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.
It’s that time again! Longtime MCC readers know this time of year is my annual Oscar Quest, during which I venture out to see all Academy Award nominees for Best Picture, regardless of whether I think I’ll like them or not, whether their politics and beliefs agree with mine or not, whether they’re good or bad for me, and whether or not my friends and family have ever heard of them. One of my few accomplishments in 2020 was at long last filling a gap in my list by catching the elusive 1996 nominee Secrets and Lies, which had been out of print for ages but of course is just now scheduled for a Criterion physical release at the end of this very month. Regardless, having crossed that off, I can now say I’ve seen every Best Picture nominee from 1988 to the present, many of which were worth the hunt, Secrets and Lies enthusiastically included.
The eight nominees for Best Picture of the Pandemic Year may pose more of a viewing challenge. In a standard Oscar season, the Best Picture nominees would be re-released to theaters for a limited time, I’d run out and see each one, and that would be that, a bit costly but easy-peasy. Since March 2020 I’ve walked into theaters exactly twice (which each left me frustrated and disappointed) and haven’t been eager to test those revolutionary new air filtration systems or the other patrons’ pandemic manners. Using my four-step listicled viewing method helped calm my fears and, I think, helped not to get myself or my family killed, so it wasn’t all for naught. I’m not sure how many more times I feel like tempting fate. Getting fully vaccinated would allay all remaining concerns, but as my schedule happens to be working out, I won’t reach peak immunization (i.e., 14 days after my second Pfizer shot) until literally the day before the Oscars.
By the end of 2020 I’d seen Mank and The Trial of the Chicago 7 of my own accord. Two weeks prior to the nomination announcement on March 15th I caught a third nominee in advance, certain that it was a lock for a nomination based on its universal critical acclaim — Nomadland, the one with Two-Time Academy Award Winner Frances McDormand, from the director of Marvel’s eventually forthcoming Eternals. The Powers That Be were kind enough to release it on Hulu as well as in theaters. I appreciated the humane gesture, and was surprised to see several scenes were filmed in locations familiar to me and to longtime MCC readers who’ve followed along on our road trip experiences.
It’s a time-honored MCC tradition: every road trip concludes with bonus photos I skipped while compiling all the preceding chapters. However, this finale is a little more special than average.
Effective with this very entry, every single one of our annual road trips is now officially available for perusal and literary analysis on MCC from 1999 to 2017. All the major vacations from MCC’s 2012 inception to the present have been housed here exclusively from the get-go. As of today, all our prior travelogues from 1999 to 2011 have now been reposted and reformatted here for our own personal library to be shared with one and all — our lifelong, immutable road trip canon. Some write-ups were reprinted word-for-word, but in several cases extensive rewrites felt necessary and/or fun.
This curatorial project has been years in the making, and has now reached its final major milestone. It’s kind of a nice feeling.
Another long day lay ahead — 520 miles of driving, over 370 of that in South Dakota alone. If you’re patient and don’t sleep the whole distance through, points of interest and oddity poke through the panoramas.
One of the hard parts of every road trip is realizing that once you’ve seen the biggest, boldest attraction on your to-do list, you can’t just teleport home. You still have hundreds of miles to go before you can relax, and a bunch of other sightseeing options yet to come, all of them inferior to the majesty of the awesome thing you just witnessed. You can’t surrender to discouragement, though. You committed to the drive, and now you have to finish it, no matter how some of your later stops may make you roll your eyes and wish you were back in front of the awesome thing again.
On a related note, here’s that time we dropped by the actual Deadwood, the capital of mixed-use casinos.
In the early years when my son tagged along on our travels, we made a point of including at least one amusement park or zoo on every road trip. That requirement faded as we got older, but we were happy to make time for animals if we found any interesting habitats along our paths.
Technically we’d already filled our 2009 quota at Custer State Park. We found it wasn’t South Dakota’s only wildlife habitat, and were curious to see if the Mount Rushmore State had other animals to offer besides panhandling burros and jaywalking bison.