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A Literary Road Trip Across South Dakota

Visiting South Dakota State and National Parks on a Road Trip from Minnesota to Wyoming

Geese float peacefully among the cliffs of Palisades State Park.

South Dakota seems synonymous with family road trips, summer vacations and heading “out west.” Every time we drive that direction from Minneapolis, there’s a feeling of anticipation as the landscape gradually changes from hills, to flat prairie, to a more rugged and rocky type of Great Plains geology.  

Recently, my husband and I set out like Lewis and Clark to explore South Dakota—only with much more pleasant accommodations in our little Winnebago Rialta RV.  Our itinerary ran from east to west along I-90 where we hoped to see stunning rock formations, historic locales, uncrowded spaces and the wildlife for which this region is known.  Our journey included stops at three parks: Palisades State Park, Badlands National Park and Custer State Park.

Hitting the plains fires up my imagination with images of rugged pioneers, native Americans and western life–images that came from books I’ve been reading since childhood, starting with Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House on the Prairie” series. In fact, De Smet, where Laura lived as an adult is about an hour and a half north of our first stop in Palisades Park.  So if you’re a fan you might want to veer north for a visit.  Be sure to read the less happy but more accurate story of Laura’ real life, Prairie Fires (a great for book groups). 

Palisades State Park

Climbing is popular in Palisades State Park in South Dakota. Courtesy of SD Tourism

Split Rock Creek, the centerpiece of Palisades State Park in eastern South Dakota, isn’t a huge body of water but it’s had an outsized impact on this rocky gem of a spot about 20 miles from Sioux Falls.   

Here, the creek cut deep gorges through the billion-year-old Sioux quartzite rock that lines its banks.  That resulted in 50-foot vertical cliffs and intricate rock formations that are popular with kayakers, rock climbers and photographers.

Back in the mid-1800s, the rushing creek also powered a flour mill on the bluff that overlooks the park.  Starting in 1862, the tiny town of Palisades grew up around the the mill.  However, with the promise of free lots, the railroad soon lured businesses away to the nearby town of Garretson where its rail yard was located and the town of Palisades faded away.

Palisades State Park opened in 1972 and has remained one of the South Dakota’s smallest parks—until now.  For comparison, at 71,000 acres, Custer State Park at the opposite end of I-90, dwarfs its little cousin, Palisades.  But in spring of 2020, about 270 acres were added to the park for a total of nearly 435 acres. Park officials expect to add 75 new camp sites for a total of 109 sites along with more cabins, hiking trails, day use areas, improved habitat for wildlife viewing, and park programs.  

Badlands National Park

Fascinating geology in the Badlands

Midway across South Dakota, the Badlands gouge through the flat plains with eons-old rock formations that resemble a moonscape.  On previous trips to points further west we simply drove through the park for a quick look. We thought it didn’t offer much more than barren (though pretty impressive) rock.  This time we stayed for two days.  Our hikes and scenic drives revealed not only fascinating geological formations but also plenty of life including wildflowers, agitated prairie dogs and mountain goats galore. 

But it surely doesn’t seem like great farmland.  That didn’t stop the hopeful homesteaders who arrived in this area after the Homestead Act of 1862 provided the opportunity for folks to head west to acquire land.  It was theirs for, say $18 for 160 acres if they lived on it for five years. You can view the some of the land they settled at the Badlands National Park’s Homestead Overlook.  Most of the land claims turned into “Starvation Claims” and were abandoned or sold.  

Here’s a story I’ll bet you haven’t heard about:  African Americans were prominent among the region’s homesteaders.  Many were introduced to the area when they were Buffalo Soldiers.  You can read about these pioneers in a gripping novel, The Personal History of Rachel Dupree by Ann Weisgarber.  The book starts out with a family lowering their little girl down a well to scoop out the last of the water on their drought-stricken farm. It grabbed me from the very start.  Also, The Conquest by Oscar Micheaux is a semi-autobiographical novel of a black homesteader in Gregory County during the early 1900’s

The faces at Mount Rushmore don’t wear masks. Neither do the tourists who visit.
Crazy Horse Memorial offers a nice little museum and Native American cultural programming.

We visited on the way to Custer State park we visited South Dakota’s trademark, Mount Rushmore. The four faces appear on promotional material, license plates and have been featured during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. Cool if you’ve never seen it before, but crowded. We headed to a similarly giant sculpture nearby, the Crazy Horse Memorial, which I liked better because it has a nice little museum and Native American programming.

Custer State Park

At the opposite end of I-90, we explored Custer State Park, South Dakota’s largest state park. At 71,000 acres the huge park seems more like a national park. It offers hiking, boating, fishing and plenty of wildlife including bison traffic jams. 

Buffalo calves in Custer State Park, South Dakota

A view from atop Black Elk Peak.

One of my favorite hikes was the one up Black Elk Peak, a 7,242-foot granite mountain with an historic stone firetower at the top.  It’s considered the highest peak east of the rockies, depending on if you think the 8,749-foot Guadaloupe Peak in Texas is east of the Rockies or part of them .  The beginning of the 7.6-mile loop trail is bedazzled with shiny mica rock which makes it look like it’s paved with rhinestones, quite magical.  

The porch at State Game Lodge in Custer State Park. The lodge was the summer white house for presidents Calvin Coolidge and Dwight Eisenhower.

For non-campers, Custer offers historic lodges and cabins, including State Game Lodge built of native stone and wood in 1920 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It served as the “Summer White House” for President Calvin Coolidge in 1927 and was visited by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1953.  Book ahead and stay in their historic rooms.  Even if you’re not staying there, the Lodge welcomes diners  in the restaurant and you can carry out food to eat outdoors.  We enjoyed cocktails on the Lodge’s front porch before returning to our camp site.

Read Up

Anyone interested in enriching their South Dakota travel experience will find an abundance of great books about both the state’s history and modern life, too.  Here’s my list:

Crazy Horse and Custer: The Parallel Life of Two American Warriors–Stephen Ambrose

Dakota : A Spiritual Geography–Kathleen Norris

The Last Stand–Nathaniel Philbrook

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee–Dee Brown

The Golden Bowl –Frederick Feikema Manfred

Buffalo for the Broken Heart–Dan O’Brien

A Road trip through the flint hills of kansas: Part One

On a road trip through the Flint Hills of Kansas, travelers experience the otherworldly beauty of America’s prairie and meet the people who make the Flint Hills their home.

 The middle of the U.S. seems like a featureless place, “Flyover Country” and for road trippers, “Drive-By Country,” that’s easy to dismiss on your way to a more interesting destination. Even though I live in Minnesota, which often falls in that “flyover” category, I’ve been as misguided as all the other travelers who eschew the plains and prairies for more dramatic place with mountains and oceans.  Without slowing down to look, I didn’t see the quiet drama of the land here, or the interesting people who are so proud of the land where their families have lived for generations.

Actually, if you’re looking for dramatic scenery, put prairie fires near the top of your list.

For example, on road trip to the southwest last spring, we blasted by the Flint Hills of Kansas making a beeline down the center of the country on I-35.  The only thing we noticed on the way past the edge of the Flint Hills was that much of the land was on fire.  “Those poor people,” I thought. “Their land is in flames.”  (Actually, if you’re looking for dramatic scenery, put prairie fires near the top of your list.) But I didn’t know the significance of those flames, which are far from accidental.

The Lure of the Prairie

Our trip started in Wichita, the largest city in the state of Kansas. Before the trip I read Sarah Smarsh’s bestseller Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth.  Her book covers many of the reasons why farm families and women in particular stay trapped in a cycle of poverty.  She depicts what was both beautiful and sorrowful growing up in this region. 

However, Smarsh’s New York Times op-ed “Something Special is Happening in Rural America” offers a more upbeat view of what’s going on in rural areas across the country. She reports “a prairie trend of young people, drawn by family ties and affordable entrepreneurship, returning to rural and small-town homes around college graduation. They’re opening restaurants or starting small, unconventional farming operations.” 

Casey Cagle, owner of Prairie Earth Tours discusses native grasses and plants in the Flint Hills
Casey Cagle, owner of Prairie Earth Tours

We met these folks in the Flint Hills, starting with our tour guide, Casey Cagle, owner of Prairie Earth Tours. He grew up in the region, traveled the world as a tour guide for other operators, then came home to start his own business.

First Stop:  Elderslie Farm

goats in goat barn at Elderslie Farms in Kansas
Friendly goats at Elderslie Farm. Check the farm’s website for timing of farm dinners, often featuring their own goat milk cheese.

Drive just a few minutes from the Wichita city limits and you’ll find yourself in farm country.  We stopped at Elderslie Farm on our way to the Flint Hills, a cool place where George Elder (a former teacher) and his family have turned family land into a “small unconventional farming operation” like those in Smarsh’s essay. They offer an array of opportunities for visitors to enjoy “agritourism” at its best. 

For example, their family home has become a restaurant  where you’ll see family portraits in the dining room and menus that incorporate regional food. George’s wife, Katharine, is the executive chef. You can pick blackberries, meet their herd of goats and slurp tasty goat milk gelato and outstanding goat milk cheese, too. At Elderslie Farm they also mill local black walnut trees into boards and slabs that architects and carpenters value to create stunning furniture and other decor.

Katherine and George Elderslie at Elderslie Farm in Kansas
Katharine and George Elder at Elderslie Farm.
Mouthwatering goat cheese from Elderslie Farm goats in Kansas.

Grace Hill Winery

From Elderslie Farm, you may want to stop at Grace Hill Winery in Whitewater which the Sollo family launched in 2008  on an abandoned homestead.  Their wines revolve around cold climate grapes grown on the farm and from other parts of Kansas.  

Grace Hill Winery incorporates art and humor on its wine labels.

The 23 types of wine they offer tend to the sweet side and come with distinctive names such as their best-seller, Peckerhead Red, as well as Dodging Tornadoes, Flatlander and Cloe’s Cuvee (named after the family dog) with equally clever labels to match.  For me, the dryer white Vignoles offers more crisp and fruity appeal. They’re happy to sell you a few bottles to take along on your trip.

Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve

sign at entrance of Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve
Welcome to the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in the Flint Hills of Kansas. It’s a partnership of the Nature Conservancy and the National Park Service.

The Flint Hills run through Kansas roughly from Wichita in the South to Topeka in the north.  In the southern Flint Hills, you’ll find Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, which the National Park Service operates in partnership with the Nature Conservancy.

Stretching 18-to 20 feet deep, the massive root system of prairie grasses–big bluestem, wild alfalfa, switchgrass, Indian grass and buffalo grass–sequester more carbon than a forest.

This 11,000 acre preserve is a portion of the vast tallgrass prairie that once covered more than 170 million acres of the United States, from Indiana to Kansas and from Canada to Texas. Nearly all of it is gone, plowed under for agriculture or urban development. Of the roughly 4 percent that remains today, about two-thirds survives in the Flint Hills of Kansas and in Oklahoma.

Early explorers considered the tall grass prairie “the Great American Desert” but on a park service tour of the preserve, I learned there’s much more going on in the waving grasses than meets the eye.  Stretching 18-to 20 feet deep, the massive root system of prairie grasses–big bluestem, wild alfalfa, switchgrass, Indian grass and buffalo grass–sequester more carbon than a forest.

Tall grass and flowers stretch as far as the eye can see at the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Flint Hills, Kansas.

Author William Least Heat-Moon wrote in great detail about this section of the prairie in his 1991 book, PrairyErth (A Deep Map).  I mean huge detail, so you may want to do some skimming to get through this 600-plus-page volume, but it’s worth it for the background and wry observations that Heat-Moon offers.

Standing in the middle of this sea of grass, one feels as William Least Heat Moon described it, “open to the elements—wind, rain, cold and fire.” 

Especially the wind. He says “the grasses are the “offspring of the wind.”   The wind he says, “works to the detriment of trees, but grasses bend and keep their wild parts under ground.” Stretching 18-to 20 feet deep, the massive root system of prairie grasses–big bluestem, wild alfalfa, switchgrass, Indian grass and buffalo grass–sequesters more carbon than a forest.

naturalist at Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve
Hold onto your hat. The wind is factor in prairie ecology as you’ll understand on a visit to the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve.

And, though you’d never expect it, prairies are second to the rainforests in biodiversity. The preserve holds 500 species of plants, nearly 150 species of birds, 39 species of reptiles and amphibians, and 31 species of mammals. It’s a critical habitat for monarch butterflies and prairie chickens, too.  In 2009, The Nature Conservancy and the National Park Service reintroduced bison to the preserve. The herd has reached 100 bison and you may see them on your tour.

Prairie Fires

Even this small remainder of tallgrass prairie wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the layers of chert (flint) in the ground here that gave the Flint Hills region its name.  Thankfully, the rocky terrain the Flint Hills region was too rocky to farm, saving it from the plow. However, the rich grasses were perfect for animal grazing, first buffalo, then cattle.  But, without the natural prairie cycle of weather, fire and animal grazing the land would become forested.  That’s why, since the days of the earliest human occupants of the prairie, people have burned the land to renew the grass and keep trees from taking over. 

fire on flint hills prairie at night'
a controlled burn of the prairie grassland in Kansas

Each spring, Flint Hills ranchers set fire to the grassy land, often dragging a device called a fire stick (basically a long pipe connected to a gasoline tank) behind an ATV. Unlike other regions of the U.S., fire here means renewal, not fear.  In a few weeks, the land is green with fresh grass and the cycle resumes.

See my next post for more on the Flint Hills.

(The striking fire photos at the beginning and the end of this article come courtesy of Kansas Tourism.)

Move over, Jack Kerouac. Five Books by Women to Inspire Your Next Trip

The most famous travel books have been written by men: Travels with Charley, On the Road, and Blue Highways, to name a few. But women have been “on the road,” too, and not just Route 66.

I love reading books about women’s adventures. I especially like funny stories, with plenty of travel mistakes, misadventures, mix-ups. And, I appreciate most the stories that weren’t inspired by trauma, bad boyfriends, dead or abusive husbands, or the authors’ search for new love. Eat…pray…you know what I’m talking about. Instead, I go for the stories that were simply rooted in a woman’s daring and love of adventure. Here are a few favorites.

A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains, Isabella BirdUnknown
The amazing Isabella Bird was an Englishwoman who lived a life of continual travel and was, as a result, the first woman to be elected the the Royal Geographic Society. She came to Colorado in 1873, three years before it became a state. She traveled solo through the wilderness and covered more than eight hundred miles during her journey around Colorado, which she described in letters that she wrote to her younger sister in Scotland. The letters were published in 1879 as A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains, part travelogue, part memoir, part character study of the people who settled on the frontier, especially “Mountain Jim,” a handsome trapper and desperado with whom she was fascinated. Bird was also one of the first of a genre that we now call “environmental writers.”

By Motor to the Golden Gate, Emily PostUnknown-7
Emily Post was a travel writer. Who knew? This book is a reprint of articles originally published on Colliers Magazine seven years before she became famous for her book on etiquette. In 1915, Post documented her New York-to-San Francisco road trip investigating whether it was possible to drive comfortably across the country an automobile. That was a valid question since few women of her Gilded Age background did such daring things and because she was driving on the Lincoln Highway, this country’s first transcontinental highway. 

The Wilder Life, Wendy McClurewilderlifecover-e1287450561388
Do you travel to visit places where you can pursue hobbies or a particular interest? Wendy McClure sets the bar high for anyone who travels in pursuit of a particular passion. In her case it’s Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie books and her effort to re-create “Laura World” for herself. She investigates the settings and activities that have made several generations of young readers flock to the Little House books and to the sites across the Midwest where they took place. See my article my previous post on this book and my article, Novel Destinations, for my own encounter with Laura World.

The Good Girls Guide to Getting Lost, Rachel FreidmanUnknown-8
We’ve read plenty about bad boys on the road; Jack Kerouac is the most famous.  That’s why it’s nice to learn that good girls like Rachel Friedman can take risks and open themselves to great new experiences. She goes to Ireland on a whim where she forms a friendship with a free-spirited Australian girl, a born adventurer, who spurs her on to a yearlong odyssey that takes her to Australia and South America, too, and learns to cultivate her love for adventure.

No Touch Monkey, Ayun Halliday
If you’ve ever made grievous errors in judgement while traveling, you’ll relate to Halliday’s experiences, which she doesn’t hesitate to share— from hygiene to intestinal problems to a collagen implant demonstration during Paris fashion week with her mother.Unknown-9I enjoyed her sarcastic writing style, her impressive globe-trotting, and her openness to adventures that wouldn’t even occur to me. She’s a witty observer of the details that most travelers see but forget about. For example, the title comes from a sign she saw in Bali with rules to assure “your enjoymen and safety” including: “Never grab a monkey. If a monkey gets on you, drop all your food and walk a way until it jumps off.”

 

 

Beer and Books in Wisconsin

The Bookmobile headed for Wisconsin.

Mark Twain said, “I have found out that there ain’t no surer way to find out whether you like people or hate them than to travel with them.”  One of my book clubs travels fairly often, usually on short jaunts to members’ cabins, and we’ve found out that we like each other a lot, even with the extra large dose of “togetherness” that comes with group travel.

Last week ten of us piled into a 33-foot R.V. and drove to Three Lakes, Wisconsin. That’s about five hours from Minneapolis, and not far from Rhinelander, home of a mythical creature called a Hodag.  We stayed at a member’s cabin there, using the R.V. as an extra bedroom.  We used the opportunity to plan our reading list for the coming year (check it out below) and to discuss a book that takes place, in part, in Wisconsin, Wallace Stegner’s classic, Crossing to Safety.

Though we try to retain a bookish façade, I have to admit that much of our time was

Jake's provides most of the things one needs on vacation.

spent on the activities for which Wisconsin is famous, with Jake’s Bar at the center of intellectual pursuits such as darts and pool, beer and cheese curds.  We just call it “promoting literacy.”

The List

Driftless — David Rhodes

In Caddis Wood — Mary Rockcastle

Breakfast at Tiffany’s —Truman Capote

Cutting for Stone
— Abraham Verghese

The Postmistress
—Sarah Blake

The Paris Wife —Paula McLain

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks —Rebecca Skloot

The Irresistible Henry House —Lisa Grunwald

Unbroken
—Laura Hillenbrand.

The Language of Flowers —Vanessa Diffenbaugh

My Nest
Isn’t Empty, It Just Has More Closet Space —Lisa Scottoline