We’re starting to realise first days of this trip are challenging. They are perhaps closer to an expedition or rally than a vacation. When we first sat down and tried to map out a route we both had things we wanted to see and when you put them down on paper (or in Google maps) you quickly realise it isn’t realistic. Adding waypoints on a map and working out how many hours behind the wheel are needed to get between them quickly gives understanding how vast this country is.
Most of what we wanted to see on this trip is in the south between the east and west coasts. The sensible thing to do would have been to stick to that area and then return to do another trip in a year or two capturing a different area. It is all too easy, especially when planning late in the evening with a glass of wine, to say ‘it’s just a few more hours’, and that’s how the Badlands and Mount Rushmore in the north ended up on our itinerary. To get there meant a long haul over two days sticking mostly to Interstate roads, but by doing this at the beginning of the trip our hope was excitement would keep us awake and the distances psychologically shorter. That the north is far cooler also gave incentive in a car with questionable air conditioning.
Early starts are a must for a road trip. Get out there while the roads are quiet and make decent progress. When you have had a long day in the car the day before it’s all too easy to let the day slip; a swim in the Fontaine pool, a relaxing breakfast, a search for a good coffee. It was good coffee too at a place spotted from the road on the way to the hotel the previous evening called the ‘Filling Station’. Onward to Rapid City.
Road closure horror show
We were due to ride the I-29 all the way past Sioux Falls to the I-90 toward the Badlands and Rapid City. Heavy rain had caused flooding around the sections close to the Missouri River making it unpassable. Detoured along Highway 71 the conditions were frightening, torrential rain meaning zero visibility in places, you could feel the car hydroplane as it hit standing water. Would we even make it to Rapid City? We spotted a small sign at the side of the road, ‘The Axe Murder House’. WTF? Time to detour the detour.
Villisca Axe Murder House
Still raining, we turned off the road into Villisca, one of those places that feels like the middle of nowhere in search of the house. Having driven the entire length of the town we turned the car around when an old Ford pickup pulled alongside and a man asked if we were lost. Mentioning the Axe Murder House he told us to follow him, he pulled up outside some old red wooden house and jumped out of his truck, in the rain and without a coat and started telling the story of how his friend bought the house, had raised three daughters in it and it was absolutely not haunted. He recommended we visit the local graveyard instead. A family sat on the covered porch not once acknowledging our guide, until he left soaked through, and the man of the house shouted something about the car being nice, we waved and left as it clearly was not a tourist attraction. Later we looked it up online and discovered this was not the house at all, the Axe Murder House was much bigger and white in colour, and was the scene of the mass murder of eight people in their beds one night in 1912. The house is also a hotbed of paranormal activity. Who was our friendly local guide? An uninformed do-gooder? Someone who wanted us off the trail? Or ghostly apparition? It remains as unsolved as the axe murder crime itself.
A man on the state line between Missouri and Iowa
The good thing about the road closure was we were now travelling the back roads cross country and seeing things we’d have not seen otherwise. Stopping off at little towns and being nosey. This is what happened somewhere just before crossing the State line into Iowa. A ramshackle shop with some vintage trucks outside and an old closed motel. We went to explore and while poking around someone appeared from one of the old rooms to ask what we were doing. Turns out he has lived there years long after everyone else had left. He was telling us about his time in the Navy and how he’d spent a lot of time in Europe but never made it to England. We had a laugh about how the Germans once said the same thing.
Back on track
Eventually the rain stopped and we found our way back on track somewhere near Sioux City, Iowa and crossing over into Nebraska. Far behind schedule, our hope of seeing the Badlands were fading with the setting sun. Another 60 minutes and we’d have made the National Park and captured it in dramatic light as the day ended. Some of the landscape we could see from the I-90 confirming we’d have to head back the following day.
Nowhere to stay
The hotel we’d booked months ago and paid for upfront on an online booking website. We were a little surprised to arrive at 11pm to discover we didn’t have a reservation. I suspect as we were so late they’d put us down as ‘no-shows’ and resold the room at a better rate. Zak and Rodger behind the desk could have been cast into a Netflix movie with their oversized jackets and exaggerated mannerisms. We had the booking confirmation printed out and email chain on an iPhone which I was showing Zac when I heard the other one say “next time try booking it on our website instead”. My look must have said everything and our comedy duo hit the phones and found us a room nearby. I didn’t speak again until we were outside. It was just one word but summed the experience up fairly.