CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- My brother and I grew up amid friendly - albeit constant -- competition. We could take the most mundane household chore and turn it into a game. So, decades later, it's no surprise we're locked in a race. A race to 50.
The rules are simple: first one to step foot in all 50 states wins, and airports don't count. What does the winner get? As with most of our contests, the take is nothing -- except, in this case, the adventure of seeing a whole lot of what this country has to offer.
We're both approaching pay dirt in the lower 48, but there are still a few clusters of states here and there that remain foreign to our boots and tires. So, in August, we set out on an ambitious week that would pick up Montana, Nebraska and the Dakotas for my brother, and Nebraska and South Dakota for me.
But we weren't out to simply pad our 50-state portfolio. As with many of my more memorable vacations, this trip was also geared toward hiking, history, eating and outstanding scenery -- and it didn't disappoint.
My brother lives in Columbus, Ohio, so I drove up there to take advantage of a non-stop United flight to Denver, leaving early Saturday morning. By 10:30 a.m. MT, we were in our rented Chevy Captiva and heading north on Interstate 25. Thick traffic passing through acres and acres of subdivisions with ranch-style names made for an inauspicious start to our wild country quest. Even the Rockies to the west were just dark blobs on the horizon, masked by a murky haze.
But things changed as we passed north of Cheyenne, Wyo., and veered off into Nebraska. Our target was Scottsbluff -- more specifically, Scotts Bluff National Monument. And as it rose in the distance as we passed east of Morrill, we could already tell that it would be a worthy target.
The bluff is a huge chunk of rock rising more than 830 feet above the plains and surrounded by a scattering of smaller bluffs. Scotts Bluff was a landmark on the Oregon and Mormon trails. After filling up on enchiladas at the local Mexican place -- San Pedro -- we dropped our bags at the hotel, grabbed the sunscreen, bug spray and a few bottles of water and headed for the bluff.
As we drove up Neb. 92 to the visitor's center, with the original path of the Oregon Trail under our wheels, it was fascinating to think of the wagons that once passed through, their riders, numbed by the endless plains, staring up the rocks towering around them as they imagined the mountains to come.
It was getting late in the afternoon, so after paying the National Park Service $5 for entry, we made a beeline for the Saddle Rock Trail that would take us to the top of the bluff. Within minutes we were across a field of scrubby prairie vegetation, dotted by prickly pear and tiny yellow flowers, and beginning our ascent.
About halfway up, a tunnel bores through the bluff, and as you emerge on the other side, dramatic views of the towns of Scottsbluff and Gering open up on the plain below. It's 1.6 miles to the top, and another half-mile to the north overlook where you can look down on an area of badlands and the North Platte River Valley.
From our vantage point, we could see that the sun was starting to droop in the west. It was time to head down the trail and motor 30 minutes away to our next destination -- Chimney Rock, which you may be familiar with if you've ever studied the back of the Nebraska edition of the state quarter series.
We made it there by sunset, which made for even more striking views of the rock. You aren't allowed to go up to the base of the rock, and the visitor center was closed, but if you drive another half mile down the road and turn onto a gravel lane you'll find a quaint cemetery filled with aged stones from settlers of years past, weathering on the prairie just like the rocky spire that stands watch above them.
First thing Sunday, we headed north on Neb. 71 and watched the fog lift from the grassy fields. Windmills turned lazily, alone in the pastures, joined occasionally by an Angus herd starkly black against the mist. The terrain seemed to change with every rise as we pushed further north. Suddenly, the endless pasture gave way to an immense field of sunflowers, their yellow heads going on for a half-mile, waiting, as were we, for the sun to finish off the fog.
Our destination was the Black Hills, and after a desolate entrance into a sparsely populated corner of South Dakota, we were soon bellied up to the bar at Bitter Esters Brew House in the town of Custer, in the heart of the hills.
Bitter Esters brews three beers on site: a brown ale, a saison and a coffee pub ale. The saison was, by nature, bubbly and with a little fruit, but smooth. It paired well with my choice from the build-a-burger menu -- blue cheese and bacon. (I'm not sure what, if anything, would pair with my brother's burger choice, though: cream cheese and a fried egg.)
Soon, we were checking in to the retro cool Rocket Motel a few blocks down the wide main drag of Custer. If the Rocket looks like it's something out of 1950, that's because it is. The creation of the Herman family of Draper, S.D., the Rocket (named for the rocket tests going on at the time), got its start in 1949. Brenda and Don Herren bought it from a Herman family granddaughter in 2010 and have been busy restoring it to its former Americana glory. Checkerboard tile and retro lighting adds to the vibe of the meticulously clean rooms.
Our Black Hills stops for the rest of the afternoon included the Crazy Horse Memorial and the Needles Highway. It was pricy to get into Crazy Horse ($20 for two adults), but it was an eye-opening visit. Started in 1948 by the late sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski, the monument to the legendary Lakota leader, located a short drive from Mount Rushmore, is still a work in progress. Because of this, you can't get particularly close to the face of Crazy Horse, though its massive scale means it's visible for miles. A quick film at the visitor's center will bring you up to speed on the history of the project, and the Native American dancers performing on the deck outside the center, with the face of Crazy Horse peering from the mountain above, was a unique experience, to say the least.
It was a short drive to Sylvan Lake and the entrance to the Needles Highway (S.D 87). The highway is inside Custer State Park, so you need to pay $15 for a seven-day pass to enter the park -- even if you just want to drive on the highway. The winding mountain road, complete with a one-lane tunnel through the mountain and amazing views of the "needles" or rocky spires common in the area, made it well worth the cost. We stopped at the Cathedral Spires Trail for a quick 3-mile roundtrip hike out to Cathedral, where we touched the base of the spires as they reached for the heavens above us.
That night, back in Custer, we feasted on juicy elk tenderloin at the Cattleman's Restaurant as we looked forward to the next day's hike to Harney Peak. In the morning, our Baker's Bakery and Café breakfast of eggs, ham, hash browns and chewy slabs of sourdough was made all the more special with a side order of the house-made green chile sauce. The mildly spicy, almost stew-like concoction went atop everything but our strong, black coffee.
At 7,242 feet, Harney Peak is the highest natural point east of the Rockies. It is the site of Black Elk's "great vision," which was illustrated in the 1932 book "Black Elk Speaks." It's a sacred spot for the Lakota people, and it's common to find "prayer bundles" hanging in the pines around the peak.
The trail begins at Sylvan Lake and climbs 1,100 feet on a 7-mile roundtrip journey. Nearly halfway to the top, some white tufts at the top of one of the many rocky peaks in the area caught our attention. Using my telephoto lens, we quickly realized we were watching four snow-white mountains goats clinging precariously to the bare rock.