Day 60 – Chamberlain SD -> La Crosse WI

As we checked out of our room at the motel/fishing lodge, we took a last walk around to revel in the unique character of the place (even the wallpaper was decorated in a fish pattern!). Then we went into town to look at the Missouri River and to explore the Chamberlain community before getting a fresh tank of gas and heading out onto the freeway.

With 450 miles to go, today is the biggest driving day of the oddyzee. We have a wedding to attend tomorrow, so that defines our return deadline. We have to be home tonight.

Halfway to the Minnesota state line we pulled off at Mitchell, home of the Corn Palace. The inside of the Corn Palace is a typical municipal convention center/basketball arena/concert auditorium… a nice but common amenity for a city this size. But what makes this building special is how it looks from the outside.

The entire outside of the Corn Palace is decorated with corn and other local grains. Ears of corn of varying shapes and colors are arranged to produce some very complex artwork. There are several murals and a thematic motif, and the artwork changes every year.

Inside there is a long hallway lined with pictures of the Corn Palace from each year going back to the 1890’s. The Corn Palace is kind of corny, but it’s free, and draws enough passing tourists for the rest of Mitchell to prosper.

Sturgis was obviously winding down and emptying out as we made our way east. Everything that passed us was either a motorcycle, or something carrying motorcycles.

Holstein cows are a common site in our home region. When we saw some holsteins grazing near the Minnesota state line, we realized how long it had been since we’d seen any. We took in the sunset just before we passed Rochester, at a rest area as we watched the bikers rumble by.

The ambient sounds of the last week of our oddyzee stayed with us as we backed into our driveway at 10 pm Friday night. We unloaded the truck to the sounds of Harleys rumbling through town. But this time we had a room that they couldn’t take away from us … we are home.

Day 59 – Chadron NE -> Chamberlain SD

We left our room on the east side of Chadron just before check-out time and backtracked a bit through town to have breakfast. We found a place called Helen’s Pancake House, and it was full of jovial bikers on highway adventures of their own. By the time we got there, it was too late to get omelettes. After all, they’re mainly a pancake house. Their potatoes were good, the french toast was original, but the pancakes were bland and ordinary.

After breakfast we went east and explored some of the back roads between Chadron and Hay Springs, and eventually we turned north back toward South Dakota. We were on our way to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

Most of us white folks grew up watching “cowboys and Indians” movies and tv shows, where the Native Americans were portrayed via stereotype and brutally disrespected. Later, our history teachers indoctrinated us on this period of history with lessons approved by the government that – as the Natives’ saw it – invaded, conquered and colonized the land that our country now occupies. Today we’d like to explore another side of history … the history of the settling of the West as experienced by the Indigenous inhabitants.

Our “reservation experience” began before we even got there. Various federal police agencies love to hang around the reservation and harass the Natives. As we approached the reservation boundary, we saw a beat-up old car pulled over on the side of the road, and the Indigenous people in the car were being questioned by police. As we continued on, we saw two more police cars approaching the scene. Each of the three cars had different markings, so three different police agencies were getting in on this “action.”

We stopped briefly in the town of Pine Ridge for ice and gasoline. As we left town and made our way toward Wounded Knee, we saw a series of roadside markers that gave the history of these places. The stories told on these markers are much more detailed and in-depth than most historical markers on the “white” highways. It’s as if the writers knew that this history may never be recorded anywhere else, and in a big way they were right.

One of these markers was at the site of the Wounded Knee massacre of 1890. During a standoff between federal troops and a large group of Natives, something happened that caused some of the soldiers to panic and begin firing into the crowd. During the ensuing mayhem, hundreds of Natives were killed, including many women and children. The soldiers fired so many bullets that a lot of them were killed by their own fire.

In the ensuing weeks, the government seemed to ask itself, “holy shit, what are we doing?” and overt hostilities came to an end. The less-obvious hostilities continue to this day, to the annoyance of the Native people. For instance, the massacre site – which includes the mass grave of the massacre victims – is now constantly under the threat of being taken over by the National Park Service. The people who have lived on this land for thousands of years deserve to maintain their own visitors center and to present their story, rather than the sanitized version that the Park Service would provide.

Moving on, we wandered through reservation land to find our way back to I-90, and it was interesting to notice the transition of the landscape along the way. Yesterday we were in the Black Hills, which are small mountains covered with pine forests.

Our route goes through the Badlands, a mix of mountain ridges and wide valleys carved into craggy forms by thousands of years of erosion. The Badlands occupy a barren landscape, so the erosion exposes the alternating layers of red, yellow and orange in the rock and soil.

Pine Ridge is a low but rugged land formation with a scattering of the woodlands found in the Black Hills, and the dramatic coloring of the land found in the Badlands. As we left “the rez,” we watched the transformation of the land from Pine Ridge to the Badlands.

Once we were done gawking at the Badlands, it was time to hit the Interstate for the 600 miles we still had to cover in the next 24 hours. But it was time for fortification, and finding decent food turned out to be a problem. Before getting on the freeway, we stopped at a cafe in Interior but we were repelled by the thick clouds of cigarette smoke.

The next town was Kodaka, and we found a buffet place called H & H Restaurant. This had to be one of the most awful places we’ve ever eaten. Nothing was made fresh, everything seemed to come out of a can, box or freezer. Some of the salad bar items tasted like they may have gone off. And for some reason, the entire decor had a Route 66 theme, even though that highway is three states south of us.

We got to the middle of South Dakota that night, and stayed near the Missouri River in the small town of Chamberlain. We were 200 miles from Sturgis at this point, and the vacancy signs were up. Unfortunately, so were the rates. The first two places we checked had their rates set about $20 higher than normal … $85 and $65. The last place in town was part motel and part bait shop. They tell us that Chamberlain has the best walleye fishing in the world.

Walking into the office, we found walls lined with fishing tackle and Polaroid pictures of guys with their fish. The number of Harleys in the parking lot was matched by the number of fishing boats. A portly bearded guy (he kinda looked like Red Green) told us he’d sell us a room for $45. We pointed out that everyone else in town had exorbitant rates, and he said, “you see they still have their vacancy signs up, too, don’tcha?”

Unlike most of the other motels in the area, they did not have to raise their rates to make up for the slow times, because they have no slow times. Fish people are out every week of the year, and when they come out to Chamberlain, this is where they go. And why not? You can get a room, all the bait and tackle you need, free coffee in the morning, and free whiskey in the evening, all in one place. The owners and staff were nice, fun-loving people, and they made our last night on the road a pleasant one.

Day 58 – Upton WY -> Chadron NE

Did we mention that the room we stayed in last night was more like a hunting cabin? That included a funky old stove, which enabled us to make our own coffee this morning. Soon we found ourselves racing across the prairie with a coal train highballing down the track alongside us.

We made a quick stop in Newcastle, Wyoming, to restock on cash and transmission fluid. We gave the truck a once-over and all was good. As we crossed the South Dakota state line, we left the prairie and entered the pine-covered mountains of the Black Hills. There had been some serious fires a few weeks ago, so most of the back roads in the national forest are now closed. Most of the fire damage we saw was from the past 2-3 years.

Our first big stop of the day was Jewel Cave National Monument. There are two entrances to Jewel Cave. One has walkways, lights, gift shops, big parking lots, and all the other amenities demanded by the crowds.

We went to the other entrance for the “strenuous” tour that lasts an hour and a half. During this time, our only source of light was from candles mounted in paint cans, so the cave looked a lot like it would have to the first people to discover it.

Our guide described how this system of caves is still being explored, and of the conditions endured by the spelunkers mapping out the hundreds of miles of passageways. She said that to get to the main staging area they must pass through “The Miseries,” a two-hour crawl through a half-mile passage with a minimum clearance of 7 inches and a maximum clearance of 11 inches. One must hold their head sideways to slither through that thing. The “strenuous tour” of this little half-mile of cave – with its crouching and ducking and stairways and ladders – is enough spelunking for us, thank you.

The rest of the afternoon was spent at the Crazy Horse Monument about 20 miles away. When completed, this monument will be over 600 feet high, dwarfing the nearby Mt. Rushmore. The visitor center complex includes a Native American museum (we saw some of the beads that the Dutch traded to the Natives for Manhattan Island), a craft market for local artists, and the workshop of the Polish-American sculptor who designed and started this memorial. Even though the sculpture is decades – if not generations – from being finished, miniature representations of the completed monument in a variety of sizes were everywhere we looked.

Passing thunderstorms discouraged us from leaving as we got hungry, so we ate at the on-site restaurant. We shared a buffalo Polish sausage sandwich (an appropriate culinary marriage of the two cultures that made this place happen), buffalo stew and fry bread while enjoying a view of the monument bathed in the light of the setting sun peeking beneath the storm clouds.

As we left the Crazy Horse Visitor Center, crowds of bikers huddled under the canopies waiting for the rain to let up. It was dusk and too wet to camp, so it was time again to look for a room. The nearest town was Custer, which was packed to the gills with bikers. The name of that town was enough to make us not want to stay there. 30 miles south was the town of Hot Springs, where we found one vacancy sign, on a slightly upscale B&B type of place. We got to the desk just as the last room had been sold to – you guessed it – a biker couple.

On the way to Hot Springs we passed through Wind Cave National Monument, where we saw a very large buffalo standing on the shoulder facing the road. He was smart enough not to step in front of our truck, or he could have messed it up badly. A group of bikers was following us, and we’d hoped that they would not startle that creature, whose mass was probably triple that of each of their Harleys.

We went south another 40 miles to Chadron, Nebraska. Bikers were still everywhere, and the motels on the leading edge of town were all full. On the far side of town there was one little place, but they had vacancies. The room we had that night turned out to be one of the best rooms for the price that we had on this oddyzee.

Day 57 – Riverton -> Upton WY

We had planned to be starting the day in Buffalo, Wyoming. Instead, wildfires near Cody sent us to Riverton, which is hundreds of miles from where we had planned to be. We hoped that getting an early start (by our standards) would help us get caught up.

We went to one of the “drive-thru espresso” places that seem to be springing up all over the west. This place in Riverton had four employees waiting on two customers, but it still took 15 minutes to get our coffee. So much for our early start.

Our morning drive began in the Wind River valley of central Wyoming. We saw regions that looked as barren as the Moon, even though at midday they were emitting all the colors of the sunset. As we passed through a narrow canyon we saw signs by the road cuts that identified the geologic era of the newly exposed rock as well as its age. Many layers were billions of years old.

We stopped in Thermopolis, home of the world’s largest mineral hot spring. To get in the hot water requires either booking a room at the expensive hotel or spending a few bucks at one of the bath house/water parks that have sprung up in the area.

Fortunately, this place is far enough off the beaten path that the water parks are fairly low-key. Also, it was a very hot day (around 100° and dry), so bathing in hot springs was not an agenda item for many other people.

We went to a place called Hellies Teepee Bath House. For eight bucks each we had the place mostly to ourselves: 3-4 levels of hot pools, steam room, sauna, showers, and waterslide – and that was all indoors. Outdoors, there were more hot and cold pools and an even bigger waterslide.

Today, we finally learned the appeal of the big waterslides that are popping up all over the place. After a couple of hours of romping around the hot water park, it was time to get back on the road.

Stopping for gas, we checked the transmission fluid and found that it was almost completely gone. Whatever was done to the truck at West Yellowstone didn’t fix it.

Our route followed the Big Horn River, which flows due north into Montana and eventually feeds the Missouri. We followed the river and the railroad to Worland before we turned to cross the Big Horn Mountains on the way to Buffalo and the Black Hills well beyond.

The western slope of that route is known as Ten Sleep Canyon, and it was a scenic last hurrah to the Rocky Mountains. Some badly-needed thunderstorms cooled things off as we embarked across our last big ridge.

The traffic level had picked up quite a bit, and we were especially seeing a lot more motorcycles. We had no problem with the bikers, but we did have a problem with rudely slow drivers who wouldn’t use turnouts. They frustrated our efforts to navigate mountain roads with a finicky transmission.

We drive slowly a lot ourselves, but in many mountain regions it is illegal not to use turnouts if you are holding other traffic below the speed limit. There are good reasons for this, mainly that if people can’t pass when it’s safe, they’ll try to pass when it’s unsafe.

Most people that try to catch fish have stories about “the one that got away.” Photographers have their own versions of these stories. At Powder River Pass, just before the climbing turned to coasting, we saw an enormous bull elk with a rack of antlers that looked as wide as our little truck is long. He looked as if he could lift our truck with that rack of antlers. (All right, perhaps he wasn’t that big, but we have as much right to exaggeration and embellishment as anybody else) Our analog cameras were out of film, and our digital camera had been shut off and put away. By the time it could be unpacked and activated, the elk disappeared into the trees.

By late afternoon we had arrived in Buffalo. The first food place we saw there looked interesting and had lots of bikes parked around it (bikes as in big motorcycles … Sturgis is much closer now). We made a note of it and decided to take a look around the rest of the town.

We sat down in a place in downtown Buffalo – kinda homey but quiet – and a little kid came to our table with menus. It was basic cattle country fare, though maybe a tad pricey. Then we noticed if you had a few extra bucks you could order venison or buffalo, and for still more you could order elk … or moose … or bear. We got up and left.

As we got outside we asked each other that if there are enough bears to shoot and serve in restaurants, how come we never saw any? We went back to the place where all the bikers were. It was a very homey place called the Stagecoach Inn. The had an Old West look but they didn’t “buy” the look. Chairs were mismatched, old sewing machines were converted to tables… they made do with what they had around. The dinners were good, portions were generous and it ended up as one of our favorite places.

The sun was setting as we left Buffalo. We were seeing vacancy signs on motels, but it felt too early to stop, especially since we wanted to have the Black Hills close at hand Wednesday morning. We pressed on along I-90 to Gillette, which seemed to have thousands of motel rooms. But every one of them was full. We are now close enough to Sturgis for vacancies to be scarce.

We ended up in the tiny dusty town of Upton, on the prairie about 30 miles off the Interstate. We found a vacancy sign on the town’s only motel and paid $60 (no credit cards) for a room. The room was like a hunting cabin. The beds sagged like hammocks and we had to swat flies for an hour before we could go to sleep. The people who ran the place were nice people. Like most other motel keepers in the area, they took advantage of the high demand to crank up their rates.

They literally said to us, “Sturgis is the only time that we can make any money.” Next time we’re on the road in early August, we’re gonna avoid going anywhere within 500 miles of Sturgis.