Tuesday, July 12, 2016

The Olsens South Dakota Adventure

2622.2 miles. The Olsens have returned from our first major family road trip. We covered a lot of ground, going from home in Illinois to the Black Hills of South Dakota. We even took a day trip to Wyoming. Putting five people (and, briefly, one dog) into a van for hours and hours and hours of driving is no small challenge, but we endured and enjoyed. Here's a look at where we went and what we did. 
The trip begins: Fun on wheels! 
Day 1: Departure: By breakfast of our kickoff day, our trip was in question as the middle child woke up with a case of strep throat. I knew I should have prohibited all human contact the week before our departure! After a quick trip to the walk-in clinic and the pharmacy for antibiotic, our journey was underway. Anna gets the travel trooper award for hanging in there with the trip plans even when she felt less than great. We spent the night with my folks in Baraboo, Wisconsin

Day 2: Baraboo has many charms, but one of our current favorites is the highly affordable cost of dog kenneling! On our way out of town, we left Cleo in the capable hands of Pampered Paws, which gave Anna plenty of back-seat room for stretching out. Then we glanced at the phone's GPS app and saw "399 miles to Mitchell." Ooof. That wasn't even our ultimate destination.

 Glorious Spam! 
Our mid-day stop took us to Austin, Minnesota, hometown of Hormel and the Spam Museum. In college days, I had a summer internship at the Austin Daily Herald. I hadn't been back since, so I was eager to see what Austin looks like these days. I was pleased to see the successful renovation of the 1929 Paramount Theater, which was underway while I was there. Another change is the move of the Spam Museum from the local mall to a prime downtown location. The kids didn't even know what Spam was. Now they do! Even if you aren't a big fan of canned meat, it's worth a stop with kids. Exhibits on Hormel's history and Spam around the world are interesting and a kids play area and Spam "packing" area help work out the travel wiggles. Also, it's a great opportunity to introduce the youth to Monty Python.

Our afternoon drive provided us with a look at Welcome, Minnesota when a rest stop was requested not 20 minutes after the previous rest stop, which had taken place shortly after our lunch stop. Lesson learned: If anyone wants to ever get to our destination, use the restroom when we are stopped whether you think you need to or not!

The first Wall Drug sign was spotted at 3:50 p.m. near Worthington, Minnesota -- 355 miles to Wall.

Our stop for the night was in Mitchell, South Dakota and it was here that we again wondered if we would be calling off the trip. Anna's fever spiked, but thankfully by morning it had dropped and she was ready to move on.

Day 3: Where does everyone stop on any trip down Interstate 90? The Corn Palace, of course. What kind of parents would we be to deprive our offspring of this literal rite of passage? The palace does have hands-on agriculture exhibits for kids in the new Education Center, so there is more to do than just look at the corn murals.

Been farming long? 

Then, there was a lot of driving through this:

So many hay bales. 
Once we crossed the Missouri River, the sudden sight of dramatic hills prompted Erik to remark, "If the moon was green and had hay bales it would look like this." Well, that is one of the reasons we picked the Badlands. 

Lunch was at the Murdo Drive-In, which was an adorable small-town dinner. I am considering printing and posting this sign from their patio in my kitchen and dining room:  

By early afternoon, we crossed into Mountain Time and made our first tourist stop West River, the scenic overlook of the Buffalo Gap National Grassland. So much space; so much sky! The thing that struck me as we drove through South Dakota was the immense space and how different that space felt from Illinois farmland. As Wisconsin keeps reminding us, Illinois has no shortage of flat land, but Dakota prairie feels different: bigger, wider, more open. It's difficult to convey the sense of size in words. I don't know if its my Dakota ancestors talking, but the open lands west of the Mississippi just feel right. When I'm in downstate Illinois, I miss trees. The farms seem to go on forever and a green river valley is a welcome respite. South Dakota trees are events worthy of celebration, and yet the miles without them aren't really empty. They are just full of a more subtle beauty. And then you get the Badlands. But that comes later. 

One stop soon led to another, the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site. It was sobering to give the kids this introduction to the cold war. Then again, in light of current events, what's a quick explanation of duck and cover? On the lighthearted side, I found another sign I wish to post at home:

The Minuteman site was just across I-90 from one of our main destinations: The Badlands. Before we officially entered the National Park site, I wanted to make a stop at Prairie Homestead. I'm fascinated with the history of America's pioneer settlers, even more so when I visit a place like this. The home here is a sod house dug out of a hillside, framed with cottonwood logs for roof beams and its front wall, and sod "bricks" for the side walls. How families lived in a dirty space smaller than my living room for years in the extreme Dakota climate astonishes my suburban sensibilities. I'm proud when my tiny vegetable garden produces one head of broccoli or a few peppers and tomatoes. Homesteaders had to eek out their whole existence from farming on the 160 acres allotted to them. Those "sodbusters" deserve our admiration.

Who wants butter? 
Kitchen in a sod house

Check out those walls! 

It's not much for curb appeal,
but a life lived here was impressive all the same.

Now, on to the Badlands. Being the researcher that I am, I had read books on the Badlands. We watched travel videos and read the brochures. None of that prepares you for a first look at the amazing and erie landscape.  The shapes, the colors -- it's a terrain that is otherworldly.

Wall isn't just a drug store 

Tourist selfie moment

We wandered a few short trails and peered over some scenic overlooks. Then we kept our views to those from inside the van as our sunny summer day gave way to an ominous storm rolling in. The dark clouds only intensified the moody landscape.

A storm rolls in


Lunar landscape? 

After seeing all that natural beauty, we were hungry and what retail colossus was conveniently nearby? Wall Drug, of course. We ate some dinner with our free ice water, did a quick walk through, and then headed for our Rapid City hotel. 

Checking out the railroad stuff in Wall Drug's "backyard." 

Day 4: Independence Day: Our 2016 Fourth of July did not include parades and fireworks, but we were patriotic none the less. During the morning we visited the South Dakota Air & Space Museum at Ellsworth Air Force Base. The museum displays an extensive collection of historical aircraft. We also rode a bus on to the air base and the site of the Minuteman II Missile silo. Due to the Independence Day holiday it took longer than usual for the base police to do security screenings on those of taking the tour, which was a reminder that there are enough bad guys in the world to make such things necessary even if the era of imminent nuclear threat has passed.

At the S.D. Air & Space Museum
Future pilot? 
Our mid-day drive took us through part of the Black Hills National Forest and Custer State Park via the Iron Mountain Highway. There are two reasons it takes forever to get anywhere in the Black Hills. One is that there are no straight-line roads. Switchbacks and hairpin curves are constant. Also, because the scenery is so amazing, it's almost impossible not to hop out at every scenic overlook and take in the view.

I'm fond of things that come in threes.
Our first view of Mt. Rushmore
Mr. Happiness
Happy tourists
Dramatic sky

Our goal for the day was a visit to Wind Cave National Park. Having toured Wisconsin's Cave of the Mounds in the spring, everyone was eager to see a bigger cave on this trip. Wind Cave did not disappoint. We enjoyed the Natural Entrance Tour, which took us past the breezy opening that gave the cave its name. The kids had no trouble keeping up (or rather down the 300-some steps) on the hour-long tour and enjoyed looking at the "box work" formations on the walls and ceilings. Our little spelunkers would like to see even more caves in the future.

Photo in a dark cave
"Box work" formations in Wind Cave
Bison in the distance at Wind Cave National Park
 Bison close up at Wind Cave N.P. 

All smiles again! 
Day 5: Another day; another state! The two places that Jamieson really wanted to see on this trip were the Badlands and Devil's Tower. That meant a drive into Wyoming. We were blessed with another beautiful day and, finally, a little girl who felt like herself again.

According to Native American legend, the butte traces its unique size and formations to the day when a boy playing with his sisters suddenly turned into a bear. The seven frightened sisters ran and ran until a tree stump bid them to climb up on it at which point it rose up out of reach of the bear, which scraped the stump with its claws all around. The sisters then became the "Seven Sisters" of the Pleiades stars. Or you could go all geological and just call it an igneous intrusion. Describe its origins however you like, the place is just amazing. From every angle the light changes and gives a different look to the tower. We walked the 1-mile Tower Trail around the its base. Staying on the trail was impossible for the kids who were merely doing what the older mountain climbers above us were doing, conquering the rocks all around.

Nothing says Lutheran school ambassador
like wearing your Immanuel Eagle shirt to Devil's Tower. 
Rising from the plains 

Again with the selfie attempt
Just one victor in the "This rock is mine!" competition 

Squeak! (But don't touch!
Apparently these cuties bite
and spread the Plague. Yikes!)
Aside from the geological wonders of the Black Hills, the local fauna captured everyone's attention, too. A particular favorite were the prairie dog towns at all the national parks. When visiting family in Baraboo, we enjoy looking at the prairie dogs of Ochsner Park Zoo, but the vast size of a natural prairie dog town is an entirely different experience. For one thing, zoo prairie dogs are a well-fed lot, much rounder than those out in the wild. Their heads popping up and down in their tunnel doors remind me of a game of whack-a-mole, but these little guys are desperately trying not to become lunch for the local predators.

Looking at the prairie dogs.
(And look at that red earth on the hills!) 

I should also mention that we saved no small amount of money visiting national parks on this trip thanks to the Every Kid in a Park pass that Erik got just for being a fourth grader this past school year. Admission to the parks was free for the whole family thanks to his having picked up his pass in the spring during his class trip to Lincoln's Springfield Home. According the the program website, incoming fourth graders will be able to pick up their passes in September. Do it! It's a cliche to say these parks are a national treasure, but they absolutely are. No theme park could ever be as amazing as just an hour or two experiencing America's history and its natural beauty.

Leaving Devil's Tower

There are some vacations that are about relaxing: grabbing a book and a chair by a calm body of water and enjoying the peace. There are other trips that are about seeing and doing. This week fell into the second category, that of cramming as much into each day as we possibly could. So, on our return from Wyoming we detoured off our familiar roadway friend Interstate 90 and meandered down the Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway. Worth it. So worth it.

Bridal Veil Falls.
We stopped here to wade thorough the creek and see the falls up close.
It was beautiful but oh, so cold! 
Spearfish Canyon and Icebox Canyon (my still-frosty toes attested to the veracity of that name) took us to the town of Lead. This was one of those places that I wish we had included more time to explore. Erik would have enjoyed touring the mining museum and I had hoped we could have taken the surface tour of the Homestake Gold Mine. Reasons for making a return trip are many, though, and we enjoyed what we could.

"Open Cut" at Homestake Mine 
The gold mine at Lead is now the site of Sanford Lab. Hmm. Particle physics happening under ground near herds of bison. No wonder we felt so at home here.

Any disappointment the kids felt for missing a mine tour was made up for with the opportunity to climb through the engines that pulled mining cars through their under-ground tunnels. No steam engine, these guys. To cut down on the underground pollution, engines like those pictured here were powered by compressed air. A lot of it.

"Take my picture on the train!"

So, the kids like trains. No secret there. Imagine their delight, then, when we discovered the Lead roundhouse had become Homestake Chop House. This was not some kiddie train dinner; it is a gorgeous historical building reimagined as a site for "fine casual dining." We ate in a recreated train car, but it looked like it had just rolled off the luxury line at the Pullman factory, complete with stained-glass and wood paneling. The main room lights were crystal chandeliers. The restrooms had glass knobs and marble counters. Beautiful. And dinner was tasty, too!

Outside Homesteak Chop House

The kids are cute, but look at that glass! 

... and the chandeliers!

But wait! The railroads helped settle the West. So the train love just kept coming. We wandered through nearby Deadwood after dinner and found the best way to spend a dollar in that gambling town: 10 minutes of model railroad operation thanks to the extensive layout of the Northern Hills Railway Society. Located in the basement of a souvenir and motorcycle apparel shop (we were near Sturgis),  were were treated to an 80-foot display of HO-scale scenes. Good times.

Possibly the only good reason to take a kid to Deadwood
Day 6: 1880 Train.  Like I said, the Olsen kids like trains. (Well, the boys do and our young artist puts up with it.) The best railroad destination in the Black Hills is the 1880 Train. We have taken a lot of tourist train rides. This one may be the best. It's a two-hour experience for the round-trip ride. We went from Keystone to Hill City and back, but you can start at either end. The route is that of a former mining train, so it's a happy coincidence that what was constructed for industrial use happens to wind through the beauty of Black Hills National Forest. The rolling stock, as the train folks say, is a sight to behold, too. Old pieces have been restored masterfully and new cars, such as the carriage we rode in on our return trip, have been constructed with amazing attention to detail.

Love this happy picture of my boys

We were in the second car from the engine.
The train whistle was LOUD. 

So much to see

Hill City stop of the 1880 Train

There is nothing that makes Erik happier than being around trains.
(Except maybe Legos, especially Lego trains...) 

A steam engine needs water

Trains are fun for girls, too

On our return trip to Keystone we were in the last seats of the last car,
which happened to be a beautiful place to be.

A certain boy in our group would have stayed at the Keystone station and rode the train again and again, but that was not to be. Instead we headed to our other Keystone stop, Mt. Rushmore.

Some memorable Americans 
Don't blink
The regal Miss Anna

Someday, we will get a good portrait of the five of us.
This was not that day. 

Day 7: Rapid City wrap up. By Thursday, we had seen the major sites on our to-do list, but there were a few more locations that needed checking out. Ever since our first cave visit a few months ago, all the kids have become amateur rock collectors, so we made a visit to the Museum of Geology at the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology.  It's a little old fashioned in a thing-in-a-case with a label kind of way, but I was pleasantly surprised to see everyone taking in the fossil and mineral collection in an ernest way. It was a good way to spend an hour -- and free!

Gold from them thar hills

Once upon a time in an enchanted land called the Wisconsin Dells, there was an attraction called Storybook Gardens. Two visitors to this magical land were youngsters named Christine and Jamieson who in later years discovered similar pictures of themselves at the Three Bears home in family photo albums. Alas, the gardens closed five years ago before the Olsen kids had a chance to experience it for themselves. Imagine the joy to discover a similar site in Rapid City: Storybook Island.

Storybook Island is the playground of kids' dreams: endless structures to climb, buildings to explore, and favorite characters to greet. It's also a place where adults wonder where children acquire their boundless energy!

Several Dalmatians and three kids

Hangin' with The Cat

Oh, look! Olsen kids on a train ride. 

This park has been open since 1959.
Some features have aged better than others. 

It was with much reluctance that the kids allowed themselves to be removed from the island of fun. We had a few more fiberglass creatures to encounter when we stopped for a picnic lunch under the life-size residents of Dinosaur Park. Good views, but we wished we had just stopped in the visitor center for a 99 cent hot dog instead of getting lunch stuff from the local Safeway. Live and learn.

Before we said goodbye to Rapid City, we decided to end with a final ride through Custer State Park, this time along the famed Needles Highway and Wildlife Loop roads. Again, it was a long, long drive, but one with countless astonishing views and many scenic spots to park and explore.

Is it gold? 

A little more rock climbing

Some of the "needles" 

I've always wanted a my own camper.
Not here. 


Burro hanging out along the Wildlife Loop

It looks like my kids are doing a laying on of hands prayer over this burro.
It could only help. This old guy looks like he's been around since gold was discovered. 

No animal herds surrounded our van on the drive, but we saw plenty of critters along the way: more prairie dogs, "lesser" chipmunks, deer, pronghorns, bison, burros, deer, and a turkey.

Day 8: Heading East. We ate our final continental breakfast at ye olde EconoLodge (which was clean, friendly, and included a great water slide) and began the east-bound trek. Somehow by lunchtime we found ourselves again near Mitchell. Did you know there's more to do in Mitchell, S.D. than look at the Corn Palace? Are you beside yourself with amazement that we found a restaurant in a train depot?  Me, neither. The Depot -- friendly staff, cool building, working rail yard -- worth a stop.

Good food. Good trains. 

Mitchell, more than just corn. 

Our very last sightseeing stop was a bit off the I-90 trail, but it was somewhere I had always wanted to visit: the Ingalls' Homestead. You know I'm fascinated with pioneer life, and that has everything to do with my mom reading Little House in the Big Woods to me when I was a little girl. I have read and re-read every book written by Laura Ingalls Wilder, even the travel logs. I've read the first few Little House books to my kids. Last year I devoured the Pioneer Girl manuscript. Seeing Laura's homesites has been on my travel bucket list before anyone had a "bucket list."  The Ingalls Homestead recreates their shanty home on the site it stood and presents other buildings of the pioneer era. It's not unlike many living history farms that give modern visitors a look at agricultural life, tools and structures of years gone by. Yet standing under the sky and on the land that I had inhabited so many times before in my imagination made it a much richer experience.

"Laura's Living Prairie"

Go west, young man! 

Another example of a sod house.
(I think I can now make peace with my thinning carpet back home.)

I used to think living with paneling and wallpaper was a housing challenge. 

Doing chores is such a grind.

Cottonwood trees planted by Pa Ingalls

To you this is a picture of horse butts.
To me this is the team my daughter drove.
She was the first child to volunteer to drive, too!

Making a baling twine rope

Ma Ingalls is my housework hero. 

Maybe we could learn to be a little more self-sufficient. Chores appear to be very interesting when Mom isn't assigning them.

Sewing with the foot pedal

Mowing lawn.
(We have one of these.
Time to get it out of the shed!)

Washing clothes

We have a dog. We are DOG people. Apparently, my children didn't get the memo. These kitties could not have gotten more love:

Himself, waiting for a pony cart ride

This little guy thought Erik had a tasty shirt.
The prairie suits them. At least, it gives them enough space to run! 
Time to head home

I hope it's not morbid to include this picture of the Ingalls' graves. We stopped at the cemetery on the way out of town, following the signs pointing the way for folks like us. The graves are shady and peaceful, surrounded by farm fields and grazing cattle. It felt like the right place to rest after a lifetime of hard work. Thanks to Laura's books, her parents and sisters are remembered as a people who worked hard and valued the land and its people. They will not be forgotten. Neither will the quiet histories of so many other pioneer ancestors thanks to the appreciation for their stories sparked by those Little House books.

In this plot rest Charles and Caroline Ingalls,
sisters Mary, Carrie and Grace Ingalls,
 as well as Laura and Almanzo Wilder's baby son.
So, our trip came to an end. We spent a last night on the road in Madison, S. D. then drove all the way home the following day. Waking up in South Dakota, then driving through Minnesota, Wisconsin and then home to Illinois makes for one long day. We stopped in Baraboo again to share some of our travel stories with Grandma and Grandpa, then picked up our Cleo-dog and pressed on for home.

By quarter to nine Saturday evening we walked in our own door. After living out of hotel rooms and viewing cabins and sod homes, our own dear homestead seemed so spacious and inviting. We didn't miss the midwestern humidity, but it was good to be back.

Thank you for a great week, South Dakota!

Heading off into the sunset

1 comment:

  1. I love this trip!! South Dakota has kind of been an idea of a trip in the last few years, but I haven't gotten there yet. I may need to move my mental road trip list around a bit.