I first got the idea to take a road trip through the Dakotas and Nebraska from a book called Moon: Road Trip USA: Cross-Country Adventures on America’s Two-Lane Highways by Jamie Jensen. I was curious about the title of a road trip in the book – “The Road to Nowhere” – that cut right through the center of the U.S.A. on Route 83, a “must-do long-distance byway – transnavigating this broad, odd nation, without once grazing a conventional tourist destination.” The road trip in the book goes from Canada to Old Mexico, cutting straight through North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas.
However, the more I read about this particular road trip, the more I wanted to deviate from it. I wanted to see some of the national parks in North and South Dakota. I wanted to explore parts of Nebraska and then dip into northern Colorado to visit my eldest son, who lives in Denver. I didn’t want to travel all the way out west and miss many of the famous spots. So, I edited this trip and made it all about the three northernmost states: North Dakota, South Dakota and Nebraska. I’m still calling it the “Road Trip to Nowhere,” because the places are usually places you see on the way to somewhere else.
I’ll make my way to Omaha, go up the eastern side of Nebraska, South Dakota and North Dakota, then across the north, near the border with Canada, and then south on the western sides of all three states. I’ll mostly miss the middle of the states because it is logistically challenging for the time I have. From The Washington Post Travel Section, I was also inspired to add Cheyenne, Wyoming to my itinerary: Cheyenne. From there, I can drop down to Colorado. Then I can drive back home across the width of Nebraska. On my way home, I can stop to visit my sister in southern Illinois.
After driving across Kansas on my way to the Four Corners last May and then walking across the Meseta on the Camino de Santiago in fall of 2018, I fell in love with dramatic skies and expansive fields of crops. This is what the Dakotas and Nebraska are supposedly like.
Another of my sources of inspiration came from a post Pit wrote in his blog: Pit’s Fritztown News. The blog was about Sioux Falls, South Dakota: SolarEclipseRoadTrip – Day 9 [Sioux Falls/SD: Afternoon in Falls Park]. I was surprised to find such an attractive city in his post. After visiting the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site in Buffalo, NY, I fell in love with Teddy Roosevelt and then found many travelers raving about Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota. Then there is the Mount Rushmore National Memorial, carved with the faces of the presidents, including Teddy. Then my vision for the road trip expanded to many more parks and memorials in the area.
“The Lewis & Clark Experience” at the Frazier Museum in Louisville, KY ignited my curiosity about the Corps of Discovery, the specially-established unit of the United States Army that formed the nucleus of the Lewis and Clark Expedition from May 1804 to September 1806, and their attempt to find a waterway that connected the Missouri River with the Pacific Ocean.
President Thomas Jefferson asked Merriwether Lewis to head up the expedition, sending him to the American Philosophical Society so he could learn of the natural sciences as well as cultivating the arts. Lewis asked William Clark, age 33, to join; he became Second-Lieutenant but they shared the responsibilities of command. Like Jefferson and Lewis, Clark was from Virginia. Clark spent his youth on the family plantation and didn’t have a formal education, but he had great wilderness skills, along with strong boating, map-making, leadership and communication skills.
York, the only black man in the party — slave and manservant to William Clark since they were young — developed many of the same wilderness skills as Clark, but his hunting and scouting abilities, along with his great strength, made him integral to the success of the mission. He was able to communicate with the Indian tribes because they had never seen a black man before and they believed he had great spiritual power. The Arikara called him “Great Medicine.”
The keelboat was the most important purchase Lewis made; it could carry 12-14 tons of weight. Among the last of Lewis’s purchases was, Seaman, a large Newfoundland dog, who made the entire journey with the Corps.
One of the places I plan to visit is Fort Mandan in modern-day North Dakota, where the Corps wintered beginning in October 1804. At that time, the Corps had traveled nearly 1,600 miles along the Missouri River at an average rate of 11 miles per day. They had to wait nearly six months to continue their journey.
The Mandan Indians helped them by trading with them and providing them with food for the winter; the tribe was central to the trade network along the Missouri River and even helped in peace talks with the rival Arikara tribe, which eventually failed.
While the Corps wintered, they wrote a long report of their journey, describing plants, animals, Indian relations, and predictions for the months ahead. They recorded temperatures of 40°F below zero at Fort Mandan. Clark, an experienced mapmaker, finished detailed drawings of the Missouri River and surrounds, while Lewis preserved, packed and detailed 108 plant specimens and 68 mineral samples, along with Indian objects like bows and clothing, animal skins and skeletons, for the American Philosophical Society. They even sent back a few live animals, including a prairie dog.
When the Corps set out again on April 7, 1805 they continued their westward journey while the keelboat headed back to St. Louis with the specimens, eventually making its way back to Thomas Jefferson. A Mandan chief drew maps for the unfamiliar territory ahead and told them they would need help from the Shosone, who had horses vital to mountain crossing.
Toussaint Charbonneau, a 45-year-old French Canadian fur trader, was living with the Mandan and Hidatsa Indians when the Corps arrived in late 1804. Charbonneau had two “wives” he’d purchased as slaves; one was the young Shoshone named Sacagawea. Lewis and Clark hired them as interpreters, seeing the value of the languages they spoke.
Sacagawea, who had been kidnapped from her Shoshone village by a Hidatsa war party, and then was sold to Charbonneau, who referred to her as his “wife,” was only 16 years old and six months pregnant when the Corps first met her. Sacagawea, along with her newborn baby and husband, shared a tent with Lewis and Clark for most of the journey; her skills and resilience saved the mission more than once.
At the Frazier Museum, I briefly encountered some of the legacy of George Armstrong Custer, who rose to fame during the Civil War. He led the U.S. Army Black Hills Expedition that set out on July 2, 1874 from modern day Bismarck, North Dakota, which was then Fort Abraham Lincoln in the Dakota Territory, with orders to travel to the previously uncharted Black Hills of South Dakota. Its mission was to look for suitable locations for a fort, find a route to the southwest, and to investigate the possibility of gold mining. The expedition set up camp at the site of the future town of Custer; a gold rush ensued which antagonized the Sioux Indians who had been promised protection of their sacred land through Treaties made by the U.S. government. It was in 1876 during the Indian wars, that Custer and many of his troops would meet their end at the Battle of Little Bighorn in Montana at the hands of the Lakota and Cheyenne.
I hope to see herds of buffalo through the Dakotas. The buffalo provided much to the Indian tribes besides meat. Bones provided tools, knives and arrowheads; hides provided clothing, moccasins and bags; horns provided cups, spoons, toys and powder horns; the bladder provided pouches and medicine bags; buffalo “chips,” or scat, provided fuel for fire. The native tribes went to dangerous lengths to kill the buffalo including dressing in hides as decoys to lead herds to jump off cliffs, and, when buffalo were stranded on ice blocks that broke as they crossed in winter, jumping from ice block to ice block to retrieve or kill the dead or dying animals.
Custer State Park in South Dakota is home to nearly 1,500 head of North American bison. Commonly known as buffalo, these massive mammals can grow to six feet tall and weigh more than 2,000 pounds.
As the Dakotas are a harsh environment, where farming is difficult and populations are dwindling, I was recently captivated and further inspired by an exhibit about disappearing barns at the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley in Winchester, Virginia. The exhibit, titled “Ghosts of a Forgotten Landscape” featured atmospheric paintings by Sally Veach. The artist explores the southern breadbasket of the Shenandoah Valley and the difficulty of sustaining traditional farms due to changes in food production and distribution. Because of technological advances in storing hay and grain used to feed livestock, traditional barns with their pitched roofs, cupolas and silos are no longer essential features on the farm. The artist wanted to deeply explore the disappearance and deterioration of barns in the Shenandoah Valley, and man’s continuing struggle for survival, the hardships of taming a wild land, and the relationship between man and nature.
I hope to see writer Willa Cather’s home in Red Cloud, Nebraska, museums featuring western art, western towns such as Sioux Falls, Fargo, Rapid City and Bismarck, kitschy American places such as The Enchanted Highway, the Corn Palace, and Wall Drug, as well as natural places such as the Badlands, caves, the Black Hills, endless prairies and grasses.
From National Geographic:
Prairies are enormous stretched of flat grassland with moderate temperatures, moderate rainfall, and few trees.
When people talk about the prairie, they are usually referring to the golden, wheat-covered land in the middle of North America. The Great Plains, in the United States and Canada, has some of the world’s most valuable prairies, which grow some of the world’s most important crops. The U.S. states of North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico, and the Canadian provinces of Alberta, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan make up the Great Plains.
At first, I couldn’t interest a single person in coming with me, so I planned to go it alone. However, my enthusiasm was so infectious that Mike, at the last minute, decided he’d fly out to Rapid City, South Dakota and travel with me to Denver, and then fly back from there. It may not sound that appealing to go on a road trip to NOWHERE, but I’m sure, whether alone or with Mike, I’ll have a grand time. 🙂
“THE CALL TO PLACE” INVITATION: I invite you to write a post on your own blog about what enticed you to choose a particular destination. If you don’t have a blog, I invite you to write in the comments. If your destination is a place you love and keep returning to, feel free to write about that. If you want to see the original post about the subject, you can check it out here: imaginings: the call to place.
Include the link in the comments below by Wednesday, September 25 at 1:00 p.m. EST. My next “call to place” post is scheduled to post on Thursday, September 26.
If you’d like, you can use the hashtag #wanderessence.
This will be an ongoing invitation, on the fourth Thursday of each month. Feel free to jump in at any time. 🙂
I hope you’ll join in our community. I look forward to reading your posts!