On our week-long travels around South Dakota, we become accustomed to seeing two types of scenery through our coach windows: jagged granite hills and gorges quilted in evergreen pine forests and radiant fall foliage, and flat golden and grassy prairies that spiral towards the horizon. Occasionally, however, the landscapes change dramatically, morphing, abruptly, into something trippy and other-worldly.
And nowhere on our journey is stranger, or more photogenic, than the Badlands National Park. Compared to other gems in the United States' parks system, such as Yellowstone, Yosemite and the Grand Canyon, the Badlands is relatively overlooked, although it covers more than 1000 square kilometres of southwestern South Dakota (more territory than New York City).
This morning, having driven east for about an hour from our base in Rapid City, we start seeing flurries of bizarre rocky features jutting out of the prairies and into the big blue midwestern skies. "This doesn't look real," says a Texan a few seats in front of me, her glasses pressed against the window as our coach ventures along the Badlands Loop. Spiriting 50 kilometres through the park, this two-lane highway has a series of designated panoramic vantage points and trails that skirt and overlook the peculiar hotchpotch of pinnacles, pyramids, buttes and spires.
Comprised of soft sedimentary rocks, they've been carved by the elements over millions of years, and as we pull over from time to time, clambering on ridges and walking wooden boardwalks, bits of the Badlands remind me of Tatooine, the harsh desert planet from Star Wars. While that movie wasn't filmed here, a few other sci-fi flicks were, including Armageddon and Starship Troopers (though partially set in South Dakota, and the neighbouring state of Montana, the 1973 crime thriller Badlands, starring Martin Sheen and Sissy Space, was mostly shot in Colorado).
Artists and designers have long drawn inspiration from the Badlands' landscapes, notably Frank Lloyd Wright, the late, pioneering American architect behind dreamy buildings such as New York's Guggenheim Museum. He has been quoted as saying: "I've been about the world a lot, and pretty much over our own country, but I was totally unprepared for that revelation called the Dakota Bad Lands…"
We barely see another living soul, apart from a few trucks and cars chugging along the highway, the faint drone of their engines piercing the park's eerie silence. To the native Lakota Sioux tribes, this foreboding region, wedged between the Cheyenne and White rivers, was "mako sica", which has been translated as "land bad". The Lakota hunted bison and the Badlands' rugged terrain wasn't as ripe for grazing as other parts of the Midwest. Many of the Lakota's ancestors now live on reservations on the park's fringes.
Arriving here in the 18th century, French fur trappers described the area as "les mauvaises terres a traverser", meaning "bad lands to traverse". We're here in October, early autumn, when it's a pleasant 22 degrees. In summer, it can be brutally hot, with occasional violent thunderstorms, while in winter, it can plummet to -10 degrees, as snow blankets the landscape. Despite the temperature extremes, unpredictable weather, and minimal vegetation, wildlife survives here.
We spot a herd of bighorn sheep pottering about and some scurrying prairie dogs. Also residing here are pronghorn, which resemble antelopes, and are the world's second fastest land mammal after the cheetah. We also see signs warning us to beware of rattlesnakes.
A plethora of fossils have been unearthed across the Badlands, with ancient mammals like the saber-toothed cat once roaming here. According to our tour manager, Kim, about 70 million years ago, much of this park was a sea bed, and in its warm waters flourished species such as the mosasaur, an aquatic Komodo dragon-esque lizard that grew up to 10 metres long. And the pteranodon, which was apparently neither a bird nor a dinosaur, would soar above, with a wing span of more than eight metres. Trying to picture this lost, Jurassic-like world, only adds to the mystique of this constantly evolving park, which will have flattened out in about 500,000 years if the current rate of erosion continues.
Not that there is any guarantee planet Earth will be around that long, a fact reinforced by our visit earlier to the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site. Located on the park's northern limits, off Interstate 90, it reveals the midwest's often-overlooked role in the Cold War. Between 1963 and the early 1990s, a vast arsenal of nuclear missiles and launch facilities were "hidden in plain sight" across the region, explains Jim, a retired missile officer and guide at the site's visitor centre. Now decommissioned, the 1000-plus ICBMs (Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles) had the power to destroy civilisation, but were meant as a nuclear deterrent to prevent all-out war.
"The other side has to know what you've got and that you'll use them if you have to," says Jim, in his soothing midwest twang. Later, as we head back towards Rapid City, going west along Interstate 90 – America's longest interstate, it runs almost 5000 kilometres between Boston and Seattle – we stop off at Wall. Named after the rugged rampart-like ridge on the Badlands' northern edge, Wall is home to about 800 people, but this figure is often outnumbered by outsiders. It's all because of Wall Drug.
Advertised on giant road-side billboards for miles and miles leading into town, it began life in 1931, during the Great Depression, as a drugstore run by pharmacist Ted Hustead and his wife, Dorothy, who enticed truckers and road-trippers with offers of "free" ice water. Expanded over the years, and now run by the Husteads' grandson, Rick, Wall Drug is an attraction in its own right, clocking about 2 million visitors annually and is big enough and maze-like enough to warrant a map (you'll find them at the entrances).
Wandering around, indoors and through the backyard, quirky slices of Americana grab your attention, from Wild West-themed amusement arcades and an animatronic T-Rex to an old-fashioned soda fountain and a mini replica of Mount Rushmore (one of South Dakota's most iconic sites).
I also pass a travellers' chapel, a pharmacy, a jewellery emporium and clothing stores selling cowboy-style boots, belts and buckles. Sculptures and oil paintings flaunting the beauty, culture and endearing charm of South Dakota decorate the walls, especially in the dining areas, where I tuck into a buffalo (bison) burger and fries, followed by a doughnut and coffee.
Don't expect a Melbourne or Sydney-level caffeine hit, but it's not bad for the price (5 cents a cup). In his 1989 book The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America, Bill Bryson labelled Wall Drug as "one of the world's worst tourist traps". But he added: "I loved it and I won't have a word said against it."
Three decades on, you won't find many folk disagreeing.
Beginning and ending in Rapid City, Collette's seven-day Spotlight on South Dakota tours run from May to October, priced from $2209 a person. See gocollette.com
Steve McKenna was a guest of Collette.