Getting My Griswold On – Day 5: Badlands

Miles traveled today: 178.8
Total miles traveled: 1726.0

Flash. Crash. Repeat.

Have I mentioned the crazy weather we’re having out here? For the third day in a row, I encountered thunderstorms. And not just any old thunderstorms – big, dangerous ones. With lots of lightning and thunder and – worst of all – hail. As I was leaving the restaurant I ate dinner in this evening, the manager was welcoming an elderly couple. “Looks like rain again!” the husband said, pointing out the ominous sky. “I know,” the manager replied. “Feels like we’re in Washington or Oregon.” I stopped dead in my tracks and wheeled around, ready to correct him. Because this is nothing like the weather we get back home. It rains there a lot, sure. But it’s a gentle rain most times. A soft rain. Often, no more than a drizzle or mist. It’s certainly nothing like these severe, car-denting hailstorms and lightning that flashes constantly, every few seconds. Check out this video I shot last night from the motel parking lot.

Free Ice Water!

My first stop today, after a more leisurely morning than I’ve had lately, was Wall Drug Store in Wall, South Dakota. This might sound odd if you’re unfamiliar with the place, but Wall Drug is more than just a drug store: it’s an institution and a semi-famous tourist attraction. Opened in 1931, the proprietor was struggling with the business until he hit upon the idea to advertise free ice water to travelers on their way to the newly-opened Mount Rushmore, 60 miles away. The idea worked, and the enterprise has been thriving ever since.

Wall Drug is both enormous and kitschy, with a cowboy/Old West theme. It’s comprised of several different “businesses” all under one roof – clothing stores, art galleries, gift shops, a restaurant, even an arcade – kind of like a shopping mall but more intimate. When we lived in South Dakota, we’d head out to Wall Drug every so often on our way to the Badlands, which – sure enough – was my next destination. I bought a pack of buffalo jerky to snack on, just like old times.

What A Nice Butte

From Wall, I drove 21 miles to Badlands National Park. I love the Badlands – this 244,000-acre preserve of eroded buttes, pinnacles and spires offers breathtaking scenery. The red-striped rocks take on different appearances depending on the time of day, amount of sunlight and shadow, and weather conditions, so the whole landscape feels like it’s in a constant state of flux. I drove at a leisurely pace, stopping often at different viewpoints and overlooks. I did quite a bit of hiking, too – if you only see the Badlands from your car, you’re missing out, because there are numerous trails that lead around the various rock formations, and you are welcome to climb them (at your own peril, of course). It was pretty hot in the sun, but a nice breeze was blowing at times, and thunderclouds were stacking up to the west. As soon as I got on the interstate heading west, back toward my motel, a squall line moved through and hail started pelting my windshield so hard I thought it was going to crack. Everybody on the freeway pulled over and waited for the storm to pass, which fortunately took only five minutes. It was something, though! I got video footage from inside my car but I’m having trouble uploading, so I’ll post that another time.

I can’t help but marvel, once again, over the beauty of this area. I liked it as a teenager, even though my parents complained about the brutal winters. They are harsh – one year (I think it was 1985) we had a blizzard on my birthday. Which is April 27th. In some parts of the country, it’s already summertime by then! And that first winter, back in ’83, it dropped down to -27 one night. This is definitely a land of fierce extremes, and it can be very punishing if you aren’t prepared for it. But the magnificent beauty and abundance of natural attractions – not to mention free ice water a mere 55 miles to the east! – make it worthwhile. I’ve often wondered if I could ever picture myself living in Rapid City again, and after returning, the verdict is in: yes, I could. I’m not saying I will – I love the Pacific Northwest far too much – but I wouldn’t rule it out if the circumstances were exactly right.

The Pluses and Minuses of Traveling Solo

I am having the time of my life on this trip – and it’s not even half over yet! The best part about traveling solo is, you can do whatever you want, whenever you want. Which is pretty much also the best thing about being divorced. If I want to see the world’s largest ball of twine, there’s nobody nagging at me about sticking to the schedule. The downside to traveling by yourself? A lack of human companionship, which is pretty much also the worst thing about being divorced. Everywhere I’ve gone the past few days – Crazy Horse, Mount Rushmore, the Badlands – I have seen nothing but families and couples. There were so many parent-and-kid combos today, I actually got a little pang in my heart because I never got to do that with my family, except for one nice weekend getaway to Crater Lake a year before we divorced. And the families with small kids? They’re the luckiest of all. I hope they realize that. I haven’t seen another solo person, anywhere, and I’ve been looking. Oddly enough, I’ve become the guy who other couples ask to take their picture. Maybe I have a trusting face (or perhaps it’s because I’m not chasing after small children). I’ve lost track of how many strangers I’ve photographed.

I’m not complaining, though. I’ve always been comfortable by myself, which is why when dinnertime rolled around I decided to walk across the street to Perkins, a sit-down restaurant that’s kind of like a Denny’s or Marie Callender’s. You know the type: they all serve breakfast all day, sell pies, and have cash registers up front when you’re ready to pay. Some people might balk at eating alone, but I have been trying to avoid fast food and felt like a decent, sit-down dinner for once, so I went. I have never been so excited to see a salad in my life. I’m not saying the chicken fried steak I ordered was any healthier than fast food, but it hit the spot, and aside from the jerky and a breakfast scone I hadn’t eaten all day and was starving.

And now, sadly, my time in South Dakota is up. I will miss it, and I’m already vowing to return someday – and I promise it won’t take me another 25 years. By the same token, today was the first day it felt like I was on vacation instead of a road trip, so it’s time to Ramble On and head east. Tomorrow will be my first full day of traveling since Billings.

This gives you an idea of the enormity of Wall Drug.
Inside the main entrance to Wall Drug.
Hey, I thought the ice water was free!!
Near the beginning of the Badlands Loop. Interspersed with the rock formations is the largest protected mixed grass prairie in the country.
Luckily, I didn't see any.
One of the trails in the Badlands.
Red-striped rock formation in the Badlands.
Thundercloud over the South Dakota prairie. You could hear the rumbling echoing through the Badlands.
A spot of color in the Badlands.
Mountain goats far below. I could barely see them from my lofty perch overlooking this canyon - thank god for zoom lenses.
More Badlands.

You Can’t Take The Sky From Me

The weather around these parts lately has been – hmm, how to phrase this most optimistically? – less than stellar.

Let’s start with March. We had measurable rain in Portland 29 out of 31 days. Even for the notoriously soggy Pacific Northwest, that’s a lot! It was also the 5th-wettest March on record, and the latest we have ever hit 60 degrees (March 31st – the old record was March 27th). I can remember plenty of years where our temperature soared well into the 70s the last week or two of March. Not this year!

So, when I got caught in a hailstorm the likes of which I hadn’t seen in a long time last week, I shouldn’t have been surprised. It was pretty much par for the course for a Spring where the trees remain bare and leafless and snow still coats the foothills to the east. Where the heat still runs constantly and I have yet to spend a day outside without a sweatshirt. I imagine eventually, at some point, the weather will warm up…but it may be September before that happens. Anyway…back to the hail.

I was sitting in my car, affectionately known as the Markmobile (because it’s just like the Batmobile, only white instead of black…and without any cool gadgets…and is an SUV…but otherwise, the spittin’ image!), in the drive-through lane of Burgerville. Because I’m a cheap bastard I like to get things for free, I decided to grab dinner there and use the points on my Reward Card to pay for it. Burgerville had generously added $5 to my card because April is my birthday month, so a free pepper bacon cheeseburger and rosemary shoestring fries sounded mighty appealing. Right before I headed out, I was on the phone lamenting that we hadn’t had a really good hailstorm in ages, which seems both ironic and random, but earlier in the day there’d been hail in southeastern Portland, and I was feeling left out of the action. “There are some really dark clouds moving in,” I noted right before hanging up and hopping in the car. Anyway, fast-forward ten minutes, and as I’m sitting there waiting for my food, I hear a ping. Followed by several more, in rapid succession. Ping, ping, ping. Suddenly and without warning, the sky opened up, and hailstones the size of marbles began raining down. Midwesterners might smirk, but for this part of the country, them’s some mighty big hailstones, lemme tell ya. It sounded like I was inside a pan full of exploding popcorn kernels.

“Oh, my God,” the drive-through dude remarked, observing the deluge while handing me my food. “Drive safely, okay?”

Ahh, nothing like Springtime in the Pacific Northwest! This is HAIL, not snow.

“Will do,” I replied, and headed out onto a roadway that had quickly been covered in slushy ice. Thunder boomed directly overhead, lightning split the sky, and torrential hail fell for the next twenty minutes, piling up to over 1″ deep. I was driving 20 mph, couldn’t see a thing because my windows were all fogged up and the windshield wipers weren’t doing squat, and decided that the smart course of action would be to pick up my phone and call the person I’d been chatting with earlier, to inform them that I was in the midst of a raging storm. Never mind the fact that talking on the phone while driving is against the law out here, and not the smartest – or safest – idea when Mother Nature is pummeling you with her fury. But hey, I survived!

All along, I’m thinking of the e-mail my mom had sent that very afternoon. About how it was sunny and 88 in Florida. My kids might as well have been spending Spring Break on the moon, as much as I could relate.

Speaking of trips to the moon (or other far-off travels in the ‘Verse), I recently discovered a wonderful, glorious sci-fi series called Firefly. Actually, I can’t even claim this discovery, as it was my friend Steven who pushed the series on me, insisting that it was brilliant and I’d love it. Funny thing is, Steven wasn’t the first person to sing the praises of Firefly to me; a girl I dated a few years ago was also a big fan and suggested I check it out. My attitude was yeah, yeah…if it’s so great, why did FOX cancel the series after only eleven episodes? After watching the series on DVD from start to finish (thanks for lending it to me, Steven!), I think the answer is quite simple: the people who ran FOX back in 2002 were either A) Smoking crack, B) Insane, or C) All of the above. Because I gotta say, I instantly fell in love with Firefly. It’s from Joss Whedon, the creator of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, so you know right off the bat it’s got a great pedigree.

Best sci-fi show ever. Watch it!! (Courtesy of

Growing up, I enjoyed all things space-related. I was your typical Star Wars-obsessed boy who also really dug Battlestar Galactica and Star Trek and Alien and even, god help me, The Black Hole. I ate that stuff up. Given my penchant for sci-fi, it’s a wonder I didn’t latch onto Firefly right from the start. It’s a great combination of Wild West-meets-outer space with a terrific cast full of divergent characters. They are all flawed, to some extent, but that only makes them more human. Nathan Fillion is Captain Malcom “Mal” Reynolds, and he’s every bit as cantankerous and law-skirting as Han Solo. His crew includes a female mechanic; an interracial married couple; a shepherd; a “companion” (legal prostitute); and a doctor and his mysterious, psychic sister who may or may not have been lobotomized, among others. It is wildly entertaining and features witty dialogue and action-filled story lines…and I’m totally in lust with Inara now. Sigh.  I’m glad that I got into the series – better late than never – but disappointed that it only lasted for such a limited run. I want more, dammit! But alas, other than the feature film Serenity – which I intend to watch this week – that’s all she wrote, sadly. If you have never seen Firefly, I have only one thing to say to you:

Watch it!!!