Friday, February 24, 2017

ode to the Black Hills.

I am in love with the Black Hills.

Join the club, right?

Like many a South Dakotan child, I looked forward to a trip to the Black Hills nearly every summer. The Black Hills was the ultimate family destination spot. I grew up approximately six hours from the Rapid City area, which is for sure a long way for my parents to haul three children in a Chevy Lumina (and later, a Ford Windstar).

We went to the Black Hills for a number of reasons: first and foremost, because it’s awesome. The Black Hills are FULL of activities for families. 
Three generations of Black Hills adventurers! Look at how young we are!
Just off the top of my head, I can remember going to Storybook Island, Rushmore Cave, Mount Rushmore (obviously), Reptile Gardens, and Dinosaur Park – not to mention the endless hiking, exploring, swimming, and picnicking. 
Fun fact: the first time we went to Mount Rushmore, it rained so hard that we couldn't see the faces.
My sister and I had no idea what the big deal about Mount Rushmore was.
And let's not forget all the goofy souvenir stores in Keystone, the abundance of ice cream shops, and the Old West-iness that was at once totally kitschy yet absolutely charming.

And that's just the Black Hills of my childhood! Now that I am an adult, my Black Hills activity roster has expanded. Dinosaur Park is a must for every visit, but I now aim more for the wineries and the scenery. It's MAGICAL.

The other main reason my family made a nearly-annual summer pilgrimage to the Black Hills because it was a perfect place to meet our family from Colorado. It's just over a five-hour drive from my hometown of Arlington to Rapid City, and our family from Denver and Colorado Springs could make the journey in six or seven hours. Not exactly halfway, but pretty close: and let's be honest, there's really nowhere else to meet and hang out in between Arlington and Denver.
Hanging out with said cousins in Deadwood circa the late 90s.

When I was a kid, I didn't appreciate the majesty of the Black Hills. All I really knew was that going to the Black Hills meant I'd get to hang out with my uncle, aunt, and various cousins, so that meant that I liked it there. I thought the drive was SO LONG, though surely not as long as my parents thought it was.

Every time we'd go to the Black Hills, we'd stop at Wall Drug. Wall Drug meant you were almost there, but you HAD to stop for free ice water and to see the animatronic dinosaur. 
Wall Drug is nothing more than a giant set of souvenir shops lining the streets of one tiny town, but somehow, it's the major tourist attraction that we all know. I spent many a hard-earned allowance dollar at Wall Drug: most notably on a wooden duck on wheels at the end of a long wooden stick when I was twelve. You push the duck around, and its rubber flippers flap, and our cat is terrified of it.

Even with all the majesty of Wall Drug, it took until adulthood to truly appreciate the Black Hills and all it had to offer. Specifically: a trip there with my then-boyfriend James in summer 2012. James, a Minnesotan, had never really spent time in the great South Dakotan west: he had been near Mount Rushmore for some kind of jazz band function in college, and he and I had driven quickly through on our way home from Denver in summer 2009. James had never TRULY experienced the majesty of the Black Hills, and I – swelling with South Dakota pride – made it my mission to show him just what he’d been missing all these years.

At that point, we’d been dating for almost five years, and this was to be our first real adult vacation together. Sure, we’d gone to New Orleans together in college, and we’d had countless weekends in Minneapolis… and the time we spent about twelve hours in Colorado before we drove back from my unpaid Denver internship summer was kind of a vacation, but not really. This time would be different. This time, we were driving out together, staying in a hotel, and planning activities: LIKE REAL ADULTS.

And guess what happened on that trip? James proposed to me in Dinosaur Park.

The rest of the trip was mostly a blur, but I do remember getting to pet a teeny alligator at Reptile Gardens and have some truly fabulous ice cream at a tiny place near our downtown hotel. Successful vacation for sure.

James and I went back to the Black Hills for our first anniversary – after all, Dinosaur Park will forever be a special spot. 
That vacation was AMAZING – we had taken more adult vacations in the two years since, and we had figured out our vacation style. On our 2014 trip, we were fortunate enough to have my parents’ Mustang (!!!), which was a vacation in itself. James and I found our current favorite bagel shop, we explored Badlands National Park (in 105 degree heat), we hung out at the teeniest cutest Norwegian church, we cruised around the Keystone area and went swimming at a lake that we stumbled across, we had wine at Prairie Berry, we went on a zipline… and that’s how we vacation.

James’s and my last voyage to the Black Hills area was in summer 2015. We drove through on our way to and from Colorado, and every visit to the Black Hills warrants a stop at Dinosaur Park. (Obviously.) 
We had precious little time in Rapid City, so all we really got to do was kayak on Canyon Lake. But that was beautiful, and that was enough.

In October 2016, Mom and I went to the Black Hills to do the Crazy Horse Volksmarch: a six-mile roundtrip hike up and down Crazy Horse. The Volksmarch was in early October, and we had the most beautiful weather. That weekend with Mom was a blast – I did so many Black Hills things that I hadn’t done before, and I love the Black Hills all the more for it. That October trip with Mom was truly a transformative visit for me: we stayed in Deadwood, and I played slot machines for the first time in my life! (It didn’t go well.) We had coffee and bagels at a converted gas station/garage. We had weird ice cream in Spearfish. We drove through Spearfish Canyon to see the colors, and we rode with the top down on the Mustang. We took scenic route after scenic route, and my jaw was dropped from start to finish.

And the Volksmarch! It was a tough hike (up a mountain, after all), and the temperature flirted with 80 degrees. But the view from the top?

Ever since that trip, I can’t stop thinking about the Black Hills. Much like my newfound love for northern Minnesota, my love for the Black Hills is strong and won’t let me be. The Black Hills has so much to offer – though vastly different from northern Minnesota, they both have the rugged wild beauty that I love so much. There is nothing quite like the Badlands, and I could go there every day for the rest of my life and not get tired of the view. I love the history, and I love the stories. I love that it’s still part of my home state, but it feels like a whole world away.

Dear Black Hills: I’ll see you again soon.

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