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The Voyage, Day One

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It’s Sunday morning. We’re leaving today on our great trip. The last of the preparations were made on Saturday: getting new tires on the car, the last part of having the car looked over top to bottom by the mechanic; running the errands to get the last things we’d need; getting everyone packed; and finishing it up by removing one of the seats, taking the car to the car wash to vacuum it out, and washing it.


All is ready. We’re up early and out of the house by 9:30 because we’ve got a 10 hour drive in front of us and a couple of stops to make along the way. Our evening’s destination is our hotel in Keystone, SD.


I’ve done the trip to Sioux Falls maybe a hundred times throughout my life, as it was the ancestral homeland on my father’s side. So those first four-plus hours felt both familiar and strange–I think I’d actually driven it myself only a handful of times before my grandparents died and there wasn’t the need to go.


But there were familiar landmarks that showed up that brought back the torrent of memories: a Happy Chef restaurant in Mankato, the little towns lining the highway on the way to Worthington, the two-lane road that somehow made the trip seem to the young me to last forever.


The Happy Chef restaurants were a stopping point for my family on our trips to Sioux Falls. We’d usually leave on Friday afternoon after my parents would get off of work. With a couple of hours of driving, we’d get through the rush hour traffic, past the crowds heading to Valleyfair or the Renaissance Festival, and then make it to Mankato or even Windom to stop for dinner. And there would be the Happy Chef.

On the front of the base would be a push button to hear the chef talk to you, though for the life of me I can’t remember what it said, or even if it was intelligible. My sister, who eschewed all forms of caricature, found the chef creepy and would keep her distance, but I’d press the button, as if it were a requirement for entry into the restaurant.


Alas, the push button on Mankato’s Happy Chef appears to be long gone. And the location in Windom doesn’t have a Chef at all.


We pressed onward, stopping briefly in Sioux Falls so that I could take a look around the boomtown, which is no longer the sleepy burg I remember it as. I took the family past the old house on Willow Street, and while before heading out for the day, I was anxious to see it, I felt a degree of detachment from it by the time I got there–I haven’t seen it in over 20 years, so it hasn’t been my grandparents’ house for a very long time, but there are still many memories wrapped up there.


But oddly, even after 18 years away from Sioux Falls (the last time I was there was on my honeymoon), I still know the place fairly well. I drove the family through downtown, past where the Zip Feed mill was where my grandfather worked, past the zoo where a small monkey refused and actually threw peanuts back at me that I tried to feed him with, and down to the “strip” where all of the shopping centers, restaurants and other development seem to be centered.


It’s still the same town, just bigger.


We resumed our westward heading and made our next stop at the Corn Palace in Mitchell.

Up until I’d researched it for the trip, I honestly thought the place was some sort of shrine to corn–celebrating maize in all of its glory. I mean, they rip off all of the corn every year and reattach new corn with new designs. And I guess it does celebrate corn, to a point, but then you walk inside:

Yup. It’s an arena. Though the corn motif continues on the inside. Later, when leaving San Francisco, I wondered if the Cow Palace had cows attached to the outside of the building. No, we didn’t stop to look.


We continued west to the true tourist stop on the first day’s journey: Wall Drug. Jenni purchased a souvenir. And Patrick rode a jackalope:

I will say this: Wall Drug, as trappy and cliché as it is, is truly an amazing stop. We were there late on a Sunday evening, so most of the tourists were gone, and we were roaming the grounds with a few families, a clutch of Amish, and a couple of motorcycle groups, and the place was actually tolerable.


After an hour or so there, we moved on, literally driving into the sunset:

Just ignore the bug splatter on the windshield.


Next up: Mt. Rushmore and our entry into Wyoming.


See you tomorrow.