Wall Drug and the Badlands

Another early start. Up at four and on the road by five. By sunrise we’d traversed a few rolling hills, then more flatness. The rising sun at my back forced me to redirect my mirrors so I wasn’t blinded by the reflection. Barley napped on his memory foam mattress,  recognizing an indecent hour when he saw one.

Did I mention the Great Flatness?
We don’t have horizons in Vermont!

By mid-morning I could see the dark shape of the Black Hills in the distance. As a Vermonter I’m fascinated by distant horizons. Back home we see only one valley at a time; the horizon is the forested hillside a few miles in front of us. But out here the views were endless!

We reach the Badlands!

Noon arrived in the form of persistent showers as we reached the entrance to Badlands National Park. I sprang for a National Park Service Annual Pass as the plan was to visit enough of them to warrant the sticker price. We’re in, and instantly surrounded by a surreal landscape, a tortured place of wild colors and shapes! I pulled into the first parking area we came to and dismounted, attending to the needs of dog, bike, and self – in that order. Barley sniffed the air, catching the scent of junk food coming from a nearby car. “Kiri!” I tell him. “To me!” He trotted to my side and sat on my foot, looking up at me expectantly. I grabbed his pack and together we headed for a group of tourists expressing wonder at something just over a nearby hump of Technicolor.

The footing was slick, very slick, and I kept Barley on a tight lead as we clambered up next to the others. We were standing on the edge of a vertical drop of perhaps two hundred feet; below us the ground twisted and turned like a head of brain coral, the colors muted by the overcast but still remarkable. “Jeezum Crow!” I muttered, an expression any New Englander can relate to.

Happily oblivious of the scenery around him
Barley was singularly unimpressed

Barley was utterly unimpressed. He sniffed the air, and picking up the faint scent of rodent turned back to follow it through the thick grass. I redirected him to the parking lot where I spent twenty minutes trying to get the mud off my boots. The showers had moistened the ground, transforming it into the greasiest, slimiest, most clinging slop I’d ever encountered! It adhered to the soles of my boots three inches thick. The sensation was of walking with raw liver strapped to your feet, but raw liver that sticks like freshly discarded chewing gum! All around us tourists were struggling to free themselves of the stuff lest they bring it into the cars and RVs; most of them gave up and either removed their footware or tied plastic shopping bags over them.

Miles and miles of slick goo

We took the loop road, stopping now and then for photos. I tried to keep the lens of the helmetcam dry, but it was a losing battle. I spotted a sign pointing to a large colony of prairie dogs and decided it would be a nice spot to get some closeups with the big Nikon. Barley wouldn’t hear of it! Prairie dogs are rodents, and in his opinion rodents are good only for one thing.

“Death to you!” he raged as we pulled up, the mere sight of them causing him to hurl canine epithets at the entire colony. “Death to you and your relatives! Death to all of you!” My mild-mannered golden retriever had turned into Cujo…

I have often preached that if you travel with a dog, that dog should be well trained. And that even the best trained dog may hold a surprise or two, so one should always be prepared to leave, to spare the public the spectacle of a misbehaving dog. Well, Barley is exceptionally well trained, but he definitely surprised me that day. The fact that the prairie dogs were insulting him in turn didn’t help, but the bottom line was that Barley lost his focus.

I put him back in the sidecar and left the area.

There was a little town by the name of Scenic, South Dakota, accessible by a dirt road. Now I knew from reading ride reports that there was nothing particularly scenic about Scenic, but as an adventure rider the thought of twenty miles of dirt road leading nowhere held a certain amount of appeal. So we headed that way. After a few miles we crossed a cattle grating, a sure sign of free range animals. There was also a sign warning people to not approach the bison.

Barley chose this bull, the biggest one on the planet, to insult with his snarls and canine epithets till the beast charged us.
Size didn’t matter. Barley wanted a piece of that bull!

Barley saw the bull before I did, or rather he recognized it as something other than a large bush before I did. I heard his growl, a deep, fierce, primal thing coming up from his broad chest. So did the bull. As he turned his attention to us Barley erupted into his Cujo imitation once more, hurling every threat and curse in his vocabulary at the remarkably large creature. I believe he even insulted its mother.

Because that’s when the bison charged!

There is something truly magnificent about a creature the size of Volkswagen minibus coming your way with bad intent. I had always imagined them about the size of a dairy cow, but this thing was so much bigger than even the largest steer at the county fair that I couldn’t imagine anything short of a Abrams tank standing up to it! I hurriedly stuffed the camera back into my tankbag and put the sidecar in a sliding 180, retreating back the way we came as fast as possible. Barley leaned out the side of his ride, continuing to tell the bull exactly what he’d do if he ever got a chance.

More guts than brains, my loyal dog!

At any rate, those two back-to-back episodes forced me to reconsider our plans for the night. The plan had been to continue south to the Wildlife Loop and pitch our tent at one of the campgrounds in the area. But the road, and the campground, were frequently visited by deer, bison, and bears. Not a good idea! So we did one more pass through the Badlands hoping the showers would stop (they didn’t), pausing for photos at some scenic overlooks while tourists turned their cameras on my dog instead of the landscape, then headed to the nearby town of Wall, South Dakota in search of a room with no wild animals to worry about.

Fans, both human and canine, pulled over to take photos of Barley
The Pupparazzi

Wall Drug was pretty much the only game in town. I’d seen their billboards for at least two hundred miles. So after finding a room and schlepping all our gear inside, Barley and I walked the few blocks over to see what it was all about.

It was an utter dud.

To be fair, one of the fundamental truths I’ve discovered about myself is that I’m not a huge fan of crowds or tourist traps. Wall Drug turned out to be a very crowded tourist trap. Imagine a hodge-podge collection of every conceivable bit of junk under one roof, and you pretty much have it. So we headed back to the hotel where I groomed Barley and checked him for parasites, then uploaded photos, checked my maps, and went to bed.