A Flower Grows in the Badlands

Day Four 

I-90 Sights and Badlands National Park

Day four was the official kickoff of my westbound solo trip. For the next eight days, there were great faces and great places for me to explore in the great state of South Dakota.

Just before dawn, I left Mitchell and headed back onto I-90 west. For several miles, I owned that side of the road. It was a little surreal not having to share pavement with other drivers, truckers or bikers.

Long, flat fields and billboards stretched along the surrounding countryside. Then standing like a beacon, I saw this large, multicolored statue with open arms perched on top of a hill off the east bound lane of the interstate. My curiosity took over as I exited the road to what the signs said was the  Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center/I-90 Chamberlain information center. About fifteen vehicles filled its parking lot, a few of us came off the interstate together, others seemed  to be overnight guests as they were still a sleep in their cars.

Once parked, I made my way to the the fifty foot statue of a Native American woman  holding a blue and steel colored star quilt. I learned her name was Dignity and she represented the Lakota and Dakota cultures. Standing with the rising sun in the background, I managed to captured her in all her splendid. I then followed a walking trail behind the center to an awesome panoramic view of  the Missouri River, the Chamberlain Bridge and I-90.

Back on the interstate, I crossed the “Mighty Mo” to find hills  tinted with black dirt taking the place of the flat farm land. This landscape tease went back and forth for a while until the flatness won out. But there was not complaints on my end. Because now the grasslands were replaced with  acres and acres of tall, yellow sunflowers for as far as the eye could see.

By this time traffic had become thicker, not allowing me to do a pull over for a quick photo. Cars, trucks and motorcycles had taken over my quiet piece of real estate. Did I mention motorcycles? Single riders, couples and groups of Harleys appeared everywhere in every color and style in both westbound lanes of traffic.  More bikes were strapped down in the beds of supersize pick ups or being towed in  haulers or open trailers . Every now and then a BMW or Indian rider was thrown into the mix of HOG riders. And all of them seemed to take the 80 mph speed limit as a suggestion rather than a requirement.

As I got closer and closer to my first official stop, I found myself in an quandary. Either take the exit and go directly to my stop or do a 20 mile detour. You see I had fallen victim to roadside advertisement. Since Sioux Falls, large billboards shouted out to me the awesomeness of a place called Wall Drug Store.  There were so many signs along I-90, I stopped counting, but not reading. These signs assured me there was  free ice cold water to be had at Wall Drug. Not only that, there was pie, doughnuts, coffee, gold, western clothing and more. They had me at the doughnut sign.

An 80 foot green dinosaur at the top of the exit ramp pointed the way to the water and other goodies. Once I staked my claim in the crowded town center parking lot, I went to see if the store lived up to all those green and yellow billboards’ claims. Lucky for me, the first door I opened led to the doughnuts. With a fresh, chocolate frosted doughnut in one hand and a free ice cold water in the other, I wandered through Wall’s fifty thousand square feet of merchandise filled stores.

A few hours later, I backtracked on I-90 east to my original exit and made my way to  Minuteman Missile National Historic Site. This stop turned out to be a double win. Not only did I get my second parks passport stamp, I also ran into the Vermont couple from my hotel stay in Mitchell. From there, I followed behind a group of HOG riders to enter my first official planned stop in South Dakota, the Badlands National Park.

Along its looped road and many pull offs, I followed wooden boardwalks and climbed up for a close view of the multiple layered beauty of the Badlands. Tufts of grass and random sprinkling of sunflowers spouted up from its dry, chalky floors while gray, tan and white  formations claimed its sharp,  jagged peaks and rounded flat tops. Golden colored prairies and grasslands fill the open space between the formations. After several short hikes, I arrived at my first official reservation.

Every solo trip I plan something outside my comfort zone. This years was tent camping. The last time I had camped was on my first solo trip into the Grand Canyon. But that was with 14 other people. This year it was just me. But I was only brave enough to do front country camping (aka you drive rather than hike to your camp spot). At the Cedar Pass Campground  I found my reserved spot and began setting up camp for the night. While unloading my car, I met a nice lady who worked for the park. She gave me some bits of information about the Badlands and campground. She also shared she was Oglala and lived on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

By now the early start had caught up with me. With the help of a battery operated fan and occasional puffs of wind filtering through my tent, I managed to take a nap.  A few hours later,  I woke up to the sounds of slamming car doors and voices of children as they ran between the tents. My campsite (#36) was  grand central station as it was located directly across from the showers and toilets. To be honest, I was fine with this. Several phone calls later, I was ready for dinner. Not wanting to eat from my stash dry goods (tuna fish, crackers, protein bars and trail mix), I made the easy decision to walked down the road to the small restaurant outside the campground.

Around 9 pm with dinner and a shower behind me, I made my way to the amphitheater for the park ranger talk on star glazing. The only problem was dark, heavy clouds covered the night time sky along with flashes of heat lighting off in the distance. Just as the weather had changed so did the night’s topic. Now our small group listen as the ranger shared how the Badlands were formed and how its wildlife adapted to survive its harsh environment.

With a flashlight strapped to my head, I trekked back to my tent.  I began to have moments of uncertainty about the weather and camping alone. Rain I could deal with, lighting not so much. During the short walk, the lighting stopped, but the wind picked up. Thoughts of sleeping in my car entered in my mind, but as I watched others head into their own tents, I reminded myself this is why I do these solo trips. To push myself to the unknown and out of my comfort zone. Before I could have second thoughts, I unzipped my own tent flap, flipped off my shoes, stripped down and buried myself in my sleeping bag.

Even with the soft glow of the bath house lights, it was really dark. I lay there waiting for my eyes to adjust to the darkness and the silence. Because camp fires aren’t allowed in the park, by 10:30 pm, most campers had settled in for the night. The only sound came from mother nature in the form of large gulps of heavy winds pushing across my rainfly cover. A lot of thoughts creep through the mind when you are lying alone in the middle of a campground in an area of the country called the Badlands.  Finally my eyes, ears and mind had enough and decided it was best I just sleep my way through those scary thoughts.

That is until around 3:00 am when the flaps of my rainfly cover began lift up and down, beating against the top and sides of my tent. I continued to lay tucked in my sleeping bag, listening and waiting. Thinking others had to heard the strong winds too. And if so, I would wait and see what they did. I assumed the other campers were more experienced and hence I would follow their lead. But after 15 minutes of no unzipping or hushed voices, I began to think the other campers were either heavy sleepers or just braver than me.

And then just as quickly as the wind had started, it stopped. In the silence that followed, my body relaxed enough to be claimed again by sleep. Just before dawn, I woke up. This time not to the wind, but to the sounds of a fellow camper’s quick unzipping. Peeping out of my window, I watched the sun do a slow rise over the jagged edges of the formations surrounding the campground. By 6:00 am, I had broken down camp, packed up and headed out of the campground to the new day’s adventure.

Reflecting back on my first night of solo camping, I like to believe I’m like one of those random sunflowers sprinkled throughout the Badlands. No matter how strong the winds may blow or where I may land, I would still find a way to blossom.

Click on the link below to view scenes from I-90 and The Badlands.

Badlands National Park

Scenes from I-90


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