CC Road Trip: Across the USA in a 2016 Ford Focus; Part 1 of 2

The adventurous Miss Erin D had already spent the past two summers in the west, and now for 2024 she had done it again.

Her summer engineering co-op job was in south central British Columbia, and this time she would need the use of a vehicle. To top it off she did not have time after her last exam to move out of her place in Ottawa, reorganize at home, and drive west before her first day of work.  So, the plan became that she would fly out, and the ever supportive parents booked a week of vacation and planned a car delivery route through the northern United States.

Of our too many vehicles, we decided to go with the 2016 Ford Focus SE 2.0 5-speed.  I’d picked it up as a student car bargain a few months before, it had been crashed, written off and repaired but it drove well and had only 84,000 km on it (52,000 miles).  

We left bright and early on April 25th. Our mascot for the trip was a laminated photo of Fozzie Bear and Kermit the Frog in their Studebaker from The Muppet Movie.

Moving right along, we left southern Ontario and crossed into the US over the Blue Water Bridge in Sarnia. The border guard said “You’re driving that little car to the West Coast? That’s crazy.” but let us in anyway.  We counted 45 dead deer at the side of the highway in Michigan, stayed with some great old friends in South Bend, navigated around Chicago and piled on as many miles as we could before the end of day two.

Because that’s where things started to get more interesting.  We got off the interstate for a day to visit Walnut Grove Minnesota and De Smet South Dakota, both historical homes to the Ingalls family of the Little House on the Prairie book series.  I had re-read all the books to my daughter as bedtime stories some years ago, so this was quite interesting to see the real houses, school and farms where they lived and worked.

One standout thought from that day was how lucky I felt to be able to cover all this ground on a smooth divided highway, and not take weeks or months to do the journey with a wagon and oxen team.  No wonder Ma put her foot down and made Pa settle permanently in De Smet after crisscrossing the great plains for a decade.

This highly ironic sign also reminded me that the Ingalls family has no living descendants.

West of Minnesota the speed limit on I-90 was 80mph (70 mph for heavy trucks) which felt a bit frantic in the Focus so we decided to split the difference and cruise at 75.  This resulted in just over 3,000 RPM in 5th gear.  

It rained all night in Murdo SD, which was bad news for us.  At least I got to take in this glorious 1970 Buick Electra, which provided an interesting contrast to the Focus in terms of space utilization.  I spoke to the owner at breakfast, he and his partner were rather disgusted with the weather and heading south.  I had planned to hike in Badlands National Park that morning, which was not going to work out.

But all was not lost, because Murdo SD is home to Pioneer Auto Show, a museum with over 275 cars, farm implements, and bric a brac including a statue of Jar Jar Binks and a sheep powered washing machine!

That I was able to convince Mrs DougD to do this will tell you how bad the weather actually was.  Here we found a suitable Studebaker for Fozzie and Kermit.

I thought about my high school friend Ted here, because the AMC Rebel Machine is basically the high performance version of the 1972 Matador hardtop I had as a teen.  The SC/Rambler is a twin to Ted’s high school car, except that both our cars had straight six engines and primer blotches.

The scale of the collection is overwhelming, and I found myself asking “How do you keep all this maintained?”  The answer is of course, without a Smithsonian scale budget you don’t, and a veil of decay hung over some of the buildings and cars.  Still, a highly recommended side trip especially if it’s just above freezing and raining.

Badlands and bad weather.  When it rains here the trails turn to greasy, sticky mud so there was no hiking for us.  We bundled up and stuck to the boardwalks and scenic overlooks.

Even with grey skies it’s a spectacular landscape and we resolved to return someday, preferably at sunrise during a period of dry weather.

After Badlands we did Wall Drug of course.  This is a store whose first gimmick was free ice water in the 1930s, and it has since morphed into one of those uniquely American tourist traps.  Their advertising is ubiquitous for hundreds of miles.  (Okay, okay, we’ll go!  Just stop with the signs already!)   Here Mrs. DougD rides the Jackalope.

And contemplates the quality of the Wall Drug coffee and donut.  Truly an interesting diversion, but my tip is don’t get the 5 cent coffee, it’s not worth it.

That evening we still had time to view Mount Rushmore, before continuing on to nearby Hill City.  Alas the presidents had their heads in the clouds, and are just out of sight in this photo.

Checking in to Mountainview Lodge we were unexpectedly presented with a couple of free check in beers.  We gamely enjoyed them on the front porch, despite the snowflakes flying by.  We also had a nice chat with the owner who had relocated from California to South Dakota’s Black Hills.  As usual on the entire trip we found Americans to be friendly, eager to talk and interesting to listen to.

The next morning dawned cold but clear, on our pre-breakfast walk I encountered this 1970’s Ford F700 firetruck.  It had both a 429 badge on the hood and a FOR SALE sign.  After scraping a thick layer of frost from the Focus windows we backtracked and returned to Mount Rushmore.

Now that’s more like it.  We had been warned by several people that Rushmore was better in photos than in person, but we were rather impressed.  There were perhaps 30 other people there to enjoy the sight with us, and we were often alone walking the pleasant trail that allows you a more close up look.  Judging by the amount of parking lots and structures we figured it must be absolutely bonkers busy during high season.

Leaving Mount Rushmore and Hill City I deviated from my pre-prepared route maps and let Google Maps pick a more direct route to our next destination, Devil’s Tower in Wyoming.  This began on the delightful Deerfield Road, which eventually turned to gravel.  Later we somehow wound up on Flag Mountain Road, which was basically a forest access road.  Very scenic, but definitely not the quickest path despite what the app said.

This detour also coated the Focus in a thick layer of fine red clay dust, which resisted several car washes and will be visible in the rest of the trip pictures.  Here we are thankfully back on a paved road and approaching Devils Tower, which is as far as we’ll go for today.