Despite the skepticism of our friends and family, we decided several months ago to make one more long trip by car while we still enjoy driving and revisit some parts of the U.S. reachable only by highway. Also, we’ve been promising ourselves — and our family in the Pacific Northwest — that we would spend an extended period of time in Seattle some summer. So we started by renting a condo in downtown Seattle for the month of September, in a high-rise building across the street from the world-famous Pike Place Market. Then we began to plan our way west, the northern route toward Seattle and the southern route home. We lined up our cats’ favorite sitters for the seven weeks we would be gone, spent a lot of time at AAA picking up maps and books and ordering Trip-Tiks for the entire trip, and booked hotels where we thought we might have difficulty finding a vacancy when we wanted it.
Naturally, the weather in the Midwest and Great Plains, which had been sunny and pleasant, with occasional showers, the week before we left home, turned brutally hot as soon as we loaded the car. We stopped in St. Louis to see the four grandchildren who live there, which meant attending their soccer and baseball games in 90-plus degree weather, huddling under an umbrella for shade. (We were pleased to see that we weren’t making ourselves conspicuous — most of the other grandparents in attendance did the same.)
Once we left St. Louis, we were in territory we hadn’t explored for years, basically following the Missouri River upstream to Kansas City, Sioux City, Sioux Falls, and Rapid City. I have a trivia question for you: Which college’s mascot is the coyote? Here’s a hint: Its campus is in a little town named Vermillion, on the river of the same name, so called because of its red clay banks. I’ll give you the answer at the end of this post.
There are two must-see places along Interstate 90 through South Dakota, both of which we visited en route to our next stop. Mitchell is the home of the Corn Palace, a huge building housing a theater-cum-basketball court, famous for its spectacular exterior adornment. This year, massive murals created solely from corn, rye, oat heads, and sour dock depict scenes from history and practitioners of almost every sport, as well as abstract designs.
About 275,000 ears of corn of every color are sawed in half lengthwise and nailed to the walls of the building, as hundreds of tourists and locals watch the pictures taking shape. The building is redecorated every year, as it has been since 1892, and it’s a treat to see what the current year’s local artists have come up with. A few more pictures here
We spent an hour or so at Wall Drug, located in Wall, South Dakota, the eastern entry point for Badlands National Park. We wandered through acres of rooms of goods for sale (including, surprisingly enough, an actual drugstore) in what has to be the largest store of its kind anywhere. Lots of western gear was on offer, including hats, boots, jeans by the thousands, and a wall of coiled lassos for the serious cowboy. Tourists in shorts and T-shirts eating super-sized ice cream cones gawked at all the products on display and bought mostly postcards, key chains, and cheap souvenirs.
I wanted Gerry to buy a new hat, but even after trying on several, the most adventurousness he could muster resulted in the purchase of a braided leather belt.
Here are more pictures of Wall Drugs.
Our next stop was the Badlands National Park, a place so stunning in its austere beauty that it’s difficult to describe it. We were driving along the interstate, admiring the rich farmland planted in acres of corn whose tops were so level they looked like a young boy with a new flattop haircut, when suddenly a line of jagged rock appeared to the southwest, running along the horizon. A curving loop drive runs through the park, so that you enter from Wall on the east and exit at Moorcroft on the west.
Tall peaks pierce the sky, and deep gullies fall away on every side.
Frank Lloyd Wright saw the Badlands for the first time in 1935 and wrote, “I was totally unprepared for that revelation called the Dakota Badlands. . .. What I saw gave me an indescribable sense of mysterious elsewhere — a distant architecture, ethereal, an endless supernatural world more spiritual than earth but created out of it.” I couldn’t say it half as well.
Spectacular scenery… click on Badlands!
P.S. As promised, here’s the answer to the trivia question about Vermillion: the coyote is the mascot of the University of South Dakota, and a beautiful statue of that wild dog stands in a prominent position at the entrance to the school’s campus.
The students had just returned to college the weekend before we arrived — luckily on Monday evening — and there was a very real sense of excitement and anticipation in the town. We’ll be watching for the “Yotes” from now on.
Next installment: Deadwood, Mt. Rushmore, Devil’s Tower.