Day 35

Wednesday, June 29, 2005Mitchell, SD
Miles: 4121Go west, young Lewins
Last night, we discovered that the Big Sioux Recreation area is right next to a dirt track. And Tuesday is apparently race night. The annoyance of being serenaded by the sounds of dozens of engines and the voices of the announcers was made up for in one moment. Across the darkened prairie, we heard a familiar strain of synthesized music. We looked at each other. Was it really? Really Europe? The Final Countdown? It was. Oh yes indeedy. For those of you too old (or, alarmingly, too young) to know of Europe, they were a bad band that rode the Hair Metal gravy train for awhile in the mid to late 80’s. Ceridwen hates to admit it, but at the age of 11, she owned a Europe T-shirt. It was sweet. Black with a blue silk screen of some long haired guys with bad perms. Ah, the 80’s.

But enough about times gone by. Today was a full day in and of itself and involved no perms or spandex. Our first stop was in Garretson, the scene of a daring escape of Jesse James from a posse of Minnesota Lawmen. Devil’s Gulch itself is a twenty foot expanse over Split Rock Creek. Legend has it, Jesse (or more accurately, his horse) jumped the gulch, leaving the lawmen on the other side. They all had families to go home to and chose not to follow the outlaw. Now there’s a bridge over it and you can walk like normal people. The gulch, like much of the rest of the area, is made of jasper. Today we discovered just how fun it is to climb around on jasper. But more on that later. The actual gulch was the least exciting part of the area. Locals have made a nature trail through the area that highlights some other interesting features and give out a guide that details how the gulch formed, other legends involving the area and the Native American perspective.. Keath bought his first tourist shirt, since this supported a local organization, rather than a tourist trap. Look for it in future photos. It’s hard to miss, given that it is bright yellow. We walked along the nature trail, and once off of it, and discovered the Devil’s Staircase, which led to the Devil’s kitchen, a gully about 30 feet deep, There was also a waterfall that we played in for awhile, wetting our appetite for rock jumping.

We ate lunch at Split Rock Park. We were told that there were pontoon boat rides to the cave Jesse James hid out in before making his famous leap, but as we pulled up, the boat was leaving. We ate lunch there, enjoying the pretty view, then went into the Visitor Center. We found out why the boat was leaving: there was a tornado watch in effect for all of Eastern SD, and parts of MN, ND and IA. It seemed like a good time to head West, but first we decided to check out Palisades State Park, which has the Balancing Rock. We had seen a picture of it at the Devil’s Gulch Visitor’s Center and decided we had to check it out.

Balancing Rock was only the beginning. We hiked down a nicely mowed grass path that followed Split Rock Creek and came upon Balancing Rock. It was really cool, all made out of jasper. After climbing on Balancing Rock, we climbed on some unnamed formations. There were some people roped in and doing some real climbing on the other side of the creek, so we headed over there. On the other side of the creek we found King and Queen rock, two big columns of jasper that jut out into the water. We climbed to the top of Queen, angering some people who were apparently safety Nazis. We had a lot of fun climbing around and finding cool views. Jasper is very easy to climb because it naturally ledges and little cracks for you to hold on to. Very convenient. Sweaty and tired, we got back in the van and headed for Mitchell, SD, home of the world’s only Corn Palace. What’s a Corn Palace, you may ask yourself, much as John Phillips Sousa did nearly 80 years ago. We’ll get to that later. First, let us tell you about the wonders of the Ghost Town that wasn’t.

We saw signs for an old West town and decided on the spur of the moment to check it out. We were also enticed by the claims of a Bison herd and a convenience store with coffee and energy drinks. The store was run by an old man who liked to talk about the old west town. He told us all about it before we went in, to make sure we didn’t miss anything. He told us there were two ghosts, one of them the ghost of the only horse to survive Little Big Horn. We walked through the town, stopping to take pictures of the Bison. Bison get very threatening when their babies are around. We took one photo before they circled around the babies and turned to us en masse. Half ton animals with horns are not the best things to make angry, so we went on our way.

The rest of the town was pretty silly. It was reconstructed buildings with moving mannequins and speakerboxes. The voice of the old man at the store told us all about the Indian rituals, all about wash day for the pioneers and about a few other things we didn’t really pay attention to. The best part was really the ghost horse, which was a wooden cutout of a horse viewed through a hole in the stable wall. The old man’s voice came out over the speaker, telling us he was the ghost of Camanche, the last surviving horse of Little Big Horn. We looked at the rest of the town, marveling at how much fun the man must have dressing up his mannequins and making his recordings. The second ghost was a garden gnome at the bottom of a ‘mine shaft’ bathed in eerie yellow light. Spooky.

After this side trip, we continued to Mitchell, where we checked into our campsite and then went to see the prehistoric Indian site. This is a very cool museum that has an archaeological dig in a big dome. The whole thing is called the Archeaodome. It was cool to be able to get that close to a real dig site. There were piles of bison bones that they had dug up, pieces of pottery and explanations of stratigraphy. Even the lab was open, and they invited visitors to help them clean off artifacts with toothbrushes.

Back in the main museum, there was a model of an earthen home, complete with bison hide and some artifacts. When I see these things, I can’t help but be very glad I was born where and when I was.

We went from very untouristy to very touristy. The Mitchell Corn Palace was first constructed to display the South Dakota corn harvest. Ears of corn were cut in half and then nailed to the walls of a building, carefully laid out to create murals. This year’s theme was life on the farm. There’s really not too much more to say about this. Corn is now bred and grown specifically to be used in the construction of the corn Palace. There are eleven different colors available for the artist. It’s all pretty cool really. We gawked, then had dinner.

Our campsire was right next to the railroad tracks, which wasn’t a problem until about three am, when a train that had stopped started moving again. Rather than letting off the brakes all at once, it took fifteen mintues of horrid squealing to get going again. Ugh.