Tuesday, June 7, 2011

South Dakota Trip, Part 1: It All Started in the Ice Cream Capital of the World

The impetus for my trip to South Dakota was my nephew’s wedding in his bride’s hometown of Le Mars, in northwest Iowa, home of Blue Bunny Ice Cream. By official proclamation of the State of Iowa, Le Mars is the Ice Cream Capital of the World. Blue Bunny even has an Ice Cream Museum. Sadly it was closed that day in preparation for relocation to new digs in downtown Le Mars. But the lucky flip side was that the adjacent ice cream parlor was giving away free ice cream to clear out inventory. What a tasty introduction to the city!

The outdoor ceremony was lovely, and the reception was quite a bash. Rather than selecting a specific wedding color, the bride took her inspiration from peacock feathers, which were even incorporated into the invitations.
Place cards were die-cut peacocks, and the feather motif was included in various ways, as in this menu card.

In lieu of a wedding cake, the happy couple served Blue Bunny White Chocolate Raspberry Truffles – ice cream served in a hard chocolate shell with raspberries on the side. And every table featured plates of “buckeyes” – candies made of peanut butter dipped in chocolate that resemble the fruit of the buckeye tree. They were made by a former co-worker of my nephew’s, who now works with his mother’s online business, Marsha’s Homemade Buckeyes. My nephew is also a diehard fan of the Buckeye teams at his alma mater, Ohio State, so they made a fine and fun substitute for a groom’s cake.

Le Mars turned out to be a larger burg than I expected, but still, the closest cost-effective place to fly into is Omaha, a two-hour drive away. As I checked my atlas and weighed the pros and cons of driving vs. flying, I realized Le Mars is within an hour from South Dakota. As a kid, my family had done a cross-country trip one summer during which we spent a day or two in the Badlands and Black Hills. Those areas made a big impression on me and I’d always wanted to go back and spend more time exploring them. This wedding, 41 years later, seemed like a perfect opportunity. I would drive to the wedding, then keep on going. South Dakota is one of those Midwestern states that’s about 400 miles wide, and I was headed to the western part of the state, so I had plenty of driving ahead of me.

On the recommendation of a woman I met at the wedding who lives in South Dakota, I stopped for lunch at Al’s Oasis in Chamberlain, where I-90 crosses the Missouri River. Al’s is one of many Old West-themed spots in the state designed to lure tourists.
I tend to avoid these potentially crowded places, but I was grateful for the heads-up from my new acquaintance on this one – Al’s does indeed make a mighty tasty buffalo burger! I knew I’d have trouble getting a photo in the dark, cavernous log cabin restaurant that seats 300, so I didn’t try. But here’s a pic I’m borrowing from their website.

A few hours farther down I-90, I arrived at the town of Wall, where I would spend my first night (and a night later in the week on my return trip) in an absolutely charming cabin at Frontier Cabins. Newly constructed log cabins just off I-90 and 6 miles from the entrance to Badlands National Park, they are homey and spacious, tastefully decorated with log furniture, complete with pretty much any amenity you could want, at a price comparable to a motel room with far less character. In addition to microwave and refrigerator in every cabin are picnic tables and charcoal grills outside the cabins, plus a central shelter house with a huge gas grill and hot tub. And the two women who run the place couldn’t be nicer or more welcoming.

I’d been driving across the state under cloud cover, only to arrive in driving rain, so in lieu of cooking out, I opted for a motel room picnic, turned on the furnace, and got a great night’s sleep in my cozy quarters. Monday morning was cloudy and chilly as forecasted, so I considered my sightseeing options.

I couldn’t bring myself to embark on a visit to the famous indoor tourist village that is Wall Drug, which has hundreds if not thousands of billboards throughout South Dakota and neighboring states. Cindie wanted me to pick up an “I went to Wall Drug” bumper sticker for the golf cart she drives through her small town to take her dog to the park, which would have been a hoot. But I don’t think they have any bumper stickers phrased quite that way. Sorry, Cindie.

Instead of patronizing the Wasichu, I chose to visit the Wounded Knee Museum. There’s a ton of information and archives packed into this small and unassuming storefront that illuminates centuries of Native American history in the area and provides context for what happened at the Battle for Wounded Knee. I was aware of some of it, but learned much more. Although photographing is permitted, I elected not to snap any interior shots during the hour and a half I immersed myself in the exhibits, the museum’s only “customer” during that time, grateful for the absence of tourists and centered by the gentle Native American flute and drum music filling the museum. The story told by the museum is powerful, and heartbreaking. There is a reason for the box of tissues placed next to the scale model of Wounded Knee. I took a half-hearted look at the museum gift shop afterward, but was too overwhelmed to hunt out that “Make Fry Bread, Not War” t-shirt I’d seen outside. Maybe I can find it online.

When I emerged from the museum, it was still cloudy, although the cloud ceiling was higher and the temperature warmer. I took a spin through the Badlands on the paved loop road to give myself an idea of how much territory was involved and how long it would take to drive when I returned later in the week, saving my photo taking for a sunnier day. I headed west on I-90 to Rapid City, then south to my cabin on Sylvan Lake in Custer State Park in the heart of the (southern) Black Hills for two nights.

The state park accommodations were older and more worn than those at Frontier Cabins in Wall, but there’s a lot to be said for such proximity to Sylvan Lake, where I had a “housekeeping” cabin, which means I had a kitchenette with a stovetop. Even better, a picnic table just outside my door overlooking the lake. If you squint at this photo I took in the late afternoon light the next day, you might be able to see said picnic table.

Here's Sylvan Lake itself.

That’s it for tonight’s installment. Coming up soon: Join me on a hike around Sylvan Lake. Plus wildlife and “cave bacon.”


moi said...

Custer State Park is a real treasure! We didn't stay at the cabins around Sylvan; maybe next time. We actually stayed in Spearfish, which gave us the best proximity to both Wyoming and to Rapid City, etc. Nice little city.

If you were moved by the Wounded Knee Museum, I'd recommend for further reading, Ian Frazier's excellent books, Great Plains and On the Rez.

Buzz Kill said...

So you drove through the Badlands and Black Hills by yourself? That's brave. Those are nice cabins. I could rough it like that. Looking forward to seeing more scenery and food.

Jenny said...

Wall Drug! Did you see any Jackalopes? Great photos and I would have loved to try the ice cream. I love the wedding shots/etc and I'm really glad you had a chance to have a little "Eggy Time".

Sharon Rudd said...

Moi, thanks for the tip on those books! How many times have you been to the Black Hills? Hope I can point out a few little treasures (and maybe even a restaurant) for your next trip :)

Buzz, I don't think of long solo road trips as an act of bravery, although I must say I wouldn't have attempted this trip alone if I was still driving my '93 Accord with 174K miles on it :) The new eggy-mobile got me there and back quite safely, but stay tuned for rattlesnakes :)

Boxer, funny thing, jackalopes are about as hard to find as unicorns :) However, I am still wondering whether the short, tame creatures I saw in Custer State Park were burros/donkeys/ponies. Whatever they were, I've never seen them in the wild before and sure hope that among my wildlife-knowledgeable friends, someone can clue me in. Photos up on my eggy facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/pages/Eggplant-To-Go/188874297804112)

Boxer and Moi, I envy you your "red rock" time together in NM. Boxer Babe, I hope you came back from your trip as restored as I felt after mine. Badlands photos coming up soon!

Dani said...

What fun Eggy! Glad you got home safely. :)

LaDivaCucina said...

Looks like a great trip, Eggy, I love road trips in the States. The wedding looked pretty, that huge tree is incredible, glad it didn't rain! I am sensitive to those sorts of exhibits as well. I remember feeling the same after looking at art and photos from the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It's good to have empathy. Thanks for the great post.

Karl said...

Good evening Eggy,

Thanks for showing us your trip. Good job on the pictures. It's such an interesting part of the country. Have you ever read, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown? If not you may find it interesting. It's an older book but worth the read.

chickory said...

OMG that lake is gorgeous. great pictures! and its greener than i thought. Ive never had blue bunny ice cream but what a great idea for the wedding. I liked the buckeyes too. Im glad you used the wedding to have a vacation. V and i used our nieces wedding to have a vacation too. The trip to the wounded knee museum - im glad you did that. I think people often avoid that kind of experience but a solemn learning experience is valuable. We have the "trail of tears" down here. Great Trip eggy, so glad you did such a wonderful write up!

sparringK9 said...

why is wall drug so famous?

Sharon Rudd said...

Dear Dani, after all the gorgeous photos you post that lift my spirits, I am happy to be able to return the favor:) Congrats to Elizabeth, and wishing you a great summer!

Diva - so glad you stopped by! More to come! Do you get some much deserved time off soon when the DJ does?

Karl, thanks for your book recommendation. No, I haven't read it, but I'm pretty sure my dad has it. I'll have to borrow.

Chick/9, I so adored your chicken painting. You're going to NM soon too? I'm jealous. But I'll have more tales and photos of my SD trip to share. P.S. Wall Drug is kinda famous for being famous - you would not believe how many billboards they have along I-90 in the northern states. And, as Boxer Babe pointed out, they popularized the jackalope. I, however, so actually antalope - and big-horn sheep. Beaucoup wildlife photos coming up!