Life on the road: Author documents travels through the Dakotas on Highway 83
MITCHELL, S.D. — If life is a highway, then Stew Magnuson knows how to live. And so do the countless souls he encountered while writing his latest book, “The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83: The Dakotas.”
Magnuson, an award-winning author and journalist now based in Arlington, Va., said he took the North and South Dakota portion of the trip in September 2009, when he traveled from the highway’s origins in North Dakota to its intersection with Interstate 70 in Kansas.
As he traveled down U.S. Highway 83, which stretches 1,885 miles north to south from Westhope to Brownsville, Texas, Magnuson stopped along the way, recording the people, places and landscapes he encountered. It was a chance to travel down the highway and encounter historical vignettes, and weave them into the narrative of the region.
“I call this history by serendipity,” he said. “If you took 50 people … and said look for some historical stories, you’d have 50 different books.”
In South Dakota, the highway takes a slightly meandering path through Pierre and Fort Pierre, until it crosses the state line into Valentine, Neb. The serendipity came into play when Magnuson visited Fort Pierre in conjunction with the opening of the Casey Tibbs Rodeo Center, named for the nine-time World Champion Saddle Bronc Rider and Fort Pierre native.
“I’m from Nebraska, but I’m still a city boy. I’d never heard of Casey Tibbs,” Magnuson said.
His historical slant came into play in his follow-up research, which he said included plenty of time at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.
“It took some historical research and libraries, but it also was a fun trip to take,” he said. “I really found that everyone had a story to tell.”
Though Magnuson said he originally planned to make the trip into one book, time and space have pushed him to divide it into three sections, with the first focused on the Dakotas.
His book tour has taken him through North and South Dakota. Before starting his tour, Magnuson talked about his new book and the journey on which it took him.
Following are excerpts from the interview:
Q: How long did this trip take?
A. It was a little bit more complicated because I have a full-time job. I had to bust it up into two two-week trips. ... I was on the road a month total, between the two trips.
Q: What made you want to do this?
A: I was looking around for a topic for a book. I look for projects that will be fun to research. I’m originally from the prairie; I like to travel on the wide-open spaces. I hit upon this idea of a hybrid travel/history book.
Q: Why Highway 83?
A: I’m originally from Omaha, Nebraska. But my dad grew up in a Highway 83 town (Stapleton, Neb.), that’s how I kind of became aware. My grandparents lived there their whole lives.
Q: You said you have overarching themes you want to convey to readers. What are they?
A: In the North Dakota/South Dakota book — the birth and sometimes death of small towns, small communities on the prairie. How vital transportation was to them. First the river, the Missouri, was the way to get there. Then it was the railroads. If the railroad missed your town, that was it for them. It kind of withered away. Then highways, like Highway 83. So how transportation developed these cities, towns.
Q: Anything else?
A: I love the prairie. Another thing I want to get across in the book is the natural beauty of the prairie, which not everyone sees. I find the rolling hills and the White River (Mellette County) country just as beautiful as the Rocky Mountains. … For me, it’s very relaxing to take a drive on a two-lane highway in the middle of the vast prairie. … And Highway 83 has all sorts of topography, it’s not just prairie.
Q: Why do you feel such a strong connection to the prairie, and the area where you grew up?
A: I think because I live in a city where I can’t see the sunset, which really annoys me. When I dream of getting away, I dream of getting to the wide-open spaces. I feel homesick, I guess.
Q: Why come all the way back out here for a book tour?
A: I don’t have a budget from a big publisher. These are regional history books. The book tour is part of the whole thing. I take the book and go present it to the communities that it takes place in. The circle wouldn’t be complete until I do that. It’s a big deal for me to go out and present the book to the people that live on the highway.