Through the Eyes of an Educator: Rapid City, South Dakota
Growing up, I was the one who only wanted to set foot in those coastal states. If it didn’t have water on at least one side, I didn’t see the benefit…wow, was I wrong! Opening your eyes to geography, cultural diversity, and different ways of living change people in often the best ways. Allowing travelers and students to see that, for the most part, people are much more similar than they are different, eradicates stereotypes, lessens division, and reminds us all that on the whole, most people want a good life for their family and friends, access to healthcare, education, and food, and the ability to choose the way of life they’d like to live without being discriminated against for their beliefs or choices. Borders, passport stamps, landlocked edges, mountains, seas and oceans, coastal regions, or ever-beautiful plains don’t change that AT ALL. Travel and education are unifying ties that bind. Experiencing the kindness of strangers, the compassion of locals, the curiosity of travelers, and the ability to see the learning in the everyday solidifies that people are more similar than they are different. The more we value each other, the more we learn from each other. Travel makes us better students and better teachers. Amidst the luscious green, the stone carvings, the mecca in Wall, and the epic landscape of the Badlands, South Dakota is a place where learning takes place and geography becomes teacher.
We were headed north and west when we arrived in South Dakota. Entering from the heartland of Nebraska, I had no idea what to expect. For some reason, although I had no specific preconceived notions, the rolling hills of green space, the endless acreage of farmlands filled with cattle and barns, and the highway allowing us to drive 80mph were not in the forefront of my mind when thinking about South Dakota. I can’t tell you what was, but these were not. Like many other areas of the world, South Dakota has more to offer than only ‘one thing’. Spend an hour or spend a week, there’s constantly something to experience and new worlds to explore. We had four days to spend in Rapid City, South Dakota, and on one of those we even ventured across state lines into Wyoming to find the exquisite imagery of Devil’s Tower. No matter the age, Rapid City brings out your inner student. Learning happens here amidst the rock formations, road signs, and rare missile sightings. A love of nature can be developed or explored, a look back at a simpler time can be relished or educational, a feat of engineering and architecture can be inspiring or mind-boggling. Regardless of your viewpoints, there’s much to see in this western city in the state of South Dakota.
Through the Black Hills, our first stop was Badlands National Park. Many had described it to us as something out of sci-fi fantasy fiction, and I think I’d agree. I haven’t yet been to Mars, or outer space, but some of the incredible topography of the Badlands transported me to what my imagination believes I might experience there. There were spots where it felt like sand castle creators had used the ocean water to make towers out of sand and then turned to rock, and others that looked like mountains of ice cream atop a cone, separated only by the colors of their layers. Checking for rattlesnakes with each footstep and careful to remain a safe distance from the edge of centuries-old stone, the vista changed with each hundred paces, while mother nature drew you into this incredible spot. Students of art might see the color scape, while students of archeology, the rock formations. Driving in, we felt transported to an alternate universe where geology and nature reigned supreme. Check out the 31 miles of magic and mystery supported by the Badlands Loop State Scenic Byway – your eyes, heart, mind, and camera lens will thank you.
Just outside one of the entrance to the scenic byway lies the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site. Stepping back in time - and again, feeling as if you’re on another planet - the visitor center at this historic location flings you through a space-time continuum to the likes of ‘duck and cover’. You feel the era of ‘hiding under desks’ return through audiovisual displays set amidst historic documents and details of what it was like to be a guardian of national nuclear potential. Telling the story of nuclear weapons hidden in plain sight, the deterrence manifested and the history of the Cold War, the center showcases the history of the lives of the Air Force personnel who lived and worked amongst the nuclear weapons. Showcased on this prairie outside of Rapid City surrounded by natural wonders of nature is a site filled with paradox, fear, honor, dedication, history, national security, and a part of the world’s history during a time of nuclear proliferation and beyond. History buffs in your crowd and those too young to ‘remember when’ will leave far more familiar with the likes of the Minuteman Missiles and their caretakers than when they entered.
After our stint in the Black Hills, the drive through the Badlands, and our brush with nuclear history, we were in need of a walk down memory lane of a different kind. Enter the road signs to end all road signs. Every ten to fifteen feet along the freeway, we saw them. Each with a different saying and a different picture, but all spouting a similar destination – we were approaching Wall. If you’re not familiar, Wall is a town that houses thousands of memories and an endless array of history. Known for its start with five-cent coffee and free ice water, Wall Drug radiates history for miles before you arrive. In a time when free ice water was king and a safe place to stop for fuel, water, and sustenance could be hard to come by for hundreds of miles, Wall Drug grew to be the mecca of all tourist stops. The road signs can draw you in, the coffee and donuts can fill your belly, but the hours spent wandering the halls of memory lane will seriously fill your emotional cup. Whether you hang with the incredible creatures and features out back, bring out your inner tourist whilst you pick up your free bumper sticker, or enjoy your treats as you relish the memorabilia of a time gone by, you’re bound to remember your visit to Wall Drug and the town of Wall, South Dakota.
For those whose travel is often dictated by national monuments or natural wonders, South Dakota’s Mount Rushmore is one for the ages. As cars, trucks, and RVs of all sizes pull off to the side of the road a few miles back, you realize you are getting your first glimpse of the carvings. Although your national park’s annual pass won’t buy you entry, once you pay for the day, the pass is good on that specific vehicle for an entire year. Visited by millions each year, this place houses the footsteps of all of those who have stood before you and the many more who will continue to visit. The flags and names of the states wave as you enter and exit the monument. Capture an image of the historic faces at every angle, read the history of each president as you walk the paths closest to their face, and find out even more about the years, sweat, dedication, and feats of engineering and architecture that made this entire project possible. You can delve further into the makings of the artistry and even see some of the tools used and strategies employed. You can sit and sketch, bird watch, check out the trees, listen as you go, shop for reminders of your visit, and spend hours enjoying the fact that you’re here, sitting amidst a patriotic symbol of the United States of America. This is truly a place of history.
History and nature abounds in this region. Between the Loop Road of the Badlands, Needles Highway, Wildlife Loop Road and more, the images of nature change with every turn of your tires. Hike in Custer State Park, check out the inside magic of the countless caves, or take a peek into Native American history at the Crazy Horse Memorial. There’s the green of the trees, the gorgeous wonders of waterfalls, spontaneous interaction with wildlife, and the life below the land hidden amidst the caves. There’s the history of a nation caught in flux between the Natives and the settlers. There’s the building of the heartland of the nation through the farming and industrial industries and the lives of its workers. There’s the mystery of missiles hidden in plain sight, and the wonders of Wall proving that you can truly make a life, anywhere. There are the locals and the travelers and the transplants that have found their way to Rapid City and have never left. There’s even an Australian-made coffee shop. The experience in Rapid City changed this traveler for the better. I’m now an official fan of South Dakota.
Rapid City, South Dakota is filled with endless opportunities for educational enjoyment of all sorts. Check out the Dinosaur Museum, wander Main Street, speak with locals, or hike for hours amidst its beautiful and varied regions. Show your fellow travelers the controversial history of a nation and the beauty housed in one of its central states. Channel your inner architect, dreamer, and explorer experiencing all that this city has to offer. Spend your day spelunking in caves or hiking above the ground. Speak with fellow travelers arriving at Mount Rushmore to hear what it means to them to be at this special spot. Take in the beauty of natural surroundings of all kinds, and listen to what the earth has to teach. Learn and grow through experience. This is how travel and education merge together, proving once again that the global classroom truly is a student’s greatest teacher.
Stacey Ebert, our Educational Travels Editor, is a traveler at heart who met her Australian-born husband while on a trip in New Zealand. Stacey was an extracurricular advisor and taught history in a Long Island public high school for over fifteen years, enjoying both the formal and informal educational practices. After a one year 'round the world honeymoon, travel and its many gifts changed her perspective. She has since left the educational world to focus on writing and travel. She is energetic and enthusiastic about long term travel, finding what makes you happy and making the leap. In her spare time she is an event planner, yogi, dark chocolate lover, and spends as much time as possible with her toes in the sand. Check out her website at thegiftoftravel.wordpress.com for more of her travel musings.
All photos courtesy and copyright Stacey Ebert