South Dakota….after 44 years

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I hadn’t been to South Dakota for 44 years. The last time I was there I was 19, and accompanying my cousin Helen  cross country to Seattle, though I didn’t make the whole trip and flew back to Michigan—my first airplane trip—from Bozeman, Montana through Chicago to Bay City.   It was the summer of 1970, and somewhere in a box of memorabilia I still have the boarding pass for that first flight, not to mention memories of the cross country trip.


After a mosquito bitten night camping in Illinois (I forget where), we resumed the drive west. A thousand miles from Wall, South Dakota, we started seeing signs for Wall Drug, the famous tourist trap near the Badlands that had its start in 1931 as a water station for travelers on the hot summer road to the West Coast.   Intrigued by the signs “Coffee for 5 cents for veterans,” “Only xxx miles to Wall Drug” “Cowboy boots at Wall Drug”, we –like millions of others—stopped. We also took pictures in front of the Giant Prairie Dog, and took in the stark and colorful beauty of the Badlands, and visited Mt. Rushmore. I recall that we went to Deadwood as well, may have even made the trek uphill to Mt. Moriah cemetery to see the graves of Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok—but my memory could be wrong on that one.

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This time the trip was to run in the Deadwood Mickelson Trail Half Marathon and with Marty, who had never been to South Dakota. We went a couple of days early to take in the sights of the Black Hills, which did not disappoint. The Badlands were as beautiful as I remembered, and Mt. Rushmore as awe-inspiring—though we almost missed seeing it as the area was socked in with fog when we arrived at the park. Miraculously, as we stood at the viewing platform, the mist slowly but surely began to lift, and the faces of the four presidents started coming into view. It was bright and sunny by the time we left an hour later, and our tour guide drove us through the Peter Norbeck drive where we had the opportunity for several more glimpses before we passed through Custer to visit the ongoing work on Crazy Horse. I don’t recall if Helen and I passed that way on our trip, but we would have seen very little as the head was not completed until a few years ago. Started in 1948, one wonders if this massive tribute will ever be completed—it’s said that when and if it is, the faces of the presidents will fit on Crazy Horse’s arm.

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The race itself was beautiful—probably the most beautiful route I’ve run. The George Mickelson trail, 109 miles from Deadwood to Edgemont, is built on an old rail bed of the Burlington Northern railway—and at spots you can still see the tracks. It winds through woods and streams and breathtaking scenery of the hills. As the half marathon course was largely downhill, I was hoping for a PR or at least a sub 2:20 time, but what I didn’t count on was the effect of the altitude.   The race starts with a gentle uphill climb for the first half mile. I couldn’t figure out why this was causing me to almost immediately begin huffing and puffing and my heart to pound–it was much more gentle than some of the hills around Keene, and it was after all just the beginning of the race when I’m fresh and usually have the opposite problem of going out too fast.   Then, I remembered that the race starts at an altitude of 6500 feet, whereas I’m used to 700 feet in Keene and even closer to sea level in Boston.   I felt better as we started to descend, but it took a while to get below the 5000 feet that it’s said most people can tolerate without acclimatization. I wound up running in just over 2:25, which is pretty much my average time. There were a number of walkers, so I came in 8/41 in my age group, racing past a woman who looked my age (and was) after she passed me with less than a quarter mile to go.

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It was an enjoyable trip, made more enjoyable by the pleasure of running the Mickelson trail, showing Marty the sights I’d enjoyed so many years ago, and rekindling the memories of the one I took with my cousin so long ago—a lifetime ago.   How much ground I’ve covered since then, and how many interesting twists and turns life has taken—my cousin moved to Seattle only a few years after that trip, and I took the cross country journey to visit her once by train, as well as stopping many times on the way back from Japan when I lived there.     If you haven’t been to the Black Hills, put it on your bucket list—it’s a beautiful area with a wonder ful combination of both natural and manmade beauty.

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