Come Back Soon and Often: Devil’s Tower, The Badlands and Sioux Falls

From Gillette, WY, I hit the road for the strange geological feature known as Devil’s Tower. It’s been a gathering place for centuries, and the Native Americans in the area called it the Bear’s Lodge. I think I remember reading that there was some kind of mis-transcription in the white man’s map because it was not really intended to be called the Devil’s Tower. Certainly there were no demonic references to the tower in Native American lore.

One native myth about how the tower came to be says that seven sisters and their brother were one day playing. The brother was suddenly struck with a madness and he became a great bear who attacked his sisters. The girls were terrified and begged the gods to save them. Suddenly the earth herself rose up and lifted the girls toward the sky and away from their brother the bear. The bear clawed the column of earth as it rose, trying to get to his prey, leaving great grooves in the column. The earth rose until the girls were in the safety of heaven itself, where they became the seven stars of the big dipper. The column has been called the bear’s lodge since.

Whatever you call it, Devil’s Tower is pretty remarkable. It sort of rises up over the land unexpectedly and it’s very distinctive. It’s also a rock climber’s mecca. I saw many people climbing the tower, and near the end of my visit, a woman had made the summit and was standing near the edge. The man next to me said “I don’t know about you, but I think the view down here is just fine.” Me too, buddy! On the way out of the park were many prairie dogs in and out of their little dens. They were really cute. There lots of signs warning people about the diseases they carry and about how you should not feed them, just in case their cuteness was about to overcome your common sense (I could see that happening a lot). Fortunately I was on a schedule, so I left the prairie dogs to fend for themselves. On to the Badlands!

Driving on for a few hours, and crossing into South Dakota, I finally got to the town of Wall, home of the much-advertised Wall Drug. Similar to Little America, Wall Drug advertises itself via billboard from at least 60 miles away. I am told that there are signs for it in Pennsylvania. Regardless of the ads, my friend asked me for a bumper sticker, so I had to stop. The light outside was golden, but I spent the extra ten minutes to get an assortment of stickers and some postcards. I raced back to the car and headed for the Badlands, just a few minutes’ drive away. I went to the ranger’s gate to find out that I happened to be traveling during National Parks week, when all the parks are free. Nice.

I spent the next hour and a half scoping out the Badlands. It’s a very dry, strangely formed canyon land. According to the markers, to be a “badland”, you need a dry climate, sedimentary rocks, canyons and pinnacles. Well, that’s certainly what they have. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid escaped justice here, along with other outlaws, and after seeing it for myself, I can see how easy it would be to hide here. Good luck getting back to your hiding place or getting very far out of it once you get in there, but the initial hiding would be pretty easy. It’s a maze in there and even the marked hiking trails don’t always help. It is disorienting, and dehydrating too. I was glad to have my car and to be able to drive through it, stopping at my leisure to photograph and then keep going, though I did do a little walking around too. I came back through the Badlands again a couple of days later, on my way back west, so the photographs below include the second trip. It’s nice to be able to scout a location as complex and large as this one.

After a breathtaking, beautiful sunset in the Badlands, I headed further east and crossed the Missouri River. A few hundred miles later, I was in my most eastward destination: Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Sioux Falls, as it turns out, is a small but truly pleasant city in the eastern part of the state. I say small, but it’s the largest city in South Dakota, with a population of around 153,000 as of the 2010 census. They have a nice downtown, lots of friendly people, a good diner with delicious ham and waffles, and the Falls of the Big Sioux River. South Dakota has some interesting laws with respect to banking and holding companies, and I remember that many financial holding companies are based here. It used to be you had to go to the Federal Reserve Bank to get a record of who was an owner of a given South Dakota holding company, and that was about all you could get. This kind of privacy translates into hearing a lot of banking chatter if you’re eating in the diner at lunchtime. Speaking of the diner, while I was there, my parking meter time expired. I was about eight minutes late in feeding it, since I’d run out of coins, and when I got to my car, there was a ticket on the windshield. But, inside the ticket, was a note telling me that it was a courtesy notice and there was no fine! It said “Since you are a visitor to our city, we will overlook the violation for one hour. We call it to your attention in the interest of public relations. Come back to Sioux Falls soon and often.” This is my kind of town. I went to the Big Sioux River falls in the afternoon and while I was there, a freight train went over the trestle bridge that spans the water. The bridge is old, and it’s built so that you can stand under it on the pedestrian walkway and experience a freight train moving about 15 feet over your head. I did. It was something else! I also went to the old courthouse museum and walked around town, reading the historical markers.

I had a lovely dinner with my friend Angie and her husband, and then had to say goodbye to the fine town of Sioux Falls. I managed to fit in one more waffle and then I headed west again, only to find myself pulled over by the side of the road. Unfortunately, the speeding ticket I got on the Interstate was *not* a courtesy ticket. Sigh. Compared to a ticket in California, at least this one was inexpensive. By the time I’d gotten back over the Missouri River, I’d managed to relax and get ready for another sunset in the Badlands. Assuming you’ve got a compass and enough provisions, it is the sort of place that can make you forget all your cares.

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