Day whatever: Custer to Cody

We planned two days of beaches and buffaloes at Sylvan Lake Lodge in Custer State Park. And God laughed. The first peal of thunder as a black cloud appeared from the western side of the lake sent parents and children floundering toward shore in a rolling wave of  overweight humanity. It was kind of adorable to watch; it would have been sad had the temperature not dropped so fast that no one wanted to swim any more anyway.

Did you know it hails a lot in South Dakota in the summer? Tourists like us driven by rain toward doing the Wildlife Loop, in hopes of observing happy woodland creatures cavorting in the drizzle, were suddenly inundated with baseball-sized ice from heaven, some of it big enough to dent hoods and take out tail lights. People were startled but cheerful as they pulled off into park service areas, dashing in shorts and sandals to buy up the CUSTER STATE PARK hooded sweatshirts. The temperature dropped about 30 degrees in an hour; park restaurants began a brisk trade in hot coffees to go.

The park was eerie and beautiful because the narrow asphalt roads, hot from the sun an hour ago, steamed upward as the hail came down, creating a mist that rose from the ground and a fog that descended from the clouds. We started watching weather instead of buffalo–although we still saw several white-faced antelope with curly horns, who seemed to be enjoying the ice as they ate leaves. Perhaps hail turns salads into mojitos.

As evening turned to dusk, we decided to drive back “the shortest route” along the Needles Highway, eleven miles of mostly single track with four tunnels between us and the lodge. It was just after we’d committed to this that the heavens cracked open with pink-white lightning and rain came down in sheets of water rather than individual drops. Visibility at about four feet in front of us, we negotiated up the mountain switchbacks and hairpin curves to our hotel. Funnily enough, we were the only people on the Needles Highway that night. But it was all right; Jack and Barbara began to sing rousing campfire songs to keep our spirits up–which had the unfortunate element of backfiring when I laughed so hard the car jerked once. That shut them up for a bit.

Everyone got into clean underwear and gathered in B&O’s room, lights off, to watch the lightning–which was ever so much prettier now it wasn’t directly overhead as we passed through rocks. Really quite the show.

The next day we drove through Tensleeps Canyon, one of the most beautiful places on Earth, and ensconced ourselves in Cody with time to spare for making the evening gunfight. As Quakers, Jack and I might not have done this, but it was cheesy and community and fun, and Oliver the dignified English gentleman with the handlebar mustache turned into a five-year-old fanboy with a beer, laughing and hooting as Butch and Sundance (who according to the town’s merchandising department did not die in Bolivia but returned and lived quiet lives into the 1920s just outside Cody) went up against Wyatt and Virgil Earp. A good time was had by all, including Butch, who delighted the children by giving them money he stole from the bank, and taking about ten minutes to “die” amid various leg kicks and one-liners.

All very incorrect for Quaker non-violence practices, but the Sangria was good and the town needs the money, so what the heck. B&O had the time of their lives. Nothing like a good gunfight before bed.

Once again, just stringing the photos here as you can tell which is what.

Day Seven: Buff Steals the Show

Still at Sylvan Lake, soaking in water and woods by day, and cocktails by night. Because the wifi is hard to get, I’m putting all the photos and video at the bottom in a string again.

When you’ve seen a six-foot male buffalo kick up his heels in a dirt bath, you know the definition of “party animal.” These massive creatures turn into eight-hundred-pound puppies, legs waving in all directions as they wriggle on their backs like worms. It’s like watching the Pope go swimming: one minute plodding along all dignity and grace ignoring the tourists with cameras, the next doing a high dive yelling “Bonsai!”

Thoughtfully, the buffalo had aligned himself about twenty feet beyond a sign describing the American bison, so the braver tourists dashed three feet from their cars to take a picture of Buff the Bather gamboling about like a prairie dog, just beyond the interpretive plaque depicting him as the symbol of Prairie Dignity.

In the car, Oliver, Barbara, Jack and I agreed: Buff had drawn the afternoon shift. While all the others were hiding out from the heat at the local watering hole, buying each other rounds, he had the high-traffic entertainment shift. Hence his need for a party piece, the ol’ hof-waving, back-wriggling, kick-’em-up high routine. Packs the house every time.

About an hour later, leaving the Wildlife Loop Trail, we passed the Custer State Park office. Barbara indicated it with a nod of her head. “That’s where they collect their weekly wages. Buff is the highest-paid, because of his dirt dance routine, but he’s training twin calves to take over next year so he can retire.”

It is a sign of how far we have traveled together that the rest of us nodded agreement, Jack adding, “Took him two years to work his way up from night shifts.”

None of the crew are as interested in the antics of the prairie dogs, though, and I have had to resort to trickery to get my daily fix. While Oliver very much enjoys the charm of the wildlife and the beauty of the Black Hills, he tailgates the person ahead until they pull over, then races on. Even a rare sighting of an antelope failed to stop his drive to, well, drive. So the next time I saw a particularly cute prairie dog village, I shouted, “Look there!” Oliver practically put us into a ditch, swerving to the side. I snapped the dogs, and since we now had to let all the people we’d passed pass us, Oliver scanned the horizon for what I’d been pointing at. Turned out to be a dying Black Hills Spruce. (The beetles are doing for them, 95,000 acres damaged). Oh dear, so silly of me to mistake that reddish tree for a buffalo/coyote/antelope/mountain goat. Well, let’s press on, shall we?

Tomorrow, I drive….