Thirdeyemom

The Great American Road trip: Part 1

I have always been a traveler and my love of travel started as a child. Growing up, my parents took us everywhere and most of the time, our primary mode of transportation (to our chagrin) was via our 1970s wood-paneled diesel station wagon. Our boisterous family of five and sometimes the family dog, piled into the car well before car seats, electronics and any sort of sensible kind of entertainment, and drove from the depths of Minnesota to such far away places as Orlando, Los Angeles, Montana, Wyoming, the south of Texas and even Mexico.

The three of us kids fought like cats and dogs, and looking back I have no idea how on earth my parents survived. To me, the memories of the unending whining, complaining, fighting, boredom and “are we there yet’s” would have driven me mad. I am shocked that they didn’t leave the three of us miserable children on the side of the road. Yet of course they got through the ups and downs of our annual road trips and I have many fond memories of the travels we made.

I would not be lying, however, in saying that I hesitated long and hard before embarking on our own family road trip. For a girl who likes to travel, I loathe being in the car on the long, endless roads of America. I’d much rather be on an airplane or a train where I can get up and down and move around instead of being crammed into an uncomfortable seat for hours staring at farms and roadways. I can’t read in a car because I get carsick so it is either a lot of talking or just sitting there bored silly. The kids seem to do fine thanks to the invention of the portable DVD player and electronic devices. It is me who goes crazy.

As a family, we have done some relatively short road trips to neighboring Wisconsin or even the six and a half hour drive to Chicago. But we held off as long as we could before we were truly ready to embark on the “Great American Road Trip“. I call it that because Americans tend to love their cars and they love road trips. Many families pile their kids into the car once school lets out for the summer and do a roadie somewhere. As uneasy as I felt about it, I decided it was finally our time to experience the highs and lows of a road trip. If I hated it, we wouldn’t do another one again. If I loved it, well then the road is endless.

Heading west

Heading west

We packed up our car to the rim with stuff, loaded up on movies and books on tape for the kids, and hit the road driving west to the Black Hills of South Dakota, famous for Mount Rushmore and the gateway to the wild west of Yellowstone National Park and Colorado. I had been on that trip decades ago myself as a ten-year-old child and was curious what it would be like 30 years later as a mother myself.

Surprisingly, South Dakota is a relatively popular tourist destination and one of the most famous places to visit on a Great American Road trip. I never would have even thought of going there if it hadn’t been for all my friends who had done it before me. The Black Hills and the Badlands are the main places to see along with the start of the Great American Plains but in my eyes South Dakota sounded pretty boring. I was happily surprised to find that I was very wrong and that not only is South Dakota beautiful, it is the quintessential place to experience the Great American Road trip.

While somewhat amusing and somewhat silly, I passed the time along the long drive snapping photos of the many different kinds of Wall Drug signs. I counted over 30 of them but only chose a few to put into here. We didn’t stop. 

So why is South Dakota so great for a family road trip? First of all, it offers the adventure of a real live road trip. The drive from Minneapolis to the Black Hills is almost nine hours and for almost the entire ride you are driving through the vast plains of nothingness. There are no McDonalds, no real towns. Just farmland, truck stops and 80-mph roads. Our SUV felt small compared with the Suburbans, Campers, pick-up trucks and RVs. The drive is long and grueling. But it is authentic. It is the real deal of plains, farm and the nostalgic way of life well past for most of us.

South Dakota

Prairie land and farms along the way

Yet once you arrive in the Black Hills, you see spectacular things like the American Bison.

Yet once you arrive in the Black Hills, you see spectacular things like the American Bison.

Second of all, South Dakota is the real deal because it is filled with National Parks to explore and what is more sacred than visiting our national treasures on a family road trip? In the Black Hills area alone there is Custer State Park which is extraordinarily beautiful and offers a little bit of something for all. You can drive it, bike it, motorcycle it, hike it or camp it. Just there, it is offers enough to keep you busy and happy for days. The Badlands is a vast National Park that is in the middle of nowhere and feels like you are on another planet. It is so stunningly beautiful that you are bound to be glued to its unnatural landscape that changes colors as the sun rises and sets. If you keep driving, there are even more parks to explore and you are not far from Yellowstone which many people add on to their road trip.

Third of all, South Dakota tells a lot about our history. It has been populated for centuries by the Native American people of the land, has ancient fossils and landscape dating back from millions of years ago, and tells the story of the push westward by the pioneers and those in search of gold that destroyed the American bison and the native way of life. Mount Rushmore is there as well as the remarkable Crazy Horse Memorial that when completed is anticipated to be the largest monument in the world. There is so much more to South Dakota than meets the eye. There is so much to learn and to discover.

Mount Rushmore, South Dakota

Mount Rushmore

Black Hills South Dakota

Crazy Horse monument

South Dakota offers a different kind of vacation and a glimpse into a different kind of life. A slower, more carefree way of being. With a population of only a little over 800,000, there is a lot of empty space that makes South Dakota seem remote and vast. A place where dreams were set and made – some fulfilled and some not. A surprisingly wonderful place to experience and see.

The Badlands, South Dakota

The Badlands

The Badlands, South Dakota

The Badlands, South Dakota

I look forward to sharing my journey with you.

Stay tuned…

37 comments

  1. Wow, the Badlands look so green! We were there last August and I guess everything had dried out by then. It’s not clear if you have another long family road trip in you … you liked SD and all the sights, but it still sounds like you hated the driving part! It’s funny; you said that you can get up and move around on a plane or a train, but I see a car as the ultimate vehicle for stopping and really walking around all you want. I absolutely adore a long road trip and could never be bored with what’s streaming by outside my window – even if it’s a statewide cornfield! But I know I’m weird …

    • Yes the Badlands were unbelievably green! I guess the hot sun dries it up by July and August as I read in the guidebook. As for driving, we usually power throw and make very short stops. I have a bad neck and a hip injury (that I’ve been going to PT for to heal before my climb!) so when I sit for hours I get very sore. I love driving in Europe, the east coast or unknown countries but tend to get bored in farmland (and achy). Wish I didn’t! On the way back, we played a book on tape for Paul and I and it was amazing how much it helped. I enjoyed the ride much more and for some reason wasn’t as sore either. I wish I was a better car passenger!!! too many road trips I guess. As for the future, we will see! I would love to do Yellowstone with the kids.

  2. Very cool read. Thanks for sharing. I’d LIKE you but, for some reason, I cannot LIKE anyone, even though I’m signed in. So, consider yourself LIKED! And thanks for dropping by an LIKING my Muse.

  3. Looks like a lot of fun, Nicole. Sorry to say I have NEVER been to South Dakota. Love the bison image and the Badlands photos. Looking forward to more!

    Hugs from Ecuador,
    Kathy

    • Well the world and even the US is a very big place! There are so many states I haven’t been to yet! Hope your road trip is going well! Loved your first post Kathy!

  4. This is awesome! Great pictures. I’ve been to South Dakota before, however, it was was to visit a Native American reservation. It is really beautiful driving through!

  5. We drove through the Badlands from the West, on the way home to Wisconsin, and after going through the Tetons and Yellowstone, all those billboards on the road looked like such an eyesore. It really irked me that there were so many; too much human impact on a vast stretch of natural beauty, I thought.

    • Yes I don’t like all those annoying signs especially because the countryside is so pristine. We didn’t make it to Yellowstone but I did that trip when I was a kid.

  6. Amy

    I, too am on a road trip. So far we have covered 1,400 miles in 5 days, Minneapolis to Kamloops, British Columbia Canada. We have barely turned on the music. By the time we are home we will have seen and experienced over 5 thousand miles of this planet. There are only two of us, no kids, so my experience must be a little different. I believe driving long distances is far from boring! I’ve probably driven the highways, big and small, through North Dakota and South Dakota to Montana or Colorado at least once sometimes twice a year for 40 years and learn or see something new each time. Someone once told me only boring people get bored. Your use of the word boring to define the drive to South Dakota to all who read your blog is a dis-service to all who planted and will harvest the food we eat.

    I urge to open your thinking, put down the movies and games and learn more about the places you are traveling past. Ask your children questions to have them research or bring books they can read to you about the geology of the land or the native people put on reservations or about the 4 faces on Mount Rushmore. Think beyond your experience that has determined that those farm fields are boring! I challenge you to find out more about the crops, the seasons, the people. The farmers grow the food we eat, the food cows, pigs, chickens and turkeys eat. Sometimes they grow food for others living in the countries you visit. Oh no, those boring fields are the life blood we all need to learn more about and appreciate! This is coming from a city grown and living adult. Your children need you to model a deep understanding of all ways of life.

    The best thing you can do is take Hwy 34 across northern South Dakota home. You will see crops of sunflowers, corn and sorghum, and drive through small towns of interesting people who are active in their communities. Most small towns have a city park you can camp in over night (usually free).

    Now, I have to catch up on my trip and learn more about Canola and flax crops (he just informed me it can grow several cm in a day, reaching 3 feet in 15 days with the right conditions!), the Grasslands National Park in Saskatchewan, Canada, write a review for the town campground in Big Beaver in South Western Saskatchewan, Canada and review my pictures of a rain storm coming across the mountains, the saw mill with the logs floating down the river to be sawed into lumber and the touristy and beautiful Lake Louise with its water from melting glaciers. So much to learn and so little internet access time in these trips! July 1 we will be in Vancouver and learn how they celebrate Canada Day, their National holiday. I have maps to read and one hike to find for tomorrow’s journey.

    Safe travels to you and your family.

    • Thanks for the comment. I will leave your comment here in the comments but in disagree. It is a matter of opinion and the blog is my voice. I do not enjoy driving a it’s the US. I do find farmland boring but that does not have anything to do with not respecting it or understanding its past. It just doesn’t excite me like it does driving through the Rift Valley of Ethiopia or the remote parts of Nepal. That is my opinion and my blog is built on how I feel about things. If people don’t agree that is fine but I am not doing a disservice by telling how I feel or else
      Why would I write? I am very open minded but I’m not going to enjoy all the wall drug signs. I loved the Black Hills and The Badlands however. It was beautiful. Lake Louise is amazing. Have a great trip!

    • I looked at the post again and changed the wording a bit. you are right that it does sound strong and negative. So I changed it and think that people can decide for themselves. It is beautiful. I did find it a bit boring on the nine hours there until we got to the Black Hills. Just because it was the same scenery for so long. Not that it isn’t interesting. The plains and farms are beautiful. It just goes to show how enormous our country is! Thanks for having me take another look.

  7. johnberk

    I agree with you that car trips are tedious and boring, especially when you plan on staying in the car for more than just a couple of days. On the other hand, it makes you locally mobile and you are able to explore places which are not highlighted in tourist guides – like many of the South Dacota locations you have mentioned. In Canada, we have many places that are important in terms of the history and culture of the First Nations, and also represent a great chance for hikes and other activities. This is why I’m able to get into my car and drive countless hours just to reach these places and spend there my free time.

    • Wonderful, thank you for the link! Even here in Minnesota we have a strong native population and presence but I feel like here it just gets sadly lost. In SD I felt a bit more connected to the native american population and their way of life.

  8. Road trips always bring back thoughts of childhood. South Dakota is a great place for such a trip. We loved our time in the Badlands.

    • Yes the Badlands are amazing aren’t they LuAnn, especially at night as the sun sets and turns them all the glorious colors! I was amazed!

  9. A 9 hour drive would drive me crazy, Nicole, and I’m not a person to bore easily. We’ve just driven back from Leeds- about 1 and a half hours, some of it in heavy traffic- and that was more than enough for me. (we drove down there earlier in the day to move our son into a new flat, so it was a long day overall 🙂 But I love the peaks of that national park. I guess the driving just comes with being American and the great open spaces 🙂

    • So glad I’m not alone with the long drives Jo! We listened to a book on tape on the ride back and it saved me. I was much more relaxed and just watched the passing green pastures and countryside outside the window. Next time, I’m making sure I do another one! 🙂

  10. Thank you so much for sharing! My kids & I are getting ready to embark on a 3 month tour of the lower 48 states in a VW camper bus and YOUR post makes me even more excited for the trip!!!

  11. I did this road trip when I was in my 20s. I was coming back from a summer of grad school in New Mexico, and among other stops (like the ones you made), I went to Sturgis-during Bike Week-in my car and stayed for three days. I loved South Dakota. Interesting, it is the state with the most “tourist attractions” in the U.S. Make sure to stop at Wall Drug next time: neat town and astounding store. I love a road trip (I just did 3200 miles in 9 days…a bit much!) and have just started to write about my own.

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