South Dakota and back again

July 3, 2014 at 1:25 am (Uncategorized)

Mt. Rushmore is just as majestic the second time around.

My sister Abby, Alyssa and I just retuned from taking Dad – ostensibly for his 65th birthday, though he turned 68 in February – to the Presidentially sculpted granite mount outside Rapid City, S. D. I’d been there in summer 2000 during Dave and my cross-country drive from Cambridge, Mass., to San Diego. We’d done a very flat drive from Albert Lea, Minn., to Rapid City, with a quick stop in Wall and in the Badlands.

Those many years ago, we’d visited Mt. Rushmore, spending only a little while there; I don’t remember how long, but it wasn’t a terribly long spell; we wanted to head out, on to our next stop, Cody, Wyo. That day, I remember having clear blue skies.

Fast forward to late-spring 2014: A couple weeks ago, we’d had equally clear blue skies and Dad, Abby, Alyssa and I spent probably three hours – snap! and it was over – at this sculpted National Park. We watched the informational video narrated by native son Tom Brokaw about the idea man, Robinson, the sculptor, Borgland, and stat after stat about the sculpture’s planning, preparation and creation. For example: 90 percent of the four presidents’ faces were carved via dynamite blasts. And not one death occurred during the years it took to complete Washington, Jefferson, T. Roosevelt and Lincoln’s busts; no, but many miners eventually died of lung diseases related to all the granite dust they’d inhaled while finishing up someone else’s vision.

Dad refuses to use the phrase “bucket list,” but for those of us who do, Mt. Rushmore has been on his – what we’re calling non-bucket – list for who knows how long. When he turned 65, Abs and I told him and Mom we’d take them – each on their own – to a spot of their choice as our gift to them. We took Mom later that year to Santa Fe, N.M., the perfect spot for our art-and-awesome-food-and-hotels-loving mother.

This year it was Dad’s turn.

South Dakota is a bit of a random destination from Portland, Ore.; the flights round trip to and from Rapid City were very costly. So Abs and I purchased round-trip tickets instead to and from Sioux Falls, S.D. I truly hope I offend no one when I say that Sioux Falls is a dump of a town, despite it being the largest and most prosperous in the state (per the “Forbes” information we looked up on our iPhone about a variety of cities in South Dakota). Lots of concrete-block construction; dilapidated homes; road construction everywhere; soulless malls and strip malls; and a number of casinos. Thanks to the prairie’s flatness, we could see all this from behind the wheel of our rental car, a fancy Prius. So, at least our hybrid drive didn’t suck.

Driving green on the green prairie

Driving green on the green prairie

Our first night, spent in Sioux Falls, passed fitfully in a motel whose first-floor carpets were damp and whose windows allowed for the town’s 95 percent humidity to permeate the establishment. The humidity was a harbinger for the weather pattern that was nearly upon the town but that we missed by a mere day: Tornadoes touched down and laid to ruin the town of Wessington, only 20 miles from Sioux Falls; we learned of this only upon our return three days later for our return flight to PDX.

While researching our South Dakota jaunt, I was reminded that De Smet is/was one of the Laura Ingalls Wilder family’s homesteads. It was an hour and a half from Sioux Falls on our way west to Rapid City. We stopped in the middle of nowhere to observe the very windswept prairie and the place from which Laura wrote some of the books in her famous series. The items on the Homestead site all were historically accurate reproductions of what had existed in the mid-1800s on the 160-acre expanse of flat land unprotected even by any rolling hills from the brutal winds, rains, snows and beating sun that are characteristic of this region.

Cloud formations like these apparently are harbingers of tornadoes. We definitely weren't in proverbial Kansas anymore.

Cloud formations like these apparently are harbingers of tornadoes. We definitely weren’t in proverbial Kansas anymore.

On the day of our visit, we had the sweeping winds and harsh sun to experience, and that experience lasted hours, thanks to Alyssa’s extreme enthusiasm for the Homestead and all it had to offer and teach. We stepped into an authentic sod dugout house; rode in a covered wagon to the spot where Pa and other men lassoed cattle; and wandered through a barn with real live horses, cows, and kittens, free to roam and be held and petted (we used Purell upon our departure). Probably the biggest thrill for Alyssa and me (while Abby and Dad demonstrated unreal patience by waiting for us at the visitors’ center…during our three-hour tour) was the time spent in the reproduced one-room schoolhouse (equipped with a bell the kids could ring to signal recess) where the kids were encouraged to don prairie garb. Alyssa was the oldest child in our group of randoms (most of whom had Midwestern accents with long “O”s); I figured Alyssa was well past playing dressup. Nope. She ran to the wall hooks and slipped on a dress and bonnet, looking like a cross between Laura’s eldest sister, Mary, from the TV series, “A Little House on the Prairie,” and the Wilder’s kids’ mother, Caroline.

Abby and Dad patiently awaiting Alyssa's three-hour (Homestead) tour's end; Alyssa on the Prairie; A cross between "Little House"'s Mary and Caroline

Abby and Dad patiently awaiting Alyssa’s three-hour (Homestead) tour’s end;
Alyssa on the Prairie;
A cross between “Little House”‘s Mary and Caroline

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Next stop: Mitchell, S.D., home to the World’s Only (thank God) Corn Palace. I’d always wanted to be that random family, stopping at the World’s Largest Ball of Twine. Well, this was its equivalent, except it had a tchotchkie-filled gym whose walls contained murals of all sorts of scenes of farm life, each and every one created entirely from corn cobs. Oooh, Ahhh. It really wasn’t as a-maize-ing as the Palace’s pamphlet noted.

On we mushed: Rapid City. In driving, west, we’d climbed slightly in elevation and thus had less humidity to choke on, so that was a welcome change by the time we rolled our smashed-bug-infested Prius into town. We woke up the next morning and headed for impressive things carved out of granite, stopping for the abovementioned lengthy interlude at Mt. Rushmore, and then at the Crazy Horse memorial. Dad actually got emotional at the former, having wanted to visit it for so many years and finally doing so with his children and one of his four grandchildren. Abby and I remain so thrilled we could bring such joy to Dad, and in such a locale, too. Our weather was picture-perfect, making the gray granite faces of four presidents stand out in starker relief against the bright-blue sky than if the sky, too, had been granite-gray…or one pouring forth rain.

So THIS Is where the state's motto -- Great Faces, Great Places -- must come from!

So THIS Is where the state’s motto — Great Faces, Great Places — must come from!

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A sign near this one indicates tourists should not pet the prairie dogs. Wanna know why not? They carry the plague. No joke.

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Zayde caught in a selfie. Thought I’d never see the day.

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I thought it best I wear my “I Kinda Love NY” T-shirt in South Dakota; it was very appreciated there.

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Alyssa and I agreed no one had EVER had their picture taken at Mt. Rushmore pulling this exact prank.

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We actually ate very well and very tasty food while in South Dakota, from Mitchell to Sioux Falls to this lovely spot in Rapid City (Tally’s Silver Spoon). Wherever you are, click to Urbanspoon.com; it nailed it for us, in every spot where we stopped.

Once home, Hayley has said a few times: “That’s the last time I say ‘no’ to the offer of a trip.” Alyssa had such a great time that Hayley seems to get what she missed. Though Hayley likely would have loved the Laura Ingalls Wilder’s gift shop more than the Homestead tour. I hope that one day she gets to find out.

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