I Didn’t Hate South Dakota

I didn’t hate South Dakota.

In fact I never really thought about South Dakota. I knew it was the home of Mount Rushmore, and that was enough for me. Everything else I had ever learned or been told about the area led me to believe it was the most boring of boring places in the US. Not worth wasting a thought on, much less a trip.

But the other day I arrived in Rapid City, South Dakota, and my opinion of the place changed drastically.

After spending a few days in Minneapolis, visiting my brother and filling our hours with game after game of Egyptian Laser Chess and rounds of trampoline dodgeball with Joel Runyon, Jóna and I hopped a bus up to Fargo, North Dakota.

After six hours on the road, we arrived, only to be told that our planned path through ND and down into the western side of South Dakota wouldn’t be possible, as their routes have been changed (though there’s no indication of this change on their website). We would have to go back to Minneapolis first, and then catch another bus through to Rapid City, where we planned to stop at a hotel for the night, hop a free shuttle to Mount Rushmore, and proceed on our merry way.

Our stop in Rapid City could have been depressing. I’m not a big fan of tourist attractions, and the whole city, as advertised, seemed to be a vehicle for the famous President-encrusted mountain. Further, after enduring an extra 12 hours in a cramped Greyhound we needn’t have experienced (back and forth from Fargo), we were both close to the ends of our respective travel-tolerance ropes.

During a stop in Sioux Falls (five hours or so from Rapid City), I sat down in the Greyhound station and started chatting with another passenger, who turned out to be a roofer, looking for work in the area. Another man came up and joined the conversation, and he was involved in contractor work, essentially rebuilding towns after catastrophic disasters.

I learned a lot about roofing.

But the second gentleman and I (his name was Tom), continued our chat after we boarded the bus, and a few hours later, we had run the gamut from roofs to politics to science and technology. He went back to his seat and we both passed the last few hours reading.

When we arrived in Rapid City, I found that my phone wasn’t picking up a signal, and was unable to contact a hotel to make a reservation and to see if any of them would pick us up from the Greyhound station so late at night.

Tom asked me where I was headed, and when I told him about the phone problem I was trying to solve, he kindly offered to have the guy who was picking him up drop us at a hotel nearby. We gladly and thankfully accepted.

When Tom’s ride arrived, a pair of dogs exploded from the car and ran to greet him, followed by a fellow about Tom’s age (probably 50 or 60 years old) who smiled and shook his hand. We were introduced to Monte, and as we loaded up our bags in his car, he said, “Well why don’t you come out and stay with me?”

The automatic response most people would have in this situation is to assume the worst. Who was this guy? What did he want from us? Did he want to kill us, or just rob us?

This reflex has been sanded away by years of travel in me, so I quickly took stock, reassured myself that Monte wasn’t nefarious, and checked with Jóna to make sure she was comfortable with the arrangement. She nodded yes, and our South Dakota education began.

It started with a drive around the outskirts of town, leading to Mount Rushmore, which was closed for the night but still accessible if you ignored the signs telling you not to enter. We had a dramatic view of the rock-faces, unobstructed by weather or tourists and emphasized by the nighttime lighting.

I was impressed. It was actually a really dramatic view, and in the chilly, empty, quiet night, it was even more so.

We were then driven to a massive log cabin, which Monte had built. He showed us around and explained how he’s building these log castles because he likes the aesthetic, but also because they’re eco-friendly and perfect for the Dakotan environment. He also owns a log-cutting business, removing diseased trees so that healthy ones can continue to live, so the log cabin ventures fit well within his business portfolio.

After checking out the cabin, we went out in search of something warm to eat.

The restaurant we decided on offered up an interesting mix of standard American food, alongside regionals specialties and Mexican food. No one would man-up and order the Rocky Mountain Oysters, but Tom offered to buy Jóna a buffalo burger, in part because he wanted to make sure she tried it, and in part to welcome her to the United States. Warm fuzzies all around.

Jóna and I were having a good time, but were also exhausted. Thankfully, the next stop was another log cabin, and this one we would get to sleep in.

To say it was a rustic experience wouldn’t be quite accurate, even though the vibe was definitely woodsy and lumberjack-like. It was more like the place felt like home even though we had never been there before, and it was warm and cozy enough that we quickly fell asleep, luxuriating in the quiet sustained by the log walls, despite the blustery weather outside.

The next day we went for a hearty breakfast in a small restaurant that smelled of pancakes and looked like a hunting lodge. There were real moose, elk, and deer heads mounted on the walls, and a signed Nascar tire above our table. We ate all we could, then Monte and Tom took us to visit another cabin, this one out past the Black Hills. We stopped at a few frozen lakes to take photos and marvel at the pickup trucks pulled out onto the ice, each surrounded by clusters of fishermen.

We eventually drove back into town and were dropped off in the downtown area, right next to the Greyhound station. We all exchanged handshakes, hugs, and email addresses.

As Jóna and I sat in the bus and pulled away from the station, I said “You know, I didn’t hate South Dakota before, but now I kind of like it.”

February 16, 2017

I’ve had so many experiences like this, it’s ridiculous. People are generally good wherever you go, and given the opportunity, strangers will give you the shirt off their back to make sure you’re taken care of while in their hometown.

There are jerks out there who can make strangers seem threatening and generally horrible, but they are the exception, not the rule.