Into The Great Wide Open: Touring The American West (Part II)…
“Under God the People Rule” is South Dakota’s state motto and it felt so as I traversed its eastern border with endless expanse before me. For to be in South Dakota is to experience unfathomable distances and awe-inspiring vistas. It’s one of those places that leaves one wanting to be one with the majestic magic it serves. It epitomizes the American West.
Receiving statehood on November 2nd, 1889 and with a sparse population of 800,000 inhabitants, what it lacks in vibrancy, it gladdens in history and astounding allure.
Driving Interstate 90 westwards from Minnesota, one soon encounters South Dakota’s biggest city with some 200,000 residents, namely Sioux Falls. A clean city on the banks of the pristine Big Sioux River, it goes without saying that the biggest attraction are the falls themselves. Made from quartzite, the view of gushing water over the rustic, reddish rock makes for a unique landscape. Surrounded by bike trails and paths, one passes a marker signifying the long-ago place of a prison quarry – a reminder of the city’s rough and tumble western past.
Perhaps no better person personifies this past than a man named Richard Franklin Pettigrew, who lived from 1848 to 1926. A statue of this U.S. Senator stands near downtown to commemorate his more than colorful life. Engraved on a plaque below the sculpture are words written by Wayne Fanebust, a Pettigrew biographer:
“If you didn’t drink whiskey, play cards, use your fists or otherwise intimidate, you didn’t belong in the arena with Frank Pettigrew…a man who came to the Dakotas with nothing but desire, talent and ambition.”
In many respects, Pettigrew was a combination of the American West making him, and him making the American West. In the spirit of the times, he epitomized the longing for the settlers’ struggles to conquer the untamed reaches of the American continent with South Dakota being in the middle of it all. This I discovered as I commenced the almost 400-mile cross-state drive to Rapid City.
To drive Interstate 90 from Sioux Falls to Rapid City is to drive through a corridor of unremitting vistas and immortal views. From crossing the great Missouri River and seeing the ‘Dignity’ monument, to stopping at Al’s Oasis restaurant ‘200 miles from nowhere’ and seeing grasslands where thousands of Buffalo once roamed and then bisecting the Badlands by twilight, it’s a day’s journey that engraves memories. After which the lights of Rapid City wait in the distance.
The City of Presidents, as Rapid City is known, takes an uncommon interest in its Presidents. Located approximately half an hour from Mount Rushmore, a furniture dealer in town felt that the city should commemorate all Presidents and not just those on the face of a Black Hills mountain. So, on every downtown street corner the city erected a statue capturing the character and spirit of each US President. The display is at once fun, but a tad uncanny and those of President Nixon and Bill Clinton do capture the eye.
No journey is complete to South Dakota without a day’s trek through the Black Hills National Forest. Touring from the infamous pioneer town of Deadwood down through the winding road of Custer Park with its roaming Buffalo leaves one testing the brakes and the steering. As one exits Scovel Johnson Tunnel and witnesses Gutzon Borglum’s reincarnation of American Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln on the face of Mt. Rushmore, it dawns why the American West is such a marvel to wonder. It’s so much more than landscape; it’s the intersection of nature and history (see History: The Identity of Life…).
The road was now clear for the jaunt to the “Equal Rights” state…
Note: All photos were taken by the author.
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