TAT Part 2: Sparta, WI to Columbia Maryland

By Erick Huertas


I woke up around 2350 on May 1st; I packed my final bag and checked out of my hotel. At last, I was on the road. It was a chilly morning, but I could not help but drive with my windows down. As I crossed the Mississippi River into Minnesota, it really struck me that my adventure was beginning. I stopped to refuel and eat in Chamberlain, South Dakota, several miles off the interstate. I had already driven nearly eight hours, and I was near to the badlands. The hills of the west were steadily becoming flat. After crossing Missouri, the foothills turned to plains with endless visibility.

          Although the plains were not home to many terrain features, the side of the highway was riddled with old farm homes that likely dated 100 or more years. This is not uncommon in the United States, but here the land was virtually untouched. After another hour and a half, I started to see a white and brown on the horizon. Suddenly, as I looked to the south, the terrain was dominated by a deep valley of sand and rock. Finally, I had reached my first destination.

          I pulled off the next exit, where I took a detour to visit the Minute Man Missile National Historic Site. I took in the history of the Cold War and then continued to the park. The Badlands houses a 30-mile loop that encompasses the mass rock formations then descends to a valley home to much local wildlife. It was not long into the drive before I began to see big-horned sheep traversing the rocks. They moved about the park freely and without care to their human visitors. I walked a small boardwalk trail to one of the more significant sections of the valley. I took a moment to appreciate the fantastic view.

          I continued the paved trail up and down the winding roads. Around every turn was a new, incredible view. As the road descended back down to the plains, I was met by a wild bison herd grazing along the route. This was the first time I had seen a bison up close, let alone a wild herd. The bison herd was heading westward onto an opening that led to Wall Drug, a famous drug store with five-cent coffee and many tourist attractions.

          So far, the first day of my trip was going well. It was not even noon, and I had already made it through my first destination. As the sun peaked out, the heat began to rise. This was the first time I had realized my air-conditioning did not work. I had not actually needed it since I purchased Lottie, and to me, it was the least-priority repair.

          I took two-lane state routes primarily as I moved westward towards the Black Hills. It was not long after I had departed the badlands before I could see the sheer rock walls of the Dakota Mountain range. The old homes became less and less dispersed as the terrain became more drastic.

          My first stop in the Black Hills was Mount Rushmore. Sitting atop one of the higher peaks of the mountain range. After parking, a short walk opens up to a pathway with the state flags on either side. This opens to a grand theater-like opening exposing the massive busts finely chiseled in the rock. Below the opening is a beautifully crafted museum about the construction of the monument.

          I went back to Lottie and opened my South Dakota maps; I wanted to explore Custer State Park and the Crazy Horse Monument before finding a campsite for the evening. I navigated back down the mountain and ended up taking some dirt roads to Custer State Park. Custer is home to the beautiful Sylvan Lake, a medium-sized body of water nestled on the side of a mountain. It is followed by a 16-mile wildlife loop that brings one up to 6000 feet and back down. The winding road, although two lanes, is exceptionally narrow leads one through various tunnels as the mountains ascend and descend. The road opens to a beautiful grassland that houses more bison, elk, and mule deer at the base.

          As I finished the loop, the rain started to fall, and I searched for a camp place. I settled atop a hill east of the Crazy Horse Memorial, close enough to see it on the horizon. To the south was a grand valley gently covered in mist. I hastily made camp and cooked my Backpackers Delight while I awaited the next storm. Luckily, the storm did not come for quite some time. On my first day of travel, I lit a celebratory pipe to christen, a brand new Savinelli with a light latakia from Seattle Pipe Club.

          There was a drastic drop in temperature as I finished, and then I felt the icy depths of rainfall on me. I packed my stove and made my way into my tent. I threw some extra blankets in it to ensure I would stay warm throughout the night. Shortly after the rain started to fall, the gusts of wind began to sweep the valley. The temperature continued to drop, and I bundled up, bracing for a crisp night. For a late spring evening, I was astonished by how cold it got. I was not that high in elevation, but I underestimated the steepness of the mountains surrounding the valley. As the winds and rains increased, I fell asleep.

          I woke up the following day to a beautiful sunrise. The fog had encompassed most of the area surrounding me, and the sun gently pierced through the low-lying clouds. I checked the weather reports, and it showed a day of relatively moderate weather. With this information, I made my way back to Custer State Park to climb Harney peak.

          Harney Peak Lookout sits at 7,012ft and is the highest mountain east of the Rockies. I planned for a five-hour round trip to expose some of the most beautiful sites around the range. When I arrived, the mud of the lower end of the mountain was encompassed with mud. I quickly turned around and switched to my mountaineering boots, as I expected wet conditions the entire way up.

          I restarted the climb, and the mud quickly froze over as I encountered snow and ice. The trail was a gradual ascent, but I could tell we were quickly ascending in altitude as I started to become increasingly out of breath. The amount of snow increased as I continued my ascent. In the distance, I could see mountain goats summiting the rocky hills. Every time I saw one of these incredible creatures, I took a moment to appreciate their excellent climbing prowess.

          I summited two peaks on the route before I reached the actual mountain that housed the lookout, each home to incredible views. On the horizon, Mount Rushmore was visible in the slightest sense. I was approaching my last thousand feet when the clouds started to surround me. The sunny morning I had experienced below was now an eerie fog as I entered the alpine zone. Finally, I reached the ridge below the peak, signaling my last drastic ascent to the tower. I took a moment to appreciate the stillness of the morning. I was one of the few atop the mountain, and everything was silent. This type of silence is quite unique to the mountains, and I  have always loved the sound of nothing.

          After ascending a steep, natural staircase, followed by one made of steel, I had reached the top of the peak. There were Himalayan flags scattered throughout, and snow still encompassed the area. The intense cloud cover diminished almost all visibility beyond, but the tower itself was enough of a reward. It is a beautiful, three-story structure made of stone. The top floor home to what seemed to be the central lookout station and sleeping area. Below was a kitchen, latrine, and what appeared to be a food storage area. I took a few moments to rest and then started the long descent. I summited in a great time, and my current plan was to visit Deadwood before leaving the Black Hills.

          During my descent, it started to rain once more, proving that the weather of these mountains was incredibly unpredictable. I arrived back at my vehicle and made my way north to Deadwood. Seeing as it was my first time in the Black Hills, I needed to visit the infamous city of Deadwood. I was mainly interested in seeing museums, going to Mount Moriah cemetery, and smoking a cigar at the Deadwood Tobacco Company.

          The hour drive through the small mountain towns was incredible, even in the poor weather conditions. Every city was similar, yet incredibly different. As I went through the outskirts of the infamous city, I was struck with an air of familiarity. It was nearly identical as some of the books I had read described it. I parked at the train station downtown and explored some of the sites.

          The city had some glorious museums, but it was made into quite a tourist attraction. This is understandable, but this made me want to explore the wilderness surrounding it. I waited for a lull in the rain to search for a dispersed campsite, but a hail storm struck as I arrived. The hail was increasing in size, and I decided to seek shelter in a hotel. It was still early evening, so I made my way south back to Custer to quickly get on the highway the following day.

          I found myself at a German-style resort as I waited out the storm, and I convinced myself that a night in a warm bed was much better than an evening of suffering in hail. I quickly fell asleep and awaited the events of the next day.

          I woke up late morning and ate breakfast at a drive-through coffee shop before making my way back to the interstate. I needed to get to Iowa, where I was visiting an old friend, and there was also a warm bed waiting for me. The great thing about I-90 in South Dakota is that it is drastically straight, and one does not have to worry about any detours. However, the eastbound section was plagued with construction and quickly doubled my drive time.

          I was astonished at how well Lottie was performing with her fuel economy. I was getting over 20mpg on the highway, even with slower portions. During my commute to Iowa, I only stopped for gas one time as I soared eastward. I arrived in the late evening and quickly went to sleep once more.

          After enjoying breakfast, I started on the road once again, my goal, Columbus, Ohio. This would be my final stop before reaching my final, temporary destination of Columbia, Maryland. Instead of the interstate, which went through Chicago, I chose to take state routes all of the ways and made time in just over thirteen hours. I ate at a fantastic diner the following day and visited the Ohio State Stadium and the famous Arnold Statue.

          I competed in the Arnold Classic for Olympic Weightlifting in 2017. It was a fond memory seeing the statue once more as my mind was filled with fantastic memories of that week. From there, I made the final six-hour drive that concluded part one of my journey. This was my first time seeing some familiar faces since I moved from the east coast in 2019. As I pulled in, I had a breath of relief quickly followed by focus, as this was the location of my final preparation for the TAT.