Great Places AND Great Faces?! Count me in.

For those of you who aren’t in the geographical target market for the South Dakota tourism campaigns, the way they attract non-Dakotans is with a catchy tune that ends…“Great Places…Great Faces: South Dakota.” It seems a little ridiculous, but as I was reminded at the beginning of my road trip, the places and faces are certainly great. Mount Rushmore is a bizarre way to honor four of our presidents, but it is a site that attracts over three million people a year, which is quite a feat. It’s also surrounded by incredible sites on all sides. Wall Drug not withstanding, southwestern South Dakota is chock-full of national and state parks, historic sites, wonderful vistas, and lots and lots of buffalo.

I started my trip (after seven long and very straight hours and TWO severe weather delays!!) at the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site in Phillip, SD. Because of cuts to the National Park System (don’t get me started…), they only offer tours a few days a week in the summer, so I had to be on the road bright and early! My interest in this particular site stems from an incredible weekend I had in Green Valley, Arizona, learning about the Cold War, but also visiting the Titan Missile Museum in Sahuarita, Arizona. If you’re ever in southern Arizona, MAKE A STOP!

The Minuteman Missile Silo, Launch Command Center, and Visitors’ Center are all definitely worth seeing–they are tangible, scary remnants of the Cold War that seems so far removed from our lives today, but are less than a generation removed in our collective memory. What a world we lived in less than 30 years ago.

Second stop: Badlands National Park. The turnoff to enter the park is right off I-90, and until you’re in the midst of these incredible landscapes, you see almost nothing at all, making the incredible beauty of the park all the more wonderful and surprising. Exploring the Badlands could take two or three hours, or a full day, depending on what you decide to do. I hiked a little bit, visited the Visitors’ Center, and stopped at 8-10 different vistas to take photos, and it took me about three hours. The park also has a star-gazing program at night that I didn’t stay for, but looked incredible.

The second day, I made a few more stops in southeastern South Dakota. Early morning at Mount Rushmore, the Crazy Horse Memorial, and Jewel Cave National Monument. All incredibly lovely, all full of families doing the same thing I was–it’s so easy and convenient to do in a few days with squirrelly kids, you’d think Mother Nature planned it JUST for road trips! Mount Rushmore is worth a stop for everyone driving through South Dakota, and if you get there early enough in the morning, you don’t have to contend with crowds or people staring at smart phones.

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I took very few photos at and in Jewel Cave, as I was on the lantern tour, and we had to behave as though we were transported back to the 1940s, technology and all. BUT, before we got into the cave, we took a tour of the caretaker’s cabin, built by the WPA in the 1930s. The rangers also dressed in 1940s NPS gear, which was a fun touch.

 

As I was driving to my hotel that night in Wyoming, I thought a lot how much beauty and history exists in the world that I have yet to see. Turns out a solo road trip provides many opportunities for introspection. Excited to keep on traveling!

Road Trip Necessities

I haven’t taken a road trip that has lasted longer than my 5.5 hour drive back to school in Milwaukee since I was 7. In the early 1990s, my family drove to Mount Rushmore in our Volvo, listening to Raffi for approximately 8.5 of the 9 hours it took us to get there. We stopped at the Corn Palace and Wall Drug, my brothers and I had matching sunglasses, and we took the obligatory photos that prove I was cuter, blonder, and more stylish when I was 7 than I am today.

This summer, I’m undertaking a pretty massive road trip that will last 3 weeks and 3300 miles for several reasons:

  1. I haven’t before, and that’s a good enough reason to do anything.
  2. I have to get to Salt Lake City for a National Endowment for the Humanities Landmark Seminar on Manifest Destiny and the Mormon Trail somehow.
  3. Along the way to SLC, there are people to see and places to visit. I get to see some friends that I haven’t seen in a while, and experience parts of the country that I’ve never seen!

My entire road trip will keep me within “fly-over country;” the crassly-named, non-descriptive way to categorize an entire HALF of our country. I’m a proud midwesterner, and though Minnesota’s topographic features may be lacking, I’m excited to share the beauty and diversity of the great plains and the Rocky Mountains with my kids and my friends.

In preparation for this undertaking, I’m trying to populate a list of road trip basics:

  • A road trip playlist: needs to be upbeat and singable enough to keep you awake, and diverse enough not to become repetitive. Though I’d love lots of suggestions, some of my go-tos are: anything John Legend has ever sung, the original cast recording of Rock of Ages (the stage production, NOT the movie!), which is a nonsense story, but a GREAT soundtrack, and Hamilton. Because duh.
  • Road trip snacks: portable, not messy, and won’t make me feel like death as I’m driving through Wyoming. Also will keep me from spending hundreds of dollars (and gaining hundreds of pounds) on soda and chips at gas stations, hopefully!
  • Road trip-themed reads: though I’m glad to be visiting friends and seeing and doing fun things, I’ll also spend quite a bit of time alone. Good books with themes about travel and adventure, self-discovery, or nonfiction about nearly anything are always appreciated!
  • Pit-stops: I don’t sit in cars well, so having sights to stop and see will make the drive significantly more pleasant. It just so happens that a large portion of my route will take me along the Oregon/Mormon Trail, and will give me plenty of historical sights to stop and see (and parts of my childhood to reminisce):

On the way from Salt Lake City to Madison, Wisconsin, with a pit stop in Sioux City for a family wedding, I’ll also be stopping in Kearney, Nebraska, at another Oregon Trail highlight, the Field of Dreams movie site, and the New Glarus brewery, for the best Wisconsin has to offer.

I’ll be chronicling my trip during and after, in hopes of highlighting the beauty and uniqueness of this region of the country, but first, let me know: what else do I need to know about road trips to make this enjoyable, rather than painful?

Safe travels to all who have summer adventures on the horizon! MC Lean