Tuesday started off early and grey. As MW (Mr. Wonderful) emptied the tanks on the way out, the flock of turkeys came by to say goodbye. So cool.
We headed east on SD-34, then north on SD-47. At Hoven, South Dakota we stopped to check out the Cathedral on the Prairie. What a beautiful place! While it truly has the magnificence of a cathedral, a Bishop has never been in residence, and so it humbly remains the small town St. Anthony’s Church. In 2000 Bishop Robert Carlson declared it a destination for Catholic pilgrims. I would add that anyone, of any denomination or no denomination, passing through this tiny town would enjoy taking a look. Completed in 1921, the structure cost around $500,000 (a hefty sum in those days) and was built on the faith of a determined priest and a cadre of about 70 parishioners from his small Catholic community of around 200. Why? So it would remain standing. Three flimsy, stick-built churches were lost to prairie windstorms, and Father Anthony Helmbrecht was not going to have that happen again. Originally from Germany, he set out to build a church reminiscent of those from his youth, modeled after a 1,000-year-old cathedral in Bavaria, although on a much smaller scale. Now, thanks to the constant maintenance of a cadre of volunteers, this century-old beauty stands tall against the South Dakota sky and can be seen for miles across the vast prairie. Go. You won’t be disappointed.
We continued north, then turned west on US-12 and north on SD-20, making it to our final destination, Indian Creek State Recreation Area, before lunch. The park was almost empty, but amazingly, there was someone parked on our site. The tag said they were there for another night, so we tracked down a park employee who said we’d need to call reservations to change our site number. We took care of that on the way in to Mobridge, South Dakota, just 10 minutes away. We found the Great Plains Family Restaurant for lunch, which turned out to be pretty good. I had the pulled pork sandwich special, and MW had the Spicy Midwest Burger, which came with goop on it. Huh?! “It’s a Mobridge thing…ketchup, mayonnaise, and hot sauce mixed together.” Well, it was pretty darned good. Mine came with amazing homemade chicken noodle soup. (The only negative was the onion rings were too much breading and not enough onion.) I don’t usually take pics of food, but this was too pretty not to. After lunch we did a little recon on the laundromat, then headed back to the campground where we learned that we are idiots. Well maybe that is a little strong, but we felt pretty stupid. The RV that was in our spot was gone, and upon closer inspection, the tag we saw was ours. Oh well, it all worked out. We gathered up the laundry stuff, and headed back to get the job done. MW took a long walk around town while I monitored the clothes situation and had a nice visit with a local lady. I told her we were headed down to the Badlands the next day, and she said not to go the normal route on US-212 through the reservation, because they won’t let us through. After completing the laundry, we popped over to the police station to get the straight skinny. A nice officer told us it boils down to “who is working the checkpoint. Sometimes they let everyone drive through with instructions not to stop, and sometimes, no one. Then sometimes they randomly let a few through.” The issue has caused a big fight in South Dakota over the last few months about access to the federal and state roads through the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation. It hasn’t made it to court yet, but will be interesting to see what happens. I understand both sides of the legal issue, which boils down to the Sioux feeling they own the land and can say who comes on it, and the Feds and state saying that the easements for the highways give those they authorize (citizens) the right to pass through. Personally, I think the tribe is wrong. I can’t keep authorized people off of a power line or road easement through my property. I don’t think it is unreasonable to tell people they cannot stop along the way, though. However, the interviews that I watched made this whole thing seem like a power play instead of a rational decision based on facts. (I guess the government can’t blame them for that.) That’s my two cents, and it won’t buy you a darned thing.
We headed over to the river to check out Walleye Up, which is a cool statue on the lake in town. This is a beautiful, and pretty cool looking, scrap iron sculpture by artist John Lopez, a South Dakota native. Examples of his bronze work include the City of Presidents statues in Rapid City, South Dakota, a project that will keep him busy for quite a while. This guy is pretty amazing!
Next we crossed the river to see the Sitting Bull and Sakakawea monuments. The spelling is intentional as there is conflict on both the spelling and meaning of her name (Sakakawea means Bird Woman; Sacajawea means Boat Launcher; Sacagawea came from the expedition journals). According to this site, she was a member of the Shoshone tribe in Montana before being captured in a tribal conflict and taken to North Dakota. From there she was purchased by Tousant Charbonneau, who made her his wife. Charbonneau would only hire on to be the interpreter for Lewis and Clark if his wife could also go. The reluctant agreement turned into the best of luck, as she was their predominant guide for the duration. After the job was complete, Charbonneau and Sakakawea settled in Fort Manual, which is about 30 miles north of this monument. Although her date of death is also contested, the Fort’s daily journal of events recorded that she died on December 20, 1812 of a putrid fever. Her grave location is unknown.
Sitting Bull was born a few miles west of Mobridge, South Dakota to the Hunkpapa Lakota tribe. He had a vision that the tribe took as a foreshadowing of great victory. Three weeks later the Lakota and northern Cheyenne tribes whipped the tar out of Custer’s crew. After that, when US forces were forcing surrender of the northern tribes, he refused and led his band into what now is Saskatchewan. Four years later, they returned and finally surrendered. He worked with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show for a while, then returned to the tribe in South Dakota. Sadly, it was there that he was killed in a skirmish while being arrested by tribal police who feared his support for the Ghost Dance craze, a religious movement at the time showing up in numerous tribal belief systems. Even in death, Sitting Bull was not done moving. His body was originally buried at Fort Yates, North Dakota. In 1953, surviving relatives took (she says stole) what they believed to be his remains and buried them at the current memorial location near Mobridge. Now he has two monuments marking his burial sites.
Next we headed north to find the Leavenworth Monument, with no luck. It is on the map east of Wakpala on the lake, but we could find no signage or any evidence. The drive north up SD-1806 was beautiful, though, so we enjoyed it.
Heading back through Mobridge, we stopped at the grocery store for supplies, then pointed Brutus towards the campground. It was a long day, and we were ready for some feet-up time.
Indian Creek Recreation Area is beautiful and very well maintained. It sits right on Oahe Lake, and amenities include biking, boating, fishing, hiking, volleyball, trap shooting, paddle boarding, and kayaking. There are a couple of play areas, a fish cleaning area, and picnic pavilions, and they rent a variety of recreational equipment. The campground offers two sections with a total of 123 50-amp electric sites, two tent sites, and two cabins. In September of 2020, campsites were $20 per night plus the park entrance fee of $8 per day. (The state has an annual park pass that costs $36, which worked out better for us.). The facilities were clean and very nice, too. Nearby Mobridge is not large, but does offer groceries and a couple of restaurants.
On Wednesday we were up very early to hit the road south. Taking everyone’s advice regarding the reservation, we headed south on US-83 back through Pierre, then west on US-14, which follows the old Deadwood Trail and has signs noting wagon tracks and stage stops along the way. We made it to our first stop, Wall, South Dakota. When MW got out of the Marine Corps where he was stationed at MCAS El Toro, we took our first cross-country road trip together to get back to Georgia. At that time we stopped in at Wall Drug. Seriously, I’m not sure how anyone from then to now could drive across South Dakota and not stop. Their signs hit you from Minnesota to Montana on I-90, pulling you in. It’s a little bit like the old “See Rock City” signs on barns or “South of the Border” signs on I-95 in the southeast. From our previous visit, we remember getting off of the interstate and driving north a bit to a large, Wall Drug complex on the right. We also remember not much else being around. Apparently we suffer from group hallucination syndrome or something, because there was a lot more there, and based on the appearance of the buildings, a good bit of it had to have been there then. Don’t get me wrong, there is also a LOT that has grown up, too. In 1931, Ted Hustead purchased the tiny drugstore in Wall, population 231, in the middle of nowhere. As you can imagine, business was slow. Then Dorothy (his wife) suggested that they offer free ice water to tourists heading to the newly minted Mount Rushmore. That started something. Today they still offer free water, but also give away free bumper stickers, free donuts and coffee to veterans and military members, and nickel coffee to everyone else. While there is still a small drug store section, this has become a bonafide tourist attraction with a large restaurant, lots of western-themed souvenirs, a western art gallery, a bakery…the list goes on. After his death in 1999, the governor opened his State of the State Address the next day by saying Hustead was “a guy that figured out that free ice water could turn you into a phenomenal success in the middle of a semi-arid desert way out in the middle of someplace.” What a great quote. The current owner, grandson Rick Hustead, is keeping the dream alive and growing bigger, I’m sure, even as I write this. Before leaving Wall, we had lunch at the Badlands Saloon & Grille. MW had a chicken wrap, and I had a BLT. Delicious! My only complaint is that mine was made with THREE slices of VERY toasted Texas toast. Even after removing the middle slice, my mouth was torn up by the bread. Too much! They had great slaw, though, made with chopped up Brussels sprouts.
After spending a little time and doing some Christmas shopping at Wall, we were back on the road, this time on an INTERSTATE…ugh! We took I-90 to the east entrance of Badlands National Park, heading straight to the campground to drop off Petunia. After getting everything set up, we headed out to see the park. We took SD-240 to Sage Creek Rim Road (dirt, yay!) and followed it over to SD-44. (I recommend the dirt road, because the vast majority of the traffic stayed on SD-240.) The park was amazing! We saw thousands of prairie dogs, plenty of buffalo, and a herd of pronghorns that walked across the road right in front of us. The scenery is spectacular and hard to describe, so I’ll let the pics speak for themselves. They don’t do the colors justice, though. (However, the North Dakota Badlands in Theodore Roosevelt National Park have more vivid coloring.) As with my last visit 26 years ago, I kept picturing riders on horseback or in wagons crossing the vast prairie that approaches the area, then coming upon these deep gully mazes. What must they have thought?
As we approached SD-44, we noticed several trucks and horse trailers, which I though was a trail ride. Wrong! There was an actual cattle drive going on in the field across the road. Too cool! One rider made me laugh, though. She was watching the main herd while doing something on her cell phone. The modern drive, I guess. We turned east and headed back to the campground. SD-44 is rough, but not full of potholes. It is wavy, for lack of a better description. So riding it at speed is a little like riding a country road with the “Dukes of Hazard” boys! MW slowed down a few times when he thought the wheels would actually leave the road. By the time we made it back to the campground, we were both ready to relax for the night.
On Thursday after a beautiful sunrise we were greeted by mule deer grazing in the field out front. We headed out early for a full day, bouncing our way west on ND-44 to US-16 west and our first stop, Bear Country USA. This was on the list because my Mom made me promise to go. Really!! Boy, was she right. It was awesome! A drive-through wildlife park with a small zoo attached, they have the largest, privately owned collection of American Black Bears along with a LOT of other animals. We have done quite a few drive-thru parks, and this one ranks right at the top. The animals are in separate areas for safety, and they have a good variety. The one negative was the backlog to get in at the gate that extended out onto the highway. The animals totally made up for it though.
After the animal tour, we headed north on US-385 to check off a couple of towns on our list of “bests”. First stop…Lead. With evidence of the recent snow still visible, the drive further into the Black Hills was beautiful. As we approached, you could see a big mining operation on top of the hill overlooking town. Now the Sanford Underground Research Facility, it was once the location of the largest and deepest gold mines in North America producing almost 44 million ounces. Wow! Lead also houses the Black Hills Mining Museum and has a monument to the miners of the Homestake Mine that lists all of those lost and murals depicting mining scenes. The town is built similar to those in West Virginia, running through a narrow valley. There were a few restaurants and shops, most not open. There was also a little overlook built to see down into the giant mining pit. It was definitely not as touristy as a lot of these small towns, possibly because of the lack of space.
After walking around a bit, we headed a few miles up the road to Deadwood where the first order of business was lunch at Oggie’s Sports Bar in The Lodge at Deadwood. (We were actually going to the Deadwood Grille next door, but it was closed.). The food stars were my Buffalo Burger and MW’s potato salad. After lunch we made a drop-off at the Deadwood post office, then drove around town. Deadwood is the opposite of Lead. Where Lead still looks mostly like a little mining town, this place is geared for tourists. There are lots of hotels, and the touristy part of the downtown area was pretty darned busy for a Thursday. (There was a section that was more business near the courthouse, which has pretty.) Deadwood is famously the town where Jack McCall shot Wild Bill Hickok in the back of the head while he was playing cards. (He was showing what became known as the Dead Man’s Hand, two black aces and two black eights, at the time.) Interestingly, although there were plenty of witnesses, McCall was acquitted in his first trial by the ad hoc miner’s jury after he said he was avenging the death of his brother at Wild Bill’s hand. (The day before the murder McCall was cleaned out in a poker game with Wild Bill. Adding insult to injury, Bill told him to quit until he could cover his losses and gave him money for breakfast. Many believe that to be the true motive.) Later after bragging about the killing, McCall was again arrested and tried in a more formal setting where he was found guilty and subsequently hanged. I wanted to see Wild Bill’s grave, but was disappointed. As we drove up the hill, I couldn’t figure out why, back in the horse and wagon days, they would drag a body up this seriously steep ridge. Before paying to go see the grave, we went into the little museum. Turns out, they didn’t. He was buried down closer to town in the first town cemetery. At some point after the automotive evolution, the town decided the graveyard was sitting on a prime location for houses. They exhumed everyone and moved them all to their present location. Well that just sucked! I really wanted to see where they buried him, not where folks years later moved him to. Bummer! In addition to the grave, one place in Deadwood claims to have the chair Wild Bill was sitting in, and more than one location claims to be the actual saloon. All of these are dubious as there is no proof. There are also a couple of museums with Wild Bill and western themed displays.
Next we headed north enjoying the scenery along the way. Spearfish, South Dakota (on the 50 most charming list) is in the beautiful Spearfish Canyon, which they say is the Northern Hills’ number one natural attraction. The area offers a large array of outdoor activities including golf at the Spearfish Canyon Golf Club and rock climbing. The canyon is about 1000′ wide, and the small town is nestled in nicely with a very pretty, well-used downtown area. We definitely enjoyed the drive and agree with the “charming” label.
Turning east, we headed to our second Sturgis of this trip, and this time it is THAT Sturgis! (My eye doctor visit a few weeks ago was in Sturgis, Michigan.) Home of arguably the largest annual motorcycle event in the world, Sturgis, South Dakota made a lot of news this year for its failure to cancel the 80th annual event in the midst of the Covid pandemic. The rally went on as planned, with recommendations from the town to social distance and wear masks, which we all know didn’t happen for the most part. (Did anyone really think it would?). When you drive through this mostly dead-looking town, though, you understand why they made that choice. While the rally does bring in outside vendors and pop-up bars, the town itself has much more infrastructure than it’s normal population of around 6,500 can support. While I’m sure many residents hate it, the town appears to depend on the rally, with its attendance of 500,000-700,000 people and revenue of $800 million dollars. What we saw driving through is a lot of mostly empty bars and restaurants and many buildings with for sale signs. In the off season, the Sturgis Motorcycle Museum & Hall of Fame is a draw, as well as the 25,000 sf Iron Horse Saloon and the curvy roads in the surrounding Black Hills. Though there is a small biker presence most of the year, it still feels like a town missing a party.
With our early start this morning and looking at an hour drive back, it was time to hit I-90 and point Brutus towards the campground. BUT WAIT! Just a mile or so down the road, we saw a sign for the South Dakota Air & Space Museum. Okay guys, you KNOW we had to make that stop! Just outside of Ellsworth Air Force Base, this museum has a good bit to see. Although Covid had the inside displays closed (again, apparently you can’t catch it in a gift shop), with 28 planes on display outside, there was still plenty to look at. Interesting side note about the base: Ellsworth is home of the 28th Bomb Wing and their awesome B-1 Lancers. These guys can take off out of Ellsworth, fly anywhere in the world, do their thing, and fly back to South Dakota. Earlier this year they participated in an exercise over the South China Sea doing just that – at 33 hours round-trip! I’ve gotta hand it to those guys. I was ready to get the hell off of the plane when I just flew from Newark to London! Although they have multiple crews to switch out the flying duty, that’s still a LOT of plane time! They also have a Minuteman Missile on site. Last time we were in North Dakota, we came upon one of the old sites and were able to get a tour. (Check it out here.) I recommend that, too, because it’s just darned cool!
After looking around at all of that cool aviation stuff, we were truly pooped and ready to get back to Petunia. We, once again, pointed Brutus in the right direction and hit the highway. As we entered the park and headed towards the campground we got another neat surprise. A herd of bighorn sheep walked across the road and were grazing right beside us. Wow…what a day!
Next up…A Coyote, A Bluff, and Oh Yeah, Mammoths! See you on the path!!
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