Driving with my mom through Wyoming in part 12 of Mustang USA was pure entertainment. It was like watching a prize fight between Yellowstone and the rest of the cowboy state for the title of National Epic Vista Champion. We were pretty well satisfied with this pretty little country of ours. But little did she know that the weirdest and arguably best landscapes lay before us in South Dakota. We’re headed for the Badlands, and I’m determined to get there just as the sun is setting for max effect.
First we have to get out of Sheridan, Wyoming where we spent the night after a near-miss with a Quality Inn so bad it may have been trying to rewrite the dictionary.
As an adjective, the word “quality” usually means something is good, i.e. “that Bon Jovi tribute band last night was quality, man.” So I get what the Quality Inn is going for, but the last double queen available in Sheridan had a certain quality that made my mom feel the need to balance her luggage on the ironing board so it wouldn’t touch the carpet. The air-conditioning unit had a special quality, too: every thirty seconds it would emit a blast of sound not unlike a 737 crashing into the front of an oncoming train.
These weren’t our favorite qualities, so we were extremely grateful to the Mill Inn down the street who saved us from a sleepless night at the last minute.
As it turns out, the Mill Inn is a historic landmark. The hotel is on the site of a flour mill that contributed greatly to Wyoming’s early economy.
This cool old Chevy truck is part of the family-owned Mill Inn operation. I’m all about the white walls and dog dish hubcaps.
Down the road we decided to try out a local favorite for breakfast, the Silver Spur Cafe.
This tiny greasy spoon was full of biscuits and pancakes and even though our waitress forgot to put in our order we didn’t care because we could tell it was going to be epic. That worn out counter doesn’t lie. It was awesome. Having absorbed enough calories for the week and enough caffeine to restart a dead horse’s heart, we felt ready to make the push into South Dakota.
And then we were here: an alien planet from a sci-fi movie. The Badlands National Park next to the Black Hills in South Dakota is a mind-blowing landscape created by ancient volcanos and we got there just as the sun was starting to hang low in the sky, casting long, strange shadows and intensifying the pastel bands of color in the rocks.
This is definitely one of my favorite places in America to visit and probably one of my mom’s, now, too. It’s not overly crowded with tourists and you really feel like you’ve gone somewhere completely new and strange.
We spent the whole evening milking every last drop of sunset inside the Badlands and realized that we would probably run out of all options to grab food if we didn’t get going. Did you know there is town in the center of the park? Well there is, it’s called Interior and it’s as weird as the scenery. Our only option for dinner was to eat frozen chicken strips and reheated pizza at The Wagon Wheel so we took it.
If it wasn’t for the electronic poker machines beep booping away I’d say the Wagon Wheel hasn’t changed at all since 1972. We scarfed the bona fide shitty food as quickly as possible to avoid thinking about it too much and headed for our overnight stop, Murdo.
OK, so I’ve already said that the Badlands is a weird place, but this whole state is afflicted. We stayed overnight in the tiny town of Murdo at the most bizarre motel I’ve ever been to, the LandMark Inn. Why “LandMark”? Because the guy’s name is Mark. As we checked in I noticed a brochure featuring Mark posing in a small yellow bathing suit in a hot tub. His elderly mother was hovering ominously in the corner of the lobby, which felt as much like a funeral parlor as a motel. Our room, the silken “Italian”, was literally filled with notes and overbearing instructions. All of this would come off as officially creepy if Mark wasn’t genuinely nice. One of the notes in the room said “Remember, you’re not fully dressed without a smile.”
The room phone at the LandMark Inn. Classic. The room was very clean and absurdly reasonably priced, and to boot the LandMark has the best kept indoor pool I’ve ever seen. There aren’t many options in Murdo, so if you find yourself there, definitely look into the LandMark.
There is almost nothing in Murdo at all. Well, unless you like cars, then there is quite a lot: the Pioneer Auto Museum has over 100 vehicles on display. But this place isn’t like any other car museum you’ve been to before. It’s in Murdo, so it has to be weirder. That’s the rule. As you walk in you’ll see this attractive display of cars, complete with one of the 10,000 Dodge Charger General Lee replicas you’ve seen before.
Except this is no replica. This General Lee is one of the originals built for the show to be the standard that all the other ones (read: crashed into a ditch) would be built. Bo and Luke’s hands actually gripped this wheel.
Then you walk outside and realize that this car museum is enormous. It’s a complex of over a dozen buildings; mostly tacked together wooden agricultural structures that feel more mausoleum than museum. Some of this shit is very, very old and probably hasn’t been so much as wiped down in decades.
This shed contained dozens of trucks and tractors. It’s eerie standing in the Pioneer because it’s so quiet you’re just listening to the wind blow and all these ancient faces are staring at you. You can almost hear their creaky voices saying “help me…”
It’s not all rust and dust though, there are a couple other buildings with some slightly more recent (and in some cases, pretty damn rare) cars that I am partial to.
This beautiful 1968 Shelby Mustang caught my eye.
As well as this apparently all-original 1970 Plymouth Superbird. Only a couple thousand of these were ever made, and now they’re worth as much as a house.
But forget Shelbys and Superbirds, every museum has those. The Pioneer is awesome because it has stuff you have simply never heard of. A 1921 White Motorhome? This thing is insane!
Nearly a century before GPS, drivers already had maps on their dashboards.
This tractor looks like it plows the fields of Hell. It’s huge. I think the back wheel is around 6 feet tall.
Just in case you’re not sufficiently weirded out already by this place, Pioneer Auto Museum also teaches you about life in old Murdo using creepy mannequins. Here’s a nice couple just married in the church. How do I know they’re already married? There’s a ball and chain attached to his foot.
Building after building of cars that stretch back to the beginning of the automobile era. There was a building of every generation of Ford Model T, a building with cars like Auburns and Cords and DeSotos, just too much to catalog here. It’s insane.
If it’s old, it’s here. I’ve never seen one of these early bicycles in person.
OK! Moving right along…
There are details everywhere at the Pioneer and probably some truly priceless and historic stuff all jumbled up with the junk. My mom and I only had about 90 minutes to wander through and that was going as fast as we could. But sadly we had to get on the road and deliver her to the airport in Sioux Falls in a few hours.
Our last stop before the airport though would be Mitchell, SD, home of the Corn Palace. What the hell is a corn palace you ask? Well, it’s a gymnasium that has huge murals on the outside of it that are all made with corn. Duh.
I was worried that we wouldn’t have time to experience all the corny delights inside the giant corn palace with our tight schedule. Luckily there’s nothing in there except for your basic gymnasium with a corn-themed gift shop.
I was proud of my mom for hanging in there on the Mustang USA road trip for nearly a week, and I’m so glad she came along. Now the whole “fam damily” has logged miles with me. It’s been really special.
So now, without a passenger for the first time since I left New York over three weeks ago, I headed south towards Nebraska. I’ve never seen Omaha before and decided to camp out there for the night. First though, I stopped in Iowa at the nicest rest area ever.
No seriously, there’s original artwork depicting the Lewis and Clark Expedition, a garden, and free WI-FI?? Nice work, Iowa.
The sun was falling into a gorgeous sunset as I blasted through the cornfields of Iowa towards Omaha, so I had to stop for a classic corn shot.
Just pulling into Omaha in time to grab a steak. Nebraska is known for their beef. The downtown area is why I wanted to visit; it’s got a historic district with cobblestone streets and tons of restaurants and bars. Probably would have been a little more fun if I wasn’t by myself, but I’ve been spoiled by all my company on the trip so far so I just enjoyed walking around in a strange new city.
I can’t remember what these buildings are called in downtown Omaha but I liked the lighting. This would be my second-to-last night on the road for Mustang USA. Tomorrow, I’ll be heading down to Indianapolis to check out the legendary Indy 500 Hall of Fame. Super excited. Then, I’ll be plotting my route back to my home in Brooklyn. Over 8,000 miles so far! Stay tuned for the final chapter, and thanks for reading.