Mars & Kind People

On October 14th we woke up at our campsite in the Badlands and rushed to get out by sunrise. We sped to the beginning of the park to get a few sunrise pictures, and FaceTimed our parents to show them the crazy landscape. It is like nothing I had ever seen before--giant alien-like rock formations covering the earth in front of you. We took a small trail that led you into the heart of the canyons that overlooked, honestly, what looked like Mars. When we got to the end of the trail we sat on the rocks and looked out at the rising sun and threw stones out into the canyons. We took some pictures and headed back to the van where we made some breakfast, and started along the road into the heart of the Badlands.

We stopped at various “viewpoints” along the road, which looked over different parts of the canyons, and as we were driving we saw something moving in a field in the distance. We pulled over and got out the binoculars and saw a herd of antelope! John realized that a coyote was stalking them a couple yards away--but it looked far too big to be a coyote, even though there are no wolves in the park, apparently. We’re still convinced it’s a wolf. We were hearing little high pitched noises, and when we looked closer to us we realized there were prairie dogs!! We spent most of the day pointing out neat rocks, giggling at prairie dogs and searching for bison. We got towards the end of the park and stopped at an overlook where we made lunch and relaxed for a while to wait for sunset.

After a while we decided to check out the free campground at the end of the park, to try and get a spot. Unbeknownst to us the campground was at the end of a very long, very bumpy dirt road, and we felt uneasy driving Penny through it. We decided to try anyway, and after about 5 minutes we decided it was wayyy too rocky and we had to turn around--but before we did we looked out the window and realized there were bison!! 6 of them! We sat on a hill and watched them in our binoculars and got all giddy like little kids.

We turned the van around and drove back to the overlook to watch the sunset--and as I walked down to the rocks I heard John calling my name. I turned around and saw him waving me back, so I rushed over to see what was wrong..coolant was spraying from Penny, which could mean anything is wrong, and here we were stuck in the middle of nowhere in South Dakota. Instead of watching the sunset and taking in the beauty of the Badlands one last time, we took everything out of the back of the van and tried to figure out what the problem was. Since we were near the end of the park we drove to the town of Wall and pulled into the nearest gas station to investigate further. As the sky darkened we sunk more into a sadness and uncertainty of what was going to happen next with Penny. A nice South Dakota man in a pickup noticed that we were having trouble, so he came over to see what was wrong. After looking into the problem a bit, he and John realized that the leak was coming from up near the coolant reservoir, which was a big relief at the time, cause that meant that it wasn't anything too serious. It was just a matter of pinpointing the leak and coming up with a plan to fix it. John asked the guy in the gas station if it was ok for us to just stay in their parking lot, and he said that was fine--so we bought some ice cream to eat our remaining sad feelings and went to bed.

The next morning we woke up and drove to the only mechanic in town to see if he could help us out (a lot of mechanics don't like to, and sometimes refuse, to work on Vanagons because they're so complicated). When we arrived he helped us identify the problem (the pipe coming off of the coolant reservoir was broken), and he was willing to try and help but told us he didn't totally know what he was doing when it came to Vanagon coolant systems. We told him we'd try and explore other options and maybe we'd be back--we could only drive 5 miles at a time because the coolant didn't kick in until then, and if you drive too long with no coolant it can lead to big, big problems.

We went to Wall Drug Store, which is a huge tourist attraction in that area that we had been seeing signs for for hours on the way to the Badlands. It's basically a giant building with a ton of souvenirs, little specialty shops inside, a cafeteria and many other silly things. We walked around for a while and John started looking at this website called the Vanagon Rescue Squad, where people sign up to be “on call” to help people fix their Vanagons FOR FREE. John found a guy named Josh in Rapid City which was about 50 miles away, and he agreed to help us out. It was Thursday and he said we could come to his house Friday night or Saturday morning, and that we could overnight the part we needed to his house. He also offered to let us sleep at their house, but we wanted everything to be as convenient as possible for them, so we decided to just get there on Saturday morning.

We spent most of the day after that at Wall Drug, and hanging out in the van in their parking lot, making wallets and stuff, until it started getting later and we called a tow truck to take us to a WalMart about 5 miles from Josh’s house. Literally 10 minutes later a big cowboy in a tow truck pulled up and strapped Penny down--it was pretty sad, actually! He pointed out the scenic areas on the way and told us a little bit about the area. He also mentioned that he has personally seen 2 wolves in the Badlands in his 20 years living there, so he said that its certainly possible that we saw a wolf. He said the officials won't ever officially admit it, but they also won't admit that there are mountain lions, despite one being killed in Wall a few years back.

The next day was spent hanging out in Penny at WalMart--we weren't really within walking distance to much, so we slept in, made breakfast, listened to music and caught up on some things. We went to bed early and woke up early to head to Josh’s house, where he was standing outside ready for us in a mechanics suit and all! His wife Amber came out and introduced herself and offered us coffee, and while John and Josh started looking at the van we stayed inside and talked for a while. She was totally one of the sweetest people I've ever talked to, and I couldn't express enough how thankful I was that they were willing to help us. She had to go pick up their daughter and offered us to use their shower, which was long overdue and totally unexpected! I watched John and Josh for a while as they replaced the bad fitting and bled the system, and Amber came back with donuts for us! While John got a shower I got Penny back in order and we were ready to go on our way! John offered Josh a wallet (which he seemed to need because his was falling apart) in exchange for the 4 hours of work, free showers, fresh coffee and utter kindness. We couldn't believe anyone would ever sign up to invite strangers into their house and spend hours doing free labor--they wished us luck and waved goodbye as we set off towards Mount Rushmore!