Grassy green fields zip past in a 65 mph blur. Endless and monotonous, the black asphalt ribbon of road shoots out from in front of us for 300 miles from Sioux City.
Welcome to South Dakota, a state I had little hope for at first meeting. The first week on the Northern Trail takes us halfway across the USA. It's long days, punctuated by random roadside attractions and special detours to places like The Mall of America, all to keep our interested peaked. After a few days of drives like this we entered South Dakota and for a long time there was lots and lots of nothingness. But as we crossed the mighty plains, surprises unfolded...
The Corn Palace
Our first stop along I-90 was in Mitchell where you can pay a visit to the World's Only Corn Palace. Yeah, you're reading this right. This small farming town's claim to fame is a massive building in the downtown, which for 120 years, has been decked out in corn murals. Each color corn is grown in separate fields and every year the mural designs change. Inside the building is a venue for events and the local high school basketball team calls it home. Oh, and the team's name? The Kernels.
Badlands National Park
After a few hundred more miles, the plains give way to the prairies of the Badlands National Park. A late afternoon hike along the Notch Trail took us amid the buttes and pinnacles of the park. The formations are made up of soft sedimentary rock that has been eroded in the harsh climate of the Badlands. Bison, prairie dogs and wildflowers are common sights. That night we camped nearby and watched as more stars than most of us had ever seen filled the skies.
In the morning, our first exciting stop was to a place we had seen advertisements for along nearly every mile of those 300 we had driven across the state. Wall Drug! Famous home of free ice water and 5 cent coffee. This place is incredible. It began as a struggling drugstore in 1931, until they put out highway signs advertising free ice water during the hot summer days. People came in droves and the place has morphed into a classic roadside attraction. The first must-do is to climb on the jackalope, a mystical half rabbit, half antelope creature, to take a photo. Then wander the shops and pick up a donut in the café before hitting the open
Who doesn't love a bunch of old white men carved into stone? Good old Mt Rushmore was created originally to spur tourism in the Black Hills region. The first suggestions were to carve western legends such as Lewis and Clark or Buffalo Bill Cody. That idea, however, was pushed aside as the sculptor, Gutzon Borglum, wanted the project to have a more national appeal and the faces of Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson and Roosevelt now grace the sides of the cliff. It is pretty neat to see, but also incredibly hard to grasp the scale of the carvings. As the site is visited by nearly 3 million people a year, we were hardly alone during our stop.
Crazy Horse Monument
Crazy Horse was a Lakota warrior and is the Native American's response to Mt Rushmore. They wanted a legend and hero of their own carved into a mountain in the Black Hills. The crazy thing about this monument is that isn't even close to being completed. But when it is finished, it will be the largest stone monument on earth and it is being financed by purely private means. All four heads of Mt Rushmore will be able to easily fit inside Crazy Horse's head. This thing is insanely massive! Korczak Ziolkowski began carving in 1948 and he worked alone on the piece for years. Later on his family joined him in the project and since his death, they have taken over the mission themselves. This place is definitely worth a stop.
This place is about as old-western as it gets in these parts. Deadwood was founded illegally in 1870 on land that technically belonged to the Native Americans. Gold was quickly discovered and the town attracted all sorts of outlaws and people of questionable morals. Gambling halls sprouted along the main streets, gun fights were a daily occurrence, and prostitutes roamed freely. The most famous character associated with the town's history is Wild Bill Hickok who was shot from behind while playing cards in one of the saloons. He and Calamity Jane are buried near Deadwood. Today, there are reenactments of old gunfights which are super tacky but also hilarious to watch. Deadwood is a great spot to stop at on the way across into Wyoming.