Getting to Know South Dakota

By Mary Angela

Summer in South Dakota is one of my favorite seasons. Many years, my family and I take a trip across the state to the Black Hills, where the Happy Camper gift shop in the fictional town of Spirit Canyon is located.

I named the shop Happy Camper, even though I’m not a camper, because traveling makes me happy, and the Black Hills area offers so many options. Cute shops like Zo’s abound, and a vacation day rarely passes that we don’t stop at a gift store to browse local, homemade goods.

Since we come from the east, we always stop at Wall Drug, which is a gigantic tourist trap. No matter how many times we go, I never tire of looking at leather goods, pottery, bison prints, and cowgirl boots. With coffee still just five cents, there’s no reason not to enjoy a cup with a delicious piece of pie (blueberry is my favorite).

My daughters’ favorite towns include Keystone and Hill City. Besides fun stores, Keystone has one of the best taffy places on earth (okay, in South Dakota), and it’s Rushmore Mountain Taffy Shop. Shoppers can watch the taffy being made and then pick out their favorite flavors for a custom bag to take home—or on an 1880s train ride to Hill City!

If you’re looking for a leisurely way to spend the day, you’ll want to sign up early to board this old train, which runs from Keystone to Hill City, rain or shine. You can buy a one-way or roundtrip ticket, depending on your preference. The roundtrip ride takes about two hours, and you’ll enjoy narrated tidbits about the train, railroad, and area along the way. When we go, we always stop at one of my favorite restaurants, The Alpine Inn, located in Hill City. Although the menu is limited (beware parents with finicky eaters!), the food is delicious. Visitors can stay overnight at the inn, too. Unfortunately, I haven’t had the pleasure yet.

But it doesn’t mean I won’t!

No matter how many times I vacation in the Black Hills, I always find something new to do. In fact, my family and I are taking a trip this summer, and I’ve added another place to visit to my growing list: The Badger Hole. It’s the cabin of South Dakota’s first poet laureate Charles Badger Clark. Located in Custer State Park, it’s sure to be a fun side trip—at least for me.

But my family is used to my detours, which usually include me researching an upcoming book. When research includes handmade chocolate at Chubby Chipmunk or colorful taffy at Rushmore Mountain Taffy shop, however, it’s a win-win for everyone. Even readers who pick up a book in my Happy Camper series. Every book includes tidbits I learn about the area, which means a virtual vacation to South Dakota every time you read!

Spirit Canyon’s annual Spirit Spooktacular weekend is on, and for local amateur sleuth Zo Jones, it’s boomtime for business at her Happy Camper gift shop . . . until a murderer drops in for a browse.

To celebrate Halloween at the Happy Camper, Zo schedules a talk by successful author and self-proclaimed witch Marianne Morgan. Although Marianne’s benign brand of witchcraft is more about feminine empowerment than black magic, her presence is still not welcomed by everyone. Then on a midnight stroll home, Zo spots what seems to be a new Halloween decoration propped up outside the Happy Camper. What she finds is not a mannequin but a dead Marianne, her lifeless body dressed in traditional witch’s garb. But why would someone send this good witch back to the spirit world permanently?

Soon Zo realizes that plenty of folks have motives for murdering Marianne. What’s worse, nosy TV newsman Justin Castle plans to broadcast a report associating Marianne’s murder with the Happy Camper. Zo calls on her partner in sleuthing, local forest ranger Max Harrington, to help her find the culprit before Justin’s report airs. Otherwise Zo’s business just might go bust. But to catch this killer, Zo will have to risk much more than just her reputation . . .