A slow drive through the Coyote State

Country Roads

Until my family moved to Sioux City in 1974 I had never set foot in the state of South Dakota. I knew a few things about the state as a number of East Frisian (my ethnicity) immigrants had moved there in the 19th century. My grandparents and others of their generation would talk about going to “Sud Dakot,” their Low German name for the state.

In Sioux City, just across the Big Sioux River, South Dakota is a part of the daily newspaper and television news which was always a mix of news from Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota. I was invited to lecture several times at the University of South Dakota and was impressed with the congeniality of the students at USD.

A few weeks ago, Julie and I headed west for a vacation in the Black Hills and northeast Wyoming. The drive across South Dakota on I-90 was scenic but not exciting. It is about 350 miles from Sioux Falls to Rapid City ̶ nearly five hours at the state’s 80-mph speed limit.

A detour through the Badlands and a stop at Wall Drug broke up the trip and, in spite of a GPS confusion, we arrived safely at our destination. We took in all the popular sights and drove northwest to visit Devil’s Tower in Wyoming.

The trip to Devil’s Tower was on two-lane state and federal highways and I got to thinking that our trip home, via the Twin Cities, might be more interesting if we got off I-90 and traveled on two-lane roads.

We picked up US 14 just east of Wall and followed it all the way into western Minnesota and then took state and federal roads the rest of the way into the Twin Cities.

The two-lane excursion added some time to the trip, but what a good trip it was. It’s about 120 miles from Wall to Pierre, the capital city and, from an Iowa boy’s point of view, there’s not much in-between. The official state highway map shows six towns between the Wall and Pierre but most are tiny. Cottonwood boasts a population of nine. The largest is Philip. With a population of 779, Philip is the largest community and the county seat of Haakon County.

South Dakota’s state capital, Pierre, is an interesting community. (By the way, as an old radio newsman, I should remind you that Pierre is pronounced “Peer.”) From the west you enter the capital city through Fort Pierre, population 2,078, on the west side of the Missouri River. When you cross the river into Pierre, population 13,646, you go from the Mountain time zone into the Central time zone.

We went from 11:25 a.m. to 12:25 p.m. in an instant and suddenly I was hungry. After a quick lunch we drove through the state capital neighborhood and then headed east again.

East of Pierre, South Dakota begins to resemble its eastern neighbors. You see more farmsteads and more fields with corn and soybeans. I recalled from my Sioux City years that the South Dakota State Fair is held in Huron and noted a sign to the fairgrounds as we drove through that community of nearly 13,000 people. Between Huron and Brookings, you drive through the southern portion of South Dakota’s “lake country” and the area is reminiscent of Minnesota.

We spent a night in Brookings, home of South Dakota State University, and the next day drove into the Twin Cities where we enjoyed lunch with a cousin and her husband and then spent time at the big IKEA store and the Mall of America.

It was at the massive Mall of America that I lost my cellphone. It was insured but a pain in the rear, nonetheless.

Anxious for my own bed and bathroom, we drove home on I-35 ̶ a “quick” 3½ hour trip. We are happy we took the slower route through South Dakota, however. Even in more desolate western South Dakota there is beauty in the countryside.

South Dakota has a number of nicknames. It bills itself as The Mount Rushmore State as well as The Coyote State. The state slogan is “South Dakota: Great Faces. Great Places.”

The state’s official motto is “Under God the People Rule.” And maybe the two-lane drive through the central part of the state puts you a little closer to its Creator.