October 2006

Crunch Time

South Dakota, with a speed run to Alabama and back thrown in

Or… you can take everything except the toaster oven. 

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We’re getting ready to head south to Mexico, for the winter, in the new coach – a 1998 Chinook we have named Patzcuaro (PATZQRO for the sake of license-plate-dom) and nicknamed Patzy.  We’re trying to squeeze in everything we think we may wish we had.  Nostalgically, I remember it was exactly five years ago this month that we went through this same exercise – except that then we were going from a spacious 3-bedroom house to a small tent trailer behind a motorcycle. 

Rick is outfitting Patzy with a Thule box for the roof, air pressure sensors for her wheels, and everything in between.  I’m busy re-packaging dry goods into smaller piles, and counting underwear.  We’ll make it!  We’ve done it before!

We’ve now been in Rapid City, South Dakota for six weeks.  Wouldn’t wish it on a dog?  Take another think.  Not such a bad place to hang out for awhile.  We arrived just before Labor Day.  We’ve been so busy we haven’t been able to take a lot of pleasure trips, and so have missed a lot of what brings us here, but we’ll be back again next fall.  What draws us and why do we stay so long?

Rapid City is an interesting and wacky kind of a place, 60,000 folks with lots of different kinds of things on their minds.  It’s a tourist draw, that’s for sure; Mt. Rushmore and Deadwood (all smoke and slots) are nearby, and the bison at Custer State Park.  There are water slides and peewee golf, places to pan for (or buy) gold, so many casinos you can gamble on just about every street corner, Bear Country, film sets for Dances With Wolves, etc.  It’s got an Air Force base, Ellsworth; is big enough to have a regional mall on the edge of town, out by the interstate; and the Wal-Mart is busy, busy, busy 24 hours a day.  And back in the Black Hills we can visit Deadwood, Lead and other old mining towns.

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Rapid is the home of the South Dakota School of Mines – the ”Hard Rockers” – we’ll have you know; and college towns always have a quirky bent all their own, with pizza/beer joints, although no independent film theater here, unfortunately.

But on Labor Day weekend the mall was the only thing going if you were looking for action.  The entire downtown was closed, including the library (all three days!).  It’s considered a religious holiday in this area, apparently.  There are as many bible stores as there are bridal shops.  But the town is known for its privately-funded, life-size, bronze statues of U.S. presidents on the downtown street corners (24 so far, 4 new ones each year).  It contains an incredible store, Prairie Edge, filled with tribal artwork and crafts as well as a local trading post.  And… an Irish store.

The tribal presence is very large in this area.  The Lakota Sioux have two reservations in this, the southwestern part of the state; one is the well-known Rosebud Reservation.  There are active traditional arts and dance groups, and several regional pow-wows take place here during the course of the year.  The local NPR station, out of Sioux Falls, regularly has discussions about tribal matters and legal issues under consideration.  

This is an area of considerable recent growth, partly fueled by the tourism opportunities, but also by the military presence and good regional medical facilities. Folks are flocking here.  It’s a great place to retire, they say, if you don’t mind the weather.

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And weather we do have….in large quantities.  The wind doth blow.  The sun doth scorch.  And the snows do fly.  This is the western edge of the northern Great Plains.  We’ve now had several nights down to 15-16 degrees, and we really did wake up to snow the other morning.  Last year’s fall was much warmer.  It didn’t get this cold ‘til November and the locals were all talking about how nice it was; this year the talk is about how there wasn’t much Fall at all.

But here in our cozy campground on the edge of town, it is fall, the loveliest of times.  The trees have turned; not much red or orange in the leaves, but lots of incredible yellows, provided by the cottonwoods and the local oaks.  You get up into the hills, and it’s stunning.   We are starting to see the birds come through, heading south.  For the first time we have a bird feeder, and it’s an active spot.  Nothing to brag about, but finches are birds, too!  And even a few nuthatches and woodpeckers.  

We are out in the country, enough so that there are cattle on the hillside across from our site, we see deer and wild turkeys all the time, and there are rabbits out in the grass.  A local rancher comes by regularly, sometimes on horseback but more often riding his ATV with his dog perched on the front hood, his cell phone in hand.

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We’re having fun getting used to a new satellite service we have acquired.  It’s Canadian, and we got it because the footprint of this satellite goes as far north as all of Canada, and south way down into southern Mexico.  We will enjoy it this next winter; no missing out on the Super Bowl for us!  In the meantime, it’s hooked up and running.  And we are enjoying the differences from United States television. The commercials are a little cleaner (and cornier).  The weather people are less polished, and give you more weather; and their weather maps don’t stop at the American border.  Yeah!  

But damn!  They have a lot of advertisements that involve hockey.  And we hear all about the Edmonton Eskimos vs. the Hamilton Tiger-Cats; and the Leafs vs. the Sens  (we know that’s the Toronto Maple Leafs; but who the hell are the “Sens”???)  Guess we’ll have to learn a little about the game, as we are going to be surrounded by swinging sticks pretty soon.

We did leave here for about a week… went to Alabama.  Hopped on the old motorcycle and buzzed down to the Gulf Coast, grabbed Patzy from where we’d left her in storage last April, and whipped on back up the hill  -- all in 6 days’ time.  Reminded us that bike rides are more fun than ANYTHING; and that Alabama is a hell of a long ways from South Dakota (1650 miles one way, 1750 the other).  But we made it and got back in one piece.

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A couple of observations, as on this trip we basically went through the Mid-West top to bottom and back.  Fall hits north first (duh!):  when we left it had been 31 degrees the night before; when we arrived in southern Alabama it was 95 degrees and swelteringly humid.  No fall color down there!  Gas prices get better as you go south, although the best we saw were in Missouri and Iowa, and they rose again as we got closer to the Gulf.

Missouri contains West Plains, home of the Zizzors (who?); also our new favorite Mexican restaurant (in Missouri (?), Yup).  In Mississippi, when Georgia is playing Ole Miss, there isn’t a room available for miles and miles around.  Never did find out who won.  

Mississippi has an odd way of putting signage on the road for state offices;  there’s the MISS Highway Patrol, the MISS Dept of Trans, the MISS Agricultural Dept; sure, but what year was she crowned, and was this her home town…..???  (Sorry, it struck us as pretty funny; and oh, if you’re wondering, Missouri spells its name out to avoid any confusion on such matters – mid-west logic for ya.)

It was pretty boring coming back, particularly as we had seen much of the countryside just a couple of days earlier.  We were glad we had our Sirius radio with us…..until we heard them advertising “a full schedule of soccer programming” and then later “it all begins tonight – the NHL season.”  We’re surrounded!

But the whole trip was worth it because we were able to visit the Burris Farm Market in Foley, Alabama, which was featuring fresh peach ice cream, as well as produce we could no longer get “up north” -- and fabulous jams -- and a chocolate cream pie to die for.  We happily loaded up.

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We’re looking forward to our next adventures.  The decision to buy the Chinook, much smaller and with less storage space (and a REALLY dinky kitchen) was based on wanting to go places where Fred (the Foretravel – the big motorhome -- silly) was just plain too large for convenience.  We’ve always wanted to be as small as we thought we could get away with.  Well, four months from now, when we emerge from Mexico, we’ll let you know how we did.  We will have been in big cities and little beach towns, on bumpy country roads as well as new concrete highways, always looking for great pictures to take and great produce to eat.  It’s going to be tons of fun. 

Enough, already!  We wish you all the best for the new year.  We are having a wonderful time, as you can tell.  And we have discovered that smaller is, indeed, better when you are in Mexico.  We have adapted to and bonded with our little Chinook, and wonder why we think we need a larger home.  

Hasta la vista!  

Rick and Kathy 

PS. Well, hell.  It’s snowing.  We had hoped to leave today (Friday), but couldn’t quite get it together.  So tomorrow, come hell or high water (or snowdrifts) we will be on our way.   You know, last year when we left it had been snowing, too, but that was mid-November!  Wish us luck.

See more photos from the US in 2006

© Rick & Kathy Howe 2001-2018