nature,  traditions,  USA

Halloween in the Midwest – part 3

This is the third and the last post about my road trip and just like in the previous ones (part 1 and part 2), there are plenty of pictures you can click on in order to enlarge them.

entering South Dakota

We were heading towards Rapid City, that’s where we were planning to stay for the next couple of nights. The drive was not too long, only around 4 hours, but it was not an interstate highway which means we had to cross some towns instead of bypassing them. I just had to be more cautious behind the wheel. But it was good and interesting ride, definitely not as monotonous as in its northern namesake. Apart from prevalent farms along the route, there were oil fields and game reserves too. The landscape may be flat, but there were some trees as well. And everything was beautifully autumnal.

We decided on Rapid City because it was a gateway to the Black Hills (that’s even this town’s nickname, by the way) where the most interesting to us places are located: Custer State Park, Wind Cave National Park, Crazy Horse, Jewel Cave National Monument and Mount Rushmore National Memorial. In its closest vicinity there are also nuclear missiles launch sites and one of the most important US Air Force base, Ellsworth, all built during the Cold War, so even if you’re not a fan of Nature, maybe the South Dakota Air and Space Museum, as well as missile silos would interest you.

the Nature loop

First of all, please do not try to google the Nature loop, I’ve just named it this way, because we left Rapid City early morning, drove the whole day, mostly in one direction, and came back to the hotel in the evening, though some fragments of our route have names, like Wildlife Loop Road or the Needles Highway. Anyway, that’s why the town is so great when it comes to visiting this part of the US. Oh, and it took us only one day because, unfortunately, I developed a weird foot ache and I was limping. I couldn’t walk too many stairs, the caves were out of the question, so do the hikes. The experience was amazing nevertheless, but if you can stay in the area even longer than we did, you won’t be disappointed.

Part of our trip that day were the caves. The Wind Cave National Park was established in 1903 by my favourite US president, yes, Theodore Roosevelt! It was only the sixth national park and the first ever cave system to become one in the world. The name originates in the “breathing” phenomena when, because of the air pressure differences inside and outside of the cave the air continuously moves in and out trying to reach equilibrium. The Wind Cave is, first of all, huge, and secondly there are only few small connections with the outside world, so the air fluctuations were always noticeable. The more rapid weather change, and these are the mountains we are talking about so it’s normal there, the more rapid and voiced the air movements are. It’s also the third longest cave in the US (the seventh in the world) having the known and mapped length of over 260km (160 miles); the Jewel Cave which is located nearby is respectively the second and the fourth with almost 350km (215 miles).

I mentioned before that because of my condition I couldn’t really explore the caves. And there are different types of excursions available, with distinct levels of duration and difficulty. Even if you do not plan on taking any, these places are definitely worth paying a visit, if not for visitor centres and their educational value, it is for the environment around. It’s the largest remaining natural mixed-grass prairie in the US which means you will easily see the bison, foxes, coyotes, racoons, pronghorns, prairie dogs, wild turkeys straight from your car (I’m the proof) and if you’d decide to walk around you may notice bobcats or cougars, badgers, ferrets or whooping cranes.    

the Crazy Horse Memorial

The Black Hills look a little out of place. It is an isolated mountain range in the middle of flat plains; you may think of the Rockies, but those are farther to the West. These ones for Native Americans were considered sacred, they are central to the Lakota culture and it’s where one of the tallest statues in the world and the biggest mountain monument – the Crazy Horse Memorial, is carved.

It is still an ongoing project since 1930s when the Oglala Lakota chief Standing Bear recruited a Polish-American sculptor Korczak Ziółkowski after unsuccessful trying of placing the Crazy Horse’s face as equal among four American presidents at nearby Mount Rushmore. Because it did not brought enough attention, the Lakotas decided to fund their project on their own and since the very beginning they refuse any government funds relying on donations instead. The monument is still under construction and no one knows when it will be completed. It is already very impressive, though, and can be seen from afar. The sculpted warrior is supposed to be the centrepiece for the university campus (in progress), the Indian Museum of North America, which is already open and contains plenty of artefacts and works as an education centre, as well as a giftshop where you can buy gorgeous memorabilia and intricated replicas – all are made by Native American artists which makes them more costly than Chinese made stuff available to purchase anywhere in the world. Let’s say that my beautifully made dreamcatcher was 4 times more expensive and the design was much better executed than a similar in size and outline item from a giftshop along the way. And I do not regret I bought the high-priced one.

Custer State Park

This park is located close to Rapid City on the way to Wind Cave N.P. so visiting was not a problem. We were crossing it, which is free of charge, and already saw some wild animals. You can pay a small fee to go on the Wildlife Loop Road and that’s what you should definitely do. It’s a different adventure altogether and if you were happy because of the number of animals before, you will be even more pleasantly surprised later. Taking this route is like entering your private (there’s not much traffic) safari expedition. And I’m not talking about bison, which, truthfully, at this point of our trip, was as frequent as road signs, still fascinating nonetheless. Just remember to never underestimate this wild animal, it’s big, heavy and fast and it is quite stressful when there are so many of them next to the road and, sometimes, they unexpectedly stand right on your way and when you try to pass them their breath leaves a steamy mark on your car windshield. There are “Begging burros” – the donkeys which are deliberately checking your car for food, there are wild turkeys which didn’t care about the size of your car and decided to walk half a mile right in front of you not being frightened by the horn, there are coyotes not paying attention to you at all, same as pronghorns or prairie dogs. This place is home to abundant wildlife and the only thing you need to remember is to finally close your mouth at some point because it is a jaw dropping experience for sure.

Mount Rushmore

This is a place I was always very ambivalent about. I was not convinced that man should carve the mountains. It’s more than enough that people change the rivers flow or destroy the environment by leaving not compostable garbage everywhere. And after our visit it’s even worse. Because I am not going to lie, I was bought by the place. Does it perfectly fit in the rocks? I’m not sure. Is it educational? Not really, you can learn about those 4 presidencies much more from other sources. Is it absolutely breath-taking and makes you long for being an American? Yes! And that’s something coming from the proud European. The place is a shrine to good PR luring millions of tourists from across the world.

And do not even let me start about how hypocritical this place existence is. It was being built between 1927 and 1941 by blasting almost half a million tons of rock from the mountain which, according to the Treaty of 1868 was supposed to belong to the Sioux tribe for “as long as the buffalo may range thereon in such numbers as to justify the chase”. It did until discovery of gold in the Black Hills few years later, by the way. The sacred mountain known to the Lakotas as The Six Grandfathers (west, east, north, south, above, below) became an opportunity for the State of South Dakota to increase tourism. It was supposed to present great historical leaders: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt (yes, him again) and Abraham Lincoln. It is a synonym of the American democracy, freedom, patriotism and somehow shown the lack of understanding and respect to the Native People inhabiting the area for generations before. Right now, the situation is changing towards the better. There are 21 tribal nations who are consulted when certain policies and actions are activated. It may not be enough, but definitely step in the right direction.

We visited the Memorial in the evening. I highly recommend approaching Mt Rushmore from the Custer State Park via very curvy but well maintained road. The views are amazing, the road direction faces the presidents and there are some picturesque tunnels and so called “pig tail” bridges on the way. The setting sun made the experience even more grand and elevated. The walkway leading to the Grand View Terrace and Visitor Center is called Avenue of Flags and is flanked by flags of the US fifty states, one district, three territories and two commonwealths arranged in the alphabetical order. It’s big, it’s majestic, it’s USA.

ps. as for now, there are no plans of adding any other face to the side of the mountain, not even Trump’s

Badlands National Park

Badlands is not only the general name of the very unfriendly and harsh area we had been visiting for the previous couple of days, but it is also a national park in a direct vicinity of Rapid City and its main road is parallel to I-90 which I needed to take to get to Omaha, Nebraska, anyway. It’s where you can see in person how appropriate the name is. Forget about the flowery meadows from the north which are perfect for cattle. Imagine rock formations of unusual shapes, slopes so steep that only bighorn sheep are able to get to the top, venomous snakes and spiders, no potable water and you would understand why any other name would not be appropriate enough.

The park consists of 3 units with the North being the most visited because of its convenient location along the Interstate. It is also where the Visitor Center with very informative and entertaining exhibition of fossils and distant life can be found. This is a paradise for every paleontologist. I’ve spent there much more time than I expected, and that’s why instead of getting directly to Omaha, I had to stop somewhere on the way to sleep. I was simply too tired, the roads in the park are narrow and windy, you can see some clips in the first post. And this was also the day when we crossed the Missouri River not once, not twice, but 3 times (and once more early morning of the following day)!


This was the biggest city we visited during the travel and the official reason for our Midwest Halloween road trip – SIETAR USA 2022 conference. The acronym stands for Society for Intercultural Education Training and Research and I am its member since 2008, first in the Polish branch, now European. They not only provide me with invaluable resources for keeping up to date with the field, but also require constant personal development from their members which reassures my clients that they receive the highest quality service possible.

The conference started on Thursday night so, since I am kind of a ZOO freak, after learning that TripAdvisor once rated Omaha’s ZOO as the world’s best zoological garden, we decided to spend our mid-afternoon there. I do not really know if I would say it is the best one I’ve ever seen, but we were entertained for sure. There were plenty of closed habitats that time of the year and it’s sad because the tickets were not discounted at all; I would still love to visit during the summer, anyway. It is a bit different compared to European zoos. Apart from education, this place guarantees FUN (yes, with a capital F). If you’re tired and visit during warmer time you can use tram, train or skyfari – kind of aerial gondola. There is an Alaskan Adventure with water jets and sprays simulating ocean shore located right next to Glacier Bay Landing which is inspired by the Alaskan coastal town and where you can sit under a sea plane. There is a Lied Jungle, the America’s largest indoor rainforest, not only with monkeys, tapirs or pygmy hippos, but with bats, orchids and waterfalls. There is an aquarium with a 70 foot shark tunnel and plenty of penguins you can almost touch, seriously you must not, but they are right next to you without any barrier set. There are some other habitats you could expect from a reputable establishment of this kind, but last, but not least – there is a Desert Dome which is the largest indoor desert built under the world’s largest glazed geodesic dome (their words, not mine, I’ve just quoted here a bit from their website) and featuring plants and animals from 3 areas – the Namib Desert of Africa, the Red Center of Australia and the Sonoran Desert of the US divided by a central mountain in the middle of the dome. What was even more fascinating, there is a Kingdom of a Night underneath the Dome – yes, you guessed it, the largest nocturnal exhibit where the day/night cycle are reversed with, among others, the swamp with alligators and a beaver’s lodge. Mhm, maybe it actually was the best zoo I’ve ever been to? And I did not take too many pictures, when I’m in my ZOO mode, or a zoombie mode like some people call it, I’m simply crazy and unresponsive.

Apart from the Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium, Omaha did not really charmed me with anything. What I especially didn’t like was the amazing Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge. Did you sense a contradiction here? That was clearly my intention. Omaha was established as a booming industrial town and a transportation hub on the Missouri. The river known as the Big Muddy is still the powerful force though the people try to constantly tame it. They started with building the dams and channel the water into a 600 foot wide, as straight as possible water trough. It is not in its natural state, at least not where I saw it. And still, the city turns their back to the river! It is something unbelievable from the European perspective. The pedestrian bridge is a good start, but it is just not really fit for purpose without working on its surroundings. It’s a proper adventure across dodgy looking areas, it is really for the best if you would drive there. When you are in its middle somewhere right between Nebraska and Iowa and look north, you feel peace and tranquillity, interrupted a bit by the noisy bridge structure, and when you look south you see industrial areas. It seems like someone works on making it a more walking/biking human friendly place but as for now, they fail miserably. Such a shame!

Native Americans

The Midwest pioneers settled in the area relatively late when the first inhabitants have been already shaping this land for centuries. Their presence is visible everywhere and it made me interested in their history even more – let me remind you that Cahokia mounds was the first to visit on the list from the moment I started to design our journey. My curiosity started at first in Canada few months ago, and now it was culminating.

Because of the field I work at, the conference was a perfect place to ask more questions and learn from the first point perspective about the minorities once ruling the vast space of the continent. I’m definitely not an expert, but there were some misconceptions I’ve never even knew I had. For example, I assumed that the Native Americans always speak their own language. Here, I was told about Spanish being the first one for many. I also have friends who were Spanish speakers and I identified them as being of the Mexican roots instead. Then I’ve learnt, that as it happens, they are Native Americans.  That was something very interesting from cultural point of view and it made me curious. Apparently, the Spanish empire conquering America hundreds of years before the English left its mark. For many of the settled tribes it was easier to communicate in Spanish and, with generations passing, native tongues ceased to exist. The conversion to Catholicism and religious ceremonies also influenced the situation, so many American citizens wrongly accused by some radical politicians as foreign illegal migrants (and that’s a totally different story I am not even going to start right now) are more local than they are.

Something very new to me and what I appreciated witnessing and being a part of was “the Acknowledgement ritual”. Right after one of the organisers opened conference with recognising the Natives as the past, current and future caretakers of the land we were on, one of the Elders from the tribe around Omaha gave a talk. There were prayers and sage burning ceremony involved making this probably the most powerful start of any day I have ever experienced. It was simple and spiritual way of honouring those who were there before us and whom our actions deeply affected in an unimaginable way. It allowed me, someone not knowing, being exposed for the first time to the indigenous cultural impact, to be inspired and aware.

There are many ways the first inhabitants of North America should be called, moreover the terminology changes in time and depends on country: there are First Nations and First Peoples about whom I have learnt in Ottawa few months back, there are Indians, Amerindians, indigenous or aboriginal, some names became offensive, some lost their aggressive feeling. If you respect the people you talk to, always ask about the way they would prefer to be referred. After all, those who ask may feel embarrassed once, those who do not know the answer are embarrassed their whole lives.


OK, I admit, we mostly bypassed this State on the way from Omaha to St. Louis. I had my reason, though, to take a slower local road instead of the I-29 directly to Kansas City, which interestingly is not in Kansas. In total, I drove less than an hour through the State to just be able to say when crossing the Missouri River to St. Joseph, Honey, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore. Unfortunately, the reference was totally lost on my husband and for a moment I was even thinking of revoking his gay membership card. Ehhhh, at the end it’s probably my age and not his fault. By the way, did you know that when the Wizard of Oz author, L. Frank Baum was describing Kansas in the book, he actually based it on his experience in South Dakota?

St. Louis

I always wanted to see the Gateway Arch, I’m not sure why. I planned to stay overnight in St. Louis because of the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site and, hopefully, see the monument from across the Missouri River to avoid driving to the downtown. Oh, so little did I know. What I mentioned about Omaha was also true about St. Louis – no nice waterfront to safely spend a pleasant day out having a walk or a picnic.

But, first things first. By total accident, I swear, we found a hotel right next to the ZOO. You know where I’m getting to, I think. Because we reached the city in the late evening, we decided to wake up early and visit the Saint Louis Zoological Park, like it’s officially called. The weather was perfect, bare in mind we got to the southernmost part of our road trip; we were as south as Andalusia, Calabria or Peloponnese in Europe. Probably because of it, there were much more habitats filled with animals than previously and we enjoyed our day even more. The place does not charge the admission fee; there is only a small and reasonable fee if you parked your car next to it. Apart from “the regular” this zoo has an interesting exhibit featuring Missouri and Mississippi Rivers ecosystem, and that’s something impressive. I wouldn’t learn so much about the area if it’s not there. Saint Louis is located by the confluence of these 2 magnificent rivers and that kind of learning hub is necessary to understand their importance to the natural world. It cannot be done better than right at the spot.

When we realised that there is not really a place to admire the Arch from the other bank, I thought I will go downtown. The occasion may not happen again, so it was worth to get into the traffic nightmare. My husband was not convinced, he said it’s definitely a stupid idea, but since I’m the driver, he’s ok with it. And, as it happened, the traffic was not bad at all. The Gateway National Park is the smallest in the US system. It is literally the iconic arch and the lawn underneath, that’s all. But it doesn’t matter. I am very content we decided to go up. Not only the views are amazing, but there was a small museum below the structure showing the beginnings of St. Louis and the development of the area including some harder to digest elements for Americans of the European descent. A word of advice though, the tiny tram capsules are not for claustrophobic, I’m afraid. If you can close your eyes for 4 minutes (going up) or 3 (going down) it’s totally worth it.

Oh, and we tried there the St. Louis specialty – toasted ravioli. Someone drunk, clearly by accident, dropped perfect pasta into the deep fryer. Another drunk tried it out and could not taste the difference. Since then, it became the local staple. Is it great? Definitely not! Is it bearable when you’re drinking out? Definitely yes!

After visiting the Arch, the last points on our list were the Cahokia Mounds. We crossed the river and got to the site, but unfortunately, the visitor center was closed for the season. At least we could go for a short hike around. Cahokia was the largest and the most important town/community in what is now the USA with the population possibly reaching 40000 inhabitants of the Mississippian culture at its peak – more than London or Paris at the same time and the biggest settlement in the US until 1780 when it was finally surpassed by Philadelphia. The largest mound on the site is the Monks Mound which as its base is as big as the Grand Pyramid of Giza and is 30m (100ft) high. I really wish I could learn more there.

It was the end of our adventure. Two weeks passed very quickly. This part of the US was so different compared to the other parts I’ve seen. The trip was both an enjoyable and learning experience. Majority of my clients come from the US and understanding their culture is crucial in order for me to connect with them. And no matter what some people can say, the USA is an amazing country with material history dating back thousands of years which should be properly appreciated. The importance of Cahokia, Poverty Point or Mesa Verde, just to mention 3 out of hundreds, cannot be undervalued only because they look less impressive than the Stonehenge, Coliseum or Parthenon and because the people living there have been decimated by those who came later.

When we arrived the Halloween decorations were everywhere, when we were leaving they have already been replaced by Christmas theme. These 14 days passed so quickly, it was time to hop over the Atlantic and come back to London reality, not before the last glimpse at the Chicago skyline. I think I’m going to miss this time here.


    • Konrad Wdowiak

      Hi Pauline, thanks for your comment and question.

      It depends on many factors, but it can be less expensive than many people expect.

      Renting a car in the US is usually cheaper than in Europe (I assume you are European). Also, the price of gas is simply ridiculous from our perspective, which helps too. If it is a couple travelling, it is harder to be on a budget, but if it’s the whole car it is definitely doable by everyone, I guess. All American hotels and motels I found have huge beds, usually 2 of them, so it’s great for 4 people sharing the room, whether 2 couples or family of 2+2. Of course not everyone likes it, but it significantly lowers the accommodation prices (imagine room price 100 USD for 4 people instead of 2), breakfasts are usually included, but don’t expect anything more than some cereal, toasts, fruit, maybe pastry.

      Obviously you need a relatively cheap flight ticket, but there are so many direct flights between Europe and the US that finding tickets on sale is not an issue, unless you want to leave tomorrow or have a connecting flight in mind (what I described in the first post about flying to Chicago instead of Omaha).

      I hope that helped.

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