Day 5: Rapid City to Fort Pierre National Grasslands

Well, the nice thing about keeping everything with me in the bus, is that when plans change, I already have my stuff with me. And plans changed today. This morning I woke up and decided not to go back to Mount Rushmore. The road was calling and it was time to move on to a new location. So I checked out of the RV park and hit the road figuring I would just spend more time at Badlands or along the route. Well the bus had other plans. More on that in a minute.

I started off the day right with a quick stop at a roadside attraction. This one hooks you with .99 all-you-can-eat-pancakes. Yum. It was also a site used for many of the scenes in Dances with Wolves, so I definitely wanted to take a peek. But let's be honest, I was there for the pancakes.

I was driving out of town and passed a Menards. It’s like Home Depot, but better. I love Menards. We don’t have them in Colorado, so I thought I’d pop in for fun and to pick up a couple of things. That all went great. But as I climbed back in the bus and tried to start it, the bus made a whirring sound, but didn’t turn over. No big deal, this has happened before. Usually just try again and it cranks right up. Nope. Third time, nothing. Fourth time, nothing. Fifth time it starts. Phew. A little nerve wracking but it happens. And it eventually starts (though usually a lot faster than 4 tries).

​​I head off to Wall, SD, home of the famous Wall Drugs. I’m pretty sure this place is listed on Wikipedia next to the definition of tourist trap, but hey, I had to go. And OMG. I’m not even sure words or photos do it justice. It’s an entire city block of touristy CRAP. And I mean CRAP. There are the usual staples like taffy and fudge and candy sticks. And, of course, postcards and photos of a Jackalope. And the “outlet” store with “locally made” gold jewelry. Literally if you made a list of crap sold at tourist traps, they have it all at Wall Drug. And a restaurant. And an animatronic T-Rex.

After getting my fill of exploring old west photos and kitsch, I head back to the bus. Turn the key, whirring, but no start. Uh oh. Twice. Three times. Fourth time the bus starts. Now I’m used to this happening like once every 25 times I start the bus, not 8 times in a day. And I’m slated to go out to the middle of nowhere for two nights! Quick Google search shows the nearest heavy truck repair is either in Pierre (2 hours ahead of me) or Rapid City (2 hours behind me). I decide moving forward is better, but that I wouldn’t turn off the bus unless I absolutely had to. I also sent my mom my Good Sam member number and roadside assistance telephone number just in case.

So off to Badlands I went. Half excited to see the Badlands and half scared the bus would never start again. Such is life in a converted school bus. (or any RV I’m told). The Badlands is beautiful. I’d love to see it in the evening or morning when the light is more dramatic, but I was there around 1pm, so the sun was directly overhead. The Badlands is best experienced via the Loop Road, which is also known as South Dakota Highway 240. It travels through the Badlands National Park, so a park entry fee is required, but hey, we need to support our National Parks.

Badlands is famous for the landscape mixed with grassy meadows and dramatic rock formations and steep canyons. It’s very hot and dry. Almost a desert. But beautiful as well. Most of the park can be explored via the Loop Road and there are several opportunities for hiking with trailheads dotting the entire length of the road. I wish I’d been able to park and explore more, but with the bus acting up and Pepper in the bus with me, I didn’t feel it was a good idea to stop long. I did snap a bunch of photos though!

The loop road is narrow and winding, but is filled with pull offs and parking lots. Use them. Some idiot stopped in the middle of the road around a blind curve almost got a bus in his backside. Given the status of the bus, I stopped a few times, but never for long and always left the engine running. Not the ideal way to experience the Badlands, but it’s what it is.

After the Badlands I was off to Pierre to get the bus looked at. But I didn’t have enough diesel to get all the way there, so I was going to have to stop at least once more. And I’d have to turn the bus off to fill it. I was hoping to find a truck stop with a service station or at the very least a gas station with a town that maybe someone could help me out if the bus didn’t start. No such luck. I was down to a ¼ tank and needed to stop so I picked a gas station in an area that at least had cell service and said a little prayer to the bus before turning it off and filling up.

Then I went to turn the key. Holding my breath the bus would start. And she fired right up on the first try. So I drove toward Pierre and stopped a few more times and she started right up on the first try each time. Now I was really faced with a dilemma. Keep heading to the service station (you know it won’t misbehave for the mechanic!) or make a left for the campground. I decided to risk it and head to the campground. Hopefully I don’t regret that in the morning. Though I still have to drive through Pierre tomorrow, so I can have the bus checked out if need be.

I found this campsite on, a website for people looking to “Boondock” or “Dry camp”, which is basically camping without any services, and usually without any infrastructure. But it’s also free, which is really nice. The campsite is located on a lake, which is also nice. And in the middle of Fort Pierre National Grasslands, where much of Dances With Wolves was filmed. Basically green, rolling hills as far as the eye can see. The camping area is basically just a grassy field on one side of the lake. No defined camping spots. No fire pits, no water, no electric, nothing. Just a field. I picked an area of grass that looked level and parked the bus. (again saying a little prayer that it starts in the morning).

It was only about 4pm when I rolled into camp, so I took advantage of the remaining daylight to make some dinner and build screens for a few of the windows to keep the bugs out. Downside to this lush grassy field is the bugs. And buses have a lot of windows but don’t have screens!

Hopefully the bus starts in the morning and I can be on my way. I’m now a day ahead of schedule, which is fine. I’ll use that day later on when I find a place that I want to stay longer. Or if I have to have the bus serviced in Pierre tomorrow. If all goes well I’ll be in Bismarck, ND tomorrow night.