By Ed Martley
© 2020 Top Dog Publishing
RAPID CITY — There is no cure for Covid-19, but there is a safe relief from the stifling boredom we suffer while hiding out at home to escape the approaching disease.
One of our favorite boredom busters is to driving backroads of the mighty western South Dakota prairies. You can see forever across the endless landscape; if you encounter more than one other vehicle an hour as you crunch over the dusty gravel, it’s getting crowded. The vivid blue of springtime skies provides an intense background for hulking clouds. Animals, wild and domestic, turn their heads to watch as we roll slowly by. Always, always, bright meadowlark song worth a stop to listen, but that you can hear even with the car windows closed.
We have several areas we explore, and a big favorite is Highway 34 from Sturgis to Union Center to Enning, then south to Wasta and home on Interstate 90.
The closer you come to Union Center, the more you feel the freedom of wide-open spaces. When you turn south at Enning, getting into Belle Fourche River country, the topography begins to change. There are numerous cattle with new babies; a turtle; always deer, looking tatty as they shed ropes of winter hair to let their slick summer selves shine; hawks, falcons, kestrels, and, of course, the singing meadowlarks.
Several times we encountered small clutches of antelope. Twice we topped a hill to find some grazing in the roadside ditch. They quickly wriggled through the fence — not jumping it as would a deer. Both species are superb athletes, but you might say the rocket-powered antelope are “horizontal” athletes, while the spring-loaded deer are “vertical” athletes.
Speed (approaching 60 mph) is not the antelope’s only remarkable attribute. They are renowned for their eyesight, said to be equivalent to 8-power binoculars. (I recall a time we were cruising along Interstate 90 not far from Gillette, Wyo., and saw several antelope in the ditch a half-mile ahead. A big buck jumped onto the highway and headed straight at us, the combined speed of beast and car more than 100 miles an hour. As he came closer, all we could see were those huge eyes, eyes the size of tennis balls, bearing down on us. With less than a second to spare, the buck swerved back into the ditch.) But I digress.
Along Highway 34, you get occasional views of the Belle Fourche River as it flows through ever-steepening breaks toward its confluence with the Cheyenne River. Buckle up, because the road drops like a roller coaster: down and down, round and round.
So that’s the story of just our most recent spring drive. There are many other possibilities in our beautiful West River country.
One of our first spring tours was on Spring Creek Road, the portion east of Highway 79 near Rapid City. Green, beautiful and sparkling with the music of meadowlarks. We had it in mind to get a photo of one of the little songsters, which turned out to be a whole lot harder than we anticipated. The creatures flitted from fence wire to fence post, never staying for more than a second. Shot after shot we tried, always missing by a feather’s width. Finally, Suzanne scored. She drew and fired without aiming and got lucky — catching a bird before it launched.
The most popular spring expedition hereabouts is almost certainly Custer State Park, especially the Wildlife Loop. It goes without saying the land itself is beautiful — hey, it’s the Black Hills — but also the park is populated with all sorts of highly visible wild animals. These include prairie dogs, antelope, deer, elk, bison and Bighorn sheep, some of which can be found standing on the road, blocking traffic for a half-mile.
Our COVID-19 social-distancing practice most certainly is helpful in protecting us from the virus. It is also a good plan when dealing with bison. Accounts of their attacks on annoying people and vehicles are the stuff of legends.
A big favorite, and we visit there often, is Badlands National Park. We drive Highway 44 east about 40 miles from Rapid City to the semi-ghost town of Scenic, then continue until we can turn onto Sage Creek Road. Heaven only knows what you’ll find there on any given day, but the chance of finding yourself in a herd of bison, or buffalo as I usually call them, is pretty good.
We stop at Sage Creek Campground to use the outhouse before continuing into the heart of the Badlands. Buffalo often frequent the area, and from time to time we collect wads of hair they have scraped off. We give it to a friend who incorporates it into her fiber art.
One late spring day, we pulled in to find the campground full of campers with buffalo grazing close among them. That was nerve-racking but what the hell — we didn’t know them so let the (buffalo) chips fall where they may. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.) The disturbing thing was that a big bull was grazing five feet from the outhouse door. Our situation was dire enough that we had to wait for the creature to wander off.
Anyplace in the Black Hills area can be your favorite place, and you can have more than one if you like! The time to plunge into the mountains is now — spring — when the grass is its greenest, the creeks are full, the highways are empty, and power boats have yet to begin tearing up the lakes.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Should you like to learn more about special Black Hills places, see Take a Drive on My Adventure Road on this website.