We got back on the road after our first night camping in South Dakota, heading towards the Badlands National Park. After a series of minor roads cutting through the endless farmland of South Dakota, we hit the interstate. After about 3 miles on the interstate, I see some white smoke in my wing mirror. Instantly feeling sick to the stomach, I ask Melissa to watch the temperature gauge. Within a few seconds she reports it is rising. I pull over immediately on the side of the the freeway and shut off the engine. Steam rises from under the hood. We are 400 miles on from La Crosse, Wisconsin, where we had the repairs done. I pop the hood, but everything is so hot, I can’t really poke around to see what the issue is.
It is a Saturday, so no repair shops will be open until Monday. We call AAA to arrange a tow. It took about 90 minutes for the tow truck to arrive. In the meantime, the engine cools off enough and I take a look. What I find is immensely encouraging. The hose going up to the heater control valve has blown off, the hose clamp having fallen, due to not having been tightened up, to the bottom of the hose. So in short, the mechanic who did the head gasket job forgot to tighten this hose, and in due course, it blew off. We got a tow to a parts store where I reattached the hose and added 1.25 gallons of coolant and we took a test drive. It all looked good. So we got back on the road, keeping a close eye on the temperature gauge.
We reached the entrance to the Badlands National Park. I always imagined the Badlands to be something more like the desolate stretches you can drive across Arizona or Nevada, but just surrounded by rock formations instead of cacti. In fact, the badlands cover a relatively small area, and the whole of it seems to be part of the national park. The landscape kind of reminded me of the Petrified Forest National Park in North East Arizona, which Melissa and I visited on a previous road trip. It is also the first time on the trip that we felt like we’d landed on the family road trip circuit. There were minivans galore, full of families spanning the generations taking advantage of early summer breaks from school for the kids. The park started to get more interesting, for me, toward the west end, where the rock formations start falling off from vast expanses of grassland. This definitely didn’t feel like Arizona. We took the turn for Sage Creek, which is a well maintained dirt road leading to a free campground. On the way, we caught our first sight of the wildlife we were so excited about seeing in this part of the country: American bison, or as they’re more commonly called, buffalo. The first ones we saw were in the distance, behind a vast field of prairie dogs—rodents that live in subterranean passages in large communities, popping up from their underground entrances with comical regularity. They kind of look like meerkats. Kind of.
After our initial meeting with the buffalo, we continued toward the campsite. As we turned a corner, we were greeted by 3 or 4 buffalo, very close to the side of the road. We slowed down and came to a stop as Melissa started firing off shots (from the camera, of course). A couple of the buffalo then decided it was a perfect opportunity to cross the road. They walked right out in front of our truck, at which point Melissa passed the camera over to me so I could shoot from my side. We got about as close to a buffalo as you would want to comfortably get and we were quite taken with them! They have an almost cartoonish physical presence, with their massive sloped heads, and powerful frames and shaggy coats. If a creature should possess ESP and suddenly start talking in your mind—I feel like the buffalo would be the candidate for causing the least surprise about such an ability. They just look a bit magical.
We got to the campsite, were bugged by a heavy wave of mosquitos, but persevered to cook dinner on the tailgate of truck. The campground was full, mainly of tent campers. The weather had predicted a chance of rain and storms overnight, and as we fell asleep, we could see lightning tearing down in the far distance. The night started off warm, with a gentle breeze keeping us just cool enough. As the early hours of the next day rolled around, the gentle breeze became a cold gust, as we started to close the windows more and more. Around 4am, it was clear that a heavy storm was going to hit. Many of the tent campers at this point woke up and started breaking down their camps and heading off. We figured we’d probably be OK, as although truck leaks in the section where we camp in, we hoped the storm wouldn’t amount to that much. One of the only spots left when we arrived the previous evening was straddling a slightly muddy ditch, one that would be difficult to get out of without 4WD, or even with if it got too muddy. When the rain started coming down, slow but heavy, at around 4:30am, we decided to get out of the campsite. As we hurriedly flung everything we keep in the cab of the truck into the back so we could set off, we got pretty wet in the process. The rain picked up and it was big, fat drops that were falling. Tired but wired by the adventure of it all, we drove out on the dirt road, joined the highway and got out of the park, headed into the nearby town of Wall.
In Wall there is a store called Wall Drug, which they advertise by the roadside as soon as you get into South Dakota, and there are even billboards for it in the surrounding states. It seems to have generated its own reputation as an American landmark through these adverts and we’d been forewarned of its existence by the folks at the farm. We figured we’d head there to see if we could get something hot to eat. On discovering they didn’t open until 7am, we decided to make tea on the tailgate, eat a snack and head to our next stop instead, the Black Hills.