a trip through no-man’s land

As we drove from Fort Collins up towards Douglas, Wyoming, then veering off the Interstate into South Dakota, we were treated to an endless nearly pristine prairie landscape. The lack of topographical features wouldn’t be so pronounced if it wasn’t for the lack of everything else – people, cars, houses, trees, even the cattle that are suppoed to be the ones who have free reign over this area. It’s more undulating terrain than Illinois, and rather than an endless alternation between corn and soybeans, primarily what you see from the highway are even more endless expanses of grassland. It can’t look much different than it did 150 years ago when people started wandering out here in greater numbers.

My fun-to-know fact about Wyoming is that it is the 9th largest state in area, but is the least populated state, containing a measly 500,000 people (50,000 of which are in Cheyenne). Driving through this stretch of eastern Wyoming, the sparsest area of them all, you can’t help but believe it. We poked around the hotel longer than we needed to this morning, getting in on the free breakfast, but this time without the waffles, before beginning the first long driving day of the trip. That 75 mph speed limit made the time go by, we made a pit stop in Cheyenne to see a bit of downtown, but ended up caught in bunch of blocked off streets because of a parade, so we didn’t see as much as we wanted. Might be able to pass through again on Monday on our way back. Then it was about another 100 miles north on I-25 almost to Douglas, with barely any signs of civilization along the way.

Turning right off the interstate, we stopped at a little truck stop/diner for a surprisingly decent lunch, and then we zigzagged through the eastern edge of Wyoming and into South Dakota following US 18 until we reached Hot Springs at about 3pm. At the southern edge of the Black Hills, there was still little evidence of civilization or other tourists until we got to our first destination at the so-called Mammoth Site, a working archeological dig that has been in operation for 30 years uncovering the largest collection of mammoth fossils anywhere. What’s neat about this set-up is that is entirely indoors, so it must be among the cushier archeology sites one can work at. Oddly enough, they only have people digging there on a regular basis for a few weeks of the year, primarily volunteer labor from some outfit called Earthwatch. Then they spend the rest of the year analyzing and cataloguing what they find. We spent a couple of hours there taking the tour around the dig and going through the museum and gift shop. The kids even thought it was relatively interesting.

Wind Cave National Park was just up the road and even though it was pushing toward dinnertime it seemed like we should go ahead and check it out instead of putting it off for another day and potentially missing it entirely. As we drove up the road, Beth read the park guide she’d picked up, which said there was a tour leaving in less than half an hour. We made it there and switched to sneakers and grabbed jackets and sweatshirts and got our tickets with a few minutes to spare. The tour guide took a group of about 40 of us on the “Natural Entrance Tour” or something like that, starting at ground level and going down a series of 300 steps until we were nearly 200 feet below ground. What’s odd about this cave is that there are virtually no stalactites/stalagmites to be seen, but instead some elaborate crisscrossing deposits on the walls and ceilings called boxwork. Wind Cave claims to have 95% of the known boxwork deposits in the world’s caves. The tour took a little over an hour, ending with an elevator ride back to the surface.

We stopped at Pizza Hut in Custer on our way north to Rapid City, and finally got to our hotel shortly after 9, the last stretch in the dark but driven while being treated to a spectacular lightning display. We drove right past the turnoff for the Crazy Horse Monument, which we’ll circle back to tomorrow, along with the star attraction, Mount Rushmore.