The three-hundred-mile stretch of I-90 through southern South Dakota is vast. Really, really vast. Until and unless you reach the Black Hills and the Badlands to the west, the flattened landscape across the central and eastern portions can lose their visual novelty to even the most innocent traveling yokel after about the first five or ten miles. Roadside attractions blessedly break up that monotony here and there — some ironically and some with utmost sincerity. It’s more rewarding when you feel compelled to stop for the sake of art appreciation than out of car-happy desperation.
Your typical, most famous tourist attractions tend to be singular experiences. You make the trip, you see it the one time, you Instagram it with a trite affirmation tacked on, and you’ve seen all you need to see of it for the rest of your life. The Empire State Building doesn’t add all-new stories on top with all-new features. The Statue of Liberty doesn’t entice repeat customers by changing into different dresses like the World’s Largest Barbie. Mount Rushmore doesn’t rotate the Presidents’ heads and cycle through all 45 of them, because the logistics would require science fiction tech and sooner or later you’d end up with a non-star lineup of Van Buren, Harrison #1, Tyler, and Polk, and attendance would plummet, like that one year the Best Picture Oscar nominees were four art films and a three-hour Brad Pitt nap.
Some attractions benefit from forward-looking designers who realize flexibility is a virtue and construct their dream edifice using a medium that lends itself to creative renewal. Such was absolutely the case for our next stop, a sight both familiar and revamped.
We knew a trip to Yellowstone would mean live animal sightings sooner or later. We also knew tourists and animals sometimes don’t get along and mistakes can be made by one party or the other. Rest assured if we’d suffered one of those debilitating bear attacks that grab news headlines on slow news days or trend heavily on YouTube, I would’ve written about it here by now. Bears, in fact, made a point of hiding from us all vacation long. We spotted nary a real bear the entire trip, not even in captivity.
That doesn’t mean all our wildlife encounters were amicable. Apart from driving up and around rainy mountains on Day Four, our scariest moment occurred in, of all places, an outdoor art walk.
It sounds confusing but it’s perfectly simple. The city of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, is named after the waterfalls that are part of the Big Sioux River, around which local civilization sprung up. They built an entire city park around the prettiest part of the river and named it Falls Park, of course after the city’s own natural namesake. That stretch of the Big Sioux has numerous falls of varying sizes along its length. Depending on how far you walk, you can see all or merely some of those falls and enjoy natural beauty in a portion size of your choosing. If you’re short on time, a falls sampler is better than no falls at all.
Also, if you saw a limited portion of the falls and felt you’d seen enough, and nobody had the unsolicited courtesy of mind-reading skills to run up and tell you, “But wait! There’s more!” you might get all the way home from vacation, let three months pass by, revisit your photos, compare them to online resources, and then discover you missed the best parts of the park.
Not that we’re bitter.
When you’ve taken as many road trips as we have, sooner or later you find yourself in states you’ve seen before. The big planning question is: do you revisit the best attractions you’ve already seen or find new places you missed the first time around? When the encore under discussion is in a state filled with countless options from end to end, it’s cool when you can respond to yourself with: why not both? For our return to South Dakota, we began with column B.
Cedar Rapids, Iowa, is nicknamed “The City of Five Seasons” courtesy of an advertising agency hired to boost their image back in 1968. The fifth season is not a specific calendar range, but rather an ambiguously conceptual phase in which a Cedar Rapidsian ostensibly kicks back and enjoys the other four. That’s not as loose a paraphrase of my sources as you might think. Perhaps one must attain a certain meditative state in order to transcend the space-time continuum and enjoy spring, summer, winter, and fall as a four-way point in time, a singular melange of all their sensations, and Cedar Rapids is the one true nexus of all seasonal ley lines whereupon arcane Iowan magic manifests the sensory cross-section of freezing sunshine, fiery snow, plants blooming bright orange, and year-round pumpkin spice.
Maybe you just have to be Of The Rapids to get it. Or maybe the real fifth season was the friends we made along the way. We forged no new friendships in the big C-R, but we enjoyed perusing their copious art flourishes, from their art museum to the surrounding area.
Sure, you could Google parodies of Grant Wood’s American Gothic and see six million of them online, or you could support the arts by driving hundreds of miles and paying museum admission to see a fraction of them in person. Well, not the original artwork itself, mind you, just old copies of the publications and merchandise that have used some. And one monitor slideshow of countless others, some copied-and-pasted from online and others possibly drawn by local DeviantArt account holders for fun. But that still counts as an art exhibition of sorts, I rationalize.
Throughout our travels we’ve wandered inside and around art museums from Denver to Milwaukee, from Birmingham to Baltimore, from the hallowed institutions of Manhattan to our very own controversial outpost here in Indianapolis. This year we added Cedar Rapids to the list, partly out of curiosity and partly due to its surprising connection with another Midwest art museum from one of our past road trips.
Clerk says to the guy, “Aren’t jokes supposed to start in a bar?” Guy says, “It’s cool, I brought my own.”
Clerk says, “So how can we help you?” Guy says, “I came to get a car.” Clerk says, “This is an airport. People come here for planes.” Guy says, “But I can’t drive a plane.” Guy says, “Not with that attitude.”
…okay, so that’s not really how Saturday morning went, but I really did trudge into an airport with that armload of bottles without getting jumped by security. Very kind mercy on their part, keeping any lingering post-9/11 sabotage paranoia on the down-low.
Our presence in Iowa this year was an entirely intentional navigation for the sake of pursuing one of our recurring motifs. We could’ve trimmed a few hundred miles off this year’s drive if we’d bypassed it and taken the more direct route up I-90 through Wisconsin and Minnesota. However, one of the many unseen attractions on our to-do lists was in east-central Iowa — small enough that it was unlikely to be a primary destination in itself, and remote enough that the odds of it being “right on the way” to some future Point B were negligible. We’ve missed so many off-path stopovers in years past that we’re tired of missing out and have become a bit more amenable to long detours. Well, the fun kind of detours, anyway, as opposed to road construction detours.
(Prime example of one out-of-the-way challenge that’s stymied us: a complete Laura Ingalls Wilder historical tour would require days and days of backroads, virtually no interstates. Multiple tiny towns have historical homes or museums in her name because Pa Ingalls did a stellar of job of never living near a single Podunk anywhere that grew into a conveniently connected metropolis.)