Wednesday, September 12, 2007

From the Mountains to the Prairies....

Canyon Lake, Rapid City South Dakota
The View from my motel room
Did I mention there were geese?
Taken 9/11/07

I awoke to the sound of geese. Geese honking, geese landing on the lake, geese rising from the lake, lots and lots of geese. Having chosen to stay in a motel rather than pitch my tent, I had a bit of free time that otherwise would have been spent striking camp. I chose to try and catch up with e-mail. I get way too much of the stuff. That coupled with the extremely slow burner on the kitchenette stove in my room, and I was fifteen minutes late checking out. Who ever heard of a 10:00 a.m. checkout time anyway?

I asked the desk clerk what her favorite Rapid City restaurant was and she had to think for quite a while. Eventually she decided Ruby Tuesday’s fit her needs. But, she said, if you’re asking about a local place, I have a soft spot for the Fire House downtown. I decided I had to check out the Fire House. Ruby Tuesday’s I know from years ago in Birmingham, Alabama.

Pulling out of the parking lot, I decided to drive through the tenting area, just in case. It was actually very nice, with lots of trees, and pads like square sandboxes for setting up your tent. There was also a woman with three children playing in the middle of the road, and only very grudgingly did she herd the kids out of my way.

I spent the morning driving around the city, visiting bookstores, walking through downtown, and having lunch at BJs Grinders (not the Fire House). Rapid City is the first place I’ve seen men in suits for a long, long time. I had parked in front of the Fire House, and their outdoor patio had several tables with groups of men in dark colored suits. I’ve lived in the West too long. I didn’t realize men still wore such contraptions. Later on, as I was getting back in the car after my downtown walk, the patio had a new group of men in black—leather-clad, motorcycle riding firemen. OK, maybe I would have fit in here.

Rapid City is called the City of Presidents, and stupid me, I had to ask why. Well, don’t cha know, it’s the town closest to Mount Rushmore. In keeping with the presidential theme, the downtown sidewalks are lined with statues of Presidents. I saw George Washington, Andrew Jackson, James Monroe, Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, and one statue that wasn’t labeled that I think must be Martin Van Buren, surely one of the more popular presidents. The statue of JFK has the President holding the hand of a little boy, John-John, and the plaque identifying the figures gives birth and death dates for both men.

What the Apatosaurus Sees
Rapid City from Dinosaur Park
Taken 9/11/07

One of my earliest memories is of visiting the Dinosaur Park in Rapid City back when I was three years old. In all honesty I don’t know if my memories are of the actual visit, or of the slides taken by Poppa when we came through town in 1953. My next visit to Rapid City was in 1990, and included a visit to Dinosaur Park. This trip would be no exception. Ya gotta relive those childhood memories, right? While crossing from the parking lot to the stairs leading to the Apatosaurus (that’s Brontosaurus to you), I saw a lovely red MinPin riding on the dashboard of a pickup. Later as I was coming down the stairs, I met the couple and their MinPin, and asked if I could add April’s portrait to my collection of Men With Dogs. Stan agreed, although he let me know that April belonged to his companion, not to him.

Choosing to head on east, rather than spend more time in the Black Hills, I left Rapid City on South Dakota 44, a road that parallels I-90, but runs between ten and twenty miles south of the interstate. Highway 44 crosses the Buffalo Gap National Grassland, and Badlands National Park. At the entrance to the Park, I stopped to take some pictures of the prairie dogs who would chirp loudly at my approach and then disappear into their holes as I raised my camera. I did get a few fuzzy pictures of small rodents and clear pictures of holes in the ground. What fun.

There was a group of motorcylists on SD 44, and we kept playing leapfrog. They would stop for a picture break and I would pass them, then I would stop and they would pass me. Eventually we started waving to each other, recognizing our commonality on the road. I even grabbed some shots of them as they passed. At this point, I wish I had pulled up and asked if I could get some portraits up close and personal, but, alas, I didn’t. I left them behind in Interior, South Dakota, where they stopped at a saloon, and I continued on into Badlands National Park.

One view of Badlands National Park
Taken 9/11/07

The topography of South Dakota changes rapidly and drastically. North of Belle Fourche, the land was rolling with occasional buttes on the horizon. South of Belle Fouche you enter the Black Hills which are an impressive mountain range, even if they’re called “hills.” East of Rapid City, you leave the Black Hills behind and go back into a rolling landscape that reminded me of a poorly folded blanket—very soft, nothing jagged, but definitely not flat. Then you reach the Badlands. There is no way I can describe the geographical features of this part of the state. The power of volcanoes, earthquakes, and erosion all come together to form a forbidding vista.

Climbing out of the Park, I crossed I-90 and headed north on what my map called South Dakota Highway 9. There were no signs identifying this dirt road as a state highway, and about midway across the nine-mile stretch, I met a semi with a load of hay rolls. The load was about as wide as the roadbed, so I carefully eased the Volvo off the road, hoping that the shoulder wouldn’t be too soft. I waved to the semi driver as he passed me, and, in true country fashion, he waved back.

Shouldn't there be mountains somewhere?
Taken 9/11/07 in Haakon County, South Dakota

I turned east on US 14 which led me the rest of the way to Pierre. The countryside gradually flattened out and the horizon began to feel very far away. I’m not used to having such a wide expanse of land. Shouldn’t there be mountains to form the horizon line?

The campground I had chosen sits on the western (southern) bank of the Missouri at Oahe Dam. Turning off US 14 just before crossing the river, I found my way to the campground, got the tent up and my dinner made all before it got dark. What a treat. Driving toward the campground, I passed what looks to be a work in progress—a very modern looking building with a collection of large tipis in front. I have no idea what I was looking at, but I’ll share it with you. If nothing else, it’s a reminder of South Dakota’s native history.

Taken 9/11/07, Fort Pierre Chouteau, South Dakota

South Dakota is one of the poorest states, if not the poorest, in the country. Vast tracts of land are set aside as reservations, Pine Ridge, Rosebud, Standing Rock, among others. This is the land of Wounded Knee. The poverty rate on the reservations is a national disgrace. The native people whites call the Sioux, call themselves the Dakota. White trappers learned the name “Sioux” from tribes further east, to whom the Sioux were the enemy. Dakota, on the other hand, means “friends.”

And with that, my friends, I’ll close for the day. Tomorrow: Pierre, South Dakota’s capitol city.

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