The Saga of The RV Trip from Hell Continues…

*Cue Star Wars theme music*

When we last left our heroes, they were just recovering from a horrible toilet disaster (see Part 1) in their first ever RV trip.

Day #3:  Driving a Bomb

After everything from the great RV toilet fiasco of 2010 was cleaned up, I had showered, and had repeatedly washed my mouth with hydrogen peroxide in an attempt to sterilize it, I settled down to sleep…more or less.  My stomach still heaved every now and again at the thought of what had just happened.  Fortunately, the smell was gone for the most part and at least I didn’t have to deal with that anymore.  That seemed now like a small consolation.

Perspective is interesting, isn’t it?  If I could have gone back in time and traded the return of the horrid smell that I could not stand for the price I had to pay to get rid of it, I would have done so in an instant.

We needed to make some time on our journey, so we took turns driving and were hell-bent on making it to the Badlands by the next day.  We took a couple of breaks – one quick stop in Mitchell, SD to see the famous Corn Palace (pretty gosh-darned nifty if you’ve never seen it – it’s totally decorated in corn), and then another at a rest stop shortly before we turned off of I-90 to head south towards the Badlands.  That was about a 3 hour stretch or so of driving.

Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota. All of the decoration is made from corn.

Me (in the red shirt) at the Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota. All of the decoration is made from corn.

When we were at the rest stop, I ran back to the travel trailer to use the restroom as I had apparently had too much fluid while stopped at the Corn Palace.  Upon opening the door, I was greeted with a foul odor.  “Not again,” I thought.  I was almost certain that we had fixed that problem the night before.  Had I somehow willed this problem back into being by wishing I could take back the feat of solving it?  With my luck…probably.

Desperately needing to relieve myself, I scooted past the dining room table and stove and made my way to the bathroom near the back of the rig.  Since this travel trailer had slides, the design did not leave very much room for movement when the slides were in.  It was a bit of a squeeze, but I fit through just fine.

As I was answering the call of nature, finally allowing my thoughts to focus on things other than not wetting myself, I realized that the smell in the bathroom seemed less strong than when I had entered the rig.  Perhaps I was just adjusting to the smell…perhaps it had just aired out because I had left the door open.

I ventured an inquisitive sniff, sampling the stench this time a little closer.

My eyes shot wide open.

This was not the same smell of rotting feces.  This was the smell of rotten eggs.  I was smelling propane!  Just as I had this realization, I heard my travel companion coming up the stairs into the travel trailer.  I yelled at him to get out and leave the door open.  I quickly pulled up my pants and exited the bathroom.

There were several possibilities for a propane leak.  We had a fridge that operated on propane, we had a water heater that should have been off since we only used it when necessary.  Likewise, our stove was not in use and that also should be off.  I yelled for my travel companion to turn off the propane tank located outside on the tongue of the travel trailer.  Clearly, we had accidentally left it on.  The water heater and fridge propane connections were outside, so I yelled for my travel companion to check those after turning off the propane.  As I was carefully trying to inch my way to the door, I turned my attention to the stove.

As I drew near to it, I could hear a faint hissing noise.  Had a line become dislodged or nicked?  The roads we had been on were pretty smooth, so I didn’t think that would be the cause.  That is when my eyes caught sight of the knobs for the stove burners.  One was switched to the “on” position.  I quickly switched it to “off” praying that turning it that direction would not cause some sort of auto-ignition.  In retrospect, I should have left it be and relied solely on the stopping of the flow of propane by cutting the supply outside.  However, I was a bit panicked and that wasn’t what I did.  Fortunately, nothing sparked.

Satisfied that I had stopped the influx of propane, I carefully opened the windows and stepped outside and waited for the propane to vent.  I went to the propane tank to ensure the valve had been closed all of the way.  How had the stove been switched on?  I knew I hadn’t touched it.  Could it have been jostled on by driving?  No.  It had to be pushed in and then turned.

Then, it came to me.  When we were at the Corn Palace, my travel companion had gone inside to use the bathroom right before we left.  I was busy adjusting the seat and the mirrors as it was my turn to drive, so I hadn’t gone back in to check to make sure everything was good before taking off for the Badlands.

RV Stovetop

Our RV Stovetop

As I’ve mentioned before, my travel companion was a good sized guy.  There was no way with the slides in that he could have scooted through the tiny aisle without brushing up against things.  I was easily half his size and I could just make it through without touching anything.  He must have backed into the knob and then scooted sideways down the narrow center aisle, thereby turning the knob as he went.

Since that happened when we were in Mitchell, SD and we were now about to turn south to the Badlands, we had been driving a bomb down Interstate 90 for at least 3 solid hours!

Good Lord!  What next?

One day I’m going to learn not to ask myself this question.  It has a bad habit of answering itself.

Having survived a “generator” that would not generate, a toilet issue that I wish I could forget, and driving a volatile bomb around for several hours, I was pretty sure that by now we had experienced the requisite number of problems needed to satisfy the quota for the New RV’ers Rite of Passage and earn our wings as “experienced RV’ers.”

Sadly, I was mistaken.

Moving On

The Badlands of South Dakota

The Badlands of South Dakota

We made it to the Badlands later that same afternoon, and, not having much time to spare, snapped a few photos and kept on truckin’.

South Dakota Badlands

Bucket List Item: Badlands – CHECK!  There was “a bit” of wind that day.

We didn’t cook that night, opting to snack on pre-packaged items.  It had been a long day, made even longer with the knowledge that we had almost been blown to smithereens – a la Wile E. Coyote style, and I was more than ready for bed.

The next morning we ventured out to see Mt. Rushmore.

Mt. Rushmore

Mt. Rushmore. Been there, done that. Impressive, but Crazy Horse was even better.

Then we popped over to see the truly amazing Crazy Horse Monument.  I had never heard of it, which was a shame, for it was truly something to behold.

Crazy Horse Memorial

Crazy Horse Memorial as it appeared in 2010. The white outline is where the horse’s head and eye will be. This is a massive sculpture.
Nearby Mt. Rushmore is 59′ tall. The nostril of the horse on the Crazy Horse Memorial is 26′ in diameter. All of the funding for this memorial has been private. No government funds have been used.


Crazy Horse Memorial Sculpture

When finished, this is what the Crazy Horse Memorial will look like. It was begun in 1947 by Korczak Ziolkowski and is still under construction.

The movie they played in the visitors’ center telling its history was outstanding.  What an interesting story!  I felt greatly inspired after watching it.

We heard that there was a laser light show that night, so we decided to hang out in the parking lot and watch.  We didn’t really have anything else to do and I was yet to plot our route for the next day.

How NOT to Save $50 per Night 

The light show wasn’t really anything to write home about, and I had had a few minutes to consult the map.  We were only a couple of hours away from Devil’s Tower in Wyoming.  My travel companion wasn’t too enthused about making a trip so late in the evening, but I insisted that it was “mere inches” away on the map.  🙂  This is why I do better as a single traveler.  There is no sales job involved in changing plans at the last minute.

We set off soon thereafter and within a short time we had reached our turnoff from the interstate.  Our route took us a bit west and then north on Highway 24.  The fancy private campground near Devil’s Tower wanted around $50/night for the privilege of staying there.  Being the frugal (read: cheap) person that I am, I considered this outrageous amount to be nothing short of highway robbery.  As such, I decided to find us a better option for spending the night.

After a few minutes of consulting my maps, I was able to find a recreation area due east of Devil’s Tower.  It appeared to be at a bit of elevation somewhere in the NW corner of the Black Hills, so that likely meant cooler temperatures as well as some shade trees which were scarce in the area near Devil’s Tower.  I punched the required information of how to reach Cook Lake Recreation Area, as it was so named, into the GPS unit.

Our GPS showed a road just a couple of miles north of our location that led straight to Cook Lake.  There was another route much farther north, but that was a long way out of our way.  As far as I could tell from looking at the maps, the roads were of equal size and quality.  It was dark and nearly time for bed by now, so we chose the most direct route.

As we approached our turn off of Highway 24, there was a sign indicating that our destination was down this road.  Signs are generally a good indicator that you have chosen the correct path, so we turned onto the road.

The road turned out to be sort of a county road with gravel and such.  That was to be expected, seeing as how we were headed out to a somewhat remote location.  After a little while, the road started to climb.  That was also to be expected since we knew our destination was at a higher elevation.  So far, so good.

It was night time and being in the middle of nowhere there were no street lights, so our visibility was pretty limited.  Since we were often driving up a hill, this meant we could see even less.

At some point, we drove over some cattle grates and thought to ourselves that seemed pretty weird.  The map showed this as some sort of federal park or reserve – I wasn’t sure which.  Perhaps I was mistaken about our exact location relative to the park or reserve boundary, but I usually know exactly where I am.  Maybe I was off by a mile or so.  After all I was tired, but I was pretty sure I was right.

There are certainly things I am decidedly not good at doing – balance and remembering peoples names are high on that list.  I am the world’s biggest klutz (my parents really should have named me “Grace”), and I can forget someone’s name as soon as they have said it, which is rather embarrassing.  Then there are other things at which I excel:  sense of smell and direction.  I don’t believe in reincarnation, but I’m pretty sure if that really exists, that I was a bloodhound in one past life and a migratory bird in another.  I can smell anything, and I have an uncanny ability to know exactly where I am.

Perhaps, I rationalized to myself, the cattle grate was to keep cows out of this area.  That would have made sense.  If it were a park of some sort that was worthy of being colored green on the map, they probably had restrictions about cows coming into that area.  It was Wyoming, after all.  Wasn’t that the land of cattle herding and such?  The funny thing was that we didn’t see any cows up to this point.  Of course it was dark, so we just may not have noticed them.  This entire thought process passed in and out of my mind in an instant.  I gave it no more thought as my attention was suddenly drawn to the deteriorating condition of the road.

What used to be a flat, two-lane gravel road morphed with amazing rapidity into a near single-lane route that made the part we had just driven look by comparison like a four-lane, paved, divided boulevard with curbs and decorative trees planted down the middle.  Knowing that Devil’s Tower was nearby, I was pretty sure that this road was the official “Road from Hell.”  How apropos for what was turning out to be the RV Trip from Hell, I thought.

The longer we drove, the worse the ruts in the road became.  I guessed that this must be what it was like for the Pioneers of the American West as they bucked and bolted across the roadless wilderness.  When the truck would hit a rut, it would pull downward and sideways.  As it pulled itself upwards, it would rock back in the opposite direction, creating a serpentine, undulating motion that rippled down the length of our rig, snapping the back end of the trailer like a bullwhip.  I felt like we were driving a Chinese dragon in a street fair, bouncing, weaving, and shuddering in every possible direction.

At a minimum I was sure that we had probably managed to pulverize our belongings in the travel trailer.  At worst, we had probably seriously damaged the trailer’s suspension. I said a silent prayer to the saints of RV-dom that insurance would cover whatever we had certainly broken.  Perhaps this was not the best way to save a $50/night RV park stay.

When it seemed that the quality of the road couldn’t get much worse, it began to wind back and forth.  The trees that had once stood off to the sides of the road seemed to close in around us, indicating that people with vehicles our size rarely (if ever) came this way.  Turning around was not an option, so we pressed on – slowly and with great caution.

It was quite fortunate that we were going slowly, because as we rounded one particular blind narrow turn where the leaning trees had obscured our view, our headlights shone upon a very large bovine standing right in the middle of the road.  It raised its head and blinked at us a few times, then lowered its head and ignored us.  We waited, and waited for what seemed like a short eternity for it to move off of the road.

Apparently, our presence was not enough to disturb this particular beast, and being keen on finding our destination and being done with this particularly bad part of the journey, we carefully inched our way towards it in hopes that it would scoot itself aside out of our way.  We got within a few inches of said bovine before it made the decision to relocate.

As it moved to the side of the road, our headlights illuminated several other cows ahead in the distance.  Thankfully, they were grazing off of the side of the road, so we gently eased by them.

More cattle grates.  More cattle.  Surely by now we were inside of the park or reserve boundary.  I may have been wrong earlier, but by now there was no question in my mind.  I had never heard of grazing being allowed inside protected areas – but, this was Wyoming…maybe things were done differently here.

The road managed to fork on us at one point, and as luck would have it, the GPS unit showed us as now not driving on any known road.  As far as it was concerned, we were driving through a field.  We tried Google Maps, but it didn’t want to work either.  Which way to go?

I guessed that we should probably turn left, but it was just a guess based on my directional instinct.  We puttered on at a snail’s pace, now not entirely certain that we were on the right path.  It felt right to me, but when you are driving a huge rig down a deteriorating road where you can’t turn around and you aren’t absolutely sure about the correct path, it can be a bit unnerving.

The road stayed bad for the next several miles.  In one particular location it began to get steeper and more convoluted.  Although I still felt like we were headed in the right direction, I was beginning to find the lack of signs very concerning.  What if we got stuck at a dead end?  Headed the right way or not, I was unsure whether or not the road would accommodate our vehicle for much longer – not that I would use the word “accommodating” to describe the trip thus far.

At long last we reached the recreation area which seemed to suddenly appear before us like a mirage in the desert.  Could we have actually made it to our destination?  A quick check of the signs indicated that we had.  With great haste, we parked for the night and headed to bed.

Cook Lake Recreation Area

The morning after at Cook Lake Recreation Area

The next morning we woke up to a beautiful, quiet, serene lake outside our windows.  Stepping outside we were greeted with a gentle, cool breeze and the sounds of birds chirping happy songs.  We inspected the travel trailer for any signs of damage, and found it to be in amazingly good repair.  There was only a bit of mud on the front of the trailer.

dirt on travel trailer

Surprisingly, this was the only “damage” we had done.

Whew!  That was close!  Then, I remembered we still had to get back out of here…so much for savoring the moment.

According to the map I found on an information board, it appeared that there may be another way out of the recreation area that road would take us north.  This must have been the other road we opted not to take coming in because it would have taken us so far out of our way.  Given the ordeal we went through to reach this place, and faced with the reality of having to repeat it in reverse, any other option was a welcome one.

Once again the map did not seem to indicate the road conditions going out either direction.  The roads looked exactly the same on the park’s map just like they had on the maps I had consulted before choosing our route by which to arrive.  The other road could be better, or it could be worse.  After a bit of contemplation, we decided to go with the devil we didn’t know, given that the devil we did know wasn’t too friendly.

We pulled out of our campsite not knowing what lay before us.  We steeled our nerves in preparation for the return trip.  If this was going to be anything like what we went through the previous evening, this would be a very long morning. Within a very short distance – like a quarter of a mile, our road dead-ended at another road that was – get this – *paved.*  Would you believe that in addition to being paved it had signs directing us to turn left to reach the main highway?

Seriously??!?!?!?  We could have taken paved road almost all the way here?  Someone needs to revamp the sign that sent us up the cattle trail instead to say something like:

“This road will get you there, but you don’t really want to go this way unless:

A) You suffer from severe masochistic tendencies


B)  You are driving your ex’s RV and you really want to get back at them.”

Maybe I should send a letter to the people in charge of signs…

Having survived: 1) a “generator” that would not generate, 2) a toilet issue that I wish I could forget, 3) driving a volatile bomb around for several hours, and now 4) having being thrashed around like a dragon in a Chinese street festival, SURELY we had finally satisfied the quota for the New RV’ers Rite of Passage and had earned our wings as “experienced RV’ers.”

This *had* to be the last test we had to pass, right?


Tune in tomorrow for Part 3 of The RV Trip from Hell: A Rite of Passage.

Cook Lake Recreation Area

The quick obligatory photo at Devil’s Tower as we headed off for our next adventure with the RV.