A Long Awaited Journey (Part One)

For over a year, I’ve been telling myself that once I get vaccinated I’m going to take a nice long road trip. My 40th birthday came and went and now, finally, I’ve gotten to stretch my legs a little bit. I didn’t decide on where I was going until two days before I left; it was strangely difficult for me to pick a place. But pick I did; on Saturday, I headed north.

When I went to pick up my rental car that morning, I joked with the lady at the counter that I’d happily trade the Toyota sedan I’d reserved for a Mustang, f they had one sitting around. Turns out, they did. I drove away from Tulsa in a 2021 Ford Mustang with only 373 miles on the odometer. Hot dang! I had nearly tripled that mileage on the first day, by the way.

As seen in Lyndon, KS later that morning

Now, I’ve never felt out of my element when driving a rental before…but this time there was a learning curve. Sure, the car drove great and all, but it had a lot of bells and whistles that took me many miles to understand. It rained for most of that first day in Kansas and Nebraska. I kept trying to set the windshield wipers to intermittent but nothing made sense. It kept speeding up and slowing down and even stopping. My continued adjustments seemed to make no difference at all. I finally figured out there’s a sensor that automatically changes the speed of the windshield wipers depending on the amount of rain. Oh.

That’s not all! There were these weird paddle levers behind the steering wheel. What’s that about? Leave it to some 17 year old kid in Nebraska City (who came up to ogle the car and tell me about the ’65 Mustang he’s restoring) to educate me on recent Mustangs having a shifting option for a “sport driving mode.” I don’t even know. I could tell this kid thought I was dumb as a box of rocks.

Don’t even get me started on how long it took me to figure out the gas cap.

ANYWAY – it drives like a dream!

I drove pretty much straight through to Omaha where I drove on a little section of the Lincoln Highway. It’s one of the best well-preserved bits of brick roadway in the country! Although most of the stretch is blocked off due to some other construction work, there was about a 1/4 mile segment near Elkhorn I could actually experience from the driver’s seat.

I detoured to see a few old bridges (as I am wont to do) as I continued north and made it all the way to Sioux City, Iowa for the night. I had a quiet dinner and watched the many motorcycles cruise about downtown. I wonder if there was an event or something?

Sunday morning was the start of another long day of driving, but it started with a beautiful view overlooking the mighty Missouri River at the tri-state intersection of Nebraska, Iowa, and South Dakota. The air was sweet with…some kind of plant…and the birds were chirping. Maybe it was lilac; I don’t know these things. It was nice!

A short time later, I found myself in South Dakota and started driving west. My first major stop was The World’s Only Corn Palace! In the late 1800’s, many Midwestern towns built “grain palaces” to celebrate their local crop of choice. The one in Mitchell is the only one left. The murals around the outside are made from corn itself and are changed annually. There are some displays inside but most of the space is a large, frequently-used auditorium. There was a practice session for a graduation going on when I poked my head in. The rest of Main Street Mitchell is pretty cool, too!

My next destination was an I-90 rest stop next to the Missouri River. It wasn’t just ANY rest stop, though: this one features a 50-foot-tall stainless steel statue named Dignity of Earth & Sky. This beautiful portrait of an indigenous woman honors the Lakota and Dakota people. As a bonus for me, the area also serves as the perfect place to view the Chamberlain Bridge, which is on the National Register.

The wind started picking up as I stopped near Murdo at a roadside attraction called 1880 Town. Now, I’d seen a long series of billboards for this place along the interstate and wasn’t going to stop; it seemed like a typical tourist trap kind of place and not in a good way. However, one of the last billboards mentioned Dances with Wolves movie props…so I decided to give it a whirl. And boy am I glad I did! It’s a collection of authentic late-1800s buildings from around the region (relocated like in Red Oak II, Missouri), each filled with equally authentic antiques. And, yes, a collection of Dances with Wolves memorabilia on the second floor of the 14-sided barn.

My final Sunday stop was Badlands National Park. This place is absolutely spectacular; the landscape is like something from another planet. Also, you can go anywhere in the park on foot. I saw lots of hikers and climbers about – as well as some foolish families trying to get the “perfect photo” out on a narrow band of steep rock. Camping is available in several areas, but I’d scored an actual room at a motel/RV campground just south of the park.

Thank goodness I wasn’t camping – a terrible storm rolled through right at dinner time. The same system had spawned tornadoes closer to the Wyoming border, but we only had to deal with heavy rains and some brutal wind. The next morning I would see several RV trailers and semi-trucks flipped from the gusts and awaiting tow. But for me, I was able to relax and enjoy the sound of the rain as my second day of travel came to a close.

More to come as I visit one of our most famous national monuments and finally set foot in the state of Wyoming…

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