“I’ll be up there as quick as I can get my pants on.”
The morning rain has stopped and I’m standing outside a cute century-old red-plank train depot by a grain elevator in Midland, South Dakota. I’ve called one of the three seven- digit numbers listed on the depot’s handmade sign, and in five minutes I meet Mahlon Alcock, a retired rancher. He’s not wearing pants after all, but a baggy pair of blue-and-white Big Mac overalls and a VIP Club ball cap. He’s 91 and drops a cuss word every other sentence as he walks me around hundreds of artifacts strewn about the Midland Pioneer Museum.
“I’ll be damned if I know what this is,” he says, holding out a fossilized rock. “Some petrified worm? An anemone, or whatever? Found it in a shale bank out by Little Prairie Dog Crick. I never seen so many damn rattlesnakes.”
Outside, Mr. Alcock points out the spot where, in 1927, he watched President Calvin Coolidge pass by on a train (Coolidge was the first president to summer west of the Mississippi). Then we peek into a homesteader cabin, maybe nine-foot square. I see a thin-mattress single bed, a wood- fire oven, a ratty quilt or two, and a lone chair by a narrow table.
“This is just like the cabin my dad moved into when he came here from Wisconsin in 1904,” he says. I note how small it is. “That’s all the boards a horse could haul.”
I love this. And I’m here only because I’ve traded a couple of hours along I-90 for a wild-card parallel ride hugging the back roads that I’m calling the Pierre Parallel. This westward detour—arcing north of the interstate from Chamberlain and reconnecting near Wall Drug—would be a five-hour drive, but I stop, often, turning it into a two-day mosey that unveils a secret South Dakota few Rushmore-bound road trippers ever see.
Exiting I-90 in Chamberlain, I breeze through the two-block downtown, where I spot a bookstore, café, old theater showing new films, and a bar with an oversized Gatling gun on its roof. Just north, I pull into the St. Joseph’s Indian School and park by a tepee.
This is home to the Akta Lakota Museum & Cultural Center, a free museum devoted to the Lakota Sioux. A circular exhibit features quilled bonnets, birchbark canoes, silver hair ties, and the bone breastplate used in the 1990 Kevin Costner film Dances With Wolves, which was shot nearby.
I stop at a TV monitor. A man wearing a feather headdress and a black vest starts speaking to me. Rarely breaking eye contact, he says: “We are like the trees. No two trees are exactly alike. We have different trees, just like we have German, Irish, French and Lakotas.” I think of how rare it is that most of us ever speak, or listen to, a Native American.
In the middle of the floor is a gift shop, where I come up to a man in his late 40s with long black hair, a lean, tough build, and fancy wire spectacles. He’s from the nearby Crow Creek reservation. I ask what his favorite exhibit is.
“I think of that wagon over there,” he begins. “When I first saw it, I was thinking, Why is a wagon here?” I turn and see an 1870s-era U.S. Army wagon by a wall of modern artworks.
“And then I looked closer. And I saw there was much more to it.”
These wagons, he tells me, were issued to Sioux who were willing to live on a reservation. I sense some disapproval of this 19th-century act of submission. We talk for nearly half an hour.
North of Chamberlain, the road rises over bare hills lined with rolled haystacks and prairie grass. I look across the Missouri River below to the sparse, open beginnings of the state’s West River region, or “America’s empty quarter,” as Kathleen Norris puts it in Dakota: A Spiritual Geography. With a squint, it could be mistaken for a scene from a George Catlin painting from the 1830s.
I cross the rolled earth Big Bend Dam—connecting Crow Creek and Lower Brule Reservations—and swerve onto gravel to check a river’s oddity, the Little Bend. This narrow-necked glob of land has long sent river travelers on a 30-mile detour around land that is, using Lewis and Clark’s count, about 20 football fields wide (they said 6,000 feet). I pass ranches and cornfields, then walk to the end of a short spit and an empty two-sided bench, facing opposite directions of the rounded river.
Lewis and Clark weren’t the first to seek passage across North America. One prequel was made by John Ledyard, who hoped to cross North America from the Pacific after making a wildly illogical round-the-world trip in the 1780s. He took a ship to Europe, walked around the Baltics, snuck into Russia without permission, got detained in Siberia and deported back to Poland, then detoured to Egypt, where he died.
Slightly more successful were the Verendrye brothers, sons of a highly motivated French fur trapper. They’re pretty big names around South Dakota. They never found a passageway, of course, but in 1743 they planted a lead plate along the river dedicating the heart of present-day South Dakota to Louis XV. It was finally found in 1913, by partying high school kids on a bluff in Fort Pierre, the country cousin of Pierre, across the river.
I begin my visit of Pierre (pronounced “peer”) at the excellent South Dakota State Historical Society, built like a bunker in a hill above the capitol. Exhibits give a chronological account of state history. The Verendrye plate is in a corner. I nearly miss it.
Afterward I bring up the Verendryes with a staff member I see by the exit. Dorinda Daniel, a volunteer coordinator wearing a green museum polo shirt, says matter-of-factly, “I know more about those guys than any person alive.”
Soon I’m at her cubicle, where she pulls out various papers she photocopies for me, and a 1925 copy of the Encyclopedia of South Dakota History, in which I breeze through some murky details of the Verendrye family history. (The full entry for 1739 reads “Pierre II seems to have gone down to Mackinaw for goods.”)
I’m interested in a second plate supposedly found north of here in 1995 by Max Rittgers, a divorced vintner from Florida, and his lab, Ben. When conflicting institutions clamored for it, Max had had enough and tossed it back into the river in an unspecified location. If it was real, it’s gone now.
“I’m trying to find another word for ‘nuts,'” Dorinda says of the incident. “But none comes to mind.” She agrees the whole thing should be a movie.
I pick a B&B north of the center, the Hitching Horse Inn, built from a 1907 mansion. When I enter at 7 p.m., a jazz combo is playing by a sofa, and tables are set out with 20 diners. It feels like I’ve walked into a house party, and it sort of is. Music and dinner is a weekend tradition here. Everyone’s local but me.
Soon a gray-haired man, owner Ron Lutz, stands by the band to sing a jazz standard and then meets me at the small bar where I’m eating a juicy filet mignon and joking around with a woman running for state senate and a regular who’s helping pour drinks all night.
The night runs late, with a remnant few of us talking about Pierre’s past and present. I learn how Fort Pierre keeps on Mountain Time Zone to keep its bars open an hour later; and how Pierre stole the architectural designs for Montana’s capitol. “Once you see the capitol here, you don’t need to see Montana’s,” Ron says. “They’re identical.”
I leave the next morning in a rare summer drizzle, bound for the Bad River Road, a gravel thriller that passes horse ranches, rolling hilltops, abandoned homesteader cabins, and sweeping fields of sunflowers that look huddled, like kids looking over each other’s shoulders at the rare passerby.
When I reach Midland, 50 miles shy of I-90, I see the train depot. Normally I don’t call closed museums with “appointment only” signs. But out here, I do. And from now on, I probably always will.
HOW TO DO THIS TRIP:
Take the Pierre Parallel. I left I-90 at Chamberlain, following the Missouri River along the mostly unmarked Native American Scenic Byway to the capital, Pierre, then broke west on the gravel Bad River Road to historic U.S. 14, once called the Black and Yellow Trail for its links from Chicago to the Black Hills and Yellowstone. I rejoined I-90 just east of Wall, home to Wall Drug. A good book on U.S. 14, available locally, is John E. Miller’s Looking for History on Highway 14.
See the Akta Lakota Museum. Signs lead off the interstate a couple of miles to the St. Joseph’s Indian School campus. The free museum is open daily May to October, weekdays only off-season.
Stay in small places. Pierre’s Hitching Horse Inn, in a 1907 home up the hill from the capitol, is most fun on weekends when live jazz and locals hang out by the bar. To the west on U.S. 14, Philip is home to the Triangle Ranch B&B offers rural stays, less than an hour from Wall Drug and the interstate.
Pay tribute to French roots. A monument to the Verendrye brothers stands by a rodeo museum in present-day Fort Pierre in 1743, which was found in 1913. You can see the original at the entertaining South Dakota Historical Society in Pierre.