We woke up at the Argo after a stormy night to gorgeous sunshine, cool temperatures, and Mary’s birthday! Had a great breakfast of scrambled eggs, sausage, fruit, and biscuits and gravy before bidding farewell to this fun and unique historic hotel.
Our first stop was the local Lewis & Clark Welcome Center, where we took in a great view of the Missouri Valley. Soon we were headed across the bridge to Yankton, South Dakota. We were going to Spirit Mound!
Spirit Mound (Paha Wakan to the Indians) is a noted hill with a sweeping panoramic view of the surrounding plains. It was known by the Indians as the dwelling place of tiny devils who shoot intruders with arrows. Naturally, when Lewis and Clark heard about the place, they had to see it. Leaving the boats behind, they set off with 11 men and Lewis’s dog, Seaman, to hike the nine miles of prairie on a hot August day in 1804.
York fell out from heat and exhaustion, and Seaman had to be sent back with one of the men. But the view from the 70-foot summit (tall by South Dakota standards) was worth it. This was the first time on the trip that the captains had been so far from the river valley and gotten a good look at the tallgrass prairie, so different from the wooded landscapes they were used to back east. As Clark wrote:
from the top of this Mound we beheld a most butifull landscape; Numerous herds of buffalow were Seen feeding in various directions, the Plain to the N. W & N E extends without interuption as far as Can be Seen- … no woods except on the Missouri Points…if all the timber which is on the Stone Creek [Vermillion River] was on 100 a[c]res it would not be thickly timbered, the Soil of those Plains are delightfull.
Lewis and Clark marveled at the abundance of animals and birds they saw on their hike, which included hundreds of buffalo and elk, and sampled the bounty of wild currants, plums, and grapes, which Clark pronounced “the best I ever tasted.”
We didn’t find any grapes, but overall we had it a lot easier than Lewis and Clark for our own hike. Not only did we have perfect blue skies and big fluffy clouds, but we got to park nearby and take a beautiful one-mile trail through fields sown with colorful prairie wildflowers and buzzing with dragonflies and butterflies.
The trail winds around to the back of the hill, where we climbed to the summit. It is one of the few places in America where you know that Lewis and Clark were RIGHT HERE. We stood where they stood and saw what they saw. It was wonderful to walk in their footsteps and feel that we, too, had made progress on our journey.
We hung around a while, enjoying this beautiful scene. Spirit Mound is in the process of being restored from long-term use as a cattle feedlot to native prairie. Today, the view from the hill is much more like what Lewis and Clark would have seen than at any time for many decades. It will only improve as the years go by.
We didn’t want it to end, but eventually we did bug out. You can’t tour the Lewis & Clark Trail without having to cover some serious ground at some point, and most of the day was devoted to doing just that. In the process, we discovered the true meaning of the following joke: “South Dakota has two seasons: winter and construction.” I understand why we encountered miles of construction, but it made the rest of the day less fun and more tiring than I expected.
We stopped in Mitchell to see two things. I remember liking the Corn Palace on a family vacation in long-ago 1985. I’ve changed since then, and I think Mitchell has too. The Moorish-style building is still neat, but the surrounding area is a kitschy, repellent Pottersville. We fled in just minutes for beautiful Lake Mitchell and the Prehistoric Indian Village.
This site turned out to be great. Here archeologists are unearthing the remains of dozens of earth lodges that date back about one thousand years. These people were the ancestors of the Mandans and Hidatas, and the stone tools, pottery, and buffalo bones found here tell the story of a people who, far from being primitive, lived in a large urban area that was a minor hub of a vast continental trading network that stretched from the Pacific Coast to Cahokia to Mexico. In an echo of the Corn Palace’s fame, it turns out that the Mitchell Indians were most noted for the quality and variety of their maize.
You can take in a good visitor center here as well as walk under the Archeodome, a gigantic dome that covers the main dig site and contains labs and work space for the students and archeologists studying the site. One thing I realized here was how little I really knew about the people and animals who lived in this place. For example, until I saw the buffalo skeleton here, I never realized that their humps are not just fat, but structured by large, flat extensions of the great beast’s vertebrae.
Our overnight stop tonight was in Chamberlain, which Lewis and Clark called Camp Pleasant. That would have been a good name for Al’s Oasis, where we found a nice motel, a yummy restaurant with good pie, and a big store with just about anything a traveler would need. Finished the day with a nice soak in the hot tub. It was nice to be away from our cares.