November 02, 2010


Continued from Part I


The next morning we healed our broken expectations with another surprisingly free attraction in Rapid City– Dinosaur Park!

I think a good road trip can be measured in fake dinosaurs. If you haven't been counting, this was our fifth encounter with prehistoric sculptures. The park offers a wonderful 360 degree view of the city. You can see about five of those degrees in the photo above.

Someone left a water bottle on the podium between these two. I started to move it for the photo and caught myself– it's like they're fighting over bottled water—hilarity! Except that you can't really see the bottled water.

I said before that I like my roadside attractions unchanged, well I found this old slide from the '60s (at this great site) and the only differences are taller trees and a paved street. All five creatures are still present and bearing original colors. No need for time travel this time.

Knowing that I would be sleeping on the ground for the next three nights, I wasn't eager to leave our refuge at the Foothills Inn. They have a modern sign but thankfully they've left the older, cooler version standing (seen above). They're either thoughtful preservationists or extremely lazy. The hotel had clean rooms, a pool, cable TV, air conditioning, and affordable rates. And I'm not just saying that because the South Dakota Office of Tourism commented on part 1 of this post.

Before we left town I snapped what turned out to be my favorite photo of the trip (Oh, um, I mean aside from the ones of my family). The Stardust Motel sign perfectly embodies 1980s, post-Star Wars sci-fi graphics, and I love how the color of the car compliments it. Unfortunately, this complex has become make-shift housing and the scenes on the porches are far from futuristic, unless we're talking dystopian.


You've seen this street plenty of times except that it's usually pictured with thousands of motorcycles crammed everywhere. The Sturgis Motorcycle Rally concluded mere days before we comfortably drove through town. I was frustrated by the timing because this year Pee-Wee Herman, one of my cultural heroes, attended the event where he performed the world's largest Tequila dance. The place is pretty wimpy looking without all those hogs huh, I was the toughest looking guy around and I was driving a minivan.

We crossed into Wyoming and the sky was what I call "vintage postcard blue."

Before long our next directive was in sight— Devils Tower National Monument! Like most folks my age, my first lesson on the Devils Tower was taught by Mr. Steven Spielberg. When we first witnessed the amazing formation in the distance, all the creepiness of Close Encounters came flooding back. Throughout our visit I felt a wonderful surge of mystique every time I laid eyes on it.

Road signs instructed us to tune into some AM station for more information and I'm so glad that I did. A faint, static-ridden message that could have been recorded decades ago filled our car. The disembodied voices of park rangers repeatedly gave me chills.

The mood switched from Sci-fi to Nature Film when we discovered that the surrounding fields are home to literally thousands of prairie dogs...

We arrived at the visitors center to find a group of excited onlookers pointing out several climbers scaling the sides of the monolith. Turns out anyone can do this if they have the wherewithal and register ahead of time. You probably can't see the two dark specs on the lower left side of this photo, but those are people.

We walked the entire diameter of the landmark. It took a very long time, though that could be due to the four-year-old clinging to my neck in a half nelson hold.

I heard a snippet of a talk being given by a park ranger who seemed to take his job very seriously. It went something like this...

"What does Devils Tower mean to you?
Is it just something you saw in a UFO movie?
Or is it just another pit stop on your family vacation?
Well I'll tell you what it means to ME..."

Well, truth is.. YES, to me it's exactly both of those things, but his tone suggested that I should somehow feel guilty for this. How dare my interest derive from a classic film I saw when I was four. Yeah, in fact, I only care about the White House because I saw it get blown up in a Will Smith movie. And what, should I have made this our destination—maybe spent a couple weeks encircling it? Take it easy pal, and let me enjoy this freaky piece of Earth for however long and for whatever reason I choose!

Ahem. Speaking of which I was sorely disappointed with the lack of alien references in the nearby gift shops. I can understand the park downplaying it but it's hard to believe the association with Close Encounters has dried up. The only evidence I saw was a generic alien coloring book and a billboard miles down the road that invited us to have our own "close encounter" with the monument.

I came away with a cool postcard of an old travel poster as well as a cheesy hat pin and a postcard book, both of which may date back to the 1980s. Since our pit stop was over we moved on to...


I really enjoyed this place. It's the rodeo capital of the world so they have a rodeo every single night throughout the summer.

We set up camp in Bighorn National Forest. The scenery around there surpassed anything I had yet to see. But my photos were such letdowns that I can't bear to post them here.

Speaking of bears, here's a sign near our campsite that kept my wife awake for most of the night...


As a rule, whenever people start talking about Yellowstone I tune them out. It's because they always say the same thing— how beautiful everything is. It gets old quick, and the conversation hits a dead end.

Well, everything in Yellowstone is BEAUTIFUL! My eyes simply weren't prepared. To me it was the most gorgeous I've ever seen nature. People like to say that photos don't do it justice (and then they proceed to show your their photos.) Well, photos don't do it justice...

I learned that old looking signage looks even better against phenomenal backdrops.

Yes, it's beautiful, but as long as I'm unpacking my adjectives, the two runners up are "stinky" and "dangerous." For example, I could only be near the sulfuric stench of the mud volcano for a short time, which isn't a bad thing because it could scald me to death or poison me.

Here's the malodorous Dragon's Mouth. It's so hot that boiling waves are constantly blasting from the opening and the noises it produces are certainly demonic...

They said that new killer sinkholes pop up daily and there's no way to predict where. While you're trying to avoid those, and getting lost, and the bear attacks, you also need to beware the Bison...

I photographed this guy from my car, but there were plenty of folks treating the place like a petting zoo just begging for a goring. I guess it did make things more interesting, like watching auto racing and secretly hoping for a wreck.

And you just have to hope you haven't planned your vacation when the supervolcano you're sleeping on inevitably erupts. (Although, it may get us no matter where we are.) The Haunted Mansion has nothing on this place.

I enjoyed the alien-looking landscapes created by the boiling water...

Those were all part of the Mammoth Hot Springs.

Of course we had to check out Old Faithful...

I'm sure I would have forgotten the entire experience by now, were I not reminded daily by my souvenir coin and stretched penny.

Having survived three days it was time to head homeward. I made sure to take a different route to get a fresh set of scenery. Wyoming was crazy-gorgeous and it felt like driving through a Western. In this pic a river, a road and a train track all follow the same path...

What are the odds of a river forming right between a highway and a railroad? [cue rimshot]

On the last night we traded our tent for an Embassy Suite in Denver. Our lack of a real map caused one final vacation mishap when our printed directions to the hotel led us to a maximum security prison; apparently they have similar addresses.

With one last day of driving ahead I had to make a decision— do I travel the fastest route or go hours out of the way to see Dodge City, Kansas for the first time? I've wanted to visit ever since I first saw National Lampoon's Vacation, but I've never traveled anywhere near the place. I tapped into my inner Griswold and decided to go for it.

In the film, Dodge City looks like a county fair on the set of a Wild West flick...

I was hoping to relive the scene in the saloon where Clark says "Hey, Underpants!" to the bartender who responds with a dummy shotgun blast. Billboards for the Boot Hill museum made me wonder if that's where it happened.


Let me just save everyone some trouble here. Upon listening to the DVD commentary (after my return) I discovered the Dodge City in Vacation is a back lot at Warner Brothers Studios and the interior is the Strater Hotel of Durango Colorado. It's one of the few times that they didn't shoot at the authentic location. (Cousin Eddie's house isn't really in Coolidge, Kansas either)

Rewind to a time prior to this discovery, I'm standing at the desk of the Boot Hill museum confusing two sixteen-year-old cashiers, one of which thinks she may have heard of a movie called Vacation, but isn't positive. Despite my misunderstanding I took heart in the fact that the experience captured the very spirit of the film. Thank goodness they had a penny squishing machine and cheap tin badges or I might have grown irate and threatened them with a BB gun.

For the record they do have a fake Western town (albeit far less festive looking), however you have to pay ten bucks to see it. Or just stick your camera through a hole in the surrounding fence...

After a brief stop in Greesburg Kansas (which is notable for being mostly demolished by a tornado) we saw our last bit of roadside art...

And suddenly the trip was but a memory, carefully preserved with brain matter, photos, and most importantly, a shelf-full of dazzling clutter.


Traci said...

I really enjoyed reading this post! I was impressed that you stayed around after reading the bison warning poster; that would have sent me packing.
Love those dinos, too. My blog also celebrates roadside attractions. “Go BIG or Go Home” chronicles what happens when our small-town family visits the “world’s largest…” whatever!

Brandon said...

Great post, Kirk! I love vicariously travelling with you and your family around the country! I am surprised that while you were in Greensburg you didn't check out the Largest Hand-Dug Well, one of the "Eight Wonders of Kansas." The Well just edged out the ninth-wonder of Kansas, Don Johnson's boyhood home in Wichita! As always, thanks for sharing!

Anonymous said...

Sounds like a hell of a road trip! I've been to quite a few of those places myself, and those KS locations are (almost literally) right in my own back yard.


Anonymous said...

Foothills Inn......Beautifull!

Todd Franklin said...

A roadtrip through SD is a must for any vacationer! Thanks for sharing your epic travelogue!

Wil said...

Living in England I can only dream of a giant dinosaur, Vacation-style US road trip and the chance of a squashed penny but you've brought it a tiny bit closer. Thanks :)

LEFTZ said...

love the dinos :))

Kirk D. said...

Traci- Thanks! I enjoyed checking out your blog too!

Brandon- I was tempted to see the well, but that was on the very last leg of the trip and I knew that it would be the difference between getting home at like 1 AM and 3 AM.
I really need to just go on a Kansas Wonders spree.

Jonny- Please keep an eye on them and don't let them suffer the same fate as the Prairie Dog Town

Wil- A trip to the UK is like my final frontier. I wonder what fills the giant dinosaur void?

Leftz- I'm so glad that you love them.

Anonymous said...

I remember getting a stretched penny of the Lord's Prayer at Atlantic City back around 1959, on the same visit when I saw the Three Stooges live on stage. Wish I still had that prayer penny! Or my pic of the Stooges. :/

--A FLIP Fan who moved too many times and lost track of all his kid stuff.