The Great American Road Trip: Part Two — South Dakota 101


Nine or ten days in the car stopping off at American sites of great natural beauty and historical wonder.  With three kids.

Truth was, we acutely felt the possibility that this would be the last occasion to cram family memories into the teenagers’ heads.  They didn’t want to go.  We forced them.  Our hope was that they would come to love the vastness and diversity of their country.

The results were surprising to us all.

Click here to read Part One.

Day Three:  Sioux Falls, SD to Wall, SD


Running Girl and The Major slept poorly.  We were completely scrunched up against each other on one side of the giant bed.  Island Boy, an invitee to our mattress, slept perpendicular to us in order to cause maximum damage.  Efforts to correct this “across-the-grain” sleeping pattern were fruitless.  No good deed goes unpunished, runs the old adage.  Henceforth, IB was banished to a sleeping bag on the floor.


After breakfast, we broke away from I-90, our faithful traveling companion up to this point in the journey.  After a short distance on I-29 (a road that would play a significant role later in our travels), we turned off on to U.S. 14 and headed west.  Our destination was the town of De Smet and the recreated homestead of Laura Ingalls Wilder (“L.I.W.”), the author of the Little House on the Prairie series of books that formed a deep impression on a young Running Girl.


We really didn’t know what to expect from this site.  Would it be a let-down in the middle of nowhere (as the Lincoln New Salem site later turned out to be) or an overly cutesy salute to gingham and Michael Landon?  Happily, it turned out to be neither.  In short, all members of our traveling party agreed: it was awesome.


Instead of attempting to recount the L.I.W. narrative event-by-event, the site offered a real glimpse into what life was like for settlers on the prairies of South Dakota in the late 1800s.  Recreated structures were staffed by knowledgeable interpreters who brought the experience to life:

  • We visited a sod house and felt the coolness of the shelter on this warm day
  • Island Boy “fixed dinner” for us in a prairie kitchen
  • Subway Dude played tunes on a pump organ
  • Pettin'

    The Fashionista spun rope using a 19th century device

  • She and IB loved on all of the farm animals present: prairie cats, ponies, chickens, calves, etc.
  • We all climbed on board a covered wagon for a ride to school.  Each of the children had the opportunity to drive a team of mules
  • We attended a lesson at the school similar to one in which L.I.W. was first a student, then a teacher.  We all wore bonnets and straw hats.  The kids rang the bell above the schoolhouse

Whippin' -- a no-no.

We met wonderful people who welcomed us and taught us about pioneer life.  One young man named Brian was on summer break between his first and second years at Harvard.  He had trained the mules himself.

Most importantly, after a very long car ride, our kids were having fun.

And plankin'

At the gift shop on the way out, SD purchased a harmonica with his own money.  He spent the remainder of the trip teaching himself to play it.  That boy is full of surprises.

After a stop for lunch in De Smet, we continued westward, deeper into South Dakota.  SD’s harmonica-playing provided the perfect background music for the journey.

South Dakota is a large rectangle.  It is divided neatly in half by the Missouri River.  The eastern half is mainly flat prairies where farming takes place.  It is basically the end of the Midwest.

Our original plan was for Subway Dude to gain additional, valuable driving time on this trip.  However, soon after departure, we realized that the truck-infested Eisenhower interstate system is probably not the best place to earn those hours.  The combination of passing trucks and dealing with aggressive drivers behind you in construction zones can be intimidating even to more experienced drivers.

However, Route 14 turned out to be a perfect place for SD to drive.  It was flat, mainly straight and we had the road mostly to ourselves.  SD practiced passing on a two-lane highway.  He was exhilarated by the experience.

The oncoming traffic consisted mainly of motorcyclists returning home from the Sturgis festival which ended that day.  Like many states, South Dakota (I’m am not using the abbreviation “SD” here to avoid confusion with Subway Dude) does not have a helmet law for motorcycles.  For a long while, we wondered if it was against the law to wear a helmet, as we went several hours before we spotted any bikers wise enough to protect their domes in this manner.  We are all for personal liberty at Kay Nou.  Nevertheless, a brain schmear on the road (or a traumatic brain injury) is not a pretty thing.

Halfway across the state, we arrived at the capital city of Pierre (pronounced “Peer”).  It is a small town with a big, domed structure in its center.  Coming into Pierre, the landscape changed dramatically.  The prairie abruptly gave way to bumpy hills.  On the outskirts of town, a sign informed us that the 1990 Kevin Costner movie Dances With Wolves was filmed in the area.

In town, we stopped for gas.  I asked the attendant where the Mountain Time Zone began.  He pointed to the town’s only bridge.  “Right in the middle of the river,” he stated with a smile.  When I asked if Fort Pierre (on the other side of the Missouri) remained faithful to Pierre time (in the Central Zone), he replied: “Everything except for the bars.  At 2:00 a.m. you will see a mass exodus westward across the bridge.”

Every once in a while things become clear.  Without a doubt, the west started here.  The farms and prairies were gone.  Ranches and bumpy badlands began.  Oddly, the only crop we saw from this point westward was sunflowers — they formed bright yellow patches on the otherwise brown landscape.  Presumably, they are harvested for their oil and seeds.

This is the point where Running Girl and The Major officially fell in love with South Dakota.  Driving those hilly, winding country roads did it.

Next to U.S. 14 was a set of two ruts.  After noticing them for several miles, The Major asked RG (who was driving) to pull over to read a sign.  For those of you unfamiliar with TM, he is a big reader of plaques, signs and markers.

The sign advised us that those ruts were grooves left by wagon wheels for travelers across the wilderness on the old trail from Fort Pierre to Deadwood.  Wild Bill Hickock, Calamity Jane, Sitting Bull, General Custer, Billy the Kid, Jesse James and thousands of other settlers and gold rushers traveled these ruts.

RG and TM were giddy with delight at this find.  TF attempted to muster enthusiasm, but was unsure of what this meant.  IB was puzzled.  SD just kept playing his harmonica.

South Dakota has a distinctive feel to it.  Although it sort of reminds you of the southwest, it’s like nowhere else.  Some of its special features:

  • Its towns with expressive names: Interior, Scenic, Wall, Porcupine, Custer, Pringle, Spearfish, Winner, Mud Butte, Buffalo Gap.
  • Each town has signs listing its population.  Cottonwood’s population is 12
  • The reflective, diamond-shaped markers the state puts up along the side of the road for each motorist killed.  At first blush, this would appear to be ghoulish.  However, the large quantity of these markers made us drive more carefully (their intended effect).  In other places, families of the departed put up memorials at the site.  Here, the state has done so officially and the families then decorate the sign posts
  • The presence everywhere of the Lakota (Sioux) culture.  It is impossible to sum up in a few words.  You have to experience it for yourself
  • Small, roadside monuments (“The World’s Largest Pheasant”) share the scenery with some of the world’s largest — Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse
  • Expansive, beautiful landscapes.  Few people littering it up.
  • As RG put it, “This is a place that makes you dream.”

Arriving in Wall, we checked in to the log cabin we had reserved weeks earlier.  Talking with the proprietor (her name is Sunday) over the phone, the cabins had sounded perfect — poised on the edge of The Badlands National Park.  Upon arrival, we were disappointed by the fact that they were right on the road (South Dakota Rt. 240) and were virtually on top of each other.  However, the interiors were new and nicely furnished.  And our cabin faced the prairie leading to The Badlands.

After settling in, we drove two minutes into the town of Wall.  This city (Pop. 818) has preserved its western main street.  However, it is completely dominated by the sprawling complex known as Wall Drug (more on this in a later post).  This night we choose to avoid the drug store and dined at the Cactus Cafe across the street.  It turned out to be owned by Wall Drug.

We were seated and served by youths from Eastern Europe.  I was puzzled by this development (more on this later as well).  While waiting to stuff myself at the pizza, pasta and fried chicken buffet (Yee-Ha!), I was approached by a man who asked if my son was from Haiti.  I responded “yes” in a wary tone.  At virtually the same time, RG was similarly approached at the salad bar by the man’s wife.

This couple had adopted two children from Haiti.  The man’s enthusiasm and glee at meeting a fellow Haiti parent was unbridled.  I was hungry and wanted my fried chicken.

Running Girl was more patient and bonded with these nice people.  The woman remarked, “Don’t you always wonder when you see a white family with a black child if they adopted from Haiti?”  In our case, there was no mystery involved: IB was wearing a shirt that read Kenbe Fem, Haiti (Stand Strong, Haiti).

After dinner, we shopped at the town’s only supermarket for the next day’s meals.  It would be a relief to avoid restaurant fare for a day.

Sitting on the porch of our cabin, drinking Land Shark beers, we watched an intense lightning storm over The Badlands.  It went on for hours.

Subway Dude’s harmonica music remained the perfect accompaniment.

— Running Girl & The Major

To read Part Three, click here.


One response to this post.

  1. Posted by Donna on August 21, 2011 at 10:16 am

    Great story!!–my own children had to suffer through mom stopping the car several times on similar stretches of highway so she could put her hands in the wagon wheel ruts. What a wonderful gift you both have given to your children. Our trip west many years ago stands as my now grown children’s favorite vacation ever. Thank you for sharing this. Donna


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