Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Week 3, Part 1: South Dakota

At the very last minute, when we were about to leave Montana, some people convinced us to take South Dakota through to Minnesota rather than to stick with our original plan of driving through North Dakota. North Dakota promised sunflowers and the Enchanted Highway, but some Bozeman residents told us that South Dakota would be a more interesting, if longer passageway to our next planned destination, Minneapolis. 

Taking this suggestion turned into an amazing experience. We stopped the first night in Rapid City, South Dakota, with about 60,000 residents, with a sweet downtown area lined with brick buildings. We stayed at the Lazy-U Motel, on the road to Mount Rushmore. Though Mount Rushmore wasn't in our original travel plans, we didn't feel that we could be that close to it and pass it by. As we drove down the highway toward it the next day, we were worried the sky was going to be too gray to see the Monument. We stopped for coffee at a strip of souvenir shops that looked similar to Fishermen's Wharf in San Francisco. Then we drove up to Mount Rushmore, getting our first glimpse of the Monument from the highway. That first glimpse surprised us, as there was so much more mountain to the Mount than the four President's heads. The heads took up about a third of the mountain, and the faces, even from that distance, revealed such detail and power. Their faces, dwarfed by the rest of the mountain and detailed with the wisdom and humanity of these men, made them look so humble. Neither Larry or I had ever had any desire to go see Mount Rushmore, so the fact it impressed us so much, impressed us even more. We'd been seeing signs about Gutzom Borglum, the sculptor who was behind the Monument, since way back in Montana. We're really glad we made the stop and parked and walked up for a closer look at the Monument. 

Now willing to be more open to tourist options, are next stop was Wall Drug which is basically a mall of kitsch, with a really interesting history (, complete with a Traveller's Chapel, an old Apothecary that still looks like it fills prescriptions, and a ton of gift shops. Though it was pretty crowded, it was eerily quiet, and the whole thing rather gave me the heebie jeebies, perhaps because of all the souvenir shops. Shopping in general kind of depresses me. 

We cut down from there to drive the loop through Badlands National Park, which looks like the surface of another planet. It was stark and amazing. It reminded me a bit of parts of Big Bend National Park in Texas, but there really isn't anything like either one of the parks. The Badlands were windy and harsh and striking all at once. 

Then we drove through the beautiful countryside of South Dakota along highway 90, blue skies, with white clouds peppering the sky. And there were plenty of sunflowers, much to my surprise, along with corn, and beautiful sorghum with russet red tops. 

After a long day of sightseeing, we didn't get as far as we planned. We'd hoped to stop in Sioux Falls for the night but stopped about an hour shy of that, in Mitchell. Several people had encouraged me to go to the Corn Palace in Mitchell, but I wasn't convinced. Then I read about it, finding that it wasn't a palace made of corn, as I originally, thought, but a basketball gymnasium with a museum dedicated to the history of agriculture in South Dakota. Still, since we slept in Mitchell for the night--and because I am Sweetie Pie, I had to take a look at the corn palace. And the thing was, I was actually very moved by it. 

A very nice older woman named Devona gave us a five minute tour of the Corn Palace, which has a grand exterior decorated with rotating murals created with colored corn cobs. The farmer that grows the corn for the murals has developed thirteen hues for the murals, so they grow more and more colorful every year. They were in the process of filling in a mural outline while we were there. The whole purpose of the original corn palace was to prove Lewis and Clark wrong. Lewis and Clark had said nothing could grow in that godforsaken part of the country, and the people of South Dakota decided they would erect a building--the Corn Palace--and hang corn and other agricultural products on the outside in defiance to the explorers. The current Corn Palace was built of brick and wood, after the second one, built near the turn of the century and made solely of wood, burned down. The interior houses a gymnasium where both high school and college basketball games are held. They also hold sock hops and graduations in the Corn Palace. It's sort of like a community center and is attached to Mitchell's City Hall. I loved the pride of the agricultural history of South Dakota that the Corn Palace represented, and how down to earth it felt, even if the outside was somewhat gaudy in its grandeur. 

South Dakota turned out to be a combination of tourist traps that rubbed me the wrong way, beautiful and varied landscapes, and a rich agricultural region. This is a state I never gave a second thought to in all my life, and now I consider it an American treasure. The people were so incredibly nice and welcoming, and I hope I have a reason and a chance to visit again, even if I didn't necessarily feel it a place I'd feel at home. 

This journey continues to surprise me--and the whole trip across South Dakota was a detour some complete strangers convinced us to take instead of North Dakota. We'd somewhat dreaded both of the Dakotas as being a kind of necessary passageway to Minnesota and South Dakota ended up being full of treasures and wonderment. 

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