Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

September 26, 2004 Driving across South Dakota.

I left Mitchell planning to hightail it to the Badlands, but I let myself get sidetracked at the Missouri River. The Missouri divides the Dakotas. The east side - East River, as they call it - is relatively rich farmland, an extension of the cornfields of Minnesota. East River has Sioux Falls, South Dakota's largest city at 124,000 people and one sixth of the state's population. The capital, Pierre, is East River; with a population of 15,000 it's the same size as Mitchell. West River is almost desert, high plains that can support a handful of cattle on the 160-acre homestead lots. West River there's not a single town over 10,000, and plenty that are under 1,000 or under 100. On the east side of the river the hills are green and grassy, trees rise up from the river. Across on the west side the hills are brown and empty. I was about to cross into a different world.



Thereís an information center high on a bluff overlooking the river, where I stopped to pick up maps. Armed with papers and pamphlets, I headed out determined to crank out the 100 miles to the Badlands. Instead I took the next exit, before even crossing the river, and headed into Chamberlain to see what I could see. A small river town, with two bridges across the Missouri, a marina, and a nice park where I could camp for the night. I parked my van and headed out on my bicycle, through the town, across the old bridge that had been replaced by the highway, and up the river on the other side. I passed a hotel, a new home development, and a public marina, till the road turned to dirt and I was surrounded by ranches. I pulled over to stare back at Chamberlain across the river, and mulled over the possibility of bringing Matilda over here to sleep for the night, on a dead end dirt road by the side of the Missouri.

I didnít, though. I rode back across the river and coasted slowly down Main Street studying the buildings and the shops. I stopped to pick up a few groceries at the Chamberlain Food Center, and returned ďhomeĒ to cook a proper dinner in my van. As darkness fell I could pick out the new homes on the west side of the river, and see right where the development ended and the ranch began. It felt dark and empty, sitting in my van in the town campground west gazing across the river. That was an illusion, though Ė behind me pools of light glowed around the park facilities and the RV windows across the campground flickered with the blue light of television screens.

In the morning I left early, to photograph the dawn light on the river banks from the I-90 overlook. I spent hours there, taking pictures, looking at the exhibits in the information center, and eating my breakfast. It was nine oíclock by the time I finally hit the road, but Iíd gain an hour as soon as I crossed into mountain time so it felt early.



I only had a hundred miles to go to the Badlands, but I stopped at a diner on the road for no good reason, except that I was cold, tired of driving, and tired of I-90. I ordered a coffee, which was true, authentic, see-your-spoon-at-the-bottom-of-the-cup South Dakota coffee! Many years ago I was working in Niger with some guys from Eros Data Center in Sioux Falls. We all stayed at the Grand Hotel in Niamey, where each morning we ordered the set breakfast as we sat on the terrace over looking the Niger River Ė one hard boiled egg, six inches of baguette, a croissant, butter, jam, juice of some unnamed sugary sort, and thick black coffee. The South Dakotans couldnít handle the coffee, it was too strong for them. And thatís when we defined South Dakota coffee Ė if you canít see your spoon in the bottom of the cup, itís too strong.

So here I am in the diner in Murdo, South Dakota, with my cup of flavorless South Dakota coffee. Driving here was awesome. The land is open, huge, the sky is vast. The towns are far apart, twenty or third miles, and thereís not much to them when you get there. I took the exit to Peshto, population1,639. I drove through the business district, one street with a few bars, a grocery, a couple of churches, several yards filled with farm equipment, and a small park. Past the businesses I was on a narrow road with barns and cows, fields planted with some low crop, and grazing lands. Itís was much nicer than I-90, which is dotted with billboards advertising Wall Drug, exhibitions at Mt. Rushmore, KOA campgrounds, and motels in Rapid City. I startled birds as I drove through Peshto, a ruddy hawk with a white belly that took off over my head from its perch on a road sign, flocks of small dark birds wheeling and circling over the fields. This seems like good birding country. When I get to the Badlands Iíll have to find a nice perch myself, and settle in with my binoculars.

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