Adventure of a lifetime: At age 60, Decatur man travels 3,800 miles through Midwest to enjoy Americana such as the Corn Palace, Matchstick Marvels and Mount Rushmore

By Cameron Reeder | Living 50 Plus

Cameron Reeder is a resident of Decatur who wrote this account of his trip through the Midwest for Living 50 Plus.

I tuned 60 on June 22. What happened? Suddenly, I find that I am old. Wasn’t I just 18 last year? I think everyone has asked these questions at some point in his or her life.

Sixty can be quite a milestone. Therefore, I decided that the trip I have been talking about for the past 10 years was a now or never event. We have all had cabin fever for the last year-and-a-half from the COVID protocols, and I was ready for an adventure.

Armed with lots of vacation time from my 17-year career at Acme Brick, I set out on an eight-day journey through 11 states. My ultimate destination was Mount Rushmore, the jewel of the American vista, more than 1,400 miles from Decatur. My circular itinerary was packed with things I had to see and do, since this might very well be the last time I undertook an extended road trip. And each time I sat down at my computer with some travel literature, it grew again.

My grown son Christian graciously agreed to accompany me on this journey. His mother wanted to be sure I had an adult along to keep an eye on me.

Many people are unaware of what they are missing by being on the open road. Flying to a destination is a time saver, yes, but driving gives you so many opportunities to visit sites, like the World’s Largest Ketchup Bottle in Illinois, the World’s Largest Ball of Twine in Kansas and restaurants that serve frog legs and rattlesnake.

My trip out took me past Nashville, the Music City; Paducah, Kentucky, home of the International Quilting Museum; and Metropolis, Illinois, home of the Superman statue. From there, it was just a hop and skip to St. Louis and the Gateway Arch.

The 630-foot-tall structure opened in January 1967. The stainless-steel arch has a timeless appearance that belies its age, which incidentally, is still younger than I am.

We continued our journey of western expansion to Kansas City, Missouri, and overnighted by tent at Owl Creek RV Park in Odessa, Missouri. (May I add that my camping life was changed when I discovered the cot. It’s like sleeping in a hammock, but with better back support.)

Kansas City, here we are

After getting our campsite set up, we drove into Kansas City and devoured some outstanding barbecue and ribs at Arthur Bryant’s. The barbecue restaurants in Kansas City make their sauce differently than Decatur’s Memphis in May champion Big Bob Gibson, so the taste is quite unique to a Southerner.

Stuffed, but still hungry for adventure, we marveled at the architecture and the fountains around the city. Kansas City boasts more fountains than any city other than Rome. We got to see a few, but my goal was to see the famous façade of the Central Branch of the Public Library. The painted exterior looks like a giant bookshelf featuring 25 volumes more than 22-feet-high and 9-feet-wide, including my favorite, “Lord of the Rings.”

Before departing Kansas City, Christian and I stopped by the National World War I Memorial and Museum. This museum opened in 1926 and was dedicated as the country’s official WWI museum in 2004. The memorial was on a grander scale than I imagined with an obelisk that reached into the Kansas City sky. What a tribute to those who fought and died in the war to end all wars from 1914 to 1918. The view of the city skyline from the lawn was spectacular.

Headed north toward Sioux Falls, South Dakota, we deviated slightly to enter Iowa. It was in the quaint town of Gladbrook that we met our good friends Kevin and Leannda Sanders. Kevin is an instructor at Iowa State University working on his doctorate in agricultural education and Leannda is an NICU nurse. Both are on loan to Iowa from Decatur.

Gladbrook is home to one of the most unusual attractions in the United States — Matchstick Marvels. This museum is a testament to patience and insanity. Artist Patrick Acton is responsible for the more than 70 matchstick creations formed from more than seven million matchsticks. He has painstakingly recreated landmarks, such as the U.S. Capitol and Notre Dame, as well as the Space Shuttle and the Mars Rover.

Leaving Gladbrook for Sioux City was like a peaceful dream. We drove through a sea of corn punctuated by hundreds of wind turbines. The contrast of the giant white turbines against the lush green of the fields was surreal. We felt tiny under the shadow of those mighty windmills, which we would see again in Wyoming, New Mexico, Texas and Oklahoma.

South Dakota scenes

In Sioux Falls, we set up at the KOA Campground, which proved a pleasurable stop with a wonderful staff. Early the next morning, we visited Falls Park along the Big Sioux River. We witnessed 7,400 gallons of water falling more than 100 feet every second. A five-story observation tower provided a bird’s eye view of the park and the Falls Overlook Café.

Sioux Falls is also known for its Sculpture Walk. This display in downtown features the largest annual exhibit of sculptures in the world. Artists loan a piece to the city in the spring and they are displayed year-round. After a public vote, the winning sculpture is purchased for the city’s permanent collection.

On the way out of the city, we saw the Arc of Dreams, a sculpture, which spans the river. After about an hour of driving, we arrived in Mitchell, South Dakota, at the famous Corn Palace.

There has been a corn palace in the town since 1892. The current building has been around 100 years. It originally served as a central gathering point for local festivities and sporting events. Now it is a tribute to all things corn. The outside of the building is a Moorish Revival facade with corncob veneer and murals formed from corn colors. These are replaced once a year. Inside, there are historical exhibits. This popular attraction draws half a million visitors annually.

Our next stop en route to Mount Rushmore was the Dignity of Earth and Sky Sculpture, looking over the Missouri River. From here we could see the entire valley. It was breathtaking. The sculpture is composed of stainless steel and is 50-feet high. It was created by South Dakota artist Claude Lamphere and depicts a Lakota Native American woman in plains regalia with a star quilt.

Soon after, we arrived at the Badlands, a beautiful, desolate destination, which the Native Americans named the “mako sica” or “land bad.” Extreme temperatures and lack of water were part of the reason for this distinction. It is 240,000 acres of eroded buttes and towers. But even so, it was gorgeous.

Leaving the Badlands, we entered Wall, South Dakota. Wall Drug is one of the must-see stops. It is a unique collection of shops all under one roof. It was there that we enjoyed a Buffalo Burger at the Wall Drug Store Café and had our photo made astride a giant saddled jackalope.

We entered Keystone, South Dakota, at night, and spotted Mount Rushmore bathed in light. We camped at Palmer Gulch, and sleeping under the stars was never more beautiful in this picturesque campground. I had never seen so many stars.

When we awoke, we proceeded to the Crazy Horse Memorial. The face of Crazy Horse is bigger than Mount Rushmore. It has been funded by the public and is managed through the Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation, a non-profit organization. It depicts the Oglala Lakota warrior Crazy Horse sitting astride his pony and pointing to his tribal land. This memorial was commissioned by Henry Standing Bear and has been under construction since sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski began in 1948.

Custer State Park is a beautiful scenic drive, but also a wildlife refuge. It is South Dakota’s largest state park at 71,000 acres. It was named for Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer, with his rank from the post-Civil War Army. We saw few animals at first, then five small male bison. When we had resigned ourselves to the possibility that we might not see more, we proceeded along the drive. Suddenly, we topped a hill and before us was a herd of hundreds of the majestic animals.

Faces of 4 presidents

We drove Needles Parkway around curving roads bordering spectacular scenic vistas and through tunnels, including the Needles Eye. Finally, we drove onto the Mount Rushmore complex and got as close as we could to the monument of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial is a carving on a granite mountain in Keystone, South Dakota. Towering at an elevation of 5,700 feet, with each face more than 60-feet high, the sculpture of the four presidents has come to be associated with patriotism. It was carved by sculptor Gutzon Borglum from 1927 to 1941. What you may not know is the reason for Borglum’s choice of presidents. According to experts, Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln were selected to represent America’s birth, growth, development and preservation.

After leaving Rushmore, our return trip started. Heading south, we made our way through Wyoming into Colorado, and stopped off in Colorado Springs. We were guests at the home of our friends Steve and Jaime Sellers. A hot shower, warm meal and soft bed were just what the doctor ordered after days in a tent.

The next morning, we drove to Garden of the Gods. This is a registered National Natural Landmark. Not only is this a beautiful scenic area with 300-foot rock towers, there is also a nature center and museum. Christian and I enjoyed the air-conditioned museum and terrace overlooking both the Garden and Pike’s Peak before taking the driving tour.

A few miles down the road, we saw the Manitou Cliff Dwellings. These ancestral Puebloan dwellings were home to the Native American Anasazi. These 700-year-old ruins opened to the public in 1907. There are about 40 distinct rooms constructed into the side of the mountain.

From here, the drive to Amarillo, Texas, was daunting, but wondrous. We drove south through Colorado, where we encountered very few exits, rest stops or even houses. For much of the drive, there were no billboards. This made for a wide-open view of pastures stretching out under the sky.

The only stop we made prior to Amarillo was in Capulin, New Mexico. Capulin Volcano National Monument is a 30,000-year-old dormant volcano. We made the stop in the rain, but were unable to ascend to the rim due to lightning.

We finally arrived in Amarillo with a ravenous appetite. And in Amarillo, that can only mean one thing — The Big Texan Steakhouse. This famous Texas restaurant boasts the 72-ounce steak challenge seen on “Man vs. Food.” If you can down this thing along with all the fixings, you eat free. We were hungry, but not that hungry.

Because of rain, we were forced to seek shelter at the local hotel. The next day, before departing, we made a brief stop on Historic Route 66 to see The Cadillac Ranch. Created by three men from the artist collective known as Ant Farm, the art installation has been welcoming visitors to Amarillo since 1974. While we were there, many young people braved the ankle-deep mud to add their own spray can tribute to the installation.

It was thrilling to drive on the fabled Route 66, also known as the Main Street of America, established in 1926. Our final stop along Route 66 was the Oklahoma City National Memorial on the grounds of the former Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. The memorial is dedicated to the 168 people killed and the 608 wounded by a bomber in April 1995. We gazed down at the reflecting pool and across the landscape at the chair sculptures — large chairs for adults and small ones for children — representing each of those who died in the blast.

We overnighted in Fort Smith, Arkansas, at the KOA. We had a delicious meal at the Brickhouse Brewery. This repurposed old warehouse building, complete with stained glass accents, had a loud, lively atmosphere. After dinner, we strolled around looking at some of the murals in downtown.

Finally, we stopped off in Memphis to visit family and devour some delicious food from Central BBQ.

We dragged into Decatur late on Saturday evening, glad to be home and off the road, but so thankful for the many wonderful sights we saw. We had covered 3,800 miles and 11 states in eight days.