I put 2392 miles on a Toyota RAV 4 mid-sized SUV during my annual trip to the Dakotas last month. Now, I don't really know if the trip can be categorized as a "cool drive", but I went to some places that I'd never been to before and saw some pretty neat things.
First of all, this picture was taken at a rest stop between St. Cloud and Fargo. The term "spunk" comes from 19th century England as a vulgar slang for seminal fluid. I just thought it was funny they'd have a rest area named after a funny name for semen.
Now, there's really nothing to see between Fargo and Bismarck, ND. It's a couple hundred miles of land as far as the eye can see. It's not quite the middle of nowhere, but the middle of nowhere is not far from there.
Being the geography geek that I am, I've made it a point to visit the state capitals of each of the 11 states I travel in for my job. North and South Dakota were the last two I have never been to. I stopped in Bismarck to call on a couple of accounts, but before I did that I went looking for the state capitol building. Bismarck, while not very big, is a nice, clean little city. It wasn't long before I saw a sign that said, "State Capitol Parking". I pulled into the lot and expected to find a typical capitol building with a stately dome and columns out front.
This is the state capitol in North Dakota. That's it - nothing more than a non-descript squat building with a high-rise next to it. It wasn't very impressive. The grounds around it looked nice. They had a garden in front of the building that had "North Dakota" spelled out in flowers. But other than that, it was pretty boring, architecturally.
Leaving Dickinson, ND the next morning to go to Rapid City, I took off west on Interstate 94 to cut down on U.S. Highway 85. I didn't have to be there until that evening, so I decided to take some side trips along the way. I noticed on the map the Theodore Roosevelt National Park was just down the road and I decided to go there.
As far as national parks are concerned, the Theodore Roosevelt park is pretty new - established in 1978. Part of the park is an area which Teddy Roosevelt owned and visited on a number of occasions in the late 1800's before he became President of the United States.
There's a large amount of wildlife at the park including buffalo, antelopes, elk, bighorn sheep and wild horses. Here's a shot of a herd of wild horses that a guy pointed out to me that were across the road from where I was taking pictures of the landscape. As always, click on the picture to enlarge.
The scenery at the park wasn't all that breathtaking as much as it was surreal. The Badlands of the Dakotas are truly that - a vast area of rock formations formed by years of geologic pressure from natural elements. There were some very pretty formations including this one on the right. The red color on the side of the bluff was a vivid contrast to the green that surrounded it.
In addition to the aforementioned wildlife in the park, there's a series of Prairie Dog Villages that are smattered along the roadside. Here's a picture of a couple of the little critters alerting others in the village that another pesky tourist is taking their picture.
Here's another shot of a valley between two rock formations. As desolate and foreboding the topography of the area was, there was also sort of a serene nature to it. I can't really call it awe-inspiring like, say, the Rocky Mountains or the Grand Canyon. But there was this beautiful calming effect the Badlands seemed to have.
At the gateway of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park is the small town of Medora. Supposedly, Medora is the biggest tourist destination in the state of North Dakota. It's basically been turned into an 1880's frontier town and it is a major tourist trap. I have a dealer in Fargo who has told me a couple times now that I need to go out there with him to see the Medora Musical show they have each night in the summertime. It's basically a Western musical that combines dancing, music and story telling of the old West. I guess it's quite the production.
Medora is also the home of the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame, a pretty impressive structure near the main gate of the national park. I didn't go in because I didn't want to waste any more time than I had going by going through the park and then driving around the tourist trap town of Medora. Get me out of here!
Instead of heading back to Highway 85 to go south, I took a look on the map and saw that I was just about a half-hour away from Montana. Being that I had never been in Montana before (I've been in 36 of the 50 states), I decided to run over there and dip my foot into the state and come back out.
On my way to Montana, just seven miles from the border I saw this exit for Home on the Range. It wasn't a town, it was basically a private exit for some big rancher out there. I thought it was kind of funny.
I stopped at a rest area just inside the Montana line and picked up a state map. I saw there was a state road that paralleled the border between the towns of Wibaux and Baker, MT. I decided to take that south, then pick up U.S. Highway 12 to take me back over to Highway 85 and then south to Rapid City.
You gotta love driving in the wide open spaces of Montana. Speed limit on the two lane road I was on was 70. There used to be a time when there was no speed limit on Montana's interstates - just a self-imposed speed limit of what is safe and prudent.
About the time I was starting to get real bored, I was just north of Belle Fourche, SD (pronounced Bell Foosh). I saw this sign along the side of the road that said, "Center of the Nation". Once again, being the geography geek that I am, I took off down this gravel road to stand at what would be the geographical center of the United States including Alaska and Hawaii.
As I was driving, I saw a fenced in area in the middle of a field that I thought may be the area where they had a monument or marker for the center of the U.S. Turned out it was nothing. Just a fenced in area in the middle of a big field.
Going down the road further, I got to thinking that I may have passed the marker. I thought I'd go a little farther before I'd turn back. Then coming over a small hill, there on my right was this sign - a crudely painted sign, at that - that signified that spot was the center of the nation. I said out loud to no one, "That's it? That's the designation for the center of the U.S.?" I was laughing, thinking this was supposed to be a big deal - like the Four Corners monument where Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado meet.
I got back into the SUV and headed down the road. Along the way, I stopped to get this picture of an impressive thunderhead that was forming to the north and east of where I was. There were storms popping up all around western South Dakota that afternoon, some with baseball sized hail. I've seen tennis ball sized hail before, but nothing bigger than that. And I'm not so certain I want to.
I pulled into Belle Fourche and saw a historical marker regarding the center of the U.S. in front of the Belle Fourche Visitor's Center. I went inside and looked around for a bit. They had a fund raiser going on for a monument to be built for the center of the United States. They had a big jar there and I threw five bucks in.
There was a guy sitting behind a desk and I went up and asked him, "Is that sign out in the middle of nowhere north of here really the designation for the center of the United States?"
He sort of sheepishly acknowledged that, yes, it certainly was. I said, "Well, I'm glad to see that you are doing a fund-raising drive to get a monument in place out there instead of that crudely painted sign."
He said, "Oh, the monument we're raising money for isn't going out there. It's going out back here behind the tourism building."
I said, "You're kidding me. That's nearly 30 miles from the true center of the nation."
He said the true center of the nation is about 100 yards to the east of where the sign is, in the middle of a guy's field. And the guy isn't too whippy on them putting a monument in the middle of his land. "So we're just going to put it out back here."
I felt gypped. I almost asked for my five dollars back.
Back into the car. It was getting later in the afternoon now and I was just 50 miles from Rapid City. I got to looking at a map and I saw that Wyoming was just over there. And since I'd never been to Wyoming, I thought I'd go over, run in and run out, making it 38 of the 50 states I've been to. But then I looked closer on the map and realized that not more than 50 miles away was Devil's Tower National Monument. Being that I was that close, I couldn't just go into Wyoming and not see Devil's Tower.
(Coming up in The Dakotas Trip - Part Two: Devil's Tower, Deadwood, Sturgis, Rapid City and Mount Rushmore.)