“It’s the journey, not the destination.” I apologize for using the language of “1980’s sappy poster-speak” but I honestly cannot think of a better way to put it. If the road is barely endured, if it is the price you pay for the vacation at the end, you will not like road trips. But if the land astounds you, if rain and sun and color and small towns all bring delight, if you love to see people where they work or play, or love to see vast stretches without any of them, then get a mug of coffee, a snack and an audio book … you might like road trips.
We are true believers: We enjoyed the three days of driving as much as the preceding two days of camping/resting/local touring in the Tetons. In these three days we traversed four states, from Grand Teton National Park to the Black Hills, to the joining of the Missouri and Niobrara Rivers, then into the fields of Iowa. Here’s an overview:
Day Six: Wyoming’s western mountains, as you travel away from them eastward, lose the National Park crowds but retain ever as much grandeur. Canyons flatten out to meadows that host ranches, and small towns like DuBois can provide food, petrol and conversation. The native American reservations look lonely, depressed, and then they spring a casino on your eyes, and we don’t know how to take it in.
In Casper we find the parts to fix the water pipe on the trailer at an amazing RV store (Stalkup’s). Thunder Basin National Grassland rolls like waves, and pickup trucks crest them and seem to surf down. The lady at the gas station tells us “it will get better around Newcastle” but we have trouble seeing what’s wrong with what is here.
Day Seven: The lady was right, if you count beauty only in pine trees and mountains. In those respects it does get better from Newcastle through Custer (where we stayed), Rushmore and on to Rapid City. Custer provided one of our hotel nights, and thus a welcome shower. The town is quaint, fun, and a bit affected, catering somewhat to American kitsch–billboards for magic shows,
a Flintstones park and gift shops with more Black Hills gold than you need. Compared to the grand meaning of Crazy Horse and Rushmore Memorials, the towns around them are a bit Dollywood.
That goes for Wall Drug, too, which is great to see. Once.
Another South Dakota surprise is Badlands National Park. The ground drops away as if by surprise, erosion cutting forms into colored rock that remind us of Bryce Canyon in Utah. And the visitors’ routine, us included, is hilarious: Drive, gawk, ooh a turnout!, park, scurry to the edge, camera, click, click, scamper back to car, drive, repeat.
The hills of southeastern South Dakota are a complete surprise, looking like what a child draws when the teacher suggests doing a picture of a farm: Vivid green, ponds, trees, cows and silos. The only things missing are those little yellow crayon lines coming from the sun.
A late arrival at Niobrara with our bug-splattered car, we find our spot, and are helped in backing into our spot by the nice couple across the way. We note how, with just a few extra miles traveled eastward, the humidity has doubled and all the insects in the county want to be in our camper.
Day Eight: Fog on the river, and then a drive to Norfolk. My Dad lived here, I tried to imagine his pre-teen run up the steps of the old post office there. Oakland, NE: Nancy’s great-grandfather John Sanders is buried here, and we find his grave thanks to clues from internet posts
(findagrave.com). Out in a cornfield, near the site of a (now gone) Methodist Church, is an old cemetery where we found his marker. Later we find that the town had many more Swedes than just Nancy’s ancestors. The town is known as the Swedish Capital of Nebraska, and the whole little village is decorated with Dala Horses.
I-80 is drawn straight through Iowa on rolling hills, then levels for a time before rolling again in the state’s southeastern corner. Here we find Mount Pleasant, and our hotel stay for the night. Tomorrow we call on this city, hosted by a local who’s happy to show us around. I will look for clues to my Third-Great Grandfather Presley Saunders, who founded the town in the 1830’s.