In the early years when my son tagged along on our travels, we made a point of including at least one amusement park or zoo on every road trip. That requirement faded as we got older, but we were happy to make time for animals if we found any interesting habitats along our paths.
In one South Dakota state park, it was the animals’ turn to come up and stare at us.
Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover:
Every year since 1999 Anne and I have taken a road trip to a different part of the United States and seen attractions, marvels, history, and institutions we didn’t have back home in Indianapolis. From 1999 to 2003 we did so as best friends; from 2004 to the present, as husband and wife. Beginning with 2003’s excursion to Washington DC, we added my son to the roster and tried to accommodate his preferences and childhood accordingly.
2008 was by far our least favorite road trip to date, and still holds the ignominious title as of 2018. Our next vacation had to be better. Step one was plain enough: we looked at Anne’s brainstorming list of future road trips and chose the one that screamed “dream vacation”. That’s what led to our long, long drive out to the farthest reaches of South Dakota and beyond. At nine days it was the longest we’ve ever taken. The farthest point of 1,180 miles made it the longest drive of our lives. It would be the farthest west we’d ever been up to that time. It was also our first vacation using exclusively digital cameras to record the experience, leaving behind the 35mm film of our childhoods forever. They weren’t expensive cameras for their kind, certainly not the most advanced as of 2009, but we did what we could with the resources and the amateur skill sets available to us.
We’re the Goldens. This is who we are and what we do.
DAY FIVE: Tuesday, June 16th.
Breakfast was at the hotel’s free buffet. First stop of the day was Custer State Park, located in the town of Custer, out in the Black Hills. This was something Anne had particularly looked forward to because of my son’s legendary love of animals. South Dakota’s first official state park rose to prominence in the 1920s during Calvin Coolidge’s administration and boasts a wildlife loop that is famous for having animals pop up out of nowhere or loiter in the open. We understand there are people who live in places where spontaneous sightings of live animals are a regular occurrence. We are not those people. We have active populations of opossums and raccoons that exist only as roadkill, never sighted alive in our suburb. For us, the opportunities to point our fingers toward our front lawn in the morning and yell, “Bunny Rabbit!” are as good as it gets. Unless you count those fetid, roving packs of Canadian geese, which we don’t because they’re awful.
The first few miles of the loop were entirely flora sans fauna. Several miles of grassy desolation marked much of the route, but thankfully not all of it. Eventually live specimens began creeping into our path.
Miles and miles and miles later near the end of the official wildlife loop, we found Custer’s resident bison herd, frittering away their free time at their favorite loitering hole. We understand bison are fairly territorial. The park literature, the roadside signs, and the official motto of South Dakota warned us DO NOT APPROACH THE BISON. Rather than take our chances, we kept the windows closed and watched the herd migrate wherever, crossing the street with no concern as to the minimal threat our two-ton metal vehicle posed them.
We perused the Custer State Park Visitor Center before leaving the grounds and returning to the non-Custer portion of the highway. I don’t recall buying anything, though I was momentarily tempted to buy a copy of the bestselling how-to guide Who Pooped in the Black Hills? In lieu of physical souvenirs, I instead copped some practical advice for future reference.
The middle length of the wildlife loop was our feature presentation. After too many miles of plains upon plains, one fateful rounding of a corner brought us to…the attack of the Begging Burros!
The Begging Burros, as they’re nicknamed by the park runners themselves, descended generations from their ancestors who were brought to the park decades ago for its initial pre-population. The burros roam the park freely and of their own will. They developed the survival technique of looking cute enough to con drivers into stopping to stare, thus allowing the predatory burro to hound the sucker and their passengers for free food until the windows can be safely rolled up and escape becomes feasible. Several cars had already fallen for this insidious ploy and we were determined to be among them. Never mind that the park literature advised all visitors not to feed the burro.
My son was surprised and delighted to have a burro stick its head into his window to get at the Cheez-Its he brought along as bait. Even those of us without bait were subject to surprise inspections. At least most hobos keep their heads out of your windows.
They refused to withdraw until we threw handfuls of Cheez-Its over their heads and in the opposite direction. The distraction was simple but effective and allowed us to shut our windows as quickly as possible without turning one of the poor beasts into a prop from The Godfather.
My son craved more attention from his new subjects. He got outside of the vehicle and became a sort of Pied Piper with his coveted box of Cheez-Its.
Remembering how he nearly lost a finger to savage baby deer in a quarter-feed incident at Marineland in 2004, we summoned him back in the car so that the tourists parked on the other side could have their turn at satisfying the burros’ hunger pangs.
To be continued!
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