Friday, August 19, 2011

The Great American Road Trip - Part 8

From Deadwood, we had only to drive an hour or so to the Custer area, where we could take in Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse monument in progress. We started the day at 5:30 in the morning with a big splurge - a hot air balloon ride over the Black Hills of South Dakota.

Our pilot picked us up in a parking lot across from our hotel. Our balloon was going up in a basket built for twelve. Besides the old balloon captain, our companions were an older couple and a family of three. We drove out to an empty field in the country where we were met by a team ready to help us get off the ground and chase us to our touchdown location - destination unknown.

It took only about 20 minutes to get from parking the van to being in the air. I couldn't believe how quickly it inflated.

There was another balloon excursion getting started in the same field. The inflation process was a good-natured race between the two teams and we won.

Once the balloon was upright, they wasted no time in ordering us into the basket.

I looked over with concern at my shivering family. I felt judgement for being a poor mom who doesn't dress her children warmly enough for the chill of the morning. We climbed in anyway, while I resigned myself to being too cold.

I needn't have worried. The flames were blasted to raise us to many hundreds of feet. The flames stopped and we just floated often, but we sank quickly, too, and that caused the flames to blast some more. Every time there was flame, I felt the part in my hair burning from above. We were not too cold.

Check out these views.

I love the way the light filtered through the mist.

Often we spotted a deer or two, who looked up at us with wonder. Until the flames blasted. Then they scampered away. The blaster was loud as well as hot.

One woman in our party nervously asked about our captain's qualifications. He told her that there were only about four balloonists in the world with more hours in the air than him. When they filmed "Dances With Wolves" the overhead shots of the herd of bison running were filmed from his balloon. Very impressive.

Did I mention Sophia is afraid of heights?

I asked her in advance if she would be too afraid, but she gave her blessing. I thought she did great. I was proud of her.

Did I mention the view was incredible?

Our original goal for landing was a field a little nearer than the one we ended up in. A gust of wind blew us out of position and our balloon pilot chose another one a little further away. Yay - our ride was extended by ten minutes!

I think the balloonist was in the practice of scoping out the biggest guy in the party and as we began our descent, he instructed Mike to take a rope and walk far away from the balloon once we had landed. The idea was to let the deflating balloon come to rest neatly and not on top of the passengers!

It took a little bit for the balloon to completly deflate and while it did so, some of the rest of us noticed in the treeline about 150 yards away from us - A Herd. Of. Bison. Now I have no idea if this was a bison ranch or if the fenced in pasture was so large that it just happened to include lots of random wildlife, including bison, but we did know that bison are inpredictable and dangerous. We laughed nervously and photographed awhile. Meanwhile our wise and crusty old codger of a balloon pilot looked quickly for an escape.

"C'mon, folks," he hollered and started trotting to the barbed wire fence.

A few more photographs until The Old Guy insisted that we move. I pointed out that my husband was still standing there obediently holding the rope of the flat balloon.

A quick glance backward by The Old Guy. Stops and cups his hands to his mouth. "C'mon, buddy!" Scamper, scamper, scamper.

Our team waited for us on the other side of the barbed wire fence and helped us all weasel between the barriers. I tell you, these guys (and one leathery woman) were such renegades. Instead of making me homesick for tidy, polite church-goers, as rough people often do, they just cracked me up. They seemed like cheerful pirates to me.

We piled back into the van and headed back to our meeting place. At some point on the way, we met up with the other balloon with another team in another field. That captain asked ours where his balloon was (still in the bison-infested field).

"Still in the field," said TOG. "We have to, uh, get the key." (Use wire cutters.)

Knowing glances and chuckles between the captains and their crews of pirates.

Continuing on our drive, I asked if they ever get into trouble with the property owners.

The woman answered, "Oh, sometimes they're not too happy, but really the law is on our side. It's just like with airplane pilots. If we have to land on their property to get you down safely, we have to."

Back at the parking lot, TOG got out a Tupperware container of fresh muffins and cheese, popped a cork of champagne and offered this toast:

"May the winds welcome you with softness.
May the sun bless you with its warm hands.
May you fly so high and so well that God
joins you in laughter and sets you gently
back into the loving arms of Mother Earth."


Oh yeah, here's Mount Rushmore

And Crazy Horse. Can you see the outline of the horse's head on the side of the mountain?

The Journey Home:

As was our custom on this trip, we were as interested in the journey as the destination. We stopped at a couple of kitschy tourist spots on the way home. The first was Wall Drug. It started as nothing special - a family-owned drug store that was struggling to stay afloat during the Depression. Mrs. Wall persuaded her husband to consider advertising as a way to get people into the store. She felt that weary travelers on the dusty roads of South Dakota would stop in if they were promised the refreshment of free ice water at Wall Drug. They began putting up billboards and, indeed, people did come.

The store has grown to fill a whole city block and the spread of their billboards have stretched all around the globe. In fact, at home later this summer, we were driving on a stretch of road we don't often travel and there, on the side of a barn, was a hand painted sign that said, "Wall Drug - 917 miles - Free Ice Water."

They still serve free ice water to weary travelers.

Just a bit further down the road is the Corn Palace. I'd heard of it. A structure built in 1921, complete with regal onion domes, they display the fruits of the Great Plains in brand new murals each year. The murals are made of corn. What I didn't know was that it was a giant sports arena on the inside. Special sporting contests are held there as well as concerts and other entertainment events. On the day we were there, the basketball floor was filled with craft and souvenir booths.

So you can get a sense of how the murals are made....

Here is a close-up....

Of one of the interior murals.

Our final important stop on the way home was DeSmet, SD. Do you recognize the name of this town? I'm thinking that if you were a girl who grew up in the '70's and '80's, you probably read the Little House on the Prairie series. I surely did and De Smet is the name of the town where the Ingalls family finally settled. It was the site of the books On the Shores of Silver Lake, The Long Winter, Little Town on the Prairie and These Happy Golden Years.

DeSmet has a festival each summer to celebrate their heritage and the adventures of their most famous former resident, but we landed in their town on the wrong day to experience it. However, they do give a tour and offer a glimpse at some of the buildings of interest to those who love the Ingalls family.

Mike and Brooks were too tired to take in the tour, but I did read The Long Winter aloud on the drive home and all enjoyed it. I was especially tickled at how much interest Mike had in it - he had never read the books. The little museum/store is right next to the Surveyors' House (pictured above), where the family spent the winter after Pa's work for the railroad in By the Shores of Silver Lake. A couple of the historic buildings had been relocated to this area.

Another building was the schoolhouse in town where Laura met Mary Power and Cap Garland. It had been relocated to the museum neighborhood only fairly recently. Up to that time, it had been used as a private home for years. There were strips on the wall showing where partition walls had been and then been torn down. There was wallpaper on some of the walls. It had only been partly removed because, once the removal process was started, the original blackboards were found along with some chalk writing and drawings! They were waiting to raise the funds for the very expensive archival wallpaper removal that would leave the chalk markings unharmed.

Above is a picture of an Ingalls home which I don't think was ever mentioned in the books. Pa reneged on his homestead outside of DeSmet and this is the home in town which he moved the family to after the failure. Laura was already a married woman and never lived in this house.

I was introduced to the Little House series in 1977. I was in first grade and an early reader. My dear teacher, Mrs. Kurtz, walked by my desk at reading time one day and just placed Little House in the Big Woods on the corner of my desk without a word. I devoured the series that year. I now call it my "gifted and talented education." It was a complete thrill to walk in the places where Laura walked.

And thus concludes one of the spiffiest vacations I've had lo these many years.


  1. Oh, tell Sophia that she is far braver than I. I would have had to lie down on the floor of the basket and pray for a quick death.

  2. I am so jealous of the balloon ride! I definitely want to do that someday!

    And tonight, I was reading G one of the last chapters of The Long Winter. So serendipitous to come to your blog and see/read about DeSmet. I would love to travel to some of the places Laura lived.


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