It’s hot here—hot enough that I’m glad I don’t have a thermometer. I’m comfortable wearing shorts and a tank top in the shade. And if this is the northernmost leg of my trip, I shudder to think how hot it’s going to be once I arrive in Phoenix.
I made it out the door before 7am Saturday morning. A heavy thunderstorm had hit the Twin Cities shortly after midnight, and the ground was still wet from it. But the sky had cleared, and the air had a delightfully cool, crisp quality. Dew still misted my car, but it cleared up soon enough as I crossed the Mississippi and started heading west.
My trip today is the furthest west I’ve ever driven. I’m finding that I really enjoy road travel; it allows me to taste the changing flavor of the land as I move over it. The lush green lake country of the Twin Cities area became hilly and more thickly forested as I moved southwest through Minnesota. The Jolly Green Giant greeted me as I came over a ridge: “Welcome to the Valley!” And as I moved through and out of the Valley, the land flattened and became so thoroughly farmland that I began to wonder if I’d gone to Wisconsin by mistake.
I crossed into South Dakota without realizing it. I pulled off at a rest area to get a road map, and ended up getting a more detailed and personalized explanation of all the attractions South Dakota had to offer than I ever could have hoped for. The gentleman who worked at the tourist station—named Del—carefully explained how to get where I wanted to go and gave me all sorts of brochures and booklets for my further edification. I was already dreaming up a future trip to South Dakota before I’d been in the state fifteen minutes!
As I continued into the farmland, I felt like I was driving through a postcard—endless rolling hills of green and gold, dotted with sheep and cattle. I was surprised to see that the herds were monochromatic; I saw black herds, and brown herds, and even a white herd, but no herds of mixed colors. I was just outside Belvidere, SD when I saw my first longhorns! The black-and-white dairy cows of Wisconsin were certainly not to be seen here!
Occasionally, on a hill just off the interstate, I would see an old, weathered farmhouse, abandoned, windows missing. It felt like I had entered into the Wizard of Oz and was passing Dorothy’s farm in Kansas…except then there would be a road sign for a rodeo, or 1880 Town, or a general store, and then I felt like I was reliving Dr. Quinn: Medicine Woman.
That was another thing—the road signs! As soon as I left that rest area, I started seeing billboards for “The World’s Only Corn Palace.” Every single billboard I passed (for miles!) advertised this Corn Palace. I breathed a sigh of relief as I zoomed past Mitchell, SD and left the intrusive Corn Palace behind…but then all the billboards started promoting Al’s Oasis.
I had every intention of passing Al’s Oasis, because anything with that many billboards was surely nothing but a tourist trap. But then one of the signs caught my eye: Largest Rest Stop for 200 Miles! And it was getting to be about that time, so I decided to check it out.
It was the corniest Old West facade I had ever seen. There was a grocery store, bakery, bank, restaurant, clothing store, gift shop…. I lost track. All I wanted was the ladies’ room. But when I made my way through the very not-Western automatic sliding doors, the whole place was so crowded with families that I couldn’t even tell if there were signs for a bathroom or not. Luckily, I stumbled upon one before circumstances became Dire.
After I battled my way outside again, I saw a giant buffalo. (Okay, “American Bison.”) And I mean giant. The bottom of its belly was about even with my chest. It towered over my head, and I had a very un-grown-up-like urge to climb it like a mountain. Sadly, though, some children beat me to it.
Oh, did I mention the buffalo (bison) was a statue? Sorry to disappoint. Would have been cooler the other way, I know.
I lingered by the statue, hoping that the children would be done climbing it soon, and then I could ask the mother to take my picture with the buffalo. But the kids showed no sign of leaving, and I began to worry that the family would think I was creepy (even though I was there first), so I left. Oh well.
That was the first time on this trip that I really felt the absence of a traveling companion. No one to take my picture by the giant buffalo statue and prevent me from looking like a loony lady wandering loose about the countryside. (Even if that last part is true, sometimes it’s nice to not advertise the fact.)
Al’s Oasis was just on the west bank of the Missouri River. The land in the river valley had much more compact hills, greener, and spotted with trees and shrubs. As I moved yet further west, the hills started getting larger and longer, taking multiple minutes to reach the summit of each and descend. But still, everything that I could see was still grass and farmland…
…until I caught a glimpse, quickly hidden between two hills, of wrinkled pink rock, cropping out from the grass that surrounded it.
I descended into Badlands National Park, and oh, do I wish I could spend more than an evening there! I camped on the plains at the foot of the hills, and watched the full moon rise and coat the grassland with silver. It was a lovely night!