2000s Archive

Going to Extremes

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After our adventure during mating hour, Hillenbrand drives me to a vantage point on her ranch to show me the remains of Native American tepee rings, small anchoring stones still visible in the ground, like a Sioux Stonehenge. From there, I can only gasp at the wide stretch of prairie, the occasional outcroppings, and the buffalo, which look like small, furry Milk Duds. This is an American West that anyone would find beautiful, and nostalgic.

“Whenever I move my animals and they’re all together, going up and down hills, I think of what it must have been like when there were millions of buffalo,” Hillenbrand says. “I love these animals. They’re smart. They’re still wild. I’ve worked with cattle, and I find them totally boring.”

“So what is American about this?” I ask.

“This is America,” she says. “This is what was here hundreds of years ago. It was always my dream as a kid to come to the West, ride horses, and be where the Indians were. I hope I’m bringing back a little piece of that history. It’s open here. It’s free. And what is America, if not freedom?”

The Details

Go to the Badlands for the scenery, not for the food and drink. But as long as you’re there: The slightly stuffy Hotel Alex Johnson (523 Sixth Street, Rapid City; 800-888-2539; alexjohnson.com; from $99), in Rapid City, was built in 1928, but its faded grandeur (FDR once stayed there, as did Eisenhower) does recall a certain western heartiness. The best food in the region is served at The Corn Exchange (727 Main Street, Rapid City; 605-343-5070), in the historic district, where chef-owner M. J. Adams mixes meat and potato dishes with organic creations made from fresh ingredients. To edify her patrons, she explains terms like “glaze” and “reduction sauce” on a blackboard in the dining room. Closer to the park, the town of Wall has the most options for food and accommodations, centered around the campy Wall Drug, with a mechanical T. rex, Singing Sam the Gorilla Man, and a tepee from Dances with Wolves. The Best Western (712 Glenn Street, Wall; 800-780-7234; bestwestern.com; from $87) may be your best motel option. Inside the park, Cedar Pass Lodge (20681 South Dakota Highway 240, Interior; 605-433-5460; cedarpasslodge.com; from $65) is well located, with basic rooms. That means no phone or TV, so don’t forget to pack the latest Tony Hillerman. For lunch, try the Indian tacos, made with doughy fried bread smothered with refried beans, ground buffalo meat, and the usual smattering of shredded iceberg lettuce and grated Cheddar.

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