Not very many people live in South Dakota, but a lot of people drive across it going somewhere else. A few come to the tourist attractions in the western part of the state, often on their way to other vacation spots. So most people see I-90 and get convinced this is one of the most boring travel locations in the U.S.
Now there is a big exception to this and that is bikers (motorcycles, not bicycles, this is a tough place to bicycle across). Certainly all the publicity about Sturgis has put South Dakota on the map to attract bikers (and they are here in droves), but I think that interest probably started even before Sturgis was such a big deal.
When I moved to Great Plains from California I was initially terribly disappointed about the lack of places to “go for a drive”. Around the Bay Area in a few hours you can reach wildly different and scenic places, plus have lots of fun driving roads (for cars, or motorcycles, or bikes) But in Omaha I can drive for hours and hardly see any change in what I see outside the window. And in many ways South Dakota is even worse. Driving from Omaha to Rapid City (where I am now) in one day is certainly one of the most boring and tiring drives you can find.
BUT, with a little luck you can do a lot better than that.
Due to lack of places to go, to get out of home, I started doing geodashing, which is an Internet “game” to find randomly generated coordinates. The slogan of the game is “getting there is all the fun”. This has been a huge help to me. The ‘there’ for most dashpoints is just a farmer’s field, usually corn and thus of little interest. But getting there, esp. finding backwoods routes can be an adventure.
And that’s what I’ve found about South Dakota. If you only experience South Dakota via I90 or even getting off for the Black Hills for a quick look at Mt. Rushmore (or worse, the actual tourist trap attractions) or a quick pass through the Badlands you will miss a lot.
Since I was looking for dashpoints my route from Valentine, Nebraska to Rapid City bypassed most of the major roads (briefly on US83, on I90). And out in the wide open nowhere there is stuff to see that is certainly different from wherever you call home. The real thing is that the scenery is “micro” rather than the “macro” of a Yellowstone or Glacier or Yosemite or Big Sur or Napa. But it’s there, just a bit more hidden and subtle.
And that’s the interesting point of South Dakota. If you expect to be wowed you’ll mostly be disappointed. But if you get off on some backroads and open your vision to what is actually there you can find some pleasant surprises. In my budget I rarely get to eat at expensive restaurants (like my favorite, Domain Chandon) so it’s a treat. If I could afford to eat there all the time it would get boring to. And that’s my point – after miles and miles of open prairie grasslands when you descend into a river valley or see an erosion feature along the road, the rarity of those treats increases their value. So rather than see the boring, look for the interesting and you’ll find it.
Also 15 years of living in flat country has gradually changed my perspective. Craggy coastlines, soaring mountains, lush forests used to catch my attention. But gradually I’ve learned to like the prairies. There is a nice kind of solitude there. Once, driving on a backroad near the Missouri River (in South Dakota) I stopped for a stretch. And outside the car I found an environment more alive than one experiences at 60mph. Birds singing, clear and cut air with a good feel, more plants species (when you look closely) than you can imagine. I spent an hour just soaking it in. Some people already liked prairies, I had to learn to like them.
So next time you pass through South Dakota check your maps more closely and take a few hours to get off I90 and find an alternative route, some backroad that may not even be labeled on your map (I use detailed computer maps with every road that ever existed, even many that no longer exist, so I really get off the main roads). Stop in some isolated place, especially with little traffic. Get out. Look around, not just left and right, but up and down. Smell the air. Listen to the sounds (ideally with no manmade sound). There is good stuff to consume, it’s just hiding a bit and takes some searching to find. And perhaps when you do find something it will be even more interesting due to the monotony of the rest of the drive.
Now, the question is, can I find something in North Dakota? I just hope I get my toe fixed here so I can continue on my trip. I’ve only been on I94 in North Dakota (which might even be more boring than I90) so hopefully I can have the chance to find some micro-features there as well. And, btw, get off I80 too, when you cross Nebraska, there’s interesting stuff there as well.
Most people think of the Great Plains states as “flyover” states. You look down out of an airplane and don’t see much. The minutes and hours roll by and even at jet speeds there is little change.
When spaces are large and open, the big picture is pretty boring, so it’s the little details that can be unexpected and pleasant surprises.
Look for them, they’re there.