I just returned from a trip to the Black Hills. And it was fun. FUN.
You may be thinking back to my last post, wondering, “wait, wasn’t she just writing about how sad she was?”
Yes. Yes I was. But that’s okay. Maybe even a good thing. Chuck Swindoll, a a man you should discover if you haven’t already, tweeted last week that sometimes people, and perhaps especially Christians, underestimate the importance of sadness in our lives. He reminded me, “hey, it’s okay to feel sad. It’s okay to talk about it.”
Just like it is okay to talk about having FUN!
Before I start, let me preface this post by saying that the first part may sound tinged by sarcasm. But I’m not being sarcastic. We truly enjoyed the entire trip, even the unexpected parts.
I’ll start by sharing about the novelty of our accommodations. We stayed in three different hotels. Each hotel was a two-story hotel. We stayed on the second floor at each hotel. AND NONE OF THE HOTELS HAD AN ELEVATOR. Up and down, up and down, up and down. I packed everything in a million oversized reusable shopping bags from TJ Maxx, instead of using suitcases like a normal person. That went over like a lead balloon. Make that nine lead balloons.
The trip started on Thursday evening. We stopped for the night in Chamberlain. Our hotel rocked it. It was unlike the hotels I’ve stayed in lately. A sign in the lobby, as I shared on Twitter, requested “Please do not clean fish in rooms.”
And then, our room had a little basket next to the sink holding a tattered washcloth with a wrinkled, reused piece of paper sitting on top that explained ”The Rag” was there for our convenience, to be used to wipe bugs off cars and to shine up dirt-covered boots. Instead of a towel.
Between the fish sign and The Rag I thought, “this hotel has seen some crazy shizzle go down.”
The hotel was lauded online as having a “family friendly pool,” boasting a picture of a raccoon basketball hoop, spa, and sauna. I Googled images of the hotel name and all kinds of photos of frog slides and lots of other pool playthings popped up, although I couldn’t find anything firm on the website stating that yes indeed the pool had such a slide. I bragged up the frog slide and other pool playthings the entire drive from Sioux Falls to Chamberlain, only to find that the pool was just a dinky hotel pool. With a raccoon basketball hoop. My kids gave me a lot of flak over that.
As I reread this, I think “this doesn’t sound like a fun trip.” But it was. Like I said in the preface, I’m not even being sarcastic.
Part of the enjoyment was that I had no expectations. I even said to my eldest at one point, “this trip is going exactly as I planned.” And then I thought for a minute, and added, “because I had no plans for how it was going to go.” Note to self: fewer plans = fewer disappointments = best vacation ever.
Friday morning, we drove from Chamberlain to the Badlands. My middle child loved climbing up and down, testing her agility, and scaring the tar out of ther mother as she balanced precariously on ledges and wriggled between sharp crevaces.
We didn’t stay long at the Badlands. My littlest peanut is only two, and physically she’s just not quite at the Badlands-climbing-phase yet (although she thinks she is). Drama.
Wall Drug was next. Opinion in the car was split, probably much like the opinion of everyone in any car traveling west past Wall on I-90.
Have you visited Wall Drug? What did you think of it?
I’ll tell you straight-up, I love it. I delight in the novelty of the faux storefronts and the wooden overhang jutting out over the sidewalk, providing shade. I like the sound my shoes make on the wooden planks.
I love Wall Drug because it is a real-life stagepiece onto which I can project my fantasies of what life was like before the world got so fancy. Before bottled water. Before insulated thermoses. Back to a day when free ice water was enough to lure weary travelers off the beaten path. An oasis, a diversion, a promise that no matter how tired you are or how long you’ve been riding, “we will take care of you.”
Today the promise is more than that. Today the promise is “We Will Entertain You.”
This seems to be the dominant feature of every sign along Interstate 90 between Murdo and the Black Hills. Billboard after billboard after billboard promises to entertain. It promises to make the past come alive. It promises to take the ordinary and to make it extraordinary.
This is what I love about Wall Drug. It still promises to take care of us, with free ice water and $.05 coffee, but more than that, it is a diversion from the dreariness of hours and hours of endless highway. Yes, it is kitschy, and yes, it is commercialized, but it doesn’t just sell. It transports.
An old newspaper clipping on the wall shares how the founder of Wall Drug, Mr. Hustead, was a pharmacist who started out by offering free ice water to weary travelers at the height (or perhaps nadir is a better word) of the Great Depression.
I love stories like this, and perhaps this is part of the reason I love Wall Drug. I love that the founder of Wall Drug was the kind of guy who made lemonade out of lemons. I think this is a defining feature of the people who settled South Dakota. People who didn’t see a desolate wasteland, but rather, envisioned corn popping up and a white farmhouse and community, or who envisioned cattle grazing the vast expanse of grasslands out west. I love that, after hearing so many stories about people shooting them dang pesky prairie dogs, some South Dakotan right off the Badlands exit had the genius idea to put a fence around a few acres of prairie and to make the prairie dogs into a tourist attraction. “FEED THE PRAIRIE DOGS!” Love it. Love it, love it, love it. This is what makes South Dakota great.
And so I love, too, that the founder of Wall Drug saw the nothingness spanning between Sioux Falls and Rapid City not as a desolate wasteland, but rather as a prime location to take care of and ultimately entertain weary travelers.
Warning: If you are heading west on I-90 to the Black Hills, make sure to eat and to use a restroom at the Wall exit, because there isn’t much west of it for quite a stretch. Just sayin’.
Mt. Rushmore was next. Have I shared with you my love for national parks? Just like Gettysburg, just like Montezuma’s Castle, just like all national parks, Mt. Rushmore is a bastion of quiet stillness.
It was so peaceful that I laid down on the bench in the ampitheater at the base of Mt. Rushmore and was so transported by the peacefulness that I almost fell asleep. Yes, I was the tacky tourist in a sundress laying down taking a nap on a bench. I had a tickle cough and hadn’t slept well for three nights, so please be gentle on me.
Rushmore Cave and its accompanying zipline were next. Do not take a 2-year-old into a Rushmore Cave, or probably any cave, for an extended period of time. Especially if the two year old just pushed a small mint up her nose and it is irretrievably fixed in there. Because she will cry from claustrophobia, she will be unable to understand explanations like “this is a cave and we will be leaving soon,” and she will cry so hard it will melt the mint and it will run out of her nose like white, gooey snot.
The drive from Keystone area to Rushmore Cave is under construction. Three bridges total, I believe. One lane is open across each of these three bridges. There are no instructions on Navigating A Single-Lane Road Over A Bridge, but apparently everyone understands that you stop at the stop sign until the car heading your way has cleared the bridge. And then, by faith, you press the gas and gun it, praying the person heading towards the bridge from the opposite direction sees the stop sign and understands the unwritten rules of Navigating A Single-Lane Road Over A Bridge.
We survived, heading to Hill City to eat at the Alpine Inn. I am indecisive by nature, and thus appreciate a restaurant that offers two, and only two choices. The menu offers you (1) a little steak, or (2) a big steak. With baked potato and side salad. Not optional.
But apparently everyone visiting the Hills is indecisive and appreciates the limited but tasty options at the Alpine Inn. We didn’t feel like waiting for a half hour at 7:30 pm (MOUNTAIN TIME!!). We were starving and still shaking in our boots after Navigating A Single-Lane Road Over A Bridge. And so we found Plan B.
After eating at Plan B, we headed from Hill City to Spearfish. I noticed a few miles after leaving Hill City that the GAS LIGHT was warning us to buy gas. Along with the warning signs posted along Highway 385, warning us to watch for bighorn sheep. Good thing we were on the lookout, because deer meandered across the highway at two separate points on our journey.
The map on our navigation didn’t show much in the way of gas stations between Hill City and Lead. But then.
But then, we stumbled across the highlight of our trip. Right at the intersection of Highway 385 and the road that heads into Nemo is THE BOONDOCKS.
The Boondocks may or may not exist. It was such a magical evening…such a magical moment in the history of our lives…that we recognized even as we drove away that perhaps we will go back to find it someday and like a wrinkle in time or Rip Van Winkle or some other world- or time-altering force, we will find it existed only in our dreams.
The Boondocks sells Premium Gas (94 Octane), which is quite a surprise to find in that neck of the woods when you can’t even find premium gas at the Casey’s in Harrisburg a few miles south of Sioux Falls.
It also sells chocolate ice cream waffle cones. And has a mini golf course. And an old-fashoined drive-in that no longer operates but where three old fashioned cars are parked. It is where a fake Bugati sits poised like a panther ready to pounce. It has to be fake, because I watch Chasing Classic Cars with honey many nights at home, and a real Bugati is like several million dollars. It has campy memorabilia from shows like Happy Days. It probably sells the leg lamp from A Christmas Story, although the building with the memorabilia was closed by the time we pulled up. I swear it is the inspiration for the setting in the movie Cars.
Here are a few photos:
If you have ever visited the Boondocks before, please let me know. We still fear it was a dream.
After Boondocks, our souls were filled with so much wonder and excitement I feared the rest of the trip would fare as well as a wet bottle rocket.
But then we drove through Spearfish Canyon. We headed out of Lead to 14A, which is the Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway. And like the Boondocks, I fear I imagined what I saw.
For those of you who have never taken 14A, I can only explain it like this. Imagine that you are living in a popup book. And 14A is a road on the pages of the book. It winds alongside a stream which at night is visible only as it reflects light from the moon. By day you will find that the stream is so clear that you can see varying calico shades of rocks nestled along the streambed.
Trees and steep canyon walls pop up alongside 14A, towering beside you as you wind your way around the canyon, sometimes gently ascending upward, but mostly just meandering alongside the stream.
In the pitch black of a June South Dakota evening, after living for so long in a city that you forget what it is like to be alone, you will find reassurance in the lights…the glow…of A-frame log homes that dot the base of the canyon, just a few yards off the road.
Here I had written a few paragraphs imagining what life would have been like as a child growing up in Spearfish Canyon. But then I remembered honey annoyed at Tony Soprano on The Sopranos when they had a few episodes that were really just a dream sequence, because NOTHING WAS REALLY HAPPENING, and I decided I didn’t want to annoy you with imaginary stuff.
I have stayed at Spearfish Canyon Lodge once before. I remember limited cell phone reception. And so I was wise enough to take a screenshot of my Google maps directions to the Lodge as we headed out of Lead.
Honey’s phone, for some reason, had good enough reception to verbalize directions to Spearfish Canyon Lodge. We arrived at 10:30 pm, and the lobby was still buzzing. How do old people have so much energy to sit at the bar and go hot tubbing this late at night? I felt like I was living in that car commercial where the older parents are off having fun while the kid sits at home looking at Facebook and worrying about his parents who he believes are asleep in the next room over. THIS is where the parents are, dude in the commercial! They are at Spearfish Canyon Lodge, throwing back high balls or low balls or whatever you call them, and padding down the hallway in a bathrobe headed to the hot tob at 10:30 pm (MOUNTAIN TIME)!!
We dragged our bags up the stairs (yet again), crashed, then awoke a few hours later to brilliantly sunny skies and cool, dry air. Cool, dry air seems to be a trend out here in the Hills, so if I can guarantee anything about a Black Hills vacation, it is that you will have a good hair day every day of the trip. That is enough of a boon to plan a vacation around. You’d get why if you saw pictures of my hair on our vacation to Myrtle Beach.
We checked out the Spearfish Country Club, then made our way to Deadwood. Ahhhh, Deadwood, how I love thee.
Saloon #10 is where I learned to play blackjack. I have only played once, maybe twice. Saloon #10 claims to be the saloon where Wild Bill Hickok was dealt his last hand of poker. Perched in a nook above the door sits the chair where Wild Bill Hickok was shot.
As we walked the sidewalks outside of Salooon #10, a man dressed in full cowboy character, with hair long and straight under his hat, sat Wild Bill Hickok, who yelled out inviting us all to a “Free Show at 1 o’clock. Kids welcome.”
We walked in and out of Saloon #10 about three times before deciding to attend the Free Show. We stayed for only a few minutes. A two-year-old wasn’t into the history lesson, and the older girls’ interest waned after a few minutes.
I did catch this much. Wild Bill Hickok started out as a day laborer. Apparently joined the army alongside Custer and Buffalo Bill Cody.
Hickok searched for a job as a lawman. He found a marshall job in Kansas. He got into an altercation with a local, who he shot dead, and as the dust settled on the local, he saw some movement out of the corner of his eye and shot on instinct. He had shot his deputy.
He didn’t want to be a law man after this. Buffalo Bill invited Hickok to join him as an actor in a traveling show. But Hickok decided life as a showman wasn’t for him. He made his mark as a gunslinger (pun intended) and poker player.
And thus one of the first South Dakota legends was made.
The Hills are filled with legends. The South Dakota license plate features four of them–the four Great Faces–and it tells us that South Dakota is filled with “Great Faces, Great Places.”
The Great Faces. Wild Bill Hickok. And the legends continue today. I’m thinking the late Governor Bill Janklow would have been dressed in spurs and a holster sitting at Saloon #10 back in the day. Can you picture it? The legends do continue.
After the show, we sat and licked yet another chocolate ice cream waffle cone. We sat on a bench, watching tattoos and denim cutoffs and bedazzling walk past us. And I felt at home yet again.
I didn’t realize this all felt like home until the drive home at the gas station off the Murdo exit. The gas station was packed. As I stood in line waiting to pay, I noticed a display of cheap movies. Military movies and westerns.
Some of my favorite movies are military movies and westerns. I think of High Noon, Unforgiven, True Grit, 3:10 to Yuma, Hunt for Red October, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Platoon. I felt at home because this gas station was selling exactly the kind of movies that I like.
It dawned on me that so much of our trip had resonated with me…had FIT my likes…had felt like HOME…the history, the characters, the west.
I enjoyed it so much. We counted it as one of our best vacations, maybe even THE best, even over places like New York City, Philadelphia, Boston, Disney World, Arizona, Paris, Thailand, you name it.
But then I started to overthink it. I started to let my mind get the best of me. I thought back to the tattoos and cutoffs and bedazzling and started to think, “but I don’t fit in with these people.” Because I wear sundresses and high heels.
I remembered what C.S. Lewis wrote in The Screwtape Letters. He warned that one of the greatest tricks the devil ever played on us is to make us feel like we have to be exactly like everyone else. We have to model our tastes and likes and whatever else after what is CONVENTIONAL. What is the crowd doing? Why can’t I be exactly like everyone else?
Sometimes I feel like if I wear sundresses and high heels, I have to vacation in Palm Beach and the Hamptons, when what I really enjoy is sitting on a bench in Deadwood, South Dakota licking a chocolate ice cream waffle cone.
I thought about uniqueness. I wondered why we still talk about Wild Bill Hickok. And I thought it interesting that Wild Bill, reckless former lawman that he was, had enough insight to realize that he didn’t want to be a showman, but rather, wanted to be a carousing, poker-playing villain.
I do not recommend villainry. But I do find it admirable that he followed his heart.
As you drive east of Murdo, towards Chamberlain, you will start to notice a change in billboards. Gone are the Wall Drug signs and the 1880 town invitations, and instead you start to see signs for implement dealers. As you head farther and farther east, you will see the corn grow taller and more sure of itself, filling the fields rather than just patches in the sandier soil that sits farther west.
When you are almost to Sioux Falls, the billboards have changed entirely. It is mostly invitations to hotels and the mall, and a few signs inviting you to join the Mudathlon. The Mudathlon billboard really depressed me for some reason.
I love Sioux Falls and I chose to live there. But I miss the characters out west. In Sioux Falls, we all take nice care of our lawns, a lot of people work out in gyms, we are all ambitious. It is an ascendant city. But it is so much sameness.
Please don’t get lost in this sameness. Even if you care about your lawn and like to work out and if you are ambitious, PLEASE let your light shine. Be a character. Break the mold, and maybe even a few rules along the way.
I think of Jesus. I always come back to him. Have I ever told you that one of the things I love most about Jesus is that he was radical? He was a rebel? I like that about him. He was okay talking rules and totally owning it with the Pharisees, and then he was off talking with a villainous tax collector, then off reassuring a prostitute, then off healing a rich man’s daughter. Jesus pissed off a lot of people because he refused to conform. He refused to conform not because he was bad, but because he was good. Because he recognized that his uniqueness was God-given.
I felt jubilant and reinvigorated after my trip to the Black Hills. Because I recognized that I have a lot in common with a lot of different types of people. I can love sitting on a bench in Deadwood licking a cone even if I’m wearing a sundress and don’t have a tattoo. And then I can come back to my life in Sioux Falls and appreciate the nice lawns and the hardworking and diligent folk who live here. And even if I’m not exactly like any of them, it is only because I am UNIQUE and AWESOMELY made.
I think you are awesome, too. I bet that you kind of fit in a lot of different places, but don’t completely fit in anywhere. Because you are special. Not because you are weird or bad or need to change. If you think that, that is because the devil sees something in you that is awesome and is AFRAID you will use it to glorify God! I really believe this! So don’t listen to that voice! Recognize you uniqueness as a gift and appreciate that you are AWESOME!!
May you have a great July Fourth, celebrating your freedom to be yourself!!
God bless, ME