Mount Rushmore could only be a “postcards” post. Despite the face-numbing temperatures we encountered in the Badlands, it was even colder at our next stop. We couldn’t be outside for longer than a few seconds without the icy air clawing through every layer we had on. Basically, brrrr. I had to take off my gloves to snap photos, so I got about four before I gave up on that completely.
Arctic conditions aside, the fellas still made a pretty impressive sight when we first set eyes on them.
You walk through the Avenue of Flags on your way to the best view, past 56 flags representing every U.S. state and a few odds & ends (territories, districts, etc.). I didn’t know any of this at the time because I was much too cold to stop and read any informational plaques, but I’ve since looked it up for you. No problem.
The flags, very pleasingly, are in alphabetical order!
Though we didn’t learn nearly as much as we would have liked due to our inability to stay outside, we did glean a select few nuggets of information. Most importantly, that the creator of Mount Rushmore was the very talented and unfortunately named Gutzon Borglum. There was a bust of him, and I tried to take a nice photo of it, but it’s all blurry from shivering.
One of the mechanics who worked on Kokapelli had got to chatting with us about our plans for the next few days (we were there for a long time… we made friends). He’d told us that we would be surprised at how small Mount Rushmore seemed in person, but I didn’t really feel that way.
We had the place completely to ourselves, the snow muffled every sound into silence, and there was a spectacular sunset blooming behind the cliff. It cut a pretty grand figure, in my opinion.
Even having seen photos and renderings of this iconic cliff sculpture hundreds of times, Teddy Roosevelt peeking out from between his pals’ shoulders was wildly amusing to us at this moment. Maybe it was the stress of the previous few days, or the literal brain freeze. Either way, it was funny.
“Hey you guys, let me see!”
Maybe one day somebody will give the poor guy a boost.
The Details: $11 per vehicle if you use the parking garage; no fee to enter the memorial | Open year-round | Website HERE
With Mother Nature having thwarted our plan of visiting Badlands the previous day, we tried again the following morning, treating our recently-repaired campervan with extra TLC.
The temperature was hovering right around zero (Fahrenheit… that’s about -18 degrees Celsius) as we set off for the national park, about an hour outside of Rapid City.
I’ve seen lots of photos of the otherworldly landscape of the Badlands in spring or summer, but I wasn’t prepared for what a bizarre and beautiful sight it would be under a blanket of snow!
We inched forward along the snow-covered main road (even ignoring the debacle of the previous day, Kokapelli didn’t handle that well in winter weather), stopping whenever one of the local residents wandered across our path.
The Badlands are known for being home to many different species of prairie-dwelling animals, and since the park was virtually empty on such a frigid day, we were treated to more sightings than usual. Aside from these bighorn sheep, we saw pronghorn antelope (Google them; they’re really cool), a gigantic porcupine snuffling around in the snow, and even a bobcat taking a nap in a sunny spot (Amity’s got those photos on her super-zoom camera, so just trust me when I say that they are adorable).
King of the hill!
Fun fact: in stark contrast to the wildlife that currently inhabits the area, fossils of camels and rhinoceroses have been found in the Badlands! And that’s not to mention the giant sea monsters (mosasaur) that used to swim around the park when it was a prehistoric ocean.
The bighorns were supremely unconcerned about the giant metal animal trundling through their space, so we got a lot of close-up views. We even caught a glimpse of a few sweet little babies!
See that little guy in there?
It was unearthly cold to match the unearthly landscape. I don’t mind the cold as much as most people, I think, but this was a different story. Zero degrees is the kind of cold that hurts. We had brainfreeze just from stepping outside, and sensitive teeth simply from breathing in.
We pulled off into a few lookout points, but it was such a struggle to return the interior of the van to a regular temperature after opening the doors even for a second, that eventually we gave up and decided to enjoy the view through the windshield with the Frozen soundtrack providing some extra appropriate ambiance.
The photo above is one side venture I couldn’t resist, despite the arctic temperatures. I followed the relatively smooth part of the ridges out as far as I could to take in the view from the middle of the canyon. Doesn’t it look volcanic there? The closest thing I’ve seen to this landscape before was during the middle of the Tongariro Crossing in New Zealand – I think I blogged that it looked like Mars or Venus!
This was definitely a top-five national park for me, but I’ll admit that we didn’t linger long. Yesterday’s mechanical troubles were still in my mind, and I was a little bit nervous about stopping too long anywhere for fear of getting stranded in the sub-freezing weather.
Despite the imminent risk of frostbite, I don’t think that the view of the Badlands in the snow could be beat at any other time of year – not to mention that fewer visitors means more animal sightings (napping bobcat, guys!!) – so I think a winter visit is definitely in order as long as you’re relatively confident in your vehicle’s ability to get you back out again.
The Details: $15 entry fee per vehicle | Open year-round with occasional closures due to weather (note: Ben Reifel Visitor Center is open year-round, but White River Visitor Center is summer only) | Website HERE
Remember our disastrous roadtrip to Cornwall which turned out to be a great lesson in the worst misadventures making the best stories? Add this to the ledger of life examples.
When they make a film about our lives someday, this is the part where the narrator will swoop in with a dramatic voiceover and say, “They should have known it was all too good to last.”
Following our relatively brief sweep through Rocky Mountain National Park, we checked another state off the list and spent the night in Cheyenne, Wyoming (just barely inside the southeast corner of the state).
It was actually a surprisingly balmy evening, considering how chilly it had been in RoMo. We sat on the ground in a Walmart parking lot and made tinned spaghetti and meatballs on our little camp stove, then ate it sitting in the open door of our campervan (don’t worry, you’ll get a visual of this bit eventually).
We were feeling pretty good about our roadtripping skillz. (They should have known it was all too good to last!)
We awoke around 7am the next morning to a text from Amity’s mom telling us that we were in the middle of a storm. That can’t be right, we thought. Surely we would be able to tell!
So we pulled back the little curtains from within our cozy campervan nest, and saw this:
And in another ten minutes, it looked like this:
Just a little bit apocalyptic.
We scrambled to get dressed under our blankets, and hustled inside to discreetly brush our teeth in the Walmart restroom (both tasks at which we’d become remarkably adept by this point).
By the time we fired up the defroster, snow flurries were starting to fall. We booked it over to the local Starbucks to use the wifi and plot our course for the day, and after less than an hour inside, we had to shuffle through half an inch of snow on our way back to the van.
We drove from Cheyenne up through the corner of Nebraska to get to Rapid City, South Dakota – a drive that should normally take less than five hours, but took us all day long in conditions that quickly deteriorated into a very windy blizzard (on the upside, there were snowy tumbleweeds!).
We made it to our destination after dark… checked the weather…
… decided that we had finally been beaten by Mother Nature, and booked a hotel. Fortunately, the off-season in cold weather climates means you can get a two-bed hotel room including breakfast for $36 a night – sold!
By the next morning, we were feeling rejuvenated and soooo optimistic (the after-effects of indoor plumbing and cable TV), so despite the fact that the temperature was now hovering between 0-1°F, off we went with a course set for the Badlands and Mount Rushmore.
We thought it best to fuel up first, so we pulled into the last gas station before the highway – and as I mentioned, it all went downhill from there.
We turned off the van, attempted to pump gas with frozen fingers, and realized that YOU CAN’T USE SAM’S CLUB FUEL STATIONS WITHOUT A SAM’S CLUB CARD. UGH.
After that bit of embarrassment, we went to start it back up… nothing. The engine wouldn’t even turn over. To add insult to injury, the woman who’d been pumping gas next to us came over and timidly offered, “Um… a lot of liquid just came out from under your van… I just thought you should know.”
Fortunately, we were saved by a gas station attendant who was appropriately named Lucky (a.k.a. the official angel of South Dakota).
Needless to say, we didn’t make it to Mount Rushmore that day – but to paraphrase Meat Loaf, one out of four ain’t bad, right?
We found ol’ George on a bench outside of the Target where we waited for the tow truck (after calling from Lucky’s office and directing them to the mechanic he recommended).
So that’s how we ended up here:
I wish I could remember the name of the mechanic’s place, because they were equally amazing and helpful. After a brief spell in which the phrase “cracked engine block” was thrown around with alarming nonchalance, they determined that it was simply a faulty starter and a popped coolant hoses – both quick fixes!
With nothing lost except a day of sightseeing, we drove off (sloooowly and gently) in Kokapelli to treat ourselves to what we felt was a much-deserved comfort meal at Firehouse Brewing Co. – the coolest spot we found in RC!
As the name suggests, it’s a brewpub housed in the old city firehouse, still complete with those cool firetruck doors, a fire pole coming straight out of the bar, and walls covered in patches from fire departments across the country.
We went a little overboard after surviving on PB&J sandwiches for a week and ordered about half the menu. A beer float in one of their amazing stouts was the final step in turning our day around from awful to alright.
I honestly can’t give enough credit to Lucky at the gas station, Shawn at the campervan rental company, and the guys at the mechanic. They made a pretty rough situation significantly less nightmarish, and even injected some a few much needed doses of humor into our day.
When Amity and I were in the very beginning of planning our roadtrip, I read what quickly became one of my favorite books: Blue Highways by William Least Heat-Moon.
It was the perfect dose of inspiration for getting out on the road, but it also gave me a bit of melancholy. The memoir describes the author’s own solo roadtrip taken around the back roads of America in the 1970s. Far and away, the best parts of the book are the anecdotes about all the wonderful, interesting, generous people he met and befriended along the way. However, this feels like a mark of a bygone era, and I was sure that we wouldn’t be able to find the same opportunities 35 years later.
At the risk of spreading the cheese on too thick, Rapid City (and Lucky in particular) gave us a Blue Highways story. As much as we loved our little campervan bubble, it was nice – and important, I think – to get to know someone living in the destinations we passed through on our journey. A good roadtrip is made up of people in addition to places.
And the next day, we DID make it to Badlands and Mount Rushmore! More photos and less rambling coming up next time. Promise.
tl;dr – Our van broke down, it got fixed, we drank beer.