Wherefore Art Thou Sky West?

Yesterday I said some pretty nice things about Rapid City, and today I would likely to partly qualify that by talking about why it is that I got up at 3AM this morning to get ready and to go the airport and why it is that I am now scheduled to arrive at Portland some eight and a half hours later than had been the case, and why this would be the third route planned so far for my trip back from Rapid City to Portland. A few months ago, when my mother and I originally booked this trip, we were going to fly into Montana on the way to Rapid City, but that route was dropped, and from what I can see from the flights in and out of Rapid City there are no regular flights through that city whatsoever at present (there certainly are not any of them today [1]).

In looking up information on Rapid City, I saw that it was not a base for SkyWest, and this appears to have caused at least some difficulties with its flights. I can imagine that if you are, say, a pilot on reserve at Dallas, Chicago, and Phoenix (the three bases for Sky West in association with American that have direct connections to Rapid City, or Charlotte, which is a base for American but not for Sky West), that it might not be an easy thing to get to Rapid City in a pinch, and since all the pilots here would be commuting pilots, I can see how it would be rough to get pilots there early enough in the morning to leave at just after 6AM. Apparently that was a problem, because the flight we were supposed to be going on has been delayed for four hours, thus dramatically changing our own plans accordingly, as we have been routed now through Phoenix and then on to Portland.

Why would Rapid City in particular present such problems for Sky West and other regional carriers to adequately cover? Looking at the airport arrivals and departures website again, of all of the flights currently scheduled that flight we were supposed to make for Dallas was delayed for four hours, and another flight, a United Express flight into Denver that was scheduled for an hour and a half from now as I write this, was cancelled altogether. Two further arrivals, a United Express flight from Chicago and a Delta Connection flight from Minneapolis, are already going to be late long before they arrive. This is a hazard that comes from being a regional airport that is not a base, and that is that one is at the mercy of the logistics of the flight industry, and frequently it can be imagined that those airports which are served from more remote bases find it hard to get replacement crews in case of sickness, injury, or absence from a flight crew that had stayed overnight in the city and was now being called upon to leave.

As a traveler who is interested in how regional pilots live–and who has viewed people talking about their experiences as line or reserve pilots going to and staying in remote locations, it is easy to ponder how it is that flights sometimes fall through the cracks. For someone to be able to crew a 6AM flight from a city that has no base for an airlines would require the pilots and cabin crew to have been in the city the night before from a previous flight–either one they were working on or a repositioning flight from somewhere else. Given how crowded flights are for American Airlines at present from my traveling experiences, it would not be a surprise to find out that the lack of room for enough jumpseats might make it impossible to get a full crew present in Rapid City to fly out on the morning flight, thus making for a cascading set of difficulties for American Airlines as flights are re-arranged throughout the day as people struggle to make it back home.

And, let us not forget, that struggle is real. While I was sitting near the check-in and using my computer, I saw a woman talking on the phone and deeply frustrated because the delay of her flight–she was scheduled to be on the same 6AM flight that my mother and I were supposed to be on–which has especially difficult consequences for her. The 6AM flight to Dallas was apparently the only one that allowed her to make a connection back to Jamaica, and given Jamaica’s rather serious rules about covid testing when traveling, that could be a very serious matter, given the difficulty of finding flights there. I know, speaking from personal experience, that both flying to and from Jamaica and dealing with the covid-related restrictions there on testing are by no means easy matters, and my thoughts and prayers are certainly with the stranded traveler, who was hopefully able to find a way home sooner than two days.

[1] According to the Rapid City airport arrivals and departures website, here are the cities from which one can get to on a day like today from Rapid City directly:

Minneapolis (5)
Denver (5)
Chicago (4)
Dallas (3)
Charlotte (1)
Newark (1)
Phoenix (1)

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Rapid City And The Importance Of Tourist Infrastructure

When one travels as often as I have, one notices that some areas are in denial about who they are as a city and other areas know who they are and make the most of it. Portland, for example, is an area that is in long-term denial about being a large city, and thinks that if they keep suburban sprawl from happening enough and fail to build up the infrastructure needed in bridges, highways, and the like, that other people will simply stop moving to the area. My thoughts about this sort of denial are fairly obvious and hostile. Rapid City, South Dakota, though, is a small city that knows it is a tourist trap and has clearly made the most of it. As someone who grew up in Central Florida, the place and its tourism approach is something I recognize well from areas like Orlando and Kissimmee, and I mean that in the best way.

When one comes to Rapid City, one’s first thoughts are of the area of Mount Rushmore, and occasionally one of the other places of interest in the area like the Crazy Horse Memorial (both of which are great examples of monumental statuary, it must be admitted). Yet this barely even scratches the surface of the city’s offerings, which include numerous museums, Fort Hays (the set of Dances With Wolves, as dozens of billboards will remind you), the Reptile Gardens, an amusement park with bison themes, a driving nature tour with bear themes, and many, many more options. The amount of things to do in Rapid City and the surrounding area is deeply impressive, even to the most jaded tourist. The people of Rapid City have clearly embraced their role as a tourist destination and have deliberately made their city very appealing for tourists to stick around and spend their money.

This is in evidence not only from the many places there are to see in the area but also the way that Rapid City has provided the proper infrastructure to support these travelers. Whether one is dealing with a friendly and small regional airport, convenient driving, and plenty of hotels, restaurants, and gas stations (not something that can be taken for granted in this part of the world), Rapid City goes out of its way to provide what those visiting need, and that is something that is worthy of respect and approval. It is certainly a joy to go to a place that knows it has what tourists want to see, and goes about earning the interest of those travelers in polite but obviously efficient fashion.

Rapid City has managed to do all of this, moreover, without losing its personality and charm as a small city. Whether one looks at the quirkiness of what the city and its surrounding area have to offer, including offbeat museums and other stops, places to buy antiques and carvings, and even the statues that fill the street corners of the city, Rapid City is more than just a place that caters to tourists, but a place that has a real personality of its own that is part of its charm and appeal. It even advertises some of its restaurants by making the appeal that locals eat there, an appeal I first remember seeing for a tasty Italian restaurant in Dothan.

This does not mean that Rapid City has smooth sailing in its goals to draw and cater to tourists on a massive scale. The infrastructure for tourism that the town has requires enough people to work in order to provide these services, and that is by no means an assured thing at present. In addition to this, the tourist infrastructure of Rapid City is threatened in very potent ways. For example, it was possible on the road and from the air to see the massive devastation that was wrought by the ash beetle some fifteen to twenty years ago from which the forests of the Black Hills have still yet to recover. In addition to this, political threats to deface Mount Rushmore would endanger a major source of the area’s appeal to tourists. Even an area as charming as Rapid City is not immune from the problems of our day and age, and that is a problem that infrastructure alone cannot solve, alas.

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Short Reviews: Nathan’s 50 State Completion Tour: Part Five

Black Hills Aerial Adventures, Custer, SD:

My mother and I took our first helicopter ride today, and it was surprisingly accessible for someone who could barely walk like me. At any rate, the staff was particularly friendly, as were other patrons, and the helicopter pilot was knowledgeable as we flew over the Black Hills seeing the devastation of the ash beetle below while looking at both Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Memorial that has been under construction since 1948 and has at least 20 or 30 years or so to go. If you’re looking for an enjoyable experience in a helicopter, this is a great place to get your first experience in one.

Colonial House Restaurant, Rapid City, SD:

A family owned restaurant near the hotel where we stayed, this particular place offers tasty food and friendly service with what appears to be a pretty popular regular crowd. Despite some problems finding sufficient people to work at present–a problem that seems pretty universal in the areas where we have traveled–the restaurant does make quite a few of its ingredients itself and has great suppliers for the rest. My mother had a blue walnut salad with raspberry vinaigrette while I had chicken noodle soup, a side salad with Italian dressing that offered plenty of tasty veggies like celery and broccoli, as well as the chicken and broccoli alfredo, all of which were tasty.

Lazy U Motel, Rapid City, SD:

Although this place looks like it could be the set for a Sam Hunt music video, this hotel is a good reason why it is best to not judge by surface appearances. A one-story motel with street parking to the rooms, this hotel offers comfortable places to sleep, some reasonably good breakfast options, and friendly staff. We were fortunate enough to have quiet neighbors, which is not something that can be taken for granted, and the hotel is convenient to traveling, which was very enjoyable. The motel is definitely not young, but it has personality, in a good way.

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Travelers In A Thirsty Land

My general enjoyment of the day was deeply harmed by the fact that early this morning I had a gout attack, and throughout the day my right foot has been in considerable pain, a pain that was probably not lessened by the fact that I managed to drive for about 500 miles between Bismarck, North Dakota and Rapid City, South Dakota through Miles City Montana and various other towns in order to complete a visit to all 50 states, which has now been accomplished. As might well be imagined, it has been a bit of a challenge to write. Nonetheless, the fate of my poor foot is not unconnected with the problem that I saw over and over again while driving today through western North Dakota, eastern Montana, a tiny sliver of Wyoming, and western South Dakota. These are thirsty lands, and their thirst is obvious in several ways.

Perhaps most poignant among these is the way that one crosses over bridges where one can see a great many rivers which are running nearly dry, or may even be completely so. Over and over again it was possible to see rivers and lakes show sandbars and even allow cows to cross the rivers easily and drink up what little water remains in them. The fields themselves were frequently dry, and evidence of this has been evident with corn and wheat that barely rises from the ground because it hasn’t had enough water. Only the hay is growing well, and round and square bales of hay can be found all over, being harvested early because of the dry weather.

Indeed, the only time one can see very green grass in these parts is when something has been irrigated. The stark difference between irrigation and non-irrigated yellow and brown grass is certainly stark and dramatic. One wonders just how much longer the irrigation can go on for. Perhaps people hope that the rains will return again soon, but with aquifers and rivers and reservoirs drying up, one wonders how much water is left.

Besides the look at the water, the trip itself proved interesting in showing some rough trading towns in southern Montana and western South Dakota. The case of Belle Fourche is instructive. Outside of the town there are a lot of dingy mobile homes and junkyards, but once one enters into the city one finds a beautiful town that lives up to its name of “beautiful fork.” We were in the city because we had been routed there, but before coming I found that there was a monument to the town being the geographic center of the United States. This monument had a lot to offer, and though I was not well enough to do much walking around there was still plenty to see.

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Short Reviews: Nathan’s 50 State Completion Tour: Part Four

40 Steak & Seafood, Bismarck ND:

If you happen to be staying near I-94, this place is certainly convenient and with friendly and unobtrusive service as well as tasty food, this place is an enjoyable example of fine dining in North Dakota’s capitol. Their bread is accompanied by a tasty and sweet butter, and their steaks are excellent (I had the flatiron myself, which was seasoned well) along with some jasmine rice and well-seasoned asparagus. My mother had some tasty broccolini as well as the buffalo meatballs. Overall, this place is an enjoyable one to visit.

Americas Best Value Inn And Suites, Bismarck, ND:

This hotel was a bit of a mixed bag. While I was able to sleep well the first night, the second night proved to be more difficult for me and even more difficult for my mother. While the breakfast on the first morning was satisfying, the breakfast the second morning was less so. While the hotel did have locked doors to keep the riffraff out, the hotel did a less stellar job of keeping residents quiet, including ones making loud noises upstairs all night. As has been the case frequently, the quality of a hotel can depend markedly on the quality of those staying with you given the way that walls and floors are typically thin and not very well sound-proofed.

Black Iron Grill, Miles City, MT:

This restaurant was an enjoyable place to stop and eat along the road. Close to the interstate and full of large and appreciative and diverse crowds, this was the second place we have been to that had such a busy time during lunch that the manager stepped in to help. Their salads and other foods are enjoyable, and if you like beef there is a lot to appreciate. Unfortunately, while service was attentive and friendly, the sweet tea was not very good, but nobody’s perfect, I suppose.

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You Will Be Stopping At This Gas Station

At mile 260 on I-94 going westbound at Jamestown there is a billboard for a gas station and travel plaza on mile 200. If you are traveling on I-94 in North Dakota, you may not think much about that. But before too long, you will be. This billboard is trying to tell you something, and that something is that you will be stopping at this gas station, you just don’t know it yet. As it happens, I was driving in the area to visit a fort (more on that below) and still had between 1/4 and 1/2 of a tank in the car, so I was not particularly looking for gas at that moment. But by the time I was approaching mile 200, I was definitely looking for gas, as not a single exit between those two points had a gas station at the exit. It should be noted that some of them, very few of them, had gas stations several miles away (up to 20 miles away), while the rest had no services whatsoever offered on those exists, or even roads names for most of the exits. And so it was that with about 1/8 of a tank left by the time we hit mile 200, we were definitely stopping at that gas station, which had quite a large setup, cars waiting in line for gasoline, about 20 pumps worth of both diesel and gasoline, and a large staff of people to take care of the massive amount of customers that they had for food and gasoline. Of particular interest is the fact that this gas station was not overcharging in any way for this particular service, thus discouraging potential competition in a very labor-scarce area of North Dakota.

This story, as short and as humorous as it is, hints at a large variety of the themes that I saw over and over again in the course of my day driving from Mankato, Minnesota to Bismarck, North Dakota. For one, I think Google Maps likes routing me through the middle of nowhere. Even when one is driving on I-94 in North Dakota, one is mostly in the middle of nowhere, with a stiff continual wind blowing over the empty and grassy plains. But more than this, the shortest route between Mankato and Fargo, ND appeared to go along a dusty gravel road where we encountered one shy doe and one timid muskrat and no other vehicles. It also included a detour around the outskirts of Jamestown when Google Maps had a nonexistent back entrance into Fort Seward. And even where Google Maps was working correctly, a lot of the routes had puzzling features including strange transitions from divided highway to two-lane road. Once Google Maps even felt it necessary to tell me that this was the shortest route to avoid road construction on another, paved road.

Another of the repeating themes of today’s journey was the theme of logistics. This is not a surprising or new series of adventures. But whether one is looking for nonexistent gas stations which reminded me of the more traumatic driving experiences in Eastern Oregon, or whether one is eating at restaurants that all are short on staff all the time, there is a great deal to be said about the fact that logistics matters a lot in a place like North Dakota. There are simply not a lot of people to be found, and not a lot of ways to get from one point to another with full services like restaurants and hotels and gas stations. Even in the 19th century, as one could see from a visit to Fort Seward, logistics was the major driving effort in the settlement of various towns near reliable water sources (namely rivers) as well as the fortresses that guarded these towns from hostile plains tribes like the Sioux. And the continual help wanted signs demonstrate that logistics in terms of the labor market are still serious issues in the area.

As far as the explorations today, I decided to visit two fortresses from the 19th century. Fort Ridgely, located in rural Minnesota, happened to be along the road that Google Maps had routed me on anyway, and it is a beautiful camping area (albeit a bit spendy) that happens to be in the transition area between the farms of southern Minnesota and the Big Woods area in the south-central part of the state. There is a further area of glacial lakes and hills to be found towards northern Minnesota that we also saw a bit of while traveling north on the eccentric US-71. Fort Seward, on the other hand, sits on a dominating bluff overlooking Jamestown, North Dakota, a town perhaps best known for being the childhood home of the awesome Western author Louis L’amour. This fort was only in existence for five years because a railroad being built north through North Dakota ended up stopping at Bismarck instead of going all the way to Canada, thus making the fort superfluous for logistical requirements of supporting the troops in even more distant border forts in the area. Be that as it may, it was still a lovely site with a quaint small museum and some historical reenactors. If the driving was a bit rigorous, the trip was a lovely one through beautiful country sprinkled with gorgeous small towns with a rich and diverse tradition of local architecture. And that is always worth seeing and appreciating as one flies by beet fields, cornfields, prairie grasses, and the like.

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Short Reviews: Nathan’s 50 State Completion Tour: Part Three

Microtel Suites by Wyndham, Mankato, MN:

This particular hotel gets some points for stepping up when the original hotel we reserved in Mankato canceled the reservation without too much time to spare. That said, the walls of the hotel rooms were very thin, and from our room you could hear the bell at the lobby as well as the ding of the elevator. The staff was formally polite but not overly friendly. Continental breakfast options were limited as well. Still, as the people in the hotel were quiet and the location was lovely it was an acceptable experience.

Fort Ridgely State Park, middle of nowhere, MN:

Fort Ridgely is a notable site in the Sioux War, but reaching the site requires driving into the middle of nowhere and it can be a bit spendy to get there-$7.00 for a vehicle pass and more than $30 if you want to camp there. Still, if you have an interest in that area, it is a lovely place to visit, if a bit remote.

Doolitles Woodfire Grill, Fargo, ND:

This particular restaurant is a relatively upscale place with a friendly staff and some tasty food. I tried their Flying Tiger Chicken & Peapods, which was tasty but not a particularly large serving, and my mother had the roasted pear and chicken salad, which was certainly more than enough for her. The meal also included some tasty herb bread, and most of the meals (including that of both my mother and I) are based on rotisserie chicken. If you’re looking to have the manager deliver your dishes and apologize for the delay for being understaffed, you can come between lunch and rush hour like we did.

Fort Seward, Jamestown, ND:

Although the fort is a bit different to find on GPS due to some faulty connections, this particular site is an interesting one. It was a fort for only five years, from 1872 to 1877, built on a strategic location in the bluffs above Jamestown, but the site has tents for reenactors and also a small museum that includes plenty of interesting archaeological finds from the site for those who are interested, and the site also includes North Dakota’s largest American flag flying over the city.

Kroll’s Dinner, Bismarck, ND:

I have to admit I was a bit disappointed by this place. Although Kroll’s Diner has a noted reputation as one of the best diners in North Dakota, and claims to have a wonderful yellow chicken soup, when I had dinner there service was particularly slow (the diner seemed understaffed), and the restaurant seemed to lack a lot of items. That said, they had a lot of tea options (including sweet tea) and their chicken strips, chips, and salad were all tasty and served in inventive plates. If you’re looking for a slightly quirky and tasty diner and don’t mind that it is understaffed and don’t mind that some of the distinctive German dishes may not be present, this can easily be enjoyed.

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Short Reviews: Nathan’s 50 State Completion Tour: Part Two

The New Victorian Motel, Sioux City, Iowa

A pleasant hotel with good service, quiet and clean rooms, and bountiful options for breakfasts offers travelers an enjoyable experience in a good location. Check this place out if you are in town and need a reasonably priced hotel option.

Mid-America Aviation Museum, Sioux City, Iowa

This museum gets an incomplete grade because it was not open. Let’s hope that as covid fades that the museum can have more regular hours and be open more than two days a week for four hours each day.

Chicken Coop Bar & Grill, West Des Moines, Iowa

This particular bar and grill offers generally tasty bar food options including a lot of wings and tenders and related food. The televisions are definitely welcome, with a diverse offering of sports (and other programming) to watch. The dry sweet rub wasn’t quite as dry as I expected for my boneless wings and they did not have sugar to sweeten the tea, though, which was a bit odd.

Olive’s By Massad’s, Mankato, Iowa

This small restaurant is inside the Hilton Garden Inn in downtown Mankato, and is a real gem that appears to be regularly enjoyed by locals as well as visitors who are staying at the hotel. Dinner options are tasty–my mother had the Massad Salad with Marinated Chicken and I enjoyed a tasty French Cut Chicken with pesto, mashed potato puree, and a corn and pea sautee, as well as a New York Cheesecake with raspberry coulis for dessert. Servings were tasty if not massive and service was attentive and friendly–this is a lovely example of fine dining with a great deal of friendliness including fellow patrons and staff.

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It’s In The Way You Get There

On the face of it, one does not necessarily have to take a lot of time getting from Iowa to Minnesota. The two states are right next to each other, after all, and one can simply fly through Iowa, by no means a large state, in only a few hours. But why do that when you can explore the state a little, and so that is what I did today. As I write this, I am in Mankato, Minnesota, a small town of a bit more than 50,000 people that is famous for one thing, and that is its role in the Sioux War where 38 Dakota were put to death for their role in the Sioux War of 1862-1863. The city has a reconciliation park where poems seek for forgiveness for all and seek to honor the war dead who were in fact war criminals. That is the sort of thing that piques my interest as a traveler, to see a place and to ponder why it is there and what it has to say about itself.

So how was it that I made it from Sioux City, Iowa, to Mankato, Minnesota, and why? It might seem surprising, but there were quite a few stops today, though most of them were not for very long at all. After leaving the hotel in Sioux City the first stop I made was to the Mid-America Aviation Museum near the airport there, but it was closed as it was only open from noon to four on Fridays and Saturdays, and so I talked a bit outside the closed gate and went on my merry way to lunch. After lunch we ended up stopping at a few places in Des Moines, the capital of Iowa. We saw the hospital near the Quaker church where HWA attended services for the first part of his life, and then went to his high school, as it was on the way to the capital grounds. On those grounds there were a great deal of monuments of considerable historical interest, besides a beautiful view of the skyscrapers downtown.

On the way to Minnesota we stopped at Clear Lake, a small town along the way, and while my mom rested I looked at a monument to Iowans who fought in the Battle of Pleasant Hill and then went to a lovely but small community garden that had butterflies as well as a wide variety of local Iowa flora. Though the stops were quirky they were quick and also lovely. After that it was on the way to Minnesota, staying to the south so far and avoiding the more problematic areas in the cities. Minnesota’s countryside, like that of the Great Plains and Upper Midwest in general, is beautiful, although so far each of the states has been beautiful in its own way. And though I must say I found Mankato’s memorial rather off-putting, I was definitely intrigued by the beauty of the city and the way it reminded me of Oregon City’s combination of a city by a river and later construction on the bluffs above.

Perhaps the weirdest observation I made today was something that was not planned at all, but something I just happened to repeatedly notice. Both about ninety miles or so west of Des Moines and then about thirty minutes or so north of the city, I was driving on freeways where I was buzzed by low-flying Cessnas that were flying fast, nearly at the highway level, and making sharply banked turns. This seemed rather reckless to me and I was wondering what was going on, as it seemed to be happening often enough that it could not have been accidental. What were these pilots trying to do? I love solving a good mystery, after all.

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One Madcap Adventure After Another

The time was 6:15AM when I woke up and looked at the time on my laptop computer, realizing that my mom and I had ten minutes to make it to the lobby to get on the van to the airport to catch our plane. This was, as one might imagine, a rather inauspicious beginning to the day. On the plus side, we managed to get ready in a hurry and then rush off to arrive just in time to the van to find out that the van which arrived only had one seat and had to call another driver to pick us up. After a bit of a wait the second driver came and we filled up that van and went to the airport.

At the airport things were highly entertaining. The check-in for American Airlines is in terminal A, but our flight to Rapid City was on the fair end of Terminal B. This meant a lot of wheelchairs and carts. How many? Well, the first person took my mother in a wheelchair from the ticketing booth through security and then we waited for the first cart, which took us to the end of terminal A while I ignored the subtle hints he was trying to give to get a big tip. After waiting for a bit and getting to know a woman with an adorable infant who was on her way to Mississippi, we were on our way through the B concourse with another cart driver, who dropped us off at the gate just as our names were being called to get different boarding passes in different (if not better) seats, before I had the time to write two sentences before the preboarding brought us on the small CRJ to Rapid City, where the flight was lovely even if the window seat I ended up with did not exactly have a window, to my slight annoyance.

Once we got to Rapid City it was a quick process to get our bags and rental car and start the lengthy journey. First we drove two hours south from Rapid City to Chadron, a small town in Northern Nebraska where we made our first stops to get lunch (a very tasty repast at the Country Kitchen) as well as to visit the Museum of the Fur Trade, which also ended up being very tasty, albeit with regards to intellectual food. After this there was a lot of driving east along US 20 in northern Nebraska, as we passed through small towns with not even 100 people in them, stopped for gas in a town where people thought that the gas station was a fine place to just stand around and talk when there were dozens of empty parking spaces within sight to do that.

It was after eating a pleasant dinner that things got to be perhaps the most unusual about the trip. Google maps, for reasons I cannot exactly fathom, had us leaving US 20 shortly after dinner in Oneill and then traveling along various roads that served as a cutoff, perhaps to save a few miles. And while many of those roads were relatively fast and passed alongside cornfields and hayfields and grassfields where beef cattle and horses ate and plenty of bizarre-looking soybean fields that looked slightly blue-green and somewhat alien, especially from a distance, the map had us going along an eleven mile stretch of harrowing gravel roads where we had as many wildlife encounters (1, a skunk successfully managing to avoid being run over) as encounters with other drivers. It was late by the time we got into Sioux City, my 47th state, as there were police towing a wrecked car out of the only road that we were able to travel to go get to our hotel. Finally, though, we did check-in and I was able to provide my mother with some funny videos (including the classic Fur For The Future) before doing a bit of writing, and then a well-earned sleep.

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