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Trip Report Rushing Mt. Rushmore - An Overdue Trip Report

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Some of you thought we were crazy to cram so many miles into such a short time and you may have been right, but we had fun anyway ;)

On Monday, four days before we were to leave on our trip, I sprained my hip and strained my lower sacral. This did not bode well for a vacation that was to include long stretches of driving and riding in a car, as well as some hiking and camping. My doctor was, of course, on vacation so I went to a walk in clinic where they diagnosed me, then looked at me like I was nuts as I described my upcoming trip, then prescribed some rather good drugs.

Thursday afternoon I met my son and his fiance to pick up the rental car the two of them would be using on the trip. It may just be my luck but, the last two times I needed to rent a car, the class of car that we reserved was not available when we got there. Happily, they once again upgraded us for very little cost. My son was excited to be driving the swank, brand new, Buick Regal instead of the Corolla that we'd reserved.

We left early the next morning, hitting only light traffic through Indiana and staying that way until we made the other side of Chicago where construction brought us to a crawl for about 45 minutes. Once past, we made good time again. The driving was going well but my back was already killing me. I called my doctor's office. He was still out of town but the nurse kindly instructed me in the mixology of pain relievers and promised I wouldn't die if I took an extra mega-naproxyn. I greedily swallowed one down. I didn't die and soon felt much better.

We stopped at a Taco John's in Iowa (I think -- I was medicated, ya know?). We'd never been to this chain before and it was surprisingly good eating. I especially liked the apple tostada thingy my husband and I shared for dessert. I learned about the Loess land formations at a rest stop near the Nebraska border and it was semi-fascinating. If you're headed in this direction by car, you might want to look that up before you go.

We arrived mostly on time in Omaha and found my daughter's new apartment right away. My poor, sore hip and I limped up three flights of stairs but it was worth it to hug my daughter tight again for the first time in three months, to say hello to her funny boyfriend and to play with my beautiful grandkitties. Then I limped back down the stairs and we headed to dinner.

We ate at Pitch, an upscale coal fired pizza joint in the Dundee area of Omaha. The place was busy and we waited outside for 10 minutes despite having reservations. That was okay. It was a nice night and we had a lot of catching up to do. The decor inside was urban with touches of industrial. The lighting was low and the seating consisted mostly of long tables for communal dining. We were led to one of these tables but since we were 6, we had to share with only one other couple. That was a bit awkward for a minute or two but then they went on with their conversation and we went on with ours.

The service was quick and just the right amount of attentive. We order drinks (craft beers for my husband and son, a ginger/lemonade/vodka mix for son's fiance and a carafe of delicious white peach sangria for the rest of us. We settle on meatballs, fried calamari and an olive plate for appetizers. All of which were good. for the main course we ordered three types of pizza: homemade fennel sausage with fresh mozzarella, pepperoni with banana peppers, and my favorite and possibly one of the most delectable things I have ever eaten - the Shroom pizza. It featured roasted mushrooms over a thyme cream sauce, with truffle cheese. Mmmmmmmmmm.

After dinner we found our hotel, the Hilton and checked in. Husband and I were tired and my back was ready for more good drugs so we tossed "the kids" some money and sent them off to have drinks and continue their visit. I didn't sleep well that night but I don't think it was the fault of the hotel. The beds were fine, the room was clean and quiet. We'd gotten a good deal on it through Priceline but even with everything meeting expectations, i don't think i'd stay here at the regular rate. It was just an average hotel with a view of a construction lot, slow elevators and expensive parking. The lobby was really nice though.

I have to get to work but I'll continue later.

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    Wow, what a day yesterday. I thought I'd be back to complete my trip report last night but instead I found myself helping my brother in law move himself and the few belongings he managed to save to my house -- after his was completely destoyed by one large storm plus one large tree. Really made me think about what I treasure and what I could not live without. I'm glad trees can't flatten memories.

    But I digress.

    Just before we reached Omaha my car told me it needed to have its oil changed. I didn't think it was due yet but when I checked the 'oil life data' I only had 3% oil life left. I wasn't sure what that meant but I figured it couldn't be a good thing to traipse off into wide open spaces like that. So, first thing the next morning, husband and I went in search of an oil change place. I would have liked this to be the second thing we did but a quick peek at the coffee carafe part of our hotel room's in room coffee maker told me that it had 0% life left. The bottom fell out of it as soon as I lifted it to fill with water :(

    Here's a tip: If you are looking for a way to get rich quick, open an oil change place in Omaha. They appear to be few and far between and totally packed on summer Saturday mornings. We waited for more than an hour, made tolerable by hubby hiking over to a Starbucks and bringing back much needed caffeine. He's a good man.

    Finally finished at the oil change place and headed to daughter's apartment where the kids were supposed to be packed, fed and ready to hit the road. They were none of these things. Apparently we gave them too much money for cocktails the night before. The boys were hungover and moving s-l-o-w. By the time we gassed up and got out of town we were more than 3 hours behind schedule.

    We decided to skip Carhenge in favor of a more direct route to the Black Hills. I'm glad we did. I'd only seen Nebraska from the interstate before and I was surprised by its hills, sandy soil, winding rivers, quaint towns and the vast emptiness in between them (except for cows - there are lots and lots of cows in Nebraska).

    The sky ahead of us turned black as we reached the South Dakota border and we were challenged by a strong rainstorm. We made it through and stopped for sodas and snacks at a gas station where we started to learn that the people of South Dakota are extraordinarily nice. Unfortunately, I do not hold their highway department in such high esteem.

    Highway 18 between Pine Ridge and Oglala was under construction. By that I mean: they stripped the entire road of pavement leaving behind a bumpy muddy track that we were forced to traverse at 20 miles an hour. On the bright side, our pace gave us time to really take in the vistas, which, at times, are heart stoppingly gorgeous.

    It was nearly sunset before we made it to the Allen Ranch, a campground just outside of Hot Springs. We'd reserved their tipi bed and breakfast option. The set up was great! Two tipis, placed apart from the tent campers against a granite ridge, beside a spring fed, warm water river. Inside the tipis, the Allens had placed cots with sleeping bags and indian blankets and small tables that held lanterns, flashlights and little vases of sunflowers. Outside, they'd placed enough camp chairs for all of us. A short stroll away was a screend cantina with tables and chairs, electric lights, and a cooler full of beer, water and wine coolers. Yay!

    But. The lovely Mrs. Allen had warned me ahead of time to research other lodging options, as the tipis were just fine in a light rain but would be miserable in a windy downpour. A look at the sky sent the kids to their smart phones and the weather report. There was another large storm approaching and tornado watches until after midnight. We were on the phone with Mr. Allen, deciding what to do, when lightning filled the sky and thunder rolled through the canyon. Reluctantly, we mutually decided to cancel. And although Mr. Allen said it wasn't necessary (see? nice!) we left a little money in the campground's drop box for their trouble, and headed to Hot Springs to the Historic Log Cabin Motel.

    We arrived there at 9:30, a half an hour after the office closed for the night. The hosts kindly reopened for us and rented their largest cabin to us, apologizing that it wasn't set up yet. They'd just brought in new beds that day and hadn't put linens on them. That was okay by us. We were starving and headed into town to find something to eat while they readied the cabin.

    Just as we left the motel grounds, the storm let loose with a fury. The rain fell in thick sheets and we could barely see to navigate around this sleepy tourist town where, apparently, everything closes up when the sun goes down. We found ourseleves at Pizza Hut -- a disappointment when we'd planned a great camp meal of hot dogs, beer and s'mores. It was alright though, and our server was, once again, super nice. He told us where we could find hot springs in the wild the next day.

    Back at our cabin, the rain had stopped leaving the kids anxious to jump into the hot tub that sat right outside our cabin. Us oldsters were tired and my hip hurt so we read for a bit, I took my good drugs and we went to sleep. The kids reported making a fire in one of the two motel firepits after hot tubbing. They were pleased to have had their s'mores.

    Our cabin had two bedrooms and a bath. It was decorated in kitcshy old western style, with photos of John Wayne here and there. The new beds were quite comfortable and we had plenty of space. All of this for just under $130! What a bargain!

    Husband and I got up early the next morning and consulted our hosts about carwashes and breakfast spots. They actually serve a free breakfast on site (!) but with the kids still sleeping we decided to check out the town first. It's a really cute area with lots of small shops and restaurants and one mediocre car wash where we brushed the red mud off my formerly white car.

    Back at the motel, we mustered the kids, played a little basketball then headed back to town for breakfast. We at Dale's. The service was good. The food was standard diner fare and it was really CHEAP. The six of us got out of there, stuffed, for less than $40 including tip!

    More later (barring big storms).

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    Our hosts at the motel had invited us to take our time checking out so, after breakfast, we returned to our cabin, changed into bathing suits and shorts and went in search of hot springs. You might think that, in a town named Hot Springs, the actual springs wouldn't be so elusive. And you'd be right as long as you were content with the indoor version of them. Hot Springs is the home of Evan's Plunge, the largest indoor spring fed pool in the world. But that's not the experience we were looking for.

    We followed our pizza waiter's directions, and some auxilliary ones given by our hosts at the motel, but we were unable to find an area that had easy access and wasn't directly beside the highway. We got a good look at the town though. Then we decided on the short ride back to Allen Ranch and its spring fed river.

    We didn't want to disturb the paying campers so we parked down by the stables and found an access point that was a little bit rocky but easy enough for the kids to navigate. My poor hip didn't think it looked easy enough though so I opted to watch from the bank. I am guessing there are simpler points of entry in the actual campground since one of the activities they advertise is free tubing for children.

    I have to say here that what South Dakotans call a river, us hoosiers would consider a stream. And what they call 'warm', we would probably refer to as 'not cold'. The kids had fun splashing and soaking -- at least until one of them discovered tiny leech-like things sticking to their thighs. Then it was a mad and comical scramble to get out of the 'river' and rid themselves of the parasites. (And really, they were tiny and easy to detach, totally not as scary as first perceived.)

    We drove back to the motel, changed back into our traveling clothes and bid goodbye to our hosts. I really hope to get back to Hot Springs, SD some day. We had a lovely time there.

    But on to Mount Rushmore. The drive between Hot Springs and the monument was spectacular. It winds through Jewel Cave National Park where we stopped beside the road to view prairie dogs and buffalo and their adorable calves.

    We really wanted to go to Crazy Horse but we'd spent too much time seeking springs and ogling buffalettes so we just stopped in the parking lot at the beginning of the road that leads to the mountain sculpture and viewed it from there. We hit the boundary to the Mount Rushmore National Park and the scenery was awe inspiring. Great boulder-y mountains rise up from lush, cool forests. It was ... wow!

    The entrance to the parking area for the monument was just a little bit confusing but the parking was simple and close enough that even someone with a bum hip could make the short walk to the monument viewing area without complaining.

    Speaking of the view ...

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    I decided on this destination because of my grandmother. The whole time I was growing up she kept an old photo of Mt Rushmore on display in her hallway. I knew she had loved the place when she'd visited as a young woman 60+ years ago.

    What we saw when we entered the official monument was quite different than the photo she had on her wall or what she'd witnessed in person. There was no arched entrance, aisle of flags or wide viewing plaza back then. Just the mountain and the sculptures -- which probably would have been enough. It's really impressive!

    The newer structures really enhance the visit though and I was glad for modern restrooms and an air conditioned snack area. After a first quick look at the monument we decided to head back to the ice cream shop so we could nosh while we viewed. The ice cream here is kind of an expensive treat if you're buying for 6 but it is good quality and the quantity is huge.

    Armed with my three scoop cone of strawberry cheesecake joy, my hip and I settled in a shady spot on the plaza while Hubby and the kids took off on the ranger guided tour. The people watching was monumental too and the time my group was away passed quickly. When they returned, they were full of interesting factoids and all reported enjoying both the tour and the stop at the museum at the end. We cooled off in the gift shop for a bit after that. Our puchases included can coozies, keychains, a mini-monument and my favorite -- the combination lucky penny, thermometer and refrigerator magnet ;)

    The sky outside was turning dark when we left the shop so we hurried to our cars, left teh park and headed to our next destination ... the Badlands!

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    We wound our way down the mountain and through the tourist town at its base. It looked like a fun place but I was glad we chose to stay on the less commercial side of the area.

    A storm brewed behind us as we headed east and by the time we reached Wall it was right on our heels. We decided to stop into Wall Drug to wait out the storm and get some dinner. The wind picked up as we parked and dust stung our eyes and made our mouths gritty as we crossed the street and entered this other kind of American monument -- the tourist trap. It's a pretty good one.

    My daughter loved the giant jackelope in the open mall between store areas. She climbed on top of it for a photo op. her boyfriend happily fed quarters into the gorilla playing a piano automatron. My son sat next to every floozy sculpture in the place (and they are legion). And his fiance dared to get close to the huge tyrannasaurus thaat feeds on tourists every ten minutes.

    In between we shopped for t-shirts. I picked up a hunk of pink quartz (South Dakota state rock for you non-geeks). My daughter purchased a furry stuffed jackalope that straddles a very thin line between cute and creepy. Only my husband was immune to the consumer cajoling -- something Wall Drug has managed to lift to an art form.

    We wandered into the dining hall and admired the remarkably high quality collection of western paintings they have in there. We sipped on FREE ICE WATER! as we decided what to eat. Most of us chose to try the buffalo burgers. In case you're wondering, it tastes a lot like ground beef, only a lot more lean and a little drier. It wasn't find dining but the price was right. All 6 of us ate for less than $75.

    The storm had passed so we took off directly south to the west entrance of Badlands National Park. It! Was! Amazing!
    Really, I can only describe it as a religious experience. Imagine this vista at the first overlook: Half the sky was black with clouds, the darkness only interrupted by flashes of lightning. The other half of the sky was lit with golden fire as the sun had begun to set. And in between? A double rainbow! The land in front of us was no slouch either, a wide space filled with the strange, beautiful, alien pink spires and hills and crevices. A family of bighorn sheep grazed near us and even passed by us on the path back to the car.

    We stopped at several more overlooks and a few places along the scenic drive when the sheer gorgeousness of the view made it impossible to go on without savoring it for at least a moment. The sun dipped lower in the sky with each stop adding different dimensions to the landscape until, finally, it winked behind a mound of rock and disappeared. We followed the drive the rest of the way out in darkness (the moon covered by eastern clouds). It was surprising, exhilirating, and just a little bit scary to follow a curve and find that a mountain had cropped up, a valley dropped beneath you, unseen until the very last moment.

    It made even the younger group feel reverent and we talked in quiet tones as we hugged and said our goodbyes at the park's eastern entrance. The kids were driving on to Omaha that night, while we were stopping in Sioux Falls.

    I don't know what South Dakota did to inspire such a love/hate relationship with Mother Nature but whatever it was, she was furious and let loose with an epic storm about an hour into our trip east. Now, I've lived my whole life in Illinois and Indiana. We get some pretty nasty weather there. I am no storm virgin. But this thing was epic! The rain fell in buckets instead of drops and our windshield wipers could barely keep up with the deluge. The lightning strikes were many and broad and blinding. Holy cow, South Dakota! Now THAT was a thuderstorm!

    We outdrove the rain and made it to the Staybridge Suites in Sioux Falls at about 1 AM. Despite the late hour, the young woman at the front desk was alert and cheerful. Our room was much better than we expected (especially considering the great price we'd paid for it on priceline). It had a small kitchen, a comfortable sitting area and a separate bedroom with a super comfy king bed.

    We lingered in the morning, made possible by a coffee pot that actually worked this time. (yay!) Then we packed up and headed out to find a late breakfast. We didn't find one. In fact, I am pretty sure no one in Sioux Falls eats before noon as we did not see a single breakfast place after taking three different exits.

    Our stomachs grumbling, we chose to take our chances on the Interstate and headed south out of town. We were seeking a Denny's, an IHop or a Bob Evans but when none appeared we took our chances on a local place just off the road that promised breakfast any time. It wasn't the most pristine place I'd ever eaten (not the dirtiest either) and the food was just so-so. It had its charms though.

    The walls were decorated with pictures of local churches. Our waitress new the drink orders of the two groups who came in after us without having to ask. and the table beside us was set with a reserved sign, a coffee mug, a newspaper folded open to the crossword and a pen. Even if the food had been awful, the place still would have won our hearts.

    Just beyond our breakfast stop we started to see evidence of the flooding we'd heard so much about. The Missouri river had overflowed its banks in the days leading up to our trip. Most of the parts of Sioux City that you could see from the road was already underwater. In several spots we were diverted to another lane to avoid the water.

    We knew that parts of the interstate near Omaha were closed and we imagined crawling through a detour with everyone else heading north or south that day. Instead, we decided to create our own detour. We took a random exit, stopped at a gas station and pulled out our trusty atlas. Earlier on the trip our kids had proclaimed us hopelessly old skool for using this antiquainted form of navigation. They all prefer the GPSs and Goodle Map apps on their smart phones. The paper version worked just fine for us.

    Mostly. We did miss a turn in a small town but that wasn't the map's fault. We were too busy taking in the three foot high sandbags that ensconsed the entire downtown to watch for turns. We didn't go too far out of our way before we realized our error and turned around. Our custom detour showed us more of the river's devastation. Whole farms were swallowed by the water and many side roads were closed. We made it through to Omaha though, and beyond.

    The river continued to threaten the road once we got back on the interstate but it was open all the way through to Kansa City, where we turned east again on our way to visit my dad in Lake of the Ozarks.

    We arrived around 8PM. The night was lovely. Warm, but not too muggy (like it often gets in Missouri in June). We had a nice visit before turning in. The next morning my stepmom prepared a great breakfast that included some of the best blueberries I'd ever eaten. We continued out visit for several more hours before heading out on the last long leg home to northeast Indiana.

    We usually take our favorite route that winds through a bundh of small Missouri towns. Very pretty and a relaxing ride. But, since we weren't sure of the flooding situation, we chose the interstate through St. Louis, the more direct, and shorter, route. The rest of the trip was unremarkable except for the truly disgusting restroom at a brand new gas station off the exit near Effingham, Illinois. It was so noxious that I refused to use it and walked to the nearby DQ instead. The cleanliness standards were only marginally better there.

    We arrived home at 3AM and fell into an immediate, long and very deep sleep. I'm not sure I would recommend a trip like this to most people. Five states in five days can be brutal but we had a good time. It was great to finally get to Mount Rushmore and I felt like I'd honored my grandmother by visiting there (and by listening to a mix CD of some of her favorite songs along the way). And it was fantastic to spend time with our adult children and their significant others.

    BTW, each set of kids called us on the day after we arrived home. Their question? Where are we going next year? That's all the evidence I need to prove our trip was successful. And, as usual, I thank you fodorites for helping me plan it :)

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    It was a great report--thanks! I admit to being skeptical when I read of your ambitious plan, so I am glad it all worked out so well, though I think your positive attitude had a lot to do with that.

    Glad your DD is enjoying Omaha...I grew up there (near the Dundee neighborhood) and have a soft spot for it.

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