Never too late to head out on the highway

Mount Rushmore in South Dakota was not as the travelers remembered it - the simple viewing platform in the woods and little gift shop have been replaced with a pedestrian avenue with state flags.
Mount Rushmore in South Dakota was not as the travelers remembered it - the simple viewing platform in the woods and little gift shop have been replaced with a pedestrian avenue with state flags. (JOHN MACDONALD)
Posted: August 05, 2014

You'd have thought we'd have taken a long road trip years ago, stoked as we were in our younger days by Steppenwolf's anthem to 1960s wanderlust, "Born to Be Wild."

Alas, we two never were very wild. And adventure to us always seemed more accessible by air or sea than by highway.

We had never really taken off across the country just to see what's there.

But last spring, we decided it was high time we gassed up the car to go road-tripping to see friends, family, landscapes, tourist attractions, and famed sights scattered across America's midsection.

That it would take the month of May to do (more if we really indulged ourselves) and put 5,000 miles on the car didn't faze us.

Here are some of the thoughts that came to us as we were out on the highways and byways across parts of Kansas, Iowa, Minnesota, South Dakota, Montana, and Idaho.

We like Ike!

Our 34th president, Dwight David Eisenhower, after all, was the catalyst behind the 46,000 miles of interstate highway that make up our federal freeway system. And, coincidentally, he died the very year the movie Easy Rider came out, with that Steppenwolf song as its ode to ridin' free in search of adventure.

Eisenhower was inspired by Germany's autobahn system, which he encountered as commander of the Allied forces that defeated the Germans in World War II. At the time, he was convinced America needed such a conduit for defense against foreign invasion and local traffic jams.

Ike wasn't the best at reading the future. We haven't had a foreign invasion. And freeways everywhere still suffer rush-hour gridlock.

We, too, suffered a bit during rush-hour traffic everywhere in the northern reaches of the Midwest. Spring and summer are the season of highway construction there, as crews repair damage done in fall and winter.

Late spring on the prairies can also create havoc on the freeways.

We spent one morning stranded in a parking lot in Wyoming - one small car among a convoy of dozens of semis waiting for Interstate 80 to reopen after a spring windstorm blew through.

Off the beaten path

We wish we had strayed a bit more. We had only one morning to explore Rapid City, S.D., for instance. Not nearly enough time to visit the bronze life-size statues of all the American presidents, placed on street corners all over downtown. The statues are posed with clues to help identify even the least recent ones.

When we did stray a bit, we appreciated the farmers who put out signs identifying the greens growing in fields alongside some highways. We city slickers know corn, of course, but the difference between young wheat and alfalfa eluded us.

Appreciate the GPS

Our GPS, Rhonda, - which we named for another famous hymn of our youth, the Beach Boys' "Help Me Rhonda" - took us with no wrong turns to the homes of friends we had never visited before in Minneapolis, unsung lunch places not far off the road, and motels wherever we were when the sun lowered. No stress.

South Dakota is mecca

The Black Hills, the Badlands and Wind Cave National Parks, Mount Rushmore, the Crazy Horse Memorial, and Custer State Park are all clustered within a few miles of one another in the spectacular southwestern corner of the state. Rapid City (the town got short shrift from us precisely because we were so eager to get to that sight-rich area) is also close by.

And pioneer, mining, Wild West, and Native American cultures can be explored in museums all over the state.

Travelers age, change

A relative we called on before we got to South Dakota said she was disappointed in her recent trip to Mount Rushmore. She had been there years before, when a viewing platform in the woods and a little gift shop were the unpretentious amenities on the viewing grounds beneath the colossal carvings of Theodore Roosevelt, Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln on the side of the mountain.

Now, she said, the pedestrian avenue that leads to a larger viewing plaza is too perfect, too modern, too fancy for her taste. "I liked it the way it used to be," she said.

We had been there years before too, and had the same memory of the grounds beneath the sculpture. But we found the avenue, lined with fluttering flags from every state, and the broad plaza, fitted with searchlights aimed at the mountain for dramatic viewing in the evenings, a stirring introduction to a monumental expression of national pride.

Plan ahead

We'll never know what adventures we might have missed by not preparing more than we did, but there are at least two things we regret not doing.

First, we should have written, e-mailed, or web-browsed the tourism offices of states we planned to pass through. Most will mail you printed material and maps if you ask. Most states have tourism offices near their borders. Of the states we crossed, Kansas' tourism offices were far and away the best and most useful.

Second, as AAA members, we should have gone to our local AAA office for help planning the trip.

John dropped by an office in Seattle after we returned home. Jessica Trokey, a travel counselor there, pointed out the help she could provide members charting a cross-country trip - free trip planning, with a personal booklet that outlines your own journey.

The booklet includes maps, suggestions for lodging, tips regarding interesting stops along the way, and events occurring during your travels. Trokey also noted that AAA will help you decide whether you need additional road insurance (which AAA sells).

Mishaps make stories

Our trip wasn't perfect. We suffered a minor side-swipe on Interstate 90 that crunched a fender but did little other damage. We consider it something of a miracle that we got off so easy, as we and the driver of the car trying to pass us were both traveling at 70ish m.p.h.

It was the sort of experience Ike hoped to end with his interstate highway system. It was far from the kind of adventure Steppenwolf conjured up heading "out on the highway."

But we think it can be filed under the heading of "whatever comes our way."

John and Sally Macdonald are freelance travel writers who live on a houseboat in Seattle.

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