For nearly two days our itinerary took us off 20. We made due with a combination of local roads and the Interstate as we traveled up and down the northern plains states in an effort to visit the few must-see sites scattered across the prairie.
First up was one of those landmarks on everyone’s bucket list: Mount Rushmore. This classic slice of Americana was bustling with tourists wholly enjoying themselves. I, on the other hand, was reflecting on some of Rushmore’s darker aspects. For one, the presidents are carved into the side of the Black Hills, land sacred to the Indians who used to inhabit the region. For comparison, imagine if the likeness of four Roman emperors had been situated on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Sort of rubbing it in if you ask me. I also take issue with what I see as the deification of the men on the mountain. While great and inspirational leaders in our nation’s past, they were still just men. The gift shop even sold postcards with the slogan “Shrine of Democracy”, elevating Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt into some sort of American pantheon. Objections aside, though, the monument is more than impressive and worth taking the trip to see at least once.
We then backtracked across South Dakota to enter the most beautiful natural landscape we’ve encountered on the trip thus far. About 100 miles east of Rushmore lie the Badlands, and while we were still in South Dakota, I felt as if we had driven into a Zelda game. Aside from a visitor’s center and some campgrounds there were practically zero signs of human civilization. At various lookouts one could scan a pristine wilderness and unreal geographic features – and with no mountains or cities to obstruct our view, we could see for miles in every direction. The pictures below don’t even begin to do this national park justice.
For less than 20 dollars we were able to spend the night on the grounds itself. Paul pitched a tent while I made the driver’s seat in the Sonic my bed for a second straight night. Cloud cover prevented us from doing any stargazing, forcing us to make do with observing a distant thunderstorm.
We departed from the spellbinding Badlands the next morning and headed south back into Nebraska, where we drove through miles of boring flatness that we had initially expected to find. The highlights of our second foray into the Cornhusker state were Chimney Rock and Scotts Bluff. These two geological oddities served as important landmarks on the trails used by pioneers heading west during the 19th century. Unfortunately, with our memories of the Badlands still fresh, these sites were more than a little underwhelming.
After yet another border crossing, our day’s journey ended at a cheap motel in the small town of Douglas, Wyoming. Following two consecutive days of sleeping in the car and hundreds of miles traveled across three states, having a stable mattress to rest on came as a welcome relief.