States' rest stops more than a place to freshen up George Thompson, Bellevue, NE, left, asks DonaDee Peterson, right, about the best route to take on his way to Black Duck, MN. Patrick Ireland and Dorothy Hovorka, Peterson's fellow travel counselors at the Vermillion Information Center on I-29 and Highway 50, are also pictured behind the counter. by M. Jill Karolevitz South Dakota�s interstate system is dotted with rest stops. But travelers through the state soon learn that the highway oases offer much more than a place to freshen up.
The Vermillion Information Center, located at I-29 and Highway 50, is considered the first stop in South Dakota for travelers heading in any direction into the state. It�s one of 10 such interstate facilities that are staffed with travel counselors throughout the summer � from mid-May to mid-September. The centers, which are open seven days a week, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., are operated under the auspices of the South Dakota Department of Tourism.
�The Sturgis Rally season is one of our busiest times, but it varies,� said DonaDee Peterson, Vermillion, a travel counselor at the Vermillion Information Center. �Last month we had 24,000 private travelers come through, plus about 500 more on tour buses. Our counts have been up every month compared to last year. Of course, we can only count the ones who sign
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our register, so there may be even more.�
Road-weary travelers can picnic, walk their dogs, take a �potty� break or simply relax at the center. But its main attraction is spelled out in its name � information. From travel tapes that embellish South Dakota�s colorful history and legends surrounding the state�s many attractions, to brochures, event calendars, maps, gas station locations, construction zone locations and accommodation sites, the information center offers a plethora of tidbits for anyone who stops in. But there�s also a personal touch.
�We�re there to answer any questions that come along,� Peterson said. �What we don�t know, we do our best to find out. We don�t let them leave empty-handed. It�s a great job � we learn right along with the people we meet. But you�ve got to like to talk!�
Peterson has a backlog of �did you knows� about South Dakota after working for four years at the information center.
�Did you know that you can canoe on the Little White River? When someone came in and asked if it had rapids, I wasn�t even sure where the Little White River was, but I did some research and found out more about it,� she said.
�South Dakota is also home to the World�s only International Vinegar Museum in Roslyn,� Peterson added. �I love to tell people about that when they say they�ve lived in South Dakota all their lives and know all about the state. It surprises them every time.�
In addition to the state�s better-known attractions � from the Corn Palace to Mount Rushmore � Peterson also enjoys sharing information about sites such as the Nicollet Tower near Sisseton that offers a breath-taking three-state view. The observation tower honors Joseph N. Nicollet, the French map maker who explored the Coteau des Prairies in the 1830s. She has also told travelers about the Oyate Trail � the 388-mile highway stretching from Vermillion to Edgemont that takes vacationers through Pickstown and over Lake Francis Case, across the prairie through the Rosebud and Pine Ridge Indian Reservations and into the Buffalo Gap National Grassland near Oelrichs.
�Don�t forget Wessington Springs, where there�s a beautiful Shakespeare garden and thatched-roof cottage, Hoven, with its Cathedral on the Prairie, and Aberdeen with its Wizard of Oz Festival,� Peterson said. �There is so much to see in South Dakota. A lot of people have no idea, so we like to tell them.�
Visitors hail from everywhere in the United States, including Alaska and Hawaii, she added.
�Yesterday we had 44 states represented,� Peterson said.
But the guest register has also recorded an alphabet soup of tourists from foreign countries, including Austria, Afghanistan, Belgium, Bosnia, the Cayman Islands, China, Denmark, England, France, Guam, Hungary, Holland, India, Italy, Kuwait, Malaysia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Paraguay, Russia, Singapore, Sweden, Turkey, Ukraine, Venezuela, Wales and New Zealand.
Their needs vary as they stop into visit with the travel counselors, who, in addition to Peterson include Geri Remmes, Patrick Ireland and Cyndy Chaney, all of Vermillion, and Dorothy Hovorka, McCook.
�The most-asked question is ?how far is it to the faces?�� Peterson said. �We even get asked ?are we in South Dakota?� and ?what is the speed limit here?��
Travel counselors are trained with week-long bus tours through South Dakota, where they learn about different attractions each town has to offer.
�We�re quizzed by our boss, Rene Vallery of the Department of Tourism, from the South Dakota Travel Guide, too,� Peterson said. �And when we get to a certain town, the chamber of commerce wines and dines us and explains what their community has to offer. It�s a real hands-on learning experience.�
�I�ve learned more about South Dakota by working here than I ever thought possible,� Ireland added. �There are so many things we take for granted. I know now that there is so much to be proud of in my state.�
�Coming from South Dakota we tend to overlook so much,� Hovorka said. �But if we look through the eyes of the people who come here, a whole new world opens up.�