We tossed our masks aside. The wind blew through our hair. We were hitting the road on our first trip since COVID-19 arrived, headed to the wide open spaces of the Great Plains, where we expected to find few people but many bison. My husband and I had stocked our little Winnebago Rialta RV full of groceries, hand sanitizer, blue surgical gloves and our masks. We set out on a camping trip to South Dakota — along Interstate 90 from Palisades State Park on the Minnesota-South Dakota border, to Badlands National Park, and finally Custer State Park on the state’s western border.

After so much time at home it seemed as exotic and daring as an African safari.

We chose South Dakota for our maiden voyage because it offered a landscape quite different from Minnesota. And, we would be outdoors in a state with, on average, 11.3 people per square mile — the ultimate social distancing.

Judging from the license plates we saw on the road, other Minnesotans had the same idea and were equally eager to bust out and head for the (Black) hills after months of confinement.

Surprises good and bad

We discovered that even such open spaces don’t guarantee worry-free travel these days. For example, so many people have hit the road that campgrounds and cabins are booked up. And, it seemed we were often the only ones concerned with social distancing.

At Mount Rushmore we found only about five people wearing masks while hundreds of others milled around mask-less with no concern for their proximity to one another. (South Dakota has no mask requirement.) We quickly took our photos and headed to the less-crowded Crazy Horse Memorial. Conversely, though I was worried about those all-important bathroom stops, rest areas were immaculately clean (in Minnesota, “cleaned to hotel standards every 30 minutes”) with few people inside.

It was no African safari, but our road trip reminded us that we can find beauty and a bit of adventure close to home.

At Palisades State Park we hiked along a roaring creek and rocky cliffs that lure rock climbers, kayakers and anyone with a camera. The seemingly barren Badlands offered baby mountain goats and colorful wildflowers. At Custer State Park we indeed encountered abundant bison, including one that insisted on scratching his huge hairy head on the wheel well of our RV.

Thankfully, those experiences satisfied our wanderlust … for a while.


Terri Peterson Smith is author of books including “Unique Eats and Eateries of the Twin Cities.” She lives in Edina.