Parks and Palaces on the Prairie

            August 22 – While the sunset the night before had been nice, our campground hosts had told us that the sunrise was really spectacular.  We got up at 5:30 to see the sunrise and it was nice (not spectacular) despite the clouds that had moved in.  We were going to go back to sleep, but for some reason we changed our minds and started the day early.  We broke down camp and started exploring the badlands.  We hiked one trail that took us up to the top of a formation that ended in a cliff.  The view was fabulous and best of all there were no stairs to deal with (although there was an interesting rope ladder to climb).  At 9:00 we went on the ranger guided geology hike.  The badlands were formed millions of years ago when the Gulf of Mexico was a little bigger and it covered most of the central U.S. all the way up to Canada.  Over thousands of years sedimentary rock built up in layers on the bottom of the Gulf.  The Gulf receded as the climate changed and somewhere along the way there was a period of volcanic activity which coated the area in volcanic ash which formed a hard protective shell over the softer sedimentary sandstone.  As time marched on, rain and rivers slowly eroded the sandstone.  The peaks and tall formations we see today are the result of the harder volcanic ash shell protecting the sandstone from being eroded.  Each time it rains a little more of the badlands is washed away and the gullies become a little wider.  In around 500,000 years the badlands will be gone, washed out to sea.  After the geology walk we drove to another area of the park for a fossil presentation.  At the presentation we were able to see reproductions of fossils that have been found in the park and hear about some digs that are going on in the park.

            We left the park and got back onto I-90 headed east.  Our next stop was the Mitchell Corn Palace, the oldest continuously used corn palace in the world!  What is a corn palace?  Well in theory it is a building where everything is decorated with corn.  The first palace was built in the late 1890’s when several cities were competing to be the capital of South Dakota.  For some reason the citizens of Mitchell thought that having a corn palace (and a corn festival) would help them win the competition (it didn’t).  Modern building codes tend to frown on building large public structures out of tinder dry corn, so today’s corn palace (the third one) is a concrete and steel building with areas of decorative murals made from colored corn and grains.  The building serves as a convention center/arena and inside there is a combination theater/basketball arena. There are bleachers on the back wall of the stage that pull out to fill the stage and the court is a giant orchestra pit between the stage and the audience seating which is the standard theater type.  It’s an unusual combination, but it does seem to work for them.  When there aren’t any shows or games in the Palace the basketball court is a big gift shop. 

            There is one farmer who grows all of the corn for the Palace and he takes great pride in coming up with his own cross breeds of corn to make new colors.  There are currently thirteen colors in the palette (believe it or not it was cause for great celebration when he was able to get black).  Each fall when the corn is ready the old murals are pulled of the building and new ones are put up.  The drawings for the murals are enlarged and put on large sheets of tar paper which are attached to the building.  They call the installation process “corn by numbers” as the workers simply fill in the spaces on the tar paper with pieces of corn according to the number code for each color.   Each year has its own theme and there is an official resident corn palace designer who creates the murals.  Originally the designs were geometric (in 1941 there was an Indian good luck symbol in several places which happened to be the same thing as a swastika), but over the years the murals became pictures relating to a central theme.  Past themes have included space, the wild west and agriculture.  The theme for 2003-04 is Lewis and Clark and they had just started tearing down the old murals when we visited and the drawings of the new murals were on display.  They say the best time to see the murals is just after they’ve been put up because the colors are vibrant and the birds haven’t eaten too much of the corn, but we saw them on their last days and they still looked great (and there was lots of corn left too eat).

            Having experienced the corn palace we got back onto our old friend I-90 and continued east.  We had located a state park with camping near the South Dakota/Minnesota border and we stopped there for the night.  We were very lucky that someone had called and cancelled their reservation as it was a Friday and we wouldn’t have gotten a site otherwise.


            August 23 – The campground was located along a long, narrow lake and since it had been quite a few days since our last paddle we decided to take part of the morning and get wet.  There was a strong wind blowing down the lake which made things interesting.  After our paddle we packed up camp and hit the road.  As soon as we crossed into Minnesota we stopped at the info center to get the phone number to make reservations at our next campground which was just outside of Minneapolis.  When Dave called about a reservation the clerk laughed and said that there was renaissance festival a few miles away and that they had booked solid for weeks.  We checked the state park map and found another park that was on the north side of town on the road that we would using to leave the area.  Dave called these folks and asked about reserving a site.  The clerk asked if we were leaving home right now because she could hold one for little while.  Dave explained that we were just leaving South Dakota and would be there in a few hours.  Luckily for us the clerk was about to begin attending college in South Dakota and loved the state so much that she decided to hold the site for us until we arrived (apparently the rules said that we were supposed to call some 800 number and make reservations with them and pay a service charge).  With lodging secured we continued on our way.  Stacie had noticed a Pipestone National Monument in our parks pass guide book and it wasn’t too far off of the highway so we bid a fond farewell to interstate 90 and got on the back roads.  We really weren’t sure what Pipestone National Monument was, but since it was nearby we figured it was worth a stop. 

            The Pipestone National Monument is a very small park that protects the site where Plains Indians have quarried the stone used to make peace pipes for centuries.  Even today Native Americans are allowed to remove stone from the monument using “traditional” tools (hammers and chisels).  Pipestone is unique because it has a wonderful orangey red color and is very easily carved using simple tools (often made from harder stone).  The stone occurs in a thin layer (about a foot thick) sandwiched between layers of very hard Sioux quartzite.  This layer is normally buried deep below the earth’s surface, but due to the movement of the earth’s plates a section has been exposed.  A Sioux account on it’s origin says, “At an ancient time the Great Spirit, in the form of a large bird, stood upon the wall of rock and called all the tribes around him, and breaking out a piece of the red stone formed it into a pipe and smoked it, the smoke rolling over the whole multitude. He then told his red children that this red stone was their flesh, that they were made from it, that they must all smoke to him through it, that they must use it for nothing but pipes: and as it belonged alike to all tribes, the ground was sacred, and no weapons must be used or brought upon it.” (as recorded by explorer George Caitlin in 1836)  

            Native Americans of many tribes quarried stone from the site and all tribes considered it to be sacred land.  Even during times of war rival tribes could be found quarrying stone in close proximity to each other.  Only men could enter the quarry area and they had to undergo a cleansing and purification ritual before taking stone.  Villages were placed away from the quarry as it was forbidden to inhabit sacred land. 

            The visitor’s center had a brief slide show on the site and featured several artists who were carving pipes and other goods using modern tools.  There was a self-guided trail that went through the area and we were able to see several quarries.  Stone was usually quarried in the fall when the summer heat was over, but before the rains started (because the quarries are open pits they fill up with water).  The veins of pipestone run on angles so while a vein may start near the surface, it quickly runs deeper underground.  Most pits are abandoned when they become around six feet deep since there is too much work involved in removing large amounts of quartzite.  Old pits are filled in with the quartzite removed from new pits.  Along the trail we saw a fawn who knew she was in a Park and had no fear of people taking pictures.  Before leaving we stopped by the gift shop and Stacie picked up a pin and a few peace pipes to give as gifts.

            We had two choices on how to get to Minneapolis.  One way was to backtrack forty miles and take interstates and drive two sides of a triangle.  The other way was to stay on the local roads and make a bee line into Minneapolis.  We wanted to see some scenery so we stayed on the local roads.  Of all the quirky things we wound up driving through the area where Laura Ingalls Wilder had grown up.  As a result we passed through Sleepy Eye and Walnut Grove. We rejoined the interstate system in Minneapolis and arrived at our campground after dark.  We set up quickly and called it a night.