Each week I receive several inquiries about places to see and things to do in the United States. With a country so huge and diverse, there is never an easy answer. Plus, although I have lived in several different locations and traveled widely for business and pleasure, I’ve really only seen a small part of the country myself so far.
To convey a broader perspective on the unique pleasures of exploring America, I’ve asked several of my colleagues to write about places they’ve lived and/or loved back home. First up is Adrian Pratt, talking about his great State of South Dakota.
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My South Dakota, by Adrian Pratt
South Dakota, most unexpectedly, stole our hearts. Arriving on a brutally cold winter’s morning my wife, a Florida girl, didn’t want to get out of the plane. Let’s just get this out of the way at the beginning: a South Dakota winter gets cold. Real cold.
But that does not in any way detract from its majestic, primal beauty. In fact, it underscores the point and forges a community out of its hardy, hardened citizens. Folks have each other’s backs in a way you have to when you are at war with the elements. Within minutes of our arrival, people’s genuine kindness made us feel a part of the state where my youngest son was later born and which I now call my spiritual home.
But the winters are only one element of the Mount Rushmore State. South Dakota is divided into East River and West River by the mighty Missouri, once navigated by the legendary explorers Merriwether Lewis and William Clark on their way to the far-off Pacific Ocean. The division is more than just a geographic feature on a map.
West River is rolling prairie that spills into the Badlands and then climbs into the forests of the Black Hills. It’s ranch country. The haunting, wild beauty of West River was powerfully captured by Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves.
And Dances with Wolves was not a selectively filmed movie made to recreate a by-gone age. Drive across the state on any road, and you are in the middle of an empty vastness that is a marvel to behold. And filled with beauty and life. If you’re lucky you might see a herd of antelope tearing across the Dakota steppes.
By contrast, East River is flat, largely treeless farmland divided into the grids called “quarter sections” that the pioneers received when they headed west in search of better lives.
We lived East River, as beautiful as West River but in an entirely different way. Because it was deforested by a glacier millions of years ago, you can see for miles to where the sky meets the horizon. Some city dwellers report a feeling akin to seasickness when they travel along the endlessly straight roads across the ocean of land. Not by chance were the covered wagons of the early pioneers referred to as prairie schooners.
It is not just the overwhelming land that makes an impression, though. It is the people, too. Mostly of German, Norwegian and Czech descent — with a few Russians thrown in — they are a kind, unhurried folk eager to make sure visitors understand and appreciate the wonders of their state.
Yes, they will boast of the Corn Palace in Mitchell, a building decorated by ears of corn …
… and take you shopping at the over-the-top, eccentric Wall Drug …
… and boast about the fact that Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of The Little House on the Prairie, called the town of De Smet home for many years. And of course they will talk for hours about the wonders of pheasant hunting, the likes of which you’ll be unlikely to find anywhere else.
Symbolically, the state capital, Pierre, sits in the middle of the two distinctive parts of the state, right on the Missouri River. With fewer than 14,000 inhabitants (about the size of Gore, New Zealand), it is the second least populated state capital (after Montpelier, Vermont). When in Pierre, you can visit the South Dakota Discovery Center & Aquarium, enjoy the Robinson Museum, take a tour of the Capitol, or catch some monster walleye in Lake Oahe.
If you’re feeling adventurous, you can even head out to Triple U Ranch, a 50,000 acre spread with 2,000 head of bison, which was used as one of the locations in Dances with Wolves. First Lieutenant John Dunbar’s hut sits near the main ranch and the owners are always welcoming of guests. But you’ll need to ask the locals for directions. I got hopelessly lost out there on my first visit.
South Dakota is often referred to as “flyover” country because people commuting from the busy coasts rarely stop by for a visit. Big mistake. They’re selling themselves short. South Dakota is the heartland, and it underscores to visitors just how vast and varied our country is.
Summer driving tours are a great American tradition, and South Dakota is an excellent addition to any such itinerary, whether by car, RV, or motorcycle. Many people visiting South Dakota drive on to Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, slip into Montana to visit Little Big Horn Battlefield National Monument (site of Custer’s last stand) or the dinosaur excavations, and then continue onward west to the glorious wilderness mecca of Yellowstone National Park. It’s a trip that will change you.
Though the state is about twice the size of England, it has just 750,000 inhabitants, which gives it an intimate feeling. It’s a place that often seems to have just two degrees of separation.
In a world where most people live in large, anonymous urban centers, South Dakota reminds of the days when neighbors had strong bonds and were a meaningful part of each other’s lives. During harvesting season in this breadbasket state, you regularly hear of farmers coming together to bring in the crops of a sick friend.
My car once broke down at the side of a highway in the middle of nowhere, and after 15 minutes I had to start waving people on because so many of them were stopping to see if I needed a hand. That’s a place I’m proud to call home.
Most tourists head to the western part of the state to visit the remarkable Mount Rushmore, carved out of the granite of the Black Hills over a 14-year period. Just up the road is the memorial to Crazy Horse, the famous Oglala Lakota warrior, which has been under construction since 1948. Once completed, the Crazy Horse Memorial will become the world’s largest sculpture, although that is still many years off.
Also in the Black Hills is the gambling town of Deadwood, listed as a National Historic Landmark. The town became infamous for the murder of Wild Bill Hickok in 1876, and was made even more so by a fairly brutal HBO series, Deadwood, starring Ian McShane. Hickok is buried in the small cemetery overlooking the town, along with Calamity Jane.
Deadwood has been tastefully restored, and you can once more play cards in the Saloon No. 10 where Hickok was killed, holding the “dead man’s hand” of aces and eights. On a more salubrious note, the 108-mile Mickelson rail trail ends in Deadwood, and there are spectacular hikes to be had just outside town.
If you like indoor as well as outdoor pleasures, the state won’t disappoint. For example, at the foot of the Black Hills sits Rapid City, home to some great prairie culture, most notably the Dahl Arts Center and the Journey Museum, which has marvelous natural history, Sioux, and pioneer exhibits.
With the stunning beauty of the hills and prairie, the wild bison of Custer State Park, quirky attractions like Wall Drugs, fabulous camping and skiing, hunting and fishing, rich Native American culture, Wild West historical sites, and much more …
… South Dakota is one of the hidden gems of the United States. If you visit you might just be pleasantly surprised and enchanted. In fact, I’m sure you will be. I know we were.
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