I Didn’t Hate South Dakota

I didn’t hate South Dakota.

In fact I never really thought of 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; though this almost wasn’t the case.

What happened was this:

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 6 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 not 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 snag a hotel for the night, hop a free shuttle to Mount Rushmore, and then go 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 (in my mind) was just a vehicle for the famous President-encrusted mountain. Further, after enduring an extra 12 hours in a cramped Greyhound that we needn’t have experienced (back and forth from Fargo), we were both quite close to the ends of our respective travel-tolerance ropes.

During a stop in Souix Falls (5 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 headed back to his seat and we both passed the last few hours reading, but were pleased to have had a solid conversation in what was otherwise a quite introverted trip.

When we arrived in Rapid City, I found that my phone wasn’t working (apparently T-Mobile doesn’t operate anywhere in South Dakota), 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 that late at night.

Tom asked me where I was headed, and when I told him about the phone problem I was trying to solve, 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 duo 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) came out and clasped 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 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 worn away in me by years of travel, though, so I quickly took stock, reassured myself that he wasn’t nefarious, and checked with Jóna to make sure she was comfortable with the arrangement. She quickly nodded yes, and our South Dakota education began.

It started with a drive around the outskirts of town, leading to Mount Rushmore, which was essentially 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, each unobstructed by weather or tourists, and boldly emphasized by the lighting.

I was impressed. It was actually quite the 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 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 fair, along with some 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 partially to welcome her to the United States.

Warm fuzzies all around.

Jóna and I were having a good time, but were also quite tired. 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 friendly enough that we quickly fell asleep, luxuriating in the quiet held in 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, and then Monte and Tom took us to visit another cabin, this one past the Black Hills, and a few frozen lakes, which we stopped at to take photos and wonder over the pickups trucks pulled out onto the ice, each surrounded by clusters of ice fishermen.

We finally headed 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, and we offered up our sincere thanks, which were met with smiles from our chance tour guides.

As Jóna and I sat in the bus and pulled away from the station, headed toward our next destination, we smiled at each other and I said “You know, I didn’t hate South Dakota, but now I kind of like it.”