Christian Kemp's USA travelogs

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When I awoke in the morning, after getting a good night's sleep in my tent, my headache had thankfully subsided. An advantage of being in a campground was that there was a pay phone nearby, so I walked over to call the rental car company's 1-800 number and get instructions on what to do about my tire situation. I explained the problem, and was told to bring it in to the nearest rental station, in Rapid City. I packed the tent, as well as organizing all my gear, clothing and food items so as to make the switching of cars faster; and then drove (carefully!) to the airport at Rapid City.

At the rental center, it took quite a while to get the replacement car. First, I had to fill out an accident report, and then it still took a while for them to find a car they could give me. In the end, I had to trade down to a Buick Rendezvous. It didn't really belong in the "SUV" class I had booked, but I was happy enough to be rid of the unlucky Trailblazer that had weighed so heavily on my thoughts in the past few days. One advantage that the Buick had was that the rear seats were removable, so by placing one of them on top of the other I was able to get a long, level surface to sleep on that would turn out to be the most comfortable I've ever had on any rental.

I only hit the road around lunch time, which meant that I'd reach nearby Badlands National Park with the sun still very high in the sky. I entered the park from the west, on Sage Creek Road. At the park entrance, I wasn't seeing any bad land yet, but merely grassy plains. Only after a while, the eroded, barren sections came into view. While I was photographing those, I was approached by a fellow traveler who asked me what my secret was for getting good shots when the light was so flat - I told him there wasn't one, but that any shot was better than no shot.

Overall, there weren't a lot of people, and as such when I reached Roberts Prairie Dog Town, I was able to photograph the prairie dogs without them getting spooked by other cars or visitors. For a while, I setup my tripod and used the tele end of my Sigma 50-500mm, but oddly enough the closest shots that I got were when I was back in the car. As I was rolling down the unpaved road with my windows rolled down, the prairie dogs seemed much less concerned; and some of them appeared out of their holes just next to the road. One, in particular, was feeding on grasses and small shrubs just a very short distance from the car, to the extent that I got a full-frame shot without the animal seeming disturbed in the slightest.

I followed the road further East, to the spot where it joined the paved highway coming in from the North, and then followed that road in a southeastern direction through the rest of the park. Beyond Ancient Hunters Overlook, the scenery changed, and the abrupt and irregularly eroded badlands were largely replaced by smoother, but more colourful barren hills. I stopped a few more times, and by the time I had reached the Eastern end of the park the scenery had become more dramatic again, with bigger and more extensive badlands with rougher edges.

I finally left the park around 5pm. I could have stayed until sunset, but elected to head on to Mount Rushmore for that. I'd seen that clouds were building up over the Black Hills, but I still wanted to get a shot at getting decent sunset pictures.

After paying for the parking, I grabbed my tripod and camera and then walked up to the viewing platform just as the first drops of rain were starting to fall. The sky had turned a menacing grey, and before too long it started to thunder. I took refuge under a protruding roof, and continued taking pictures as the crowds thinned out noticeably.

It wasn't yet dark enough to take really long exposures that are traditionally used for photographing lightning strikes at night, so it took quite a lot of trial and error before I even managed to get the first lightning strike on a photo - with exposures of less than a second, I always seemed to be taking a picture just before or after a flash.

One curious thing that happened was that the rain changed the faces of the four presidents in a quite dramatic way - they weren't getting wet in an uniform way, but the runoff from the rain seemed to be streaking down their faces.

The storm clouds moved on, and the sky was lighted red by the setting sun. I had a conversation with a young fellow who was convinced that his hand-held ultra-small Casio digital camera was better than my tripod-mounted Canon. I'm pretty sure his high opinion of the Casio was somewhat diminished once he opened the picture on a computer, as opposed to seeing it on the small screen.

By 8pm, I was back in the parking garage and of course I still needed to find a place to stay for the night. I started driving, and without intending to do so managed to catch up with the lightning clouds again. As I was driving over narrow winding streets in the Black Hills, thunder was crashing all around me, and there was a lot of lightning. I wasn't too keen on getting out of the car - I'm sure the lightning strikes would have been spectacular on long exposure photos, but being exposed to them by standing outside with a metal tripod didn't seem like a smart idea - and was glad when I finally arrived at a campground in Custer State Park; where I called it a night.

Miles driven: 290mi (467km)

Campground Accommodation: Game Lodge Campground (Custer State Park): $15

Written July 3rd 2008 (Badlands part) and July 4th 2008 (Mount Rushmore part) in Luxembourg