Day 6, Dignity: of Earth and Sky, Chamberlain South Dakota, July 2023
(Ed. Note: As you all know, I grab chances to travel when possible, and I generally share the experiences with readers when I return. Today’s article covers a trip I recently made with Urban Woman, Urban Girl, and Urban Boy. You’ll also hear from Heather this week about her recent travels. I hope you enjoy the photos and stories along the way and, as always, we’ll get back to all the great things happening in Knoxville soon enough.)
The fact that Allegiant offers a cheap flight to Minneapolis helped make the trip more affordable. Please support them. We need low fare airlines to fly out of Knoxville (and no, I don’t work for them). From Minneapolis we rented a car and drove to Fargo, North Dakota on the same day (we gained an hour changing to Central time), just to be a bit on our way as we started what I’m calling day one, our first full day.
The young ones didn’t know anything about the trip, discovering it along the way. When we got the gate at the airport, Urban Girl searched for Minneapolis and determined we were flying to the Mall of America. As we started the drive to Fargo, I told them that would be our next stop and Google came into play once more.
Disturbed by the images of Fargo, she searched for their crime rate and learned that Fargo has one of the highest crime rates in the U.S. Not encouraged, she questioned my trip planning ability. It was fine. We stayed in a nice(ish) hotel, had an OK meal and left town safely. Unfortunately, a shootout in Fargo that afternoon left an officer dead, two more wounded and the assailant dead. Maybe she was right, as she repeatedly reminded me.
On the first day, we stopped first in Jamestown, North Dakota, home of the “World’s Largest Buffalo,” a statue coming in at 26 feet high and weighing 16 tons. It was the first of many roadside attractions, as the state struggles against being simply a place to drive through. The stop also included a buffalo museum, a western town, and a few bison. Horses ready to provide a spin on the stagecoach looked a bit worse-for-wear, but the kids enjoyed petting them.
A bit further that day, we traveled to the Standing Rock Reservation.
I’ve had a strong interest in Indigenous history and culture since I was a small child. From the first books I read, it captured my imagination like no other subject. As a teen, I tuned in to the American Indian Movement and followed every story as AIM took over Alcatrez, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Wounded Knee. I learned the names of the movement’s leaders and read books like Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown, and later, In the Spirit of Crazy Horse by Peter Matthiessen, and Behind the Trail of Broken Treaties by Vine DeLoria, Jr. and others. This trip helped me understand more about the subject and the people, as well as geographically situated places like Standing Rock, Pine Ridge, and Redbud Reservations in my mind.
At Standing Rock, we visited the burial spot for Sitting Bull, who was killed at age 59 as he was being arrested in 1890. Only a simple stone marks the spot, which was near the location of Fort Yates where he died. South Dakota also claims a burial spot, saying they removed his bones and returned them to near the place of his birth. In any case, it made for a powerful stop, for me.
Still running along that first day, we drove backroads on a stretch called The Coffee Cruise, that claims to have over thirty coffee shops along the way. We found one. It was closed. In fairness, we only drove about eighty percent of the way, because . . . we took off on the Enchanted Highway. The highway doesn’t have a number, but it intersects I-94 at exit 72 and runs south to Regent, North Dakota. Along the road are massive metal sculptures funded, designed, constructed, placed, and maintained by one man: Gary Greff.
Gary set out on his sculpting journey years ago without a background in art or welding. His purpose was to lure people off the Interstate to the town he loved. Then he decided there should be a gift shop in Regent. And a hotel. He bought the high school, which had been closed, and converted it into a castle, which is what he felt should be at the end of the Enchanted Highway. We stayed there on Urban Girl’s 14th birthday, telling her a princess deserves no less. We ate in the Excalibur Steak House (best meal I had the entire trip). It was funky and amazing. Gary not only built all that, but he also checked us into the hotel, helped make and serve our food, and sold us souvenirs the next morning. He’s an amazing guy.
Day two was a travel day from Regent to Rapid City. We traveled remote roads on which we didn’t see other cars for sometimes fifteen minutes at a stretch. We slipped through Sturgis, which was enough for all of us. We had lunch in Deadwood (Gatlinburg with legal gambling) and got to the hotel in time to swim a bit and get some pretty good Asian food.
Day three we hit the big-name attractions. We started early at Mount Rushmore and enjoyed it, though that didn’t take long. We had lunch at the Crazy Horse Memorial (Fry Bread Tacos – our staple for the trip) and took an hour or so tour. Construction began in 1948. Initially anticipated to take thirty years, it is now projected to be complete in the mid-2040s, nearly a hundred years after beginning. Our Lakota guide gave us fascinating insight into a wide range of native topics related and not related to the statue.
We ended that day in Custer State Park (I know it is jarring — the juxtaposition of Custer and Crazy Horse — but it was all over the area). Known for its massive herd of buffalo (we didn’t see one), the park sits in a beautiful section of the Black Hills (more irony for those of you who know the history). We all, though especially the young ones, enjoyed the prairie dogs and cars had to make way for the wild donkeys that meandered through. The beauty of the area only grew as a gentle rain fell, reducing some of the Canadian wildfire smoke that we encountered for most of the trip.
We continued our pattern of early beginnings the next morning, driving onto the Pine Ridge Reservation. We toured the Red Cloud School which wasn’t just named for the great leader: he founded it, along with the Jesuits he invited in. Viewed as a college preparatory school, our guides graduated there and currently attend college. The four of us were joined by only two others, making for another opportunity to have personal conversations about the reservation. Household income there averages about $9,000 per year, with poverty obvious throughout. A food desert, nutrition is a constant issue.
They talked about an increasing return to traditional healing and medicine in the wake of the COVID-19 which hit them late but hit them hard. Inside the church they talked about the unique blend of Catholicism and traditional beliefs reflected in the windows with native designs and in other intentional architectural designs throughout.
The town of Pine Ridge is about three blocks long and one block wide. We ate at Taco John’s (like a Taco Bell, but a bit better), enjoying tacos on Fry Bread one more time. Afterward, we drove the short distance to the Wounded Knee Massacre site. It was different than I’d expected; just a simple field where between 250 and 300 Lakota men, women, and children were massacred by the U.S. Army. Twenty soldiers were awarded the Medal of Honor for their involvement.
Nebraska lies less than ten miles to the south, so we took an hour or two swing through the northern part of the state before returning to South Dakota and to Rapid City for our final night there.
A long way from Minneapolis (almost 600 miles), we would head east the next day. We stopped in Scenic, which was scenic in the way of disappearing small stops in the road. We visited the trading post before driving along a gravel road that led a back way into the Badlands National Park, then road the scenic loop through that as we continued eastward.
The badlands little resemble any other place on earth I’ve ever experienced. Rocky mountains and gullies cut through the plains like open wounds on the land. Strange rock structures and ravines run to the horizon resembling more a moonscape than an earthscape. Prairie dogs, buffalo, mountain goats, and more call it home, but the terrain remains the focal point. It was a ride I’ll always remember.
We made a final stop for the day in Chamberlain, South Dakota before driving to our hotel in Mitchell. There, Dignity: Of Earth and Sky, a fifty-foot-high stainless steel statue by South Dakota artist laureate Dale Claude Lamphere sits high on a bluff overlooking the Missouri River. Installed in 2016, the twelve-ton work depicts a Native American Woman and honors the Native Nations of the plains. Constructed in the Badlands, it was moved as a complete piece to its current spot over a hundred miles away.
In Mitchell we found, to our delight, Ruby Tuesday in the parking lot of our hotel. A delight because Ruby Tuesday sits a few steps above most of the food we found on the trip, even though it’s not a place we would normally be drawn. We were able to tell the young ones that this was, in fact, a piece of home. The next morning, on our final day, we stopped at the Corn Palace which was cooler and a bit less cheesy than we expected. It was quite corny, however. Lots of corn. Read about it here. We drove out of South Dakota and up through southern Minnesota, back to Minneapolis for our final night before the flight.
And you know what I did. I considered avoiding it, but Dante’s third level of hell called and I took the appreciative group to the Mall of America. Four floors of very loud American commerce at its finest, the core of the structure contains a full amusement park with two rollercoasters, golf, an aquarium, and much more. The young ones showed exactly who they are. The eight-year-old ate a Burger King burger and fries and bought a stuffed Pokémon creature. The fourteen-year-old and I shared (very good) conveyor belt sushi and she bought two books.
Delivered safely home the next day, exhausted and happy, we’ll remember the trip fondly for a long time.