My call from the entrance of the Hitching Horse Inn elicited no response.
“Hello? Anyone?” I waited half a minute more. “Anyone?” Then I muttered under my breath, “Bueller? Bueller?”
The housekeeper finally bustled in, a little flustered to receive me. The owner was out, she explained, and she seemed unaccustomed to welcoming guests to this bed and breakfast in the South Dakotan capital. But then she recovered and dove into a spiel about how I had arrived on a very special day, because every Friday, the owner serves dinner and brings in a jazz trio and it’s all very exciting.
“Oh, we have great fun here at the Hitching Horse Inn! Make sure you take part in it tonight! Oh, you’ll have a grand time!” she burbled. “You must attend!”
It was a bit too obtrusive for my taste, and I politely offered a noncommittal response to her avidity as she escorted me up to my accommodation, a rather comfortable, slightly small room overlooking the well-kept backyard where I would spy little brown rabbits hopping around every time I glanced out the window.
I had arrived in Pierre earlier that day and immediately thought that I’d definitely be facing two very quiet days here. The downtown doesn’t have much of anything going on, and I seemed to be the only pedestrian in this city of about 15,000 people, the second-smallest U.S. capital city, undersized only by tiny Montpelier, Vermont.
My first stop had been the very handsome state capitol, completed in 1910 as a modified version of the Montana State Capitol, particularly the copper dome. One of the most beautiful buildings in Pierre, the capitol is all fieldstone, limestone, and marble on the outside. The pleasantly bright interior is rich in white marble and cream walls. My footsteps echoed — very few people were here — and when I nosed around some corridors and rooms with no lights, I found it to be a little eerie. I wondered where everybody was, so it should have been no surprise that the Hitching Horse Inn would also be devoid of activity when I showed up.
I decided to forgo the housekeeper’s ebullient recommendations and opted for an early dinner somewhere else. I returned to the bed and breakfast and settled in. Built in 1907 as a private home, it was converted into a very affordable four-room B&B with inviting covered and uncovered columned porches on both of its two stories. About an hour later, I heard the sounds of a party below me — music, laughter, clinking glasses. I had absolutely nothing to do, so I reversed my earlier decision to eschew the highly touted merrymaking that would be occurring. At 7:30, my volta-face brought me downstairs, where I was surprised to find a crowd of about 40 people. That was the largest concentration of people I had seen in the city all day.
The owner, an engineer by day and B&B owner and renovator by all other times, explained that he brings in a chef every Friday night and opens the place up to the public for dinner, drinks, and confabulation. It’s clearly something the community looks forward to with great anticipation.
A pianist and a guitarist were providing live music. The guests filled the dining room and living room, and the four seats at the small bar were occupied. I moseyed up to the bar and met the bartender, a 30-year-old M.B.A. from a dirt-poor town in Nebraska who ended up at the Leysin American School in Switzerland, which had put him firmly in debt. This was his second job, too; his first was handling the finances at the B&B owner’s engineering company.
Upon receiving my drink, I forthwith became the best friend of the four people at the bar, perhaps because they already knew everyone else, as is the case in such a small state, and I was a novelty, an exotic stranger from New York City. The first lady was the director of Medicaid for the entire state of South Dakota. The second, a feisty septuagenarian who was the doyenne of the group, was a key player in getting Title IX enforced in the state and an awardee of the South Dakota Tennis Hall of Fame; she also happened to be running for a seat in the state senate. Next to them, I met Theresa, an executive at one of the seven banks owned by the family of her spouse, and husband Bob, a managing agent at a real estate firm and the sommelier at View 34, the restaurant they both owned. Conversation inevitably turned to where I had dinner. When I told them, they shrugged, unimpressed.
“I know,” I said, “but I didn’t feel like driving much, and this was the closest.”
The first two immediately said that I should go to View 34 — it was terrific and beautiful and right on a golf course and had fantastic food. Okay, I said, I’ll be there tomorrow. To which Bob replied, “Great. We’ll join you.” And then the other ladies invited themselves. Perhaps they were duping me, trying to lure me into some sort of nefarious cult. But I battled my dubiety and concluded that these were simply the friendliest people I had met in a long time, and I was totally taken aback by their unstudied behavior. New Yorkers simply don’t embrace strangers that completely, that quickly.
After Bob and Theresa left, another couple sat down. He was a retired grammar school principal of 32 years, and she sat on the board of a cultural organization; they also owned Dinosaur Park in Rapid City. Oh, and the wife just happened to be the great-granddaughter of Doane Robinson — the South Dakota state historian who conceived the idea of Mount Rushmore.
After standing at this bar for four hours and finally schlepping up to bed (with secure dinner plans for the next day), I had met more engaging people than I ever do in such a short amount of time. Socialization is always easier and more intimate at a B&B than at a larger hotel, and I had met interesting people in B&Bs before — a South African wheat miller at the Brayton House in Grand Rapids, Michigan, for instance, missionaries from the Pacific Northwest at the Jefferson House in Kansas City, Missouri, the Foreign Affairs officer responsible for landmine removal around the world at the Baer House Inn in Vicksburg, Mississippi, and the renaissance owners of Barn Anew in Scottsbluff, Nebraska — but this was exceptional. And a totally unexpected delight.
The following morning, I showed up for breakfast, an unsurprising but tasty menu of scrambled eggs or French toast, bacon and orange juice, and fruit compote, served at the communal dining room table. I was joined by four people — a young couple from Pierre on a staycation, and another couple from 200 miles away. When the latter asked the former if they knew the Haversens, they said they did. Unbelievable. I don’t know the surnames of the folks who live on the same floor as me in my building.
Later that evening, I headed to View 34 to meet my dining companions. The restaurant fronts the Hillsview Golf Course, right on the Missouri River, across from bumpy green hills. I entered the extremely comfortable lounge, with fireplace, to find my four new friends already at the bar, knocking back the wine. I joined them in a glass and conversation, then tagged along into the large dining room, with a stone fireplace, high ceiling, and large windows that take advantage of the views. Over the course of another glass of red wine, tossed salad with ranch dressing, sirloin steak with green beans, and mashed golden Yukon potatoes, off a menu that changes every six months, they both entertained me and informed me, unanimously, that, indeed, my earlier observation about being the sole pedestrian downtown was not at all incorrect — no one walks in Pierre, they explained; people will drive around and around until they get the spot directly in front of the store they want to go to. At the end of the meal, Bob paid for everyone. I was completely floored.
Sadly, since my visit, View 34 closed after 10 years of operation, due to a lack of labor. The Hitching Horse Inn, however, is still going strong and remains one of the top places to stay in Pierre, where you truly never know what will unfold to make your visit unforgettable.
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