Atlantic to Pacific, a 10-month sojourn, part 3

 ... the Badlands, Black Hills, and Rapid City, where the West begins

by Don Norris

A flock of turkeys in the Black Hills.

Welcome to Chapter three and the voyage across the mid-section of our continent. So far in our year-long journey we have been on the road for eight days, and we are 1325 miles into our 9000 mile tour of the United States. We're in no rush, but we look forward to seeing the American West.

Our voyage is by motorhome -- although we put another 14,000 miles on the Honda Civic, which was strapped to a car-caddy behind us. That seems to be a lot of driving, but we sort-of-swept-up knowlege as we went along, delaying our sojourn for as little as two days or as much as two months in places that piqued our interest. And that was the fun of it.

Time we had, for we were now retired.

We had reached Dodgeville, Wisconsin -- the home of Lands End -- by the end of our second chapter.

There are dells in Wisconsin, although I'm not quite sure what a dell is, except it seems to be a lovely little valley, surrounded by pretty hills and more little picturesque vales. There are endless clean and neat dairy farms in Wisconsin and they are all beautiful, we found.

Our route (or lack thereof) often got us lost. So what, there's the sun. Head west. The little lanes through this picturesque state were continually up and down, and we were surrounded by green beauty.

People waved. Cows watched us go by. The stream we followed was crystal clear, bubbling, with diamonds in the brilliant fall sunshine. It took us a whole morning to drive through these Wisconsin dells. What a fascinating collection of places. It is like what New Hampshire and Vermont must have looked like a hundred years ago, before the so many farms were abandoned and the land went back to forest.

We had skirted Madison and vowed to come back. We went to New Glarus, a little Swiss village of chalets and unique dairy farms. My brother's wife grew up here, and I can remember coming here once before, for their wedding. All this way on a train. Halfway across America.

The westward flow of the Wisconsin River led us to Prairie Du Chien, a place where a cousin, in 1864, was off-loaded from a Mississippi River boat as a prisoner of war. He was wounded in the battle for Island Number Ten, downstream, and died a prisoner on December 16, at Madison, just four scant months before the war ended. Later, on another trip to Wisconsin, we found his grave, along with those of 157 other Confederate soldiers.

We poked along the great Mississippi for 50 miles before crossing at La Crosse. It was something we wanted to see -- the places where paddle-wheeled steamboats came on one of the major routes to the west. Mark Twain came by here only a hundred years ago. These river towns are where the action used to be. Not so much anymore. The people are more concerned with periodic floods that carry much of their town away, and besides, river traffic was replaced by railroads, which in turn fell to truck traffic.

When we crossed the Mighty Mississip, it was uphill -- steep uphill -- for what seemed like 30 miles as we climbed out of the river valley, back to the high plains. Traffic whizzed by us as we struggled to maintain 40 or 45 miles an hour with our ten-wheels.

It was another milestone: We had reached Minnesota.

This was the all-too-familiar I-90, again, the same I-90 we picked up in Waltham, Massachusetts, only nine days ago. At this rate we are averaging about 140 miles a day.

As the sun set before us, we pulled off at the Jolly Green Giant in Blue Earth, Minnesota -- truly, what I remember as a hundred-foot plastic statue, obviously the home of one of America's largest frozen food packers. The town there had a park next to its rodeo/football stadium, with free use for travelers. Water, electricity, hospitality, for free. It was really nice of them. The next morning we went downtown where we had a huge breakfast and met lots of Minnesotans. Good people.

They were envious of our trip, our plans, our freedom. But they had things to do and soon went back to work. And we hit the road again, out onto I-90.

Minneapolis was to the north of us, Des Moines to the south, and Sioux Falls straight ahead -- and the Great Plains.

It was to be a 400-mile day over the interstate. Set the speed control, and watch the scenery go by. Due west. Endless wheat fields, gradually replaced by a gnarly desert. Colors became muted, earthy, like yellow ochre and burnt sienna.

From our high perch we could see maybe 15 miles, and everything was flat. Traffic dwindled to nothing, up here in the Dakotas, in late September. It was still warm and beautiful, and looking more like the American West with every mile.

Gradually farms became spreads -- I don't know if they were ranches, but the plains were immense, seemingly unending.

We had to make the obligatory stop at Mitchell, South Dakota, for Wall Drug. We'd seen their advertising for 400 miles. If you haven't been there, it is a huge, rambling tourist store, lots of geegaws, lots of cowboy and Indian trinkets. It also seems to me that that place is also home of the Corn Palace -- a community center whose facade is totally decorated with colored corncobs.

I remember we took a break near Chamberlain, where the Missouri and I-90 cross. It is a lonely spot. One has to imagine Lewis and Clark and their troop of pioneers at this spot 180 years ago. No McDee's then. No motor, it was all muscle-power, all upstream. I pondered how they survived. Their rifles were muzzle-loaders, set off with flint stone.

We read of a campground fifty miles down the road in a little one-horse town called Murdo. It was, really, one horse. Our tour of the town was over in ten minutes, we'd seen it all, including the one horse. But what was important was that there was this oasis, with security, a shower, and supplies. It therefore performed a valuable service to a lot of people, but I sure wouldn't want to live out there. In September, there were maybe 15 rigs there, in the campground.

There was no action in this town. No pedestrians, no traffic, just some boarded up storefronts. Just us, walking forlornly down the middle of the dusty main drag, into the sunset. This was the West.

Day 10. We taste America's West.

Have you ever seen the Badlands in South Dakota? It was maybe 50 miles short of Rapid City, and still early when we got there. The temperature was already over a hundred. If you have a rig, park it and take the car. The twisting roads and tight turns are not made for big rigs.

But it is a special place to see. Everything that touches the ground is a soft gray. The sagebrush is gray-brown, the cactus is gray-green, the limestone hills are colors so muted that you lose some sense of distance. Except the sky. The sky is the true definition of blue, strong, vivid blue -- and the sun is a burning, fiery yellow. Step out of the car and you melt. In September. But the Badlands are not to be missed. Who knows, you may find a dinosaur. We looked, and found bones -- in the visitors' center.

To us, Rapid City is the beginning of the West. From the plains, the land rises in steps, to rocky forested hills, then small mountains. The town itself sits in a wide valley, and there is a high bluff just to the west, where we found a really great campground right on the very edge of the world. From where the rig was anchored, we could see the whole town in miniature, far below us. We had the very front site, right on the edge of the cliff. Next stop was about a thousand feet, straight down.

Of course Rapid City is the east entrance to the Black Hills, to such places as Lead, Custer and Deadwood, all of which were from our western cowboy history. It was such a fascinating place that we stayed in our lofty perch six days, and put lots of miles on the Honda.

I'm a woodsman, a scout, a hunter. In all my years in the woods, I have never seen a wild turkey. And suddenly, in the Black Hills, there was a flock of turkeys, probably 30 birds some 50 yards away. We stopped, watched, took photos -- and finally, they just disappeared into the scrub.

The dude ranch and the Sioux Indian ...

And buffaloes, on the road! Right there in front of you, a whole herd. They are so big! We saw eagles, and hawks and wondrous small birds. We saw coyotes, but no wolves. Deer, deer and more deer. Game seemed to be everywhere. We came across a road-kill porcupine, the biggest porcupine I'd ever seen. I did harvest some quills, to be used with leatherwork.

We came across a small dude ranch in the mountains, in the process of closing down for the season. It was their last day, but I appealed to the wrangler to let me take a horse out. He finally agreed (for a price), then instructed one of his hands to take me out. The hand was a Sioux Indian who towered over my 6-2 frame. When he mounted his horse, the stirrups were dangerously near the ground, I thought.

I really didn't want to go for a walk through the forest, but that is apparently what I had bought. The horses knew the trails, and in places they had walking-troughs two feet deep, and the Indian's heels scraped along the ground. At one point I put my horse into a reluctant trot, but my host came up beside me and grabbed the reins.

"Can't let you run the horses," he said. "Insurance." That was all of his explanation. Those were about the only words he spoke to me during that hour-long walk through the forest. He did point out an old mine-head, some rusting smelting iron. He wasn't unfriendly, just not talkative. He was probably 6-6, had long shiny black flowing hair, was deeply tanned, and lean. Nice guy, I guess.

When we got back to the ranch, Lorry was asleep in the Honda, next to the corral. It was a nice day. It was a beautiful place. And I went riding with a Sioux Indian. Count that as a really Big Plus!

To be continued. Next up is Yellowstone, and great forest fires, and crossing the Rockies with a 50-foot rig.

April 5, 2002

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