The Biker Babes’ South Dakota G’Journey
On this trip, my sister Terry, my Mom (then 78) and I rode my sister’s Harley-with-sidecar from Milwaukee, WI all the way across Minnesota and South Dakota, getting as far west as Devil’s Tower, WY. It was a great journey; South Dakota has a lot to see!
Friday, 16 August 2002: Milwaukee, WI to Sioux Falls, SD
This was a day to make miles – lots and lots of miles. We left home at about 03:15, and reached our hotel in Sioux Falls at about 14:30. We didn’t push; the day included a leisurely breakfast at a Denny’s en route, and an even more leisurely lunch at a Country Kitchen (Mom and Terry both recommend the pot roast sandwich!), but even so, we arrived in good time. Most of the day was pleasant, but in the early afternoon, we rode into clouds, and an hour outside of Sioux Falls, we started getting intermittent rain, but not enough to prompt bringing out the rain gear. Our timing was perfect, though: as we brought our stuff into the hotel, the thunderstorm let loose. We had talked on the way about possibly seeing the falls that gave the city their name today, but postponed that for tomorrow morning and hopefully better weather.
A few funnies for the day. We saw our first billboard for Wall Drug while we were still in Minnesota, and not very far into the state, either. As soon as we hit South Dakota, the billboards started multiplying. I can’t wait to see the place for real.
We called cousin Mick’s mom in Buffalo Center when we were in Austin, MN (home of the Spam Museum! – which no, we did NOT see) and realized how close we were. We knew that Mick had been visiting home, but it turned out that he had left the day before, so Terry talked to Priscilla and we had a good laugh about what she would say the next time she called Mick!
When we got to our hotel, we found that we were sharing it with a huge group of Shriners, including the Kem Shrine’s musical troupe. Their president’s limousine was parked outside, and it was a stitch – it was a huge white Caddy with front ends at both ends. They also had a group bus that was really the way to travel in style: it was tricked out like a lounge, with small tables set with quaint fringed-shade lamps among curving upholstered loveseats. The bus windows even had fringed shades to match the little table lamps. This explained why we hadn’t been able to get a room for two nights in Sioux Falls, even though we were planning to stay on in the area. The whole town was hosting a Shriner convention!
And finally, we waved a lot at the river of bikers going the opposite direction – people departing from Bike Week in Sturgis, which had ended on 11 August. One man, traveling with his wife, their son, and his son’s wife, all from Milwaukee, took our picture, just as we were pulling out of our last gas stop and the rain was beginning to spit.
Saturday, 17 August 2002: Sioux Falls to De Smet, and south to North Sioux City
We made arrangements to leave our luggage locked up at the motel while we played tourist during the day, but contrary to all expectations, the weather stayed so cool that we were glad to be wearing the leather jackets and never needed the luggage space to lock them up. So much for all the people who told us that we were going to cook in our leathers in August in South Dakota! By the end of the day, we decided that we now understood the stories in pioneer diaries about settlers being driven insane by the incessant wind – it really did never seem to stop.
We went first to the falls in Sioux Falls. Falls Park is a lovely place, and does a good job of illustrating how settlement and business changed the Big Sioux River and the Falls. The Falls are much smaller now than they once were; the lower falls were pretty much blasted out of existence to improve the flow from the electric power plant. The upper and middle falls were also shortened, and the lovely wooded island that once divided the upper falls was denuded of trees by the railroad (the Milwaukee Road, no less), which also connected the island to the western bank of the river in order to build support facilities for the railhead.
The old power plant and the not-quite-two-story-tall walls of the ruined Queen Bee Mill are now on the historic registry of places, and will be at least partially restored. I made note at the time to look up the term “screanings” when I returned home, because one of the displays about the Queen Bee, which was a monster seven-story flour mill, had a now-vanished outbuilding labeled “Screanings” without any explanation of the term. Mom’s Webster’s didn’t have the word with that spelling, but did include “screenings,” with one meaning being refuse after screening (sifting through a screen), as in cleaning wheat, rice, and barley. So perhaps the “Screanings” building was a storage site for the grain refuse until the mill could dispose of it, and that spelling was used before the current spelling became standardized. I’ll check my Oxford when I get home.
There were some marvelous ironies in the power plant and the mill and the changes they wrought to the river. The power plant was obsolete and insufficient within four years of being built, and the Queen Bee Mill was never a success because it was oversold from the start: the falls didn’t have enough water volume to drive the mill machinery (the originator conned investors by having a temporary dam built upstream, and broke the dam just as the investors arrived on-site to impress them with the copious water flow!), and the surrounding countryside couldn’t produce enough high-quality wheat to keep the mill working. Of the industries that changed the river and the falls, only the railroad endured.
Oh, and we also learned why many of the highways in South Dakota are more than just slightly pink. The lovely pink quartzite (also called jasper) bedrock that forms the Falls and much of the land around is still quarried, although not much for building any longer – instead, it is crushed and used in concrete and as gravel. Pink roads! Me, I’d rather build with the stuff, because it is really pretty. A number of early rich men’s homes were built using the cut stone, but it was pricey stuff because it was harder than granite and therefore difficult to cut. But it has a lovely color and a beautiful way of catching the light.
As we left Falls Park, the Shriners were coming in, and we realized that we were once again just in time, because the city was gearing up for a parade that would be going through, and had we delayed, we’d have been caught up in it. Folk were starting to line the streets and set up their lawn chairs to get a good view as we pulled out. We made one last stop in Sioux Falls at the local Harley dealership so that Terry could replace her broken oil cap (the top with the temperature gauge broke off from the stem) and have the broken unit sent back to Harley. That proved to be the only bike maintenance on the trip, apart from the usual gas and oil checks.
We drove up to De Smet, and took the prairie tour at the Laura Ingalls Wilder homestead. We had so much fun out there that we never even got into the town to take the major tours run by the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historical Society through the town’s homes and streets. Instead, we rode in a modern covered wagon drawn by a pair of old-style Halflinger horses, looked into a dugout soddy, toured an exact replica of the Ingalls’ cabin and hay-roofed barn, pumped water at the well, went to school in the one-room schoolhouse (which had actually been in use until 1963!), and learned about tying hay twists to use for fuel on treeless plains and using a clever but simple machine to braid cord into rope. It was well worth the $5 per person charge.
One thing we marveled at, driving through this region, was the immense quantity of water. Everywhere we looked there were small pocket lakes, which we learned were made by chunks of ice broken off and embedded in the ground when the glaciers passed. Indeed, the little town of Arlington we passed through called itself the “Gateway to the Glacial Lakes.”
We had intended to go to the Prairie Village in Madison, but we bypassed that after all the time we spent on the Ingalls’ prairie. Instead, we drove back to Sioux Falls to pick up our luggage, and then continued south to North Sioux City, SD to spend the night, since we hadn’t been able to keep our room in Sioux Falls.
Sunday, 18 August 2002: North Sioux City, SD to Mitchell, SD
We went to Mass at Sacred Heart Church in North Sioux Falls, creating the usual stir. The church was very modern and starkly plain, but the service and the people were very pleasant.
We headed out in the morning to the Adams Homestead and nature preserve, but discovered that they didn’t offer tours until 15:00. We figured we’d gotten our homestead tour at De Smet, so we hit the road. We had initially intended to stop in Elk Point and Yankton to check in on Lewis & Clark festival activities, but we decided to give them a bye and go straight through to Mitchell. We hadn’t been able to learn anything about what specific events might be going on in Elk Point and Yankton, and we knew that we had a lot on our plates for Mitchell. It was the right choice.
We made three stops in Mitchell, besides the lovely Hampton Inn where we spent the night. The first essential stop was the Twin Dragon Chinese restaurant, which looked interesting on billboards precisely when we were starving, and which turned out to be wonderful! Crab rangoon appetizers and reasonably sized lunch portions, not huge servings that would go to waste, and everything delicious; this was a winner worth mentioning.
From lunch, we went on to the Mitchell Prehistoric Indian Village and its Archeodome. That was fascinating! The site was inhabited 1,000 years ago by farmers who probably were the ancestors of the Mandan tribe, when tribes formed 500 years later. Dips in the land show where lodges were located. Two of the lodge sites are completely enclosed within the Archeodome, a big open structure erected in 1996-7 in which archaeologists can work year-round, despite the bitter South Dakota winters. Visitors can watch from a ramp circling around the inside of the walls and up to a balcony level, and the archeologists can assess the artifacts they unearth in the lab that’s also part of the structure. Visitors are invited to participate by helping to wash artifacts, and there are a lot of hands-on learning routines to let you learn about bones, stone weapons, pottery, and whatnot. Cool!
We went on to the Corn Palace, which is a kick! This is a combined arena/stage where both basketball teams and entertainment acts play. Like the combined gym/auditorium facilities in some high schools I’ve seen, one of the walls of the playing floor opens as a proscenium arch and extends back into a stage. But what makes the Corn Palace unique is that, inside and out, it is decorated in murals constructed entirely of corn grown for the purpose in eleven different colors, along with native prairie grasses and grains. All of the colors come from nature, and none from paint. Each year, the building is redecorated to fit a new theme. Inside on the playing floor when the local colleges aren’t competing and no entertainers have been booked is a large gift shop featuring every possible corny thing, and all around the lobby and outside aisle hallways is a display of photographs of the different decorations on the Corn Palace all the way back to its beginnings in 1892. Wild! And quite a reflection of the changing times ...
The Corn Palace billboard advertising, by the way, often brought a chuckle for its creative use of puns. “Ear-chitecture,” proclaimed one of our favorites.
Monday, 19 August 2002: To Rapid City via Wall and Badlands
Today we saw how abruptly the country can change. The seemingly endless alternating pattern of flat corn and soybean fields ended abruptly at Chamberlain, where we crossed the wide Missouri. On the western bank of the river, the land rolled, forming sudden deep creases and folds. A bit further on, the land went flat again, but in place of soybeans and corn were wide expanses of hay, acres of sunflowers, and then grass with cattle grazing.
The growing season is so short and resources are in such demand that we saw even the grass along the highway cut and baled, as were the crops in the fields.
Our next stop was the famous Wall Drug Store, where we caught lunch. Wall Drug began during the Depression, when the wife of the pharmacist got the bright idea of posting signs on the highway offering free ice cold water to travelers as a way to bring in business. It worked brilliantly, and is still working today. Throughout South Dakota, you see billboards advertising Wall Drug; we started seeing them in Minnesota, and often saw multiples within a single mile of highway. They used to blanket the country, until the roadside beautification programs did away with a lot of billboard advertising.
Wall Drug now occupies an entire block and then some, and still constitutes most of the town of Wall. We’d beaten the lunch crowd since we’d gained back an hour on the clock when we crossed into Mountain time after crossing the river, but even so, the place was crawling with more people than we’d seen in any one spot since we began the trip. Their dining area alone can seat over 500 people, and then there are the multiple stores into which the place is divided. After lunch, we prowled the premises and got more than a few laughs. This is a place to buy almost any tourist tchotchki imaginable, and to get photos in impossible circumstances: the Wall Back Yard, for example, has a saddled seven-foot-tall jackalope (that’s the mythical cross between a jackrabbit and an antelope, for anyone who’s never been exposed to that particular tall tale!), and a bucking bronco forever frozen in mid-leap – and behind each of them is a ladder to allow people to climb up into the saddle and have a friend snap their photo! The ladders, of course, are perfectly positioned to be invisible from the front ... Wall even has a tyrannosaurus rex behind a Jurassic Park-style wall, which animates and menaces people every 12 minutes on the dot. What a howl! This is a place which truly has to be experienced to be believed.
Oh, one more funny. There was a piece of roadside sculpture along the road to Wall that made us all laugh out loud. Out in the field on the north side of the highway was a perfect, life-sized skeleton of a T-Rex – which was wearing a collar and being led west by the equally perfect skeleton of a human!!
From Wall, we decided to take the 240 loop through Badlands National Park. The contrasts were amazing: seemingly endless, table-flat grasslands dropped off suddenly into ragged chasms horizontally banded in colors including greyish white, pink, purple, sulfur-yellow, and hints of copper-ore green and iron red. Words cannot do them justice, and unfortunately my pictures won’t, either. We were there at midday, so there wasn’t a lot of contrast and shadow to help define the rock shapes, and the brilliant sunlight washed out a fair bit of the color. But it was gorgeous, nonetheless.
We drove on to Rapid City, our home base for the next ten days, and got the best welcome possible: as we approached Ellsworth Air Force Base, just ten miles east of Rapid City, a B-1B Lancer bomber took off and did a lovely bank and turn, showing off for us. Whee!
Our new home away from home was a Holiday Inn Express that turned out to be a really good choice. It had a marvelous pool (with adult-only swim hour from 06:00 to 07:00, when we always had the pool entirely to ourselves!) and two spa pools with a waterfall between them. It also had a guest laundry, which we promptly used (ten pounds of luggage only goes so far ...), and an Outback Steakhouse quite literally out back for fresh steamed veggies. If you need a place to stay in Rapid, that’s a good one, and breakfast is part of the deal.
Tuesday, 20 August 2002: Rapid City, SD Air & Space Museum, Ellsworth AFB, Black Hills Caverns
After all our pounding time on the road, we played close to home in Rapid. We started off with my personal interest, going to the South Dakota Air and Space Museum, which is located just outside the main gates of Ellsworth AFB. We saw the museum exhibits, but started out with the tour of the base, including a Minuteman II silo. Fascinating! The open silo was a training facility, so there were stairs going down, not just a ladder. Inside the silo was a dummy missile, but everything else was real, including the maintenance cage they would attach to a track that ran all around the circumference of the silo, that would let crew lower themselves all the way down the length of the rocket; and the aiming device, which let them use the light from the North Star, shining into mirrors, to align the missile. Just thinking about all the engineering that went into conceiving that system was amazing.
The base tour was interesting, but they aren’t allowed to do the best part any more: they used to go to the flight line where the B-1B’s are parked, but now they stay clear of the entire operational area. The closest we got was across the street and beyond a fence from a couple of maintenance hangars with “Bones” (the official designation may be “Lancer,” but the long, slender shape with the phonetic “B-one” name got christened otherwise by the people who work with it, as usual ...) parked outside. I had to take my picture through the windshield of the bus, which fortunately for me was clean!
Back at the museum, we had a treat. See, the AFB was having a graduation ceremony, so a couple of B-1’s were launched and did lovely fly-overs of the base, and since the museum is just outside the main gate, we had a good view. Pictures!! (Doubtless more than Mom or Terry would ever need, but hey – I’m the one with the camera!)
The museum is small, with a good collection nonetheless – including B-29 Legal Eagle, a B-52, and the B-25 that had been converted from a bomber to a high-speed transport for Eisenhower. The unfortunate thing about the museum is that virtually all the aircraft are on display outdoors, and South Dakota weather is brutal, especially the winters. Pigeons are living in the B-52 engines. Sigh. But they take what care of them they can. They were painting the props on a B-26 while we were there, part of the never-ending round of fighting against decay.
In the afternoon, we went to Black Hills Caverns to take their cave tour. The whole Black Hills area is full of caves, many of which are open to tour – Crystal Caves, Sitting Bull Caves, Wind Cave, and Jewel Cave, just to name a very few – but this one was the closest to us. In retrospect, it may not have been the best choice: Terry announced at the end of the tour that caves were more fun and prettier when she was a kid, and that she didn’t need to see any more caves. This one admittedly wasn’t spectacular – mostly calcite, with small, pebbly crystals and a couple of bacon-like wave formations, but no really striking features – and one of the other caves might have done a better job of persuading Terry that caves could still be beautiful and fun. But at least we got our exercise with all the up and down and ducking, and our tour guide was a bona fide spelunking nut. To borrow his favorite expression, he was really whack!
Read Part Two