It was shivery cold when I woke up at the crack of dawn in Devil’s Tower National Monument. No hot water in the restrooms, either. But the air was sharp and clear and the sky a deep blue.
I headed east into the sunshine and straight into more road construction as I crossed into South Dakota on the northern fringe of the Black Hills. The Black Hills have that name because they’re covered with pine trees, which look black from way out on the prairie. They’re an odd anomaly out in the middle of the plains, and, I’m told, very old, as mountains go.
I didn’t go down into the main part of the Black Hills, because I’d been there twice before and hadn’t been all that impressed, to be honest. About the only thing I was really curious about was to see how much further along the Crazy Horse Memorial was. I’d first seen it at age sixteen when my parents and I came up here from Denver, where we were living at the time, and, really, looking at pictures from today, let alone eleven years ago, they haven’t made a whole lot of progress.
We’d done Mt. Rushmore and the Black Hills Passion Play (based on the European version and apparently no longer in existence) and Custer State Park and Wind Cave and the Needles (and experienced being far too close to a tornado) on that trip, too. And when my ex and I moved from Colorado to Indiana when I was 28, we’d stopped and done the tourist thing then, too.
So I dipped down only as far as Spearfish, and that only because the highway insisted I do so.
After about five miles of Interstate, I escaped onto State Highway 34, which makes its way across the heart of South Dakota to the capital of Pierre (pronounced Peer).
I have to tell you something here. This was not the first time I’d driven across South Dakota, but I’d always stuck to the interstate before, usually because I was moving and hauling a trailer or whatnot. From I-90, South Dakota is a flat, featureless, dry, barren, lonesome place. The sort of place that always made me wonder how on earth the cinematographer had managed to make Dances With Wolves look so beautiful — that couldn’t be the South Dakota I knew.
Well, after this trip I knew better. South Dakota State Highway 34 from Sturgis to Pierre is absolutely beautiful. Lonesome, oh, yes, far more so than even the Interstate. I think I saw about five cars in the entire 170 miles. But it was like driving down the spine of some great grassy animal. The hills (South Dakota is not flat) and gullies and ridges were its muscles and bones, the skim of prairie grass its fur. I kept expecting the ground beneath me to flex and stretch as the creature woke up from its sleep.
When I reached the Cheyenne River breaks at lunchtime, I ate my picnic lunch in a canyon. A canyon. In South Dakota. It was amazing.
Why I didn’t take any pictures that day is beyond me.
Pierre was a nice little town, with an extremely helpful Chamber of Commerce visitor center. The public library was closed for renovation, but the state library (Pierre is the capital of South Dakota) was open to the public for the duration, so I made an email stop. I stopped at AAA for more maps (something I did region by region although I also had a road atlas), and ran several other small errands before settling in at a free city-run campground in a park next to the Missouri River.
Bored in South Dakota? More like being excited to see what the next day would bring. Which was a very pleasant surprise.