We arrived in Sturgis yesterday afternoon. There isn’t much to this town if you’re not into motorcycles, but the campground where we’re staying is convenient to I-90, and Sturgis is close to some of the places we want to see in this area.
Today. we visited Deadwood, South Dakota, where Wild Bill Hickok was murdered on August 2, 1876. Deadwood is the end of the line for the George S. Mickelson Trail as well as the Burlington Northern line that ran from Edgemont, SD to Deadwood. Some of the original tracks can be seen on the side of the trail as well as a railroad switch, which enabled trains to be moved from one track to another. A machine shop with huge doors still stands not far from the trailhead, and tracks run all the way up to the building and presumably inside.
For those of you who were fans of HBO’s original series Deadwood, you may be surprised to learn that some of the characters from the show were actual people from Deadwood’s early days. Seth Bullock was the first sheriff of Deadwood. Al Swearengen owned the Gem Theatre, which was basically a brothel, E.B. Farnum owned the general store, Sol Star was Bullock’s business partner. The pair owned a hardware store in Deadwood. Charlie Utter was Wild Bill Hickok’s friend and companion.
I’m beginning to think that history is not much different than the six degrees of separation theory, which states that any person on the planet can be connected to any other person on the planet through a chain of acquaintances that has no more than five intermediaries. For instance, there is a sculpture of Wild Bill Hickok in Deadwood sculpted by Korczak Ziolkowski, who designed the Crazy Horse Monument. Ziolkowski also worked for Gutzon Borglum briefly on the Mount Rushmore monument.
And speaking of Mount Rushmore, Seth Bullock and Theodore Roosevelt were good friends. There is conflicting information as to what year the pair actually met, but both men agreed it was when Bullock was a deputy sheriff of Medora, North Dakota, and Roosevelt was a deputy sheriff of Billings County, North Dakota. Bullock was in the process of bringing a horse thief named Crazy Steve into custody on the range when he encountered Roosevelt for the first time. The pair quickly formed a friendship that would last until Roosevelt’s death on January 6, 1919. Bullock died less than nine months later.
Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane, and Seth Bullock, are all buried in Mount Moriah Cemetery in Deadwood. The cemetery sits high on a mountain overlooking the town. Wild Bill was originally buried at Ingleside Cemetery, downhill from Mount Moriah. In the 1880s, it was determined that the land where Ingleside was located could be better used for housing. Most of the bodies were moved up the mountain to Mount Moriah and reinterred.
After Roosevelt’s death, Bullock and the Society of the Black Hills Pioneers built a thirty-one foot tower known as Friendship Tower on Sheep Mountain (later renamed Mount Roosevelt) as a memorial to Bullock’s friend. Bullock died a few months after the tower’s dedication. Before his death, Bullock requested that he be buried high above Mount Moriah on a plot of ground facing Mount Roosevelt. Bullock’s grave rises about 750 feet above the main portion of the cemetery. Harry and I climbed the steep path (gasp, gasp) to see Bullock’s grave. Later that afternoon, we hiked the half-mile path to Friendship Tower atop the 5,690-foot summit of Mount Roosevelt.
We were too tired from the exertion of climbing two steep paths to ride our bikes on the Mickelson Trail in Deadwood, so we took a walk on the trail instead. This section of the trail was paved with asphalt. We only walked about a quarter of a mile, so I’m not sure how far the pavement went, but from what I’ve read, the only section of the trail that is paved is within the city limits of Custer, SD. I guess it just goes to prove you can’t believe everything you read.
The saloons and brothels that once stood on Main Street in Deadwood have given way to restaurants, souvenir shops and casinos. Even the Bullock Hotel, the first hotel built in Deadwood, boasts a casino. Seth Bullock and Sol Star built the hotel, after their hardware store burned down in 1894.
I cannot help but wonder what Bullock and the other early settlers of Deadwood would think of their little town now.
The weather in the Black Hills is fickle; it can be sunny one minute and hailing the next. The latter is what greeted us Monday afternoon on our return to the campground from Custer State Park. Luckily, the hailstorm passed quickly, with no noticeable drop in temperatures.
The unpredictable weather took a turn for the better yesterday, and we returned to Mount Rushmore for a better view of the monument. The longer you stare at it, the more details you’ll notice about this incredible carving.
Interestingly enough, Gutzon Borglum longed to build a secret room within the mountain, which was intended to hold some of America’s treasured documents. The space was to be drilled into the north wall of a small canyon behind the faces. Construction of the hall began in July 1938. Over the course of the next year, Borglum and his men blasted a 70-foot tunnel into the mountain. Work on the Great Hall ceased when Congress decreed that work should be confined to the faces on the mountain.
The original plans for the carving called for the sculpture to depict the four presidents from head to waist, but the project was cut short when the allocated funds ran out. If you look closely at Washington’s likeness, you can see the lapels of his jacket.
Although Borglum’s vision for the Hall of Records had to be abandoned, the idea remained. Borglum died on March 6, 1941, and work on the memorial came to a close seven months later. On August 9, 1988, Borglum’s dream was recognized when a repository of records was placed in the floor of the rough-cut hall entrance. This storehouse consists of a teakwood box inside a titanium vault, covered by a granite capstone. Etched on the capstone is the following quote by Gutzon Borglum:
“Let us place there, carved high, as close to heaven as we can, the words of our leaders, their faces, to show posterity what manner of men they were. Then breathe a prayer that these records will endure until the wind and rain alone shall wear them away.”
The repository contains sixteen porcelain enamel panels, inscribed with the story of Mount Rushmore’s history. The vault is not accessible to visitors, but rather is left as a record for people eons from now who may wonder how and why Mount Rushmore was carved.
After leaving Mount Rushmore for the second time, we returned to the campground and set out on our bikes to ride on the George S. Mickelson Trail. Part of the trail parallels the campground that has been our home for the past six days. You may recall from one of my previous post that Mickelson was the South Dakota governor who died in a plane crash in 1993.
The 109-mile Mickelson Trail is the first rails-to-trails trail built in South Dakota. It follows the historic Deadwood to Edgemont Chicago, Burlington & Quincy (the CB&Q, or simply, “the Burlington”) line that was abandoned in 1983. The trail was built thanks to the determination of a great many advocates, among them the late Governor George S. Mickelson, who played a vital role in the trail’s early success. In 1991, he dedicated the first six miles of the trail, which was originally called the Black Hills Burlington Northern Heritage Trail. Following Mickelson’s tragic death, the trail was biffittingly renamed in his honor.
Harry and I have only ridden our bikes once in the past eighteen months, but that did not dissuade us from strapping on our helmets and hitting the trail. The trail is primarily gravel and crushed limestone, fairly easy to navigate with our cruiser bikes. We passed over eight or nine bridges, traveled along creeks, peddled past cow pastures and biked past private homes. We rode about four miles before we decided we should turn back. Most of the trail has a four percent or less grade, which is great if you’re riding downhill, not so great if you’re going uphill, which is what we had to do to return to the campground. But we took it slow and easy, the same way we like to travel, and made it back home in one piece.
Several of our destinations in South Dakota will intersect with the Mickelson Trail. We hope to ride a short section of the trail at each one. I cannot explain why I am so drawn to this trail. Maybe it is because trains have fascinated me since I was a little girl. If you listen closely enough as you bike across the historic railbed, you can almost hear the clatter of wheels on the tracks.
Winter-like weather greeted us when we rolled into Hill City, South Dakota, Friday afternoon. Hill City is known as the “Heart of the Hills,” due to its close proximity to both the geographical center of the Black Hills, and the local tourist attractions.
It rained off and on the first two days we were here, and the temperatures hovered in the forties. On Saturday, we decided to brave the rain and cold and visit Mount Rushmore. It is after all, the inspiration for our trip.
South Dakota historian Doane Robinson is credited for conceiving the idea to carve the likenesses of famous people on a mountain in the Black Hills to promote tourism in the region. Had Robinson had his way, we would be looking at Lewis and Clark, Red Cloud, and Buffalo Bill Cody atop Mount Rushmore instead of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln. It was the sculptor, Gutzon Borglum, who selected the four presidents for the monument. Borglum felt the quartet represented the most important events in the history of the United States: Washington was the father of the new country and laid the foundation for democracy; Jefferson represented growth; Roosevelt represented development; and Lincoln represented preservation.
The mountain was shrouded in fog when we arrived. Undeterred, we waited out the low-hanging clouds and our persistence finally paid off. As if it had been orchestrated, the fog begin to shift, moving slowly from left to right, as one by one, it unveiled the faces of the four presidents. It was still overcast, but at least the “mountain was out,” as they say. We decided to take the Presidential Trail for a closer look at the iconic carving. Part of the trail is closed for renovations, but the path we took was open to the base of Mt. Rushmore, where I was able to get some halfway decent shots of the sculpture.
Sunday morning’s weather was a repeat of Saturdays, but we decided to take a chance and visit the Crazy Horse Memorial. Thunderhead Mountain was blanketed in fog when we arrived, so we went to the welcome center and watched a film on the making of the sculpture. Afterward, we toured the museum, which has countless pieces of American Indian art and artifacts from tribes across North America. Nearly all of the relics on display were donated.
Crazy Horse was a leader of the Oglala Lakota tribe. He was born circa 1840, and was originally named Curly, because of his wavy hair. In his mid-teens he was already a full-fledged warrior. After Curly reached maturity and strength, his father, also named Crazy Horse, gave his son his name and took a new name, Worm, for himself. On June 25, 1876, Crazy Horse led a band of Lakota warriors against Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer’s Seventh U.S. Calvary, at what would later be called the Battle of Little Big Horn or Custer’s Last Stand. Two hundred and sixty-eight officers, soldiers, Indian scouts and civilians perished at Little Big Horn, including Custer, his two brothers, and his brother-in-law.
It is a misconception that Custer was a general at the time of his death. Custer was initially commissioned a second lieutenant in the 2nd U.S. Calvary Regiment. In June of 1862, he was promoted to the rank of captain. By the age of 23, he was brevetted (temporarily appointed) to brigadier general. In 1864, Custer was brevetted to major general, a position he would hold until after the war was over and the volunteer troops had mustered out. At that point, he reverted to his permanent rank of captain. He was promoted to lieutenant colonel in July 1866, a position he would hold until he died.
On January 8, 1877, Crazy Horse’s warriors fought their last major battle against the U.S. Calvary at Wolf Mountain, in the Montana territory. His people struggled through the winter, weakened by hunger and cold. Crazy Horse ultimately decided to surrender with his band to protect them. Under a flag of truce, Crazy Horse went to Fort Robinson in Northwest Nebraska. Four months later, a bayonet-wielding military guard fatally wounded Crazy Horse. He died either that night or the following day.
There are no known photographs of Crazy Horse. He believed that having his picture taken would take a part of his soul and shorten his life. Consequently, Zorczak Ziolkowski, the sculptor in charge of the project, created Crazy Horse’s likiness for the sculpture based on descriptions from survivors of the Battle of Little Big Horn, and other contemporaries of Crazy Horse.
The Crazy Horse sculpture is a work in progress. If and when it is finished, it will depict the Lakota warrior riding a horse and pointing into the distance. Since the fog never lifted during our visit, we were unable to view the monument, so we decided to try our luck again today.
We awoke to sunshine and warmer temperatures this morning, and returned to the Crazy Horse Memorial to view the carving. The monument is located a mile from the welcome center, accessible only by bus. During the short ride, our tour guide told us some interesting facts about the carving: Crazy Horse’s face is 87’6” high. In comparison, the heads of each of the four presidents on Mount Rushmore are each 60’ high. This year mark’s the 70th anniversary of the Crazy Horse Memorial. There is no estimated date for the carving’s completion. Ziolkowski began work on the monument in 1948. He died in 1982. After his death, his wife, Ruth, took charge of the sculpture, opting to complete Crazy Horse’s face instead of his horse, as Zorczak originally planned. Four of Zorczak’s children and several of his grandchildren now work for the Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation. The foundation does not accept any federal of state funding. The project is financed only by admissions and contributions.
After viewing the carving, we drove to nearby Custer State Park, named for Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer. I suppose it is a paradox to go from the memorial of the man ultimately responsible for Custer’s death to the park named in Custer’s honor, but we cannot simply eliminate the portions of our nation’s history we find distasteful. It is these vignettes of America’s past, stitched together like pieces of cloth on an infinite quilt, that make our country what it is today.
Custer State Park is huge, covering over 71,000 acres of hilly terrain. The park was founded in 1912, and is home to numerous wild animals, including nearly 1,300 bison. The park features an annual bison roundup and auction on the last Friday in September, drawing more than 10,000 people. Several hundred bison are sold at auction each year. The park began the annual roundup back in the 1960s in order to eradicate brucellosis, a bacterial infection that spreads from animals to people. The herd was certified brucellosis free in 1965, allowing for the sale of live animals. The annual roundup is used in conjunction with the fall sale as a way to manage the size of the herd, and to provide an opportunity to brand and vaccinate the calves. On average, the park’s grasslands can support about 1,400 head of bison.
After driving on the Wildlife Loop—the only things we saw were bison—we made our way over to the Needles Highway. It is a nearly 38-mile state highway that snakes its way through the Black Hills. It was named for the region of eroded high granite pillars, pinnacles and spires located within Custer State Park. The highlight of the highway is the Needles Eye Tunnel, the narrowest tunnel in South Dakota. Only one car can go through the tunnel at a time, and according to what I’ve read, huge charter buses manage to squeeze through the tunnel on a daily basis.
The last few days have been a bit crazy. We left Oacoma around 10:00 am Monday and pointed Moho’s nose toward Wall, home of Wall Drug, and not much else. We were about thirty miles from Wall when a trucker pulled up beside us, honked his horn and pointed at our motorhome. It’s the universal signal for “you have a flat tire or some other problem with your vehicle.”
We have a tire pressure monitoring system in our motorhome, so we thought the problem was with our toad. It turned out that one of the bay doors on the passenger side of our motorhome was open. We always double-check the bay doors to make certain they are locked before we leave, so even though the door was locked, it managed to swing open. About that time a pickup truck pulled in behind us. Harry walked over to let the driver know he had the situation under control, when the man handed Harry a pair of shoes that had fallen out of the bay when the door opened. Harry thanked the man for his kindness, closed and relocked the bay door, and we went on our merry way. About fifteen minutes later, a woman pulled up beside us in her car and blew the horn and pointed at our motorhome. By now Harry knew the routine, so he pulled off the road again, and sure enough, the bay door had opened up once more. To make matters worse, we were parked on a slope, and water was pouring out of our fresh water tank via the overflow hoses. Harry examined the lock, and discovered it was not making good contact with the latch. He “Harry-rigged” it as best he could, and we drove on toward Wall. I was assigned the task of staring at the side view mirror for the next twenty-five miles to make certain the bay door hadn’t opened again. Boy, was that ever fun.
We reached Wall without further incident, and parked behind Wall Drug Store. We had heard mixed reviews about this roadside attraction, so we decided to see it for ourselves. It was a waste of time. What started out as a small town drugstore has grown into an indoor shopping mall, with one difference: all of the shops operate under a single entity. It was basically one souvenir shop after another, and I am not a fan of souvenir shops.
The Buffalo Gap National Grasslands, where we planned to boondock for three nights, was about seven miles from Wall Drug, on South Dakota Highway 240. We unhooked our Jeep, left the motorhome in Wall Drug’s rear parking lot, and drove to scout out the location. We had the GPS coordinates for the spot, including landmarks, and easily found the turnoff for the area approved for overnight parking. It proved to be way better than I expected. It is basically a large pasture with a dirt road that has been packed down, no doubt by heavy rigs. The grassy area along the bluff had also been packed down, and even though it was supposed to rain that night, we had no qualms about camping there.
Our only problem was that we had lost about fifty gallons of water from the time we left Oacoma until we reached Wall. We knew we’d lost a good bit of water when we pulled over on the side of the interstate the second time, but Harry reasoned that we’d probably also lost a lot of water going up and down the hills on I-90, what with the water sloshing around in the tank. In hindsight, we discovered it doesn’t pay to fill your fresh water tank to the brim before your departure.
We drove back to town to get our motorhome. I’d heard that some campgrounds allow RVers to dump their tanks and fill up their fresh water tank for a fee, so I called a local campground to see if they offered that service. I was told we could fill up our fresh water tank for five bucks. It sounded like a bargain. The campground was only two blocks from Wall Drug, so we tooled over there and added about 35 gallons of water to our fresh water tank.
Then off to boondock we went. We found a level spot along the bluff, and were able to lower our jacks and push out the slides, something I had not expected. There were only two other RVs there when we arrived, and both vehicles were well over 100 yards away for us. We’d only been there about an hour when we received a wind advisory warning for our area with gusts of 50-55 miles per hour expected.
The wind seemed to come from out of nowhere, and it was relentless. Harry retracted the slides to prevent damage to the slide awnings, and we hunkered down and waited out the first wave. That may sound crazy to some of you, but driving a high profile vehicle during a windstorm is more dangerous than sitting still. When the winds finally slowed down to somewhere around 25 miles per hour, we were hit with a deluge. Between the rain pounding on the roof and the wind howling, it sounded like a freight train bearing down on us.
The rain moved out the next morning, but the wind never let up the entire time we were there. I’ve read about windstorms on the prairie, but to experience one is hard to put into words. At times, the wind was so strong I had to use both hands to close the door on our motorhome. The grasslands were beautiful, as were the views looking down on the Badlands, but I’m not sure I’d want to boondock there again.
Yesterday we visited Badlands National Park. There are three entrances to the park, all located in South Dakota. We were less than a mile from the Pinnacles Entrance. In fact, when we looked off to our left as we were leaving the park, we could see our motorhome sitting on the bluff.
I was curious who dubbed this area the Badlands, so I did some research. It seems the Lakota People were the first to call the area “mako sica” or “land bad.” French Canadian fur trappers also called it “les mauvais terres pour traverse,” or “bad lands to travel through.” One look at this vast area of gullies, ridges, jagged peaks, and spires, and you will understand how the Badlands got its name.
To be honest, the park wasn’t all that exciting. Probably because I’d spent the last two days staring down into the valley we were now driving through. While the colors of the rocks varied in different areas of the park, there really wasn’t much to see other than rocks, prairie grass, and a few animals: one antelope, two bison, and a passel of prairie dogs. I think maybe Yellowstone and Yosemite have spoiled me. What with the myriad of waterfalls and wildlife those two national parks have to offer, Badlands National Park was a bit of a letdown for me. Still, I’m glad we went, if for no other reason than to mark it off my list of national parks in the west we’ve visited.
No elk or bison paid us a call during our stay at Buffalo Gap National Grasslands, but last evening a small flock of longhorn sheep came to graze near our motorhome. They were obviously accustomed to humans, as they completely ignored us when we went outside for a closer look. While we watched the sheep enjoy their evening meal, we spotted a herd of Bison in the valley below us. They were too far away to get a decent picture, but we could see them clearly with our binoculars.
Like the old proverb goes, all good things must come to an end, so we got up early this morning, took our Navy showers, and had a quick bit to eat. As we were packing up to leave, we found ourselves in a bind. Our generator was running when we suddenly lost power in the motorhome. Without power, the slides will not retract. We had no idea what to do. Luckily, the problem happened during the week, so Harry called Thor Motor Coach, the manufacturer of our motorhome. They have a great tech support team, and after Harry explained the problem we’d incurred to the tech, the tech told Harry it sounded like the breaker on either the generator or the inverter had tripped. He told Harry to check both the breakers, and if that wasn’t the probably, to check the 30 Amp fuse that controls the slides. The guys said if that didn’t fix our problem to call him back.
The breaker on our generator had indeed tripped. Harry turned the breaker back on, and the power came back on in the motorhome. Then we tried to retract the slides, but they still didn’t work. Next Harry checked the fuse box. We only have one 30 Amp fuse, so Harry removed it and inspected it. It did not look like it had blown, so he reinserted the fuse and the slides started working again. We were extremely relieved.
With our latest quandary behind us, we left the Badlands and headed to Hill City, near Mount Rushmore. Thankfully, our trip to the Black Hills was uneventful.
Note: If you are interested in boondocking in the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands, the GPS coordinates are: 43.890031, -102.226789. The location is easy to spot. Head south out of Wall on South Dakota 240, and drive about 6.5 miles. Watch for two microwave towers on your left. There are two entrances to the grasslands, both on them on the left. The first gate is marked 7170, which has better roads than the second entrance, marked 7150. If the gate is closed when you arrive, just open it and make sure to close it behind you. This is a very popular boondocking spot, and according to what I’ve read, you are allowed to camp here for up to 14 days.
The last thing you would expect to find at a rest area is a stunning 12-ton, 50-foot-tall stainless steel sculpture of a Native American girl. And yet, there she was, a magnificent statute designed by sculptor Dale Lamphere to honor the Lakota and Dakota people who are indigenous to South Dakota. She stood upon a bluff overlooking the Missouri River near Chamberlain, South Dakota, regal and proud in her two-hide Native dress and moccasins, her star shawl open to the wind. The shawl is a work of art unto itself, 128 4-foot tall blue glass diamonds that twinkle in the sunlight and dance in the South Dakota wind. Her name is Dignity, the perfect moniker for one who represents the local native culture. At sunset Dignity appears more bronze than silver, and when darkness falls, LED lights installed inside the sculpture illuminate the mesmerizing work of art.
I could have gazed at her for hours, but we were anxious to get settled in our new temporary digs, so we reluctantly left Dignity behind and drove across the river to Arrowwood Cedar Shores Campground in Oacoma, on the western bank of the Missouri River.
Our campsite is right on the water, and you cannot beat the views. After getting set up, and snapping a few photos of the campground, we unloaded our bikes and took a ride on the Roland L. Dolly Memorial Bike Trail, which runs along the beautiful Missouri River.
Roland Dolly was the commissioner of South Dakota Governor George S. Mickelson’s Office of Economic Development. Dolly, along with Governor Mickelson and six other men, perished in a plane crash on April 19, 1993. The plane was returning to Sioux Falls from a trip to Ohio in an attempt to save a packing plant in Sioux Falls that was headquartered in Cincinnati, when the plane struck a silo near Dubuque, Iowa. It went down shortly before 4 p.m. Dolly was only 37 at the time of his death. It was said of Dolly that he was a “genuine man who wanted to help others.”
I do not remember hearing about the plane crash, probably because the tragedy was overshadowed by the news that the 51-day siege of a religious compound in Waco, Texas, had ended with an FBI assault that resulted in the deaths of 76 people.
What a shame that the deaths of Roland Dolly and seven other men were eclipsed by another disastrous event that could have been avoided.
There isn’t a lot to see or do in Oacoma, other than boating and fishing, which gave us the perfect excuse to kick back and take it easy for a couple of days. On Sunday evening, we decided to go see Dignity one more time. After making a quick stop for ice cream at Al’s Oasis, the “premier resting stop for travelers along Interstate 90,” (read: tourist trap), we drove back to the rest stop at MM 264, to wait for nightfall.
While we enjoyed our frozen treats, we chatted with a man who had spotted Dignity from the interstate, and stopped to “see what the heck that thing standing on the hill was.”
As the sun rode low in the sky, Dignity’s face and shoulders seemed to magically turn bronze. Minutes later, the fiery orange ball slipped beneath the horizon and disappeared from view. As the heavens grew dark, a series of spotlights lite up behind the sculpture. It wasn’t long before we began to see a strip of color across Dignity’s chest. Shortly afterward, the glass panels in her shawl began to glow.
It was a sight to behold.
Of all the beautiful places and things we’ve seen thus far on our journey, Dignity ranks near the top of my list.
Sioux Falls was named for the Sioux Indians and the waterfalls of the Big Sioux River. It is this captivating triple waterfall that drew us to Falls Park in downtown Sioux Falls yesterday. An average of 7,400 gallons of water drop 100 feet over the course of the falls each second. The falls are gorgeous. They are breathtaking. And they are in the middle of a town that sits on a broad expanse of flat land, otherwise known as the Great Plains.
A flour mill known as the Queen Bee Mill once stood near the banks of the Big Sioux River near the falls. Construction began on the seven-story structure in 1879. The mill was built of pink quartzite quarried on site. The region’s distinctive pink stone can be seen all around the park today. The Queen Bee was destroyed by fire in January of 1956, and never rebuilt. In 1961, the walls of the gutted flour mill were knocked down, and the current owner donated the site to the city of Sioux Falls in 1963.
The entire city of Sioux Falls basically sits on a huge deposit of pink quartzite. Even the roads and interstates in the area take on a pinkish hue. Asphalt used to pave roads is a combination of asphalt and aggregate. The asphalt acts as a binder for the aggregate. The color of the mixture varies by region. Gray is the primary color, but the roads in parts of Iowa and South Dakota are a distinctive shade of reddish-pink.
After our visit to Falls Park, we had lunch in town, and then returned to Big Sioux. We rode our bikes for about five miles, both on the paved roads and the bike trials that meander along the river. The Big Sioux’s water level did not appear to have dropped any while we were away, and part of the hiking trail was still underwater.
Saturday morning dawned clear, and we were treated to a mini hot air balloon festival as three colorful hot air balloons sailed over the park in rapid succession. Harry barely had time to grab our camera and snap pictures of the trio before they had disappeared from sight.
After spending two nights at Big Sioux, we still had about forty gallons of water left in our fresh water tank. I did three loads of laundry while we were there, plus I washed dishes several times. The washer/dryer averages 9-16 gallons per load, depending on the type of cycle selected, so that’s where the vast majority of our water went. Each of the tanks has sensors that measure the water level in the tank. We have a panel inside our motorhome that allows us to monitor the tank levels. When we left Big Sioux, our black tank registered E. The level will read E until it reaches 1/3, so E is a little misleading. The rear gray tank (shower and sink wastewater) measured 1/3, and the gray tank for the washer/dryer measured 2/3. Not bad, considering we did not make a conscious effort to conserve water during our two-day stay.
We left Council Bluffs this morning and drove 193 miles to Brandon, South Dakota, a suburb of Sioux Falls. We’re staying at Big Sioux Recreation Area, a state park and campground on the Big Sioux River. Due to the deluge the area has received in the past few days, flood warnings were issued for several cities on the Big Sioux, including Brandon. The river was roughly two feet above flood stage. Normal flood stage is 12.0 feet. I called the park to verify if the campground was affected by flooding, but was told everything was fine, other than some of the hiking trails, which were under water.
We are dry camping at Big Sioux (no water or sewer hookups) for two nights. This is our first foray into camping for more than one night in a row without a water connection. Our soul source of water is our 100-gallon fresh water tank, which we filled up before leaving Council Bluffs. We have camped at a Corp of Engineers park without sewer hookups lots of times, but having no water connection for two successive nights is as close to true boondocking as we have ever come.
The jury is still out on how I feel about boondocking. On the plus side, we save an average of $40.00 each night we spend somewhere other than a RV Park. However, running our generator for long periods of time offsets some of the savings. On the plus side, if you tow a vehicle four-down, you can leave your toad attached at many businesses that allow overnight parking. On the down side, you cannot level up and extend your slides, which means one of us (read: Jan) has to climb over the other person to get into and out of bed. It is considered bad camping etiquette to lower your leveling jacks and extend your slides in places such as Walmart and Cabela’s, but that doesn’t stop some people from doing it. The idea is to “park” overnight, not camp. The third issue I have with boondocking is that one of my pantries is on our big slide, so I can only open the door a few inches. I have to feel around inside one of the four shelves in search of the item I’m looking for. Sometimes I end up emptying an entire shelf, one item at a time, until I hit pay dirt.
Harry has wanted to boondock for years, so we are going to give it a try next week for three nights at Badlands Overlook Buffalo Gap National Grasslands, which overlooks Badlands National Park.
So how can we live off the grid for three days? It’s a little complicated, so bear with me. If you are an experienced RVer, feel free to skip the rest of this post.
Our motorhome has four house batteries, which provide power to our 1800-watt inverter. The inverter converts DC to AC power, which in turns allows our residential refrigerator to operate, as well as several outlets in our motorhome when we are off the grid. We can charge our house batteries one of four ways: when our engine is running; when we are connected to shore power; when our generator is running, or with solar power. We have two solar panels on the roof of our motorhome, which provides a total of 300 watts of power to help charge the batteries. In addition to running our refrigerator, we will be able to charge our electronics and use the lights in the motorhome. We’ve changed out all our interior bulbs to LED, which use far less power than incandescent or CFL bulbs.
In order to conserve water, we’ll be taking Navy showers. The term originated on naval ships, where fresh water was often scare. In laymen’s terms, it basically means you turn off the water while lathering up to save as much fresh water as possible. In our case, taking a Navy shower will also decrease the amount of wastewater running into our gray water tank, the tank where all wastewater that drains from our shower, and the kitchen and bathroom sinks goes, as well as the water from our washer/dryer combo. Most RV’s have three water tanks: a fresh water tank, a gray water tank, and a black water tank. I think the black water tank is self-explanatory. The sizes of the tanks vary from RV to RV. In our motorhome, in addition to our 100-gallon fresh water tank, we have two 40-gallon gray tanks, one for the sinks and shower, the other for the washer/dryer combo, and a 40-gallon black tank. By practicing water conservation, we believe the water in our fresh water tank will easily last us three days. Obviously, we will not be washing clothes when we boondock. We’ve made it eight days on the black water tank numerous times at our local Corp of Engineers campground, so we are not concerned about that one.
I did a test run of a Navy shower before we left home to find out exactly how much water it takes for one person to bathe in this manner. All of our tanks were empty when I conducted my experiment. Harry attached a fresh water hose (yes, there are special water hoses that meet potable water standards) to a spigot at home and connected the other end to the motorhome’s city water inlet. Conversely, when we are not connected to city water, we have a water pump that pumps the water from the fresh water tank to the faucets inside the motorhome. The shower in our motorhome has a handheld spray nozzle with an on/off switch. I put the spray nozzle in a clean bucket with water level indicators before I turned on the water. It took roughly ten to fifteen seconds for the water to get warm enough to bathe, which amounted to almost three quarts of wastewater. Without the bucket, that water would have drained into the gray water tank. Bathing and shampooing my hair took less than three minutes. I skipped using conditioner to avoid having to rinse my hair a second time, opting for spray-on leave-in spray conditioner instead. After conducting my test, Harry emptied the gray water tank into a separate bucket with water level indicators. The output from the gray water tank measured right at two gallons, making the final tally 2.75 gallons of fresh water used. The three quarts of water wasted while I waited for the water to get warm enough to bathe can be used to flush the toilet when we’re boondocking, helping us further conserve our fresh water supply. We plan to rely on paper plates and plastic utensils to eliminate washing dishing when we boondock, but we will still have to wash some pots, pans, and cooking utensils.
If it gets too hot during our three-day stay in the boonies, we can start our generator. That may sound contradictory to living off the grid, but our goal isn’t to suffer, but rather to be out in the wild and away from the crowds.
Conserving water and keeping our gray water tank from filling up will be our biggest challenges during our three-day sojourn in the boondocks. Well, that and staying out of the way of the bison and elk who frequent the area to graze. Stay tuned to find out how we did.