For the past two weekends we’ve been on the road. Our travels went from the east side of the state in Sioux Falls to the west side with Rapid City and the Black Hills. Both experiences had their ups and downs, but I’m happy to be home this weekend. Last night I was invited to visit a bar in Fort Pierre that has experienced a revival. Was it thrilling and exciting? Not really, but we’d passed it many times enroute to one of our favorite restaurants, and it was time to give it a shot. I’m thankful to have friends who are willing to slow down and make intentional decisions about how to spend an evening, or even a whole day. Two of the ladies I joined last night were also companions for Kevin and myself on a self-titled Road Trip to Nowhere experience two years ago.
Although there are always backroads to take, going from Pierre to Sioux Falls or Pierre to Rapid City usually just involves interstate 90. There are plenty of destinations in South Dakota, however, that can only be accessed by backroads. Last year I was dreading the three hour drive from Pierre to Aberdeen (160 miles) and my mom, trying to be helpful, suggested that I get a Shamrock shake to liven up the trip. We were chatting on the phone, and I reminded her that I’d already left Pierre. “So…” she countered. My response: “So, there isn’t a McDonald’s between Pierre and Aberdeen.” She’s familiar with South Dakota terrain, but living on the East Coast can sometimes shade her memory.
Too often, Kevin and I have found ourselves grumbling when we have to reduce our speed to get through another little town on our way to some place more exciting. A conversation about this shared experience with our friends resulted in the Road Trip to Nowhere where the sole purpose was to actually visit and enjoy the small towns we usually try to just “speed” through.
Riding in Ruby (our red, 1993 Suburban) is a posh experience feeling equivalent to speeding down a highway while relaxing in your favorite living room furniture. We weren’t expecting to haul home any large purchases or to encounter conditions requiring 4W drive, but roominess and comfort were our motivation for vehicle selection.
Ruby also felt like a ticket to our destinations; it was very likely she wouldn’t be the only car of her model or year in any given parking lot on our route. Our first stop was an hour east of the big city of Pierre (population at 2013 census: 13, 984). Despite the fact that our vehicle fit in with the rural vibe, as we walked through the door of the Ranch Cafe, our presence was unexpected. Adorned with charming crafts and other wall hangings, the welcome sign indicated that we should select our own seats, but I wondered if we needed to inquire which table was not already under an invisible Saturday morning contract. It felt like something from the movies where the music stops, conversation ceases, all eyes join on the intruding character and only the sound of a fork hitting a plate breaks the silence. We had two choices: press on or turn back. Stomachs grumbling, and a special on sausage gravy and biscuits meant the decision didn’t take long. Although the Ranch Cafe clearly caters to locals and doesn’t have a large influx of travelers on a Saturday morning, the place was a hive of activity.
Small town shops need customers to keep their doors open and legacies alive, and this humble notion was palpable each time we entered a new establishment. So although Ruby didn’t need to carry any large purchases, support local businesses we did. After admiring the tea kettle collection at the Ranch Cafe register, we visited a nursery where I added to my flower seed collection and then we returned to main street where we all bought things we “needed.” Kevin felt like a thief as he left The Clothes Garden with a $4.00 set of pajamas (think long sleeves, buttons and stripes), Hilary added to her clock collection after visiting the antique store, and Amanda and I purchased earrings and another cup of coffee at Heartstrings. For a town of only 1,461, Miller set the bar high for delightful finds. We could have returned the way we came, and the day be deemed a success, but, alas, that wasn’t the plan.
Our next few stops were of the exploration variety. South Dakota highways are littered with abandoned buildings ready to tell fascinating stories. The problem is that in the race from point A to point B, stopping to pay homage isn’t high on the priority list. These stops were quiet and reflective. Carefully approaching and standing in unstable buildings, we each conjured our own stories of the past. These places were loved and filled, and so they were again on a sunny Saturday morning.
Thirty miles north of Miller, we stumbled into Orient (population: 65). With such a small population, it felt like each member must have a designated place to be at any given time in order to fulfill all of Orient’s elements. We happened to visit during the sleepy season, however, and no one was around. Still, it was easy to imagine how one might live a life in Orient with various locations being the center of interest at any given stage: children could enjoy the playground and make up stories about what was put in the school time capsule in 1987, teenagers might be practicing to hold up Orient’s former baseball state championship title, and adults would traverse from work at the Co-op to either church or beer, or to beer in a former church.
After visiting Orient’s fascinating playground equipment, we took 353rd Avenue north to the town of Faulkton (population: 744). Here, we were excited for the possibilities: Rural School Museum? Carousel? Courthouse? Alas, it was either too early in the season or too late in the week for any of these places to welcome us. Monuments of times past seemed all that was ready to greet us in Faulkton. Stopping for a drink at the gas station, and a peek at the community board, however, offered a glimpse into a life that is still vibrant and fresh in Faulkton. Just as we thought we were headed to a new town, a sign caught us and we were reeled in to the community art show, where we not only enjoyed the craft of local talent, but also the cookies of one of Kevin’s childhood friend’s mom! The room was full of hope, of people who know how to capture nature’s beauty in a time capsule that doesn’t have to wait to be opened. An artist in my own way, I have struggled for myself, my students and my community as I see athletic events teeming with fans and fine arts ones begging for patrons. Having the time to visit this community art show was one of my favorite elements of our trip. Beyond the few dollars admission, we offered something more valuable to this community by witnessing what it has to offer.
Seneca (population: 58) was our next stop. Abandoned buildings again offered opportunities for art and a high-school-senior-style photoshoot.
Gettysburg (population: 1,201), complete with a sign reminding us it is, “Where the Battle Wasn’t,” is 40 miles west of Faulkton on US-212. Although Gettysburg rivaled Miller in size and promising establishments and landmarks, our stay was short due to the lack of food offerings and the inadequate signage leading to the famed “medicine rock.” Hangriness was creeping on, and even if we had found the medicinal granite, it couldn’t have provided the sustenance we needed. To be honest, I don’t know what material the rock is made of, and I do hope to one day see the sacred Native American artifact, which I now know is housed in Gettysburg’s Dakota Sunset Museum.
Our final stop before returning to Pierre was Onida where we dined and rehashed our day of discovery. These small towns are something special. On first look, they seem like relics from another time, a sort of history museum in full scale. They are, however, a way of life impossibly curated by one mind, but the result of the gathering of people to support one another. So many people live in places with city blocks rivaling the population sizes of the towns we visited, and yet inhabitants of these cities don’t feel part of or connected to an authentic community. In order to be in a place where people love and support one another we all have to be willing to slow down long enough to learn about and enjoy each other’s presence. Leaving the Fireside Lounge & Grill, I glanced at the community board. On it was an open invitation to Moriah Wagner’s bridal shower. A cute, country design boasted live music and good food for guests as they stopped by with gifts for Moriah, which could be purchased through the bride’s registries at Bed, Bath & Beyond, Target or Williams Sonoma.
The closest BB&B and Target is in Rapid City, which is 205 miles or three hours from Onida. The closest Williams Sonoma is six and a half hours away in Minneapolis, MN. Friends and family of Moriah are most likely shopping online, but the point here is one of small town connection. No, we don’t have a venti macchiato option at a Starbucks on the corner, but we do have the appliances we want from big time retailers should we choose to stay home for breakfast on a Saturday morning. But who would want to? The collective experience I have to gain at the Ranch Cafe far outweighs the conversation I’ll have sitting on the couch here with my cats, and besides, the biscuits and gravy are exceptional.