Badlands and good books

Farm Forum

At 80 MPH the Badlands, a breathtaking precautionary tale regarding the hazards of soil erosion, burst from the tabletop of prairie.

My wife and I were motoring to Deadwood for the South Dakota Festival of Books. Our goals included reconnecting with old friends and finding new things to read. We hoped it would be a good trip even though it began with the Badlands, a stark moonscape of Gothic spires broiling beneath a merciless sun.

But the Badlands aren’t lifeless. As we drove through, we passed a small town, albeit one that was populated entirely by cute little prairie dogs.

It’s a long haul from our house to Deadwood and we were glad to finally arrive at our motel. We were pleased to learn that our room was at the end of the hallway and on the ground floor. This proves how misleading first impressions can be.

We live way out in the boondocks and are accustomed to absolute quiet. On warm summer nights I have been known to step outside with a shotgun and blast crickets that are chirping too loudly.

When we retired for the evening, we discovered that the motel was constructed so that every footfall on the stairway would be telegraphed directly into our bed frame. The circus must have been in town because some elephants were staying in the room above us. Their thumping and clumping reverberated through our ceiling into the wee hours.

Logging trucks rumbled past our window all night long, their mighty diesel engines roaring, their overtaxed suspensions rattling the motel’s floorboards. At sunrise, a nearby road construction crew commenced operations, the “beep, beep” of their backup warnings functioning as an alarm clock. You have to sleep in order to need a wakeup call. This service, while appreciated, was quite unnecessary.

My wife had forgotten some critical items, so I volunteered to go on a resupply expedition to a local dollar store. I discovered a shaded footpath which ran alongside a small creek that chuckled and chortled as it tumbled over its rocky bed. The smell of pine, the glorious morning sunshine and the easy walking were powerful restoratives.

On my way back to the motel I found that the footpath had been reconfigured so that it was all uphill. The city of Deadwood needs to correct this glaring defect.

I paused from my alpine exertions to chat with a road construction flagman who happened to be a lady. I asked her if there was anything that we shouldn’t miss while in Deadwood.

“You gotta try the grub at Geo’s,” she replied, pointing her stop sign at low brick building across the road. “They’re clear in the back of that real estate office.”

Despite our suspicions that the flag lady was receiving kickbacks from Geo’s, we decided to give them a whirl. Their food wasn’t merely good; it was excellent. Everything, including the pickles (which must have been made from virgin cucumbers) was created from scratch.

Darcy, our caffeine-perky waitress, told us, “Geo’s started out as a coffee shop that offered food, but we’ve become known as a great place to eat that also has great coffee.”

Refreshed by our repast, we journeyed to the book fest venue where we met up with our friends and had a very pleasant visit. I was impressed by the number of books and authors on hand. This proves that the denizens of the plains can produce more than corn and cattle.

We strolled the storied streets of Deadwood, walking into No. 10 Saloon just as Bill Hickok was being shot – again! – by the villainous Jack McCall. I chatted with Wild Bill after the show and asked him what it’s like to be murdered on a regular basis.

“It’s a living,” he drawled without breaking character.

As we motored our way homeward, we tooled around the Black Hills. It’s a balm to the soul to view all that idyllic woodsy wilderness. I suppose those who live there might say, “Meh. Just another jaw-dropping timber-jeweled vista.”

On the outskirts of Rapid City we stumbled across the Chapel in the Hills, an exact replica of a stave church that was built in Norway in 1050. As we gaped at the wooden wonder, a group of Norwegian tourists meandered in.

Hearing them talk elicited childhood echoes of my grandparents speaking in Norwegian. My emotions stirred, I asked the group’s interpreter if they still enjoy lutefisk in the Old Country.

“No,” he replied, looking as if he’d just stepped in a steaming cow pie. “We have fresh fish. Why would we eat the preserved stuff?”

He had a point: a person should always look for the good, whether you’re in the Badlands or have landed in a bad motel.

If you’d like to contact Jerry to do some public speaking, or just to register your comments, you can e-mail him at: