Friday, August 17, 2012

South Dakota Supreme: Part 1

My road trip story last left us foraging for a hotel room in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. I was excited to be in South Dakota because I had some cool things planned for us during our brief stay. I crammed 900 miles into our first two days of traveling so we could linger a bit in the state best known for being home to Mount Rushmore. In fact, I drove about half that distance over days three and four on the road. But the bulk of our touristy fun happened in South Dakota during this leg of our trip, so we were pretty much always going at warp speed.

Falls Park, Sioux Falls, South Dakota
There was no way we were leaving Sioux Falls Tuesday morning without paying a visit to Falls Park, home to the waterfalls for which the city is named. The park has a very unique stone landscape, and was the locale of a former massive mill that harnessed the power of the falls in its operations. It is clean and well maintained, and kind of urban. Looking over the falls and seeing the city in the background felt a little odd. Not exactly a setting with a natural feel. But beautiful nonetheless. We did our best to see as much as we could in the sweltering heat (again, 100+), knowing that our day was just beginning. Much to Bethany's bitter disappointment, we did not check out the restaurant, with its promises of ice cream in the window sign. We did do a little shopping in the gift shop, but we did not go to the top of the lookout tower, which was housed in the same building. We probably should have done that, but when I say sweltering, I mean that as in I was about to lose all of my children to heat stroke induced meltdowns. It was time to move on, lookout tower or not.

The next stop I had my heart set on, the Ingalls Homestead, was going to take us a couple hours out of our way. I knew we had a really long day ahead of us, and the kids were already worn out from walking around Falls Park. I was about to poll everybody to see if they wanted to take the time to do it or not, when Connor excitedly asked if we would be going to the Ingalls Homestead next. The kids were all geeked, as it turned out. I was half relieved because I had been wanting to go to this place for years, and half dreading the excursion because it meant a lot more driving. I had also sort of been prepping the kids by playing a CD copy of On the Banks of Plum Creek in the van. No, we were not actually going to the real banks of Plum Creek, but it was the only audio version of a Laura Ingalls Wilder book available at the library the day I went in. It did kind of get us in the mood.

Years ago I learned of the Ingalls Homestead in what was to become one of my favorite books, Storybook Travels, by Colleen Dunn Bates and Susan La Tempa. This tourist attraction specially tailored for Laura fans calls itself "Laura's Living Prairie". The Ingalls family actually lived and walked on the very land we were standing upon. The structures on the property are not original and were not the ones used and lived in by the Ingalls family. However, they do a good job of demonstrating what life was like for them during that time.

The first stop at the Homestead is the gift shop, where visitors can peruse the somewhat over-priced selection of prairie-themed items. Curious guests are invited to sit down and watch a short film about the Homestead before investing ten bucks per person (ages 5 and up) to tour the grounds and partake in all activities. I drove all this way, we were partaking. No question.

Ingalls Homestead, De Smet, South Dakota
Remember it was a miserably hot day. But we trudged all around the Ingalls Homestead, sweating our butts off all the while. We saw a dugout house, built into the side of a little hill, with dirt for walls and grass growing on the inside (ewwwwwwww!), a shanty, and a house built to resemble what Ma's Little House would have looked like. The kids got to pump water out of a water pump, just like Laura, and drink the cool water. They learned how to make simple toys out of a piece of yarn and a button, and had the opportunity to do laundry with a washboard, hand-operated ringer, and clothesline. There were pony rides, but it was too hot so I deftly discouraged that. In the building housing Laura's Travel Exhibit, we were able to climb into a covered wagon and marvel how a family could fit all of their possessions inside, along with the family itself, and travel long distances. We took a covered wagon ride out to the one room schoolhouse, similar to the one Laura taught at briefly before getting married. At the school house, costumes were available to anyone who wanted to really feel the moment. Mattie very briefly wore one, and she was so cute, but it only lasted a few minutes. Again....too hot! Kittens galore were scattered around the hay-roof barn, and kittens never fail to captivate my kids. They also all got to try their hand at making rope, which they were able to keep. We missed some other activities, such as making corn husk dolls, but what we did do was really fun. Plus being where Laura once was, well that was surreal. The Homestead is also a campground, and campers have the option of sleeping in covered wagons. I want to do that, but maybe not when it's 108 degrees outside.

One thing I noticed in South Dakota was that people were generally friendly and trusting. Gas stations allowed me to pump before paying. At the Ingalls Homestead, refrigerators were in a few locations around the grounds, stocked full of ice cold water for sale, with a sign asking visitors to pay on the way out. The honor system? How positively novel!

We enjoyed our time in De Smet at the Ingalls Homestead. I would recommend it to any Little House fan, or even just anyone interested in history. The hands-on aspect ups the fun quotient considerably, too. Was it worth the 80 miles or so it tacked onto our day? Absolutely, yes. I would do it again in a heartbeat.

By the time we left the Homestead we were starving, so we hurriedly slapped together some sandwiches and ate in the van on the way to our next stop: the Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota. The Corn Palace is exactly the type of kitchy tourist attraction I envisioned encountering on our cross country road trip. Every year a new theme is chosen, and the entire exterior of the building is decorated with corn, depicting pictures and scenes in keeping with the theme. You can go in (FREE), where you will find more corn decorations, pictures of Corn Palace decorations of the past, a snack counter, restrooms, and a massive gift shop. We could barely pry the kid away. It's really close to the highway, and an easy and relatively quick diversion. Worth a stop for sure!
Corn Palace, Mitchell, South Dakota

Finally, finally, we were on our way to Interior, where I had made our reservations for the night. Interior is home to the east entrance of Badlands National Park, another must see attraction on our list. What I didn't realize is that one must actually drive through a stretch of the National Park to get to Interior. Or at least, that's what my GPS told me, and I was in no mood or mind frame to question my GPS. By the time we were getting close, it was dark out. It wasn't exactly storming, because there was no rain to speak of, but the sky was lit up with frequent lightning flashes. I came upon the entrance gate to the park, which was unmanned because it was late, and drove through, silently praying that we were going the right way because we were kind of in the middle of nowhere, with no other vehicles in sight.

I didn't really know what to expect of the Badlands. But I do know that I didn't expect my first experience driving through this amazing landscape would be in pitch black darkness, with creepy flashes of lightning illuminating my surroundings every minute or so. To say it was freaky is a huge understatement. We appeared to be the only ones in this part of the park, and it was so completely dark in between flashes. Night driving isn't my strongest suit to begin with. It was a stressful drive. We were exhausted. My brain was cooked. And when we got to our motel, the Badlands Budget Host Inn, we found that the office was locked and closed for the night. I had a moment of panic (middle of nowhere) before noticing a sign on the door directing customers to a trailer out back when arriving after hours. Said trailer was apparently the home of the manager. My mom was questioning my choice in motel by this point, but she gamely got out and knocked on the trailer door until a lady answered and handed her a real live key, telling her we could check in at the office in the morning. I had done my research on Trip Advisor (not fool proof, as I learned all too well another night), and sure enough our room was spotlessly clean and had two very comfortable beds. The carpet had just been cleaned too. The next morning, when we walked over to the office/gift shop/ restaurant, we realized we were privy to some fantastic views of the Badlands. Breakfast was not included, but our rate with a AAA discount was quite low, which left ample room in the budget to buy breakfast. Camp sites are also available at the Badlands Budget Host Inn. It was simple, but a nice place. I wish we could have stayed a few days. There are no televisions in the rooms. I call that awesome. When (not if) we return to the Badlands, this is the place we'll be staying. (Incidentally, the options in regards to accommodations are extremely limited.)

South Dakota was so incredible, I can't quite squeeze it all into one post. Stay tuned for Part 2...

This quartzite is everywhere at Falls Park. Prisoners at one time hauled it from the bluff to build a prison.

Notice the remains of the old mill in the background. Falls Park, Sioux Falls, South Dakota
Falls Park, Sioux Falls, South Dakota

Notice the city church in the background. Falls Park, Sioux Falls, South Dakota
Covered wagon campers at the Ingalls Homestead, De Smet, South Dakota
Could you pack the entire contents of your household into this wagon? Ingalls Homestead, De Smet, South Dakota
Living in a shanty would be too close for comfort! Ingalls Homestead, De Smet, South Dakota
We rode in this wagon to the one room school house. Ingalls Homestead, De Smet, South Dakota
Lessons in the one room school house. Ingalls Homestead, De Smet, South Dakota
Making rope at the Ingalls Homestead, De Smet, South Dakota
Maybe we need a washboard and ringer at home to get everyone all excited about doing laundry? Ingalls Homestead
Close up of the corn decorations, Mitchell Corn Palace, Mitchell, South Dakota
My little cobs. Inside the Corn Palace, with corn mural in the background. Mitchell, South Dakota


Bohemian Babushka said...

Ya know, S. Dakota really wasn't on my list of must sees... I think you may have shown me different. Here from the Best of the USA hop, liking your post, totally smiling about the last pic, and hoping you'll stop my blog for a dance. Take care & BB2U

Lisa Goodmurphy said...

I was a HUGE Little House on the Prairie fan when I was a little girl and you have no idea how badly I want to visit the Ingalls homestead! South Dakota just seems so far from us and I'm not sure what else I'd do there but I will get there some day! I enjoyed your photos!!