Monday, July 28, 2008

America, You’re Beautiful!—Part 3: Murdo, SD

Fresh from the funk and culture of Louisville, KY, I continued my search for “genuine America” as I headed back west along the Interstate 90—and found it in the lazy town of Murdo in South Dakota. Located 173 miles east of Rapid City and Sturgis, the site of an annual motorcycle rally (August 4-10, 2008) that draws participants from all over the world, Murdo is nothing to look at, really, but I desperately needed to stop and rest for the night. The bright yellow sign of the Super 8 Motel beckoned and I decided to try it. Not only was the Super 8 too expensive for my now slim pocket book but I decided that the place lacked character, like all the handy chain hotels along the interstates. The receptionist politely directed me down the town’s business road and I encountered the charming Sioux Motel, with its original sign that featured a Sioux Indian with full headdress. Now, this was more like it…

“We just put in a new floor and this new reception desk yesterday,” Bonnie, the co-proprietor of the Sioux Motel informed me proudly and couldn’t help sliding her hand across the smooth marble top. I was instantly charmed by her friendly but humble nature. The motel lobby walls were adorned with an interesting selection of native art, breast plates, musical instruments, etc., which reminded me that the town was located adjacent to a reservation.

Bonnie and her husband Don have run the motel for twenty-one years, competing with a growing number of chain hotels, which charge close to double the price. I can tell you that they don’t provide double of anything else to the tired customer looking for a clean and bright suite with a comfortable bed to sleep in. The Sioux Motel also provides the other comforts that you would expect in a chain motel, like free wireless internet, coffee, TV, air-conditioning and a continental breakfast. The difference was that I got to meet and support a local independent and paid half the price. Now, how cool is that!

Right across the street from the motel, you can enjoy a meal at the Rusty Spur, a funky western-style steakhouse that features charbroiled steaks, salad bar and great drinks. Or you can sidle down the road a ways to The Diner, adjacent to Dave Geisler’s Pioneer Auto Show and Antique Town. Neither of these establishments I found to be overly-touristy or full of the pomp of what I call American Tall Tales of Advertizing. They were more genuine, like the town itself. Like the several antique stores that line the business route, including Ben Dolloff’s Silver Spittoon Antiques, where among the fine antiquities you can walk away with a buffalo skull for $45.

It was midday, the heat was rising, and I was wondering where all the locals were; the place looked deserted. The oppressive heat had me perspiring with thoughts of ice cream, so I turned to the Diner for a late lunch. It doesn’t look like much on the outside—there’s an old white Buick perched on the roof, but other than that, the restaurant has no particularly welcoming façade. Once inside, I found the whole town in there, most of them enjoying the special, which consisted of a 2-piece chicken dinner with mashed potatoes (and gravy of course!), beans and a lovely soup—all for $5.95. So, that’s where everyone was! The décor, which included stylized paintings of vintage cars, was reminiscent of the days of Poodle Skirts and sodas. I almost expected James Dean to sidle in behind me as I found a seat.

“You better give her a bite,” Dianne, the feisty blonde waitress chided the customer beside me who was wolfing down his hearty vegetable soup as his girlfriend looked on longingly. “Her mouth is hanging open!” Dianne, a native of Vivian, has waitressed in Murdo for over twenty-five years and obviously likes it there.

As the waitresses pushed about to get orders, one young waitress scoffed loudly at Dianne in mock accusing tones, “Did you blow in my ear?”

“No, I just had to stop short,” Dianne explained, then quipped back with a mischievous twinkle in her eyes, “But I will if you want me to.”

“Maybe later,” the other teased back.

I paid Phyllis, the cashier for my lunch and noticed the sign perched there that said, “Hi, You’re Among Friends”. It made me smile.

I intended to stop briefly in the Pioneer Auto Show but found myself lingering. There was so much to see! Set in an authentically laid out prairie town, the show features over 250 pioneer cars and vintage motorbikes, tractors and other equipment dating back to the turn of the century. Established in 1954 by A.J. Geisler, and now run by his son and grandson Dave and David Geisler, the museum showcases Tom Mix’s 1931 Packard, Mickey Rooney’s race car, “Big Wheel” and the “General Lee”, the 1969 Charger from the Dukes of Hazard, among other interesting relics. For instance, I was overjoyed to see a Tucker, the car featured in the movie of the same name. David took me around and I just had to take a shot of him beside the 1968 Shelby Mustang fastback. Over 40 vintage bikes are also showcased, including Elvis Presley’s 1976 Harley Davidson Electroglide. My advice to you is to make sure you have time to linger. Then head over to the diner for some ice cream or a malt.
Post Script, October 2009:
I once again found myself touring across America and somehow couldn't help stopping in Murdo again! (I think it exists in another dimension that likes to suck me in)...This time, I spent the evening in Tim's bar at the Rusty Spur, where I got to meet Tim himself (who is a bit of a pool shark) and several of the locals, like Cody (no relation to the other Cody), who went all the way back to his house to fetch me some hazelnut cream after I asked the bewildered bartender if she made special coffees.
The locals got a kick out of my mobile office, as I set up my computer and papers then began to work alongside a tasty chicken meal and a "Fat Tire" (an amber ale from Colorado). But it wasn't until I showed Tim my blog post of Murdo that they came by and shared their stories with me. When he saw Bonnie's picture on the top, Tim shouted to several people in the bar to come over and soon a small crowd assembled around my mobile office to see. It never ended after that. Murdo is a great example of why I love travelling across America. Murdo is charming because its people are charming, welcoming and genuine.
Next time you're whizzing along the interstate, slow down and give Murdo a looksee...

Sioux Motel: U.S. Highway I-90 and 83, Murdo, South Dakota 57559; (605) 669-2422 (Don and Bonnie Hullinger, proprietors)
Pioneer Auto Show and Antique Town: Interstate 90, 503 E. 5th St., Murdo, SD 57559;
email—; (605) 669-2691 (Dave Geisler, proprietor)

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit Visit for more about her writing.


Jean-Luc Picard said...

This is where travellers need to go...the see the real thing, and not just what everybody else says.

sfgirl said...

LOL! You're right, Jean-luc. Better than "reality TV"!...

Footsteps said...

Great post, Nina! The "scenery" of a travel experience is not relegated to geology.

Sounds like you're still having a great adventure...