Solo Road Trip

Desperate to go somewhere, anywhere, after over a year of quarantining, the moment I was fully vaccinated I decided to take a trip. This coincided nicely with my viewing of Nomadland and the destination of my adventure was thusly decided.

The following are some of the highlights from my recent (and first!) solo road trip to the Badlands in South Dakota:

Badlands, South Dakota. Copyright: Saratoga Schaefer, 2021

DAY 1 – From MILWAUKEE to SIOUX FALLS, SD (7 hours)

5:00 am: LET’S FUCKING DO THIS.

9:30 am: I am almost driven off the road by two different trucks. Fuck trucks.

10:03 am: Almost drive MYSELF off the road getting distracted by a banana.

10:54 am: Why do people complain about long road trips? Just get an audiobook, you fools.

12:16 pm: Holy god, when will this end? The GPS has said 2 hours left for FIVE HOURS NOW.

1:04 pm: Finally here, thank god. So, I suppose I forgot that South Dakota is a landlocked state, a fact that its “aquarium” fully reflects. Said aquarium is a single room with 5 tanks of fish. I’ve seen more exciting pet stores. I leave after 10 minutes, disappointed.

2:23 pm: Falls Park, on the other hand, I am obsessed with. I am taken with the stellar waterfalls and interesting rock formations, but I am especially interested in the baby geese and jumping fish* that I could see literally anywhere else.

*Fun Fact: The fish I saw throwing themselves up the falls are actually Asian Carp, a highly invasive species that has slowly moved north for years now. Still lowkey wanted them to succeed at their upstream journey though.

3:00 pm: I make enemies with an oriole that has determined I am a Big Threat to its nest. Oriole keeps dive bombing me, much to my amusement.

My bird enemy, screaming. Copyright: Saratoga Schaefer, 2021

3:14 pm: Everything is flat here and I don’t trust it.

4:00 pm: I check into my Airbnb and go to bed soon after since I need to be up at 5 am again tomorrow.

Falls Park, Sioux Falls. Copyright: Saratoga Schaefer, 2021

DAY 2 – From SIOUX FALLS, SD to BADLANDS NATIONAL PARK (~4 hours)

8:53 am: Pull up to the stunning skyline of the Badlands just as my terrible audiobook ends. Gratifying.

9:21 am: Walk Fossil Loop Trail, which is literally just a short loop of boardwalk with plaster cast molds of fossils found in the park. I ignore the probably very interesting informational cards and immediately step off trail to look at rocks.

10:10 am: I do half of the Castle Trail hike. The weather has decided to say “fuck you” to me, so it’s 40 degrees and rainy. My shoes are muddy and I didn’t bring gloves. I pivot plans.

11:20 am: I drive to the town of Wall half an hour away. I stop to try to make friends with some cows. The cows say, “Absolutely not, keep it moo-ving.” Which is rude because I always defend cows.

The cows using their intimidation tactics to get me the hell off their lawn. Copyright: Saratoga Schaefer, 2021

12:09 pm: I fall deeply in love with the 80-foot green dinosaur welcoming me to Wall. THIS is the kind of kitschy roadside attraction I adore.

12:15 pm: Wall Drug, on the other hand, is full of overpriced sweaters and an alarming amount of Native American cultural appropriation. Feeling incredibly uncomfortable, I leave without buying anything or even taking any photos.

The 80 foot dino at Wall. Copyright: Saratoga Schaefer, 2021

1:12 pm: Back at the Badlands, I hike the Cliff Face Loop

1:15 pm: The screaming children remind me of why I don’t want any.

1:24 pm: DEER! THERE ARE DEER! THEY ARE JUST CHILLING. More deer, less children, please.

2:18 pm: Window Hike and the Notch Hike, the latter of which had an excellent ladder section to climb to get to the top of a dangerous cliff. Yay!

2:30 pm: Coming back down the treacherous ladder, a child says, “She really seems to know what she’s doing.” Yes, kid, it’s true, my rock climbing gives me a false sense of imperviousness whenever rocks are involved.

The Ladder of Danger on the Notch Trail. Copyright: Saratoga Schaefer, 2021

4:02 pm: I visit Scenic, SD, which is a gosh-damn GHOST TOWN and even though I drove 30 minutes to see 4 decrepit buildings, I love it.

Scenic, SD. Ghost town. Copyright: Saratoga Schaefer, 2021

5:34 pm: Eat peanut butter and Nutella sandwiches for dinner and get told I have to sleep next to the dumpsters in the campsite. Hooray.

Thrilled about sleeping next to the dumpsters, pictured behind me.

8:15 pm: Exhausted, but drive to Bigfoot Pass Overlook for the sunset. Which it’s too cloudy for.

8:16 pm: I SEE A BOBCAT! My disappointment about the sunset is forgotten.

DAY 3 – From BADLANDS NATIONAL PARK to MANKATO, MN (6 hours)

5:00 am: Get up to try to see the sunrise, only to find that the camp leader has blocked my car, causing my bumper to get a bit fucked up. He throws a tantrum about me parking next to the dumpsters even though that’s where I was told to park. I leave before I commit vehicular homicide.

5:15 am: The rain has fucked up the sunrise too. I am Not Happy.

5:53 am: I hike the Door Trail instead, which was like being on Mars or something.

Yellow Mounds on Badlands Loop Road. Copyright: Saratoga Schaefer, 2021

7:30 am: Drive up to Robert’s Prairie Dog Town on the Badlands Road Loop and meet some prairie dogs who are decidedly NOT fans of mine and scream at their friends to stay in their holes. Fine, fuck them.

7:34 am: I almost whip the car over the shoulder of the road because BISON! I SEE BISON!

7:35 am: Everything is wonderful. The whole trip is worth this moment here with two wild bison, munching grass, and graciously letting me watch them and photograph them until I’m nearly crying.

Happiest I’ve ever looked. Copyright: Saratoga Schaefer, 2021

8:10 am: I do the rest of the Badlands Road Loop, stopping at all the overlooks and taking in the scenery, which photos don’t do justice. I see more bison, but none as close as the friends I met earlier. Thinking a collared bighorn sheep is a lost goat, I get right up close to one before realizing it is not, in fact, a farm animal.

8:53 am: BIGHORN SHEEP BABIES! I take many photos and wish I could climb the rocks with them.

10:03 am: I hike another 4 miles of the Castle Trail and do part of the Medicine Loop before deciding that it’s time to head out, despite the fantastic weather. Thanks weather, for giving me the shitty stuff on the one full day I had there.

Medicine Loop Trail. Copyright: Saratoga Schaefer, 2021

11:47 am: I stop at the Big Badlands Overlook to say goodbye to this marvelous place.

5:47 pm: 2 hours away from Mankato I realize all I’ve eaten all day was a granola bar. The bison distracted me. Dehydrated and starving, I scarf down a Subway sandwich and manage to make it to my campsite in MN without fainting from the horrible headache I have.

7:56 pm: The campsite locks their bathrooms. I don’t have the key code. I pee 3 times in the woods instead and give up, exhausted, going right to sleep.

DAY 4 – From MANKATO, MN to MILWAUKEE, WI (5 hours)

7:14 am: I get the bathroom code from a woman with a stroller! Thank god!

8:30 am: Drive to Minneopa State Park and check out the beautiful waterfall. I like that my trip started and closed with waterfalls, but privately I am far more impressed with the one in Minnesota, which surprises me.

The falls at Minneopa State Park. Copyright: Saratoga Schaefer, 2021

9:07 am: Hike around the falls and meet a puppy named Thor! His owner was there too, I guess.

10:28 am: Learn from my mistake yesterday and make sure to get breakfast from Tandem Bagels in Mankato before making the arduous drive back home.

1:56 pm: Now I understand why people do road trips with multiple drivers.

2:57 pm: Finally home. Still thinking about the bison.

THE GOOD

  • The wildlife was fantastic. Truly. If I’m being honest, 90% of my excitement about this trip came from the potential to see wild bison, and the fact that I actually got to do that made the entire excursion very worth it.
  • The Badlands are gorgeous. It was like nothing I’d ever seen before and it transported me directly back in time. The hikes were cool and even though the weather was crummy, it was obviously the highlight of the trip.
  • I loved being this independent. I relied on myself for everything and felt very capable and powerful.

THE BAD

  • The camping wasn’t great. I made the choice to camp in my car for 2 nights, but the weather being so bad meant I was cramped and cold. I probably wouldn’t do that part again, it was very uncomfortable.
  • Speaking of camping, the campgrounds in the Badlands were poor. There was the whole sleeping-by-the-dumpster thing, and also the Douche Canoe Camp Leader (DCCL). I could tell by how amped the DCCL got when he confronted me that this was a man who was a camp leader not because he loved the park or the people, but because it was the smallest amount of power anyone had ever given him and he was going to take advantage of that. That guy can choke.

THE UGLY

  • As I continue to educate myself on racism and prejudice, I’ve found I’ve become more aware of things like cultural appropriation I might have not even recognized in the past. And I’m aware of the fact that all of America is stolen land, but being in South Dakota really drove that point home for me. (I mean, this is a state that took a sacred Native American mountain and slapped the faces of four white guys onto it, two of which had slaves.) Wall Drug in particular was a challenge for me. Seeing all those white people selling other white people “Native American artifacts” and art felt egregious because we white folks are already profiting and residing on stolen land. It was icky. I urge people to educate themselves on the land they live on and to not support cultural appropriation. Like Native American beadwork? Buy it from an actual Native American business or person. I don’t want to go on a tangent here, but it’s important we understand that our country is, and has always been, built on blood. We cannot change the past, but we can absolutely alter the future.

Visited the stolen lands of the following tribes:

  • Yankton
  • Očhéthi Šakówiŋ
  • Cheyenne
  • Mnicoujou
  • Wahpekute
  • Wahpeton

Badlands National Park. Copyright: Saratoga Schaefer, 2021

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