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.

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