Wounded Knee

I got up early on this Sunday morning and removed my earplugs, which I'd been wearing all night in the noisy campground -- then immediately heard a train approach.  Boy, these things really work.  Earplugs are an essential for my travels.  I use the foam type that you compress, and I can’t tell you how many times they’ve come in handy, whether I’m camping in a noisy campground, or trying to drown out the raindrops hitting the truck canopy, or on a plane or at a concert.  I carry several pair in a round, plastic 35-millimeter film container (remember those things?) in my daypack.  Earplugs provide the biggest “bang for the buck” of any travel gear I’ve ever bought.

Above:  I left Bessey campground early in the morning, then drove north to South Dakota where I visited Wounded Knee, the U.S. Pole of Inaccessibility, and Badlands National Park.  I reached Devil's Tower early in the evening and got the very last campsite in the park.

After a quick breakfast, I hit the road. Leaving at 7:30 a.m. on a Sunday morning, I was probably the first person out of the Bessey campground, but I knew I had a long drive ahead of me.  I was still trying to get back on schedule, having spent most of the summer in Colorado and wanting to visit several extreme geographic sites in northern Minnesota and northern Maine before the weather turned cold. 

I continued west and north across central Nebraska, fueled up in Valentine, then pressed on into South Dakota, driving through the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, the poorest region of the United States.  This area is beset by numerous problems besides utter poverty:  chronically high unemployment, substance abuse and a myriad of others.  My destination was the Wounded Knee battlefield, which is a few miles from the town of Pine Ridge.  There’s a large sign here at a pullout in the road, so I stopped, got out of my truck and started reading the sign. 

“Hi there,” a young Native American guy said as he approached me.  He introduced himself, told me a bit about the conflict, then gave me a warning.  “Be careful because you’ll probably be approached here by someone who’ll ask you for money.  But don’t give him any money,” then he left.  I was a little confused but, sure enough, a couple minutes later, another young Native American guy approached me, introduced himself, told me a little about the conflict here, then asked me for money.  “Sorry,” I said.  I was trying to figure out what was going on, but I figured that the first guy was sincere and the second guy a bit less-so. 

But getting back to the “battle,” if you could call it that.  The Wounded Knee massacre, in December 1890, was the last armed conflict in the United States between the U.S. Army and the Indians and occurred here at Wounded Knee creek.  The U.S. Army killed about 150 ragged and mostly defenseless Lakota Sioux men, women and children, including their leader, Spotted Elk (also known as Big Foot), who were peacefully encamped on the banks of the creek.  It was more of a massacre than a battle and to many historians, the event signified the closing of the American frontier. 

The area was designated as National Historic Site on my AAA map, so I was expecting to see a National Park museum or visitor center here, but instead there’s just a large red road sign describing the battle, and a cemetery on a hill on the opposite side of the highway.  From what I gathered from the folks here and after doing further research, there’s a controversy over whether the National Park Service should be allowed to construct anything here, given that it’s a sacred site to many Lakota Sioux, and I respect the Sioux for not wanting anything to be built here. 

Back in 1970 when I was in grade school, I read historian Dee Brown’s book, “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” which recounted the many battles between the U.S. Army and Indian tribes in the 1800s and it affected me deeply.  For my entire life, I’d read about the conflicts only from the perspective of the whites and this book turned everything on its ear.  Was what Brown said, explaining the conflicts from the Native American perspective, totally correct?  Many historians say no.  But still, it provided a counter-argument to many of the long-held beliefs that many of us had.

I spent about a half-hour at the Wounded Knee site and during that time, several other folks pulled over and read the large, red sign, so it’s a pretty popular place.  It’s also a place, as I learned, that’s filled with controversy and sadness.

The Sand Hills to Wounded Knee


The Pole of Inaccessibility

Switching back to my Extreme Geographer mode, I got back in the truck and backtracked a few miles to the small town of Allen, South Dakota, in search of the Pole of Inaccessibility.  I have to admit that before I began planning this trip of geographic extremes, I’d never heard of the concept of a “Pole of Inaccessibility,” but it’s the point in each country or continent that’s the farther from any ocean coastline.  It’s a holdover concept from the early trader/trapper days, apparently. 

If you consider all the oceans that surround North America – the Atlantic, Pacific, Gulf of Mexico and Arctic oceans – it turns out that the Pole of Inaccessibility for the United States is right here on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation of South Dakota, so I took out my GPS and tried to figure out how to get there. 

I was a few miles north of Allen and took a dirt road off to the right, which I followed for a few miles and then pulled over to check my location.  Another car, pretty beat-up, pulled up beside me and the woman in the passenger seat asked me, “Are you lost?  I noticed you’re not from around here.”  It was young Indian couple with a baby in the back seat.  “No, but I’m trying to find something called the Pole of Inaccessibility.”  Then I explained to them what I was doing, and they smiled.  “I’m a nurse,” said the woman, “so I like to make sure people are OK.”  Then they wished me well and took off.  Here in the middle of the poorest county in the United States, folks pulled over to make sure I was OK.  I wondered if people in the Hamptons on Long Island or in Orange County, California or other similar posh areas would’ve done the same, had I gotten lost there.  Probably not.

I backtracked for about a mile, then turned onto a rough dirt road, which I followed for a short while.  Looking at my GPS, I realized that the Pole of Inaccessibility was on privately-owned land on the side of a low hill about a half-mile away, and this was as close as I could get to it.  So I got out and took a few pictures, here on the windswept plains of South Dakota, including a panorama photo.

Badlands and Good Memories (of a Rest Room?)

It was now about 2 p.m. and I got back in the truck and continued north, crossing into Badlands National Park.  I decided not to spend much time here since I'd visited Badlands National Park before a few times, but I did squeeze in 20 minutes to hit the museum at the Visitor Center, then stopped at several vista points on my way out of the park.  After leaving the park, I reached I-90 and turned west, bound for Devil’s Tower. 

An hour down the freeway, I pulled off at the Cheyenne River Rest Area – no, not to use the facilities but rather to reminisce. Huh?  You see, back in December 1982, I wanted to travel home for Christmas break from the University of Wisconsin to Portland.  I didn’t have much money, so I decided to catch a ride with my college buddy, Jake, who was going to drive his pickup truck from Wisconsin to California, and Jake said that he’d be happy to drop me off in Portland on the way. 

Jake picked me up in the morning at my apartment in Madison, and it was sunny but only 5 degrees above zero – and then it continued to get colder as we drove west that day.  The frost was forming on the windshield inside the truck and our feet were close to frozen, but we continued on I-90, until about 10 p.m. when we pulled over at the Cheyenne River Rest Area in western South Dakota.  We’d brought our sleeping bags, so we figured we just sleep in the back of his truck, get up in the morning, and continue on our merry way.

Well, it got down to 25 below zero that night and so neither of us got any sleep.  And the next morning when Jake tried to start the truck, the battery was frozen solid.  So, with no one around to help us (the freeway was deserted because it was so cold), we removed the battery and brought it into the dingy rest room, where for the next 40 minutes Jake and I traded off holding the battery under the hand dryer, which was our only source of heat, repeatedly hitting the button to activate the blower. 

Finally a car pulled over and gave us a jump, and we were able to start the truck.  But then we couldn’t move the gear shift because the transmission fluid was frozen, so we had to drive the truck around the Rest Area parking lot slowly until the fluid warmed up before we could get on the freeway.  It was an interesting adventure, to say the least.  The next night, in Livingston, Montana, we got a cheap motel room and I slept on the floor, right next to the heater.

Ever since then, I’ve had a warm spot in my heart (pun intended) for the Cheyenne River Rest Area near Wasta, South Dakota, so as I approached it, I pulled off I-90 and parked in the parking lot for old time’s sake.  They’ve renovated the facilities since 1982 and now, instead of just a dingy bathroom, there’s a staffed Welcome Center.  And the bathrooms are much nicer, too. 

After paying my respects, I got back on I-90 and continued west, then pulled into Devil’s Tower National Monument at sunset.  This, the nation's very first National Monument, is one of my favorite National Park sites in the country.  I was dismayed to see that the campground was nearly full, but I was able to snag the very last campsite.  I pulled out my cooler, cooked up some dinner, and enjoyed a beautiful view of Devil’s Tower in the fading light.  It had been quite a day.

South Dakota into Wyoming



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