by Gary Charpentier
Thursday, May 26th, 2005 – Rain clouds were gathering as my friend Mark and I set out down Interstate 90 in the early gray evening. Soon we were getting pounded by the late spring storms which would plague us throughout the weekend. We were headed west towards the Badlands and Black Hills of South Dakota. Frogwing was running hard at 75 mph into the 30 mph headwinds, but Mark’s Transalp seemed to be handling it more easily. That Honda always was a better streetbike than the KLR.
My Mossi rainsuit was doing its job, along with my new waterproof riding boots, so I was staying warm and dry. Mark was wearing his trusty Aerostich and didn’t seem to be having any trouble either. We settled into an easy rhythm and watched the lightning show all around us as the miles passed beneath our wheels. I’ve always preferred backroads to Interstate travel, because you get to see more of the surrounding communities and get a better sense of the history and culture of the places you travel through. But in the rain you want to pass through as quickly as possible. Here the interstate isn’t so bad because you can’t enjoy the scenery anyway.
We spent the night at a motor court motel in Luverne, Minnesota, just this side of the South Dakota border. The heavy rains which had plagued us most of the way subsided just after we pulled into our parking spots and started unloading our gear into the room. That figures… It seemed as if Mother Nature was marshalling her forces and saving her fury for our resumed travel the next day.
Well, we started out dry Friday morning and headed west again on I-90 towards a horizon full of ominous, dark clouds. About 25 miles west of Sioux Falls, we spotted a huge iron sculpture of a steer’s head sitting in a field off to our left. This is the PorterSculptureGarden, something I’m sure many people have bypassed on their way to the Badlands and Black Hills. I know Mark has blown right on by many times in the past, but this time we decided to stop. We took the exit, crossed over the freeway, and rode a short distance to the dirt-road turnoff. There we found a “Road Closed” sign. While we were pondering that, a pickup truck approached, and the driver gave us a thumbs-up and motioned for us to follow him onto the property.
That driver turned out to be Wayne Porter, the artist who’s work covers the four acres or so of prairie just off the interstate. This man is a true American eccentric; a sheep farmer and blacksmith by trade, with a Political Science degree from the University of South Dakota. He speaks in staccato sentences about history and art and politics, somehow weaving them all into a coherent tapestry which leaves his audience spellbound and eager to hear more.
We spent over an hour touring the grounds with him, listening intently as he described his motivation and the meaning of each eclectic piece. Honestly, I think that I could write an entire column about that visit, but since it was raining lightly the whole time we were there, I never even took my camera out of the bag, so I couldn’t really do his work justice on these pages. But if you ever find yourself westbound on I-90, on your way to Sturgis or wherever, the PorterSculptureGarden is well worth a visit. I’ll tell you this: the inside of that 60-foot tall steer’s head holds mysteries that will blow your mind.
Charging west again, we rode in and out of the rain towards the famous town of Wall, South Dakota. On arrival, Mark asked me if I would rather pitch a tent in the local
campgrounds, or take the easy way and get a room at Welsh’s motel on the edge of town. I considered the winds, which were gusting up to 40 mph at the time, and pictured our tent careening across the prairie like a tumbleweed. Needless to say, we got a room. Welsh’s motel is another old-style motor court, which means a single story structure where you can park your bike right outside your room. In my opinion, this is always the preferred lodging for a motorcycle trip. At around 30 bucks a night for two people, it’s quite economical as well.
After disembarking, we decided to head over to Wall Drug and find out what all the billboard and bumper-sticker hype was about. We availed ourselves of the free coffee and donut which they offer to all military veterans, and then proceeded to examine the wealth of cowboy art on the walls. I bought an American Indian doll for my daughter Emily at the gift shop, and then headed back to the café for one of their famous buffalo burgers. That was very tasty and really hit the spot after a long day in the saddle.
Back at the motel, I cleaned my camera and we readied the bikes for our tour of the Badlands. Riding into the park, we stopped at the ranger station and paid them five bucks for the privilege. This was well worth it because it was like riding on another planet. The impression I got was of the canyons of Mars, as imaged by our recent unmanned space missions to that ominous red orb. The sun was close to setting when we arrived and we were able to view that incredible scenery in the best possible light from the many vantage points along the paved roads. Soon, however, we turned onto the dirt roads in order to get more up-close and personal with these awesome geological wonders.
There is nothing like a dual-sport bike for exploring terrain like the Badlands. We were able to go places where your average SUV or Harley could never venture. At one point we spotted a herd of mountain goats beneath us on a hillside. They had these multi-colored neck bands on them which looked like they had some kind of GPS tracking apparatus, probably for the purpose of DNR research. I’m sure they also serve as a big “DO NOT SHOOT” sign for any big game hunters who might run across them. I stopped to photograph the majestic creatures and we continued on.
The paved roads around the park are quite twisty, but there are so many tourists there that you don’t find many opportunities to exceed the 35 mph speed limit. Besides that, we were so in awe of the alien landscape that we didn’t feel the need to speed at all. We just puttered along, rubbernecking, overdosing on the sheer beauty of the place. We stopped often, taking photographs until the sun went down, and all too soon it was time to head back to town.
We had a forgettable dinner at the Cactus Bar & Grill in Wall… not recommended. It had been a long day and we were tired so we headed back to the motel for a good night’s sleep. We knew we were going to tent-camp for the next couple nights in the Black Hills, so we turned-in early to enjoy the luxury of soft, comfy beds for one more night.
Saturday morning we headed for the Black Hills but that is a story for next month. Imagine doing Sturgis without all the amateurs!