NOTICE — Journalists see a lot of interesting things and meet a lot of interesting people. It’s a perk that makes up for the long hours and modest pay.
I’ve lived in nine states – South Dakota, Nevada, Texas, Nevada again, Oregon, South Dakota again, Montana, Minnesota, Oklahoma, South Dakota again, Nebraska, South Dakota again, Wyoming, Iowa and for the fourth time, South Dakota. Everywhere but Nevada, I’ve worked for newspapers and been able to cover interesting events, as well as seemingly endless planning commission meetings and other less-than-exciting assignments.
When you’re a journalist or editor, you often consider going somewhere most people find fascinating and beautiful as a routine work assignment. I’ve tried to take in the majesty of the places I’ve traveled – the Black Hills, the Rocky Mountains and Glacier National Park, the Gulf Coast of Texas, and many other great sights and sites – but it can be hard to focus on beauty when you are taking pictures and scribbling notes.
I still shake my head at my inability to fully appreciate Montana. I arrived in northwest Montana, a truly spectacular place, in July 1997 and worked there until May 2003. I started working the day after I arrived and continued to report and montages until the day before my departure.
Sure, I lived there and enjoyed the views and the great places, but I’ve never really been there as a person. I was working.
Same with the Black Hills. I started working as the editor of The Rapid City Weekly News and editor of our sister newspaper, The Black Hills Pioneer, in October 2005. I worked for the newspapers until April 2009, when I focusing almost entirely on the next story, the final mission, the deadline ahead of us.
That’s why I decided to really enjoy the Black Hills when we went there in June. Grace’s sisters, Cecile and Joyce, came to visit us from California and I was appointed as the driver and tour guide. It was a great six days and we dove deep into the tourist experience.
We started by visiting Dignity, the massive statue of a Native American woman set on a bluff overlooking the Missouri River. I have been there twice and have been deeply impressed by artist Dale Lamphere’s genius in creating such a large and deeply moving work. Lamphere is a South Dakota treasure.
We stopped at Al’s Oasis in nearby Oacoma and I persuaded the sisters, three slender Filipino women, to try the hot beef, a staple consisting of roast beef, bread, mashed potatoes potatoes and sauce. It has long been a favorite of mine, but this time the plate was overflowing with food.
Still, the ladies did their best to digest it. It was delicious and a great introduction to South Dakota cuisine.
We just had to stop at Wall Drug, a real Dakota landmark. It offers free ice water, coffee for a nickel, great donuts and ice cream. I’ve been to Wall Drug several times but didn’t feel right walking past.
This time I wasn’t there looking for quotes or photos. I was there as a person, and it was a welcome change.
We set up camp at a Custer Hotel which looked little like the pictures and description online. But this is the Black Hills at the height of tourist season, so we had few options. The staff made it clear that they had little interest in our needs, wants or opinions. This is also part of the tourist profession.
Grace spent a lot of time with Cecile and Joyce, and that was a special part of the trip. I took the opportunity to swim in the pool and soak in the hot tub so it was very relaxing.
We were surprised that so many businesses closed quite early. A severe lack of employees was the cause, we were told.
We enjoyed our five days in the hills, visiting Mount Rushmore – always inspiring and impressive, even with the unsettling story of the sculpture and the man behind it – Keystone, Hill City, Hot Springs, Rapid City, Sturgis , Spearfish, Deadwood and Lead.
Custer State Park is one of South Dakota’s crown jewels. We drove and traversed as much as we could in one day, from Needles Highway to dinner at the State Game Lodge. Joyce and I ordered bison steak. Last time I ate there, in 1996, I had bison. You would think I would have learned my lesson.
At least we saw the bison on our plates. It was a very hot week, the bison had moved to higher elevations. We walked around the park for hours and never saw any, but burros and prairie dogs were in abundance.
We took the 1880 train from Keystone to Hill City and back. It’s a slow trip down memory lane, with views of rolling hills and hidden gems, including old mining sites.
Hill City has a store called Beef Jerky Experience that offers free samples of beef jerky in many varieties. Watch out for hot stuff! Luckily a nearby bar had cold beer.
The sisters tried gold panning in Hill City. It was quite an expensive way to search for small flakes of gold, but they can tell they tried to join the gold rush that helped colonize the Black Hills.
The Crazy Horse Memorial is a tribute to the great Lakota warlord. I’ve been there many times. After more than seven decades, it’s still a work in progress, and I hope this magnificent dream will one day come true. I won’t see it.
The Mammoth site in Hot Springs allows you to witness an archaeological dig in the distant past. This was one of our favorite stops and we finally saw bison up close on the way there and back. Massive animals relieved by parked cars with lack of interest as we took pictures.
I’ve visited Deadwood for decades, starting when it was a dusty Old West town where shooters, gamblers and outlaws once roamed. But that didn’t pay the bills, so it became a mini-Las Vegas.
It was a cost-effective decision, and you can’t blame the locals for wanting to keep the lights on. But a certain rustic charm has been lost and can never be regained.
We were less than impressed with Bear Country USA. It was a very hot day and the bears, wolves and other animals were listless and seemed very uncomfortable. More shade and water points are needed, in our opinion.
I lived and worked in Rapid City for three and a half mostly wonderful years, so I will always have a fondness for South Dakota’s second largest city. I saw an old friend and we toured the city, seeing places I remembered well and some new to me.
Chapel in the Hills, a faithful recreation of a Norwegian church, was well worth a stop. I would have liked to take my father, who was proud of his Norwegian ancestry, there when he visited me. Yet I had the impression that he was with me.
We stopped for a quick photo at Canyon Lake when experienced photographer Joyce spotted a pair of nesting ospreys. It led to some memorable lakeside photos and was one of our favorite stops of the week.
When I lived in Rapid, I was on top of the Alex Johnson Hotel several times, thanks to staff members who were friends. We sipped beers and smoked cigars while enjoying the view.
This time we ventured to the roof to see the views from the new restaurant and bar up there. Beer was more affordable on my previous trips so after checking the menu we went back down.
Alex Johnson’s rooms and beds were very small, but the staff, like almost everyone we encountered, was friendly and helpful. When you’re spending so much time and money, a smile helps.
On the way back to Sioux Falls we visited the Badlands. It’s a destination point that I had always passed through before, but they wanted to see it. It was dazzling, I admit.
It was a pleasant moment, and the cheerful attitudes of the Tiongson sisters were a big reason. If you put four Lawrence siblings in a car for six days, there would be more than a few arguments and a few threats of violence. Not with those three ladies.
Grace, Cecile and Joyce had a wonderful time, in large part because they were so happy to be together. I also learned that when they said Filipinos love taking pictures, they weren’t kidding.
We took hundreds and hundreds of photos. And then hundreds more.
It was a very touristy thing to do.
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