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.
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.
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.
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.
I look forward to sharing my journey with you.