in our history, messy and uncomfortable as it is. Ignoring the gold, I regard the land as beautiful and I can understand everyone’s desire to live in the area. The forests and prairie and rolling hills are striking and the blending of these ecosystems provides for a unique landscape.

The cute couple peers out from the cabin.
The cute couple peers out from the cabin.
Party of one with a big cheesy grin.
Party of one with a big cheesy grin.

On the drive to see the hills (or mountains, depending upon your perspective), we could hardly see across the way due to the fog.  We drove along Needles Highway to see the “Granite Peaks,” stopping at several scenic overlooks to take pictures and to get a better view. We even got to walk through (and later drive through) this little tunnel that was barely wider than Kevin’s pickup.

Tunnel vision.
Tunnel vision.

Driving through Custer State Park is to meander with mesmerizing views at almost every point. All the roads within the park, including Needles Highway and the Peter Norbeck Scenic Highway, were planned, surveyed, and marked on foot and horseback by the South Dakota governor Peter Norbeck. After a few pictures, we had a standing up roadside picnic of croissants, cheese sticks, sliced salami, carrot sticks, and oranges, stashing extra cheese sticks and oranges in pockets for the hike. We decided to go for the short-but-strenuous (according to the trailhead map) hike to “Little Devil’s Tower” stopping to view the romantically-but-aptly-named “Cathedral Spires.” The hike was winding and winding, both a twisty trail and hard on the lungs. We encountered a few people, but considering it was Memorial Day weekend and the fact that we were just a few miles from the much visited Mt. Rushmore, the trail and roads were refreshingly free from big crowds. We stopped and looked and snapped pictures along the way. We weren’t going for a speed hike, just a time to enjoy scenery and the companionship of far away friends. Towards the end of the hike up, I got dizzy and a bit scared of heights (Yes, I live in Colorado. Yes, you can laugh at me.), more afraid of coming down than climbing, so I lurked while Sam and Kevin climbed a bit higher. Here are a few pictures; in addition to the grand vistas are the little views of lichen.

The beautiful Cathedral Spires.
The beautiful Cathedral Spires.
Inspired by the beauty of the Spires.
Inspired by the beauty of the Spires.
The view continues.
The view continues.
Likin' the lichen.
Likin’ the lichen.


We weren’t too far from South Dakota’s highest point, Harney Peak (7,242 feet in elevation) which is in the Black Elk wilderness and is mentioned in the book Black Elk Speaks. Sam and Kevin are planning a return camping trip for next year’s Memorial Day weekend and I hope to join them. I would love to come back and hike in the area and pay tribute to Harney Peak, known as a sacred spot to the Lakota. The goal to be in better shape and get over my inconsistent sporadic height fears goes without saying. What goes up must come down, so we made the climb down in quick time. After some gulps of water, we drove into town to replenish the camp wine before heading back to camp for dinner and fire and leisure. On the way out of the park, going into town, we spotted some of the herd of bison that live in Custer State Park.

Bison kicking up a cloud of dust.
Bison kicking up a cloud of dust.

Back at camp, we decided on last-night-at-camp-casserole, with a little bit everything thrown into Sam’s cast iron Dutch oven. Under Sam’s leadership, random ingredients of eggs, chopped vegetables, salsa, chopped up cheese sticks, and bits of steak and hot dogs, turned into warm sustenance on the last night. First, though, we had early evening weather patterns to experience. On that day, the weather changed very quickly from a misty morning to a sunny clear midday to a thunder and hailstorm early evening. We huddled in our rain gear under Sam and Kevin’s pop-up tent, that they had placed over the picnic table at the beginning of the weekend to create a little outdoor kitchen, and watched the rain and hail. We counted the time between thunder and lightning, but soon there was no pause. We were right in the midst of the storm, but considering the tornadoes in other parts of the country we came out unscathed, just a bit wet. In classic 21st century fashion, my three camping friends were checking their smart phones to see the progress of the storm. I silently giggled and went back to watching the rain and lightning and hail. It was a long storm, but the fire kept going and we prepared dinner and cooked in the middle of the rain. Our evening companion precipitation left at the time we were ready to eat Sam’s lovely concoction, so there was plenty of warmth and wine to share around the fire. We settled in for another evening of mesmerizing flames and quiet camp companionship. We made plans for an early breakfast, clean up, and quick camp pack and exit, as we all had long drives ahead of us.

A second night’s sleep proved just as rejuvenating as the previous. I woke quickly to pack and take down my wet tent and drape it strategically around my backseat to let it dry. One of the many pleasures of tent-car camping in a state park is having a shower at the end of the trip. I was happy to wash splashes of mud off my legs and to enjoy a full cleaning. Our tent town and camp sites were quickly picked up, the remnants packed into cars. After coffee and a quick breakfast, we said goodbye and each went our own ways. We did make plans to share pictures and I hope to join Sam and Kevin at the same spot next year for more hiking and checking out some other sights. Sam and Kevin left quickly so Kevin could make a work appointment while Ken needed to speed back to Colorado since he had a six o’clock flight out of Denver the next day. I traveled at a more leisurely pace when my plans to see another friend on the way home were postponed. I decided to take advantage of proximity and check out Wind Cave National Park and Jewel Cave National Monument.

After gassing up in the town of Custer, I turned south and headed to Wind Cave. It became only the eighth national park in 1903 during Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency. After a quick look around the visitor’s center, I paid for a spot on the Natural Entrance Cave Tour. The National Park Service offers a variety of tours and hikes at the park, and I was excited to get a chance to walk around in the cave and learn more. Since I had almost an hour, I availed myself of the facilities, bought a couple of postcards, and meandered through the exhibits of the history and geology of the park. While long considered sacred by Native Americans, two brothers Jesse and Tom Bingham heard a whistling noise in 1881 and stumbled upon the cave, hence its name. The whistling comes from barometric winds as the air pressure regulates itself in and around the cave’s entrance. During the tour, we walked along a paved path near the natural entrance and then got the chance to explore a small section of the cave with the help of a knowledgeable and funny park ranger. We were able to take pictures and check out the unique formations in the cave known as boxwork, named so because it looks like boxes.

Unique formations in Wind Cave, known as boxwork.
Unique formations in Wind Cave, known as boxwork.

The cave is approximately 320 million years old and has more than 100 miles of known passages, of which we explored half a mile. According to the park brochure, the cave temperature is always 53°F. For me, that seems like a Goldilocks-perfect “just right” temperature. I chatted with an elderly man touring the area with his wife and daughter and then bid adieu and headed west for Jewel Cave.

I seemed to be hitting the caves at just the right time, with an hour or so to spare and wait for the “Scenic Tour.” That gave me time to check out the exhibits of the visitor center, buy a couple more postcards, and take a little one-mile hike outside before heading into the depths of the cave. People theorize that with caves as large as Jewel and Wind so close to each other they must be connected. So far there hasn’t been any connection found, but it’s a neat idea. This tour, like the tour of Wind Cave had room for about 20-30 people led by another smart and funny park ranger. This time the cave seemed, well, more cavernous, with a much larger entrance and height of the “rooms” we visited. Jewel Cave had lots of interesting formations, a few which I tried to capture with my camera along the 723-step tour.Much of the tour is along metal stair and scaffolding with the mysteries of the cave highlighted by strategically placed LED lights, marking just a small bit of the more than 166 miles of known ways in Jewel Cave. In both cave tours, there’s a point where the ranger turned out all the lights and you realize how little of our lives are spent in complete darkness. With a little more bravery, I might be interested in checking out one of the more rugged tours, where you have to crawl and scramble through, much more like a mini-spelunking tour. We’ll see if I have enough spunk to spelunk in the future. Meanwhile, here are some of the jewels of Jewel Cave.

Descending into the depths of Jewel Cave.
Ascending to Descend into the depths of Jewel Cave.
Cave popcorn, but no eating aloud.
Cave popcorn, but no eating aloud.
Other-worldly cave formations.
Other-worldly cave formations.

Both Wind Cave and Jewel Cave were equally amazing and astounding, but I was trying to figure out why one was a national monument, while the other national park. I have always considered myself a National Park Service aficionado, or at least an avid fan. I have many friends who are or were park rangers and it’s one of my own unrealized dreams. Before I could go home to look it up, someone asked the ranger (Why didn’t that occur to me?) about the difference. Basically, there is no designation based upon majesty or magnificence. To be declared a national park, it must be passed by Congress before being signed into law by the President. The Antiquities Act allows a President to declare a national monument with no Congressional approval required. That little piece of knowledge is now tucked into my brain, and the trivia of the Antiquities Act is something I studied quite a bit in college.

After I emerged into sunlight, following a zippy elevator ride, it was time to turn the car west and then south to head home. Some people hate car rides and as a child, I didn’t like them either. Now, I love the time in the car on solitary highways listening to whir of the tires on the road. Sometimes I listen to country music on the radio, sometimes to news on the radio, sometimes to favorite CDs, sometimes I talk to myself and enjoy the time for thinking aloud. Often, though, I enjoy the quiet and the feeling of being the only car on the road. I wound my way through the quiet prairies of Wyoming, watching the waves of grasses in the wind. I was driving home, but I already felt at home with myself, knowing my friendship with Sam was replenished and refreshed.

What friendships and adventures will leave you replenished and refreshed?

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