DEADWOOD, SD – The 143-mile journey from that mining town where Wild Bill Hickok played his last hand to Bowman, ND, where, well, not much going on, is mostly a long, lonely stretch through desolate hay fields.
The hills are brown and home to deer, antelope, bison, horses, cows and sheep. Unincorporated areas like Ludlow, SD (population three, where the only business is a bar) and Redig, SD, (population five, where the nearest gas station and grocery store are 22 miles away) make Buffalo, SD, and its 346 citizens seem like Buffalo, NY
In the summer you have more bales of hay than people along the course.
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But what brought me here was more the destination than the journey. ‘Cause once I’ve crossed the line from South Dakota to North Dakota, the quest I first envisioned two decades ago was complete:
I had visited all 50 states.
A five-hour round trip including a stop for ice cream at Eats-N-Treats on US 12 in Bowman sealed the deal.
My “Final Four”
Visiting all 50 states can be daunting. It helps to have been employed for 41 years at the Palm Beach Post (and the Evening Times) as a sportswriter covering the Heat, Marlins, Panthers, Dolphins, University of Miami football, football Florida State, FAU football, college basketball, auto racing. and golf. And travel for everyone.
My job allowed me to check states like West Virginia, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Kansas and a few others that I wasn’t about to order a AAA TripTik for (Google it).
But the work didn’t take me to every point on the map, leaving me to grapple with the subjective discussion of what it takes to cross a state off the list.
Does a layover at the airport count? Do you have to spend a night? How about a car ride?
None of the states on my list were just an airport stopover. I didn’t spend a night in Vermont, Delaware, Iowa, Wyoming, Montana or North Dakota – but I did spend a lot of time in most.
Delaware is the only state I count though I just drove through. Without a major pro team and the University of Delaware’s largest school, my work schedule never took me to Blue Hen State.
I started believing it was possible about 20 years ago, when I was seven states short. Some of the most challenging states – Alaska and Hawaii – which I’ve tackled via cruises with my wife, Renee.
We celebrated our 20th anniversary with a cruise along the Alaskan Inside Passage. Another, released from Honolulu in 2008, followed.
The NBA moving its franchise from Seattle to Oklahoma City while I was covering the Miami Heat allowed me to tick Oklahoma.
There were four states left: Montana, Wyoming and the Dakotas. We’re talking about four of the five least populated US states, with a combined population of Palm Beach and Broward counties combined.
Remote? Yes. But since all four are neighbors, it’s not difficult.
And even though the trip was on our minds every year, it always seemed like another family engagement or something more exciting always happened. It was easy to put back. Then… a sign.
Family ties provide a rare opportunity
My story of completing this trip cannot be told without going back some seven years to what has become a joyful discovery for our whole family. It all started with a 25-year-old woman looking for her blood relatives.
Erin Hogan, my great niece, was put up for adoption when she was born. Through letters written by her immediate family and recorded until she was old enough to understand, she learned that she was born in the Boston area and given the birth name Patricia after her great-grandfather (my father) Patrick, who passed away a week ago. before his birth in 1991.
Erin also had found out his last name at the birth of his vaccination record. The name was blacked out, so she rubbed it in “Nancy Drew style,” she said, with a pencil and a piece of paper. The name Andrews came up.
Now determined to find her family, Erin, working at a Wyoming law firm, had a friend in the local clerk’s office who started the search. She scoured all the obituaries in the Boston area at that time, looking for Patrick’s name.
Soon, my father’s obituary emerged as the best candidate. More searches, including a Facebook scan, and Erin was convinced she had found her family…my family.
Bonds were made, meetings arranged and Erin integrated as if she had been a part of our lives from the day she was born. She is a blessing that connects the generations – from my father’s death to his birth a week later.
Erin eventually moved to South Dakota, where she met a cowboy… No, not one of those Cowboys (sorry, Dak Prescott), but a real cowboy, who coincidentally happens to be a Dallas Cowboys fan.
Perhaps you already see where this path leads.
The stars have aligned. Erin and Travis Brown fell in love and planned a ranch wedding in Sturgis, SD The invitation came and the finish line to 50 states was in sight – I would end my journey by celebrating this big day.
But before toasting Erin and Travis. Before exchanging their vows in a hay field – Erin in a traditional dress, Travis in jeans, boots and a cowboy hat. They used to nail a bottle of whiskey in a box to open only if they got mad before bed and couldn’t talk about their differences. Before the wedding party was loaded into a cattle trailer (expecting a limo?) and transported to the reception site, a barn (expecting the Ritz?)…we knew it was time to end the journey. There were three other states to see first.
The countdown started a week early in West Yellowstone, Montana – State No. 47.
Montana: Welcome Mat to Yellowstone
Although over 96% of Yellowstone National Park is in Wyoming, the western entrance is in the southwest corner of Montana at West Yellowstone.
This town of around 1,100 people is the quintessential tourist trap, taking advantage of some of the approximately 5 million visitors who enter the national park each year. Thousands of tourists flock to the city every day during the high season.
A two-block strip offers everything from pizzerias (I recommend Wild West) to tacky T-shirts to anything sporting bison, bears, moose, and elk; and, of course, a covered range for machine guns. Hey, that is Montana.
Wyoming: Yellowstone, Grant Teton
One mile from the West Yellowstone strip is the entrance to Yellowstone National Park. Less than two miles into the park, I crossed state #48 off my list. Welcome to Wyoming.
Most of Yellowstone had recovered less than three weeks after the June floods. Only parts of the northern roads remain closed and most major attractions along the Great Loop are open.
We spent two days in Yellowstone admiring the vibrant colors of the rainbow surrounding the Grand Prismatic Spring and visiting Midway Geyser Basin, Old Faithful and Beehive geysers, the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone waterfalls and Lake Yellowstone. We managed close encounters with bison…from the safety of our SUV.
We then headed south to Grand Teton National Park, visiting the sites along the 42 mile loop. The mountain range with the snow-capped peaks along the western side offers completely different breathtaking views than Yellowstone.
Our last trip was a 3 mile loop around the aptly named Moose Ponds. For Renee, a moose lover from upstate New York, seeing a bull moose has become a highlight of our national park adventures.
The sight of this creature plunging its head into the water, with only its antlers exposed, and emerging with a mouthful of grass and plants was incredible. The discovery made the considerable hike to the car worth every rocky step.
Three days and over 20 miles of hiking in two of our country’s most majestic national parks ticked two more boxes.
Now it was on for state #49.
South Dakota: Wishes Among the Cows
We arrived at our hotel in Deadwood a few hundred yards from where Wild Bill was shot playing poker and holding what became known as the Dead Man’s Hand – two pair, 8s blacks and aces.
The One Thing That Outnumbered Casinos in this tourist trap in the Black Hills were the motorcycles, especially the week before the Sturgis bike rally.
But the place also turned out to be a good place for trips to Mount Rushmore, Devils Tower and more.
The main purpose of this stop was to make family and enjoy the unique setting of an all-ranch wedding. But State No. 50 was only calling 125 miles from Deadwood.
North Dakota: No. 50
North Dakota is the least visited state in the country, which for many makes it one of the last when trying to visit all 50. Crossing the border was not enough to complete this trip. So we continued about 17 miles to the first town we hit.
Bowman is less than 2 square miles with a population of approximately 1,434. The Frontier Travel Center is a popular spot, but not quite as satisfying as grabbing a Tornado (think Dairy Queen Blizzard) and checking out the Coca-Cola collection a few blocks from Eats-N-Treats.
As we sat in the car enjoying our ice cream, I thought about how this all started 64 years ago in Quincy, Mass. I am lucky to have known this country so much.
I’ve spent so much time in my favorite cities like Boston, Washington DC, San Francisco, Chicago, San Diego, Seattle, Las Vegas, Honolulu, and New York. And underrated cities like Newport, RI; Savannah, Georgia; Charleston, South Carolina; York Beach, Maine (a family favorite) and one of my newest discoveries, Idaho Falls, Idaho.
Then discover the breathtaking landscapes of Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Yosemite National Park, Rocky Mountains, Smoky Mountains, and Appalachia (Grand Canyon is next on my bucket list).
Planning trips will be less stressful without having to wonder if this is the year I will reach my goal of visiting all 50 states. That hasn’t stopped people from asking: what’s next?
If only 195 countries were possible.
Tom D’Angelo is a reporter for the Palm Beach Post. You can reach him at [email protected]