It sure is lonely out here is the first thing you think staring at the miles and miles of flat plains blowing against a cold arctic wind. At night, South Dakota feels like a black hole centered on some alien world. A sudden panicked fear seizes you tight in the chest as you realize civilization is as many miles back as forward, and you’re adrift in this sea of grain, on a lonesome road, with only your headlights and the occasional big rig to keep you company.
Only an idiot would vacation through the Midwest in the dead of winter, my daddy had said and repeated in the months before our trip with a grumbling gusto. Yet he still found himself one of us idiots, tugging a small camper behind our dusty pickup truck, with not another idiot around for miles.
At night the jagged rocks of the Badlands National Park seemed like giant angry teeth twisted and gnarled toward us. The campsite that we had booked online for the night was at the bottom of a long and twisted road that ran past a motel, closed for the winter, and a couple equally lifeless double-wide trailers, out into the darkness of the prairie. The campsite was empty, the gate locked with an iron rusted chain, and a sign that said, “Closed for Winter.”
What now? The panic cried as all those vacation dreams turned to a horror movie tempo beating in your chest as you know too well what happens to lost travelers on empty roads. The camper groaned as we turned sharply to avoid the edge of a gushing river. The GPS in all its brilliant 21st Century innovation pointed directly off in the black, a road endless and so narrow it could have been a capillary on screen.
Instead, we turned tail and fled, back past the trailers and closed motel and up through the Badlands, back to a gas station we passed about 20 miles back. We made camp there for the evening with a few weary tired truckers and hid in our turtle shell, wishing away the terror of the darkness around us.
If you are vacationing through the Midwest during December, then you must be prepared to get up pretty early. The sun sets around 4 pm, dimming the world to shadows. But in the morning, South Dakota’s as beautiful as it ever was. The flatness gives way to rolling hills of bronze and stumps sticking out of half frozen creek beds, and at the Badlands, rocky lunar landscape.
We were among a handful of idiots as my dad would say, out walking the chalky trails. The park rangers had packed it up for the winter, not caring about the handful of dollars they would have made off of us. If you’re mad enough to be out here, then feel free. Two lazy mountain goats chewed at the grass, not bothering to get up as we stopped to take a photo. It was silent except for the sweeping of the wind, almost taking my cap as it came up and over the mountainous cliff. As we walked, we hummed to ourselves, wondering if these were truly the lands where the buffalo roamed.
That evening we passed through Rapid City, seemingly the only source of light in all of South Dakota. Cars honked at traffic signs, moving to and from we’ll never know. A Walmart lit up with the golden assurance that we had found the vestiges of civilization. But, we continued forward past all the lights back into the darkness, on a mission to see the famed Mount Rushmore before we retired for the night.
The landscape was now pocketed by mountains, as tall as the old gods, of pine and evergreen. We were once again the only car on the road as we passed through a tunnel into the resort town of Keystone. The shops were all closed with not a tourist in site. No gemstone stores or panning for gold or even hot overpriced meal. The gas station had its pumps shut off. The hotel was empty except for an exit sign shining red from a third-floor window. The traffic light told us to stop, but there was not another car in sight.
If you continue pass this oddity, this empty omen to turn around and run, you’ll come upon the great Mount Rushmore National Park equally as empty at night in the dead of winter. We had our choice of parking spots, interrupting a group of teens smoking pot in their van. They eyed us suspiciously as we walked up the Avenue of Flags, one for every state and territory.
At night, the presidents look like they were carved from soap, a spotlight illuminating every earthy pore. Part of me wonders if they sit sadly in winter, abandoned on their perch far off from anyone to see them. And maybe, they’re glad then for fools like us.