- Where We Started: Billings, Mont.
- Where We Ended: Rapid City, S.D.
- Miles Driven: 594 (15,581 total).
- New States: North Dakota, South Dakota.
- States So Far: 26 (Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee, Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota)
THE DAY'S HIGHLIGHTS
A Thursday that began with a distinctly bad vibe was saved by our arrival at one of our favorite places on Earth, the Badlands. After I spent most of the morning hopelessly trying to publish our Yellowstone post from the car, we arrived at Theodore Roosevelt National Park in a state of disarray. I was whining, Joan was exhausted and the dogs were itching to get out of the car and get some exercise. The FHMA crew was teetering on the brink of disaster. But the Badlands have an incredibly soothing effect on us, and before long, everyone's problems were forgotten.
On our 2003 trip, we started by driving out north, and our arrival at Theodore Roosevelt was truly the moment we realized we'd reached "the West." We visited both the north and south units of the North Dakota park before heading to South Dakota's Badlands National Park, which we loved even more. The terrain in the Badlands is stark and otherworldly, thanks to the erosion of its soil by wind and water over millions of years. The Badlands have been described as "hell with the fires put out," and yet, it's incredibly beautiful, thanks to the odd shapes, canyons, grasslands and a wide pallet of colors.
We only had time to do the south unit of Theodore Roosevelt this time, but our memories of 2003 returned quickly when we drove through one of many prairie dog towns in the park. In 2003, Fred went so nuts when he saw one of these towns, he tried to go leap out of one of the car windows to get at them. Unfortunately (and fortunately), the window was closed, so Fred smacked into it in "Three Stooges" fashion. Prairie dogs are essentially squirrels, and tend to hang out in large numbers in small areas, called prairie dog towns. They're called "dogs" partially because they emit a bark of sorts when any kind of threat approaches, i.e. humans, other animals.
The appearance of the prairie dogs got Fred out of his funk, and he was ready to roll. Because the dogs' barking tends to scare all wildlife away -- even the bison in Yellowstone jogged away when the dogs starting barking at them -- we try very hard to keep them quiet when we're trying to take wildlife photos.
Eventually, all attempts to keep the dogs quiet in the park's many prairie dog towns failed, and they went bananas. Even mellow Hank let loose with something that can't really be described as a bark. It was more like an impression of a wounded pig. We were able to get video of a few seconds of the chaos in the car.
Once we got past the prairie dogs, we stopped at the Vista Skyline, which affords a pretty view of some of the park and the surrounding town of Medora. Even boring old Interstate 94 looks beautiful when dropped into the landscape.
Soon, we were into the main part of the park, where the hoodoos and deep colors that are essential parts of the badlands made their first appearances.
The one pleasant surprise we had at Theodore Roosevelt was the number of animals wandering the park. Last time we visited, we didn't see much wildlife beyond prairie dogs. Thursday was a different story.
The sights of the park weren't the only factors in improving our moods. The heavy clouds that we encountered upon our arrival faded away, and we only had to deal with a few quick showers. Also, the park was nearly deserted, making for a very up-close-and-personal visit. So when we departed around 5pm, we were once again a happy crew.
We got on the road early because we definitely wanted to make the drive down U.S.-85 to Rapid City during daylight. That's because we made the exact same drive in 2003, but late at night, and it was brutal, a true death march. Not only was it pitch black almost the entire way, but it was one of the loneliest drives I've ever done, as we may have seen 10 other cars in three hours. Adding to the fun was the fact wildlife was near and/or in the road all along the way, which led to one fatality (a bunny). For a good chunk of that drive, Joan was deer spotting, barking out "left side, one deer," "right side, two deer," etc. It was bad.
U.S.-85 in South Dakota, in the daytime. Imagine 126 miles of this. At night.
Luckily, this time, the U.S.-85 drive was fine. No animals were killed in the making of this drive, and in fact, we got into the Rapid City area early enough to make a stop at the geographical center of the United States. Well, sort of. In the town of Belle Fourche, there is a monument commemorating the geographical center of the U.S., but the actual geographic center is 20 miles to the north of Belle Fourche. The town of Belle Fourche rightly assumed that no one would go visit the actual spot -- it's on private ranch land, in the absolute middle of nowhere -- so it was put someplace more accessible.
Finally, after dinner, we finally arrived in Rapid City. This ended the most road-heavy day of our entire trip, as we logged nearly 600 miles. We all went to sleep, geeked up to revisit Badlands National Park.
- Thanks to those of you who clarified the animal in this photo. Since the animal wouldn't tell me what it was, I was left to guess, and guessed female pronghorn. A few folks have left me know that it is an elk, specifically a cow elk.
- Once I got over my computer-related pissiness upon our arrival at Theodore Roosevelt, we had a wonderful visit. It was marred only by two incidents, which occurred at exactly the same time. As we were leaving the park, we had to pass back through one of the prairie dog towns where the dogs had previously gone nuts. The hope was we could cruise through quietly and the dogs would not notice. We were dreaming. The sight of these little guys scampering all over the place made Fred crazy, and he leaped out of Joan's lap and into the back seat to bark. Unfortunately, he left a parting gift on Joan's jeans: a bit of anal gland fluid that smelled so horrible, we had to roll down the windows. The combination of Fred running around the inside the car and my dealing with the smell meant I never saw the prairie dog that ran out in the road, and sadly, I ran over it. I looked back, and it was writhing in the middle of the road. I can't imagine it lived, but there clearly wasn't anything I could do. Now, I'm an animal lover -- not a crazy PETA animal lover, mind you, but an animal lover -- so it kills me when I run over an animal. So, RIP, cute prairie dog. We did call the park ranger to report this incident, and see whether they could dispatch a prairie dog rescue team to the scene, but alas, they said it was nature taking its course, notwithstanding the fact the killer was a one-ton automobile and not another natural creation. On the bright side, I'm pretty sure that was my first kill of the trip. On the 2003 trip, I only ran over one animal, the aforementioned bunny on U.S.-85 in South Dakota.
- Unfortunately for Joan, she's been the victim of this anal fluid problem before. On our 2003 trip, it was this fluid which led to Joan's comedic Kansas Without Pants skit (scroll down on this page).
- Hank seems to have overcome his new-found fear of bathrooms. On Thursday night, we watched him walk into the bathroom and get a drink without incident. Then, in the middle of the night, he tried a new strategy: turning the room itself into a bathroom. I heard him jump off the bed at about 5am and start wandering the room. After about 10 minutes, I heard the unmistakable sound of a dog peeing. Guessing he wasn't using the toilet, I jumped up and found him peeing at the foot of the coffee table in the living room part of the suite. I guess his strategy is that, if everything is the bathroom, he can't be afraid of the bathroom. And we thought he was light on the brain cells.
- Interesting little slice of animal behavior while at Theodore Roosevelt. We turned a corner and happened upon three wild horses in the middle of the road. As we approached, they huddled in the middle of the road -- with the black horse the clear leader of the group -- and communicated something to each other. They then then each took off in a different direction. It was hard to interpret this any other way than that they identified a threat (us), huddled to devise a solution that would make it hard for us to do harm to all three and executed the strategy. Fascinating. Here's a composite of the huddle, break and execution.
- The admission of Alaska and Hawaii to the United States in 1959 created quite a stir in Smith Center, Kansas. Why, you ask? Because, prior to their admission, Smith Center was the geographic center of the United States. This distinction was quite useful for tourism purposes, especially if -- like Smith Center -- you're not near an interstate and don't have a lot else going for you to attract tourism dollars. As mentioned earlier in this post, the addition of Alaska ad Hawaii moved the geographic center of the United States to about 20 miles north of Belle Fourche, S.D. The good news for Smith Center: It can -- and does -- still claim the distinction of being the geographic center of the contiguous 48 states. And that must still have some appeal,m since two people traveling with their beagle -- that would be the Fred Takes America tour -- saw fit to visit this spot in 2003.
- Random iPod shuffle song of the day: "Johnnie Can't Dance," by Zydeco Force. I happen to really enjoy zydeco, though only in small doses. I have bought a few zydeco albums in my time -- almost always after I come back from New Orleans -- and this is one of my favorites. My all-time favorite zydeco tune: "No, It Ain't My Fault," by the Zydeco All-Stars.
- Here's the Day 7 report on our A-to-Z iPod Exploration:
- First Song of the Day: "The Big Wheel," by Rush.
- Last Song of the Day: "Bloody Boy/Neon Reprise," by Angelo Badalamenti (from "Arlington Road)."
- Best Songs: "Big Yellow Taxi," by Joni Mitchell; "Biko," by Peter Gabriel; "Birdland," by Weather Report; "Birmingham Sunday," by Joan Baez; "Bitches' Brew," by Miles Davis; "Bittersweet Symphony," by The Verve; "Black," by Pearl Jam; "Black Dog," by Led Zeppelin; "Black Star," by Radiohead; "Blinded by the Light," by Manfred Mann; "Blister in the Sun," by the Violent Femmes; "Blitzkreig Bop," by The Ramones; "Blood of Eden," by Peter Gabriel.
- Pleasant Surprises: "Blood on the Motorway," by DJ Shadow.
- Guilty Pleasures: "The Biggest Part of Me," by Ambrosia.
- Bad Songs by Good Artists: "Bike'," by Pink Floyd; "Black Country Woman," by Led Zeppelin; "Black Milk," by Massive Attack; "Blind," by the Talking Heads.
- Great Rediscoveries: "Black Coffee in Bed," by Squeeze; "Black Hole Sun," by Soundgarden.
- Lunch: Pizza Hut, Miles City, Mont.: Halfway through a long morning drive from Billings to Medora, N.D., we decided we needed to get out of the car for lunch. So we both got the pizza and salad buffet, and Joan took full advantage of the salad option. Jim... not so much. Jim Nutrition Rating: 1.5 stars (out of 5). I only had a couple of slices, if that matters. And they didn't all have meat toppings, but only because they briefly ran out of sausage and pepperoni pizza. This whole eating well thing didn't really work out, did it? Restaurant Rating: 3.5 stars (out of 5). Perfectly solid, though we both oddly found ourselves starving a few hours later.
- Dinner: Applebee's, Spearfish, S.D.: After our brutally dull drive down U.S.-85 -- which featured almost no restaurants or facilities of any kind -- we were desperate for food, and stopped as soon as we reached the commercial area around I-90. Applebee's has served us well on this trip, so we gave it another shot, and once again, we were happy. I had a club sandwich, and Joan had the chicken Caesar salad. Jim Nutrition Rating: 1.5 stars (out of 5). These days, a 1.5 rating is pretty good for me. Restaurant Rating: 4 stars (out of 5).
- La Quinta Inn & Suites, Rapid City, S.D..: Once Fred left some anal fluid behind on Joan's jeans, we had to find a place with guest laundry. Not because we didn't have enough clean clothes, but the smell of this fluid is far worse than actual poop. It can peel paint off a wall. Luckily, this La Quinta had guest laundry. But, unfortunately, just about everything else went awry. The Internet connection did not work for me at all, and crapped out on Joan after a few minutes. My wireless card also picked up nothing. The hotel had a high-speed cord, so we shared that. The person at the front desk told us no one had ever called to complain about the wireless connection, which 1) was surely not true, and 2) information that didn't help a whit in solving our problem, and thus useless. As if that wasn't bad enough, the housekeeping crew knocked on our door four times, despite the presence of what we felt was a relatively self-explanatory "Do Not Disturb" sign. By the fourth time they knocked, we were screaming back at them, "Go away!" Hotel rating: 2 stars (out of 5). The room was nice and big and the bed comfortable. But this hotel botched all the little things. Unrelated fact: This hotel shares a water park with the Fairfield Inn next door. This meant nothing to us, since we don't even use the pool that's sitting 10 feet from our back door at home, but this seemed to make it a great place for kids, as long as no one wants to be online or sleep in.
COMMENT OF THE DAY
Hank noses up to me at a rest stop outside Theodore Roosevelt National Park. This is some sort of security blanket for Hank, who often comes up to Joan or me and rubs his nose against ours. It seems to make him feel more secure.