Into the west - Part 2: The eyes of giants

Into the west - Part 2: The eyes of giants

The bitter mid-May temperatures woke us long before the sun crept over the horizon on day two of our road trip out west.

The night before, we’d pitched camp at Sage Creek Campground in Badlands National Park.

It was just after 6 a.m. when we pulled ourselves from our sleeping bags. I was cold. The temperature was well below freezing and a sheet of ice had formed on the rain fly of the tent.

Despite several layers of warm clothing and a quality sleeping bag rated for these temperatures, I hadn’t slept well.

The cold had chilled me to the bone.

Niecie had faired much better than I had. We’d purchased her a new sleeping bag before the trip. It was just a cheap Coleman sleeping bag, but it had managed to keep her warm all through the night.

As the sun rose above the cliffs of the Badlands, we broke camp. It didn’t take us very long before we were on our way into Wall, or so we’d thought.

060316-ab-fea-in2w-p2 west

We were barely out of camp before we stopped in our tracks by a big burly buffalo who obviously wasn’t on a schedule.

We’d barely made it out of the campsite before we were stopped in our tracks by a burly hulk of a bison, who was leisurely walking his way across the road.

Take your time, Mr. Buffalo, I’ve got a camera for a reason, I thought to myself.

10 miles up the road and we were entering Wall, South Dakota.

Against all odds: Wall Drug

 061016-ab-fea-in2w-p2-1 west

Wall Drug is, in its essence, a success story in enticing a captive audience.

Growing up, Niecie had spent vacation after vacation visiting Wall with her family.

To me, it sounded like a tourist trap, but she described it as something almost magical.

As it turned out, I wasn’t far off, but unlike so many tourist traps, Wall had became one out of necessity.

The little town become famous for the quick thinking and brilliant marketing plan laid out by the Hustead family, who’d risked their livelihood when they first purchased the only drug store in Wall in 1931.

Today, Wall Drug attracts more than 2 million visitors each year.

At the time, just 300 people lived in the sleepy farming community.

To attract customers to his little store front, his wife began advertising free ice water and 5 cent coffee along the highway.

Before long, travelers began stopping off to fill up on water, grab a cup of coffee or more importantly buy something from Hustead’s store.

Today, the little town is internationally recognized and attracts nearly 2 million visitors annually.

Breakfast in the West

061016-ab-fea-in2w-p2-2 west

Wall Drug is a lot bigger than it looks. The outdoor mall has several little shops and more than a few animatronic bands.

Our first stop was Wall Drug’s diner, where we had breakfast. While Niecie enjoyed a meal of eggs, ham, toast and some kind of fried potato thing, I enjoyed one of Wall’s famous donuts and a cup of 5-cent coffee.

I had to admit, it was about 5 cents better than what comes out of the pot at work, but to my chilled bones, it was the best coffee in the world.

After breakfast, we toured Wall Drug. We enjoyed the animatronic bands, took a few photos, perused the gift shop, and took aim at the shooting gallery.

Our last stop before leaving Wall was to revisit a terror from Niecie’s past, Wall Drug’s famous animatronic t-rex.

The leathery beast gets loose every 15 minutes with a bellowing vengeance.

“Still pretty scary,” Niecie remarked. As a child the big lizard terrified her.

Sure, Wall Drug may be a tourist trap, but, in my mind, that’s okay. Wall Drug is honest, even proud, of what it is.

Mount Rushmore

060316-ab-fea-in2w-p2-3 west

Despite less than ideal weather during our stop in Keystone, it wasn’t stopping us or hundreds of other visitors from enjoying the view.

From Wall, we drove to Keystone where we made a stop at Mount Rushmore.

I’d always been told that, to fully understand the shear immensity of the monument, you have to see it in person.

Having experienced the monument, I would have to say I agree.

It was like standing under the eyes of giants.

I have to admit, I didn’t know a lot about the monument before we arrived.

While we were there, we enjoyed a brief film about the making of the monument. We learned that much of the sculpture was actually carved using dynamite and only the fine details were carved into the stone away by hand.

061016-ab-fea-in2w-p2-3 west

The view of Washington from a split in a bolder along the hiking trail around the monument.

The monument was the brainchild of Gutzon Borglum.

Borglum was a brilliant sculptor, hell-bent on leaving his mark on the world.

He took it upon himself to immortalize the likeness of four great American leaders: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodor Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln.

The monument is truly a testament to American ingenuity.

Before we hit the road, we took the opportunity to take a short hike around the monument. On the trail we got to see the monument from an entirely different angle.

We really didn’t spend much time exploring around Mount Rushmore. A thick mask of clouds obscured the sun and drove temperatures down to a still pleasant 65 degrees.

Eager to reach our destination before nightfall, we returned to the car and set out for Wyoming.