A Syncopated Journey — Offbeat in South Dakota


I’m simul­ta­ne­ous­ly try­ing to keep a blan­ket wrapped around me and keep an insipid can of Bud Light wedged between my chat­ter­ing knees, as heavy gusts of wind whip across the South Dako­ta Bad­lands. Despite this being an oth­er­wise scorcher of a sum­mer, the weath­er at night in the nation­al park is pos­i­tive­ly arc­tic. The cut­ting chill is a small price to pay for the night­time spectacle—the over­head dome of black sky is lit up like the best Christ­mas ever. My God, where did all those stars come from? Back home, the air is choked with acrid refin­ery smoke and the stars are blot­ted out by the spillage of city glow. When you have a chance to real­ly see the stars in the most pris­tine air in Amer­i­ca, you don’t ask why the ancients were always look­ing up. You total­ly get it. I get it, even though by anyone’s mea­sure, I’m not the out­doors type.

South Dako­ta is our first stop on what will be a two-week long fam­i­ly road trip. Truth be told, I was dread­ing this trip. Thou­sands of miles crammed in a car to see trees and grass and end­less stretch­es of noth­ing, except for the occa­sion­al smeared road-kill—I didn’t think it would be my thing. I’m not into climb­ing or kayak­ing or tree-hug­ging or what­ev­er else draws peo­ple out of hard-won mod­ern com­fort to fight the so-called great out­doors. I count­ed it as an achieve­ment that I made it to my mid-thir­ties with­out set­ting foot in a nation­al park.

When my wife and I first got mar­ried, our trav­el coa­lesced with the tour­ing sched­ule of our favorite rock band, Throw­ing Mus­es, and the solo per­for­mances of front woman Kristin Hersh. Our fan­dom car­ried us to cities like San Fran­cis­co, Boston, Chica­go, and New York. I love cities—the cul­ture, the enter­tain­ment, and espe­cial­ly the restau­rants. Fif­teen years after the fact, I’m still wax­ing poet­i­cal­ly about a rev­e­la­to­ry meal at Nobu, New York, like it was the birth of my child. When my daugh­ter came along, we trad­ed big city rock clubs for sun­ny, sac­cha­rine jaunts to Walt Dis­ney World in Flori­da. This was our trav­el for ten years, until we blinked to find that our pix­ie-dust­ed princess was a with­drawn teenag­er with a faux-hawk.

I think that is part of what lured me out to the road. Some­how an old-fash­ioned great Amer­i­can fam­i­ly road trip seemed like a last ditch effort to cap­ture a moment before it slipped away for­ev­er. It seemed a rea­son­able effort to recon­nect as a fam­i­ly, forced into a Nis­san Alti­ma with no place to retreat. So in the sum­mer of 2012, we decid­ed to tack­le this majes­tic nation, start­ing from Alton, Illi­nois, going west and back, hit­ting as many scenic must-dos as we pos­si­bly could. We con­sid­ered it a tast­ing sam­ple of the best Amer­i­ca has to offer. We had no plan­ning except for our mid­point of south­ern Cal­i­for­nia and a list of nation­al parks that were posi­tioned between here and there and back again.

We head­ed out on a Sat­ur­day morn­ing, after a Tetris grand mas­ter effort of pack­ing our car for our two-week excur­sion. My mind was stuck on my day job. Would they be able to get along with­out me? It was tough to get away from my long-term place of employ­ment, because unlike most first world coun­tries, Amer­i­ca has a deep-seat­ed grudge toward vaca­tion time. It made me feel strange­ly ashamed to opt out of pro­duc­tiv­i­ty like a shift­less vagabond. It was only for two weeks, but it felt like a guilty lux­u­ry, despite oth­er places in the world where three weeks or more was standard—a fact that I was remind­ed of by the glut of Euro­peans at most of our stops. I did my best to push the guilt out of mind as I shift­ed the car into dri­ve and left home.

* * * * *

On the first day, we trav­el north­west through Mis­souri, then skirt the Nebraska/Iowa bor­der up to South Dako­ta. It is a long marathon of a dri­ve, made pos­si­ble by our fresh­ness and lack of road weari­ness. We end up crash­ing for the night in Arling­ton, South Dako­ta. It’s one of those between here and bare­ly there blips on the map kind of towns. The whole of it seems to be a hotel, a restau­rant, and a gas sta­tion sit­ting in wide open fields of green noth­ing.

The desk clerk is friend­ly as we walk into the Arling­ton Inn, a small hotel with dec­o­ra­tive call-backs to its for­mer exis­tence as a Super 8, cir­ca 1989.

Are you with the class reunion?” she asks with a wide smile.

Is there a dis­count? I won­der, though it would be a hard fraud to pull off in what is most prob­a­bly a grad­u­at­ing class of the six peo­ple sit­ting in the lob­by rem­i­nisc­ing over tar black cof­fee.

No, we are just pass­ing through to De Smet,” I reply.

Oh Dee Smet,” she polite­ly cor­rects my for­eign tongue. “Lau­ra Ingalls-Wilder fans, hmm?”

She has the clair­voy­ance to guess the pur­pose of our vis­it, though in a place like this, it isn’t exact­ly hard. Why else would peo­ple stop by, oth­er than to vis­it the places where Lau­ra lived and about which she wrote in her Lit­tle House books? I have no embar­rass­ment in acknowl­edg­ing that her books are among my absolute favorites. I’m also unashamed to admit that I rip off The Long Win­ter, in my nov­el Par­adise Earth, with glee­ful aban­don.

Even with­out a dis­count, the Arling­ton Inn is inex­pen­sive. Dur­ing our trip, we will repeat­ed­ly chal­lenge our­selves to stay as cheap­ly as pos­si­ble while still retain­ing the lux­u­ry of a room that doesn’t look like a CSI set paint­ed with body flu­id. After unpack­ing, I walk next door to the 1481 Grille to wind down with a much need­ed beer. I’m joined by my wife, but my daugh­ter hangs back at the hotel. It’s prob­a­bly for the best, I think, as I glance over the mile long menu. My daugh­ter entered this world as a picky eater and spi­raled into a mad vegan—the kind that doesn’t eat sal­ad.

I order a Boule­vard, a crisp wheat ale gar­nished with an ample lemon wedge. Drink­ing the cold beer, I sur­vey the seem­ing reg­u­lars at the bar. Sit­ting next to me is a slen­der old woman who looks a bit like the Cryp­t­keep­er from Tales from the Crypt. She’s enjoy­ing a Hamm’s lager in a tall pil­sner glass with a gar­nish of olives, a touch of tres sophis­tique. To her right is a dusty fel­low in a cam­ou­flage hat and a sleeve­less jean jack­et with motor oil and Harley-Davi­son patch­es on the back. He is drain­ing bot­tles of Bush Light as quick­ly as the bar­tender can twist off the caps. Some­where between bot­tle four and six, he dials a bud­dy to nego­ti­ate the pur­chase of a horse sad­dle.

I won’t pay less than a hun­dred and four­teen dol­lars,” he demands into his antique flip-phone, sharply point­ing his fin­ger toward the non­pre­sent indi­vid­ual on the oth­er end of the line. I’m impressed; even ine­bri­at­ed, he is a mas­ter of nego­ti­a­tion. Sat­is­fied at clos­ing the deal, he snaps shut his phone and orders anoth­er Bush Light. He has less suc­cess con­vinc­ing the Cryp­t­keep­er to stick around and suck down beers with him. “Stay and have anoth­er,” he pleads.

I can’t have anoth­er DUI,” she protests as she chomps down her beer-bat­tered olives and slith­ers off of her bar stool.

I got one of those before. It was a set­up,” he says and then takes a long drink from the amber bot­tle.

I shouldn’t have to wor­ry about a DUI with the con­ve­nience of a hotel just next door, but who knows what kind of small-town Bar­ney Fife jus­tice pass­es in places like this. Besides, we have anoth­er long day ahead of us. I decide to cut it off after my sec­ond beer. As we get up to leave, the man wants to know if I want to buy a horse sad­dle.

It’s a steal at two-hun­dred forty,” he says with a sly grin, tip­ping bot­tle eight toward me.

* * * * *

The next morn­ing, we head out to near­by De Smet. In the town, you can take a walk­ing tour of a vari­ety of loca­tions sig­nif­i­cant in the life and books of Lau­ra Ingalls-Wilder. Our first stop is the orig­i­nal Ingalls fam­i­ly home­stead, just out­side of town. It is here that the real Lau­ra walked, not the freck­le-faced, buck­toothed tele­vi­sion ver­sion. Noth­ing remains of the orig­i­nal 1880 home­stead but the twist­ed, aging cot­ton­wood trees that Pa Ingalls plant­ed to prove up his 157.25 acre claim. Even today you can glimpse what he saw in this spot. It is quite pic­turesque, as the low wind rus­tles the prairie grass and the plant­ed grain. Here, along the walk­ing trails, are new­ly built peri­od build­ings: a school house, a dugout shel­ter, and a recon­struc­tion of the Ingalls’ orig­i­nal claim shan­ty.

There is a pro­fes­sion­al “Ma” on staff, who tends a veg­etable gar­den and the small menagerie of barn­yard ani­mals in the hay-roof barn. She gives us a tour and is a wealth of olde-tymey knowl­edge, like how to make lye soap and braid­ed rugs. “If you lived in Laura’s day, you might already be mar­ried and preg­nant,” she says to my unim­pressed daugh­ter. I muse at the lack of pri­va­cy in the tiny, thin-walled shan­ty and won­der how any­one got preg­nant at all.

At a near­by work­shop, we learn to make rope, corn­cob dolls, and twist­ed hay sticks, the kind that the Ingalls fam­i­ly burned to stay alive dur­ing the long win­ter of harsh bliz­zards when coal was deplet­ed. The activ­i­ties are over­seen by a plump-faced teenag­er work­ing her first sum­mer job after grad­u­a­tion from high school. It’s her first week on the home­stead, and already she likes it more than her pre­vi­ous job at Sub­way. I tell her I’m from the St. Louis area, and she gush­es like it is an exot­ic, excit­ing place.

I want to leave and become a film direc­tor,” she says with a care­less opti­mism that only the young can man­i­fest. When I ask her who her favorite direc­tor is, I’m ready to fill in the blanks from a short list. “Tim Bur­ton,” she answers. It is embar­rass­ing­ly pre­dictable. When she laments that her fam­i­ly is not encour­ag­ing her to pur­sue her dreams, I offer that I think she would be a fool not to. It’s a reck­less thing for me to advise, because I don’t think that she can actu­al­ly make it, but I fig­ure fail­ure is a less­er evil than being stuck in the mid­dle of nowhere.

I com­plete my tour by scal­ing the look­out tow­er and sur­vey­ing the expan­sive sea of prairie grass extend­ing miles out across the flat land toward the dis­tant hori­zon. It is here that I attempt to sum­mon the spir­it of Lau­ra Ingalls. I recent­ly watched a doc­u­men­tary about com­ic artist/professional crazy Grant Mor­ri­son, and he claims you can con­jure up the spir­it of any­one. What the hell. I attempt to clear my mind as I reach back through the ages to con­nect with the pio­neer girl. She appears on the prairie grass below me, run­ning with her old­er sis­ter. She stops as if notic­ing me. I raise my hand and wave hel­lo. She smiles and offers a ten­ta­tive wave, before return­ing to her play. I blink and the con­nec­tion is bro­ken. The young pio­neer girl fades back into time.

As we leave the home­stead, I latch on to a vagrant Inter­net sig­nal and my phone blips as fresh e-mail fun­nels in. I read the first one, where the edi­tor of my nov­el Hap­pi­ness: How to Find It is tak­ing me to task for my use of the word “bought­en.” Accord­ing to her, using archa­ic, non­stan­dard Eng­lish begs bad reviews. What she doesn’t real­ize is that the 19th cen­tu­ry col­lo­qui­al­ism is anoth­er one of my nods to Laura’s books. Will I con­sent to a change? I look out at the prairie, dimin­ish­ing in my rear view mir­ror, before send­ing a reply. Absolute­ly not.

 * * * * *

From De Smet, we head west toward the Dako­ta Bad­lands. The roads are pret­ty vacant, not see­ing much traf­fic out­side of the annu­al Stur­gis motor­cy­cle ral­ly in August, which chokes the Inter­state with more well-oiled leather than a fetish club. Along Inter­state 90, a reg­u­lar sight is gar­ish bill­boards call­ing on trav­el­ers to vis­it the Wall Drug Store where 5-cent cof­fee and free ice water await. Com­bined with the Theta-state high­way hyp­no­sis, the stac­ca­to of adver­tise­ments is eeri­ly effec­tive. By the time we reach Wall, South Dako­ta, we fig­ure it is worth check­ing out.

More impor­tant­ly, Wall is also a con­ve­nient launch­ing off point to the South Dako­ta Bad­lands, just a ten-minute dri­ve south. We check in at the Sun­shine Inn, a strip motor hotel locat­ed just a cou­ple of blocks away from the tourist area, large­ly tak­en up by the mas­sive Wall Drugs. The Sun­shine Inn is a bud­get motel, but the beds are com­fort­able and, most impor­tant­ly, they have AMC—tonight is the Mad Men sea­son finale I’ve been eager­ly await­ing. An unlist­ed perk of the motel is John, the pro­pri­etor, who is help­ful in sug­gest­ing trav­el activ­i­ties. For instance, he tells us that the Bad­lands Nation­al Park is open twen­ty-four hours and overnight camp­ing is allowed, which makes it per­fect for an amorous noc­tur­nal cou­pling. When we ask for a good place for din­ner, John steers us away from the tourist sec­tion to the Red Rock Restau­rant where the locals eat.

The Red Rock is jam packed, but we man­age to score a seat. I order a coun­try fried steak, my wife a cod sand­wich, and my veg­an daugh­ter has to set­tle for onion rings. The com­pli­men­ta­ry sal­ad bar is shock­ing in its lack of offer­ings. In total, it amounts to four items: ice­berg let­tuce, spring onions, whole radish­es, and shred­ded car­rots. Tucked under the yel­low­ing sneeze guard are some mac­a­roni and pota­to sal­ads that look like left­overs from the grocer’s deli. When it arrives, my coun­try fried steak is disappointing—equal parts charred and greasy, with enough salt to pre­serve the whole cow. If this is where the locals eat, I pity them. When the waitress’s back is turned, I pil­fer some ribs from the buf­fet line instead.

Fed, for bet­ter or worse, we check out the (in)famous Wall Drugs. His­to­ry tells the sto­ry of the pro­pri­etor who in 1936 attempt­ed to revive the dying phar­ma­cy by offer­ing free ice water to thirsty trav­el­ers. The gim­mick worked, and the drug store thrived, expand­ing to take up sev­er­al blocks today. The free ice water is alleged­ly still around, but it is a task to find it through the great maze of sou­venirs: mag­nets, t-shirts, post­cards, sharks’ teeth, snow globes, salt water taffy, fake mus­tach­es, puz­zles, tiny spoons, whoopee cush­ions, fudge, geo­des, gar­den gnomes, and more. Occa­sion­al­ly you emerge from the tacky goods to be con­front­ed with some sideshow spec­ta­cle like a roar­ing robot T-Rex or a giant Jack­e­lope. Each has a crowd of tourists lin­ing up for a pic­ture to say, “Yes, we real­ly saw that.” We man­age to fight the spir­it of com­merce and escape the clutch­es of Wall Drugs, nev­er hav­ing found the free ice water.

With the oblig­a­tory tourist trap braved, we head out to the Bad­lands Nation­al Park. At the north­ern entrance to the park, we pur­chase an annu­al “Amer­i­ca the Beau­ti­ful” pass. It’s pri­cy, but cost-effec­tive for us because it will grant access to oth­er places in the nation­al park sys­tem dur­ing our trav­el. Just clear of the gate, the Pin­na­cles Over­look offers an amaz­ing intro­duc­tion of the north­ern area of the park. Here stri­at­ed white buttes, spires, and pin­na­cles frame low-lying plateaus of mixed grass. Along the slop­ing edges, juniper and yuc­ca trees are nes­tled between erod­ed gul­lies. It’s a breath­tak­ing view. My daugh­ter and I take a moment to climb out across the hard clay out­looks, while my more cau­tious wife lingers behind to chas­tise our hubris.

To the west, we take a short dri­ve over the unpaved Sage Creek Rim Road, where along the way, the land­scape lev­els out into flat grass­lands. Out of our win­dow, prong­horn deer and bison graze in the dis­tance. We park at Robert’s Prairie Dog Town, which is home to the park’s largest colony of prairie dogs. We enjoy watch­ing the rodents as they scam­per between their many bur­row­ing holes. As I approach, they go into alert mode, sig­nal­ing warn­ings to each oth­er with high-pitched chat­ter. A lone bison lum­bers toward us, and we snap some pho­tographs, while keep­ing a safe dis­tance from the shag­gy, black behe­moth. The park pam­phlet reminds us that the bison are wild ani­mals and capri­cious.

The sun begins to set as we back­track to con­tin­ue our dri­ve to the main Bad­lands Loop Road, car­ry­ing us past oth­er scenic out­looks. My stom­ach sud­den­ly lurch­es in dis­agree­ment at our ear­li­er meal at the Red Rock.

Pull over,” I say to my wife, dou­bled over.

Why?” she says.

I need to go to the bath­room.”

But there’s no—”

Just do it,” I hiss through clenched teeth.

The car bounces as she jerks the wheel over to the nar­row shoul­der. I don’t wait for it to ful­ly stop before I leap out, grab­bing some nap­kins. I’ll spare the details about what hap­pens next, but it involves me defil­ing a nation­al trea­sure. If there is a hell, I’m sure this will not bode well for me in the end.

With the sun set­ting, dark­ness rolls over the Bad­lands and night fades in, cast­ing shad­ows over the jagged for­ma­tions. We pull over at Panora­ma Point and wrap our­selves in blan­kets as we step out into the thrust­ing wind to wal­low in the splen­dor of the glit­ter­ing night sky. As I sip on a can of beer, I’m vague­ly aware that the Mad Men sea­son finale is start­ing, but who real­ly needs that when you have a show like this?

In the park­ing lot behind us, a black jeep pulls up and a young man slips out, pulling tight a drab-green army jack­et. The jeep seems to be loaded with all of his world­ly pos­ses­sions. As he nears, his flash­light set­tles on us briefly before he slips out of sight, down into the deep soli­tude of the carved for­ma­tions.

I think about him and lament the fact that I nev­er took the oppor­tu­ni­ty to dis­en­gage from civ­i­liza­tion to wan­der the coun­try. In that moment, my advice to the new grad­u­ate back at the Ingalls home­stead doesn’t seem all that fool­hardy. I look over at my daugh­ter with her pur­ple hood­ie cinched tight over her head and the white wire of her iPod head­phones trail­ing down to her pock­et. Per­haps we should send all of our chil­dren out into the wilder­ness when they come of age. They’ll be mired down with homes and jobs and up-siz­ing flat screen tele­vi­sions soon enough.

A gen­tle calm­ness per­me­ates the air. No one dares to speak, as if our sounds are an unwel­come pol­lu­tion. I breathe in slow­ly, as if tast­ing the cold, crisp air like fine wine. It’s damn good. I have a long way to go before becom­ing a devo­tee of the cult of the great out­doors, but I’ll admit that I’m start­ing to fall vic­tim to Moth­er Nature’s love bomb­ing.

Orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished on Vagobond.com, Sep­tem­ber 2012.

¶ Despatched on Tuesday, October 23rd, 2012 at 6:42 pm and sorted in Essays. ¶ { ReTweet }

One Response

Michael MorrisonOctober 28th, 2016 at 7:16 pm

Hah! I just com­plet­ed my jour­ney from PA to WA. Went along I-80 though Ohio, and hit I-90 the rest of teh way.

SDs infa­mous Wall Drug signs suck­ered m into stop­ping in Wall, SD after the 10,000 ugly gar­ish sign. Inci­den­tal­ly, I smelled “tourist trap” imme­di­ate­ly. I need­ed gad any­way, and decide d to eat at the sub­way on the main drag. I went to the so-called “down­town” where Wal Drug was, pulled a U-ey, and went straight for Mt. Rush­more. Was tempt­ed to do the Bad­lands thing, and almost went up to de smet to see lata ingalls wilders house. But that was too much out of the way for all three. Mt. Rush­more seemed like the most legit tourist option. I was sat­is­fied.

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