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Great American Road Trips: Antiquing the Dakotas

"I'd be a baker," claimed my co-worker Erik, when discussing what professions we'd choose if we weren't magazine editors. He liked the idea of doing something with his hands. As for me, I've been enamored of retro clothes and furniture since my teens. "I'd own a vintage shop," I said, to no one's surprise.

Two months later I'm on the road, rummaging through dusty secondhand stores in North and South Dakota. Erik has sent me on my dream assignment: a vintage shopping odyssey.

Why the Dakotas?My friend Curtis, who scours the country to stock his shop in Tucson, Arizona, with sixties pottery and artwork, recommended it while we were squabbling over a fabulously ugly Op Art painting at New York's 26th Street flea market. "Girlfriend," he declared, "it is all about the Dakotas." I let him keep the painting in exchange for the advice.

It isn't hard to convince my mother, an antiques junkie, to go along for the ride. I fly to Minneapolis, where we hop in her Honda and zoom off to do a little local research. Via's, the store that jump-started my teenage obsession, is a frothy pink boutique crammed with 1950's prom dresses and 1970's Superfly jackets. But Via herself is out sick when we swing by to ask for tips. So we buzz over to Succotash in St. Paul. By the time the owner confesses that he doesn't know of any shops in North or South Dakota, I've bought a Braniff airline bag circa 1975, a pair of curvaceous Danish candlesticks, and a sleek chrome lamp that is very Gattaca. Mom drags me away, reminding me that we haven't even started our trip. Still, we visit a few more of my teenage haunts, to be met with quizzical stares every time we mention our mission. Mom doesn't care: she's found a set of glasses in branded leather cozies that match her new cowboy-themed family room.

The next morning we hit the road early. At the local Pump N' Munch-what a name!-we load up on road snacks (sour-cream-and-onion chips and diet Coke, if you must know), but make a vow to reject McDonald's and Burger King. When we roll into Fargo that afternoon the scene is bleak: a couple of shops cluttered with overpriced junk. "I'm going to pound that Curtis!" sputters my mother. "If I ever meet him."

Before dinner, we call Curtis in a panic. "Honey," he says, "don't worry. It'll get better in Bismarck." But he warns us not to expect cute boutiques—you have to dig deep if you want to hit pay dirt. Tree Top, the area's fanciest restaurant, does little to cheer us up, even with its view of passing trains. We are the only ones there. In fact, we may be the only travelers in Fargo. Guess the movie had a reverse impact on tourism.

In the morning, we crank up the Patsy Cline and head for Bismarck. The scenery—farmland for miles—is gorgeous, but the few stops we make are discouraging.

I know it's time to call it a day when I have a fit at a "store" in Jamestown (it was in a woman's house, with stuff displayed on the bathroom counter). She was trying to nab $75 for a bottle opener I'd seen in New York for $25. Fat chance, lady. Instead, we drive across town to the National Buffalo Museum to see a rare albino buffalo, considered sacred among most Native American tribes. Mom is so excited she takes a million pictures of the buffalo roaming around the pasture-and practically climbs over the fence.

In Bismarck, a dusty old Western town with neon-lit roadhouses, we check into the Marriott and cool off at the indoor pool. But over dinner at a steak house, I have to tell off a neighboring table of jerks making lewd Lewinsky jokes. Our fruitless spree is taking its toll.

The next day Curtis is redeemed.

Along Bismarck's Main Street is a row of sweet warehouse shops, with thoughtfully arranged displays and inexpensive kitchen cabinets too big to fit in the car. We pluck a few goodies, then make our way to Buy Gone Days, in a suburban section of town. In a converted garage I find the score of the century: a trio of pristine birch Heywood-Wakefield tables for just $250, total. The store owner has no idea what they could fetch (about $400 each); she even drops the price to $200. After maneuvering the tables into the Honda's back seat, we speed away like thieves. Despite our vow to avoid fast food, this calls for a celebration. At a drive-up A&W, Mom snaps pictures of the carhop, our frosty mugs of root beer, and me with my new tables.

Inspired, we descend upon Mandan, Dickinson, and Belfield, towns off I-94. I buy embarrassing amounts of fifties kitsch; Mom now has enough leather-cozied glasses to open a Western restaurant.

The topography slowly changes from endless cornfields and prairie to rugged, rocky terrain. By the time we arrive at the Painted Canyon, on the edge of the Badlands, the setting sun is warming up the lunar landscape. I can't believe we've crossed North Dakota in just two days. Our reward is Medora, another old cowboy town. It looks a bit theme-park, but it's all real: Mom has a serious allergic reaction to the horsehair on our fellow diners' clothes. We crash at a funky motel called the Sully Inn (the Rough Riders Hotel was booked). Accommodations aren't much to talk about in the Dakotas (lace-filled B&B's, dingy motels, drab chain hotels), so the handmade quilts are heartwarming.

After a sausage-and-eggs breakfast at the Cowboy Café—love those branded booths—we tour the southern loop of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Chirping prairie dogs herald our passing, and buffalo rumble alongside the car. (Does auto insurance cover buffalo dents?Let's remember to ask Dad.)

En route to South Dakota, we pop across the border into Montana, where there's no speed limit beyond what's "reasonable and prudent." No prudence for me. I'm clocking 110, and Mom keeps pushing her invisible brake.

Last stop: Rapid City. We skip the outlying ghost-turned-gambling town of Deadwood (its casino hotels are smoky and depressing) for downtown's Hotel Alex Johnson. According to my guidebook, it's where "celebrities, dignitaries, and Garth Brooks" stay. A pathetic shower (your choice: scalding or freezing) and three wasps later, we question Garth's sanity.

Mount Rushmore?Whatever. In Rapid City, we stumble upon a ramshackle warehouse called Coach House Antiques. I walk out with three $10 pairs of sunglasses (including old Ray-Ban cat-eyes, which are worth a ton) and a pair of pink 1950's lamps that will look divine on my Heywood-Wakefield tables.

Just a few more trips and I'll have everything I need to open my own vintage shop. Hey, Curtis: you'll rue the day you told me about the Dakotas.

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