"They can fly rings around the Moon, but we are light years ahead of them on the highway!" - Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (1977)
After our previous day at Little Bighorn, we had driven back through Sheridan, Wyoming in search of camping (keen readers take note...we had come full circle), but darkness falls quick in the mountains after sunset, and we had once again let time get away from us. So we drove back into town where we had phone service, and I pulled up my Hotels-dot-com app to look for a vacancy. I was pleasantly surprised to see that I had a free night's stay coming. So we booked a room near Gillette, one hour away, and close to the next day's destination, Devils Tower National Monument.
Devils Tower was the first United States National Monument, established by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906. It sits in the Black Hills region of eastern Wyoming, near the border with South Dakota. Any trip to the Badlands or Mount Rushmore area should include some time at the Bear's Lodge (as it is known to Native American tribes in the region). Made even more famous by the Steven Spielberg film Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (still screened nightly at the Devils Tower KOA campground), the tourism industry here has maintained a steady uptick for the last 40 years. We had visited DTNM twice before, and both times we had taken the shorter paved walkway that circles the base of the monolith, about a mile and a half in distance and a relatively easy walk. On this our third visit, our third encounter so to speak, we decided to take the three-mile Red Beds Trail, which roughly follows the perimeter of the park site through varied terrain, descending to a canyon of red bedrock (hence the trail name) before the steady ascent back to the tower. It was fairly strenuous hike on a 90 degree day (we ran through all the water in our camelbacks as well as the extra two bottles we carried), but we were rewarded for our efforts with stunning views of the Belle Fourche River flowing through the valley below us and the tower's ever changing profile above.
After our hike we drove a scenic backroad into South Dakota. We stopped at an abandoned coal mine near the state line for some photos, and attempted to visit the Old West town of Deadwood, but there is only one road in and out of town and there was a parade going on which was forcing three-hour delays. So we turned around, returned to Interstate 90, and drove on to Hill City, SD where we were lucky enough to snag the very last room at the Super 8 Motel there. After checking in and enjoying a soak in the hot tub, we drove the 12 miles to Mount Rushmore National Monument. Travel tip: go to Mount Rushmore at night. It's open until 11:00 PM, and you can even get your NPS passport stamp in the visitor center until 10:00 PM. There wasn't anyone collecting the $11 parking fee (which is good for the calendar year so it's actually a good deal), so we skated on that. And best of all, we practically had the place to ourselves. There were just a few other people there, and they were being quiet and respectful. My previous visits to Mount Rushmore were always during the day, but seeing it lit up at night was truly awe-inspiring.
The next day we visited nearby Jewel Cave National Monument and Wind Cave National Park for stamp cancellations. We were over an hour early for the next tour of Jewel Cave, which is the longest cave system in the United States and one of the longest on Earth. Unfortunately for us, it is a two-hour walk through and we didn't have three hours to spare. A cave tour would have to wait for a future visit. At Wind Cave there weren't any tours operating because the elevator was on the fritz.
We looked at our trusty Rand McNally Road Atlas and saw there was a dirt road which led from the Wind Cave area into Badlands National Park, our next destination. As big fans of the backroads, this was a no-brainer of a route. The initial part of the road was through ranching and farming areas, but about thirty miles into the drive we came to the town of Buffalo Gap. It was a decent size little village with not one, but two bars. One was called The Water Hole, and it was in a large log cabin style trading post building. There was a dry-erase sandwich board in front that advertised $1.50 hot dogs. A large banner informed us of "Live Music Every Friday Night", and another welcomed bikers (the world famous Sturgis Motorcycle Rally had just ended the previous weekend). The other drinking establishment in the tiny hamlet was in a steel building literally on the edge of town, with a hand-written sign in the window that said "Last Chance Saloon". Thinking a couple hot dogs and a beer sounded good, we returned to The Water Hole. There were a few other cars in the small parking lot, and the place looked open, so we stepped inside.
The scene that greeted us was like a verse from the Charlie Daniels Band song "Uneasy Rider". Most of the lights in the place were turned off, and there was no one working behind the bar. At a table sat three men and two women, all with open beers in front of them. One man resembled Uncle Si from Duck Dynasty, the other two looked like Larry The Cable Guy's more fit brothers. Dead silence filled the air as they just stared at us.
"Um," I spoke up, "That hot dog special looked pretty good."
Uncle Si said, "Well, I don't have any made up, but if you want to wait I can see if I can fix you one." He stood up, looked through a doorway behind him that was blocked by stacked chairs and boxes and said "No, can't get to 'em". Then he sat back down. More silence and more stares...
After a few seconds that seemed like minutes I managed to spit out some more words. "Well, looked like a cool place you have here so we thought we would stop in and check it out. Have a good day."
We took a quick look around at the stage with amps, drums, and guitars already set up (this could have been the band hanging out before their Friday night gig I reasoned), and then beat a path back to the door and moseyed on out of Buffalo Gap. I had flashes of horror movies that started like this.
After that strange interaction, the remainder of the drive East was gorgeous as we approached the strange hoodoos and bluffs of The Badlands. We were visiting The Stronghold Unit, which is a largely undeveloped area of the park that sits on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. We stopped and got our stamp at the White River Visitor Center, then drove a seven-mile gravel road to the top of Sheep Mountain Table, a large plateau that dominates that part of the park. We were greeted with stunning panoramic views of the surrounding wilderness.
It was getting late into the day and we still were trying to at least make it back to the Central Time Zone before we bedded down (saving ourselves an hour of clock time the next day), so we continued South through Pine Ridge before stopping at the Wounded Knee Massacre site, where shortly following the Battle of Little Bighorn, Sioux chief Bigfoot and 200 others...mostly women and children, were gunned down by the U.S. 7th Cavalry and buried in a mass grave. While I was reading the historical marker, a Sioux Indian man pulled up in his pickup truck.
"Is it oldies day out?" he said with a grin.
The guy looked older than me, so I wasn't exactly sure about his angle, but I knew what he was stopping for...
"You guys like arts and crafts?" He looked at Heather and added, "Are you Native? You look like an Indian." Heather, being quick on her toes replied "I don't know." She wasn't lying. She is adopted and honestly doesn't know her exact heritage.
After a little more chit chat, he pulled out his tub of wares. All of the necklaces he was selling were more than I had cash on hand to buy, but he had a couple of small dragonflies woven from Prairie Sweetgrass that he only wanted $5 for both of them. He gave us his pitch, "These ward off negativity. Put them on a string and wear them around your neck". They were neat little souvenirs, so I bought them from him and we drove on into Nebraska to find a campground for the night.
With one day left in our trip, we were leaving the splendor of the Rocky Mountain region behind us...until next year