The Concrete Highway to Sioux Falls


I woke up early at my rest area ‘hotel’ and pulled out around 6:30 in the morning. The rest area was about 30 miles from the Indiana border and soon I had crossed the state line.

It may just have been the hour – very early for a Saturday – but the Indiana highways were deserted, except for truckers. I don’t mind driving with truckers; I know that the height of the vehicles intimidates some people, but I’ve always found trucks to be slightly slow, uniformly good drivers, and generally considerate when passing. They’re the cows of the highway. Indiana had rolling hills & small farms bordered by trees, and fog rose from the valleys as I sped by.

I’d held off refueling in Ohio, under the theory that red states would have cheaper gasoline (lower taxes). Unfortunately, that wasn’t true for Indiana. But at least I saw something interesting at the gas station – a disassembled plane! After getting gas, Indiana passed by rapidly and soon enough I was in Illinois.

Plane at gas station
Probably faster than driving…

Chicago was a bit congested, even at 8 am, but the driving itself was straightforward: stay on I-90 through the entire city. I only covered the northeast corner of the state, near Lake Michigan, but even that tiny blip on the map proved to be nearly 100 miles of driving!

Then it was on to Wisconsin. It’s interesting, each arbitrary state line seemed to coincide with a change in scenery outside the window. The elevation changes became more severe in Wisconsin, and as I went further north the soil grew sandier. This coincided with a disappearance of farms, and I was reminded of the deserted pine barrens in southern New Jersey (but… without the pines). Wisconsin also marked the start of long-distance concrete highways.

Concrete is reputed to be a far more durable material for roads than asphalt, and there was markedly less construction on roads that were concrete compared to those that were asphalt. On the other hand, the driving feels a bit rougher and the concrete causes tires to make a high-pitched whining noise. It’s a sacrifice I’ll make to avoid construction.

The Mississippi River marks the boundary between southern Wisconsin and Minnesota/Iowa. Here the demarcation between states at least has a sensible geographic origin, and Minnesota was obviously different from Wisconsin – as if the topsoil of Wisconsin had been stripped off and deposited to the west. Farms returned… lots of farms. The bridge across the Mississippi is extremely high, and the highway rapidly gains elevation after you cross the Minnesota border. It may have been an optical illusion, but low, gathering storm clouds made me feel like I was at an extremely high elevation, as though I were somehow closer to the sky. Before, when I heard of Minnesota I had always pictured dense, shadowy forests, with voyageurs silently paddling between lakes. But near the southern border, it’s much closer to Iowan cornfields than anything else. The biggest city in this area is Rochester, with a population of 108k. The next biggest, I believe, is Mankato, with 40 thousand. The state feels deserted.

The concrete highways remain in this area, and the speed limit is 70 mph, so I made good time, but the only thing to distract me was the freakish gusts against the side of the van. In Minnesota, alone among the states I’ve visited, there were huge windfarms built to capitalize on those gusts – hundreds of slowly spinning turbines were scattered across the state, extending beyond visible range.

It’s 270 miles, 5 hours across Minnesota, and by the last two I had grown desperate enough to give up on music; I switched to audio lectures and spent the rest of the drive learning about South American pre-history.

Picture of the highway
270 miles of this

I’d set my endpoint for the day as Sioux Falls, South Dakota – the biggest city in South Dakota at 163k people and right across the border from Minnesota.

I didn’t get the full Sioux Falls experience, but the area I visited looked like every suburban center across the country, and not at all like a city. I felt just like I were in Clifton Park, except the license plates had changed and the population only looked 90% white.

I found a Wal-Mart parking lot and settled in for the night. When I woke up later I took a look out the window. Nearby two huge RVs towing jeeps were parked, as well as a truck with trailer, and various other cars. So it seems that Wal-Mart is a popular campground, and I repaid them by grabbing some food in the morning.

I also discovered that charging my laptop requires more power than the van is capable of providing, and blew out the circuit breaker on the van’s cigarette lighter. This is why updates have been less frequent than I’d hoped.

3 thoughts on “The Concrete Highway to Sioux Falls

  1. Ernest Dagnorian

    Loving the blog but can we haz more cats plz? Also how did you get around the laptop charging problem?

    Good luck and god speed. May the gods reward you with a delectable treat or two on the highway to cali..perhaps a fair maiden to act as travel companion.


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