By the time we hit South Dakota, we needed to start heading east. We had dallied in the wonders of the west too long, mooning over mountains and drinking a lot of good beer (I’ve given up on wine since leaving the Pacific coast). Here we had a hit list of national parks (surprise!) before we would kiss goodbye to the land of cowboys to make some serious mileage towards the east coast.
Camping in the Black Hills, we were treated to beautiful sunsets, great pizza, the worst beer John’s ever had, and a drive-in movie theatre on our doorstep. ‘National parks?’, you say… Oh yes. But we had to sample a drive in, how else would you spend a Saturday night in small town South Dakota?
We could see the screens from our campsite, prompting me, on such a nice evening, to suggest we walk; it’s a wonder John is in charge of the mechanics of this operation. We drove the 2 and a half minutes to the site and soon became localised in the art of the drive-in. If you are in a truck or an SUV, you actually reverse in, so you can sit on your tailgate to watch the film. Every day’s a school day. After some bad nachos and some naughtiness from the Yuke (deciding it would turn its interior lights on for no reason – a drive in no no), we settled down to watch a couple of suitably adult movies – The BFG, and Finding Dory – and were shocked to find that the films didn’t wrap up until 1.30am. The drive-in is clearly a big night out in Hermosa, SD, even for the littl’uns.
We did, of course, get our national park fix, starting with a late night trip to Mount Rushmore, where a ranger programme at the outside amphitheatre was a prelude to lighting up the four presidential faces carved with such precision into the mountain. We learned why Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson and Roosevelt had been chosen, and then experienced one of our most American shows of all time (more so even than the drive-in) with everyone singing the national anthem followed by the ranger inviting all serving and former military personnel on stage to lower the Stars and Stripes. It was a poignant moment, as only the day before 5 police offices had been gunned down in Dallas, TX, so the flag was already at half mast. One thing that strikes us so often about the Americans is how proud they are of both their flag and their military. It’s hard not to be moved.
While Mount Rushmore is undeniably iconic, it is very touristy and also has a particularly nasty multi-story car park, for which we were fleeced $11 to park (but you have an America the Beautiful pass, I hear you cry!) This is the only park to date in which we have had to pay to park, everywhere else the car comes with you and your pass. A very odd system and one that doesn’t sit well with the accessibility promised by the NPS – $11 would be a lot to some families.
The next day found us back in our comfort zone, by which I mean hiking around the lunar landscape that is Badlands National Park, in 100 degree heat. So called by the French fur trappers who were the first Europeans to travel through this wilderness, these Badlands are wild, inhospitable, and breathtaking. We, however, being decidedly European, blonde and pale, could not take the heat, and so after a couple of short hikes, we retreated to the air con of the Yuke, and decided it was time to head north.
Our friend Russ had spoken highly of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, up in North Dakota, and assured us it’s often possible to get a camp spot in the north unit without too much trouble. The talk in our campground was of a possible tornado (we don’t need another one of those!) so this, combined with the searing heat, convinced us that we could squeeze in a trip north before making the right turn towards Virginia.
The next day we hitched up and rolled out, leaving a day earlier than planned and feeling smug to be escaping the desert and the extreme weather. A few hundred miles up the road, we were feeling less sure of our decision, with the skies ahead looking increasingly ominous. Another ten miles on, and the heavens opened. Lightning cracked the skies, hail started hammering down, and a fog descended that made seeing more than a few feet ahead impossible.
John pulled into a parking lot next to a collection of farm buildings, followed quickly by a huge semi truck, who had obviously had the same idea. Towing a trailer, whose roof really isn’t keen on hail, and in a thunder storm, isn’t a great idea. This wasn’t really going to plan.
Fortunately, the storm passed reasonably quickly, and we continued on our way, reaching the lovely Juniper Campground at Theodore Roosevelt National Park (which I shall now abbreviate to Teddy RNP for brevity) just after 6. It had been a long drive but we were rewarded with a beautiful spot by the river, a glorious sunset, and a walk round a wonderful nature trail (full-on National Park Nerd Mode returns!) .
We spent the next few days on the hunt for bison. We’d seen lots in Yellowstone of course (see here for that post) but they were all from the road, so when the rain led the ranger to advise us to go off the main paths with their slick sandstone and instead ‘follow the bison trail’ up on the prairie, we figured it would be pretty cool to see them on a hike. Off we trekked, swishing through long grass, following bison tracks bigger than my shoe, and bison pats bigger than John’s head, but alas they had apparently defeated us by scooting down a sharp embankment in search of the river.
We enjoyed the hike anyway, so stunning is the scenery in this part of the world, which took us completely by surprise. We’d had a bleak mental image of North Dakota (informed solely by watching ‘Fargo’) but the palette of greens, the colourful lines of sedimentary rocks, and the Little Missouri river winding through it all makes this place a feast for the eyes.
Down in the south unit, we took a hike through what I was convinced was Telly Tubby Land. The green hills were so round, the grass so springy, and without a soul in sight it was like being in a fairy tale. That day we’d had the bad news that our US bank account card had been cloned for the second time this year, and with a new card a couple of weeks off, we were facing the prospect of using our unreliable Halifax card, and its terrible post-Brexit exchange rate, instead of the lovely dollars that John had cleverly exchanged pre 23rd June. Somehow things never seem so terrible when you’re sat by a burbling stream, though, so in the grand scheme of things, all was still right in our world.
The sky again was starting to turn, so we began the return hike, joking to each other about how this was another fruitless search for the unicorn-esque bison of Teddy RNP. And lo, we rounded a hill into a valley and saw a whole herd. We were cautious (for which read ‘scared’) – these giants can run fast and have big horns – and we couldn’t help but feel conscious that we were well and truly on their patch.
Seeing them unexpectedly, going about their bison business away from any sign of man, somehow felt more special than seeing them in Yellowstone, impressive though that was. They had entered this valley, big bull leading, followed by the rest of the herd and their babies, wandered silently along hills, and then disappeared over the ridge into the next valley. Within seconds, it was like they’d never been there.
Much as we’d have loved to, we couldn’t stay in this park forever, and it was time to make tracks east, along the bullet straight interstate that ploughs straight across North Dakota, through Bismarck and on to Fargo – somewhere we were obviously excited to see, if only for the brilliant accents. Hitching up again, we drove south to join the interstate, and as I was about to paint my nails (a 330 mile tow gives a girl ample time for these essentials), John noticed in his wing mirror that something was wrong with our slide out (the dining room of our trailer that slides in and out to make more space).
We pulled over on the side of the highway, huge semi trucks thundering past, and walked back to check the rig. It didn’t take us long to realise that the slide was shifting out because it was being blown out – by the wind rushing through our completely smashed front window! Hot on the heels of the bank fraud issue, this week was taking a downward turn, and we knew we couldn’t carry on along the highway in this position – the whole slide room would blow out. We decided to take the only sensible option open to trailer dwellers on the side of a North Dakota highway. Break out the duct tape.
Back in the Florida, the rock shield for said window had broken free as we were zooming across the bridge into Key Largo. Lots of sucking of teeth and shaking of heads from various RV repair men told us that we weren’t getting it fixed anytime soon, so we’ve been carrying it around with us ever since, leaving the window open to the road. On this day, our luck ran out.
So two of us, standing by our shabby looking trailer, on the edge of a highway, set about duct taping the fibreglass shield back on the frame. In theory, this would work, but the duct tape soon ran out, followed by the awning tape, and when John broke out the flimsy and barely even sticky electrical tape, I knew it was time to call in reinforcements. This is easier said than done in North Dakota and after calling in vain anything resembling ‘RV repair’ within 50 miles, we unhitched the trailer, John got in the Yukon, leaving me to stand guard (!) and headed for the nearest garage to buy more tape.
When he returned, we stuck as much tape as possible all over the rock shield, got in the Yuke and headed east, slowly, for 100 miles, to reach Bismarck, ND.
Fortunately, the residents of Bismarck are some of the warmest and friendliest we’ve encountered, and not only did the owner of the glass repair shop call in help to get us back on the road that night, when we found to our shame that our back up bank card (I’m looking at you, Halifax) was declined, his wife just smiled, told us not to worry, and printed off an invoice, “Just give me a call when you get your card back honey”. Haider Specialist Glass – we salute you. We were back on the road in an hour and a half and headed for a nearby state park and a take out pizza.
The rest of our time in North Dakota was spent primarily trying to resolve the bank issue, with repeated emails, tweets and calls to Halifax, who have cancelled our international credit card four times now due to the ‘suspicious activity’ of us being in America (like we said we would be, until August, when we took out the card and every time since ). But what we will take away from both North and South Dakota is that there is beauty in abundance, both in the landscape and in the people, and we are so thankful we didn’t listen to those we’ve met along the way who told us to “just blow on through the Dakotas”. What a mistake that would have been.