For months we’d pored over maps, books and the Internet ahead of a month-long, let’s do it now the kids have left home journey across the USA. We needed to start and end in cities big enough to offer flights from and to the UK and we wanted a decent drive in between. We looked at and rejected the Pacific Coast (too busy), Route 66 (too obvious) and the Deep South (too windy). What we wanted to see was middle America, the American heartland, the America that sits in between the so-called sophistication of the east and west coasts and gets on with real life.
So finally we decided. Fly to Chicago, hire a car and head West across the plains, over the Rockies to the Pacific. Allow for a few (admittedly major) diversions and it’s a 4500 mile route that offers everything: the beauty of Yellowstone, Wyoming; the awe-inspiring scenery of Glacier National Park, Montana; the Giant Redwoods of California; the rugged coast of Oregon and Mount St. Helens in Washington.
And all that stood between us and this American wonderland was the huge, empty looking state of South Dakota, somewhere about which we knew next to nothing. So we looked it up. Mount Rushmore? Well who’d’ve thought that was there? The Badlands? Don’t know much but I guess it’s not going to be the most hospitable place. And two places – the Black Hills and Deadwood – best known as the subject of Doris Day songs.
And beyond that, just a map full of names that to us seemed to fall into three categories: British (Ipswich, Aberdeen, Bath, Oldham, Manchester); International (Stockholm, Lebanon, Lyons, Troy, Volga); and Oh So American (Bison, Buffalo, Prairie City, Wounded Knee, Thunder Hawk, Eagle Butte).
This was what we were looking for. Smallville USA.
Overnight in Brookings
We spent our first night in SD in the small town of Brookings, home of South Dakota State University whose motto, ‘You can go anywhere from here’, suggests a resigned acceptance that this was precisely what most graduates would do. We chose Brookings on the recommendation of the woman at the Laura Ingalls Wilder museum in Walnut Grove MN, who, we’d been delighted to learn, played Nellie Oleson’s mum in the annual Wilder Pageant. And we chose our hotel, the perfectly good but unremarkable $60 a night Hotel Brookings Inn on the outskirts of town, simply because it seemed to be the best available.
A quick shower to wash away the dust we’d collected on the outside, down to the bar to do the same inside and our first South Dakotan welcome courtesy of the hotel barman. Within minutes we knew his name, his college course and his hopes for the future, and he knew where we were from and where we were going. This wasn’t someone just doing his job or spouting the corporate “How are you guys this evening?” (the 21st century’s “Have a nice day”). This was someone who clearly liked people and was genuinely interested in why we were visiting his town. Then there were the two or three fellow drinkers, all local, all equally welcoming and all warning us about the empty, featureless, never-ending roads we faced in the morning.
And finally there was our waitress, whose initial nervousness we put down to shyness or inexperience. However, on bringing us our main course – medium rare rib-eye to share with garlic mash and corn – she blurted out her confession: “You know, I was sooo excited when I got to be your server. Are you from England?.” Yes we are. “Last year I visited a friend at college in Manchester. Do you know it?” Yes we do. In fact it’s only 30 or 40 miles from Leeds, where we live.
“Do you like any Manchester bands?” Being more than twice her age, a shared interest in the likes of Joy Division, the Fall and the Stone Roses was unexpected to say the least but yes, I said, there are loads I like and listed a few. “Cool!” she said uncertainly, her expression making it clear she hadn’t recognised a single one, “but what about …” and went on to name half a dozen bands that were equally meaningless to me. Two people divided by a common interest as well as a common language it would seem.
Day 2: Brookings to Pierre
The next day was going to be a big one. Not particularly challenging in terms of distance, just 180 miles along Highway 14, the The Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Highway, to the state capital Pierre. But these, we’d been warned, were the plains at their plainest.
Almost as soon as we’d started, we arrived in De Smet, ‘The Little Town on the Prairie’ and if it was good enough to persuade the Ingalls to stop, it was certainly good enough for us. A guide, dressed in period clothing, showed us around the Surveyors’ House where the Wilders had spent their first Dakota winter in 1879/80, and then ‘the house that Pa built’ in 1887, where Ma, Pa and Laura’s blind sister Mary lived for many years after.
This was real history, history you could touch and smell as well as read about. But what brought it home most vividly that these people existed beyond the pages of a book and the flickering screen of a 1970s TV series, was the town cemetery. Set in a stunningly beautiful location of shady pines, this is final resting place of Caroline and Charles (Ma and Pa); three of Laura’s sisters, Mary, Grace and Carrie; and most touching of all, Laura and Almanzo’s unnamed son who died shortly after his birth in 1889. These were people who’d lived, raised families and died here.
Respects duly paid, it’s out of the cemetery, check for traffic (you never know, there’d been some earlier), turn left and back onto Highway 14, heading west.
And the guys in the bar were right. The roads were empty and the countryside was virtually featureless. Mile upon mile of flat farmland and plains, with only the occasional homestead in the distance to break up the horizon. But to us, visitors from a country where you can’t go 10 miles without bumping into a decent sized town or city, this was mesmerising.
Some landscapes are soporific, sending you into semi-conscious autopilot, but this was entirely different. Brilliant blue skies, endless grassland changing colour over massive landscapes, impossibly long freight trains being hauled along the Dakota, Minnesota & Eastern railroad by bright red and yellow locos. Seriously, even the asphalt looked exciting and different from anything we’d experienced before.
It was stimulating, hypnotic and magical; something I remain moved by today. This was America, this was why we’d come. So it was with more of a sense of disappointment at having finished the drive than tired relief that we reached Pierre.
“Can we help you?” offered two ladies, quickly identifying us as either vagrants or confused out-of-towners as we entered a characterful-looking building that stated ‘Hotel‘ on the outside but clearly wasn’t on the inside. Discovering that not only were we out-of-town but out-of-country, the SD charm switched into overdrive. “Be sure to visit our beautiful State Capitol, won’t you? Take a walk by the river, you’ll love it (we did). You want to eat? Go to La Minestra – it’s Italian and great food (it was). Say, we could be your guides! You need a hotel? The Days Inn does great waffles for breakfast.”
Five minutes later, having successfully negotiated the road works that had seen the main road through Pierre transformed into a Third World dirt track, we stood in line at the hotel reception. “What price for Triple-A members?”, “We’re seniors, what’s your best rate?”, “Three night at fishing party rates please?”. Being British and therefore finding money-related talk in general and discount requests in particular excruciatingly embarrassing, we simply asked about room availability. And I swear she gave us a better price that the three parties before us.
Unpack, shower, renegotiate the hazards of West Sioux Ave – this time on foot –and we find ourselves at the Veterans Bar, directly on the banks of the Missouri, drinking Bud and watching water-skiers. 48 hours before, we’d spent Independence Day at La Crosse, WI, enjoying their annual Riverfest on the banks of the Mississippi; tonight we were watching one of America’s other great rivers flow slowly by. There’s a point in every trip when the amazement you feel at finding yourself in these far-off places makes way for something more comfortable, a kind of settling in process where everything’s still beautiful and exciting, but you begin to feel part of it. This was our fitting-in moment and it felt great.
Day 3: Pierre to Rapid City
The next day is an early start: up at 5.30 with the aim of reaching the Badlands while the light’s still good. Walk into the hotel breakfast room, pour some waffle mixture into the griddle and find ourselves a table amidst the even-earlier-rising fishing parties. Catch sight of the news and learn that 4 or 5 bombs have gone off in London. Too early to say how many casualties yet but it’s clearly not good news.
(The final death toll of the July 7 bombings was 56 - including the four suicide bombers - with another 700+ injured. So no, it wasn't great news.)
Hit the road in a slightly sombre mood but our spirits are raised once more by Highway 14 which continues to make its way through coarse grassland that must have looked exactly the same to the settlers who opened up this country in the 19thcentury. Stop to take a photo and, not for the first time, a pick-up slows down to check that we’re okay for gas.
We’re not going to make the Badlands much before 10 so we’ll miss the best light, but we get it here instead. Empty roads, changing colours, the occasional bird bouncing off the car to join the deer, raccoons and other unidentified road kill that are visible from hundreds of yards away on the otherwise perfectly flat road ahead. And the Wall Drug signs.
Back in 1936, owners Ted and Dorothy Hustead had the bright idea of tempting travellers to stop at their drug store in the small town of Wall through the offer of Free Ice Water; the idea proved so successful that people were already arriving as Ted returned from erecting his first signs. Before this spark of inspiration, Wall Drug was struggling for custom. The next summer they had to employ eight waitresses. Today they get as many as 20,000 visitors a day and their highway signs are world famous.
The store itself is so tacky it’s brilliant. There’s a chapel, a pharmacy, what seems like dozens of speciality stores and a large café, still offering free ice water and coffee at 5 cents a cup. The most memorable and certainly the most photographed aspect of Wall Drug is its collection of novelty items: a life-size bucking bronco you can sit on, a T-Rex that roars every few minutes, various fibreglass characters sitting on benches, and a whole range of animated groups that can be activated for a quarter. It’s not subtle, but makes no pretence to be. And after a few hours on the road, the offer of free ice water still works.
If Wall Drug is the ultimate plastic attraction, a hugely entertaining but essentially pointless diversion in the middle of nowhere, then the Badlands provide the perfect antidote.
Created over the last four million years through a combination of wind, rain and river erosion, the Badlands is a quarter of a million acre National Park of almost indescribable beauty. At first glance the undulating layers of sandstone look like waves on the sea; walk a few hundred yards further on, look over the edge and the same formations have suddenly become sharp and craggy, like the spines on the back of a lizard. There are soft, smooth, rounded formations, pinnacles that look like long-lost eastern temples, sheer drops, moonscapes, distant rivers and patterns made up of different layers of stone and formations that appear so regular that it’s hard to imagine how they could have been created.
Every corner reveals a new scene, each more stunning than the last. Look back at where you’ve just been and you get another view. And when you think you’ve seen it all, look ahead in the distance and there’s a whole new set of rock formations to explore, walk, climb and wonder at.
There are buffalo, mountain goats and prairie dogs. There are fossil trails that let lazy tourists like us feel like we’re experiencing a bit of off-the-beaten-track wilderness without actually going more than a few hundred yards from our air con hire cars, and there are real trails for those who’ve come prepared with boots, maps and water. There are viewpoints with railings where you’ll find a handful of other people ooohing and aaahing in whispered amazement and there are endless opportunities to escape the crowds and enjoy the silent, tear-down-your-face wonder of the place.
As we overheard an old guy saying to his family as we were returning to our car, you sure can’t beat Mother Nature. And this was Mother Nature at her very best.
Later that day, sitting on the bed in our room at the Holiday Inn Express, Rapid City, while the thunder rumbled in the hills and the rain came down in buckets, the map shows us that we’d seen less than half of the park.
Tonight’s entertainment – on the recommendation of the reception team at our hotel – is provided by the Colonial House Restaurant & Bar which is “just over the road”. Looking forward to a little leg stretching we set off but realise that not only is there no pavement but, unsurprisingly therefore, no pedestrian crossing point either. Our options appear to be either to return to the hotel and drive the no more than 400-yard journey which, apart from being crazy, would mean an evening’s abstinence, or to brave it out and hope for a gap in the multiple lanes of traffic flowing in either direction.
I honestly don’t know whether it was incredulity at this middle aged couple’s stupidity or old fashioned South Dakotan courtesy (I really, really want to believe it was the latter), but to our amazement first one driver then another pulled up to a stand still and smilingly waved us across.
This was a feature of our entire journey, particularly noticeable in SD but apparent wherever we went. For years now we Europeans have joked about what we perceive to be the shallow insincerity of the ‘How may I help you’ American culture. It’s only when you experience it for yourself that you realise that, for the greater part, it’s 100 per cent genuine. There’s an endearing warmth and friendliness about the people we encountered, one that we in the UK seem to have lost.
Day 4: Rapid City to Deadwood
Our first port of call the next day was another great American institution. Like the Empire State Building, 50s motels and Old Faithful, Mount Rushmore is Americana personified, a place so familiar you feel you’ve been there before. Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln carved into a southeast facing wall of granite in the Black Hills; each 60 feet high and created over the impressively short period of 14 years (only six and half of which actually were spent carving) by sculptor Gutzon Borglum.
Such is the feeling that this is part of an older America that the scale and modernity of the car parks, book shops, visitor centre, restaurant, Avenue of Flags and Grandview Terrace feels unnecessarily commercial even by US standards, but doesn’t detract from the wow factor of this national treasure. And by following the half mile Presidential Trail – a scenic boardwalk that takes you away from the crowds and closer to the rock face, you can imagine that it’s 1959 and look, isn’t that Cary Grant on George Washington’s nose? Well, no actually, it’s not. It’s one of team of German contractors flown in to give the monument its first thorough clean in over 60 years.
Heading south now towards Custer State Park, we follow what we later discover to be the Iron Mountain Road, also known, more prosaically, as Highway 16A. Just 17 miles long, this is a totally unexpected delight, providing long distance views of Mount Rushmore through three strategically positioned tunnels, plus the experience of rising up through the forest on ‘pigtail’ bridges, a term which perfectly describes these spiralling wooden structures.
Custer State Park began life as a game reserve in 1913 with the aim of rebuilding the wildlife population that had been all but wiped out after an expedition led by George A. Custer discovered gold in the Black Hills in 1874. Today there’s a herd of some 1500 bison, plus mountain goats, elk, bighorn sheep, coyote and a herd of wild burros, first introduced to haul visitors around the park but now roaming free.
To be honest, our trip around the Wildlife Loop Road, taking in a quick lunch at a lodge, meant we saw only a fraction of the place. We bumped into burros, negotiated bison dozing beside the road and passed a number of busy-looking camp grounds but this really wasn’t a place to be appreciated by people on a road trip with miles to cover, but somewhere to relax, fish, explore, hike, swim, ride and – we discovered from the official leaflet we were handed on entering the park – build snowmen.
An hour or so later, we pulled up in front of our second sculpture project of the day, the Crazy Horse Memorial. While this somehow lacked the immediate impact and sense of déjà vu of Mount Rushmore, its story is one of almost unimaginable determination on the part of one man.
Persuaded by the words of Lakota Chief Standing Bear: “My fellow chiefs and I would like the white man to know the red man has great heroes, too”, sculptor Korszak Ziolkowski set about carving Crazy Horse in 1948. With just $174 to his name, no federal funding (twice declining offers of $10m) and equipment that consisted of a jackhammer and gas compressor, this was such a mammoth undertaking that even today no-one is prepared to say when it will be finished.
When Korszak died in 1982, he left behind not only the foundations of a piece of work which, when completed, will be 641 feet long by 563 feet high, but also a wife and 10 children, most of whom have now taken up their father’s jackhammer and are continuing his work. For an idea of just how much remains to be done, Crazy Horse’s face was only completed in 1998, the project’s 50th anniversary; since then the family’s efforts have been focused on blocking out the 22 storey high horse’s head.
The Crazy Horse Memorial will some day become a modern wonder. Until then, it’s a work in progress that honours the Native American and provides a lasting tribute to the commitment, patience and skill of one man. It’s also a project that makes you think: is there anything I believe in so strongly that not only would I have to dedicate the rest of my life to creating it, but also the lives of my children, their children and quite possibly half a dozen generations more?
No, probably not. So we head for historic Deadwood and its promise of beer and slot machines.
Actually, before arriving we had no idea it was a gambler’s paradise with 24 hour gaming in every hotel, bar, saloon and restaurant on Main Street. Seriously. We’d booked ahead at the Bullock Hotel – “Step back in time and walk through the very same corridors, rooms, and hallways that Deadwood's first Sheriff Seth Bullock himself still proudly haunts!” – and once we’d squeezed ourselves and our cases through the gaming halls and up to our room, it was time to explore.
The Main Street itself look just the way you want a Wild West street to look, with plenty of wooden-fronted saloons. Add in the fact that we’d arrived in the middle of a jazz festival so the street was blocked by a huge stage and the atmosphere was great too.
So, time for a beer, realising only after ordering a second that if you keep hold of your glass, refills are about half the price. Moving on for a third – it’s been a long day – we find ourselves in conversation with Kevin & Brian, two college guys who seem delighted to have the opportunity to find out what life’s like in England and, more specifically, what we think of the French Government’s position on Iraq and the British Government’s position on gun laws.
Despite us having pretty much directly opposing views on both points – I quite admire the Gallic quality of sheer bloody-mindedness and enjoy living in a country where gun crime remains extremely rare – their friendliness, openness and insistence on buying us beer proves overwhelming and in minutes we succumb. An hour later we’ve decided to join forces, invade France and create the United British & American Colony of Gaul. We’ve agreed a unilateral disarmament treaty based on the Kevin’s acceptance that his family’s collection of 28 guns probably is excessive; 23 would be a more reasonable number. And next time we’re passing through we’re going to discover the satisfaction of killing something.
Years of experience tell my wife it’s the next pint that’ll keep us there all night so it’s time to say farewell to two more new friends from SD.
And that’s it really. A good meal, a quarter in the slots because it seemed rude not to, 20 minutes trying to lose the bucket of small change won with our first quarter and then bed. A walk around Mt. Moriah Cemetery in the morning to see the gravestones of Wild Bill and Calamity Jane, into the car, on our way and half an hour or so later we were in Wyoming.
Over the next three weeks we’d travel another 3329 miles and visit Montana, Idaho, Oregon, California and Washington. We’d meet dozens of other wonderful, friendly people and see countless more unforgettable sites. July 2005 was the adventure we’d always dreamt it would be. What we hadn’t expected was that this empty-looking, virtually unknown to us section on the map would prove so special.