Solar Eclipse 2017: Time-Lapse Videos from the South Dakota Badlands

August 21, 2017 – We first noticed the mania about the 2017 solar eclipse when we took our RV through the cute towns of Chugwater and Douglas, Wyoming, a few weeks ago. There were solar eclipse glasses for sale at checkout counters and all kinds of tourist pamphlets advertising the event.

We debated hustling back to the area this week to witness the 100% total eclipse, but in the end decided we’d rather stay out of the fray and watch it in the Badlands of South Dakota where the eclipse would 95.7% of maximum — pretty close to total.

Timelaps video setup for Solar eclipse 2017 Badlands National Park South Dakota August 21 2017

Timelapse video setup for Solar eclipse 2017 in the South Dakota Badlands!!

We set up three tripods with our cameras facing the rugged Badlands landscape to capture time-lapse video sequences of the two and a half hour progression from normal daylight through the dark skies of the eclipse and back to normal daylight again. We started the time-lapse videos a little more than an hour before the max eclipse time, and set the cameras to take images every four seconds. Then we got busy doing other things.

Solar eclipse 2017 Badlands National Park South Dakota tripod set up for timelapse video time-lapse August 21 2017.

We set the time-lapses to take a shot every 4 seconds.
It was cloudy at the start, and we had no idea how dark it would get, so the exposure settings were a wild guess!

Because of the clouds, it was a little hard to tell that anything was happening. However, the sun eventually came out and it was a little dimmer than normal. Using a technique similar to the pin-hole boxes we had both made during solar eclipses as kids, Mark flipped a pair of binoculars upside down to show the image of the moon crossing the sun on the back of a white pizza box.

He thought of this technique at the last minute, and impressed the heck out of me. What a creative mind he has!! I asked him how he came up with the idea, and he just said, “Well, I needed something with a round hole.” Oh. Right. But of course!

Solar Eclipse 2017 Badlands National Park South Dakota viewing through binoculars August 21 2017.

It’s started!

We were in a quiet area, but as the eclipse progressed we noticed a fire engine pulled up to park a bluff. One firefighter climbed up on the roof of the truck to look at the changing landscape and the other stood out front. Cool!

Solar eclipse 2017 Badlands National Park South Dakota fire truck on hill August 21 2017.

A fire truck showed up on a bluff.

I remember when I was child there was a solar eclipse visible across North America (in March, 1970), and my great-uncle, who was 85 at the time, began telling stories of a solar eclipse he had lived through as a kid in the last years of the 1800’s. He said the animals had gotten confused and had settled in to go to sleep. The chickens all roosted, the dogs curled up on the ground, and all the critters thought it was time to go to bed.

I don’t know if he was pulling my leg or not, but all of a sudden we saw a pair of big horn sheep babies playing out in the grasslands. They were romping around together bounding over the tall grasses when all of a sudden they stopped dead in their tracks and turned around to look at something behind them.

Baby Big horn sheep solar eclipse 2017 Badlands National Park South Dakota

A pair of baby big horn sheep pause in the grasslands to look over their shoulders.

Mark grabbed his Nikon D500 camera and very long lens and snapped a few priceless pics. As we watched this sweet pair, we were both amazed when they suddenly laid down right there on the ground.

Resting big horn sheep solar eclipse 2017 Badlands National Park South Dakota

Time for a little rest.

Baby Big horn sheep solar eclipse 2017 Badlands National Park South Dakota-2

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I’m not sure if they thought nighttime was coming, but one of them dozed off for a moment!

Sleeping Baby Big horn sheep solar eclipse 2017 Badlands National Park South Dakota

Nighty-night!

And then the magic moment arrived. 11:51:36 am was maximum eclipse time for us, and for the next two minutes we were at maximum moon-over-sun darkness of 95.7%.

Mark put his 16-80 mm lens on his camera, attached two 10-stop neutral density filters, popped out the live view display, and took a few shots.

Solar eclipse 2017 Badlands National Park South Dakota photographing 95.7% eclipse August 21 2017.

Mark sets up to see what he can get at the moment of maximum eclipse.

I sneaked behind him to see what he was getting. Very cool!!

Solar eclipse 2017 Badlands National Park South Dakota photographing 95.7% eclipse August 21 2017

There it is!

solar eclipse 2017 Badlands National Park South Dakota 95.7% eclipse at maximum August 21 2017 11-51 am

95.7% of total eclipse.

I wandered around with my pocket camera and got some images of the Badlands. Frankly, it wasn’t really that dark. At least it didn’t seem to be to me.

Solar eclipse 2017 Badlands National Park South Dakota 95.7% maximum eclipse August 21 2017 August 21 2017.

It didn’t seem all that dark during the maximum solar eclipse.

The sun was definitely still shining and there were distinct shadows on the ground. I took a shot of my shadow.

My shadow Solar eclipse 2017 Badlands National Park South Dakota

I could see my shadow plain as day at max eclipse time.
Friends of ours in Idaho said the true total eclipse was as black as night. They even saw stars for a few minutes!

But when we looked at the time-lapse videos later, we discovered the cameras had picked up the darkening light very well. I had a polarizing filter on my Nikon D810 with an 18-35mm lens set to about 20mm with a shutter speed of 1/50 and aperture of f8. Mark didn’t have a polarizer and shot quite a bit wider with a 14mm lens with a shutter speed of 1/200 at f5.6.

Here are the two time-lapse videos. Each one is about 30 seconds long:

The third time-lapse video was on a Nikon Coolpix A camera which took 900 sequential shots but unfortunately left it up to us to stitch them together into a video! Once we figure out how to do that we’ll post that video too!

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The solar eclipse I remember from childhood was on March 7, 1970, and occurred in the middle of my weekly piano lesson. My wonderful piano teacher and I kept peeking out the window and looking into my pin hole box between recitations of Bach’s sonatas. Very fun! Here’s some info about that eclipse.

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Sturgis Motorcycle Rally – Wild and Free in South Dakota’s Black Hills!

August 2017 – The Sturgis Motorcycle Rally has been lighting up the roads around the Black Hills of South Dakota for 77 years, and ever since we experienced the Daytona 200 years ago, we have talked endlessly about taking our RV to Sturgis — until this year when we finally got there!

And what a welcome we received as we drove into town on the first day and discovered the Bikini Bike Wash was already in full swing!

Bikini Bike Wash Sturgis Motorcycle Rally South Dakota

WOW!!! Welcome to Sturgis!!!

During the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally the little town of Sturgis, South Dakota — population 6,627 as of the 2010 census — is suddenly inundated with 500,000 crazy motorcycle enthusiasts in a wild mix of political incorrectness and patriotism along with a passion for all things Harley Davidson.

Welcome to Sturgis Motorcycle Rally South Dakota

Ahem… a lower key welcome…

Overnight, Sturgis transforms into Hog Heaven as thousands of Harleys fill the streets of town. From both rusty and restored antiques to the most recent brand new models, and from plain Jane Harleys to the most exotic and customized hogs imaginable, the love of freedom and the open road is celebrated in grand style for ten days.

Zippy motorcycle with ape-hanger bars Sturgis Motorcycle Rally South Dakota

Some babes wear bikinis at the bike wash. Others zip around town on cool Harleys.

The town of Sturgis first hosted this motorcycle rally back in 1938 when it was known as the Black Hills Classic. After all these years, the town has become expert at rolling out the welcome mat for visiting bikers.

People from all income brackets come to the rally, and no one is left out in the cold. Besides traditional rooms at motels and campsites in campgrounds, signs on the front lawns of the houses and small businesses in town offered tent camping and a chance for a front row seat to the 24/7 parade.

Tent camping in front yards at Sturgis Motorcycle Rally South Dakota

Entrepreneurial home and business owners rent out tent space on the front lawn!

Even the local Episcopal church had temporarily transformed into the Church of the Spoke ‘n Wheel.

Church of the Spoke and Wheel Sturgis Motorcycle Rally South Dakota

Church of the Spoke ‘n Wheel — Great sermons, by the way!

In downtown Sturgis both sides of all the streets were lined with motorcycles, and they were parked right down the middle too. Meanwhile, a steady stream of bikers rolled by.

Welcome Bikers Sturgis Motorcycle Rally South Dakota

Motorcycles everywhere!

Motorcycle wheels Sturgis Motorcycle Rally South Dakota

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Motorcycles pass Jack Daniels booth Sturgis Motorcycle Rally South Dakota

Jack Daniels had a huge vendor tent with free tastings!
Other whiskeys, bourbons and wine were on offer too along with $2 pints of Pabst Blue Ribbon.

Suddenly, Mark insisted we stop at the Rebel Yell Bourbon booth. This was weird, because Mark is a beer drinker not a bourbon guy.

Rebel Yell Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey babes Sturgis Motorcycle Rally South Dakota

Hmmm. Why in the world would Mark want to check out Rebel Yell bourbon?!

Choppers of every style were on glorious display.

Big wheel motorcycle Sturgis Motorcycle Rally South Dakota

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Big wheel motorcycle Sturgis Motorcycle Rally South Dakota

Some hogs are exquisitely crafted and decorated.

Hot babes were hanging out at a lot of vendor booths and we even saw an angel crossing the street.

Angel Sturgis Motorcycle Rally South Dakota

An angel walks by.

But there were some real dogs too.

Little pooch gets a ride Sturgis Motorcycle Rally South Dakota

Pooch gets a ride.

Corsets are a favorite outfit for women bikers, and there were plenty to be found. The guys lean towards more bad boy images, and they go for skeletons of all kinds.

Skin tight leather corsets Sturgis Motorcycle Rally South Dakota

Corsets for the ladies…

Bad boy skeleton t-shirt designs Sturgis Motorcycle Rally South Dakota

…and T-shirt images for the gents!

One of the favorite pastimes for everyone at Sturgis is people watching. Not only do folks set up chairs in front yards all over town, but the bars have outdoor seating, and temporary standup bars are set up along the roads so you can hang out with a beer and watch the wild procession go by.

Bar scene Sturgis Motorcycle Rally South Dakota

Real bars and makeshift bars were filled with people watchers all over town and beyond!

We saw lots of wild animals in Custer State Park, but Sturgis has a lot of wildlife too!

For lots of Sturgis-goers, the longer the beard and the wilder the duds the better. They even have a beard contest (with a dozen categories) that is a qualifier for the National Beard Contest (who knew there was such a thing?!). We saw quite a few good ones:

Tie-dye hippie Sturgis Motorcycle Rally South Dakota

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Beard contest Sturgis Motorcycle Rally South Dakota

Ready for the beard contest.

We even saw a beard-and-horns combo:

Long beard horns and leather vest Sturgis Motorcycle Rally South Dakota

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And there were a few headdresses that were totally over the top.

Crazy hat Sturgis Motorcycle Rally South Dakota

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Black leather was favored by the motorcycle rally crowd, and leather vests were particularly popular with the guys. Folks put huge patches on the back that told a little about themselves.

Hells Angels California Sturgis Motorcycle Rally South Dakota

Hells Angels showed up!

There was a huge contingent with Combat Veteran patches on their backs, and each had additional patches for where they had fought. There was a strong comaraderie among these guys, and their service had been extensive, across continents and decades: Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Desert Storm, Vietnam and more.

Combat vets vest Sturgis Motorcycle Rally South Dakota

Combat vets gathered with pride.

Sturgis draws people from all over the world, and we saw people from very far-flung destinations!

Rally

A pair of visitors from Mazatlan, Mexco…

German visitors Sturgis Motorcycle Rally South Dakota

…and from Germany too!

Tatoos are really popular with the Sturgis crowd too, and anyone who didn’t come to the rally with one — or who had a bare spot where they could squeeze in another — had plenty of options around town for getting the tatoo image of their dreams, short term or long!!

Get a tattoo Sturgis Motorcycle Rally South Dakota

Need a tatoo? Come get it here!

One of the most impressive tatoos we saw peeked out from behind a leather vest…

Belly tatoo artwork Sturgis Motorcycle Rally South Dakota

Now that’s a tatoo!

The tatoo artists weren’t the only talented graphics designers around town. We watched one attendee plop down on a bench, pull out a sketch pad, and start drawing the crazy motorcycle scene in front of him.

Motorcycle artist Sturgis Motorcycle Rally South Dakota

An artist begins a drawing of the crazy street scene on his sketch pad.

At one vendor booth a pinstripe artist drew fantastic curvy designs on motorcycle tanks and fenders. I had no idea these guys did this freehand. What skill!!

Motorcycle Pinstripe artist Sturgis Motorcycle Rally South Dakota

The confidence and steady hand this pinstripe artist had was astonishing. He worked really fast too!

The engineering design at the heart of the whole motorcycle rally, of course, is the Harley Davidson engine. A massive mockup of the engine was on display in the middle of it all.

Harley Davidson engine Sturgis Motorcycle Rally South Dakota

At the heart of Sturgis — the Harley Davidson engine!!

There were oodles of really clever motorcycle designs everywhere, and we got a huge kick out of seeing them. One beautiful silver one caught my eye, and I idly looked at the price tag. My eyes jumped out of my head when I saw $94,048. It was handwritten and a little funky looking, so I checked the next bike to see if I’d missed a digit or something. Nope! The next (really gorgeous and extremely customized) bike was nearly the same price. Holy smokes!!

Corvette style motorcycle Sturgis Motorcycle Rally South Dakota

What a cool ride — with a Corvette style back end!

Motorcycle with rear engine Sturgis Motorcycle Rally South Dakota

The engine is back here — under the lid!!

Motorcycle tailpipes Sturgis Motorcycle Rally South Dakota

Spitting hellfire and fury out the tailpipes!!

Some people stay in the many motels around town and in the surrounding communities, but many people camp in one way or another. Lots of people camp in big beautiful toy haulers, and Jayco was in town with two brand new models that we walked through and checked out. But bunches of folks were camping in tents.

A few even towed a tiny popup tent trailer behind their motorcycle!!

Motorcycle popup tent trailer Sturgis Motorcycle Rally South Dakota

Motorcycle camping in style with a popup!

The Sturgis Motorcycle Rally is as much an industry trade show as it is a social gathering for like minded motorcycle enthusiasts. Every open piece of land throughout the town and out in the hinterlands was filled with vendor booths, and you could buy anything and everything you ever dreamed of for your bike.

And if your bike needed a tune-up or an oil change, you had a choice of at least a dozen places to get that done!

Every so often as we roamed around we’d here the deafening roar of a motorcycle “giving it all she’s got.” It turned out that several vendors had brought enormous trailers that had a complete laboratory dynamometer inside. After installing an engine tuner on a bike, they would dyno the motorcycle to find out its horsepower and torque!!

Motorcycle speed shop Sturgis Motorcycle Rally South Dakota

What’s your bike’s horsepower and torque? Find out here!

As we walked through one area, we heard the whine of motorcycle engines revving like crazy. Slithering through the crowd, we found some motorcycle tricksters doing all kinds of crazy stunts. Wow!!

Motorcycle wheelie Sturgis Motorcycle Rally South Dakota

These guys rode their Kawasakis like they were tiny BMX bikes!

Front wheelie bike tricksters Sturgis Motorcycle Rally South Dakota

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Motorcycle brake torque burnouts Sturgis Motorcycle Rally South Dakota

Brake torque!!

For those who couldn’t quite pull off a wheelie or do a brake torque on a motorcycle, there was a bike set up on a permanent tilt where you could hop aboard and pose for a photo finish in a motorcycle race. I couldn’t pass that up!!

Motorcycle races Sturgis Motorcycle Rally South Dakota

Weeee!!

In many ways, Sturgis Motorcycle Rally is a street photographer’s heaven, and we saw cameras and photographers of all kinds roaming around. When we noticed one fellow with a really elaborate setup, we stopped to chat. It turned out he was from the Travel Channel! He was busy videoing bikes on the road, but inside a nearby bar we found the rest of the crew interviewing rally-goers right at the bar!

Travel Channel TV Crew Sturgis Motorcycle Rally South Dakota

The Travel Channel was interviewing folks at the bar!

The Sturgis Motorcycle Rally isn’t limited to the small town of Sturgis. Sturgis is just party central!

People bring their bikes to this part of the country because the roads outside of town, and all through the Black Hills, are so ideal for riding. Knowing they’ll be seeing thousands of bikes roll through during the ten day rally, restaurants, campgrounds and motels in all the outlying towns cater to their every need.

There was live music galore at all hours of the day and night at a dozen different venues in town and many more on the outskirts. Some were lesser known bands, but big headliners including Ozzie Ozbourne performed too!

As we drove around the area, we noticed that a lot of bikes kept heading down one particular road, so we decided to follow them one day.

Sturgis motorcycle rally South Dakota

Rolling thunder! Huge groups of bikes dominated the roads for a 50 mile radius from town. Just incredible!

They were heading to the Full Throttle Saloon, and on the way there we passed several sprawling tent city campgrounds that had been set up to house the motorcyclists for the ten day event.

Tent city Sturgis Motorcycle Rally South Dakota

Tent city campgrounds had sprouted up all over the place. Is $75 a night for a tent site too much?

Even here at the Full Throttle Saloon, about 3 miles from the heart of downtown Sturgis, the place was flooded with beautiful motorcycles.

Full Dressers Sturgis Motorcycle Rally South Dakota

Pick your favorite color…

The candy colors were eye-poppingly pretty, and we wandered from one stunningly gorgeous full dresser big wheel bike to the next.

Full Throttle Saloon Sturgis Motorcycle Rally South Dakota

Stunning full dresser big wheel bikes lined up at the Full Throttle Saloon outside of town.

The rally went on for days, and although we had thought we would just pop in for a few hours on the first day, we ended up spending nearly a week in the area. There’s just so much going on–and we didn’t do even a fraction of it–that it’s very hard to leave!

But every so often you do need to take a break. Among the casual, fun-loving and slightly geriatric crowd at Sturgis, taking a breather is never a problem. You can kick back on your bike and take a snooze right in the middle of it all!

Bike snooze Sturgis Motorcycle Rally South Dakota

Long night last night? Catch a few winks on your bike!

If you have a chance to go to the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally at some point, it is a really fun event to attend. I’ve got a few links below to help plan a trip.

Custom motorcycle travel trailer Sturgis Motorcycle Rally South Dakota

Sturgis Motorcycle Rally — a really good time!!

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More info about the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally:

Other blog posts about fun vehicle rallies we’ve seen in our RV life:

Other things to see and do in South Dakota – Blog posts from our South Dakota RV travels

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Highlights from our RV trip to Custer, South Dakota

July 2017 – We loved our stay in South Dakota’s Black Hills, and this plaque we found hanging on a wall in a restaurant says it perfectly:

RV Vacation in the Black Hills with an RV or travel trailer

Yes, definitely do!

The cute town of Custer is in the heart of the Black Hills, and one of the things that charmed us is that it is decorated with a slew of brightly painted life-size sculptures of buffalo. We found these fun creatures roaming all over town!

Buffalo statue Custer South Dakota

Life-size buffalo sculptures stand in front of businesses and homes all over town.

We had fun finding these guys and posing with them!

Buffalo statue Custer South Dakota

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Of course, the real ones are close by in Custer State Park too.

Buffalo with bird on his back Custer South Dakota

A bird catches a ride on the real thing!

We visited the town of Custer quite a few times, and each time we stopped at Calamity Jane’s for a fancy fluffy latte. This is a great little espresso shop and wine tasting bar that does a brisk business.

For decades the owners, Jim and Deb, ran a camera shop in this location, but with the advent of the cell phone camera age and tourists who love espresso and wine, they’ve switched gears and created a very friendly place to hang out a while!

Calamity Jane Wine Bar and Coffee Shop South Dakota

Mark jokes around with Jim, the owner of the Calamity Jane Wine & Espresso shop.

Calamity Jane Coffee Shop Custer South Dakota

Coffee is up front. The wine is in the back!

A little sign on the floor of Calamity Jane’s says “Go ride a bike!” and we followed that advice and headed out on the Mickelson Trail one day. This is a wonderful rails-to-trails crushed gravel path that goes on for 109 miles. The town of Custer situated near the middle of the trail.

Go Ride a Bike Custer South Dakota

Good advice!

Mickelson Trail Custer South Dakota

The 109 mile long Mickelson Trail is a wonderful rails-to-trails path through the Black Hills.

We did out-and-back bike rides in each direction from town and thoroughly enjoyed the scenery. The Black Hills are filled with fabulous pinnacle rock formations, and we passed a few beauties while riding the Mickelson Trail.

Scenery on the Mickelson Trail Custer South Dakota

One of the signatures of Black Hills landscapes is pinnacle rock formations jutting up out of the earth.

Rock formations Custer South Dakota

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The Black Hills region was one of the last areas to be explored in the 19th century, and in 1874 Lieutenant Colonel George Custer arrived with his expedition to check out the area. This expedition has given us much pause for thought.

In our travels, Mark and I roam around the country in our cozy little fully self-contained luxury fifth wheel trailer. We travel easily at 65 mph, enjoy hot and cold running water, refrigerated meats and fish from every corner of the continent and veggies from all over the world.

Our barbecue, stove, oven and microwave stand ready to cook a meal at a moment’s notice, and our rolling home’s climate control gives us ample heat and air conditioning in all conditions. Most astonishing of all, we have 24/7 instantaneous access to much of the world’s populace via the internet.

Traveling effortlessly in this kind of style makes it very hard for us to fathom such a primitive expedition as Custer’s was, even though it took place less than 150 years ago, not even twice our parents’ age.

Custer undertook this expedition into the Black Hills 70 years after Lewis and Clarke did their cross-country trek to the west coast. Not only were there were well over 1,000 men in Custer’s group, they brought along 2,100 horses, 110 wagons, a herd of cattle for food (most of which returned home with them because the group found plenty of game along the way), plus surveyors, engineers, geologists, a photographer and a media crew of five newspaper reporters.

The whole caravan stretched out for over two miles when they were traveling!

Welcome to Custer South Dakota

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The expedition went from the current location of Bismarck, North Dakota, to the Black Hills and back, and lasted from July 2nd to August 30th, 1874. Custer discovered gold in the Black Hills as well as bountiful wildflowers and animals aplenty.

In 2000, a local photographer went around and took photos that matched the locations of where Custer’s photographer, William Illingworth, took his. There is a comparison photo on a plaque on the Mickelson Trail that brings the expedition to life. The scenery hasn’t changed much, but it was remarkable to stand in the spot where Custer’s photographer stood 143 years ago when the Black Hills were known only to the Indians who called them home.

It didn’t take long for prospectors to head to the Black Hills once they heard about the gold discovery. Just two months after Custer’s expedition was completed, a group set up camp near the modern day town of Custer.

However, it was illegal for them to be there, because the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie gave the region to the Plains Indians and prohibited white settlement. So, they built a stockade for protection but were evicted five months later by the US Cavalry.

The Stockade Custer South Dakota

The Gordon Stockade protected a small band of gold prospectors…but they were there illegally!

This was the wild west, of course, and on another day while we were mountain biking on a trail in the woods, we came across a sign that told of the fate of one murderous Billy Fowler. Yikes!

Frontier Justice sign Custer South Dakota

In the old days folks took matters into their own hands.

Pretty Stockade Lake is right next to the Gordon Stockade, and we wandered along the road that lines the shore taking photos near sunset one day.

Stockade Lake Custer South Dakota

Beautiful Stockade Lake is between the town of Custer and Custer State Park.

It was the new moon, and Mark returned to the lake in the darkest hours of the night to catch the Milky Way reflecting in the water. His photos were sensational and were well worth the near all-nighter that it took for him to get them.

Milky Way at Stockade Lake Custer South Dakota

The Milky Way is mirrored in Stockade Lake.


Milky Way at Stockade Lake Custer South Dakota

It was worth getting up in the dark to capture these images!

I was happily snoozing away under the blankets back at the trailer while Mark was out having fun in the dark that night. As he drove down the main drag in Custer he found it was utterly deserted. So, he set up his tripod right in the middle of the street and got a neat shot of the city lights.

Custer South Dakota at night

The town of Custer is so quiet at night you can do a long exposure on a tripod in the middle of the main drag.

Custer has many charms, and one of the big highlights for us was a stop at the Purple Pie Place. The pies here are out of this world, and we joined the throng of happy customers who were savoring scrumptious slices of blueberry(yum!), strawberry rhubarb (double yum!) and apple pies (all American yum!).

Purple Pie Place Custer South Dakota

The Purple Pie Place makes AWESOME pies!

As we wandered the streets of Custer, I looked down to see an odd collection of painted rocks right by the sidewalk. I looked a little closer and saw a small sign next to them that said, “The Kindness Rock Project.” I picked up a rock and looked it over. Just then a woman came over and said, “Keep it!”

Kindness Rock Project Custer South Dakota

A school counselor’s ingenious idea — a Kindness Rock Project.
Pick up a rock that speaks to you and share it with a friend. Leave one if the spirit moves you.

She went on to explain that she was a school counselor and that this project had been her idea. The kids painted the rocks, and the idea was to spread a little bit of joy with the townsfolk and with the many tourists who came to visit the town.

How cool is that?!

It reminded me of the fantastic walls lined with hand tiles that the students in Maysville, Kentucky, had created in the tunnel through their flood wall. Creative teachers and counselors who dream up these projects give a priceless gift to their communities.

Custer has a wonderful vibe, and we thoroughly enjoyed our 4th of July there. Down at the VFW Hall we got a huge kick out of the American flag mural that decorates the entire front of the building.

Americn flag VFW Hall Custer South Dakota

The entire front wall of the VFW Hall is a vivid American flag!

Inside, we found another clever idea. A small crate filled with little plastic toy soldiers was on a shelf, and a small sign on the crate said, “Please take a soldier home and place it somewhere that will remind you to pray for those who serve our country.”

Love it!

We took one and now have it on one of our window sills.

Toy soldiers to take home VFW Hall Custer South Dakota

Inside the VFW hall we found another clever idea: take a toy soldier home and put it in a place where you’ll be reminded to give thanks for the real ones serving in the war torn parts of the world.

There is a ton to see and do in the Black Hills, and one day we set out to drive the Needles Highway which twists and turns through some of the most dramatic scenery in the area. We had driven this beautiful road on our previous visit to the area ten years prior, and had been able to sneak through all of the very narrow tunnels in our old truck.

We knew our new truck would theoretically make it through the tunnels with an inch or two to spare on either side. After all, tour buses take groups through these tunnels all day every day. But it looked awfully skinny, so we turned around and saved the drive for another time.

Iron Creek Tunnel Custer State Park South Dakota

Threading the needle with a dually at Iron Creek Tunnel on the Needles Highway…or not!

There are many ways to enjoy the Black Hills. We saw kayaks ready to go on a lake and we came across lots of people on horseback too.

Kayaks at a lake in South Dakota

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Horse riders Custer South Dakota

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Zipping around in a Corvette Stingray is an awesome way to enjoy the many scenic drives around Custer, and bringing a side-by-side in a toy hauler is another great way to go.

Corvette Stingray and RV Toyhauler Custer South Dakota

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We saw a ton of RVs cruising through town, and there are both private and state park campgrounds to choose from too.

Travel trailer drives by Custer Historical Museum Custer South Dakota RV trip_

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There are loads of things to do in the Black Hills, and as is so often the case, we didn’t manage to “do it all” before our time in Custer came to a close. Oh well. Now we have a great excuse to go back!

RV trip to Custer South Dakota

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Custer State Park Burros & Bison – Close Encounters of the Animal Kind

July 2017 – Custer State Park in South Dakota is a wonderful place to see wildlife up close, and we ended up driving the Wildlife Loop Road quite a few times during our stay.

Wild burros with RV Custer State Park South Dakota

The “wild” burros in Custer State Park are surprisingly tame!

The “wild” burros are actually feral burros that were “set free” many decades ago. Now they are known as the “begging burros,” and for good reason!

As we drove on the Wildlife Loop Road with pro wildlife photographer, Steve Perry, and his wife Rose, we were astonished when some very bold burros walked right up to our car.

Car with wild burro Wildlife Loop Custer State Park South Dakota

Wild burros approached our car.

Wild burro approaches car Wildlife Loop Custer State Park South Dakota

Steve reaches out to pet a “wild” burro in Custer State Park.
The burros here rightfully earned the nickname, “begging burros!”

The white burro pressed his nose against a closed car window and made funny faces at us…

Wild burro at the car window Custer State Park South Dakota

A burro presses his big nose against the car window.

The other poked his whole head right in!

Wild burro head in car Custer State Park South Dakota

Another burro sticks his nose right inside the car!

It turns out that these begging burros are the rather lazy descendants of a very hard working group of burros who began taking Custer State Park visitors on rides from Sylvan Lake up to Harney Peak back in 1927.

Little girl with wild burro Custer State Park Wildlife Loop South Dakota

The wild burros are very accustomed to people, but not all the people are accustomed to the wild burros!

After a few years of providing these fun sounding burro rides, Custer State Park officials decided to end the rides, and they simply let the burros go.

Petting a wild burro Custer State Park Wildlife Loop South Dakota

“Look what I found. Can I keep him?”

Nowadays, the burros are so accustomed to human visitors — and are so fond of the treats that many humans bring them — that they are quite fearless and are more than happy to mingle with tourists. They even let folks pet them.

Boy and wild burro Custer State Park Wildlife Loop South Dakota

The burros don’t mind being petted.

Custer State Park encourages people not to feed the burros, but while we were there loads of people got out of their cars with bags of food for them. Keeping the burros’ waistlines in mind, though, most folks showed up with something nutritious like a bag of carrots or romaine lettuce.

Feeding a wild burro Custer State Park Wildlife Loop South Dakota

Although signs say not to, lots of visitors bring snacks for the burros.

On our first foray into Custer State Park, we had been amazed just to see the wild burros and their foals from a distance, period. But this time we found ourselves standing right next to them.

Wild burro mare and foal Custer State Park South Dakota

We saw several moms and babies.

Wild burro mare stands watch over foal Custer State Park Wildlife Loop South Dakota

Standing watch.

Wild burros nuzzing Custer State Park Wildlife Loop South Dakota

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The burros were so darned laid back that one mom suddenly did a barrel roll in the dirt, letting a cloud of dust fly.

Wild burro dust bath Custer State Park Wildlife Loop South Dakota

Mom takes a dust bath!

I was smitten by the little foals. They had such sweet and innocent faces.

Portrait wild burro foal Custer State Park Wildlife Loop South Dakota

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One foal was particularly mellow. It must have been nap time, and when I knelt down next to her and stroked the soft fur on her head and neck, she leaned her whole weight against my leg and closed her eyes. Naturally, I was thrilled!

Burro foal resting Wildlife Loop Custer State Park South Dakota

I could not believe this little foal was so trusting.

Wild burro foal on the Wildlife Loop Custer State Park South Dakota

“Look what I found. Can I keep her?”

Custer State Park’s herd of bison is another big draw for tourists, and the opportunities to see them are plentiful. Custer State Park’s 71,000 acres are fully enclosed by fencing, and there are roughly 1,300 buffalo in the Park’s buffalo herd. The herd is carefully culled and maintained each year.

On the day that we were out photographing prairie dogs with Steve and Rose, we suddenly noticed there was a huge group of bison approaching us from the distance hills. As the leaders drew near, we turned our cameras away from the prairie dogs and focused on the approaching buffalo.

Group of buffalo in Custer State Park South Dakota

A huge herd of bison came down out of the hills towards us.

There were both buffalo cows and bulls in the herd and lots of buffalo calves as well. They came down from the hills in a long, steady stream.

Buffalo herd approaches Custer State Park South Dakota-2

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The herd fanned out and approached us like an approaching army. It was a little unsettling, even though they were walking slowly.

Bison herd approaches in Custer State Park South Dakota

The herd approaches.

Even the prairie dogs stood up on their hind legs to see what was rattling the roofs of their underground compound.

Prairie dog stands up when herd of buffalo approach Custer State Park South Dakota

“Who’s making all that noise?

As they approached us they stirred up the dust with their hooves.

Buffalo herd Custer State Park South Dakota

The dust flies as the herd approaches.

A few even stopped for a dust bath as their comrades marched on.

Buffalo dust bath Custer State Park South Dakota

A buffalo takes a bath.

The herd easily numbered a hundred, and they moved steadily towards us, getting closer and closer. We kept taking photos, but we all began to back up towards the car.

Bison herd Custer State Park South Dakota

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All of a sudden they were within just a few feet of us, and let me tell you, these animals a huge.

It felt like a gang was surrounding us as they walked towards the road and then circled around us and the car. We could hear them breathing, and we could hear the grass rustling as they moved pass. The gravel in the road crunched under their feet. Their huge heads swayed slowly back and forth as they came right towards us.

Photographing buffalo in Custer State Park South Dakota

Steve takes photos of the approaching bison.

It was an incredible opportunity to take some portraits! Each buffalo was completely different. Some had tall horns, or widely spaced horns or sharply curving horns. Some had long faces and others had broad faces.

Approaching buffalo Custer State Park South Dakota

Every buffalo portrait revealed a totally different face.

Bison head Custer State Park South Dakota

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Buffalo head Custer State Park South Dakota

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The bison were big and burly and a little frightening up close, but as we studied them, we could see they lead very hardscrabble lives.

Mark got photos of one that had a big open sore on its side that was bleeding. We weren’t sure if it had been gored by another buffalo or had scraped itself on a tree branch, but it was a surprise to see a bright red oozing wound. Another had a horn that had broken off.

Bison with broken horn Custer State Park South Dakota

A buffalo’s life can be rough and tumble.

As we clicked away with our cameras, all I could think of was the scary statistic from Yellowstone National Park: Each year more people are gored by bison there than are attacked by grisly bears! I backed up to the car and stood in front of the open door for a few last shots and then dove into the car in a panic.

Steve’s wife Rose was already in the car, and she cracked up as I fell all over myself getting in.

I sorted myself out, and then we both watched anxiously as Steve and Mark remained outside the back of the car, madly taking photos as these enormous animals closed in around us.

Buffalo head Custer State Park South Dakota

Watch out for those sharp horns!

Finally the two crazed photographers threw their tripods in the trunk and then jumped inside with us, slamming the doors closed and rolling the windows up.

The bison surrounded us like a big black sea, walking slowly alongside the car within a few feet. Then, like water flowing around an island, they moved on down the road, more interested in finding greener pastures than in bothering with the silly photo crew in the little car.

In the distance, we could see other members of the herd running across the meadow. It was amazing to see the huge creatures nimbly galloping, the calves dutifully scampering right behind.

Buffalo on the run Custer State Park South Dakota

Buffalo on the move…

Buffalo cow and calf runnning in Custer State Park South Dakota

A buffalo cow runs at full speed with her calf following close behind.

And then, as quickly as it started, the show was over.

The entire herd had easily covered a few miles of ground in a very short time, moving from the hills on one horizon to the stream, trees and meadows on the other. What a fabulous experience that was.

Buffalo on dirt road Wind Cave National Park and Custer State Park south Dakota

We’ll always treasure our memories of this unusual buffalo encounter.

Buffalo calf Custer State Park South Dakota

Not quite as sweet as a baby burro, perhaps, but the buffalo calves were still pretty cute!

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Custer State Park Wildlife Loop Road – Where the Animals Are!

July 2017 – Not only is Custer, South Dakota, a charming place for RVers to enjoy a spirited, small town 4th of July celebration, it is situated next to enormous Custer State Park where beautiful scenery and unusual wildlife abound. While Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park are famous for bison leisurely strolling down the road, Custer State Park offers the same thrill but in a much less visited setting.

Photographing a bison Custer State Park Wildlife Loop South Dakota

The animals were easy to spot in Custer State Park!

The Wildlife Loop Road is the place to see the animals in Custer State Park. When friends told us this drive was their favorite part of the Park because of all the animals they saw, I wondered how in the world the animals knew they were supposed to hang out there to greet all the tourists. I still don’t know, but it doesn’t take long on the Wildlife Loop Road to see them!

Buffalo at Custer State Park South Dakota

We had to share the road…with bison!

We arranged our 2017 travels to take us to Custer State Park because we knew a professional wildlife photographer that we have admired for a long time was headed there to test out some new camera gear for one of his video reviews. His name is Steve Perry, and he has a very popular YouTube channel as well as two excellent books about photography (links below).

Buffalo head through the grass Wildlife Loop Custer State Park South Dakota

Up close and personal in Custer State Park.

Ever since we purchased and devoured Steve’s first book on wildlife photography a while back, we have studied his tutorials closely and learned a lot from his many tips.

So, we were absolutely thrilled to meet Steve and his wife Rose in downtown Custer. We agreed to catch up with each other again out on the Wildlife Loop Road in the early dawn hours the next day.

Wildlife Photographers Custer South Dakota

Mark with pro wildlife photographer Steve Perry.

We were out on the road before sunrise, and in no time we spotted a little group of wild burros. Several mares were accompanied by their adorable foals. How fun!

Mother and baby wild burros Custer State Park South Dakota

Mom and her foal.

Mare and foal wild burros Custer State Park South Dakota

There were wild burro moms and babies everywhere.

Suddenly, the sun appeared above the trees, and cast its soft rays across the meadow. But we hardly noticed as we watched this herd of burros, utterly enchanted by the sweet little knobby kneed foals.

Wild foal Custer State Park South Dakota

Adorable!

Wild burro mare and foal Custer State Park South Dakota

The babies are all legs…!

We drove a little further on the Wildlife Loop Road and spotted a gorgeous young white tail deer with soft, fuzzy antlers.

Young buck Wildlife Loop Custer State Park South Dakota

A young buck.

There were pronghorn antelope too.

Pronghorn antelope Custer State Park South Dakota

Pronghorn in the grass.

All these animals live in the middle of a smorgasbord of their favorite foods. There are not only grasses to munch…

Pronghorn antelope Custer State Park South Dakota

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…but there are wildflowers too. Yum!

Pronghorn eating flowers Custer State Park South Dakota

Flowers taste good!

All these animal sightings were great, but where were Steve and Rose? It hadn’t occurred to us that meeting “somewhere” on the Wildlife Loop Road was a little non-specific, and that we would probably all get totally sidetracked by watching the animals and possibly miss each other completely.

Fortunately, with split second timing, just as we passed a dirt road that intersected with the Wildlife Loop Road when we were leaving, we saw Steve’s car bumping down the lumpy road. What luck! Steve excitedly told us what fun they’d just had photographing the prairie dogs in a dog town commonunity just a ways back on that road.

Steve Perry Wildlife Photographer 00 601 Wild foal Custer State Park South Dakota

Steve Perry showed us how it’s done!

He offered to lead us back there, and soon we were looking out on the open prairie where dozens of these adorable little creatures were busily popping in and out of their burrows.

Two prairie dogs in a burrow Wildlife Loop Custer State Park South Dakota-1

A pair of prairie dogs peeks out of their burrow.

Pair of prairie dogs Custer State Park South Dakota

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Prairie dogs tell secrets Custer State Park South Dakota

Psst! Can you keep a secret??

Steve crouched down with the new Nikon D7500 camera and a mammoth Nikon 600 mm lens to get photos for his review, but before he did, he lent me his Nikon 200-500 mm lens to see how I liked it. Wow!

Prairie Dog Wildlife Loop Custer State Park South Dakota

“Watcha doin’?”

Custer State Park Wildlife Loop South Dakota Prairie Dog

Pretty in pink.

Mark was using our Tamron 150-600 lens on a Nikon D500 camera, and all three of us hunkered down on the dry prairie grasses and aimed our cameras at these little bands of comedians. What a blast we had watching their capers and taking pics. After growing accustomed to our presence, they stopped barking warnings about us to each other and began going about their daily business and munching breakfast.

Prairie Dog Custer State Park South Dakota

A prairie dog sits in the middle of a breakfast buffet.

Prairie dog eating grass Wildlife Loop Custer State Park South Dakota

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The prairie dogs appeared and disappeared all across the meadow, like bubbles forming and popping in a fizzy drink, and we had to think and act fast to catch their antics before they vanished from sight. I realized, as I sat there, that one of the keys to wildlife photography is having a vast reserve of patience.

Custer State Park Wildlife Loop South Dakota Prairie Dog

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Prairie Dog munching grass Wildlife Loop Custer State Park South Dakota

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We had seen prairie dogs at Valles Caldera National Preserve in New Mexico just a few weeks prior, but we had been in a rush to see other things and had given them about five minutes to strut their stuff for us. No wonder our pics had been mediocre. We learned from Steve that if you’re going to shoot prairie dogs and capture their adorable cuteness, it takes time.

For RVers traveling to South Dakota, another great place to watch prairie dogs is in front of Devils Tower National Monument.

Prairie Dog trio Wildlife Loop Custer State Park South Dakota

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It also requires good equipment, and I couldn’t believe the quality of the photos that were coming from the lens I was borrowing from Steve! As I checked my images, it suddenly dawned on me that when we’d decided to come all this way to watch and learn from a pro wildlife photographer, we had inadvertently signed up to start lusting after some really nice camera gear!

After we filled our cameras’ memory cards with pics of prairie dogs and packed up to head out, we told Steve he might have cost us some big bucks if we couldn’t keep our lust in check. He laughed and told us how he had been in the exact same boat when he first got serious about wildlife photography years ago. He said photography buffs have a name for it: GAS or Gear Aquisition Syndrome. Oh dear!

Prairie Dogs standing Custer State Park South Dakota

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Driving a little further on in Steve’s car, we got another lesson on the patience it takes to get great photos of wildlife. Ever since we’d arrived in Custer a few days prior, we had been hearing the most beautiful birdsong. But we hadn’t been able to track down the bird that was responsible for it. The bird always seemed to be out of sight.

Suddenly, just as we heard the familiar birdsong, Steve stopped the car and backed up slowly, and we noticed that a little yellow bird was sitting on a fence post singing his heart out.

“That’s a Meadowlark,” he said. “I’ve been wanting to get a good shot of one while I’m here, and we spent hours trying yesterday!”

Well, this little guy had no problem with the car being parked right next to him, and as we all pointed our lenses out the car windows, he belted out verse after verse of his angelic song. Every time he opened his beak to sing, a rapid fire rat-a-tat-tat erupted from our camera shutters, providing a funny drumbeat accompaniment to his melody as we all shot as many pics as we could.

Meadowlark Custer State Park South Dakota

A meadowlark was singing his heart out.

We returned to our little camping spot in the woods absolutely elated. We’d each gotten some really cool wildlife photos, and we’d learned the key tip for how to do it: Patience, patience, patience!

If you see some prairie dogs, have a seat, relax, and let them get used to you. Eventually they’ll begin to do their thing at their own pace. And if you see a row of fence posts, don’t drive past too quickly, because there might be a little bird using one of them as center stage for performing his full repertoire!

Sure enough, the next day we were driving down a dirt road that ran alongside a fence line, and suddenly Mark spotted a Mountain Bluebird sitting on it. The bird was on my side of our truck, so I quickly grabbed Mark’s camera with the long lens attached. Following Steve’s tip we’d learned, I rested the lens on the partially lowered car window, and fired away with abandon.

When I paused for a second to check out my images, I was thrilled to see that the bluebird had a bug in its mouth!

Mountain bluebird with bug Custer State Park Wildlife Loop South Dakota

OMG – That bluebird has a bug in his mouth!

He hopped and turned to show me his other side. Perfect!

Mountain bluebird holding bug Custer State Park Wildlife Loop South Dakota

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Suddenly, Mark said, “Look, there’s another bird on the wire over there!”

I turned and fired away again, and then I noticed that it was the little bluebird’s girlfriend, and she too had a bug in her mouth! Thanks, Steve!

Female Mountain bluebird with bug Custer State Park Wildlife Loop South Dakota

His little girlfriend had found breakfast too!

Talk about getting some wonderful shutter therapy and having a satisfying feeling of success!

If South Dakota is in your sites for your RV adventures, the cute town of Custer and nearby Custer State Park make for a fantastic RV destination, and driving the Wildlife Loop Road a few times can easily end up being the highlight of the whole trip.

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RV Boondocking in Black Hills National Forest, SD – Camping with Cows!

July 2017 – The US Forest Service, which manages all the National Forests in America, dubs its land the “Land of Many Uses.” The uses we love most are camping with our RV, hiking, biking and photography. But when we are on public land, we share it with folks who hunt, fish, ride horses, graze cattle and extract various natural resources.

For urban and suburban folk who come out to America’s public lands to smell the pungent fresh air and see the stunning scenery, the omnipresence of cattle can be a bit of a surprise. In our many years of nightly boondocking, we have found ourselves sharing our back yard with cows quite a few times. It is, after all, open range.

Open Range Grazing Black Hills National Forest South Dakota

In the west, the public lands are Open Range. Literally!

Cattle ranching is very much alive today, and cowboys really do exist in the real world, far from the classic TV shows and western movies. The other day, as we were driving to town in Buffalo, Wyoming, we came across a cattle drive going right up the highway.

Cattle drive across highway

On the highway one day we came upon a cattle drive. How cool is that?!

We crept past and were amazed at the huge number of cows and calves. The cowboys herding them were on horseback.

Cattle drive on horseback

The cattle were being driven by cowboys on horseback.

Slow traffic for horseback cattle drive on highway

This is what a traffic jam in the big western states looks like!

As we went down the line of mooing cows and watched the calves trotting along to keep up with their moms, it was like stepping back in time. America has a rich history in cattle ranching, and in many ways it is a way of life that hasn’t changed all that much in the past 150 years.

But technology has definitely made deep inroads, and besides using ATVs to zip around the many square miles of a ranch, it helps simplify many other things too. Towards the end of the herd of cows we came across a cowboy riding his horse with a coiled rope in one hand and a cell phone in the other! How much easier it must be to coordinate the herding process when you can simply call your buddy cowboy at the other end of the herd!

Cowboy on cell phone during cattle drive

Modern day ranching: a coiled rope in one hand and a cell phone in the other!

In South Dakota’s Black Hills National Forest we found a lovely spot to camp with our RV for a few days, and as we were first setting up, we couldn’t help but take a few photos of our idyllic little campsite.

RV boondocking and camping in the US National Forest

Finding a beautiful place to camp in the National Forest is one of the biggest highlights of our lifestyle.

Boondocking in the National Forest is always a treat for the senses. In the early mornings we spotted deer nearby.

White tail deer in Black Hills National Forest South Datkota

Hi Neighbor!

A wild turkey caught Mark’s eye on a solo hike he did at dawn another morning.

Wild Turkey Black Hills National Forest South Dakota

A wild turkey fluffs his feathers and shakes his tail.

He’s not a birder, but his camera managed to catch a woodpecker searching for bugs, a robin carrying a bug in his mouth, and a stunning Western Tanager.

Woodpecker in Black Hills National Forest South Dakota

Woodpecker.

Robin with bug in its mouth Black Hills National Forest

Robin.

Western Tanager Black Hills National Forest South Dakota

Western Tanager.

Flying Western Tanager Black Hills National Forest South Dakota

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The nights were glorious. The Milky Way marched across the sky all night every night for a few days.

Milky Way with RV boondocking in Black Hills National Forest South Dakota

Starry, starry night!

Beautifully mysterious trail of clouds crossed the sky one night, and we were astonished later when Mark lightened his photos on his computer later and saw how much orange and pink lingered in those clouds.

RV under the Milky Way in Black Hills South Dakota

Wispy clouds cross the Milky Way.

RV under the Milky Way in Black Hills South Dakota

Clouds whirl past the stars.

But the most humorous and heartwarming aspect of this particular South Dakota campsite wasn’t the stars or the natural wildlife.

We were both jolted out of bed one morning by the raucous braying of a huge animal standing right under our fifth wheel’s overhang. Right under our bed! Good grief, what was that?

I jumped out of bed and poked my head out the door and found myself face to face with an enormous brown bull with a white face and an expectant expression. It was the ideal photo op. Our trailer and awning framed this huge bull’s head as he stared at me.

But I was in my PJs and was still wiping my eyes with disbelief, while my camera was tucked away in some safe place out of reach. By the time I got my hands on my camera, the bull was walking away to greener grass.

Cow by an RV in the US National Forest Black Hills South Dakota

This big bull stood under our bedroom and bellowed loudly to wake us up!

It turned out that his noisy braying — he sounded suprisingly like a very loud donkey on steroids — was a call to the herd to come check out our trailer. Before I knew it, our little buggy was surrounded with USDA Choice Grade A Grass Fed Beef!

Cows around fifth wheel trailer RV Black Hills National Forest South Dakota

Cows and calves check out our trailer.

Fifth wheel trailer RV boondocking with cows in the National Forest

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Over the next few days these cows came by our campsite on a regular basis. They seemed to be fascinated by us. And we were fascinated by them. We’d be sitting quietly minding our own business in our trailer when suddenly we’d hear the sound of grass being ripped out by the roots and footsteps clomping around in the dirt. We’d look out the window, and sure enough, there they’d be.

Herd of cows surround RV boondocking in the National Forest

We’re surrounded!

On a few mornings we woke to the trailer rocking as the cows rubbed their shoulders and scratched their itches on its corners.

Cow outside RV window camping in Black Hills South Dakota boondocking

I look out the window to see a peeping Tom!

Cow outside fifth wheel trailer RV Black Hills National Forest South Dakota

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Moms and calves would gather together and stare at us whenever they heard us come out of the trailer. The calves were skittish and would run away if we got too close, but the moms would stand calmly facing us, slowly grinding grass in their mouths and staring.

Cattle herd with fifth wheel camper RV in Black Hills National Forest

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Fifth wheel camper with herd of cows in Black Hills National Forest

The herd moves in on us.

One morning we were both woken from a deep sleep when we heard another strange sound just outside the trailer. We ran outside to see what it was and saw a balloon floating past. The sound we’d heard was the balloonist firing up the gas flame. Every few seconds he’d do that and the flame would fill the balloon with hot air to make it rise.

Balloon over RV boondocking in Black Hills National Forest South Dakota

The sound of a balloonist filling his balloon with hot air woke us up at dawn.

But it was those darn cows that kept the smirks on our faces and gave our days a special funkiness. I began to imitate their mooing, and that would make them turn around and look at me. I had to laugh when Mark commented, “That’s pretty good. You sound just like them!”

Grazing cattle Black Hills National Forest

All ears perked up when I mooed.

Mark took out his guitar one day and sat on our steps and played for them. They seemed to like the music and began mooing. Just like howling dogs, they seemed to want to add their own melody to his tunes.

Playing guitar for cows in US National Forest

The cows responded to Mark’s guitar playing by adding their voices in a moo-along!

A few calves got bold and ventured close to our truck. They were very intrigued by it.

A calf visits our truck in the National Forest

A brave calf approaches our truck.

Baby calf sniffs our pickup truck US National Forest

Another calf sniffs our bumper.

One day I came out of the trailer to find myself facing a lineup of cows. If I hadn’t knowd better, they would have seemed a little intimidating. They looked a lot like a gang of thugs in the hood.

Herd of cows and grazing cattle Black Hills National Forest South Dakota

The gang’s all here — in the hood!

Mark got busy taking portrait shots of a calf one day, and it was hilarious to see the little guy’s mind turning as he approached the camera.

Cow checks out Nikon camera

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Photography cow inspects Nikon camera

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Closeup of calf face

By placing the camera so low, Mark got a neat angle on this calf’s face.

Suddenly Mark saw his big wet nose and thick black tongue going for his camera. Uh oh!!

cow inspects Nikon camera Photography_

What does that thing taste like?

He pulled his camera away just in time, but when we started to pack up to leave the campsite a few days later, he discovered that one of the cows had gotten into our barbecue and had damaged the latch on the cover. He did a quickie repair job on the fly before we hitched up to leave.

Mother cow and calf in US National Forest

Camping in the National Forest sometimes gives us close encounters with cows.
It’s most fun with moms and their calves in Spring!

After we arrived at our next campsite, we found gooey prints from cow lips in a few places on our truck and trailer. Oh well! That’s all just part of the unusual experience of RV boondocking in the National Forest.

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An Old Time Country 4th of July – Custer, South Dakota

Some of our favorite 4th of July celebrations have been in small towns, and this year we were very fortunate to be in Custer, South Dakota, in time for their festivities which they call their Old Time Country 4th of July.

Custer town is nestled in the Black Hills of South Dakota, and the normally quiet streets were overflowing with visitors as the townspeople gathered for the parade.

Fourth of July Parade preparation Custer South Dakota

An RV in town for the 4th of July is passed by fire trucks as they head to the parade start.

There are loads of little tourist shops in town, and red-white-and-blue-wear was available in every style and every size.

Red white and blue clothes for 4th of July

Local shops offered many ways to wear red, white and blue!

The younger set were particularly fashionable.

Children's parade 4th of July Custer South Dakota

Kids went all out to dress up for the 4th.

We had arrived in Custer a few days earlier, and we had heard from everyone we met that Custer’s 4th of July celebration was very special. And they were so right. We got a huge kick out of it!

As people arrived with chairs in hand to stake out a spot along the parade route, an announcer got the crowd fired up on the front steps of the museum. He called on people in the crowd to find out where they were from. Lots of folks were from Utah, Arizona and Colorado, but there were people in town from North Carolina, New Hampshire and other far flung states as well.

Announcer 4th of July Custer South Dakota

There was a hub of activity around the museum in the middle of town.

The hallmark of Custer’s 4th of July parade is the kickoff when nearby Ellsworth Air Force Base, over in Rapid City, South Dakota, sends a B1 bomber right down the main drag for a flyover. What a rush! I got a video clip, but like the real thing, it’s over almost as soon as it starts!

B1 bomber 4th of July Custer SD

After burner glow…

The parade began with all the town kids dressed up in America’s colors riding their bikes. What a great idea!! From toddlers on balance bikes to little kids with training wheels to big kids zipping along on two-wheelers, they were all decked out. Some even had balloons.

Children's Parade kids on bikes 4th of July Custer South Dakota

The parade started with all the local kids on their bikes decorated and dressed up in red, white and blue.

Then Old Glory arrived followed by the Mayor carrying the Custer city flag, and soon after we saw Uncle Sam strolling past on stilts.

Flag bearers 4th of July Custer South Dakota

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Uncle Sam on stilts 4th of July Custer South Dakota

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There were lots of cars and trucks including an old Fire Department Salvage Truck. The junior fire fighters put their fire hats on and plugged their ears as the big fire trucks drove by.

Old fire truck 4th of July Parade Custer South Dakota

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Junior fire fighters 4th of July Parade Custer, South Dakota

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A snake oil salesman snuck into the parade, along with several vehicles honoring American veterans. Then a very cool old yellow truck went by with a huge flag representing a group that cares for disabled vets. We got a closer look at it after the parade was over as it drove back through town.

4th of July Celebration Custer South Dakota 4

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Operation Black Hills Cabin 4th of July Custer South Dakota

“Operation Black Hills Cabin” cares for disabled vets.

Later on, the day was capped off with a fantastic fireworks display.

The fireworks were shot off at Pageant Hill, but they could be seen from all over town. Before the fireworks began, the city’s fire trucks circled the town with sirens blaring. At first we thought something had gone wrong, but as people continued to arrive all around us and calmly set up their chairs to watch the fireworks, we realized the parade of fire trucks with lights and sirens whirring was all part of the show.

It seemed to take forever for darkness to fall, but at last the fireworks began. The show went on for a very long time and ended with a big finale. We had a blast taking photos…

4th of July Fireworks Custer South Dakota 1

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4th of July Fireworks Custer South Dakota 2

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Fireworks 4th of July Custer South Dakota

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Fireworks 4th of July Custer South Dakota

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4th of July Fireworks Custer South Dakota

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Fireworks 4th of July Custer South Dakota

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4th of July Fireworks Custer South Dakota-2

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4th of July fireworks Custer South Dakota

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When you begin planning your RV travels for next summer, if you’re looking for a fun town to celebrate the 4th of July, head to Custer, South Dakota!!

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The “Right to Vote” is a PRIVILEGE Some Nomadic RVers Might Lose

Lots of Americans assume that they have a constitutional right to vote. After all, the founding fathers of the country shaped America’s legal structure to ensure everyone’s voice could be heard. However, the “right to vote” is actually a privilege, not a constitutional right, and it is granted by the individual states to most American citizens but not all.

A proposed bill in South Dakota could prevent nomadic RVers based in that state from being able to vote in the future, including the upcoming presidential election.

Although there have been broad, sweeping amendments to the US Constitution to ensure the ability to vote is not denied based on sex or race, ultimately the “right” to cast a ballot is decided individually by each state. States determine what it takes to register to vote, and they can deny groups of potential voters based on whatever criteria they see fit. As an example, most states prevent convicted felons from being able to vote.

I voted today cast a ballot at the polls

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In the past, full-time RV “residents” of South Dakota who did not have a real physical address in the state could register to vote simply by driving to South Dakota, staying at least one night in a campground, and using that campground address as their physical address to register to vote. When elections rolled around, they would submit an absentee ballot from wherever they were currently located. Voter registration was good for one year, and they had to re-register each year they wanted to cast a ballot.

A debate has been simmering in South Dakota for a long time about whether or not nomadic RVers who use the state as their legal domicile should be allowed to vote.

Way back in 2004, there was a hue and cry that perhaps full-time RVers, who tend to be white, Republican and retired, would influence the Senate race. For more info, see this article: RV Vote Could Affect Senate Race

In recent months, this debate has heated up to a raging boil, with the charge being led by Republican Senator Craig Tieszen, a former police chief. The event that brought the issue to the fore was when Pennington Country, home of Americas Mailbox, a popular full-time RVer mail forwarding company, proposed a “wheel tax” that would increase vehicle taxes by $60. The concern was that the 3,467 registered voters that are RVers with an Americas Mailbox domicile address would vote in droves against it and prevent it from passing.

In the end, only 11% of this influential RV voting bloc voted. Naturally, 98% voted against the proposed wheel tax, yet everyone else did too and the RVers had no effect on the outcome.

Nonetheless, South Dakota Senator Craig Tieszen has proposed Senate Bill 164 that would prevent anyone who doesn’t have a real physical address in South Dakota from being able to register to vote. Because of the structure of the state voting laws, this would affect both votes on local issues like vehicle taxes and votes on national issues like the presidential election coming up later this year.

Register to vote in local and presidental elections

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The bill is currently under review and is scheduled for a hearing. If it passes, then South Dakota based nomadic RVers will not be able to vote for the next president.

I learned of this from the Advocacy arm of the Escapees RV Club, and it is for reasons like this that I highly recommend RVers join Escapees, as they have their ears to the ground and they work very hard on our behalf. A few days later a reader contacted me with a link to a news story about the issue from the Rapid City Journal (see the links at the end of this post). Interestingly, the email announcement from Escapees mentioned that they had not yet been able to reach Senator Teiszen.

Senator Tieszen has a website, and I wrote him a note on his contact form. Believe me, I was shocked when I received a reply within 24 hours. The Senator was very forthright about his opinion, stating in his email to me:

“This is an issue of right and wrong. It is simply wrong to have people that have no connection to South Dakota influencing our elections.”

I wrote him back explaining that as nine year nomadic residents of South Dakota, we have paid sales tax and registration fees on $160,000 worth of vehicles which, to me, constituted a very real connection to South Dakota. After all, I joked, we’d be happy to receive a check reimbursing us for all that money so he could accurately describe us as having no “real connection” to the state. I also referenced the fact that full-time RVers contribute to the employment of people at their mail forwarding companies and even at South Dakota insurance agencies as well.

Vote in local and presidential elections

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To my utter astonishment, he responded again. This time he was much more specific, saying, in part:

“That is the issue I have with your ‘residency’. The fact that you spend money here and rent a P.O. box does not qualify you to vote and decide local issues. I understand you may want to vote in national elections and I would agree to do that if that could be separated from the rest of the ballot(I have been assured that it can’t) but what qualifies you to decide who is mayor, who is the state representative, whether we should build a city building, tax more to fix our roads, etc. People that actually live here should make those decisions. And——-when there are thousands like you, actual residents are at risk of controlling their own destiny”

I am very impressed that he took the time to write. I know how much time it takes to correspond with people. I receive and respond to emails and comments every day myself, and it is extremely time consuming. So, for a busy Senator to write a few quick sentences to me really blew me away.

Also, I was very surprised that, unlike a lot of my friends who email me from work and have a footer at the bottom of the message from their employer full of legal verbiage concerning the content of the email message, his had none of that. He simply signed his messages “Senator Craig Tieszen.” I am sure he did not expect his email to be quoted online, but I think it is important for people to see a glimpse of the man behind the bill, as he expressed himself to me.

I did not agree with his statements, though, so I wrote to him one more time, pointing out three things I think are very important.

1) Before passing this bill, there must be a true legal precedent of nomadic RVers actually casting their votes in large numbers in local elections. The wheel tax referendum in Penington County should have been one of the hottest of hot button issues for nomadic RVers, since our vehicles are our biggest tie to the state and are often our biggest asset too.

Yet if the voter turnout of RVers was just 11% on this issue, which was below the 15% voter turnout county wide, then full-time RVers don’t seem to pose a threat in local elections for selecting city mayors, state representatives and city building plans. I certainly have never voted in a local election.

2) When it comes to local issues like vehicle taxation, everyone who pays South Dakota vehicle sales taxes and vehicle registration fees should be allowed to vote so they can “control their own destiny” (borrowing Senator Tieszen’s words) regarding those taxes.

Uncle Sam Right to Vote for nomadic RVers

3) Some of the nomadic RVers who use South Dakota as their domicile actually have very close ties to the state and are even former “physical” residents. Some RVers return to South Dakota in the summers to work at the State and National Parks, or to work for other employers, like private RV parks, or simply to enjoy retirement life in South Dakota for a few months.

Other RVers own property in South Dakota that can’t be used as a legal domicile (i.e., open land or commercial property), so they use a mail forwarding service because it simplifies the legal logistics of their lives enormously, both for receiving mail as they move around the country and for keeping vehicles properly registered and licensed. Of course, these nomadic residents pay property taxes to the state in addition to vehicle sales tax, licensing and registration fees.

There is a provision in the bill for voter registration applicants to appeal a denial, but it is a complex, tiered process, and the criteria that must be met rule out all nomadic RVers who do not own a permanent residence in South Dakota with sleeping quarters.

The bottom line is that by denying all nomadic RVers the right to vote in local elections, this bill would effectively prohibit both seasonal residents of South Dakota and property tax payers from voting in presidential elections if they happen to rely on a mail forwarding address for domicile purposes.

Ironically, once RVers hit the road full-time, they often have no “real” ties to any state, so they are no more residents of one state than they are of another. If full-time travelers can’t vote in the state that is their legal domicile, the state where they pay their vehicle sales taxes and licensing and registration fees, and where they may pay commercial property taxes too, then where else could they possibly register?

In the end, if you think about it, full-time travelers are being lumped in the same voter category as convicted felons.

Unfortunately, Senator Tieszen has not responded to those points.

I’m not an activist, but I would very much like to be able to vote for our new president next fall. For other RVers who are concerned about protecting their ability to vote in the future, especially our “neighbors” from South Dakota.

UPDATE 02/15/16: This bill is scheduled to be heard on Wednesday, February 17, 2016, at 10:00 a.m., and the Escapees Advocacy team recommends that all comments and opinions be expressed directly to the chairman of the committee, Senator Gary Cammack. Here is the link to contact Senator Gary Cammack

UPDATE 02/17/16: This bill was tabled by the committee, however the issue has not gone away. In an email to Escapees members, the Escapees Advocacy team reviewed the committee meeting as follows:

“South Dakota Senate Bill #164, entitled, “An Act to revise certain residency requirements for voter registration,” has been tabled by the State Senate Affairs Committee. During the Committee meeting, Senator Tieszen stated, ‘I believe there is a legal solution to this.’ He continued, ‘I believe it’s legal and constitutional to put reasonable residency requirements on voting in South Dakota.’ He is looking for a solution that ‘does, in fact, disenfranchise those folks that have no connection to South Dakota other than the fact that they rent a P.O. box here for financial gain.’ He continued by stating, ‘I’m going to continue to try to work for that solution.’ Tieszen stated, ‘Senate Bill 164, I’ve concluded, is not the solution.’ He concluded by asking that Senate Bill 164 be tabled. After the vote was taken, Senate Bill 164 was tabled by an 8 to 1 vote.

“In conclusion, Senate Bill 164 is a non-issue at this time. But, in the future, a voting restriction may be re-introduced. Escapees will continue to monitor this issue for future action.​”

The minutes of the meeting can be seen at South Dakota Legislative Committee Meeting Minutes

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For more information about all this, have a look at these links:

This blog is dedicated to inspiring people to pursue their dreams by showing how we have fulfilled ours. However, for many armchair travelers who don’t plan to sail off in a boat or drive away in an RV, our hope is to encourage you to fulfill whatever lifelong dreams you have, no matter what they are.

Yet from time to time politically charged issues like this come up that affect us and others like us directly. So, I write about them here in hopes that you will be encouraged to think deeply and to take action if the spirit moves you.

Here are two other “RV advocacy” posts I’ve written about changes occurring on America’s public lands that have far reaching ramifications for all Americans and for the future of the country as well:

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Black Hills, SD – Mt. Rushmore and More

"Wild" Burros roamed around.

Wild turkeys trotted along.

Traffic Jam in Custer State Park

Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln

George Washington.

Approaching Mt. Rushmore

Crazy Horse

Skinny tunnel at The Needles.

The Needles

September 14-17, 2007 - After watching Devil's Tower retreat in the

distance, we made a brief stop in the Black Hills, visiting Custer State

Park and Mt. Rushmore.  There was lots of wildlife in Custer State

Park.  A group of buffalo took their time crossing the road and caused

quite a traffic tie-up.  The burros were wandering across the road and

lazing in the shade of a tree near the road as well.   Some wild turkeys

caught our eye as they pecked along at the roadside, and a deer

stopped to look at us.

We enjoyed the three dimensional nature of Mt. Rushmore's

famous sculptures of the four presidents as we caught them first

from one side and then from the other.  Another famous sculpture

in the area is of the Indian Crazy Horse.  It was begun shortly after

Mt. Rushmore was completed in the 1940's, but has been funded

solely by private donation, making progress very slow.  The

organization leading its creation has turned down federal funding

several times.

We drove through The Needles.  These granite formations are very

thin and tall, and the road is extremely narrow and twisty.  After we

barely squeaked through a tunnel carved in the rock, we watched

in awe as an experienced tour bus driver expertly took his bus

through the same opening.  His passengers reached out their

windows to touch the rock wall on either side of the bus.

Custer State Park was a real

jewel, and we would have

happily stayed several weeks.

However, the cold weather

was starting to penetrate our

sweaters and jackets and we

had a long way to go to get

back to the warmer climate in

Arizona.  So we headed west

through Wyoming, making

our way to northern Utah, stopping first at Flaming Gorge

National Recreation Area.