Category Archives: Out West Destinations

The Black Hills

Last Stop  │  Next Stop (Coming Soon) 

No-o-o-w we’re “out west!” I was thrilled along with the rest of my family. After waking up in a nice but over-priced hotel in downtown Rapid City, I stepped into the hall to get the morning paper and did something spontaneous to get a quick laugh from the kids. I was in my underwear, bare-chested and as I stepped into the hall, I stretched my arms out and beat my chest in a comical primal manner. Little did I realize that this blip of a moment would forever be remembered and retold EVERYTIME that our trip came up in conversation. I guess it was impressionable for them to see their dad act so carefree for a change.

As they say, it’s the little moments that count but in the Black Hills, there are enough big moments and sights to burn images into the brain.

Having gained an hour due to the time change and finally getting a solid night’s sleep, we were ready to take on the day. And what a day we had planned. But first, I had to take a quick jaunt up Iron Mountain for old-time’s sake. When I was a kid, my dad took a wrong turn that led us up Iron Mountain. Now I wasn’t sure if things changed since then or if the drama of the moment warped my memory, but 30 years apart, I experienced two very different Iron Mountains.

The one from my youth was scarier than all get out. My Dad whipped up the mountain in our full-size family van at an accelerated pace cutting the wheel on hairpin mountain-side turns that had my mom clutching the doorframe screaming for him to slow down or stop. My sister and I laughed aloud between terrified screams. My dad was reminiscent of Jack Nicholson busting through a door with an ax in the movie The Shining saying, “He-e-e-re’s Johnny!”

This time, it was a pleasant ascent. And at one point, we came to a tunnel with people taking pictures of us. Well, not us but what was behind us. As my wife looked back she said, “Wow!” So we too pulled over on the other side of the tunnel on a stretch of road that was not built for so many people to park cars and walk away. Seeing Mount Rushmore framed by a mountain tunnel was a pretty cool sight. All of us had cameras out for the photo-op.

Later, we neared the top of the mountain and pulled off to take a mini hike to see wildlife. We were treated with an enormous herd of deer. Then we reached a large area offering tourist overlooks near the summit. It too provided views worthwhile. When we descended the other side of the mountain we didn’t know where it would lead us, but we never turned back. It proved to be one of the best spontaneous decisions of the trip as if this “detour” hadn’t already paid dividends.

We neared the bottom and later discovered we were in the 71,000 acre Custer State Park, home to nearly 1,500 buffalo. I mean bison. Did you know that there are no wild buffalo in North America and there never were? Early settlers mistakenly labeled the bison they saw as buffalo because it resembled buffalo found in Africa and Asia. The name stuck – wrong as it is.

Before seeing our first buffalo (sorry, I’m as bad as the early settlers), we saw burros, pronghorn, mountain goats and elk. But as the saying goes, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”

Around a bend we had to slow down as if we were driving through one of those auto-nature safaris where animals come up to the car and you feed them. Only this was truly a wild setting and the last thing on our mind was feeding wild animals. But we did slow to a stop to take a picture of a buffalo on the edge of the road right next to us with only the opposite lane separating man from beast.


I hit the gas on the first grunt and darned if that thing didn’t lunge right at us.

With that adrenaline-induced moment still over-pumping blood through all of our hearts, we had two more buffalo come over a ridge from the opposite direction. They were in full stride. For big animals, they can move pretty quickly. In fact, I read that they can run as fast as a horse. Although they looked to be chasing each other we did not slow down.

Once charged, twice shy …or something like that.

Another blind bend and another surprise. This time we had to come to a complete stop. A couple of cars ahead of us disappeared into the herd as I’m sure our SUV did to anyone coming up behind us. It took close to 30 minutes to navigate like inch worms through the maze of buffalo swallowing the road and countryside all around us. I was talking out loud, “PLEASE, don’t scratch the paint fella,” worried about my new vehicle, unsure if buffalo encounters were covered by my insurance.

Then there it was, “Dad, I have to go to the …”


Since the trip up and down Iron Mountain and through Custer State Park ate up so much time, we realized we had to tamper with the itinerary so we could still see the Mammoth Site, Crazy Horse and Mount Rushmore all in one day or what was left of this day. Although we technically just saw Mount Rushmore and considering I’ve seen it by day once before, we decided we’d hit it after dinner at dark instead of calling it a night.

The Mammoth Site of Hot Springs, South Dakota was something that had accidentally been discovered in 1974. It grew into a world-class museum and tourist attraction. A few people highly recommended it when we announced our vacation plans so we decided it had to be worked into the agenda. It was a bit of a drive south compared to the cluster of attractions in the Rapid City area. As we weaved through the motor-lodge stretch, sign after sign revealed deals at decent looking motels with clean looking pools. I had buyer’s remorse and wished I had looked into lodging options more thoroughly when our “Triple-A lady” said we needed to pre-book lodging in this area to guarantee a nearby place to stay.

It was lunchtime when we arrived at the Mammoth Site. We had a picnic on a blanket in the grass under shade trees. Like a flashback to the old station wagon days of family travel, we weren’t the only family with the cost-saving and healthy picnic idea. It was very peaceful.

Mammoth time. As was typical of me, I was not sold on this site as being all that but decided to check it out anyway. When we entered, we had to wait a bit for a full group of people to gather for the next tour. I kept looking at my watch wondering if we had time to get back and see Crazy Horse. Then the doors opened and we entered. I wanted to go nuts on my own to absorb the fascinating scene coming into focus all around us. But I stayed with the group. In doing so, I learned a lot!

The Mammoth Site just happens to be the largest mammoth research facility on the planet. It is an active paleontological dig site. Visitors witness first-hand, a scientific excavation. The floor of the building was the earth. In this concentrated area, there are more than 50 fossilized remains of Cambrian and Wooly Mammoths unearthed approximately 26,000 years after they mistook a sink-hole for a watering hole. Ironically, if not comically, they were all male. Go figure. After our guide walked us to every part of the dig, he turned us loose to take pictures and wander around on our own. In addition to the excavation, visitors are treated to a working paleontology laboratory, hands-on activities, Ice-Age exhibit hall, walk-in Mammoth bone hut and junior paleontologist dig.

Although the Mammoth Site rocked, we had to roll back to the Black Hills.

It was late afternoon when we arrived at Crazy Horse Memorial. Pulling in, I already noticed the progress made over the past 30 years since I was last there. Crazy Horse isn’t just a mountain carving. Albeit is it the largest mountain carving in the world. And it’s not just about one Indian chief or one sculptor either. It is all these things and more – a work in progress – representing a complex myriad of importance.

When I was here last, as a kid, what stood out in my mind was a bullet-ridden sign out front. The Crazy Horse Memorial withstood much opposition in its early days but has since grown into a first-class American success story.

A sculptor who had been involved with the Mount Rushmore project was invited by Lakota Chief Henry Standing Bear to build a mountain memorial honoring the cultures, traditions and living heritage of North American Indians. On June 3, 1948, sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski began work on a mission that would consume his life and most of his family’s well past his death in 1982. The blasting and carving of the mountain continue today. When it is completed, the entire mountain will not just be a carving on the face of the rock, it will be a 360˚ sculpture, 641 feet by 563 feet in-the-round, of Chief Crazy Horse erupting out of the mountain with his horse.  Crazy Horse’s stone head is large enough itself to house all of Mount Rushmore’s presidential busts. How’s that for perspective?

The project is completely funded by the money spent by visitors, donations and other private contributions. It was decided from the beginning that no federal or government money would be accepted due to the fear of losing control of Ziolkowski ‘s and Standing Bear’s vision.

The Crazy Horse experience isn’t just the incredible visual of the work-in-progress. There is much more. For starters, there’s a 40,000 square foot museum dedicated to the history and culture of North American Indians. In addition, there’s a Native American Cultural Center with artisans at work and wares for sale. While browsing the endless array of beautiful creations throughout the buildings, my daughter took particular interest in the native tales about Devil’s Tower. She was so enthralled by the folklore, it would again spontaneously change the itinerary of our trip the very next day. But that’s a story (or detour) for the next stop on “Holiday Road.”

Like the mountain itself, everything seems enormous at Crazy Horse Memorial, including the gift shop. As with the morning incident, it’s often the little things or free things that make the lasting memories of a family vacation. I think the Ziolkowski family understands that. While we were there, there was a big bin of nice rounded fist-size (okay –double-fist-size and some triple) rocks from the Crazy Horse mountain blast site free for the taking.  Now the kids have a piece of Crazy Horse in their own backyard and it didn’t have to cost Dad a penny, but we left a donation.

Dinner-time. Back at the hotel that was too nice for our purpose, we decided to walk to a restaurant.

Dit-dit-dit doot-it. That was my attempt to spell the sound of the opening tune to the old television show, Sanford & Son. Welcome to Sanford’s. If you think a junkyard is the last place you’d go for a good meal and fun time, you’re wrong. Located in Rapid City, Sanford’s entertained the kids even though they’ve never seen the show. They just knew this was a unique setting for eating. It isn’t every day that you eat at a restaurant with light fixtures fashioned from washtubs and TVs buried in a hodgepodge of discarded items more commonly strewn about a junkyard. We really liked it! So much in fact that it served us dinner two nights in a row when we swore to try a different eatery every night. The montage of junk a.k.a. art was a sight that set the imagination on fire. As a bonus, the food was tasty and the price was right.

Once we were done with dinner, we had one more calling – Mount Rushmore!

When we arrived, it was dark, windy and cold …really cold. We bundled up and made our way to the main building. Outside, a crowd gathered. But we needed warmth so we ducked inside and got lost …in the stories of this fascinating place. For example, Mount Rushmore National Monument is incomplete. Unlike Crazy Horse, when Rushmore’s sculptor, Gutzon Borglum, died in 1941 so did the project. His son tried to carry on for several months before halting the project all together. It remains unfinished to this day. Another point of interest that doesn’t seem to dawn on anyone is why the name “Rushmore?” The answer is simple. An attorney from New York City by the name of Charles E. Rushmore was sent to the area in 1884 to check property titles. He asked the name of the mountain. It didn’t have one so locals named it “Rushmore” after the inquisitive attorney.

It is no coincidence that Crazy Horse was built nearby Rushmore’s monument. The Native Americans took offense to Rushmore being carved on their lands and answered with a sculpture of their own only more grandiose in scale and design. Rushmore’s museum is filled with great gems of information about the history and people involved with building this iconic piece of American history honoring Presidents Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson and Teddy Roosevelt.

Noise outside grew as did the nighttime crowd despite the cold. It was drizzling to boot.  None-the-less, tired kids and all, we braved the elements for what turned out to be such a touching ceremony, we all had goosebumps (unrelated to the weather conditions). The evening ceremony takes place in an outdoor amphitheater with the monument center stage. The ranger talk was inspirational as it focused on the Presidents. The setting rung of patriotism and history. It was followed by the film Freedom: America’s Lasting.  It climaxed with rousing music and illumination of the memorial creating an unforgettable experience.

I was proud to be American!

It’s uncanny how unforeseen obstacles can create a better result than what was originally planned. Sometimes, it’s just best to blow with the wind.

When we woke up the following morning, that’s just what we did.

By Rocco Satullo, your tour guide to fun!

Next Stop:  Coming Soon next right
last leftLast Stop: Badlands National Park


Badlands National Park

Last Stop  │  Next Stop 

On our way west, we made a couple of pit stops before reaching the Badlands of South Dakota.

The first stop between Laura Ingalls Homestead and Badlands National Park was a quickie in the little town of Mitchell, South Dakota. There, you may visit the world’s only corn palace – Mitchell Corn Palace. It hosts a wide variety of events and offers a tour of it and its corn murals. But no time for that. It was a cool place to stop and walk around for a bit. It really was quite a site so we had to park and grab a photo. It had very colorful and spectacular turrets and domes. It could hold its own in Moscow’s Red Square, alongside Saint Basil’s Cathedral. Well, maybe my imagination was getting a little carried away.

Down the road we passed a bazillion signs for Wall Drug.

Wall Drug is perhaps the greatest tourist trap in history. Its billboard advertising may be the best I had ever seen. Seeing so many led to a new car game that rivaled Padiddle and Punch-bug.

“Wall Drug sign!”


You get sucked into this pit stop no matter how much you may try to resist it. Heck, it was way back in Minnesota that we spotted the first sign:

Wall Drug – 355 miles.

It was followed by periodic signs stretching across three states along I-90 West that read:

  • Wall Drug – Since 1931
  • Wall Drug – Coffee 5 Cents
  • 291 miles to Wall Drug
  • Wall Drug – Cowboy Orchestra Daily
  • Wall Drug – Featured on the Today Show
  • Hooked on Wall Drug
  • New T Rex at Wall Drug
  • Wall Drug – Sheriff on duty
  • Wall Drug – Western Oil Paintings
  • Wall Drug – Free water
  • Have You Dug Wall Drug
  • Save Energy – Stop at Wall Drug
  • Something to crow about at Wall Drug
  • Wall Drug – Rock Supplies
  • It’s a Blast at Wall Drug
  • Wall Drug – Advertised on London Buses
  • Homemade Donuts at Wall Drug
  • Leather Goods at Wall Drug
  • Wallways in Season
  • Wall Drug – Western Home Decore
  • Wall Drug – Homemade breakfast & rolls
  • Wall Buys Rocks
  • Find Us at
  • Wall drug as Told by Time
  • Wall Drug – Boots, Buckles, Belts

These were just some of the billboards. Quotes may not be exact. After all, we were traveling at about 75 miles per hour.

So after all that, tell me you wouldn’t roll off the exit and into Wall, SD for a peak to see what this place was all about. We did. Now it’s your turn.

Okay, after a day of driving, broken up by these little pit stops to see the Corn Palace and Wall Drug, I was ready to get out of the vehicle, stretch and walk Badlands National Park – in bits and pieces, driving from one vantage point to the next.

The long drive to the Badlands was filled with expectations. My daughter wanted to learn about the Lakota Indian heritage from this region. I think part of her fascination was that her school system back home was called Lakota. My son was enamored by outlaws and cowboys and wanted to know if gold was up in them-there hills. And my wife, she was diggin’ it because, well, she enjoys paleontology and geology. As for me, I just wanted to see the cool views and explore them up close on a hike or two.

Needless to say, there was plenty to fulfill all our interests and then some. From the get-go, I warned the kids not to get too close to the edge. I remembered a brochure stating this was one of the fastest eroding landscapes on Earth. This was after telling them to make sure they don’t step on a rattlesnake. So the next 10 minutes were spent coaxing the terrified youngsters out of the vehicle, reassuring them everything was safe.

Our first stop was faced with a “trail closed” sign.

The kids were the voice of reason saying, let’s turn back, but I saw many people beyond. Doggonit, in the Griswold spirit of refusing to obey a closed sign after coming all this way, I was pressing on. Miraculously, my wife, normally the ultra-conservative voice of reason, was hot on my heels. So we broke the Cardinal rule: Just because others are doing it doesn’t make it right.

“Better catch up, kids, or the rattlesnakes will get you.”

This was one of those panoramic landscapes where you do your best to take a picture, shift your hands steadily to the right, picking up where the last one left off, and snap another, repeat, another, and another. Before you knew it, you completed a circle.

“Not so close to the edge!”

That was my wife yelling at me. But I kept thinking that if I could get just a little bit closer, I’d be able to snap an even better shot.

“Get back here …NOW!”

Yep, she was getting hot.

One more step.


I looked around and found no sign of my wife and kids. I decided to abandon my photo-op and turned around. Getting back was a little scarier than going out on the rock limb. It was the sensation you get when you realized you climbed too high and wondered how you were going to get back down – only this was far out on a narrow and cracked rock ledge.

Back at our vehicle, I was met with more silence by my wife and a scolding by my kids – something about having no daddy mixed in there.

Anyway, the Badlands were an incredible sight. Being there, you realized that there was no way to capture the beauty on film. There was a never ending array of sharply eroded spires, pinnacles and buttes, creating 244,000 acres of rock outcrops blended with mixed grass prairie.

The Badlands were called “mako sica” by the Lakota, meaning “land bad.” This was due to the dangerous topography, extreme temperatures and lack of water sources. In the late 1800’s, bad deeds reflected its name. There were nearby events such as Wounded Knee and Ghost Dance. Ghost Dance was a spiritual movement that was needed to give the Lakota and their larger Great Sioux Nation a reason for hope as their culture was being destroyed by the gold rush and land grabs of the nearby Black Hills.

Long before people, other critters lived in the Badlands. The geologic conditions made this a Paleontologist’s dreamscape. Fossils galore have been discovered throughout the Badlands. It contains the world’s richest Oligocene epoch fossil beds dating back 37 million years. Mammoths roamed here as well as other mammals. In fact, the evolution of rhinoceroses and other animals are studied here because the elements are so kind to science.

After a very fun and educational visit to the museum/visitors center, the kids, now officially Junior Rangers, enjoyed our deep hike into the Badlands. We didn’t set out to go far but ended up feeling like we were in the Twilight Zone. It was difficult to judge depth of the landscape and our perception was that we had not wandered far until we looked back. Still, there were people hiking way beyond us. We were continuously lured from one rock shelf to another, across a ridge and down a path and then creatively weaved through a maze of outcrops of rock formations every which way. At one point, as I surveyed the tiers of rock with hikers’ heads popping up here and there, I had an urge to wield a huge Chuck E. Cheese hammer in a demented game of Whack-a-Mole.

I needed water!

My mind drifted to thinking, what if we did get bit by a rattlesnake WAY OUT HERE?

“Okay kids, time to go back.”

But which way was back?

Water. We need more water.

New worry: How long before the sun sets?

Then I wondered what kind of animals came out at night?

Once we were back at the car, it seemed the sun was shinier than an hour or so ago. There must had been some clouds before.

As we drove the ribbon of road taking us to and from scenic overlooks, I began to wonder which was the bigger workout; hiking aimlessly for hours or getting in and out of the vehicle dozens of times to take pictures.

I decided that I missed the days of actual camera film, which seemed so long ago. This limitless digital stuff enabled me to take picture after picture with no concern of film cost or developing fees.

That’s it. I have enough pictures (and video) of this place.

Nope! Gotta get that shot.

By now the kids were teasing me. Surprisingly, they weren’t in one of those perpetual “are-we-there-yet” moods.

“Daaaaaad, I think you really need a picture from that overlook (giggle).”

“Dad, check that view out, there’s a pull-off up there (snicker).”

My wife fell asleep.

This went on for quite some time and as worn out as I was, I just couldn’t resist.

So it goes.

As we wound our way out of the BADlands of photo-addiction hell, we saw a dozen vehicles parked on the edge of the road. They overlooked nothing but flat, empty, blotches of brown and green space as far as the eye could see. I couldn’t figure out why so it gave me good reason to wake up my wife.


“Grab the camera!”

By Rocco Satullo, your tour guide to fun!

Next Stop:  The Black Hills next right
last leftLast Stop: Ingalls Homestead


Ingalls Homestead

Last Stop  │  Next Stop

Laura Ingalls Homestead in De Smet SD

Between House On The Rock in Wisconsin and Ingalls Homestead in South Dakota, we pulled off I-90 for a quick stop in the little town of Blue Earth, Minnesota. We chose this quick pit stop because the Jolly Green Giant was there. Yes, one of those roadside attractions you have to spare 15 minutes to pull up and if anything, snap a few photos and be on your way. This novelty attraction stood 55 feet high.

Jolly Green Giant Roadside Wonder in Blue Earth MN

On this trip out west, my wife wanted to take a more leisurely trek than the monstrous hours of driving I had planned to get us to where I wanted to go, quicker.  When we plotted the trip I conceded to some concessions but should have looked at the fine print before being so agreeable.

Our second stop on our holiday road was none other than a little house on the prairie. I felt completely emasculated. I’ll admit, I watched the TV show like many people when I was a kid …but come on, did we really have to visit it?

As we closed in on nowheresville, South Dakota, I was being prepped. “Now I don’t know if this is the best little house site because there’re five or six across the Midwest,” my wife revealed casually.

My translation was – Great. Torture for the day.

Here’s a piece of information you need to know. If you ever DID watch the TV show, erase it from your head. “Why?” you ask. Because I was confused most of the day before learning that in real life, the Ingalls family didn’t live all that time in Walnut Grove, Minnesota. In fact, they were there just a few years. They actually lived in many places, including De Smet, South Dakota. And it was here that many of the books in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House book series were based, including By the Shores of Silver Lake, The Long Winter, Little Town on the Prairie, These Happy Golden Years, and The First Four Years.

The Ingalls lived in De Smet from 1879 to 1894 at the family homestead, a house in town built by Charles Ingalls, the dugout, the Brewster School where Wilder taught, and the surveyor’s home. All of which are open to visitors. Charles, Caroline, Mary, Carrie, Grace Ingalls and the unnamed infant son of Laura and Almanzo Wilder are buried in the De Smet Cemetery.


laura ingalls homestead little house on the prairie de smet SD

We tumbled out of the vehicle, stretched and wandered into a building adjacent to the parking lot. Inside it was a store. A nice lady took our money, explained a few things and handed us a map.

We exited the gift shop and went around back and saw history.

WOW! From our vantage point on a hill, a beautiful panoramic view of deep green grass met the blue and white sky. The wind breezed through our hair as if it were right on queue and the sun shone and the birds sang. Welcome to another world. And for the next few hours we not only got to see it. We got to live it. Thoroughly!

A teenage boy appeared by our side and said a group was about to head off to the schoolhouse by horse and covered wagon. We walked with him. The kid was as nice as nice can be and very informative and helpful. We already felt this was a gem of a stop and we had hardly seen a thing to this point.

Once we joined the other families on vacation in the covered wagon, we were off. One by one, each and every kid had a turn to take the reins and drive the horses. The trip to the schoolhouse wasn’t short so it allowed us to marvel more at the lush green grasses that swayed back and forth in the gentle breeze against a contrasting blue-white sky. There went the outhouse. Way up yonder we saw the schoolhouse. A day later we arrived. Not really. The whole ride probably only took 10 minutes at best.

wagon rides at ingalls homestead little house on the prairie de smet

As we rolled up in our horse-drawn wagon, the bell atop the roof peak rang loudly. The school teacher invited us in and instead of giving a boring description of this and that, she had the kids dress the part of prairie school children. Once they donned their new duds, they took their seats at desks in the one-room schoolhouse. Parents gathered along the walls and some desks in back and watched school take session. Each kid was asked to the front to participate in hands-on learning demonstrations. They LOVED it!

schoolhouse at ingalls homestead little house on the prairie de smet

A couple fathers and I headed back outside. After some small talk we haphazardly did a series of solo circles kicking rocks, gazing around, breathing the prairie air in deeply and listened to the kids enjoying themselves inside ringing the school bell. We reconvened with a mystery that seemed to dawn on us simultaneously. What happened to our guide?

Considering the flat fields of tall grass allowed us visibility to see forever and a day, the mystery began to unfold. Where did the kid go? We all seemed to receive non-verbal orders and went searching. One gent walked around the schoolhouse, another checked around the horses and wagon, I meandered back into the schoolhouse scanning every nook and cranny. When the three of us reconvened at the schoolhouse steps, we laughed aloud.


outhouse at ingalls homestead

Not here. We checked.

We squinted and looked as far as the eye could see and determined the boy couldn’t have walked back to the house and barn. It was simply too far to cover that kind of ground in that short a time.

By now the kids and wives had had their fill and filed out of the schoolhouse. Instinct kicked into the women and they noticed, too, something was awry. In fact, it took them much less time to question the whereabouts of our guide.

Once we all did another round of rounds, we reconvened in a large group in front of the schoolhouse. Only this time, laughter of the situation faded giving way to thoughts such as, “That’s a far walk back” and “Will this throw the day’s schedule out of whack?”

Interestingly, the kids didn’t give the fact we were all standing around stranded a thought or care in the world. They picked up sticks and rocks and tall grass and made things, played with things and then disappeared deep into the rhythmic blowing fields to where you could only see little heads bobbing up and down.

A light went off in several mothers’ heads. They whipped out cameras quicker than a gunslinger could draw his six-shooter. My wife captured our kids running through the golden glow of majestic grassland right at us with ear-to-ear grins. It was just like the opening scene of the TV show, Little House On The Prairie. If you have ever seen the show, you know what I’m talking about and no further explanation is needed. I’ll bet you can even hear the music!

Once the diversion ended we summoned the school teacher. She picked up an amazing piece of technology called a telephone (go figure) and called up to the main complex. A handful of minutes later a much anticipated call came back. No sign of the kid anywhere. Now there was restlessness and murmurs of disapproval.

Just then, as if someone said “POOF,” the boy was among us. I think our minds were as one when our puzzled looks revealed the same thought –“How did he do that?” This was followed by, “Where did he come from?”

Upon closer examination, we noticed his hair was awfully messy – a kind of matted mess as opposed to wind-blown. His eyes were unfocused and one side of his face was beat red. I think there may have even been a trace of drool that wasn’t entirely wiped away by his flannel sleeve.

He kind of looked puzzled as he looked back at us going about his routine getting the horses set for the ride back. After the school teacher said something to him that none of us could hear, his entire face turned beet-red and he could barely make eye contact with anyone. His voice even cracked with humility.

So it goes.

Ingalls Homestead Laura Ingalls Wilder Home in De Smet SD

On the return trip from the informative schoolhouse, everyone began chatting about the other things to see and do back at the Ingalls homestead. Our guide pointed out how crops were planted and explained how you can see clearly between each row straight on as well as diagonally. Then he admitted to planting the next crop himself. It was very crooked. We all had a nice belly laugh. And so did he.

Back at the homestead, each family went their separate way. Some went off to ride little carts behind ponies, some checked out the livestock and horse barn. We went to where an older lady had our daughter create a prairie doll and our son create an action figure. They used authentic tools and machines from the 1800s, shucking corn and making rope. The kids did all the work. The adults played too.

pioneer style doll out of corn husk, string and cloth

Afterward we headed to the house and took pictures when another lady corralled us and taught us to wash cloths prairie style. When the chores were done, we retired inside and the kids got to play the piano that Pa had bought Mary. Inside and out, we learned more than we thought there was too know about living life in this little house on the prairie and about the Ingalls family.

On the grounds were also a straw roof barn and a row of trees the Ingalls themselves planted.

Replicas of the Ingalls’ earlier homes were also open to explore such as the dugout. This was basically a tiny one-room living area carved into the earth just as the name suggests. Now that’s a rough way to hole up for the winter.

Ingalls family dugout home in de smet at ingalls homestead

The day concluded with a visit to the learning center and climb up Lookout Tower for a bird’s eye view of the entire homestead. For those interested, there were tiny covered wagon cabins to spend the night and a walking tour in the town of De Smet where other houses of the Ingalls were opened to see.

On this trip out west, it felt very fitting that we spent a day as pioneers. It set the mood for the trip early. And when all was said and done, after we’d return home seeing a wide variety of sites in 15 states, the Ingalls Homestead in De Smet, SD ranked number one for my 10-year-old daughter. So we Netflixed the old TV show.

By Rocco Satullo, your tour guide to fun!

Next Stop:  The Badlands next right
last leftLast Stop: House On The Rock


ingalls homestead covered wagon campground
Ingalls Homestead Tiny Covered Wagon Cabins

De Smet South Dakota Home of Ingalls Family
De Smet, South Dakota

ingalls homestead trees planted by ingalls family
Trees planted by the Ingalls family seen still today

Ingalls Family Piano
The Ingalls Family Piano

House on the Rock

Last Stop │  Next Stop

Infinity Room at House on the Rock in Wisconsin

Heading on this trip out west, my wife wanted to pick a few places to stop and breakup the drive for our family. Our first stop would be near Madison, Wisconsin to see House On The Rock. After all, she had read somewhere it was the state’s top attraction. I found that hard to believe because I had never even heard of it.

I figured Wisconsin’s House On The Rock had to be more than just some architecturally delightful house to be the state’s number one tourist attraction. And after paying admission, my expectations increased 20-fold. There goes the second day’s budget!

But let me say ahead of reading the rest, it was worth EVERY penny!

There were three different self-guided tours available but hey, we’re on vacation so when we do a place, I want to do it all! Fittingly, this all-in-one tour’s name was The Ultimate Experience Tour!

Mind you the reception building was top-notch itself from the foyer to the gift shop and even the bathrooms. The visuals hinted at what’s ahead. Both subtle and bold examples from amazing and eclectic collections of collectibles were strategically placed high, low and all around.

We ventured outside and along a roofed walkway that wound down a hill and around something new being constructed. The experience will teach you that this destination is always a work in progress forever growing and offering sights and sounds to blow your mind.

Between the visitors center and the House on the Rock is a sensational rock garden, complete with waterfall, little streams and beautiful plants. You can walk within it for a variety of photo ops. Like everything ahead it is grand in scope.

Now it was onward and upward, and upward …and upward to the House on the Rock. Upon entering I fell in love with the artistry of the low ceilings and multi-level design hiding what’s around each corner to maximize the surprise and delight when you get there. The fireplace, stone walls, architectural design and fascinating music machine replicating a complete chamber orchestra all made me want to take up residence. And I find out this is ONLY THE GATEHOUSE!

Moving into the real deal, I became envious. This is a dream. The House on the Rock has touched my soul. After wrapping through its every nook and cranny I was lost. Like a kid, on the tip of my lips were the words, “Can we do it again?” But my kids’ lips mouthed, “No, Dad, let’s keep going.”

So we did.

The library was multi-level. You pass it at the bottom and later from another room higher up. The rooms have discrete entrances and exits creating framed views through cracks and holes littered in the floors and walls. Sometimes you come around a corner and see more than expected. Other times you scrunch down to see a huge stone table and casual seating nestled into a wedge that whispers cozy and p-r-i-v-a-t-e. Another thought that entered my mind was God forbid there was ever a fire. This maze and its material would be a death-trap.

Okay back to happier thoughts.

It isn’t just the ambience of the House that grabs you. It’s what its creator collected to display in it. The collections throughout the house are from all corners of the world. The owner of the house definitely had an affinity for the Orient. Stained glass and music machines were also prevalent.

The crowning jewel of House on the Rock is its Infinity Room. It’s the 14th and final room of the house. How the architect of this place defied gravity and had the gumption to build a long room that narrows from left, right, top and bottom to a gradual elevation at the end, sticking 218 feet out over a scenic valley some 156 feet below, is truly amazing. The Infinity Room has 3,264 windows that serve as walls so you can take in the views. As you near the end of the room you may feel a tinge of fear for this just doesn’t feel right. The view into the room creates a mirage as if the room continues forever. It’s an architectural marvel.

Infinity Room at House on the Rock Wisconsin

You can even go up to the roof of the house and take in breathtaking panoramic views of the nature all around.

And with that, you are only a third of the way through the experience!

As is evident throughout the house, the person who created this masterpiece loved to collect things. And I mean collect until room after room was filled with some of the world’s largest, most unique and eclectic collections using 3-dimensional space like no “museum” I’ve ever seen. The intricacy is overwhelming.

Eventually, the house could not house these burgeoning collections. So the grounds are continually developing in order to offer the never-ending collecting that so obsessed its creator.

Who was this man so driven to create this one-of-a-kind destination that nothing in the world could ever claim to rival? His name was Alex Jordan, Jr. His vision and passion were awe-inspiring. Jordan enjoyed the view from atop “the rock” and let his imagination take it from there. He learned most things on the job in his quest to build something majestic. It is said that every penny he earned from giving tours dating back to the 1940s was reinvested into the house and its collections. His dreams often were so far before its time, it took years for technology to advance enough to achieve some of them. Such is the case with the construction of the Infinity Room.

More than 60 years have passed since Jordan looked about his open canvass of natural surroundings from his favorite sitting rock. Although he has since passed on, it was not without spending decades to make sure his successor was every bit committed to the house as he was to the day he died. His legacy lives and so does his house, thanks to Art Donaldson.

Keep in mind, the house is just the beginning of this full-day bombardment of the senses.

Enter the Mill House and see one of the world’s largest fireplaces. Collections here range from dolls to guns. Don’t miss the many mechanical banks. Moving past the antique guns and suits of armor, you’ll be on The Streets of Yesteryear. The red brick lane is a recreation of 19th Century Americana. At the other end begins a journey called Music of Yesteryear.

You’ll want to grab a bunch of tokens to play the enormous and intricate displays of music machines filling one room after another. Your jaw will drop at what your eyes and ears behold.

If you get hungry there’s a mouth-watering café that’ll pump enough new energy into everyone to continue on this bizarre odyssey. You won’t want to miss the 200-foot tall sea creature, the world’s largest carousel or three of the greatest theatre organ consoles ever built.

Along the way there is one treat after another. Kids love the old carnival games that come in the form of huge wooden boxes predicting your future or telling you what kind of person you are. Remember, tokens, tokens, tokens.

The 200-foot sea monster is a towering spectacle. A catwalk allows visitors to scale the behemoth getting a bird’s eye view of every detail. Again, space is maximized throughout the tour. There are visuals EVERYWHERE high, low, left, right and well, shake a snow globe and imagine being in the middle of it trying to eye-up every flake of snow because one after the next is a completely different and cool sight to see.

The Heritage of the Sea room not only has the sea creature dominating it but along the walkway going up, up, up to the top are more than 200 model ship displays pulling your attention from the sea creature because each of them are also intoxicating.

The model ships collection is just the start of many more eclectic displays that feature vintage automobiles, hot air balloons and multistory Rube Goldberg machine. Goldberg was known as a cartoonist and also for his series of complicated gadgets that performed simple tasks in indirect and convoluted ways.

Not only are the senses bombarded from every direction but the source of which comes in stunning collectibles that are miniature to monstrous.

One moment your sky is filled with model airplanes and the next, carousel horses. In the Carousel Room the music and motion take over. The walls AND CEILING are filled with carousel horses as ornate as anything you’ve seen. But the centerpiece is the fully operational carousel itself sporting 269 handcrafted animals – not one of them a horse! There are also 20,000 lights and 182 chandeliers on this amazing carousel.

Later you happen into the Carousel Room again at a higher elevation. You see the theme and flow of the original house is repeated throughout using all available space.

The last leg of the journey treats everyone to The Organ Room surrounded and filled by walkways, bridges and spiral staircases with the centerpiece being three of the greatest theatre organs ever built.

Okay you may need another breather or dinner. There’s no better place than Inspiration Point. The restaurant is indoors but also has outdoor accommodations including a quick jaunt through a portion of the valley to get a snail’s view of the House On The Rock and its Infinity Room defying all logic as it juts out over the valley.

Back inside there is even more to get to before the day is over.

Get lost in a world of miniatures. One of the world’s largest collection of doll houses features multiple styles and meticulous hand-crafted detail. If you are like me, I was fully intrigued inspecting each house with wonder until I realized just how many houses there were to see. Most of the collections are like this and after a awhile you may find yourself as I did, just breezing past the remainder of amazing collections wishing you had more time and energy to soak it all in.

If you don’t take up residency there, you can escape to the circus. Again, it is an epic display of miniatures. The pyramid of elephants was my favorite but the music filling the room sets the mood perfectly as it serenades all from an automated 40-piece band and an 80-piece orchestra. By the way, there’s also an enormous circus wagon –nothing miniature about that.

Do you get the picture, all space is used and it’s filled with things large and small. Additional galleries feature ivories to armories and much more. But there are a couple more must-sees!

It’s difficult not to be mesmerized by the Doll Carousel and its variety of hand-crafted and costumed dolls and accessories. And last but not least is the mid-air suspension of the display called Four Horseman of the Apocalypse. The artistry, size, position, lighting, and location of this captivating piece is a testament to the entire tour. Just when you least expect it, BAM, out of nowhere your line of vision is captivated by a stunning visual. What first appeared to be discretely placed soon becomes dominant. It is unassuming and overbearing at the same time.

Trust that it is no accident that House on the Rock serves up one great surprise after another. If you have more time to spend at this place than we did, you may consider the House on the Rock Inn and resort. Begin your tour at

And just when we thought we’d seen it all, we saw the strangest cloud formation when we left a restaurant later that evening.

By Rocco Satullo, your tour guide to fun!

Next Stop:  Ingalls Homesteadnext right
last leftLast Stop: Feelin’ “The Heat!”

weird clouds strange cloud formations

Feelin’ “The Heat!”

Last Stop  │  Next Stop

Indiana dust storm

I was in a melancholy mood when I went to the post-office. I had to pay a speeding ticket I received in a little town in Illinois named Galena. I was convinced that I was a victim of a speed trap. However, I was sure there would be hell-to-pay if I challenged this officer after what I had unknowingly done to him.

Our family of four was on the first-day drive of our vacation out west. After high winds, a dust storm and plenty of ugly gray windmill farms throughout Indiana and Illinois, we were happy to be closing in on our first destination. The road was winding through trees, up and down hilly countryside, when I saw the new speed limit sign. It was about the same time a patrol car passed from the opposite direction. I didn’t see the cruiser brake, slow or turnaround through my rear-view mirror. We rounded the bend and turned the music back up.

The GPS was providing our navigation and we were listening to the MP3 playing Holiday Road by Lindsey Buckingham – a fitting song if you ever saw National Lampoon’s Vacation. Bobbing our heads and singing along, we drove over a hill and became mesmerized by a picturesque town ahead.

The hillside view of Galena was just gorgeous!

Our vehicle echoed with, “Look at THIS town, check out the building over there, no –look at that, we need a picture.”

The spontaneity quickly turned to, “Stop there, no –turn there, turn again, WAIT! There’s a cop behind us with his lights on.”

I pulled into a roadside parking space as I replayed our course in my mind. All I could imagine was that I must have rolled through a stop sign.

I rolled my window down, feeling the heat and precipitation only it had nothing to do with the muggy weather. This officer was in my ear, spitting and shouting like a drill sergeant would to a new recruit.

“Don’t they pull over to the right in Ohio!” he hollered. It wasn’t a question.

I thought for sure this guy was gasoline and I was a lit match so I proceeded with caution and kindness. But he’d have none of it, except my license, registration and proof of insurance.

He remained livid and shouted plenty more before storming back to his cruiser.

Then, we waited …and waited …and waited.

Meanwhile, I had to explain to my nine-year-old daughter and seven-year-old son that their dad was not going to jail (at least I didn’t think I was) but was most definitely going to get a ticket. My mind drifted to paying a fine and whether or not my insurance rate would go up. What a way to blow the budget on the first day of vacation!

The policeman returned and the puzzle pieces fell into place. Here, it turned out he had been in the cop car I thought didn’t turn around wa-a-a-ay back on that country road. Now I’m not sure if he ever had his siren on because the music wasn’t THAT loud. The kids would have complained otherwise. His flashing light was not one mounted to the exterior of the car. Rather it was flashing from the interior. The officer ensued in what was a low-speed-chase covering a couple miles, by my estimation. The cop was convinced he was “chasing” defiant tourists, when in actuality our attention had been bent on taking photographs.

Ticket apparent, I said as little as I had to when he returned to my window.

Later, I read in a magazine that Galena was one of the hundred places I must see before I die.

And we never did take a picture of it!

By Rocco Satullo, your tour guide to fun!

Next Stop: House on the Rock next right
last leftLast Stop: Out West Adventures

More Out West Stops Coming Soon

Email for a free subscription.

House On The Rock

Laura Ingalls Homestead

Badlands National Park

The Black Hills & Mt. Rushmore

Yellowstone National Park

Grand Teton National Park

Capitol Reef National Park

Natural Bridges National Monument

Bryce Canyon National Park

The Grand Canyon

Petroglyths National Monument

Cadillac Ranch

Route 66

Branson, Missouri

Lewis & Clark Museum