August 25th, 2005

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What I Did on my Summer Vacation: Omaha

Our scheduled flight was going to be delayed but Brian got us on another one right away. Easy flight with a transfer in Chicago. We can only fly to airports served by Southwest because that's Brian's rewards airline. Omaha is pretty close to South Dakota, but since we didn't arrive until late at night, we just stayed at the Holiday Inn Express near the airport that night. We can only stay at Holiday Inn Expresses because that's Brian's rewards hotel. Although the airport is in Omaha, the hotel is about a mile away in Carter Lake, Iowa.

The next morning I went looking for a post office. I had set my books to vacation status, but ABE is doing all kinds of fancy stuff right now and it screwed up the vacation function. An order came in right before we left, so I tossed the book and the packing slip in my bag and figured I'd mail it from SD. NE. IA. Whatever. The hotel clerk told me to go to the hardware store down the road. There was a PO in there, but they didn't have Global Priority envelopes and that clerk sent me to the 24-hour PO at the airport. 24-hour my ass. The place was dead dead dead at 8:45am, so I went back to the hotel. Brian was horrified to learn that I had taken the car out. He said that in case I crashed I was to swear that he was driving, ok? Then he drove the next 1800 miles himself. I think he slept with the keys in his pocket. In case you're wondering, I have never wrecked or even scratched a rental car. I've only had a couple of accidents and the other party was at fault both times.

We ate our HIX free breakfast and stopped by the airport PO on our way out of town. By 10:15 they were open and the lady was as friendly as could be. Later I learned that a second order had come in after we'd flown out. So sad.

North on 29 it's something like two hours to Sioux Falls, SD. We stopped there to talk to a Visitor's Center lady who told us that there was a playground nearby. We got some lunch stuff at WalMart and stayed at that excellent playground for a long time. Then we started west on 90 toward Mitchell.

On the way we spotted the huge bull's head sculpture that is the largest piece in Porter's Sculpture Park. If we had just visited this, turned around, and gone home I could easily have called the vacation a success. You follow a dirt road decorated by violent vultures (the most benign is aiming an arrow at you) and end up in a gravel parking area behind a wooden shed. Walk around the shed and you find a 40-something guy and his 80-something dad sitting inside. For $4 apiece, you get a tour of the park, with or without a guide. Take the guided tour! The younger guy is Wayne Porter, the artist. He'll tell you the background of each piece, a lot of stuff about SD and himself and sheep farming and blacksmithing and other things. You can touch everything. The bull's head is impressive from the highway and fascinating close-up. I was inspecting the goats guarding it when Wayne took Brian and Jennifer around to the back of the bull. Next thing I knew, they were all climbing up inside it. Once Brian came back down to watch Victoria (it was way too spooky for her), I climbed up too. I don't want to spoil the fun for those of you who will be visiting the big head, but trust me, it is awesome.
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What I Did on my Summer Vacation: Mitchell

We stayed at a campground right off the highway, which is usually a bad thing. In this case, it was not so bad. They shared a pool with the hotel next door, so Victoria had a lot of fun playing there. It was a brand new facility and the bathrooms were things of beauty. I didn't notice the highway noise, but that might have been due to the bottle of wine Brian and I split. You can get alcohol anywhere in SD; this was from the WalMart back in Sioux Falls. The grocery stores carry hard liquor. Convenience stores usually have two barrels near the register with ice and drinks--one has bottles of soda, the other has cans of beer.

In the morning we went to the Corn Palace. We took the tour and watched the video and colored the coloring page and bought Victoria a pretzel. Victoria has yet to accept the fact that traveling with Brian means eating like a reptile. Her 3yo body thinks that it needs food 4 or 5 or more times in ONE DAY. To be honest, I'd prefer to eat that way, too, but what would a vacation be without a companion's eccentricities? This vacation was especially charming as we had, in addition to Brian's food issues, the moodiness of one daughter and the incredibly tiny bladder of the other. Christopher stayed home, darn it.

Next we went to Dakotafest, which is a farm show. I guess you'd learn a lot about new equipment and techniques if you were a farmer. I learned a lot because it was all new to me. It was like FOSE for farmers. In addition to finding out how to train a horse (annoy him until he does what you want) and how to get a tag in a cow's ear, I scored an apple from a veterinary supply house, a frisbee from the farm bureau, and some water from an insurance company. I could have stayed much longer and Victoria was willing, but Jennifer was hot and Brian had seen enough so we headed further west.
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What I Did on my Summer Vacation: Badlands NP

There are a number of marked trails in the Badlands, but you can go anywhere at all if you like. It's a completely open park because the natural erosion processes are more destructive than anything you're likely to do walking or climbing. We did both even though it makes me crazy to see Victoria clamber along next to a precipitous ravine. We went to a talk at night about the history of the area and then took a guided night hike that was supposed to be a star talk but turned into a bedtime story reading instead due to clouds. The story was Thurber's Many Moons and the reader did a fine job. On the way back we saw a tarantula. That night we heard the coyotes and the next day we saw deer, antelope, and bighorn sheep. I thought camping in the park would be pretty quiet, but there was a lot of highway noise--I guess there's nothing much to absorb it. It wasn't awful, but I was surprised to hear as much of it as I did.

The next morning we went on a geology talk/hike and that was fun, too. Then we packed up went to the sod house thing near the park entrance, then drove the loop out of the park, which puts you near Wall. We went to Wall Drug and stayed a while even though Brian was tired of it the second he saw it. This place makes no attempt to hide its purpose: to lure tourists inside to stay and spend money. So? I had brought a fistful of quarters to make the bunnies dance and the gorilla play the piano and so forth. I also got some sunglasses for Victoria, and these were a big hit. We listened to the cowboy band and tried to hear the dinosaur roar but Victoria freaked and we had to leave that one early.
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What I Did on my Summer Vacation: Custer SP

We found a campsite so nice here that we stayed three nights. It was near a lake but far enough away to give the bugs a miss. It was the first place we stayed that allowed campfires and, no kidding, a campfire makes camping 100 times more fun. Even though they didn't have flush toilets, they did have showers. The first two nights our neighbors were some dopey kids who played music and joked loudly late into the night. We didn't find them too annoying--we are used to dopey kids--but once they left I realized it was much nicer without them.

We went to a ranger talk one night about the CCC. The next day we visited the Crazy Horse memorial site, which was more interesting than I expected. Then we went to Mt. Rushmore. You know you have to go to Mt. Rushmore. So we went, we looked up the presidents' nostrils, we have now gone to Mt. Rushmore. On the way back to the campsite we took the very cool highway with the pigtail curves and the one-lane tunnels (which is where we discovered that our car horn didn't work) and then everyone else napped while I walked a trail to the next lake over and back, worrying about mountain lions the whole time. That night we went to the laser show at Crazy Horse. It was fun.

The next day we took a jeep tour through the park to see buffalo and whatever else we could find. Our driver had sold his house in 1992 and been an RVer with no fixed address since then. He had been working in the park all summer as a guide while his wife was a hostess at the lodge. We had a good time talking to him and we found all of the buffalo in the park, I think. At night we went on a chuckwagon hayride. This was some goofy fun, especially for Victoria. They sang a lot of her favorite songs and everyone got cowboy hats.
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What I Did on my Summer Vacation: Angostura SP

We headed up to Deadwood, spent a good amount of time at the Adams museum. This is a cabinet of curiosities type collection and all very interesting to people over the age of, say, 11. Fortunately, the replica schoolroom downstairs had some games that kept Victoria occupied as well. Then we watched a gunfight staged in the street, visited the cemetery, and started to head back south. The plan was to go to Trout Haven next, but Victoria was asleep and we let sleeping toddlers lie as a matter of course.

I had gone to Trout Haven about 30 years ago and it was great! There is a tiny pond overstocked with hungry rainbow trout. You put a piece of corn on a hook, pull out your trout, and they cook it for you right there. Even though we had to leave without visiting it, I had seen a place marked "Trout Haven Ranch" down near Hot Springs, so I figured we would check that out on our way out the next day.

We got to Hot Springs but didn't like the campsites near the town. We ended up at a state reclamation project, another lake. This one had a nice beach, so Victoria had fun there right up until dark and then again in the morning. Great sleeping weather, too, and quiet. Plus they allowed campfires. And the showers were big. Ah!

The next morning we found Trout Haven Ranch. Yay! It is the original, started in 1957, and the Trout Haven near Deadwood gets all their fish from it. It's really a hatchery and a cattle ranch with a little pond for tourists on the side. No cooking at this one, though. We caught seven 9-12 inch trout and they cleaned them for us and gave us a bag of ice. Both Victoria and Jennifer had a good time.
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What I Did on my Summer Vacation: Burke Lake SP & more Omaha

We didn't want to retrace our steps by taking 90 eastward, so we came back on 18. That let us visit Wounded Knee and see a lot of very tiny towns. It was also a pretty speedy route, except for the 20ish-mile stretch that hadn't been paved. By the time we found a place to camp, every grocery store had closed (it was Sunday). I was going to fry the fish, but I couldn't find anything like butter in the convenience store at the Pump 'n' Stuff. Yes, Pump 'n' Stuff. I ended up poaching them in something-grapefruit Fuse and they were delicious. We stayed at another lakeside park and we were the only people there. Nice!

We drove back to Omaha the next day and stayed in the same hotel for the last night. We went to a restaurant and ate steak because, you know, we were in Omaha, then we went to a ball game. The next day we cleaned out the car, walked around the botanical gardens (outdoors only--we didn't have a lot of time to spend) and played at a playground near the airport. Then we flew home and now our vacation is over. Too short!