Rainy Day on the Prairie (in a little house)

There was quite a bit of talk about which Dakota was going to get our attention and gas money.

On the North Dakota side:

  • Neither of us had ever set foot in the state
  • Google Maps assured us it was the shortest path, by about an hour at least
  • Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Didn’t know it was there?  Neither did we
  • I’ve heard so much about the oil boom there and what it’s done to/for the state – wanted to see it first hand
  • Looking ahead, I wanted to approach Grand Targhee from the North, rather than from the Jackson Hole side, both for potential traffic reasons and for brutal mountain pass reasons. We’d yet done much uphill travel and weren’t sure how our rig was going to fare.

On the South Dakota side:

  • Everyone we asked the question to said “SOUTH DAKOTA, NO DOUBT!” Pretty much at least.  North Dakota did get some love, but for the most part it was more “if you do decide to go that way, at least do this…”
  • The Black Hills are nice, though we’d been to Mt. Rushmore on our way out to Annapolis from WA and found that immediate area a bit too touristy
  • Tacco wanted to see De Smet, where there’s a bunch of Laura Ingalls Wilder stuff (and Firebolt is in the process of reading Little House in the Big Woods)
  • An old friend of Tacco’s lives in Spearfish, on the west side of the state, near Sturgis.

I’ll skip to the end of what took up far too much time and mental energy and tell you that we opted to take the southern route, but then cross back over into Montana so as to take the northern route around Yellowstone and into Grand Targhee.  An extra couple hours, but who’s counting?  Other than us I mean.  We’re counting.

Anyway, we set off from the west side of Minneapolis and found ourselves in what I’d long pictured the rural Midwest to look like.  Here’s our route:IMG_8882

Lots of small farming towns, and mostly arrow-straight roads.  I found that I thoroughly enjoyed that sort of driving, with one exception, and that’s that these particular roads, likely from the yearly repairs after the freeze/thaw cycle, have creases in them about every hundred feet or so.  They’re the type of thing you wouldn’t even notice in a normal car, but we’re so not normal.  I’ve alluded to our (lack of?) suspension before, but every tiny irregularity in the road makes its presence felt, so my experience of Minnesota and the eastern half of South Dakota was overlaid by a constant “ka-KLUNK [pause] ka-KLUNK [pause] ka-KLUNK” ad infinitum.  I’d say it put a damper on things but it was sort of the opposite of that, with the same effect.  If you know what I mean.

Still a nice drive though, with a steady (but not heavy) rain.  After a few hours, we pulled into De Smet and found the LIW homestead, which is actually a 50-or-so acre plot fashioned into a living museum of sorts, up a dirt road, our first in Davista.

Despite the rain, it was an excellent stop.  I earned Tacco’s scorn by running up along side the horses the kids were riding (one on actual horseback, two in a small rickshaw-type setup being pulled by a horse) to get a better vantage point for a picture.  Freaked the horses right out, which I’m now told is a completely predictable response.  Both she and the guide gave me a resigned “ignorant city folk” look.  Though hers was a bit more pointed.  She has some horse experience from childhood in the Midwest, and is savvier about such things in general.

Learned quite a bit about prairie living back in that time and some more about some of the Homestead Acts.  Still hard to fathom the government just giving away large tracts of land at a time when there really wasn’t much opportunity to own land, and in fact in Europe it was all owned by aristocracy.  No wonder so many folks crossed the pond.

The rest of the drive was kind of a grind, as this turned out to be our longest driving day so far – about 10 hours.  Certainly no record, but we’re doing our best to keep drives to 6 hours or less and do stops along the way.  We did cross the Missouri River half-way through South Dakota and noticed how different the landscape looked almost immediately.  My friend the night before had explained to us that SD is really two states, with the East of the Missouri side being farming country and the West of the Missouri side being all about ranching.  I made an effort to toss a little education into the mix by talking about rivers, watersheds, the Continental Divide, etc to the kiddos, but didn’t get much response.  In fairness, I only became really fascinated with geography in my 30s (other than an odd phase at 2-3 years old when I was all about a puzzle map of the US and decided to learn not only all the states, but their capitals too, which turned out to be quite the party trick), so I shouldn’t expect too much from them.  One of our goals is to have them be able to identify all the states, major cities, rivers, regions, and mountain ranges by the end of the year, but baby steps…

We got a peek at the Badlands from the interstate, but didn’t mind missing them too much as we’d spent some time there on our way from Anacortes to Annapolis 4 years earlier.

Finally pulled into Spearfish in the late afternoon/early evening, and found it to be an excellent little town.  It turned out that we missed the Sturgis rally by about a week, so the whole area was probably recovering and there was quite a bit of festival detritus on the way in, but the town is beautiful.  It sits on the edge of the Black Hills, with a cold stream running through town, on which lies both a trout hatchery and a city campground, where we stayed.  Keeper and the girls went straight to the fishing poles to see if they could pull the next day’s breakfast out of the stream, but no luck there.  Didn’t see any fish in the water at all in fact, so we might have missed the high season (or I scared them away, which seems to be a recurring theme with fish).


TC’s good friend from her recruiting days back in Whidbey joined us at the campground with some snacks and IPA, and we had an excellent visit until well into the evening.  Great to see her!

We wound up our time in Spearfish with a hike up the stream and around the hills a bit.  It was the first time this trip we’ve felt and smelled “mountain air” and it was extremely welcome.  I don’t think Spearfish is especially high in elevation, but the drive there from Minnesota was essentially one long, gradual climb.  The air was dry, it was warm in the day and cool at night, and it smelled like pines and fresh stream.  I love all of the above and am looking forward to much, much more of that.

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