Sunday, June 12, 2011
South Dakota Trip, Part 2: Frybread and Serendipity
I was semi-organized enough before my vacation to have made lodging arrangements and two dinner reservations for the week. But I certainly didn’t have my days scheduled to the hour like some of the folks about the Blackhills and Badlands on Tripadvisor, whose tips I’m nonetheless grateful for. Once I got to Custer State Park, I packed a sandwich, started meandering my way around, got friendly with my maps, and kind of let my vacation unfold before me.
Needles Highway was recommended as a highlight, and it turned out my cabin at Sylvan Lake was already on it. I continued past the lake to encounter sights like these my first morning.
Needles Highway (as well as Iron Mountain Road, which I traveled later) is also known for its one-lane tunnels. Apparently even a trained tour bus driver can make his/her way through these passages, but they are quite something to come upon for the first time.
Continuing farther south toward the Wildlife Loop, I spotted these bighorn sheep. (OK, actually I spotted the cars pulled off on the side of the road – a good sign in a place like this that there’s something worth stopping to see.) When I was a wee sprout, bighorn sheep were a common sight in Rocky Mountain National Park, where I spent many happy days thanks to my grandparents’ cabin. But illness all but decimated the bighorn population in RMNP, and this was the first time in decades I’d seen them. A harbinger of a good day, in my book.
Just before I hit the turnoff to the Wildlife Loop, I saw more cars on the side of the road. Ah, yes, tatanka, or buffalo. I happily bided my time while these magnificent creatures ambled across the road, managing to snap a few pics from the safety of my car and with the aid of my camera’s zoom, when I remembered to use it.
Shortly thereafter, I had to brake for antelope, whose horns are far more distinctive than their butts, to my untrained eye. But this is the only photo I managed to snap after this guy galloped down the road behind my car.
In the biggest traffic jam of all were these animals, who I’ve learned, thanks to the folks at the Blackhills, Badlands, and Lakes Association, are “typically called burros (Spanish) here in the Hills, yet they are donkeys. They were previously used as pack animals approximately 100 years ago for tourists visiting Mt. Harney. Then turned loose in the '30s and there they have been ever since.” They were short and very tame, poking their heads into car windows.
In addition to scenic drives and all this wildlife, Custer State Park includes several lodges with adjacent cabins, numerous lakes, and boating opportunities of all sorts. This is Legion Lake, where I stopped to admire water fowl and their downy offspring. I wish I'd stopped and explored more that day. Sigh, but all the more reason to return :)
I’d packed a sandwich for lunch, but just as I was getting hungry, I came upon State Game Lodge. My sister, who vacationed in South Dakota last summer with her husband’s family and passed along numerous wonderful tips, had mentioned a memorable buffalo stew she’d eaten here.
Comments I'd read online suggested State Game Lodge offered the best food of any of the lodges in the park, although I'm not sure you'd go wrong with any of them. My timing seemed a sign I should forgo my sandwich and treat myself to lunch here. Although there’s also a lunch buffet served here (and at many of the lodges, I think), I zeroed in on two items from the appetizers section of the menu: One was a cup of this hearty and delicious buffalo stew my sister had talked about.
The other was Smoked Chicken Frybread with applewood smoked bacon, sautéed chicken, tomatoes, wild forest mushrooms, topped with fried leeks – a fantastic combination that tugged at all my culinary heartstrings. Especially the frybread, a Native American staple I’d never before had the opportunity to taste. I can’t say that this was made by a Native mom, but I did enjoy it and the forest of ingredients that accompanied it. The frybread is the crispy thing in the lower lefthand corner that looks kind of like a pie.
In case you're in need of a jolt of whimsy during this long post, here's a clip about frybread from one of my favorite movies of all time: Smoke Signals.
So, I promised you a walk around Sylvan Lake, and I'll try to keep this short as I sign off. My sister clued me in that she'd done this walk and that after you think the trail ends, you can actually go further and get "behind" the rocks.
I started off on the far side of the lake from my cabin and the camp store, over in the day-trip parking lot and went as far as I could get.
My walk on that side of the lake did not result in what I assumed she was referring to. But I saw folks hiking on the side near to the camp store, so shifted gears and walked that trail.
I came upon this bridge that appeared to dead-end straight into rock:
I wondered if the lake was just too high to traverse the water along the craggy rocks that led to the bridge.
Then I found a sliver of a trail that led to this:
These steps take you down at the other end of that slot passage:
And here's that "bridge to nowhere" from behind.
Edited to add: Additional wildlife and Sylvan Lake photos now up on my blog facebook page (which I think should be visible to anyone): https://www.facebook.com/pages/Eggplant-To-Go/188874297804112
More South Dakota tales as well as local food posts coming up. But for now this is it, kids.