Lonely road in South Dakota

Take a city girl out of the city and things can get a little scary. As a city girl, I never worry about spending time in Chicago, even though my city has had some bad press lately. But put me on an endless road across South Dakota, with little traffic and less civilization and I start to hyperventilate.What if the car breaks down? What if there’s no cell service? What if we get lost? Who’s gonna help us then?

Traveling with my husband, a gearhead whose hobby is rebuilding classic cars, allayed most of my fears about a mechanical breakdown. So long as whatever broke didn’t need a part we would have to fashion out of prairie grass and mud, MacGyver-like, chances are he could fix it.

As Navigator-in-Chief, I had planned ahead for those spots along the route where cell service would not be available so my navigation app would not work: I packed a map.

These nearly empty water bottles were all we had when we arrived at the Badlands.

These nearly empty water bottles were all we had when we arrived at the Badlands.

What You Really Need for a South Dakota Road Trip

As it turned out, the real dangers of our road trip had nothing to with the mechanical or navigational challenges I had prepared for. Rather, the real dangers were thirst, hunger, and running out of gas.

So used to our comfy urban world, where there’s a restaurant, convenience store, gas station, water fountain, bathroom, etc., within a few blocks of wherever we are, we did not adequately prepare for the long stretches of South Dakota where we would be without access to food, water or gasoline.

When we arrived at the breathtaking Badlands National Park, my kids jumped out of the car, ready to move after such a long stretch on the road. They saw the rugged terrain as a natural playground and began scampering over the rocks … as I read the signs warning that the Badlands are a dangerous place to be and that no one should venture there without an adequate supply of water.

We, of course, were nearly out of water. And there was no place to get more.

Luckily, it was a comfortable 85 degrees that day (not the 110 you would expect in the Badlands in the height of summer) and we stayed close enough to where we parked the car that when the kids got thirsty, it was easy to jump back in the car and head off to find water and food (because we also neglected to bring enough food with us–a serious error when traveling with teens).

Fill the Gas Tank When You Can

But the real moment of terror came when I realized that if that little gas-pump-shaped icon lit up on the dashboard and the bell dinged, we would be in big trouble.

We tried never to let the gas gauge fall below the half-way mark during our South Dakota trip.

We tried never to let the gas gauge fall below the half-way mark during our South Dakota trip.

Even in the city, that little ding can strike fear into my heart. It signals that our Dodge SUV is down to its last gallon. That’s fine if I’m driving through the city, where there’s a gas station every few blocks. But it seems like the bell always sounds when I am sitting in rush hour traffic, going nowhere on a Chicago expressway.

But if the bell should ding on a lonely South Dakota road with little civilization–or worse, on a winding road leading through Custer State Park–I would be in a full-blown panic.

So we never let that happen.  Every time we saw a station, we stopped and filled up.

Disclosure: State Farm provided me with a Road Trip Emergency Kit, which we luckily never needed. The opinions and thoughts about road trip safety are all my own.