Gorgonzola does America in a Month

Day 5: Sauk Centre to Murdo: Lake Agassiz, and Off-roading in Eastern South Dakota!

(Day 4)

WARNING: if you read these you will begin to realize that a whirlwind trip like this is primarily a story of missed opportunities. I don't want to think about the number of things I should have done but didn't. I won't blame you if you get angry at me for skipping something essential.

The day started out in Sauk Centre, Minnesota, which was where I had originally decided a day's drive from Madison with accompanying sightseeing stops would end comfortably. I hadn't figured Sturgis Bike Week into my plans, and the closest place to Badlands National Park I could get a hotel reservation was in Murdo, South Dakota, just southwest of Pierre. So the day would consist of one Interesting Geographical Landmark, and driving across treeless prairie and wheat fields as far as the eye could see.

So I dutifully packed everything up and headed off for the Interesting Geographical Landmark, a 100 mile drive through rolling Minnesota farm countryside. Browns Valley, Minnesota happens to lie at the point where Lake Agassiz drained into the Mississippi River System (via the Minnesota River) 13,000 years ago. I expected the town to lie in a dramatic deep channel. Indeed, there was a point right at the head of Big Stone Lake where you could get an indication of how enormous the outlet must have been, but there was nowhere to get out of the car to take a picture. The only places to stop showed signs of local high school kids drinking themselves silly at night. A park on the South Dakota side afforded a nice view of Lake Traverse.

My Big Event of the Day complete, it was time to get the driving over with. About 20 miles into South Dakota you hit Interstate 29, but I had the bright idea to add one more state to the trip by going north to the North Dakota Welcome Center for a map, turning around at the next exit, and stopping at the Welcome Center in South Dakota for that map. Yes, I drove 60 extra miles for a map. Well, two maps, so it should be worth it when the Earth dies. A coworker later told me North Dakota shouldn't count, becasuse it was like saying you'd been to France because you changed planes in Paris.

The northeastern corner of South Dakota is a lonely place. I can tell because the lady at the South Dakota Welcome Center was very glad to see me, taking the trouble to get a detailed itinerary for South Dakota, and to describe all of the construction spots on my route. She even gave me a map of Wyoming (70 miles for three maps, see? nyahh!) when I listed it in my itinerary.

I turned west onto US 12 and drove through and around a zillion mini-lakes around Waubay. Then I hit the first stretch of construction. The word "construction" did not loom large in my mind as I began The Big Push for Pierre. But when I pulled up to the STOP sign held by the flagman, I could not believe what I saw. US 12 was a four-lane highway; I expected a diversion onto the eastbound side. But in South Dakota, they repair roads differently: They simply tear up the entire road and build it again. In the meantime, any traffic that wishes to pass drives across the dirt. I could tell I was in for a wait when the guy holding the sign walked up for a chitchat. "All the way from Maryland, huh? Wow!" It turns out that the State of South Dakota provides a pilot truck to guide you along the safest path through the dirt. If you got stuck, it would only delay completion. So after five miles of dirt road driving, I was glad to see pavement again.

Gas in Aberdeen, and as I proceeded west things got lonelier and lonelier. Fields got larger as farmhouses became fewer. There was a stretch of about two hours where I had the road entirely to myself. The only radio station was the one broadcast from the Standing Rock Reservation. Exchanges of local greetings between families and public service announcement about the hazards of sniffing glue reminded me that there was civilization somewhere (the glue sniffing ads reminded me of home actually, as Maryland had made a big deal about it just a few years previously). I finally turned south onto US 83, at a monument to a town that had once stood there.

I was expecting the second stretch of contruction, as it had been marked on the map with a big diversion. No pilot truck this time, they simply dug up the road and placed barriers across it. A diversion east through Gettysburg added another 26 miles to the trip. Towards the end, I was so astonished to see a hill that I did my first exercise in photography while driving. to capture it.

By the time I reached Pierre, it was about 4:30. After the sensory deprivation of the previous hours, Pierre seemed like Manhattan. Unfortunately it isn't really, no matter how hard it tries. Everything was closing up. I eventually had to eat at a Burger King in the center of town.

But after dinner, a drive up to the Venderyne Memorial was worth it, as it afforded a beautiful vista of the yellowish hills rolling into Missouri River, the blue water of the river itself and the greys and browns of the city. My pictures of the Venderyne Memorial would prove quite surprising months later when I examined them in detail, but that's for another node.

The final stretch of construction was the most harrowing: A seven mile drive on a dirt causeway, uphill into the uplands south of the Missouri. After rounding a particularly nasty bend, there was Blessed Pavement. The final stretch of US 83 was uneventful. The 20 miles of Interstate 90 to Murdo were dominated by signs for distant Wall Drug and the last rain I would see for two weeks.

In the end, it was a Good Thing that I rushed Pierre. When I finally pulled into Murdo Best Western, the desk clerk told me I'd come a day ahead of my reservation. But she had a room, the very last one! This is no joke. As soon as I walked out of the office, the NO VACANCY sign came on. Just as six bikers pulled up. This, of course, incurred a karmic debt with the God of Bikers that would be paid the following day.

On the other hand, karma must go through a Goverment Budget Process, applicable only to specific projects. The "fun" part of my trip was officially set to begin the next day. And it was, for the most part.

(Day 6)