Archive for the ‘South Dakota’ Category

The beauty and majesty of Badlands National Park

We enjoyed a yummy breakfast at the Holiday Inn Express and then headed out for our final big haul across South Dakota today. Our destination — the Badlands.

We made it past Rapid City and even managed to avoid Wall Drug (having pretty well “seen the elephant” there as kids — along with the giant jack rabbit, free ice water, and many other charms). Soon we were rolling into the spectacular, desolate vistas of Badlands National Park.

Driving the Badlands. The spectacle is available for all who take the time to see.

The badlands of South Dakota differ from the North Dakota badlands we saw at Theodore Roosevelt National Park. They are starker and drier, with less vegetation. They are just as beautiful and impressive. Massive, striated buttes and peaks stretch out across vast horizons, many eroded into fantastical castles and spires. These are the eroded remains of an ancient inland sea which covered the land about 75 million years ago. Over the millennia this land has played home to ocean and jungle, dinosaurs and other exotic extinct creatures, and finally desert, tough and crazy homesteaders, and one of America’s most famous national parks.

The landscape appears eternal, but the forces of erosion are always at work here

We spent several hours driving the park’s scenic loop, admiring the Badlands from the various great overlooks. Neither words nor photos can adequately capture the magnificent scale, fantastic formations, and timeless dessicated land that unfolds before visitors to this unique place.

Portrait of eons of change

Life finds a way at the Badlands

There is human history here too, though most of it isn’t very happy. The Indians hunted in the Badlands, but like most people, avoided too much travel through the dry and difficult terrain. A famous exception came in 1890. For over a year the Sioux Reservation had been rocked by terrible trouble. The Sioux people, already forced to live on reservations, were being displaced and pushed aside to make room for homesteaders. Desperate for the return of the buffalo and their native ways, the Sioux were gripped by a spiritual uprising called the Ghost Dance. As we wrote about in The Two Graves of Sitting Bull, the uprising took a horrible turn on December 16, 1890, when Indian agency police moved in to arrest Sitting Bull at his camp near Mobridge, South Dakota. In the resulting gun fight, Sitting Bull, seven of his followers, and six Indian police officers were killed.

Spotted Elk (Big Foot)

The surviving ghost dancers decided to flee south under the leadership of Spotted Elk (also known as Big Foot), a half-brother of Sitting Bull who was a respected chief known for advocating peace and reconciliation with the whites. The group swelled to over 350 people, all trying to make it to the Pine Ridge Reservation where they could band together with tough, savvy Red Cloud and his people. But they didn’t make it. Instead, they were intercepted by the Seventh Cavalry (Custer’s old unit). Weary and ill with pneumonia, Spotted Elk ordered his people to put up no resistance.

They set up camp near a creek called Wounded Knee. Most people know what happened next. On December 29, 1890, the troops attempted to confiscate the weapons of the Sioux. Some of the people began to do the ghost dance. Others refused to give up their weapons without compensation. Someone fired a shot. Any actual fighting lasted a minute or two at most. The army officers could not restrain their men, who used machine guns to fire into the milling crowd of exhausted Indian civilians. Over 250 Indians and 60 soldiers were killed (the latter mostly by friendly fire).

Though we weren’t equipped to do so, you can visit Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, and find buffalo herds, fossils, and the sites of ghost dances and other Native American history in the South Unit of Badlands National Park. Most of this area is accessible only via unpaved roads deep in the park’s interior and/or hiking on ancient buffalo trails. The park service asks that explorers be experienced wilderness trekkers and know what they are doing, which left us out. An additional hazard is thousands of shells and unexploded ordnance from the Air Force bombing and gunnery range that blasted a large portion of this incomparable landscape and Indian homeland from the 1940s to the 1960s.

As for us, we were pretty parched by the time we reached the end of the park loop and the cute and inviting Cedar Pass Lodge, where we relaxed with BLTs and icy Cokes. The gift shop here was truly superlative, with a great selection of books, Indian art, jewelry, and classy gifts. We took the time to go through the park visitor center, which has good exhibits on the geology, flora, and fauna of the park.

One last look

Touring this park took most of the day, and was well worth it. Afterwards, we had a long haul to make it to our final overnight stop back at Al’s Oasis in beautiful Chamberlain on the wide Missouri. Our dinner was a fitting one. After spending so many days on the road learning about, searching for, and seeing buffalo, tonight we ate them, in the form of delicious buffalo burgers. Washed it down with a slice of apple pie.

The Badlands was our final sightseeing stop on our 2009 trip along the Lewis & Clark Trail through Nebraska and the Dakotas. I adore reading, but there is nothing like seeing places with your own eyes, feeling the heat or the cold, and learning the local lore to truly make the history of our great country come alive. On this trip, I got an unforgettable sense of the sweep of time, from ancient seas to dinosaurs to the millennia of Indian history to the explorers and pioneers who sought to conquer the wilderness and bend it to human will.

The road trip blog entries have been really popular — thank you! — and starting after the holidays we will be blogging about many of the other Lewis & Clark sites across the country that we have had the opportunity to visit. And here’s to more adventures on the trail in 2010!


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Spearfish Canyon in the Black Hills of South Dakota

We rolled out for a great pancake breakfast at a lively Bowman diner called JaBRs. We were “bugged” by a funny old guy who seemed to be a regular. He told us it was his job to go around bugging everyone in the restaurant.

Then it was off for points south and a couple of endless hours driving across the dry and featureless North Dakota plains, enlivened only by a couple of tiny towns and a few escaping cows. All of that changed when we got to Spearfish, a cute town at the edge of the Black Hills of South Dakota. The setting was nice, and we revived ourselves with a very welcome iced coffee at McDonald’s.

We had been to the Black Hills on a family vacation when we were kids, and gotten to see Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse, Custer State Park, and other famous attractions. This time, we were passing through for one day only, and decided to spend our time seeing some things we missed way back then. From Spearfish, we entered the spectacular Black Hills Scenic Byway, an engineering marvel and great drive that takes you through beautiful, sheer Spearfish Canyon. The road winds through rugged forested cliffs towering above a pristine creek bubbling through the woods.

We took full advantage of the many turnouts where you can stop and marvel at the view. If you’re in a hurry, you should still take the time to enjoy the delicate and idyllic site of Bridal Veil Falls. We also had a great lunch at a nice cafe/gift shop called Cheyenne Crossing, where we feasted on Indian tacos on tasty fry bread and tangy lemonade.

The famous "Open Cut" of Hearst's Homestake Mine (1876-2001) in Lead, South Dakota

From the restaurant, it was only a short drive to the tiny old mining town of Lead (pronounced “Leed”). This turned out to be a great place to stop! At the center of Lead, you will find the Homestake Mine, an enormous strip mine or “open cut” from which gold, silver, and other industrial minerals and metals were extracted from the earth from 1876 until 2001, when the company shut the mine down and “donated” it back to the town. This was the mine that made the Hearst family fortune and, not coincidentally, provided the gold leaf for William Randolph Hearst’s famous swimming pool at San Simeon.

Black Hills Mining Museum in Lead, South Dakota

As gigantic as the Open Cut is, it represents only a fraction of what went on underground. Beneath the town, tunnels hundreds and even thousands of feet in length honeycomb the earth. To learn more, we went to the Black Hills Mining Museum, an unprepossessing little building packed with history. We perused the displays that explained the inextricably linked history of the Homestake Mine and the company town of Lead, but the real highlight was the escorted tour of the underground portion of the museum, which simulates a section of the Homestake Mine (the real mine is too dangerous for tours).

Our tour guide was a boy named Mikey, a slight and likeable teenager who turned out to be a subject matter expert on the mine. It was amazing that someone so young could know so much. Mikey regaled us with a virtual treasure trove of information about the historic development of the mine and mining techniques. For example, we learned that the mine was some 8000 feet deep (in addition the 1200-foot hole of the Open Cut), encompassed over 400 miles of railroad tracks, and that the miners had to extract over a ton of rock for a single ounce of gold.

Mikey led us through a number of underground displays showing the technological advances in the mine, from spike and sledge driving by hand to modern mechanized hydraulic drills. Mikey’s father had worked in the mine, and it was interesting to hear about the town’s struggles to survive after Homestake pulled out. In a fascinating twist, we learned that the abandoned mine was taking on a new life. A wealthy South Dakotan named T. Denny Sandford has given $72 million to have an underground particle laboratory built in the mine to study the properties of neutrinos.

I learned a tremendous amount during the afternoon we spent in Lead. This is a fascinating, horrifying place, a town that centers around a huge scar in the earth, and a monument to determined human ingenuity as well as greed on an insane scale.

Bust of Wild Bill Hickock at Mount Moriah Cemetery ("Boot Hill), Deadwood, South Dakota

And speaking of insanity and greed, we spent a little time driving through nearby Deadwood, where the f***in’ thoroughfare was jammed with hoopleheads (that’s a shoutout to all you fans of the HBO series, which we loved). I wasn’t sure whether it was just a typical Saturday in the casino town, or whether there was something special going on (there were beautiful classic cars all over the Black Hills on the day of our visit). In any case, we made our way up to Mount Moriah Cemetery and visited the graves of Wild Bill Hickock and Calamity Jane. In contrast with the town, this was a dignified and tasteful resting place for the outlaws to spend eternity.

Our overnight stop was Sturgis, where we stayed at an extra-nice Holiday Inn Express. Had a quiet supper at the “Pizza Ranch” next to the hotel and enjoyed a dip in the hot tub where we met some nice senior citizens returning to Montana from a trip to Chicago. Glad to turn in after a big day.

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We had a nice breakfast and gassed up in Mobridge, then bugged out for an amazing morning on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, seeing some of the most rugged and remote country of our lives. Our first stop was a lonely, windswept hill down a narrow ranch road that runs in back of an Indian casino. Here is the supposed burial site of the great Lakota medicine man, Sitting Bull.

Mary at Sitting Bull's grave near Mobridge, South Dakota. There are plans to create an interpretive center here so people can learn about Sitting Bull and his struggle.

Mary at Sitting Bull's grave near Mobridge, South Dakota. There are plans to create an interpretive center here so people can learn about Sitting Bull and his struggle.

Why “supposed”? Because Sitting Bull’s remains have not exactly rested in peace over the years. It all began on December 16, 1890, when a contingent of Indian policemen were dispatched from the army base at Fort Yates (North Dakota) to arrest the 56-year-old Sitting Bull. At the time, a spiritual uprising known as the Ghost Dance was sweeping through the Sioux nation, and some authorities believed that Sitting Bull was encouraging it. After all, this was the man whose leadership had played a key role in Custer’s defeat at the Little Bighorn fifteen years earlier. With his influence over his people, it often seemed there wasn’t much he couldn’t do — maybe even inspire an impoverished, defeated people to rise once more against their white conquerors.

As the role of Indian police reveals, the Lakota themselves were deeply divided. Some were eager to embrace the Ghost Dance fervor, which held out the promise that believers would see a kind of Judgement Day in which whites were swept from the earth and the buffalo returned, setting everything back to rights. Others saw clearly that, like it or not, the whites had won, and it was time to get haircuts, learn English, and adjust their minds to the new reality.  As for Sitting Bull, most historians believe that he was too pragmatic to put much stock in the Ghost Dance — but that he wouldn’t hesitate to try to turn it to his advantage if he thought his people might have one more chance for freedom.

The Ghost Dance. About two weeks after Sitting Bull's death, about 200 ghost dancers were massacred at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, marking the end of Indian resistance after four centuries.

The Ghost Dance. About two weeks after Sitting Bull's death, about 200 ghost dancers were massacred at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, marking the end of Indian resistance after four centuries.

When the Indian police tried to place Sitting Bull under arrest at his camp  on the Grand River, some forty miles from Fort Yates, all hell broke loose. A disastrous gun battle ensued in which Sitting Bull and seven of his followers, including his 17-year-old son, were fatally wounded; six Indian policemen also lost their lives.

Since the stunned and bloodied police had orders to bring Sitting Bull back “dead or alive,” they did just that, throwing his body in the back of their wagon along with their own dead. As High Eagle, one of the policemen, put it, “Well, we have gone to work, and we have killed our chief.”

Needless to say, these men were hardly in the mood to give any ceremony to the burial of Sitting Bull, not while six police families prepared for funerals. So the day after his death, it fell to J.F. Waggoner, a fort carpenter, to put together a hasty coffin. Waggoner embodied the wistful thoughts that gripped many of the whites who had matched wits over the years with the proud, intelligent chief: “For he was surely a fighter, a thinker, a chief, and a gentleman. He had eaten many a meal at my house, and I cannot but speak well of Sitting Bull.”

Sitting Bull was a big man who weighed in at about 250 pounds, and Waggoner held his breath as the body, still wrapped in the same bloody blanket in which it was transported the day before, “filled that box chock-a-block.” Before burial, Waggoner and four other soldiers were ordered to dowse the body with quicklime, a compound frequently used on the bodies of condemned men to make their bodies decompose more quickly.

Sitting Bull

Sitting Bull

Waggoner remembered, “We laid the noble old chief away without a hymn or a prayer or a sprinkle of earth. Quicklime was used instead. It made me angry. I had always admired the chief for his courage and his generalship. He was a man!”

 Fort Yates was dismantled in 1903, and all the military graves were moved. The town kept the name Fort Yates and remained as the headquarters of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. There Sitting Bull remained until April 1953, when a relation named Clarence Gray Eagle led a group who swooped into town in the dark of night, dug up the old hero’s bones, and made off with them to the site near Mobridge, which overlooked the mouth of his beloved Grand River (now inundated because of damming of the Missouri River). To make sure he stayed put, they entombed the grave with twenty tons of steel and concrete and erected a dignified monument sculpted by Korczak Ziolkowski, who went on to design the Crazy Horse memorial.

The Sacagawea monument was erected in the 1920s. Though the Indian woman was never here, she was then at the height of her popularity, given credit for guiding clueless Lewis and Clark across this continent.

The Sacagawea monument was erected in the 1920s. Though the Indian woman was never here, she was then at the height of her popularity, given credit for guiding clueless Lewis and Clark across this continent.

As we walked up to the beautiful, lonely spot, paint horses grazed near by, evoking the memory of Indian ponies. In spite of the stern, impressive monument that faces the river, a vast emptiness surrounds the grave. Neglect and cleanup were both in evidence here, and it was unclear which was carrying the day. It doesn’t really help that there is an inexplicable shaft nearby honoring Sacagawea. I love Sacagawea, but she was never anywhere near this place.

I didn’t feel Sitting Bull’s presence, though I doubt he would have approved of any of it. What I did feel was regret at the way the Sioux were driven off the land they’d occupied for God knows how many centuries.

Today we had a straight shot through the reservation on a portion of the designated “Native American Scenic Byway,” also called Highway 1806 in honor of Lewis & Clark. On the reservation, towns, houses, and even signs are in short supply. Under a vast sky, you simply roll along forever, praying you don’t get a flat tire, as sunflowers give way to rugged rolling hills and vast grasslands. I had the strangest feeling of being small and vulnerable. I was out of my element, and I knew it.

There wasn’t even a sign when we crossed into North Dakota. On the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, they don’t much care about such things.

This is the Standing Rock of the Lakota. This sacred stone is said to be the form of a mother and child.

This is the Standing Rock of the Lakota. This sacred stone is said to be the form of a mother and child.

We stopped in Fort Yates to see if we could find the site of Sitting Bull’s original burial. The town is dominated by a new and very nice agency headquarters, where we saw modern-day Indians just going about their normal daily lives — applying for driver’s licenses, registering kids for school, and attending government hearings. I felt too shy to ask anyone for directions to the Sitting Bull site, and our pilgrimage began to seem a little silly to me. For white people, the Sioux are frozen in time in 1890, the last time anyone paid them any mind. But here, no one was sitting around moping about Sitting Bull.

We caught a glimpse of a small and poorly marked plaque on our way out of town. But we didn’t turn back. The Lakota had moved on. Time for us to move on, too.

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We had a few bumps in the road after we left the splendor of Al’s Oasis in Chamberlain. We had intended to travel the long way to Pierre via the Native American Scenic Byway, a route through local roads that takes you through the Crow Creek and Lower Brule Sioux Reservations. This route closely follows the Missouri River and thus the route that Lewis and Clark took on their journey.

I started out feeling excited and adventurous, but wrong turns, poor to non-existent signage, and contradictory maps showing long sections of unpaved road defeated our efforts. After about two hours of fruitless exploration, we found ourselves back in Chamberlain where we started! I must admit I didn’t feel very “Lewis & Clark-y” after this experience. Has anyone driven this route? If so, let me know and maybe you could do a guest post. I’d love to hear about it and get some tips.

Fortunately, at least, it is a very quick jaunt up to Pierre if you follow the main highway, which is a straight shot through a wide, empty grassland. The capital of South Dakota (pronounced PEER)  is a compact prairie city reminiscent of Great Falls, Montana. Like most places in South Dakota, we found it dotted with road closures and construction.

View of Bad Humored Island (so named by William Clark) at Fischers-Lilly Park in Fort Pierre, South Dakota. It is difficult to visualize the frontier confrontation. Black Buffalo's fishing dock is in the foreground.

View of Bad Humored Island (so named by William Clark) at Fischers-Lilly Park in Fort Pierre, South Dakota. It is difficult to visualize the frontier confrontation. Black Buffalo's fishing dock is in the foreground.

Our first stop was just across the river in Fort Pierre’s Fischers Lilly Park, a cute, pleasant city park that lies at the confluence of the great blue Missouri and the small, green Bad River. There is significant Lewis & Clark history here. On September 24, 1804, Lewis and Clark set up camp here and arranged for some meetings with the Teton Sioux, well-known as the most powerful, dominant, and potentially dangerous tribe in the Upper Missouri. 

Things did not go well. The Sioux, who of course vastly outnumbered the Corps of Discovery, were less than thrilled to hear about their new Great Father, Thomas Jefferson. The reality was that they ruled the area and other nations paid tribute to them or suffered the consequences. They meant to keep it that way.

The main Sioux leaders–men named Black Buffalo, The Partisan, and Buffalo Medicine — wanted to let Lewis & Clark know that they didn’t appreciate the Americans’ plan to continue upstream and trade with the Arikara, Mandan, and Hidatsa villages. The Sioux could and did arrange for trade goods with the British. If anybody needed anything they could go through them. If Lewis and Clark insisted on going forward, they would have to pay the Sioux a hefty toll.

Unfortunately, nuanced communication was almost impossible between the two groups. Lewis and Clark had employed a Sioux-speaking interpreter for a time, but he had stayed behind in the Yankton area. They soldiered on with their council, making speeches, demonstrating their high-tech air gun, and handing out peace medals and other presents. The Sioux scorned the presents and demanded that the Corps pay for their passage by giving up one of the boats, known as the white pirogue, and stuffing it full of the trade goods that were intended to last for the entire cross-continental journey.

Bear Dance of the Sioux, by George Catlin

Bear Dance of the Sioux, by George Catlin

Both sides realized that their positions were irreconcilable and that they both had a lot to lose. Lewis and Clark invited the chiefs to go on a tour of the keelboat and sleep on board. They also passed out whiskey, which turned out to be a mistake when it nearly resulted in a brawl between the Indians and the crew. Black Buffalo also reached out, inviting Lewis and Clark to a grand feast and dance and offering the white chiefs a couple of beautiful young women to round out the evening. But when Lewis and Clark declined the girls’ company, the Indians were both puzzled and offended.

After more talks the next day, Lewis and Clark invited the chiefs over for another sleepover on the keelboat, but a boat accident that dumped the chiefs in the water only inflamed tensions. Almost two hundred warriors came to watch the chiefs being fished out of the drink, and sixty men camped on shore all night to keep watch on the keelboat. Lewis and Clark began to fear an attack was imminent. They decided that the next morning, the Corps would proceed upriver.

Seeing the preparations, The Partisan made his move, mobilizing men on shore to hold fast to the keelboat’s cable and reiterate the demands for tribute before the Expedition could pass. Black Buffalo, who was still on board and had become aware of how well-armed the Expedition was, tried to diffuse the tension by suggesting that the Indians would be content with a gift of American tobacco. Lewis lost his temper at what he saw as a childish game of gotcha. He ordered all remaining Indians off the boat, while Clark made ready the swivel gun, drew his sword, and got into a shouting match with The Partisan on shore.

In the end, it was Black Buffalo who resolved the situation without bloodshed. Back on shore, he shamed Lewis into handing over the tobacco, then jerked the cable out of the warrior’s hands so that the keelboat could pass. The expedition proceeded on, shaken and acutely aware of their vulnerability and their failure to reconcile this proud, warlike people to becoming part of the American sphere of influence. (Indeed, with descendants like Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Red Cloud, and Black Elk, the Teton Sioux would resist to the end.)

Liz at the beautiful South Dakota State Capitol

Liz at the beautiful South Dakota State Capitol

We crossed the river into Pierre and had a nice picnic by a pretty lake on the grounds of the state capitol. The sunny and breezy weather was a welcome change from Texas! Afterwards, we looked at some of the memorials and then went inside for a self-guided walking tour. The capitol is small but still majestic, with terrazo mosaic floors; marble columns; a beautiful kaleidoscopic dome of stained glass; murals of gods, goddesses, and South Dakota scenes; and a marble staircase that leads to the House and Senate chambers. Mary even found one of the rare blue floor tiles, used as a kind of special signature by the Italian artisans who created the floor in 1910.

After a stop at a Walgreen’s to restock our supply of cheapo t-shirts, we headed back along the river to a great place called Farm Island State Recreation Area. We took a short hike (where we saw a bunny) and then donned our bathing suits and hit the protected beach, where you can swim in the cold waters of the Missouri! It felt great to swim around and enjoy the beautiful sights of the woods across the river, the rising hills, and the enormous blue sky studded with big, fluffy clouds. By the time we got out and raced out of the cold wind to get dressed, we felt great. It was easy to feel close to Lewis and Clark here.

After our fun swim, we hauled on through about one hundred miles of sunflowers, little fat pheasants, and even a deer to our overnight stop at the Wrangler Inn in Mobridge. We had a good supper at the adjacent restaurant, then made an early night of it for once.

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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, South Dakota, a hill that the Indians believe vibrates with spiritual energy.

Spirit Mound, South Dakota, a hill that the Indians believe vibrates with spiritual energy.

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.

Liz at the summit. Lewis and Clark hiked this mysterious hill on August 25, 1804. Our journey was different, but often seemed to have as many obstacles.

Liz at the summit. Lewis and Clark hiked this mysterious hill on August 25, 1804. Our journey was different, but often seemed to have as many obstacles.

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.

World's Only Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota

World's Only Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota

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.

A bison skeleton

A bison skeleton

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.

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