When I called up my brother Victor to ask him what I wanted for my sixtieth birthday present he said, “yes”. My request was for a car and co-pilot to drive to South and North Dakota to check off the last two states I hadn’t been to. This bucket list request was not easy to agree to with his aging hip making car travel uncomfortable, and the Dakotas not exactly tops on most vacations lists. But with me taking the wheel for much of the trip he could wiggle and squirm into a satisfactory position in the passenger seat alleviating the pesky hip pain while watching the flat landscapes go by.
Pawnee National Grasslands
The plan was set for me to fly to Denver to rendezvous with him on his way home from Grand Junction. With a good night’s rest we would head out bright and early on Tuesday September 29th for a first stop at the Pawnee Buttes. After gawking at the buttes we would then head up to the Black Hills of South Dakota by way of Scottsbluff, Nebraska and on to Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota before ending up in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Colorado short grass prairie
Not many Americans think of going to the Dakotas for a vacation. The Black Hills receive most of the visitors to the region thanks to Deadwood and Mt Rushmore. The Dakotas are blessed with a lot of fairly flat farm land and not known for natural beauty. Since I wanted to be able to claim I had visited all fifty states I was prepared to go, and go with an open mind. Growing up in Colorado I only thought of the Dakotas as a place to go pheasant hunting, and nothing else attracted me.
Autumn in Colorado is a mix of hot days, cool nights and lots of sunshine. On the day of our departure we were blessed with the opposite and I appreciated the overcast skies as I drove east through the beginnings of Denver’s rush hour at 6:30 a.m. in light traffic. It is a tough drive to head east out of Denver at sunrise with the blinding sunlight making driving difficult for an hour or more. With the clouds also came light rain thirty minutes into our drive slowing our highway speed to sixty-five mph instead of seventy-five.
We pulled into Fort Morgan an hour and a half into our long road trip to buy reading glasses at the nearest Walgreens. I had grabbed what I thought were my glasses, but ended up being an empty reading glasses case from home. A minor nuisance. The next stop was a photo stop on the edge of Fort Morgan to shoot the old concrete arch bridge. I have never seen one like it in all my travels and even though it is no longer supporting traffic they kept it for pedestrians and bicyclists.
As we headed north on State Highway 52 the light rain quit but the clouds held their grip on the sun. I was surprised that the road turned from pavement to dirt after just a few miles. It was nice that the rain had settled the dust for this long dirt road drive. Speeding along at 45 mph I was soon dodging large potholes that threatened to swallow our car. It didn’t take long to see why the pot holes were formed. In an hour of driving to Pawnee Buttes from Fort Morgan we saw at least thirty oilfield tanker trucks grinding along these bustling oilfield areas plus a dozen or more pickups with oilfield workers.
One oddity we saw on the trip was a strange looking compound I figured was US Government property. When we saw another just like it an hour later we knew what it was. Long ago in the cold war the U.S. built nuclear missile silos underground in Colorado as well as other western states. These were two of those nuclear nightmare reminders from our youth when we wondered if the commies would bomb little old’ Denver due to the missiles nearby. If I had known we would be passing close to the National Park Service’s Minuteman Missile Historic site near Rapid City it would have been on the must see list.
I had been to the Buttes some fifteen years ago and at that time there were few oil operations in the area. Now there are oil drill pads all over the Pawnee National grasslands that encroach within a mile of the scenic Buttes. Having been a cook on oil rigs I am somewhat tolerant of oil development but this was too much to surround the Buttes with several oil operations within such close proximity to this sacred place. I was glad to see some natural short grass prairie fairly intact and undeveloped when not burdened with oil wells or cows. It was along this route that we saw two antelope just forty feet away running parallel to our car at thirty-five mph with Victor snapping shots of them in full view as they raced along a fence line.
racing the antelope
When we arrived at the turnoff to the Buttes the road changed from two lane dirt road to what looked like a rugged remnant of the Oregon Trail! I stopped and shot photos of it due to the color of the grasslands and the primitive nature of the two track road. The Buttes didn’t show themselves until we were within a couple hundred yards of the trailhead. The Pawnee Buttes are not like most hill type structures that are uplifted from an ancient seafloor. They are the remnant of previous ground level with the surrounding land eroded away leaving these three hundred foot buttes towering above the prairie.
The road to the buttes.
The clouds cloaked the tops of the Buttes and made for a magical view of this semi-arid landscape. There could have been Golden Eagles perched up there in the mist, but we wouldn’t have known it. We walked around for about fifteen minutes photographing this place few Coloradans have ever seen or even heard of. Meadowlarks serenaded us constantly and I answered back whistling their melodious song as best as I could. Our peaceful walk was interrupted by the sound of oil field workers and rigs punctuating the serene landscape. We said goodbye to this hidden world and hiked back to the car.
With the Buttes checked of my list it was time to do some serious driving up to South Dakota’s Black Hills. We drove back to the blissful blacktop of Colorado State Highway 14 and headed east to highway 71 taking north into Nebraska. We saw the flats give way to buttes and hills as we approached Scottsbluff, Nebraska under sunny skies and I was surprised to see so many pine and juniper trees. Nebraska is known for corn and flat lands, not trees and hills but here they were and quite scenic too.
Scottsbluff was our pit stop for lunch and an oil change before grinding on up to Deadwood. We stopped for a photo of me and the welcome to South Dakota sign before many miles of changing scenery. With no maps we were relying on our smart phones to guide us there. Note to all you travelers: bring a map! You just can’t trust a smart phone to find the best route in this situation and need another source, especially if you lose signal.
One state left!
We rolled into Deadwood after a gorgeous drive through the heart of Black Hills country. Road construction halted our progress half a mile from downtown Deadwood. We were right in front of the Super 8 hotel and decided to pull in to investigate. At $83 for a Creekside room I thought it would be perfect. We unpacked then walked the creek trail fifteen minutes into the center of town giving our legs a much needed workout.
The creekside walkway into Deadwood.
We had a great meal at the Deadwood Social Club where the walls are decorated with all things 1870’s mining town. I knew this was going to be the best restaurant of the trip so we lived it up like a miner in town with cash. The wine flowed and the food kept coming until we parted ways with the club. Before we left I had to read about twenty minutes of new clips and facts on the area. We learned that prostitution was alive and well in Deadwood right up to 1980!
Pork shank at Deadwood Social Club.
Breakfast was free and ample and with coffee in Victor’s cup we were off like a jack rabbit for the badlands of North Dakota. Within a half hour of driving we headed north out of Belle Fourche, South Dakota where the sign warned “no services for 44 miles”. We were engulfed in thick prairie fog five minutes later. It was so thick we couldn’t see more than a quarter mile for miles in this eerie prairie cloud land. After a half an hour we busted through the fog and beheld golden and burgundy vistas of mowed grain fields and distant hills. Antelope were seen every few minutes looking at us as we pulled over for photos before we entered the fog again. For most of the next forty-five minutes we motored on through the fog until we came upon a bird, (Prairie Chicken) I thought was extinct! With a little research I found out that they were almost extinct in the 1930’s from loss of habitat and hunting pressure. It was a thrill to see these birds in their natural habitat posing for photos.
After finally busted out of the last of the fog we continued north on highway 85. I posed for a shot under the welcome to North Dakota sign holding up five outstretched fingers in one hand and a zero in the other signifying fifty states visited. Blasting northward at 65 mph I saw something far up ahead that looked like a mirage. Before we reached the mirage we saw an electric company truck working on the wires that crossed the highway and then we saw the house! We slowed to a crawl as we noticed two more electric crews working on the wire crossing the highway to allow a house moving operation to safely pass under with a large two story house they were moving to parts unknown.
Time to pull over to let the house pass.
It was quite a sight on this sparsely traveled rural highway and quite amusing. If you drive a lot of miles on rural roads you never know what you might see. Not long after the house on wheels we saw a male pheasant perched on a round hay bale next to the highway. I have seen many a pheasant over the course of my life but never seen one perched on anything since this is a ground loving bird. At 65 mph it is easy to miss some photo opportunities and we missed that one.
All fifty states visited!
We rolled into T.R. National Park around eleven a.m. and walked a short loop trail for twenty minutes before hitting the road. We stopped at the overlook for photos of the denuded colorful landscape they call “Painted Canyon” and headed eastward looking for lunch choices. Within forty-five minutes we arrived in Dickenson, ND and witnessed the expansion of oilfield operations in the area. Growth was obvious in this prairie town and the shopping center we pulled into was so new that most of the restaurants and shops had not been occupied yet. On the east side of town I saw a stretch of land that had what seemed to be an oil pump or tanks every quarter mile for several miles just next to the highway. The mighty oil dollar is flowing strong in these parts for now. Hard to say what it will be like in ten years?
T. R. Ntl park.
We drove on to Pierre, South Dakota for a much needed rest before the final push to Lincoln, Nebraska. In Pierre we had a peaceful walk along the Missouri River. The river walk trail offered a good photo opportunity to watch the sun fade and the clouds and river become a dark purple floor-to-ceiling light show. We shot several photos of Pierre’s waterfront park and path before succumbing to the need for sleep.
Pierre S.D. river walk.
On our final day we hit the road at 6:15 a.m. to allow time for a stop at the famous Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota. Since it is the world’s only surviving corn palace we just had to see it, and be part of the 500,000 visitors each year. Sporting a depiction of Willie Nelson made with corn and grasses this Corn Palace was a different!. The other panel was being scraped in preparation of a new scene or person to show off. Inside were pictures of all the past corn palaces, and there were many with stories too. One that amused me was about John Phillip Sousa (a music star of the day) having arrived to fulfill a contract of two shows per day refused to get off the train when he saw the town’s dirt streets and no sidewalks. He thought they couldn’t pay his fee, but local bankers met and decided to hand deliver his fee of 7,500 dollars to the parked train. Sousa was impressed and not only played the shows but added one per day for the engagement.
Willie in corn.
With the Corn Palace behind us off we drove south towards Lincoln, Nebraska. Amongst the many towns I had never heard of was Columbus, Nebraska where friends of my brother’s told of a favorite lunch spot. Dusters is a brew pub with banquet rooms, a barroom, and a semi-formal dining room on the main drag of this prairie town. It was a great lunch stop and my brother indulged in a beer and a porkstrami sandwich that was as good as it gets. I made due with a vegetarian pizza and no beer.
A yummy veggie pizza.
With just three hours left in our road trip I was already thinking of the end of our time together. I am so lucky to have a brother who is willing to give up four days to drive the prairie to help me out. We had many a good chat about growing old, our parents and the land. When traveling it is good to remember it is not the destination that is most meaningful but the trip itself. As I near my sixtieth birthday I look back on an amazing life with the best family one could hope for. With any luck we will be around to mark the seventieth milestones and more with another special trip.
Note: Most photos by Vic Jacobson.
Railroad bridge over the Missouri River in Pierre.