Over the next week, we’re going to be spending time in some remote areas. There may not always be a restaurant around the corner and I know that this will be a problem for Doc who eats three meals a day by the clock. If it’s noon and there’s no restaurant in sight, we’d better be able to make a lunch. I’ve packed a collapsible cooler in my suitcase and our first stop of the day is at a small market where we load up on ice and bottled water, apples, peanut butter, crackers, and the ever-convenient, cheese in a can.
After reading their entertaining signs for 400 miles yesterday, we have to make a stop at Wall Drug. It’s a giant, sprawling, tourist trap but, at least, it’s an interesting giant, sprawling, tourist trap. There is a drug store, a book store, souvenir shops, a café, and lots of cheesy displays. I spy and want to buy a stuffed Jackalope. It’s $119. I settle for having my picture taken on the giant plastic Jackalope outside. I take Doc’s picture with a life sized, plastic saloon girl. We both get pictures with the stuffed buffalo.
A big, dirty, ratty-looking gorilla sits at a piano. We put 50 cents in a slot and music plays. The gorilla isn’t even animated. We’ve spent 50 cents to hear a juke-box tune and we’re supposed to pretend that the stone-still gorilla is playing and singing.
A water feature spurts random bursts from the sidewalk. A barefoot, little toddler boy is running back and forth across the cement pad, in front of a sign that says “No Running.” He is soaking wet and he is laughing with delight each time he gets hit with a stream of water. It’s a good thing he can’t read.
Every 12 minutes a T-Rex raises his huge dinosaur head out of the jungle to scream and roar through sharp, jagged teeth as smoke billows around him. It’s enough to scare the bejeezus out of any pre-schooler and promises to give your kid nightmares for the next 7 years. I think it’s fabulous.
I take a photo of a flower bed filled with native plants which reminds me…
“I forgot the wildflower book,” I tell Doc. After the Excedrin, and a map of South Dakota, it is the third thing I discover that I’ve forgotten.
“This is Wall Drug,” Doc says. “They sell everything. Buy one.”
But I don’t really want to buy a new wildflower book. We walk to the book store and I make my way to the field guide section and choose a new book. It lacks the variety and depth of detail of the well-worn handbook I’ve been traveling with for the last 23 years. I know that I’m going to hate it. I buy it anyway.
Wall Drug lures something like 2 million visitors a year to this tiny South Dakota town. Their kitschy billboards line the highway from Minnesota to Montana.
“Let’s get out of here,” I tell Doc.
We’ve spent an hour in Wall Drug. It’s all the time I am willing to give it. It’s amusing, but our time is limited and there are better sights to see down the road.
Driving Rt. 16, we enter Custer State Park through the east entrance and make our way to the Needles Highway. We came to Custer State Park on our first vacation together and loved everything about it. It was a must-do (over again) this time.
The roads are winding and the park is large but each vista is more beautiful than the next. As we drive along the Needles Highway giant rock spires stretch toward the sky. Abundant spring rains have left everything lush and green making the silver gray spikes stand out against the bright blue sky.
As we round a hairpin turn, Doc hits the brakes. Three Buffalo are walking down the middle of the road toward our car. I hold my breath as the largest of the three walks within 6 inches of our driver’s side window. According to a ranger we later stop to chat with, Custer State Park is the best place in the United States for viewing wildlife.
A wildlife reserve in the Black Hills of South Dakota, Custer State Park covers 71,000 acres and is home to 1500 roaming bison plus antelope, elk, bighorn sheep and many other animals. We asked the ranger if they’d ever considered making it a national park. He said yes, but the state of South Dakota had been unwilling to give it up, and they put more money back into it than national Park would be able to afford. The park is indeed, very well maintained.
Lunchtime. We drive into the town of Custer for a sandwich. The top rated restaurant I had chosen is closed. With better planning I would have known that Sunday was their off day. I expect this will happen again because, while I made a list of my choice restaurants, I didn’t take the time this time to check their websites for menus or operating hours. No matter. We are anxious to get back to the park so we opt to grab something from the only fast food place we find in town, a Dairy Queen.
The line is out the door. I glance up and down the street to see if there’s any other fast food available. I am about to suggest we go somewhere else but four teenagers tire of standing in the line and leave with an inaudible grumble. We move to the third place in line. At the time, that doesn’t seem so bad. But this shop has only one cash register and only one girl working it. Well, she’s sort of working it. Every time she takes an order she then disappears behind a wall. And she doesn’t come back. Everyone in line waits and wonders.
The girl finally returns and takes another order from a couple who are 26 cents short and can’t pay the tab. They look around and ask other customers for change. A woman finds a quarter and a penny at the bottom of her purse. The cashier completes the transaction and disappears behind the wall.
When she finally returns with an order of four Blizzards she drops one of them onto the floor. Snapping it up (using the “five second rule” I guess), she gives it a shake, and holds it up to show the customer that most of the ice cream is still in the cup.
The customer looks bewildered. He doesn’t know what to say.
The girl looks confused. “Do you want me to make you another one?” she asks.
“YES. I do,” the customer answers. The girl looks overly burdened and disappears behind the wall. The customer gets napkins and cleans up the spilled ice cream. When the girl comes back with the new Blizzard the customer asks for a drink holder. The girl can’t find one. She disappears behind the wall.
We should leave right now, I am thinking. I don’t know why we don’t except that insanity probably runs in my family.
Finally, after standing in line for a good twenty minutes, we place our order. The girl disappears. What is she doing? Taking the orders AND cooking the food? Where I live, people handling money aren’t allowed to handle your food. We pour our drinks and move around to the pick-up side of the counter where we WAIT ANOTHER TWENTY FIVE MINUTES. Our number is never called. Nobody’s number is called. People continue to come into the restaurant and then leave. The girl occasionally takes an order. One guy in line behind us, who had ordered only ice cream, gets his cones.
A woman comes inside and returns the order she had gotten at the drive thru window. She hands it to the girl who takes it back behind the wall.
This place is trying to run a drive-thru window too?
I sit down at a table and finish my root beer. I don’t think refills are included but I don’t care. I get up and refill my drink as Doc paces at the counter. I hear the wrong order woman tell him that she had waited in the drive thru line to get the wrong order for 45 minutes. She had wanted to leave, but the way the drive thru is constructed she had been trapped between two other cars and a side barrier and couldn’t get out.
A second girl we have never seen before appears from behind the wall. It’s the first worker we’ve seen in several minutes. Doc immediately asks when our cheeseburger and mushroom swiss burger will be done. The wrong order drive-thru woman looks surprised and says that that was the order she had returned.
When I hear that, I jump in. “Can we just get a refund?” I ask girl #2 as I think of all the precious sightseeing time being squandered.
She disappears behind the wall. A minute later she comes back and says that her manager needs our receipt.
Manager? This place has a MANAGER?
Getting a refund is the fastest thing that happens since we’d walked in. We get our cash back and RUN out the door.
The only other place we find in town is a Subway but the parking lot is full and we expect that it will be very busy. We opt to drive back into the park where we find a picnic area and break into our grocery bags. We eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, apples, and canned cheese on crackers as we watch a herd of buffalo grazing in a meadow.
Starvation averted, we get back to our tour of Wildlife Loop Road. We see one animal after another ̶ buffalo, antelope grazing at the side of the road, prairie dog moms watching over little ones that romp and play from hole to hole. They stand on their back legs and watch the watchers watching them. Every few seconds one of them jumps up, making a high-pitched squeak. They scurry and dig and are so cute that I could watch them all afternoon.
Back on the Wildlife Loop Drive we stop along the side of the road to watch some people feeding Cheetos to three burros. Cheetos? Really? If you don’t have anything more nutritious than Cheetos in your car, please leave the rule-breaking, animal feeding to someone else.
All of a sudden a huge burro head appears out of nowhere in the window beside me. He sticks his giant burro nose against my window. I lower the window halfway and give him the rest of my apple that is leftover from lunch. He chews it up and then rubs slobber all over my window, trying to get in for more. A burro head pops up in John’s window as well. Obviously, they know where the good lunch is at.
We stop at a park office and John talks to the Ranger for a while about football. I browse the tiny gift shop and buy a hand-painted tote bag with an image of a buffalo painted on. I like the bag so much that I don’t regret having forgotten to pack a tote in my suitcase. I spot a map on the information desk. I asked the Ranger about what appears to be a shortcut over to the highway that leads to our hotel. The Ranger tells me that it’s a dirt road, but it’s in good shape.
Back in the car we take a chance on the little-traveled dirt road. All of the park’s dirt roads look to be well-maintained and, indeed, this is the smoothest dirt road I’ve ever traveled. There is no other traffic and we find ourselves totally alone in this spectacular natural environment. The road leads over a hill, and as we crest the top, a valley opens before us and it is filled with the largest herd of buffalo we’ve seen yet. We stop to watch mothers nursing their young and young bulls playfully charging one another, practicing for the day they’ll be old enough to compete for a mate.
The dirt road leads us to highway and town of of Hot Springs, another Best Western, and a prime rib dinner at a place that is located next door to a mammoth dig site. The name of the restaurant is “Woolly’s.”