Retracing childhood footsteps through South Dakota and beyond

Recreating memories on an anniversary trip
Caption below.
Caption below.

Photo: In 1986, at age 7, the writer sought protection in his father’s arms during a sit-down with a “scary” statue at the Wall Drug store in South Dakota. By 2009, at 30, he’d found enough fortitude to stare the cowboy straight in the eye.

My wife Laurie and I studied the pictures and tried to match them. 

It was July 2009, a day shy of our second wedding anniversary, and we’d made our way to the top of a large hill overlooking Rapid City, South Dakota, to Rapid City’s Dinosaur Park.

I’d been here before, at least twice as a child, on my family’s annual trips to vacation and visit my mother’s family in the state.

In 1980, when I wasn’t even 2, we went there — my mother, father, sister and I. Then, six years later, we returned. That time, we went with a cousin.

Now, in 2009, we had pictures from both trips. Me standing. Me leaning. Me lying in awkward positions. 

Our task: Recreate them.

This was the latest stop in our whirlwind, weeklong road trip through Iowa, both Dakotas and Minnesota, with brief forays into Wyoming and Montana. 

But the core section, Sioux Falls west to Rapid City, was a section I knew well. 

COOK TRIP summer big editionPHOTO PROVIDED
Steve Cook and his wife, Laurie, celebrated their wedding anniversary during the 2009 trip.

I grew up in Iowa, near Iowa City. The Gazette brought me to Schenectady way back in June of 2000 (20 years ago this month!). A few years after I moved here, I met my future wife. She now knows Iowa well, too, as well as the long trip from here to there and back.

We’ve been able to get our son Thacher (he’s almost 3!) back to Iowa once, so far, in December 2017, when Thacher wasn’t even 2. We saw family and made stops, including in Riverside, the future birthplace of Star Trek’s Capt. James T. Kirk, a few miles from where I grew up. (Thacher, at 18 months, was a natural in the history center’s Enterprise bridge mock-up.)

We were hoping to get him back there again this summer, but his next trip there is obviously going to have to wait. 

More photos from Steve’s trips, 1980, 1986 and 2009:

Maybe I kind of followed my parents, but both of them also grew up in one place and later moved to and made a life in another.

My father grew up in the Des Moines area and later moved east to Iowa City, then met my mother. My mother grew up in South Dakota, in Dell Rapids in the eastern part of the state, and later moved to Iowa City, then met my father.

We made our trips to the Des Moines area, but our vacations, those were in South Dakota. We sometimes stayed on the eastern end, where the majority of my mother’s family lived. But we also sometimes traveled farther west, to Rapid City, to visit other relatives there and see the sights.

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And there are a lot of cool sights in South Dakota and the surrounding states to see. There are many big things (including multiple buffalo statues, a large bull and two jackalopes). We stopped and took our pictures in front of each one.

But growing up in Iowa, my South Dakota connection through my mother ran deep. And getting to show my wife of two years (now almost 13) everything I saw as a kid, that’s the best. 

The route west from Sioux Falls-Dell Rapids to Rapid City runs straight on Interstate 90. 

In Mitchell, we stopped at the Corn Palace, as many visitors do, for the murals completely made of corn. We often pick up magnets in our travels. On this one, of course, we chose corn, but an anthropomorphic corn with hands and legs all strung together. It’s something we still have and something our son has now played with.

Farther west, about midway across the state at the Missouri River, is Chamberlin-Oacoma and Al’s Oasis. Also banana cream pie. Al’s Oasis is basically a restaurant, store and all-around tourist stop, and another large-buffalo-statue photo opportunity.

I mention it, though, because, according to one of my father’s favorite South Dakota stories, the place had the best banana cream pie around. The stop was required just for that, the story went. 

Our 2009 trip included all that.

Farther west is the Badlands, Wall Drug, Rapid City and Mount Rushmore. 

One of my earliest memories can be traced to one of these trips and Wall Drug, which is an all-around touristy place advertised for hundreds of miles in either direction.


The place has old-time frontier statues on benches for tourists to take pictures with. I remember just feeling terrified of them when I saw them (I was really little) and retreating to the protection of my father. I have pictures from that trip, marked 1980. In 2009, we stopped there, too, and found the statues still there.

Of course we took pictures with the same ones I’d had my picture taken with nearly three decades earlier. The statues, still there, didn’t seem so scary anymore. 

I don’t recall us ever really going into the Badlands on my childhood trips, just passing them by. But my wife and I did on this trip. We camped out overnight under the stars in our rental car — awesome experience, including getting up early to see the many awe-inspiring formations in the sunrise.

We made our first Rapid City stop at Dinosaur Park. Once we climbed up the many stairs to the 1930s-built dinos, we set to work. 

We found the T.rex. I stood next to that one. I was lot taller this time than 23 years earlier.

At the triceritops, 7-year-old me had somehow climbed onto its head and straddled it above its lower green horn. Thirty-year-old me wasn’t about to do that, so I instead stood. 

Then, at a duck-billed dinosaur, the photo showed 7-year-old me lying face-first directly on its low, long tail. This time, unlike the triceritops, I went and followed the younger me’s lead.

Pictures achieved.

Also achieved: Confirmation of the difference 23 years can make. I had grown a lot since 1986. The photos, with the dinos as yardsticks, proved it.

We drove on to Wyoming the next day, and celebrated our anniversary by exchanging cards and circumnavigating Devil’s Tower, another repeat extension from a childhood South Dakota trip. 

We visited Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse and Deadwood the next day before heading north to the new sights of North Dakota, a place we never went when I was a kid.

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That was 2009. Eight short years later, our boy Thacher came along. South Dakota is high on our list of places to get him to, to show him all the cool places I went as a kid, the cool places we went in 2009.

But while we want to get him to South Dakota, to see everything there, now that I think about it, his South Dakota won’t be South Dakota.

His South Dakota will be Iowa, and his Rapid City Dinosaur Park just might be the Riverside History Center and its Enterprise bridge and transporter mock-ups.

He should grow into the captain’s chair there nicely. The pictures will prove it.

Categories: A Summer To Remember, Special Sections


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