Our 2009 Road Trip, Part 8: 350 Miles of Pretty American Wasteland

Golden Calf!

The current sociopolitical climate is so tough for ailing churches and other religious communities that even the Golden Calf has fallen on hard times.

Our destination of Rapid City, South Dakota — the city that contains some of our most iconic American monuments — was nearly 1100 miles from our hometown of Indianapolis. We spent Day Four knocking out 350 of those miles all at once, the stretch of I-90 from Sioux Falls to Rapid City. On most road trips we can count on options along the way — scenery, attractions, gas stations, restaurants, and other recurring features of civilization. The interminable stretch between the two South Dakota cities wasn’t quite that accommodating.

Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover:

Every year since 1999 Anne and I have taken a road trip to a different part of the United States and seen attractions, marvels, history, and institutions we didn’t have back home in Indianapolis. From 1999 to 2003 we did so as best friends; from 2004 to the present, as husband and wife. Beginning with 2003’s excursion to Washington DC, we added my son to the roster and tried to accommodate his preferences and childhood accordingly.

2008 was by far our least favorite road trip to date, and still holds the ignominious title as of 2018. Our next vacation had to be better. Step one was plain enough: we looked at Anne’s brainstorming list of future road trips and chose the one that screamed “dream vacation”. That’s what led to our long, long drive out to the farthest reaches of South Dakota and beyond. At nine days it was the longest we’ve ever taken. The farthest point of 1,180 miles made it the longest drive of our lives. It would be the farthest west we’d ever been up to that time. It was also our first vacation using exclusively digital cameras to record the experience, leaving behind the 35mm film of our childhoods forever. They weren’t expensive cameras for their kind, certainly not the most advanced as of 2009, but we did what we could with the resources and the amateur skill sets available to us.

We’re the Goldens. This is who we are and what we do.

To prepare for the longest drive of our trip, we settled in for breakfast at an Original Pancake House, the next-door neighbor to the Pizza Ranch where we’d dined the night before.

Pancake Granny!

Lady Margarinevalue welcomes you to the land of morning carbs!

I ordered an Irish Omelet; my son had chocolate chocolate-chip pancakes; Anne settled for mild-mannered regular pancakes. My son couldn’t believe their sweetener selection included packets of real sugar cane, a novelty at the time. He got carried away and dumped several at once into his iced tea. He learned a hard lesson about the difference between real sugar and the pale, processed analog that America is forced to endure today. The waitress was gracious enough to bring him a new iced tea in a to-go cup. Just before we got in the car, Anne had to run back inside to return the teaspoon he accidentally left in his cup.

Chocolate Pancakes!

The boy’s pancakes won the morning, no contest.

After our stopover at the Mitchell Corn Palace, we returned to I-90 without stopping for lunch first, based on the optimistic assumption that we might encounter a more interesting option not much later down the road. We ran into our first rainfall of the week shortly after merging onto the interstate. The specter of rain had haunted Anne’s planning the week before as she diligently checked weather.com’s South Dakota forecasts, ranging from 30% chance of paltry precipitation all week long to 100% chance of showers a mere couple of days. Since most of this year’s attractions would be outdoors, too many rainouts would have truncated our travelogue and maybe even sucked the fun out of the vacation itself.

Mercifully the rain soon relented, and we continued onward through the available panoramas around 80 mph, as permitted by the highest speed limit signs we’d ever seen, which were automatically my favorites.

Red Interstate!

Paved roads through the Dakotas contain large amounts of quartzite, producing the only reddish highways we’ve ever seen in all our travels.

Missouri River!

Crossing the Missouri River, the only real body of water we noted all day.

Rolling Hills bigger!

Kansas-style flatlands were peppered with interludes of rolling New Zealand hills.

Rolling Hills!

More hills. Why not.

160 miles later, the natural scenery was the only feature around us. Mile markers passed, normal lunchtime came and went, tempers grew short, and the sparse interstate exits offered next to no options other than truck stops and gas station snacks. Before chaos could break out, we reached the town of Murdo, which had been on my short list anyway because of a few roadside attractions. Now it was our oasis.

1880s Town!

Their premier industry is the 1880s Town, an overpriced sort-of park with a theme but no rides, featuring several of the original buildings that were built as backdrops for the filming of Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves.

Pioneer Auto Museum!

Billboard for the Pioneer Auto Museum, some place with antique cars and mannequins and so on.

Murdo offered a single viable option for lunch: the Santa Fe Train Diner. Customer seating was inside a series of linked train cars that had seen better days.

Train Diner!

Trains! America! Dining! Sunshine! Everyone loves those things, right?

No Crawling Under Train!

The end cars and their forbidden underside.

We entered half an hour before the posted closing time of 2 p.m. Our cashier greeted us with a hearty cry of “WE’RE OUT OF CHILI!.” We never learned if chili was their signature food or if this was local Freemason secret code. A chili shortage would not ordinarily be a cause for concern, but the remaining menu was more limited than my son’s school cafeteria — low-grade hamburgers, hot dogs you can make at home, and a few prefab shrink-wrapped deli sandwiches. We’d had a similar experience with bizarre reconditioned seating at Hillbilly Hot Dogs the year before in West Virginia, but at least there the food was exceptional. Here, I don’t think the management gave much thought about catering to tourists from beyond the Murdo town limits. I cursed my dogged, misguided insistence at passing several truck stops to settle for this.

Outside the ’50s Train Diner is a bronze calf, possibly a taxidermic keepsake of the last animal that tried to subsist solely on a Train Diner diet, or perhaps the idol of a poverty-stricken Murdo cult.

Orange Car!

The calf in its assigned position among the abandoned locomotive tech.

Train Diner sign.

At least they had drinks, as promised on the sign. In arid South Dakota, those are a major boon.

After we finished quote-unquote “eating”, we bailed out of Murdo without giving the 1880s Town a second thought. Dances with Wolves was never one of my favorite Oscar winners anyway.

Less than an hour later, the scenery radically shifted from pure grasslands to spots of isolated rock on my left. One turnoff later, we were at Badlands National Park.

Badlands #1!

Badlands photo #1 of 100, roughly. We couldn’t stop photographing them.

Near the Badlands’ east entrance, this 12-foot, 6-ton prairie dog statue was our harbinger of other fascinating things to come. Besides all the glorious Badlands geology in our next chapter.

Prairie Dog statue!

Woe betide he upon whom the giant prairie dog gazes with disdain.

To be continued!

[Historical notes:

1. I’ve just learned tonight that “Buck” died in 2008, the year before our visit. So the promise of a famous horse was a LIE. Just like the chili no one had told us about.

2. Apparently the giant prairie dog was next to a general store. I have no memory of that part. At all.]

* * * * *

[Link enclosed here to handy checklist for other chapters and for our complete road trip history to date. Follow us on Facebook or via email signup for new-entry alerts, or over on Twitter if you want to track my TV live-tweeting and other signs of life between entries. Thanks for reading!]

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