Itinerary: Cody WY - Sheridan - Devil's Tower - Bad Lands of South Dakota
In June despite a pandemic and social unrest, my 85 year old dad and I went on a 5000 mile drive through the mountain west, in his Buick, to visit his sisters in Texas and Montana.
After leaving Cody, WY, the plan was to continue east, taking the scenic route to the Bad Lands of South Dakota. Dad had never seen them and neither had I. I know, I know. How is that possible given the many trips to Spearfish every Labor Day weekend? Well, I don't have a good reason other than we had other priorities on those trips but this time would be different.
The route we chose took us through the small hamlet of Sheridan WY, home to famous rodeos and also home to my good friend and former colleague Jenae Neeson. Naester, as she's known by those of us back in Omaha, is a woman of the mountains and always has great tales of adventures in the higher altitudes. It's always a pleasure to see her and a stop would be perfect timing for a coffee refill. But before we arrived, we drove through some of the most stunning scenery I've seen in that part of Wyoming. Now it's tough to beat Yellowstone and the Tetons but on this side of the state, where the Big Horns rule, there are amazing views to be had. One of those was the eye popping drive through Shell Canyon. Even though it was drizzling, driving between sheer cliff walls and a rushing river was worth every minute. Until it wasn't. On the back side, after we went over a pass, fog had yet to lift out of the canyon, making driving practically impossible. We wight-knuckled it for about 30 minutes as we crawled at 10 MPH down the mountain. The only thing keeping me on the path were the yellow lines on either side of the road. My biggest fear was not seeing a car in front of me until it was too late or someone coming on us from behind. We couldn't see for maybe 10-15 feet in front of us. I turned on my hazards and hoped for the best. We had no idea if we were next to a wall or next to a cliff, the fog was that thick. But Able Mable got us down without issue. When we could finally see blue sky and the road in front of us, even Dad said he was pretty nervous and didn't want to have to do that ever again! After a drive like that, I didn't need a coffee, I needed a shot!
We arrived in Sheridan where we met Jenae at a small cafe. I walked in but didn't see her so we got a table. By the time I returned from the bathroom, she was walking by Dad who was spying the ice cream options. We exchanged big hugs, which I'm sure was terrifying to those in the cafe, but one can't be in Jenae's presence without a proper greeting. We sat for an hour or more and got her caught up on our shenanigans over the past week. Dad, being on vacation, ended up getting both an ice cream and coffee (it was only around 10 in the morning, after all) and chimed in a few times between bites. The time came too soon that we had to be getting back on the road. We said so long (it's never good bye) and headed off to Devil's Tower.
Dad took over the controls of Mable and we flew through the foothills of the Big Horns, home to ranch land and wide open sky. I'd never been to Devil's Tower and have always wanted to see the mammoth rock in the middle of nowhere. And as we drove I kept looking and looking but it wasn't until we were practically there that we saw it, which seems impossible. It literally juts out of the ground, completely out of place among the rolling hills.
We drove down to the entrance to the park but didn't feel the need to get any closer. It was good enough to see it from the point we were at. We stopped for a quick potty break and since it was so hot and full of tourists, we turned around and headed back the way we came, only this time I got back behind the wheel. Too much steep terrain for Dad which was fine. We hopped on 90 and drove east towards the Black Hills. On the way, we went by Spearfish SD, which is right on the boarder of Wyoming, where I've raced every year since 2006 in the Dakota Five-0. From the interstate, you can see the race route that took us out of town and up into the hills. It was up in the air at that time if the race was still going to happen. Ryan and I had signed up for it in April, not knowing the pandemic would literally crush any large gatherings for the rest of the summer.
Our next drive by would take us through Sturgis and Deadwood. Both towns were full of tourists, and barely anyone with masks. Dad talked of the few times he attended the Sturgis Rally (which was scheduled to still happen, regardless). He went once by car and another by motorcycle. He even camped one year. Hard to believe considering how feeble he is now. He recalled enjoying seeing all the different types of motorcycles (he had a Honda Gold Wing at the time) but didn't care for all the T&A and fowl language. Dad has spent a solid percentage of his life in pubs, bars and seedy pool halls and yet he really has a low tolerance for fowl language, especially from women.
Before heading to the Bad Lands, I took a look at Google Maps to see if there was a more scenic route instead of taking 90 into Wall. Good thing I did because the more scenic route was closed due to Covid. The road into the western entrance went through Indian territory and to keep the virus out of those communities, they had closed access. Good for them! So it was back onto I-90 and to the town of Wall. It was late afternoon by the time we arrived but I was able to get us the last two single rooms in a small motel. We unloaded our bags and decided to head into the Badlands NP to see what there was to see.
Immediately after entering, a large mountain goat was standing in the middle of the road. And to Dad's giggling joy, an adult buffalo was not too far off. Que the music: "Oh, give me a home, where the buffalo roam and the deer and the antelope play." Like, literally, that song was playing out before our eyes. But apposed to the next lyrics, the skies were a bit cloudy which played to our advantage. Not many people and it made for some pretty spectacular photos.
We stopped at the first pull out that had a long flight of steps down to another level. The sun was cooking us so Dad stayed in the car while I played tourist. As we drove along, the people became fewer and fewer and the colors better and better. Like in Cody, driving back from the Sunlight Bridge, Dad started getting into the excitement of seeing some pretty strange terrain and would look up from his book and tell me to take a photo of a certain area. He never got out of the car but that was fine. I on the other hand was like a kid in a candy store, pointing my phone in all directions. On our way back towards the entrance, the storms in the distance were in full view and was just marvelous to watch the clouds and curtains of rain float across the horizon.
Then, just as we were about to exit, I spotted a group of mountain goats, looking to be settling in for the night. We drove up a gravel road and pulled over to admire the grazing animals. Then to our surprise, a baby goat popped up over the cliff edge and it was all I could do to stay in the car. The timing was perfect and not another car in sight. We saw a few more buffalo as we left the park and thought maybe we'd return in the morning.
By the time we got back to the motel, we were starving. I found what looked to be a modern looking bar and grill that was open to the public. There were barely any cars out front, which boded well for social distancing. We both ordered BLTs and a couple of drinks, and proceeded to toast the end of our trip, save for the drive home. Dad's a talker and will weave a tale til kingdom come so I figured at the very least I'd given him some new material to draw upon. We both agreed this was a very fun adventure, thinking maybe we should go somewhere new next year. He even offered up his surprise at how smoothly it went and how much he enjoyed being able to see new things and not be on some kind of agenda to get somewhere. It's interesting to me how I'm one who yearns to take the roads less traveled; who dreams of adventures to come, while Dad has never been one to take a real vacation. And maybe it's because he already lives a life of leisure on a river that provides all the necessary room for an aging fisherman to wander and wonder about mysteries of life. I'll never really know. But what I do know is this: I am the lucky one. Life gave me a gift, despite all the signals to the contrary, to have this extraordinary experience with my dad. I heard stories never told to me, met relatives who welcomed me and was given a chance to see my Dad in a different way, from a different time. All of these things only strengthened our bond, making us even better friends. And even though we have some things in common like a love for the outdoors, Dr. Pepper and Clint Eastwood westerns, this trip has given us a shared experience that we will be able to talk about and relive together many times over.
Truth be told, I was skeptical of this whole venture at first. With so many on the fly logistics, Dad's stubbornness about certain things, (and my short temper surrounding those things), plus the uncertainty in the world, I worried that it would be fraught with roadblocks. But what I learned and what came to fruition was that if you let love drive, and if I may paraphrase Henry Miller, the destination becomes not actually a place, but a new way of looking at things.
11 states in 13 days
6 mountain passes
Thank you, Dad, for trusting my driving, my motel choice (aside from the roach motel) and believing that the best views are the ones yet to come. I love you.