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Road Trip into the Heartland
South Dakota
by Peter Thody

De Smet Cemetery
The De Smet Cemetery, final resting place of the Ingalls family

Pierre, South Dakota
Traffic in Pierre


The next day was going to be a big one. Not particularly challenging in terms of distance, just 180 miles along Highway 14, the The Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Highway, to the state capital Pierre. But these, we'd been warned, were the plains at their plainest.

Almost as soon as we'd started, we arrived in De Smet, "The Little Town on the Prairie," and if it was good enough to persuade the Ingalls to stop, it was certainly good enough for us. A guide, dressed in period clothing, showed us around the Surveyors' House where the Wilders had spent their first Dakota winter in 1879-80, and then "the house that Pa built" in 1887, where Ma, Pa, and Laura's blind sister Mary lived for many years after.

This was real history, history you could touch and smell as well as read about. But what brought it home most vividly that these people existed beyond the pages of a book and the flickering screen of a 1970s TV series, was the town cemetery. Set in a stunningly beautiful location of shady pines, this is final resting place of Caroline and Charles (Ma and Pa); three of Laura's sisters, Mary, Grace, and Carrie; and most touching of all, Laura and Almanzo's unnamed son who died shortly after his birth in 1889. These were people who'd lived, raised families, and died here.

Respects duly paid, it's out of the cemetery, check for traffic (you never know, there'd been some earlier), turn left and back onto Highway 14, heading west.

And the guys in the bar were right. The roads were empty and the countryside was virtually featureless. Mile upon mile of flat farmland and plains, with only the occasional homestead in the distance to break up the horizon. But to us, visitors from a country where you can't go 10 miles without bumping into a decent-sized town or city, this was mesmerizing.

Some landscapes are soporific, sending you into semi-conscious autopilot, but this was entirely different. Brilliant blue skies, endless grassland changing color over massive landscapes, impossibly long freight trains being hauled along the Dakota, Minnesota & Eastern railroad by bright red and yellow locomotives. Seriously, even the asphalt looked exciting and different from anything we'd experienced before.

It was stimulating, hypnotic, and magical; something I remain moved by today. This was America, this was why we'd come. So it was with more of a sense of disappointment at having finished the drive than tired relief that we reached Pierre.

"Can we help you?" offered two ladies, quickly identifying us as either vagrants or confused out-of-towners as we entered a characterful-looking building that stated 'Hotel' on the outside but clearly wasn't on the inside. Discovering that we were not only out-of-town but out-of-country, the SD charm switched into overdrive. "Be sure to visit our beautiful State Capitol, won't you? Take a walk by the river, you'll love it. You want to eat? Go to La Minestra - it's Italian and great food. Say, we could be your guides! You need a hotel? The Days Inn does great waffles for breakfast."

Five minutes later, having successfully negotiated the road works that had seen the main road through Pierre transformed into a Third World dirt track, we stood in line at the hotel reception. "What price for Triple-A members?" "We're seniors, what's your best rate?" "Three night at fishing-party rates please?" Being British and therefore finding money-related talk in general and discount requests in particular excruciatingly embarrassing, we simply asked about room availability. And I swear she gave us a better price that the three parties before us.

Unpack, shower, renegotiate the hazards of West Sioux Ave -- this time on foot -- and we find ourselves at the Veterans Bar, directly on the banks of the Missouri, drinking Bud and watching water skiers. Forty-eight hours before, we'd spent Independence Day at La Crosse, Wisconsin, enjoying their annual Riverfest on the banks of the Mississippi. Tonight we were watching one of America's other great rivers flow slowly by. There's a point in every trip when the amazement you feel at finding yourself in these far-off places makes way for something more comfortable, a kind of settling-in process where everything's still beautiful and exciting, but you begin to feel part of it. This was our fitting-in moment, and it felt great.

Next: Pierre to Rapid City>

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Peter Thody
January 8, 2006


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