DEADWOOD, S.D. — The 143-mile trip from this mining town where Wild Bill Hickok played his last hand to Bowman, N.D., where, well, not much happens, 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, S.D. (population three, where the lone business is a bar) and Redig, S.D., (population five, where the nearest gas station and grocery store are 22 miles away) make Buffalo, S.D., and its 346 citizens seem like Buffalo, N.Y.
During summer, you count more hay bales than people along the route.
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But what brought me here was about the destination more than the journey. Because once I crossed the line from South Dakota into North Dakota, the quest I first considered two decades ago was completed:
I had visited all 50 states.
A five-hour round trip that included one stop for ice cream at Eats-N-Treats on U.S. 12 in Bowman closed 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 Evening Times) as a sports writer covering the Heat, Marlins, Panthers, Dolphins, University of Miami football, Florida State football, FAU football, college basketball, auto racing and golf. And traveling for each.
My job allowed me to check off states like West Virginia, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Kansas and a few others for which I wasn’t about to order a AAA TripTik (Google it).
But work didn’t get me to every point on the map, leaving me to wrestle with the subjective discussion about what it takes to cross a state off the list.
Does an airport layover count? Do you have to spend a night? What about a drive through?
None of the states on my list was was just an airport layover. I have not spent a night in Vermont, Delaware, Iowa, Wyoming, Montana or North Dakota — but I have spent a significant amount of time in most.
Delaware is the only state I count despite having simply driven through. With no major professional team and the University of Delaware the largest school, my work schedule never took me to the Blue Hen State.
I started to believe this was possible about 20 years ago, when I was seven states short. Some states that present the biggest challenge — Alaska and Hawaii — I tackled via cruises with my wife, Renee.
We celebrated our 20th anniversary with a cruise along Alaska’s inside passage. Another, out of Honolulu in 2008 followed.
The NBA moving its Seattle franchise to Oklahoma City while I was covering the Miami Heat allowed me check off Oklahoma.
Four states remained: Montana, Wyoming and the Dakotas. We’re talking four of the five most sparsely populated U.S. states, with a combined population of Palm Beach and Broward counties put together.
Remote? Yes. But considering all four are neighbors, not difficult.
And although the trip was on our minds each year, it seemed another family commitment or something more exciting always came along. It was easy to put off. Then … a sign.
Family bonds offer rare opportunity
My story of completing this journey cannot be told without going back about seven years to what became a joyous discovery for our entire family. It began with a 25-year old seeking her blood relatives.
Erin Hogan, my grand niece, had been put up for adoption at birth. Through letters written by her immediate family and saved until she was old enough to understand, she learned she was born in the Boston area and she was given the birth name Patricia after her great-grandfather (my father) Patrick, who had died one week before she was born in 1991.
Erin had also discovered her surname at birth from her immunization booklet. The name was blacked out so she rubbed over it “Nancy Drew style,” she says, with a pencil and piece of paper. The name Andrews appeared.
Now determined to find her family, Erin, working at a law firm in Wyoming, had a friend in the local clerk’s office who started the research. She culled through every obituary in the Boston area around that time, searching for the name Patrick.
Soon, my father’s obituary emerged as the top candidate. More digging, including a scouring of Facebook, and Erin was convinced she had found her family … my family.
Connections were made, meetings arranged and Erin fit in as if she were a part of our lives from the day she was born. She is a blessing that links generations — from my father’s death to her 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.
Maybe you can already see where this trail leads.
The stars aligned. Erin and Travis Brown fell in love and planned a wedding on a ranch in Sturgis, S.D. The invitation arrived, and the finish line to 50 states was in sight — I would conclude my journey while celebrating this great day.
But before toasting Erin and Travis. Before they exchanged vows in a hay field — Erin dressed in a traditional gown, Travis in jeans, boots and cowboy hat. Before they nailed shut a bottle of whiskey in a box to be opened only if they are angry before going to bed and cannot talk out their differences. Before the wedding party was loaded into a livestock trailer (you expected a limo?) and hauled off to the reception site, a barn (you expected The Ritz?) … We knew this was the time to complete the journey. There were three other states to see first.
The countdown started one week earlier in West Yellowstone, Montana — state No. 47.
Montana: Welcome mat to Yellowstone
Although more than 96% of Yellowstone National Park is in Wyoming, the west entrance sits in the southwest corner of Montana, in West Yellowstone.
This town of about 1,100 is the quintessential tourist trap, taking advantage of a portion of the nearly 5 million visitors who enter the national park annually. Thousands of tourists pour into town daily during peak season.
A two-block strip offers everything from pizza parlors (I recommend Wild West) to tacky T-shirts to anything emblazoned with bison, bear, moose and elk; and, of course, an indoor machine-gun range. Hey, it is Montana.
Wyoming: Yellowstone, Grant Teton
One mile off the West Yellowstone strip sits the entrance to Yellowstone National Park. Less than two miles into the park, I crossed off state No. 48 from my list. Welcome to Wyoming.
Most of Yellowstone had recovered less than three weeks after the June floods. Only portions of the northern roads remain closed and most of the main attractions along the grand loop are open.
We spent two days in Yellowstone taking in the vibrant rainbow colors surrounding the Grand Prismatic Spring, and visiting the Midway Geyser Basin, Old Faithful and Beehive geysers, the waterfalls at the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone and Yellowstone Lake. We managed some up-close encounters with bison … from the safety of our SUV.
We headed south to Grand Teton National Park next, taking in the sites along the 42-mile loop. The mountain range with the snow capped peaks along the west side offers completely different breathtaking views than those at Yellowstone.
Our final journey was a 3-mile loop around Moose Ponds that lived up to its name. For Renee, a moose lover from upstate New York, spotting a bull moose became a highlight of our national park adventures.
The sight of this creature dipping its head into the water, with only its antlers exposed, and emerging with a mouthful of grass and plants was amazing. The discovery made the considerable hike back to the car worth every rocky step.
Three days and more than 20-miles of hikes in two of the most majestic national parks in our land checked two more boxes.
Now it was off to state No. 49.
South Dakota: Vows among the cows
We checked into our Deadwood hotel a few hundred feet from where Wild Bill was shot playing poker and holding what has become known as a Dead Man’s Hand — two pairs, black 8s and aces.
The only thing that outnumbered the casinos in this gambling tourist trap in the Black Hills were the motorcycles, especially the week before the Sturgis bike rally.
But the place also proved to be a good spot for side trips to Mount Rushmore, Devils Tower and more.
The main purpose of this stop was about family and taking in the unique setting of a wedding held entirely on a ranch. But state No. 50 beckoned just 125 miles from Deadwood.
North Dakota: No. 50
North Dakota is the least-visited state in the country, which for many makes it among the last when attempting to visit all 50. Crossing the border was not enough to complete this journey. So we continued about 17 miles to the first town we hit.
Bowman is less than 2-square miles with a population of about 1,434. The Frontier Travel Center is a popular spot, but not as satisfying as grabbing a Tornado (think Dairy Queen Blizzard) and checking out the Coca-Cola collection a few blocks away at 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 fortunate to have experienced so much of this country.
I have spent so much time in my favorite cities like Boston, Washington D.C., San Francisco, Chicago, San Diego, Seattle, Las Vegas, Honolulu and New York. And underappreciated cities like Newport, R.I.; Savannah, Ga.; Charleston, S.C.; York Beach, Maine (a family favorite) and one of my more recent discoveries, Idaho Falls, Idaho.
Then experiencing the breathtaking scenery of Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Yosemite National Park, the Rocky Mountains, the Smoky Mountains and the Appalachians (Grand Canyon is next on my to-do list).
Planning trips will be less stressful not having to wonder whether this is the year I complete my goal of visiting all 50 states. That hasn’t stopped people from asking: What’s next?
If only all 195 countries was possible.
Tom D’Angelo is a journalist at the Palm Beach Post. You can reach him at [email protected].