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Hitting the road, and trail, on the race to 50 states

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.

Scottsbluff

 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.

Black Hills

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.

Harney Peak

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.

The Black Hills appear dark because of their piney covering. But now, the dark masses of pines are broken by wide swaths of brown, dead trees -- the victims of pine beetle infestation. On the Harney trail, we could see the devastation up close and witnessed the National Park Service's action plan -- a process called "chunking." The dead trees are cut into 2-foot chunks, which disrupt the beetle larvae. It looks like a daunting task, though, and we were left to wonder, in light of the devastating wildfires further west, when it will be the Hills' turn.

An old fire tower, built from pieces of the mountain itself, stands sentry at the top of Harney. I climbed to the top floor and looked out, and "round about beneath me," as Black Elk famously described, "was the whole hoop of the world."

Deadwood

I've been intrigued with the legendary gold-mining town of Deadwood, S.D., ever since I became hooked on the HBO series of the same name a few years ago. I knew that Deadwood had parted ways with its history a long time ago, instead turning to slot machines and souvenir shops, but there's still history to be seen. That's why I booked a room in the 118-year-old Bullock Hotel, built by the town's celebrated sheriff of the time -- Seth Bullock. The hotel underwent a major restoration in the 1990s, but still offers some of the original features, including the wooden staircase and skylights.

The Bullock is said to be haunted by the former sheriff. At 3 a.m., my brother and I were awoken by a strange tapping that sounded like it was coming from inside the solid wood headboard behind my bed. After listening to about a dozen taps, I gave the headboard a shake and apparently sent old Seth packing for another room because we were able to sleep in peace after that.

Earlier in the evening, we had drinks at Saloon #10, named for the bar where Wild Bill Hickok was gunned down in Deadwood in 1876. It's full of odd Deadwood memorabilia, has sawdust on the floor, is a haven for tourists and the biker crowd and features a re-enactment of Wild Bill's death each evening.

While Deadwood is not known for its cuisine, upstairs from Saloon #10 is the Deadwood Social Club, and it offered us the finest meal we had for the week. Sitting outside on the roof of the building, with steep, West Virginia-like hills rising above us, we noshed on cherry peppers filled with wild boar and wrapped in bacon, potato gnocchi with wild boar sauce, and osso buco concocted with a pork shank that towered over the plate like Devils Tower (that's foreshadowing).

The next morning, we were huffing and puffing up the hill at Mount Moriah Cemetery, heading for Seth Bullock's grave, which sits outside of the cemetery gates, further on up the hill. When he's not haunting his namesake hotel, Seth's resting place is beneath a huge headstone that serves as a marker for both him and his wife, Martha. Down the hill, in the main part of the hillside cemetery, a bust of Wild Bill marks his final resting place. The grave of Calamity Jane (she requested to be buried next to Bill) sits nearby. Their headstones are littered with tributes, mostly in the form of tiny whiskey bottles, single cigarettes, coins and flowers.

Devils Tower

It's only about an hour's drive from Deadwood to Devils Tower, Wyo., the monolithic remnant of an ancient volcano. While the visitor's center and the area immediately in front of the tower were pretty crowded, the Red Beds Trail -- a 2.8-mile loop that rings the tower -- was largely secluded. It gave us unique vantage points of the tower and the Belle Fourche River cutting through the meadow below. And then there is the bizarre section of the trail -- blood-red tread and cliffs dotted with bright green pines - that gives it its name.

Around the backside of the tower, we heard a "whoop" and looked up to see the ant-like form of a climber who had just topped out on the tower. We finished up our hike and headed for the boulder field that piles up at the base of the tower. It's created by the massive chunks of rock fall from the tower's ribbed surface. We scaled to the top of the boulders and with the tower at our back, took in yet another amazing view of the eastern Wyoming countryside. It costs $10 per car to get into the Devils Tower area, but the view was, as they say, priceless.

Teddy Roosevelt National Park

We headed back toward Belle Fourche, S.D., and picked up U.S 85 north. As we exited the Black Hills, the rolling farmland began again and the highway before us could be seen trailing nearly straight for 10 miles in the distance. Lone mountains and buttes punctuated the land, and shortly before nightfall we were headed down Interstate 94 in North Dakota, toward our hotel in Dickinson.

Dickinson is part of the oil and gas boomtown area of North Dakota. Billboards scream for workers and advertise housing. Extended-stay hotels and apartment buildings are going up everywhere. By the next morning, we were heading back the way we came on I-94, then turned north again on U.S. 85. The well traffic was thick and never-ending for 50 miles until the turnoff for the north unit of the Teddy Roosevelt National Park. It costs $10 per car to enter the park, but once inside, the traffic is a world away. Deep into the badlands of the park and the surrounding wilderness area, we ventured out on the 5-mile Caprock-Coulee Trail. We topped out on a ridge and looked out over the dry, striped hills before us -- a picture both beautiful and foreboding, as the land showed the effects of eons of battling the Dakota climate.

Following our hike, we hopped into the car for the drive to the park's end -- the Oxbow Overlook -- but we were promptly stopped by a herd of wild bison that had swarmed over the road. We pulled off and, poking from the sunroof, I was able to get some up-close photos and video of these amazing, loud, smelly creatures. When they got a little too close to the rental car for comfort, we continued on and took a short hike that takes you to the overlook, which affords wonderful views of the Little Missouri River valley below.

Medicine Rocks

After another night in Dickinson, we again headed west on I-94 and crossed into Montana. We turned south on Mont. 7 at Wibaux and began a long trek under the big sky toward a bizarre cluster of huge rocks in the middle of nowhere. Native Americans visited the rocks to have their vision quests, hence the name Medicine Rocks. After being there for a few hours, I could understand why.

Medicine Rocks is a state park. It's unattended and, on that day, was largely devoid of people. One cluster of the odd, hole-filled rocks resembled Stonehenge. Another sat as a monolith in a golden field. Birds made their nests in some of the holes in the rocks and rode the currents overhead. Some of the rocks, made of soft sandstone, bore tons of carvings. There are petroglyphs there, but they are lost in a multitude of much newer carvings, some of which were fascinating in their own right: a Naval anchor and the date 1903; a woman's face; countless proclamations of love from the mid-20th century.

We could have stayed for hours more. The peacefulness was astounding, but it was time to move on. We spent the night in Spearfish, S.D., -- back in the Black Hills -- and squeezed in a morning drive through the Spearfish Canyon, a hike to the top of the canyon on the calf-burning '76 Trail, which gains about 700 feet in elevation in a half-mile, and a visit to cool, clear Roughlock Falls, ensconced in an area that once teemed with gold miners.

But it was soon time for the last long haul of our trip. Denver waited, and as we made our way back over that stretch of I-25 north of Denver, thunderheads -- full of lightning -- loomed in the distance. This time, though, the Rockies to the west opened up to us, reveling in the odd light from the storms ahead and giving us one final spectacular view. Their blue peaks were backlit by the setting sun and topped with a cap of angry clouds.

That evening, at Ted Turner's Montana Grill near the airport, the waiter put thick slabs of bison ribeye before us, and we drank red wine and marveled at the numbers: six states, 1,753 miles on the Chevy, 22 miles on our boots.

Not bad for a week.

Byers is the Gazette's executive editor.


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