The Road to Montana (part one)

Last year I was invited to be the Gaming Guest of Honor for 2018 at Great Falls Gaming Rendezvous in Great Falls, Montana. I accepted, and ever since had been planning my trip. I’d never been to Montana before (or the Dakotas for that matter) so there were things I surely needed to experience along the way.

There had been indications I might have a passenger to help keep me company: that turned out to not be the case after all, so I’d be driving alone. It would be a 1,300-mile round-trip, most of that along the I-90 corridor, so I’d need to plan my stops ahead of time. I’m prone to sleepiness on long drives, so it’s best if I don’t push too hard to cover extra miles in a day.

My first stop was Sioux City, South Dakota. It was about seven hours’ worth of driving time from home, so it was a good stopping point for the night. I found a Red Roof Inn conveniently near the highway, and called ahead for a reservation. I got a later start than I had hoped, so by the time I rolled in it was after dark. The hotel itself was nothing special: breakfast was included, but in this case the adage “you get what you pay for” held true. I settled for a bowl of cereal and a hard-boiled egg to get me going, and hit the road after visiting the nearby Pokestops and gyms I’d tackled the night before. Yes, I play Pokemon Go!: it’s the primary use of my phone these days, much to my wife’s chagrin.

The road through the Dakotas is long, but there is scenery to keep a driver awake. The speed limit in South Dakota is a brisk 80 MPH, and I took full advantage of the speed increase to cover the miles faster. Tuesday I stopped first in Chamberlain, SD to see “Dignity,” a 50-foot tall statue dedicated to the people of South Dakota and pretty clearly honoring the indigenous population. It’s a beautiful piece of work, and I was delighted — both to have discovered it and that I made plans to visit. The visitor center also included a modest museum about the Lewis and Clark expedition, which was fascinating. Stopping in Chamberlain was a delight, plus it broke up the long drive across South Dakota. Also in Chamberlain is the Akta Lakota Museum and Cultural Center. It’s well worth the visit for the gift shop alone: add in the cool (and some heart-wrenching) displays of artifacts and scenes of daily life, and it’s a fantastic stop for those interested in Native American culture and history. Combined with the Dignity statue and museum, Chamberlain would be a great overnight stop.

My next stop was a visit to Badlands National Park. It was a couple hours further along I-90, but it was hard to miss when I got close: I began to see alien-looking rock formations in the middle distance, and the signage was clear and regular. I determined, as late in the day as it was, that I could only take a quick drive through before the sun would set and it would be too dark to see anything. I decided to go for it, and was I glad I did! The rock formations were both beautiful and eerie, and I caught a glimpse of two male Mountain Bluebirds tussling by the side of the road – a new species for my life-list. Sadly, they were moving too fast to get a picture.

One of the more colorful sections of South Dakota’s Badlands

Saw lots of prairie dog towns, but to my great disappointment I didn’t see a single Burrowing Owl among them. Burrowing owls often share a symbiotic relationship with prairie dogs: they use an empty burrow as their nest, and in exchange the provide extra sets of eyes, and no small measure of protection from other predators. Adult prairie dogs are too big for Burrowing Owls to tackle: they must not prey on young prairie dogs either, or they would surely be driven away by hordes of barking, chittering rodents.

To be honest, the Badlands — even that limited segment cut through by the main road, and my limited, hour-and-a-half drive through it — was so full of breathtaking vistas that I stopped taking photos. It really is like driving through an alien landscape, and I hope to return for a longer visit someday. As I exited the park, I saw a small herd of buffalo in the distance. They weren’t close enough for a decent picture, but I took one just the same.

Steampunk Bison Sculpture

I pushed on to Rapid City, having found a slightly more expensive but better appointed hotel to stay the night. Turns out, there was a steak restaurant across the parking lot called Dakota, and they had a steampunk buffalo sculpture outside, which I was only too happy to photograph. The food at Dakota featured meat as one might expect, and I contented myself with a prime rib sandwich and a nice house salad.

Wednesday morning the wind came up with a vengeance — 30-40 miles per hour in steady, extended gusts. One of the hotel guests was blown over and had to be taken off by ambulance after bleeding profusely from several cuts and scrapes. I had qualms about driving in such wind, but pushed on anyway, and found that once I actually got into the rugged terrain of the Black Hills just a few miles west of Rapid City, the roads were mostly sheltered from the wind. The route to Mount Rushmore — my first stop of the day — was well-marked, and passed through a couple of small towns. Admission to Mount Rushmore itself is free: parking, on the other hand, is another matter. I figured $10 was worth it, and got in line to pull my car into one of the multi-level parking structures. In the end, Mount Rushmore proved to be less impressive than I’d imagined. It’s still a remarkable piece of work, and one that took years to complete, but a monument to what some consider to be four of our greatest presidents in the literal middle of nowhere — and particularly in the middle of grounds that were set aside by treaty for the native population and then stolen back later when gold was discovered — seems a poor choice at best. I took a number of photos then wandered back to my car and drove out. A few miles away was the Crazy Horse Memorial, my next stop.

Crazy Horse Memorial. Scale model in foreground.

I was vastly more impressed by the Crazy Horse Memorial. Despite being decades away from completion, progress on the overall complex continues. Besides the work being done on the monument itself, there currently is a sculpting school for artists in residence, with plans for a medical center and a university, as well as housing on the site. The foundation that manages donations to the Memorial is working to further progress on the entire complex. Their web site can be found HERE.
After seeing these two massive stone monuments, I pushed on to reach Sheridan, Wyoming before nightfall. Stopping in Moorcroft, Wyoming, I ponder taking a selfie with the city sign, but doubt most people would get the reference to scenes from the film “Paul” so I skipped it. Besides, that part of Wyoming — well, the part I saw, at least — looks nothing like how it was portrayed in the film. It’s a terrain I like to think of as “pre-mountanous:” rugged hills with winding roads, and more pines than deciduous trees.
I made it to my hotel in plenty of time. A Sheridan restaurant had been recommended to me by one of the pillars of Great Falls Gaming Rendezvous, Connie Thomson: Sanford’s. It’s one of those cute, local burger joints with tons of artifacts on the walls. The food was very good both times I stopped — once going to Montana, and once on the road back — and I would recommend eating there without hesitation.
On Thursday I made a good effort to get on the road early. I had a room waiting for me at the Holiday Inn in Great Falls, but had no idea what to expect from the roads from here on, as I would be leaving the Interstate Highway system behind for this leg of the journey.
As it turned out, the worst thing was a stretch of Montana State Highway 87, where due to construction the road was reduced to one lane for about two miles. They had Leader trucks that would lead the way along the gravel remnants of the road, taking us past the other end where traffic was stopped, waiting for us to pass so they could trek in the other direction. There really wasn’t a better option at that point, and besides, it was kind of fun! Montana is also where I mastered passing into oncoming traffic — mostly because the traffic in either direction was so sparse there were plenty of good opportunities. A little farther along Highway 87, rain began to fall. This to me was a bad sign: in early October in the mountains and high plains, rain can turn to snow at the drop of a hat. I’m accustomed to driving on snow: driving on snow AND up and down mountains is another matter, and something I was hoping to avoid. My luck held; the precipitation stayed liquid for the rest of the day.
Driving through Montana I experienced the best moment of pure beauty on this trip: the clouds were low around the mountaintops, and at the elevation I was on the road, I could see slightly downward into the cloud cover. Looking toward the mountains through the clouds suddenly a patch of the most dazzling cyan blue I’d ever see opened up. I have no idea what conditions caused this, but had there been a way to stop I would’ve done so then and there, if only to try to capture that amazing color in a digital image.
I pulled into Great Falls around 5 PM local time. It was a bit later than I’d wanted, but still in good time to get checked in and find people. Tomorrow the convention begins!

(Part two will be posted next Monday.)

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