Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Nook on the Road: South Dakota

We made it into South Dakota pretty darned late, crossing the state line probably around 11-ish PM. We were trying to make it to Custer so that we could take the earliest tour of Jewel Cave at 9:20 a.m. the next morning and thus get a bit of a head start on our day instead of staying in Wyoming and having to drive a couple of hours and taking the 10 or 11 o'clock tour. It took us forever to get from the border to Custer because there were deer on the road EVERY. SINGLE. MILE. We probably saw at least thirty deer on or near the road in Wyoming and SD that night. A bunch of them were bucks, most had huge racks, and one of them was a 12 or 14 pointer. Seriously. Where are the hunters!?? Are people in WY and SD a bunch of vegetarians or something? Sheesh! Anyway, we had to go 30 mph the entire way but we did finally make it to Custer.

In the interest of full disclosure, I must sorrily report that we did not stay at a Best Western.

We stayed at a Comfort Inn.

Extra special queen-suite half-sized bed pillows, new from the Comfort Inn! Baby C sold seperately.
The horror, I know. Well, we didn't intend to stay at a Comfort Inn. We had booked a reservation at the BW there in Custer but apparently they were closing for the season the very next day and actually didn't have a room for us after all, so the clerk at the BW called and said that she had transferred our reservation to the Comfort Inn across the street and upgraded us to a queen suite for the same price, and that we should still get our BW rewards points. Small comfort! Pun only mildly intended! The only difference between CI's "queen suite" and BW's normal rooms seems to be the inclusion of a desk and a dated loveseat. I was somewhat distressed by the CI's bed pillows, which are fully half the size of normal bed pillows. Half! What gives, "Comfort" Inn? Goodness. The kid at the front desk was at least pleasant and gave me free laundry detergent, though I had to pull him away from watching a program about UFOs on the TV in the breakfast room. It was one o'clock in the morning, though, so I cut him some slack. I'd be watching a program about UFOs at 1 a.m. in the off-season in Custer SD if I were him, too

Happily, our rough start in South Dakota redeemed itself the next day. We were awoken at an early but reasonable hour by a strange, blow-torchy kind of sound, and opened the curtains on an amazing sight:

Right there! Outside of our hotel room window on the first floor! By the time I grabbed my phone and took a picture it had risen a considerable distance; when we first saw it, it was literally yards from the window. It must have taken off from the field right next to the hotel. Anyway, as I blearily blinked at the majestic globe rising magically, I knew that it was a sign that the day was going to be awesome. Like, how could you wake up to a hot air balloon outside your window and not have a wonderful morning?? That would be like waking up to a chorus of leprechauns dancing on a rainbow for you and then being grumpy. Not possible.

At first, Baby C was skeptical about my theory that early morning hot air balloon sightings automatically create perfect days, but eventually she saw came around.

And - spoiler alert - I was proven right. Our day was magnificent. Sorry if I ruined the end of the blog post for you. But you were going to find out anyway, right? Right.

First of all, our bikes were still there in the morning. Not stolen yet! Hooray! Glad to know that the bike thieves are still off starring in their spy movies somewhere and not prowling around rural South Dakota. Whew.

After a quick breakfast we headed to Jewel Cave. Which was AMAAAAZING. So amazing. Oh my goodness. You guys, you have no idea how spectacular this cave was. Have you ever been in a real cave before? I had not. And my life was incomplete, until now. Jewel Cave got its name when some miners discovered it way back when - 19th century, I'm pretty sure - and saw that it was filled with "jewels"; they turned out to just be calcite formations, which are worthless, and the cave was forgotten about until good ol' Teddy Roosevelt declared it a National Monument just in case when he was running around the West declaring National Monuments all over the place, and then it hung around still forgotten about until the National Parks Service was created and took over. It was thought to be a tiny, uninteresting (albeit pretty) little cave until some cartographers discovered an opening in the back and decided to investigate. Turns out that Jewel Cave is, as of 2012, the second largest cave system in the entire world, just after Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, with over 157 miles of mapped cave passages. Scientists have estimated that only 5% of the cave's air volume has been discovered. That could mean that there are a couple of huge rooms undiscovered, or katrillions of tiny little cracks and crevices filled with air, but still. 5%. There is definitely more of Jewel Cave left to be discovered, which is the coolest thing ever. I'm kind of obsessed with it now, and with caves in general.

If you've never been in a cave, please go find the nearest one and enter it. Immediately. Your life will be immeasurably improved. I won't even be mad if you stop reading my blog. Just go do it. Now.

Ranger Lydia preparing us to enter the elevators

Todd and Max excited to go hiking below the surface of the earth! Well, Todd is excited, anyway...

After we assembled for our tour and met Lydia, our park ranger guide, we were taken by elevator down about 27 stories into the earth, released into a giant gallery of a cave room, and then led on an hour-and-a-half-long hike through the crystal-strewn bowels of the earth.

I felt like I was a character in Journey to the Center of the Earth (the Wishbone version, of course). The rock formations were unlike anything I've ever seen before; something from another world entirely different from mine. Lydia described how the entire cave had once been under water and how many of the boulders and limestone crusts that had fallen from one place to another had done so when the water receded and the rock couldn't support itself anymore. I imagined what it must have been like - complete, utter darkness, cool water, an echoing, mighty crash and splash as boulders fell, with no living creature around to hear it, with no human having any idea of what was going on below, if humans even existed then. A sudden and intense interest in caves has sparked within me, and has yet to leave, and will probably be present for a very long time to come. It was astonishing to see all that lay deep below the highways and building and feet up above. Lydia told us how on a few occasions she had been the first person to step into new rooms discovered in the cave system, and spoke of how amazing, eerie, and humbling it was to set foot in those areas and raise a flashlight - to be the first human being in the history of mankind to be standing there, to shine her light on the crystals and let them glitter for the very first time.

At the deepest point on the tour, we were almost 400 feet below the surface of the earth - something like 34 stories, if I remember right. At one point, Lydia turned out the lights so we could experience what absolute darkness feels like. It was crazy. You can't see anything, even your hand in front of your face. My eyes kept trying to adjust and I saw phantom shapes and fuzzy lights as they tried unsuccessfully to see in conditions they weren't made for. What an experience. Someday I want to return to Jewel Cave and take more tours; they have a lantern tour in which you get to enter the cave from the original entrance and explore as the earliest explorers did. They also have a spelunking tour in which you get to do some serious cave exploration. Both would be awesome. I'm also determined to visit more of the caves out there in the world.

Besides, some of the rock formations look like dinosaurs. Anything having anything even remotely to do with dinosaurs is obviously awesome in every way.

Do you see the dinosaur?? By the way, the piece that has fallen from where his "mouth" is is an example of a piece that broke off when the water drained away.
When we first left Jewel Cave I was pretty sure that life outside of a cave was not worth living and we might as well just give up and stop our travels right here, but luckily I have a sensible husband who convinced me to carry on, heading northeast and through the Black Hills toward Mount Rushmore.

Heads in the distance!
To get to Mount Rushmore, you drive up on top of a mountain. It's not a particularly big or scary mountain - I've certainly been on bigger - but it's definitely a ways up, on a road that twists and winds its way a bit steeply through pretty gold-tinged forest. When you finally reach the top, the vista is really quite incredible - you can see where the Black Hills flatten out into the plains and badlands that make up the rest of the state of South Dakota, and it is truly breathtaking. I was going to take a picture but couldn't get a great angle, so you'll just have to go visit Mount Rushmore and see for yourself. I know, I know, you love my pictures (right? Right!??) but I've got to let you do some imagining on your own. Or Googling, at the very least.

The monument was great. The flag-studded entryway was quite majestic, with lots of granite and official looking engravings and all of the state flags, and I found myself suddenly feeling all patriotic and teary-eyed in a down-home conservative God Bless America sort of way. I couldn't help it. I think even the loads and loads of roaming Korean tourists there were feeling all God-Bless-America-y. It was just in the air and you couldn't help but inhale it, just like Red Sox Mania when you go to Boston.

Photo courtesy of an extremely nice Korean lady who was asking how old Baby C was and raving about her cuteness factor.

Mount Toddmore?
A couple other cool things about our Mt Rushmore experience: 1. There was a pet mountain goat there. He was just roaming around, munching on grass, completely oblivious to the visitors and not enclosed in any way.

2. The CMT show "My Big Redneck Vacation" was filming an episode while we were there! I have never seen the show, but hey, it's TV, so of course that was cool. One of the Clampet girls said "Awww" as she walked past us and pointed at Catherine sleeping in the sling. Woohoo.

After Mount Rushmore, we headed out across South Dakota, aiming for the requisite Wall Drug stop.

We bought our donuts and souvenirs and picked up our free ice water and free bumper sticker and then continued on our way.

This is what most of South Dakota looks like. Spoiler alert #2: It's what most of southern Minnesota looks like, too.
Top: SD sunset. Bottom: Crossing the Missouri River.
We were hoping to make it to Sioux Falls, which is right on the Minnesota border, but we were exhausted and ended up stopping in Mitchell, about three quarters of the way across the state. (BTW, South Dakota is HUGE.) I feel like I am way more jet-lagged driving across the country than I have ever been flying; when you fly, your time change is over all at once and then you can start adjusting to it, but when you drive East, you add an hour every day or two. This is problematic when you are behind on sleep, because you keep arriving at your hotels later and later because of the time difference, and then have to get up earlier and earlier to make it to breakfast on time, and wind up sleeping like five hours a night. I can't seem to get to sleep before 1 a.m. Central time now, but we keep having to wake up at like seven to get everyone ready and get breakfast in time and check out in time and all that. So yeah. We were tired. So we stayed in Mitchell.

Full disclosure #2: We did not stay at a Best Western. And this time, it wasn't even accidental.

We stayed at a Holiday Inn Express because the BW in Mitchell is a motor inn with the outside doors, which I don't love, and the reviews said it was kind of dated. The HIE, on the other hand, was brand new and gorgeous like every other HIE I've ever seen, and had an indoor pool and hot tub. That was the main reason we stayed there: we were tired and sore and wanted to soak in a hot tub, and the Mitchell BW didn't have one or only had an outdoor one or something, so HIE it was. I felt very guilty as we checked in, like I was cheating on my hotel chain. And the room was huge and spotless and comfortable and we had a great time in the pool and hot tub; they even had a kiddie pool with a frog waterslide that Max played on. That being said, the breakfast was not as good as BW breakfasts that I've had. But I don't know. HIE was pretty nice. I would stay there again, definitely. Also, they gave us a 10% off coupon for the grill across the street, where Todd had incredibly delicious fettuccini and I had an incredibly delicious flatiron steak. Win. Oh yeah, and we had beers, of course. I went with the Sam Adams Boston Lager on tap and Todd had some sort of unfiltered wheat beer that was surprisingly low on citrus, high on biscuit, and quite tasty. I hadn't had a good ol' Boston Lager in years and was pleasantly surprised at how solid it is. I shouldn't have been, but it's just so widely distributed that I think of it as a macro-type beer and just assume it's not great. But it's *perfectly* well balanced - just the right touch of malt and hops. Good with steak.

In the morning, our bikes were still with us!! Hooray!

Do you remember Bop? We first met him here. Anyway, in case you've been wondering, Bop is still very much with us. Max still doesn't concern himself with him much, but I'm hoping that if we get Catherine started early that maybe the two will hit it off. I am so, so determined to get my twenty-four dollars' worth out of the darned thing! ...Plus, I really like Bop.

Anyhow, I think the reason that nobody stole our bikes last night is because we had a trained attack dinosaur in the car. Believe me, you do not want to mess with trained attack dinosaurs, people.

We stopped at a grocery store called County Fair which I had never heard of before and which is the 2nd sketchiest grocery store I've ever been in. The actual sketchiest grocery store I've ever been in is Harold's, also known as Dirty Harry's, which no longer exists but which you may remember if you lived in Sandpoint, ID at least ten years ago. But anyway. The County Fair restaurant was being renovated or something, which was fine, except that there was equipment and hanging ceiling tiles and blowtorches and the like ALL OVER THE PLACE, which made it feel like we were in a scary factory or something, not a grocery store. They had weird products for sale like pickled turkey gizzards - not hidden away in a gourmet section or something, but displayed in multiple areas, front and center. And they didn't have Huggies diapers! What kind of grocery store doesn't carry Huggies? It was baffling. They did have Pampers, but only about 4 packs in various sizes, none of which were size 1, which is what we needed. So we were forced to buy some random store brand I'd never heard of. We haven't used the store brand diapers yet, but probably will later today, so we'll see how that goes. Also, they didn't have packages of the fun-size packs of peanut M&Ms! Outrageous! They had fun-size packs of just about every other kind of candy. So, we were forced to buy a party-size resealable bag. Oh well... I suppose there are worse things in life than having a year's supply of peanut M&Ms in one's car.

There comes a point in every road trip when the carefully packed carrots, almonds, and apples seem to mysteriously transform themselves into candy and pringles... funny how that happens...
The only redeeming factor about this grocery store was the fact that they carried Litehouse salad dressing and that the clerks all had adorable midwestern accents.

So yeah, that's South Dakota for you! Things I will definitely do again in my life: Visit South Dakota, explore Jewel Cave. Things I will never do again in my life: go to the County Fair grocery store. Things I haven't done but would like to do in my life: Vacation in SD, play tons of minigolf, see the various little western towns and roadside attractions there, go to the Badlands and drive the entire scenic road, go to Wind Cave, go to Rushmore Cave, and maybe even track down that hot air ballon and take a ride.

Woohoo! On to Minnesota!

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