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.
Technically we’d already filled our 2009 quota at Custer State Park. We found it wasn’t South Dakota’s only wildlife habitat, and were curious to see if the Mount Rushmore State had other animals to offer besides panhandling burros and jaywalking bison.
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.
Between Rushmore and Rapid City, the town of Keystone was a tightly constructed web of attractions. We were tempted by the huge President’s Alpine Slide, which the ads claimed was 2,000 feet of sled-based variable-speed fun sort of terror, but the clouds threatened to rain on us if we stopped too soon. In retrospect we regret not taking more time to look around Keystone, but parking places were scarce, regardless of weather conditions. We did decide to indulge the youngest member of our group with a stop at Rapid City’s Reptile Gardens. A local fixture since 1937, it was the most expensive admission of the week, but we figured why not. It was convenient.
Besides, this authentic Print Shop sign swore to us that Reptile Gardens is fully endorsed by Academy Award Winner Nicolas Cage. Who are we to disagree with such an authoritative recommendation?
South Dakota loved itself some National Treasure: Book of Secrets. Thanks to the extended Goonies-like sequence set in a part of Mount Rushmore that can’t possibly exist, much of the state had Benjamin Franklin Gates fever — some licensed merchandise, lots of tangentially related merchandise, signs pointing to things vaguely related to the film. Predictably, the Rushmore visitor center had been especially heavy on the National Treasure fandom.
Oddly, I don’t recall seeing a copy of the film on sale anywhere we went. Maybe they were all sold out.
Though not very large, Reptile Gardens boasts a decent selection of snakes, lizards, alligators, and crocodiles. In all, fewer alligators than the Alligator Farm in St. Augustine, but more alligators than Alligator Alley in Wisconsin Dells.
Several of the animal gangs made the admission worthwhile. Anne had seen pictures in travel brochures of kids posing with Galapagos Tortoises and hoped there would be a booth that allowed visitors to pay money for a picture with one of these giants, which we’d never seen them in any previous zoo. We were thrilled to find not only the tortoises, but a complete lack of individual penning and a sign encouraging people to spend as much time as they wanted with them, play with them, and take pictures of the tortoises as close as we wanted to, as long as we didn’t hit or kick or pick fights or try to swindle them with shell games.
The tortoises are allowed to roam free where anyone can feed them and small children can ride on their shells. The park staff and the tortoises have negotiated a beneficial understanding that discourages the tortoises from trying to escape. My son spent a long time feeding them grass and watching them eat, scratching their necks and feeling their shells. A couple of very little boys climbed on top of one, which pulled itself to its feet and began to lumber around with the kids on it.
Reptile Gardens also hosts an off-topic prairie dog town, because South Dakota has millions of the cute li’l critters to spare. The Prairie Dog is the squirrel of South Dakota — they’re everywhere.
We’d seen some briefly at Custer, and would encounter another batch the next day. This particular prairie dog community — presumably granted park residence as honorary reptiles — live in a walled city-state apart from their scaly neighbors, just like Sparta. Standing from a distance, we could watch them pop in and out of their holes, run across the yard and bark at each other.
Then we tried approaching them.
As we neared, they all froze in their tracks, stared us down, and presented a united front against all patrons. After some moments of eerie stillness, one designated prairie dog diplomat hissed long and loud, daring us to try anything.
I suspected they were telepathically strategizing against us. We backed down from their unspoken ultimatum and ceded our ground. That day, the indigenous won.
Meanwhile in other animal pens…
Reptile Gardens’ feature attraction was Maniac the giant saltwater crocodile — 16 feet long, well over half a ton, and born in 1970, making him older than all three of us.
After about an hour or so there, our visit concluded with an alligator feeding event and a stroll through the gift shop, which was mostly animal toys.
On our way back to the hotel, we stopped at the local mall for one of our planned meals for the week: our old friend FuddRucker’s, last visited in Buffalo in 2004. Their abandonment of Indianapolis back in the 1990s pushed them straight to the top of our restaurant scouting list.
One big fat burgeriffic meal later, we stopped a block away at a decades-old Toys R Us for a few minutes. The aisles and departments were arranged precisely as the ones near us used to be back in the late-’80s. It was like a time warp.
Back at the hotel, we left the overpriced water park to its own devices. While Anne vegged out in our room, my son and I instead availed ourselves of the water park’s adjacent video arcade and pumped a few pounds’ worth of quarters into Tekken 4, because our family believes strongly in the importance of one-on-one father/son outings, and it was doubtlessly more fun than their casino.
To be continued!
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