If you were to recommend one place in America to visit you might choose New York, maybe San Francisco or Los Angeles, possibly Florida. But my vote would be for South Dakota. Not only is it more authentically America than almost anywhere else, there is so much to see and do in the State and in neighboring areas. It is also the geographical centre of the USA (in Belle Fourche). For my trip through the American Heartlands, South Dakota represented the nearest thing I had to a destination.
My first stop in South Dakota was Sioux Falls, the largest city in the state. I'm not sure I would recommend it as a destination in its own right, but as a stopover at the junction of Interstates 90 and 29 it was fine. The falls on the Big Sioux River are modest but the setting is very attractive and worth a visit.
I90 is the longest freeway in the USA and links Boston on the Atlantic with Seattle on the Pacific. if you wanted to go coast to coast as quickly as possible, this would be the road to take. In South Dakota it runs pretty straight across the Great Plains, mile after mile of roadside hoardings and largely featureless fields, with the odd town here and there. Mitchell is one such town, with its claim to fame being the world's only corn palace. Wall is another with a large store called Wall Drug, that features on hoardings for miles around. The Missouri cuts through the plains, and where I-90 crosses it there is a spot just outside Chamberlain, with a beautiful view over the river, where Lewis and Clark had a camp, Camp Pleasant.
If you have not heard of Lewis and Clark you certainly would do if you followed the Missouri North as I have done. When Thomas Jefferson completed the Louisianna Purchase in 1804 he acquired from the French a vast area that stretched from the Gulf Coast as far as what is now the Canadian border. Lewis and Clark led an expedition called the Corps of Discovery to stake a claim to the new territories and find a river route across to the Pacific, meeting Indian tribes and making scientific assessment along the way. The story is fascinating and thanks to their extensive journals and maps, the expedition was thoroughly documented. The expedition got as far as the Pacific and established relations with a couple of dozen Indian tribes, but the absence of evidence of a continuous waterway to the Pacific meant their exploits were largely neglected until the Twentieth Century.
During my travels I had stopped off at many of the points where Lewis and Clark had landed, but Chamberlain was where we were to part company. However I picked up a couple of hitchhikers, Tasha and Chris, and told them I could take them to Rapid City, but I was planning to take a detour to visit the Badlands. That was fine with them, in fact they were really enthusiastic to get to visit.
So we talked enjoyable nonsense as we crossed the wheatfields along I90 when suddenly, with a jolt, a dramatic change in the landscape appeared. Steep barren cliffs fell away from the Great Plain, plunging down out of site into a gash like a scar on the landscape. This was my first sight of the Badlands.
Turning off I90, we proceeded towards the entrance booth to the Badlands National Park.
Nothing had prepared me for what to expect and all three of us were in awe of the barren, desolate landscape of the Badlands. If the Moon landing was really a fake, they could have chosen this spot to recreate a lunar landscape. It really was quite breathtaking, but as we drove on the landscape subtly changed and the rock formations adopted broad bands of colour, mostly tans and reds but also greens and yellows. The arid section inhabited only by rattlenakes gave way to sections of prairie, with prairie dogs and wild Bighorn sheep in abundance, and then to elevated sections with views over the Great Plains, stretching out forever.
After we had run out of superlatives to describe what we had seen we got back to talking about religion, politics and the Great Pumpkin and I was quite sorry to say goodbye when I finally dropped my companions off in a park in Rapid City as the sun faded.
My motel in Rapid City was one of the AmericInn chain, and was probably the best value for money on my travels, with a big, clean room and good amenities at less than 30 dollars a night. I had also booked in for two nights, as I planned to explore the Black Hills, wherein lies Mount Rushmore.
Rapid City is fairly unexceptional, but, with the backdrop of the Black Hills and a few buildings and activities of note, is pleasant enough. It is also where all the Black Hills Gold is fashioned. This is a style of working with gold that only occurs in the Black Hills whereby leaves and other details on a ring or other piece of jewelry are fashioned using 24 carat gold alloyed with copper to achieve 12 carat pink gold and with silver to create 12 carat green gold. In the circumstances it seemed rude not to invest in a ring made of Black Hills gold for Mrs Oatridge.
I bought the ring in Deadwood, a town famous for being where Wild Bill Hickock met his demise and Calamity Jane lived. Both are buried in the town cemetery. The town has achieved worldwide visibility as the purported setting for a TV series of the same name. Deadwood in its day was the very embodiment of the Wild West, and the heart of a gold rush which saw the native Indians usurped from the last lands in which they roamed free.
Running into the Black Hills is Custer State Park. The road into the park - the Peter Norbeck Byway - is amazing, contrived to make for a driving experience as it winds through solid rock faces and up and over itself. Custer State Park is home to the largest herd of buffalo in the world, animals that once dominated the prairies until hunted to near extinction. Coming out of the park you come by the Crazy Horse Monument, a privately funded, family-run enterprise to build the largest sculpture on the planet, a tribute to the eponymous Indian chief and to the lost world of the original inhabitants of the USA. The head of Crazy Horse is complete, but it will take several decades before the sculpture is finished. The head is several times larger than all of the Presidents' heads featured on Mount Rushmore.
Mount Rushmore is nonetheless very impressive. Apparently it too is unfinished in the sense that the original sculptor had intended to flesh out the upper bodies of the Presidents, and not just their heads. However that is a project that is unlikely to ever get undertaken. The four presidents represent the founding (Washington), growth (Jefferson), development (Roosevelt) and preservation (Lincoln) of the USA. Like many people, I thought the nearest I would ever get to see Mount Rushmore was in the wonderful Hitchcock movie, North by North West, and it is a privilege to have got to see the sculpture in the flesh, as it were.
Next stop: Montana.