“There are no words that can tell the hidden spirit of the wilderness, that can reveal its mystery, its melancholy, and its charm.”
–Theodore Roosevelt on the Badlands
The most influential book I have ever read was Edmund Morris’ The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt. Tracing the steps in Teddy’s life from New York City in 1858 to the moment he heard McKinley had been shot, Morris masterfully explores the education and making of Roosevelt. Born into privilege, Roosevelt experienced the highs and joys unlike any other man in the 19th century. And while his time in Cuba during the Battle of San Juan Hill might be his crowded hour, I was always fascinated with Roosevelt’s time in the Dakotas.
Teddy escaped to Medora, North Dakota after his mother and wife died on the same night his daughter, Alice, was born. This was over a hundred years ago, but even strong men ran from their problems. Out in the Badlands, he became transfixed by the vast prairies of the Dakotas. He became a rancher, pugilist, self-deputized sheriff, and adventurer. Here is a cribbed notes from the time Teddy caught some boat thieves.
Before COVID-19, my wife and I had planned a two-week trip to Italy. We were to explore Venice to Rome and all points in-between. It took a global pandemic to cancel that trip. Some time in November, I concocted a long drive from Salt Lake City to the Dakotas. I convinced my wife we should walk in the steps of Roosevelt and check out Mt. Rushmore and Deadwood. She was game. Hell, given the months of lockdown, she would have been game to drive to Buenos Aires.
We put the campaign on hold for a week, loaded up the Subaru and headed due east. Through Evanston and Rawlins, Wyoming and eventually making it to Custer, South Dakota ten hours later. We spent the night in the dirtiest motel room that didn’t charge an hourly fee. Custer was days away from hosting Sturgis and there was an energy akin to sucking on a 9-volt battery. It was the first leg of a long week and I’m glad we got the filthy part done first.
Great Faces, Great Places
Both my sister, Dr. Elizabeth Raskin, and my colleague, Missy Bird, warned that Mt. Rushmore is underwhelming. I’m here to tell you that it is very whelming. Is it smaller than you think it would be? Yes. Is it something you’ve seen a million times on TV and books? Yes. Do you have to see it? Hmm, short answer no/long answer yes.
The drive from Custer to Mt. Rushmore is gorgeous. It’s about 30 miles away and it’s nothing but sweeping roads through the Black Hill mountains. There are roadside attractions for horseback rides, camping, and ice cream shops. It’s about as Americana as you could imagine, and yet, nothing prepares you from when you pull into the parking lot at Mt. Rushmore.
Boom! There it is. Clear as day George Washington stares over this great land with his chest pumped up. To his left, a large nostriled Thomas Jefferson looks to the east. Roosevelt is tucked in-between Jefferson and a Lincoln that looks like he is wearing some sort of football helmet. It’s incredible. Simply remarkable to see it in-person. We entered the open-aired pavilion and slowly marched up towards the monument down the Avenue of Flags: all 50 states, one district, three territories, and two commonwealths of the United States represented.
From the pavilion, you get a wonderful perspective of Mt. Rushmore, but it’s not until you walk the President’s Trail do you appreciate the grandeur of the monument. A half-mile trail on elevated stairs, you wonder in and out of the rubble from the carving of Mt. Rushmore. There are informational placards giving tidbits about the monument and its construction.
Fun fact: No one died making Mt. Rushmore. There were over 400 workers, and they all survived the construction.
We hiked the loop three times. My wife told me to “drink it up” because it is very unlikely we’d ever return. Gutzon Borglum’s studio had a miniature model of Mt. Rushmore and if you looked though the rafters, you can see the actual sculpture. Very impressive.
When it was time for us to leave, I took one last look. Washington, the father of our nation, Jefferson, the expansionist because of the Louisiana Purchase, Lincoln, the preserver of our country, and Roosevelt, the conservationist. I couldn’t help but think each man would have been embarrassed to have his face cut into granite. There’s something garish about Mt. Rushmore—fool’s names and fool’s faces often seen in public places—and yet it’s hard not to be swept away by the size, scope, and location of Mt. Rushmore. You have to work to visit it. Nobody accidentally drops in on Mt. Rushmore. Maybe this is why I’m glad we saw it in-person and glad we left when we did.
“Around the prairie-dog towns it is always well to keep a look-out for the smaller carnivora, especially coyotes and badgers…and for the larger kind of hawks. Rattlesnakes are quite plenty, living in the deserted holes, and the latter are also the homes of the little burrowing owls.”
–T.R. on the animals of the Badlands
Good Times in Badlands
The Badlands are an open park. Meaning, you can walk wherever you want, the only limitation being gravity and wildlife. The park rangers were clear the Badlands are unlike the desert trails of Arches National Park. There are no cryptobiotic crusts to disrupt. Blaze whatever trail you want through the tall buffalo grass or scamper through the ungodly windswept sandcastles. But beware the prairie rattlesnakes—thick as baguettes with wicked temperaments—when exploring off the trails. They can grow to five feet length and strike half their body length in a millisecond.
We headed out Castle Trail from the east. It was a seven-mile hike, relatively flat, with rolling mounds of ancient volcanic ash and chaotic eroded channels. You couldn’t walk ten-feet without seeing a deep hole, hopefully abandoned, clearly dug by some sort of four-legged critter powerful enough to move a cubic yard of hardpacked soil. I strained to look into each hole only to quickly move away lest I met a pissed-off badger, or just a badger.
My backpack felt good. It’s nice to feel the weight of my water. I’m probably too heavy with REI toys I’ll never need/use but it’s comforting to have my gear within easy reach. The curse of loving compasses, twine, first aid kits, bear mace, etc. is you’re compelled to carry them even if black bear country is over a hundred miles away.
The views were spectacular, the weather humid but pleasant, and the terrain oddly familiar. Badlands could easily be confused for a Utah National Park. It has elements of Bryce NP and Goblin Valley. The only real difference is the softness of the stone. Even an amateur geologist could see the different levels sedimentary rocks forming the distinctive jagged rocks. There are clear lines of tan, red and white soil creating lines in the mountains for a hundred miles. I couldn’t help but think they looked like spinning tops frozen in prehistoric time. I’d chip off a piece of the “stone” and it would disintegrate between my finger and thumb.
Close to two miles out, we reached Medicine Root Trail. Veering north, we walked along the waist high buffalo grass. Western meadowlarks danced in the sky above us or sang noisily in the brush. Above the small birds were massive hawks—no idea what kind of raptors they were—screeching and swooping lazily in the prairie zephyrs. I split my time studying the craggy landscape, watching my wife rush ahead me, and keeping an eye and ear out for any rattlesnakes.
We didn’t see any rattlesnakes, but we did cross paths with antelope. We each kept a healthy distance from each other.
Medicine Root Trail was a little over two miles long before it reconnects with Castle Trail. We headed back to the car. It started to lightly rain and the wind picked up. The air smelt incredible—rich with sage and damp dirt. We made it back to the car before the heavens opened up. Heavy rains in the desert can mean death. In the Badlands, all it did was freshen everything up. By the time we got back to the camp, the rain had broken, leaving patches of open sky for a lovely sunset.
Badlands is a special park. Not only did we get to walk in the steps of Teddy Roosevelt, we explored a new area in America. South Dakota is beautiful. The Black Hills are overgrown with ponderosa pines and wildlife. The central portion of the state is flat as a pancake but there is a stately beauty in the prairies. And the Badlands is really unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. I don’t know if I’d return but I’m grateful for the chance to explore and celebrate this incredible park.
“I heartily enjoy this life, with its perfect freedom, for I am very fond of hunting, and there are few sensations I prefer to that of galloping over these rolling limitless prairies, with rifle in hand, or winding my way among the barren, fantastic and grimly picturesque deserts of the so-called Bad Lands.”
Aces and Eights
We broke camp in Badlands and headed northwest to Devils Tower. There were three pitstops along the way: Minuteman Missile National Historic Site, Wall Drug, and Deadwood, South Dakota. I strongly suggest you stop at the Minuteman Missile Historic Site if you ever want to see a decommissioned ICBM. I promise you this, it does not disappoint.
I’ll double promise this, thank God we never had a thermonuclear war.
Wall Drug is famous for offering free ice water to travelers along I-90. Tourist trap doesn’t even begin to describe Wall Drug. It’s chockful of cheap T-shirts, fried food, and coin-operated rides for kids. It’s neither fish nor fowl because it doesn’t really offer anything other than an excuse to stretch your legs for half-an-hour. I didn’t care for all the MAGA hats or conservative shirts for sale, but I did enjoy my root beer float.
Deadwood was interesting. Yes, there was an eponymous HBO series set here. It’s very beautiful with ponderosa pines and a river running along the historical downtown buildings. Jack McCall murdered Wild Bill Hickock in Deadwood and there is evidence of this assault everywhere. Hickock was playing poker and allegedly had two pair: aces over eights. There is no shortage of A’s & 8’s in Deadwood.
Deadwood might be one of the most antithetical town in America—it’s holding on to its historical roots by tarnishing it with quick meals, cheap drinks, and countless casinos. Short of the two signs indicating where Hickock was killed and where McCall was arrested, there isn’t really anything of interest to me. If you were curious where to get a Trump/Blue Lives Matter/Second Amendment shirt, Deadwood is your place.
Tourist traps should be welcoming, not threatening. Politicians, prostitutes, and buildings are gain respectability with age. Somehow, Deadwood seemed to avoid anything respectable.
“Start with the tone: G. Up a full tone: A. Down a major third: F. Now drop an octave: F. Up a perfect fifth: C.”
Close Encounter in Wyoming
Take Highway 24 north towards Montana. The land is beautiful, stunning. Smoke from the west had blown into northeast Wyoming and it only made the reveal of Mato Tipila (Bear Lodge in Lakota) more impressive. You’ll see this special outcropping of rocks exploding towards the sky with cruel symmetrical columns of rock. It’s Devils Tower (no apostrophe). Roosevelt declared it the first national monument in the United States on 24 September 1906. 867 feet from summit base, this statuesque granite monolith rises from the banks of the Belle Fourche River in Crook County.
Devils Tower is extraordinarily impressive, doubly so because I’ve dreamed of visiting this place longer than I knew of T.R. Close Encounter of the Third Kind (1977) made a hell of an impact on me when I saw it. I was about the age of Barry, the little boy who is “abducted” by aliens and I still get weird when I hear those five iconic notes.
We finished our adventure with a night at the KOA near Devils Tower. There was a community pool, showers, grille for burgers, miniature golf, fridges filled with Wyoming beer, and folks from around the country. We all came to check out Devils Tower. And best of all, we all came to watch Close Encounter of the Third Kind on an outdoor screen with Devils Tower in the backdrop.
The road to Devils Tower is a meandering drive up and around the iconic formation. We slowly fell in line with others until we reached the parking lot at the base of Devils Tower. Getting out, we threw on backpacks and hiked the 1.5-mile circumference. It was beautiful. The trail was made of concrete and even though you had a lot of elevation gain, you never lost perspective of Devils Tower. You rolled, up and over, through the pines and sweet smells of sun-soaked needles and wet granite boulders.
We stopped, took pictures, and gazed out into the fields of northern Wyoming. It was stunning. I kept looking for where the aliens jammed where Dreyfuss and company, but we never saw the landing field. However, I did find the outcropping of rocks Roy and Jillian climbed up and over before the sleeping gas knocked out the others.
If you’re lucky in life, you’ll get to see things that stay with you. Somethings are completely overwhelming. For example, the Grand Canyon was more impressive than I could have imagined. I’d put the Golden Gate Bridge, Statute of Liberty, and White House in the same category. It was cool taking an elevator to the top of the Empire State Building, but the view from the observation deck was no different than what I’ve seen on TV and movies.
Every now and then, you’ll experience something that is much better than you anticipated. I never could have imagined the 284 steps up the Arc de Triomphe to be so memorable. I didn’t think visiting the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. would stay with me almost every day of my life. And I certainly didn’t think Devils Tower would move me the way that it did.
This was my connection with Teddy. Circumnavigating the base of the Tower, I felt the connection with Roosevelt. Here is where we shared the same footprints. I’m certain we jumped up the same rocks and gazed wide-eyed at the Tower and wondered how such a thing came to be. This is why he preserved the Tower as a national monument for others to enjoy. It’s ludicrous to propose he was thinking of me when he inked the bill into law but walking the perimeter of Devils Tower built a connection with Roosevelt nothing else could create. He wanted others to appreciate and marvel at this amazing geological wonder. Devils Tower is his monument to outdoor preservation, not Mt. Rushmore.
We drove back to the campground. There were cocktails and beers and a forgettable camp stove dinner. We wandered over to the movie and watched enough Close Encounter to appreciate the kitsch of the moment. Before tucking into the tent and collapsing into sleep, I stared at Devils Tower one last time in the dark. A full moon front lit the rock face of Devils Tower. I could see the crevasses and lines carved into the side of the rock and imagined what it would be like to stand a top.
Here, in the middle of nowhere, I felt a sense of peace. We saw the Dakotas. No, we experienced the Dakotas. This vast stretch of the middle of America felt explored and digested. We drank it up. Every drop. Here is where I learned the mystery, melancholy, and charm of the Dakotas. It’s a miraculous place and something to marvel. As exhausting as our trip had been, this was the moment I understood why Roosevelt was drawn to this corner of the world. Someone needed to share the wonder of this land.