Our 8-year-old daughter had had enough. We’d been on the Sylvan Lake Trail for nearly two hours. It’s “among the easiest trails in Custer State Park,” the literature says. The trailhead was just off the parking lot of the visitor’s center, where we just spent the last two hours waiting for the AAA guy to unlock the car, in which I’d left the key, then locked the door. She wasn’t budging. My wife and I tried everything we knew. We sang songs, counted rocks, played “I spy” and promised ice cream – with sprinkles. Each of those got us some additional mileage (in the form of steps) from our sweet child, but it was clear now that she was on to us. We had nothing left to offer. She knew it, we knew it – and now we had to admit it. We were lost.
We were two days into our first family driving trip adventure, and it wasn’t off to a great start. My wife’s the trip planner in our family and she’d, efficiently, combined our former babysitter, Sarah’s, wedding in Minnesota with a continuation to the Black Hills of South Dakota. Badlands, Wall Drug, Corn Palace, Mt. Rushmore, Needles Highway – you know the drill (maybe you’ve done it as well).
It was early June, just after school had let out, and it was hot for that part of the country at that time of the year. This was in our minivan days. We’d cycled through several vans with our kids and were presently enjoying a Honda Odyssey that decided to start using antifreeze and subsequently overheating. I hadn’t had to deal with something like that, being stuck in a freeway construction backup while watching the temperature gauge rise into the red area since high school, when my 1967 Camaro would regularly overheat due to the “speed shop” upgrades I’d installed. Having only that experience to draw upon, I did what worked then, which was to turn on the heat (on a 90+ degree day with two young kids who’d been raised in Wisconsin where over 60 is warm and who never endured a car ride without AC). You can imagine the reaction.
We’d been driving most of the day accompanied by scores of Harley riders headed to Sturgis and arrived at our campground near midnight, or at least we thought we had. We’d been following the minivan’s GPS and were on a darkened, unmarked road when the voice declared that we’d reached our destination by stating, simply, and confidently, “arrived.”
Something didn’t seem right about this. The GPS screen was completely black, like the night that was outside the windows of the van, except for a red arrow that purported to mark the spot. The ‘campground’ we’d booked was not a roadside camp site like you’d see in a state park with an outhouse that may or may not have toilet paper and sign instructing the user to use the toilet (and not the floor). No, the Palmer Gulch Lodge was supposed to be on the higher end, with a pool and a clubhouse, and we’d booked a small cottage with its own bathroom (and plumbing).
Not being programmed to give up easily, we spotted a dirt road on our left and thought maybe that was a back entrance, so down we went. I felt like Fred piloting the Mystery Machine down a path marked by a sign that says “Scary Road – Enter at Your Own Risk” with Shaggy & Scooby in the back, hands and paws covering their eyes in fear while a masked man, who would turn out to be the owner of the Palmer Gulch, was spying on us from the bushes while making a ghostly noise. A few hundred yards in, a fallen tree branch blocked the way, requiring the execution of a Y turn – you may remember that maneuver from your driver’s test (or perhaps more recently your teenager’s) – to get pointed back in the right direction, though it was still unclear where that was. If you can imagine yourself in such a situation, you won’t be surprised when I tell you that we also had no cell service.
Faced now with the prospect of maybe having to camp for real (yuck – for me at least), or spend the night in the minivan, we decided to defy our GPS and back track to the nearest town where we would (gasp) stop and ask for directions. We did so at a small, well-lit chain hotel on the main road in Hill City. I went in, alone, to get the directions and followed them to real campground entrance, which was, as it turned out, large and well-marked. That’s right, although our GPS may have been confident, it was also wrong.
We picked up the key and drove along the road outlined with camp fires to our cabin. There were supposed to be a couple of steps leading to the door of the screened in porch, from which the cabin door was accessed, but they were missing. An oversight, perhaps. When we entered the cabin and flipped up the light switch, the first thing I noticed was that the bed essentially took up the entire space. I had to employ my side by side shuffle step to make my way around the bed and the wall. The lampshade of the bedside light had been burned in several places by its lightbulb. The tub was stained rust colored brown around the drain area and was just a tub, no shower.
Fortunately, our exhaustion had equipped all of us with a “whatever” attitude by this time. We just wanted to sleep and didn’t care much about anything else. Well, at least that was true for three of the four of us. Our youngest daughter, who was supposed to sleep on the porch with her sister got into the bed and pulled the covers up tall – and tight.
“There are spiders on the porch” she whined.
“I don’t see any spiders,” I said, “and it’s too dark to see a spider, even if there was one.”
“There are spiders, I can tell.”
Back on The Trail
Back on the trail, I was scratching my head. After all, we had a map that made the trail appear obvious. And it was a loop, so how the hell could we get lost. My instinct was to forge ahead. I tried the riding on my shoulders thing, but my daughter was on the tail end of being light enough to carry around like that. I couldn’t last long doing it and she quickly tired of getting scratched in the face by the tree and bush branches lining the trail. We could hear the sounds that car tires make in the distance, so we knew that there was a road somewhere up ahead. I convinced the family that I knew what I was doing and that once we made it to the road, we’d find some shade where they could wait while I walked down the road to the visitor’s center to get the Odyssey.
Couldn’t be that far of a walk I figured.
We found the road and the shade. As that had been a prediction, rather than a certainty, I was relieved. There would have been hell to pay if either hadn’t materialized. It wouldn’t be long before I arrived back with the minivan, coolant filled and air conditioner cranking, regaining my status as the family breadwinner, and savior. 10-15 minutes max, I figured.
I headed on my way to the visitor center. As this was a mountainous area, the road was designed with switchbacks, which take a long time to navigate, but don’t get you very far, very fast. After walking the full length of the first two, I developed a shortcut plan that consisted of me sliding on my butt down the steep slope that the switchback was built to bypass. It wasn’t pleasant, but it was much faster.
After navigating 3 or 4 switchbacks this way, the road flattened and, although I still couldn’t see it yet, I was sure that the visitor’s center was just up ahead. I soldiered on for another 20 minutes before I came upon a cattle grid built into the road to keep animals like steers and bison from entering or leaving a particular area.
Wait a minute. I remembered crossing one of those things on our drive into the park. I was walking the right way, so this couldn’t be the same one, right? There was a sign just up ahead, facing the opposite way. Oh no. When I got to the sign, the only word that mattered was “Welcome” which confirmed my worst nightmare. Not only had I got us lost on the trail, I’d just walked for an hour the wrong frickin’ way to the visitor’s center…….(to be continued).
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