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Too Much of a Good Thing

May 8, 2014

“You’re sure? Four hundred across ... what's this state?"

"South Dakota."

"Four hundred miles across South Dakota? I didn't think I was even near the place. It never occurred to me I'd ever set foot in South Dakota." By this time the original information has sunk in. "Anyway, I thought it was a little state."

Living near the South Dakota-Wyoming border, I've had several such conversations. Call these folks South Dakota's accidental tourists, motorists using the nation's interstate highways to get from the Pacific Northwest to jobs in Chicago, basic training in Texas, funerals in Ohio. Nobody told them they'd spend the better part of a day in the great unknown between Spearfish and Brandon. Or Spearfish and North Sioux City, if they hang a right on I-29.

They wonder, in perfectly serious tones, will there be gas? Food? AAA? ATMs? Fellow travelers?

"All those things," I assure them. Sometimes they believe me.

For Americans who label themselves "bicoastal," the region between the Cascades and Appalachians might be quaint. We've got all the necessary ingredients — scenery and a generous supply of out-of-the-ordinary people, places and things — it just needs to be condensed somewhat.

Montana is trendy these days, so west-to-east travelers on I-90 can relax and enjoy the scenery. Which is a good thing since there's so much of it, nearly 600 miles worth. Next up is a few hundred miles of Wyoming. Then comes South Dakota.

It's right there in Rand McNally, but South Dakota still comes as a whopper of a surprise for some drivers. Between our western border and Spearfish the country looks a whole lot like ... well, Montana and Wyoming. The state seems a tad redundant.

So these accidental tourists pull into the first gas or food joint they spot, as long as they're still within sight of the I-90 lifeline, seeking not gas or food as much as human contact. Black Hills folk have learned to recognize them by their awkward opening lines.

"Wind always blow like this?"

"Get a lot of snow here?"

"Think people will ever outnumber cows in these parts?"

To which locals offer well-rehearsed replies.

"It stopped blowing after you crossed into the shelter of the Hills."

"Not enough to keep the fire danger low through summer."

"Hope not, because cattle are more profitable than people most years."

Accidental tourists are completely a breed apart from traditional ones, who South Dakotans know are eager to hear of Indian lore, shortcuts to Wind Cave and lurid details of Wild Bill Hickok's assassination.

So it comes as a shock to be describing, say, how the bullet passed through Wild Bill's skull and into his poker pal's arm only to have an accidental tourist interrupt you.

"Yeah, yeah," they say impatiently, "but if I drop down to I-80 and cross Nebraska instead of South Dakota, does that put me into St. Louis any sooner?"

Joan Bockwoldt, who ran the I-90 information and rest area on the South Dakota-Wyoming border for 20 years, told me accidental tourists may be a vanishing species. "There were a lot more 10 or 20 years ago," she says, crediting better information systems for motorists, including on-board computer mapping, for the decline.

Perhaps sensing this development, some Black Hills residents are insisting that accidental tourists shape up right now and behave like traditional ones. Recently I overheard an elderly woman scolding a man whose only hope was to see Minnesota by nightfall. He had no intention of seeking out Mount Rushmore.

"You've got to see it!" she insisted. "It's the Shrine of Democracy!"

"Okay, I'll take a look. I can see it from I-90, right?

"No!"

"Why not?"

Why not, indeed. If only South Dakota could be condensed, so all our finest features were adjacent to I-90 and I-29, we'd rank first in quaint.

Editor's Note: Paul Higbee has written regularly for South Dakota Magazine since 1991, serving as our Black Hills correspondent. This column appeared in our May/June 1998 issue. To order a copy or to subscribe, call us at 800-456-5117.

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