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journey to the center of america

Airstream trip to Mount Rushmore, Wall Drug, Belle Fourche and more

The wind blew so hard driving into Pierre South Dakota we nearly ran the DWR into a pasture. (Fun fact: it’s pronounced “peer”). Other drivers passed blithely by without seeming to notice but I was frantically searching weather.gov on the iPhone for tornado warnings.

The next day the wind died down and we left behind a perfect morning at the country’s most retarded state park. Oahe Downstream Recreation Area has two kinds of signage: none or misleading. “Stop! All Campers Must Register at the Visitors Center” reads a small marker posted in the middle of a road where there is no structure or sign of life. We weaved around and found a camp host on a golf cart who provided complicated directions (go back out this road, face the dumpstation, turn right at a little bridge, go a half mile, etc.) “Do you get this question a lot?” asked Ralph. “Every weekend!” the host answered congenially. “It gets to be a bother!” We made our way to the “visitor’s center” (an unmarked shack) where Ralph complained again. “I know!” said a lovely young woman who giggled and agreed with a bright smile. “There are no signs at all!” (Is this an episode of Punk’d?) If you can find it (good luck with that), there is a stunning breakfast joint at the marina there overlooking the Missouri River.

Hellbent to see as many tourist attractions in one day as possible, we began at the Badlands, renowned for…not sure. There are many rock formations. Ralph set out on his bike but didn’t get far before a crank failed and the pedal fell off (curse you, mech at Coventry Cycle).

Next stop: Wall Drug. Who can resist after being compelled to visit by the little billboards that begin appearing hundreds of miles away. Spoiler alert: the famous “Free Ice Water Store” is just the water tap in the self-service commercial drink dispenser machine next to the Lipton Brisk.

A better name for South Dakota would be Roadside America. Billboard after billboard on US16 and beyond directs families to sights like Safari Reptile Gardens, the midwest’s largest cave, the General Lee on display at an auto museum, and Dances with Wolves movie props at 1880 Town (“that looks like a must-avoid” observed Ralph).

Scenic bonus if you travel in August: Through two states—and now on the road to Mount Rushmore—hundreds of bikers were passing by in full Harley Davidson regalia. Thousands were on the highways, coming from all directions for the big motorcycle rally in Sturgis which was to start the following week. Maybe. Not even the “Official Publication of the 69th Sturgis Motorcycle Rally” (a 100-page magazine handed to me by a nervous rest stop host at the South Dakota border) included a schedule. I asked a few riders at Wall Drug when opening day was and answers ranged from “next week”, to “Wednesday” to “I’ve been there all month.” Curiously, many are towing enormous toy-hauling RVs with their motorcycles inside (defeating the purpose?)

If participation in an American tradition is your objective, Mount Rushmore won’t disappoint. Be prepared for a large, built-up complex including a multi-level parking structure. I looked for the Team America headquarters inside the monument, but it was only populated below by throngs of mostly happy patriotic people out for a good kitschy time. Bikers swarmed the area and adopted the town of Keystone (last civilization on the way to Mount Rushmore) as their Sturgis South, packing the bars and shops and lining the streets with motorcycles parked tight in neat rows.

Ralph and I maintain an unspoken tradeoff as we travel with the DWR. I’m able to visit a certain amount of pointless attractions (example, driving 40 minutes out of our way to see the worlds largest ball of string) and Ralph is welcome in return to escort the dogs and me under a blistering sun to examine rusted war machinery or visit the site where a fort USED to be. In preparation for Some History slated for the next day, I was encouraged to take a short detour on the way back from Mount Rushmore to experience the Cosmos Mystery Area (“Ball rolls uphill! The laws of nature gone berserk!”), the “strangest location in the Black Hills” (they clearly haven’t been to the Oahe Recreation Area).

The finale of our day was Belle Fourche SD (pronounced “foosh”), the Geographic Center of the Nation, more or less. A disclaimer sign at the visitor center declares that, with the statehood of Alaska in 1959, the actual “center” has now been dorked and lies 20 miles north in an inaccessible area so Close Enough, Take Your Picture Here. Nearby, a lovely campsite can be had at the Rocky Point Recreation Area on the edge of the Belle Fourche Reservoir.

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