The Black Hills
Last Stop │ Next Stop (Coming Soon)
No-o-o-w we’re “out west!” I was thrilled along with the rest of my family. After waking up in a nice but over-priced hotel in downtown Rapid City, I stepped into the hall to get the morning paper and did something spontaneous to get a quick laugh from the kids. I was in my underwear, bare-chested and as I stepped into the hall, I stretched my arms out and beat my chest in a comical primal manner. Little did I realize that this blip of a moment would forever be remembered and retold EVERYTIME that our trip came up in conversation. I guess it was impressionable for them to see their dad act so carefree for a change.
As they say, it’s the little moments that count but in the Black Hills, there are enough big moments and sights to burn images into the brain.
Having gained an hour due to the time change and finally getting a solid night’s sleep, we were ready to take on the day. And what a day we had planned. But first, I had to take a quick jaunt up Iron Mountain for old-time’s sake. When I was a kid, my dad took a wrong turn that led us up Iron Mountain. Now I wasn’t sure if things changed since then or if the drama of the moment warped my memory, but 30 years apart, I experienced two very different Iron Mountains.
The one from my youth was scarier than all get out. My Dad whipped up the mountain in our full-size family van at an accelerated pace cutting the wheel on hairpin mountain-side turns that had my mom clutching the doorframe screaming for him to slow down or stop. My sister and I laughed aloud between terrified screams. My dad was reminiscent of Jack Nicholson busting through a door with an ax in the movie The Shining saying, “He-e-e-re’s Johnny!”
This time, it was a pleasant ascent. And at one point, we came to a tunnel with people taking pictures of us. Well, not us but what was behind us. As my wife looked back she said, “Wow!” So we too pulled over on the other side of the tunnel on a stretch of road that was not built for so many people to park cars and walk away. Seeing Mount Rushmore framed by a mountain tunnel was a pretty cool sight. All of us had cameras out for the photo-op.
Later, we neared the top of the mountain and pulled off to take a mini hike to see wildlife. We were treated with an enormous herd of deer. Then we reached a large area offering tourist overlooks near the summit. It too provided views worthwhile. When we descended the other side of the mountain we didn’t know where it would lead us, but we never turned back. It proved to be one of the best spontaneous decisions of the trip as if this “detour” hadn’t already paid dividends.
We neared the bottom and later discovered we were in the 71,000 acre Custer State Park, home to nearly 1,500 buffalo. I mean bison. Did you know that there are no wild buffalo in North America and there never were? Early settlers mistakenly labeled the bison they saw as buffalo because it resembled buffalo found in Africa and Asia. The name stuck – wrong as it is.
Before seeing our first buffalo (sorry, I’m as bad as the early settlers), we saw burros, pronghorn, mountain goats and elk. But as the saying goes, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”
Around a bend we had to slow down as if we were driving through one of those auto-nature safaris where animals come up to the car and you feed them. Only this was truly a wild setting and the last thing on our mind was feeding wild animals. But we did slow to a stop to take a picture of a buffalo on the edge of the road right next to us with only the opposite lane separating man from beast.
I hit the gas on the first grunt and darned if that thing didn’t lunge right at us.
With that adrenaline-induced moment still over-pumping blood through all of our hearts, we had two more buffalo come over a ridge from the opposite direction. They were in full stride. For big animals, they can move pretty quickly. In fact, I read that they can run as fast as a horse. Although they looked to be chasing each other we did not slow down.
Once charged, twice shy …or something like that.
Another blind bend and another surprise. This time we had to come to a complete stop. A couple of cars ahead of us disappeared into the herd as I’m sure our SUV did to anyone coming up behind us. It took close to 30 minutes to navigate like inch worms through the maze of buffalo swallowing the road and countryside all around us. I was talking out loud, “PLEASE, don’t scratch the paint fella,” worried about my new vehicle, unsure if buffalo encounters were covered by my insurance.
Then there it was, “Dad, I have to go to the …”
Since the trip up and down Iron Mountain and through Custer State Park ate up so much time, we realized we had to tamper with the itinerary so we could still see the Mammoth Site, Crazy Horse and Mount Rushmore all in one day or what was left of this day. Although we technically just saw Mount Rushmore and considering I’ve seen it by day once before, we decided we’d hit it after dinner at dark instead of calling it a night.
The Mammoth Site of Hot Springs, South Dakota was something that had accidentally been discovered in 1974. It grew into a world-class museum and tourist attraction. A few people highly recommended it when we announced our vacation plans so we decided it had to be worked into the agenda. It was a bit of a drive south compared to the cluster of attractions in the Rapid City area. As we weaved through the motor-lodge stretch, sign after sign revealed deals at decent looking motels with clean looking pools. I had buyer’s remorse and wished I had looked into lodging options more thoroughly when our “Triple-A lady” said we needed to pre-book lodging in this area to guarantee a nearby place to stay.
It was lunchtime when we arrived at the Mammoth Site. We had a picnic on a blanket in the grass under shade trees. Like a flashback to the old station wagon days of family travel, we weren’t the only family with the cost-saving and healthy picnic idea. It was very peaceful.
Mammoth time. As was typical of me, I was not sold on this site as being all that but decided to check it out anyway. When we entered, we had to wait a bit for a full group of people to gather for the next tour. I kept looking at my watch wondering if we had time to get back and see Crazy Horse. Then the doors opened and we entered. I wanted to go nuts on my own to absorb the fascinating scene coming into focus all around us. But I stayed with the group. In doing so, I learned a lot!
The Mammoth Site just happens to be the largest mammoth research facility on the planet. It is an active paleontological dig site. Visitors witness first-hand, a scientific excavation. The floor of the building was the earth. In this concentrated area, there are more than 50 fossilized remains of Cambrian and Wooly Mammoths unearthed approximately 26,000 years after they mistook a sink-hole for a watering hole. Ironically, if not comically, they were all male. Go figure. After our guide walked us to every part of the dig, he turned us loose to take pictures and wander around on our own. In addition to the excavation, visitors are treated to a working paleontology laboratory, hands-on activities, Ice-Age exhibit hall, walk-in Mammoth bone hut and junior paleontologist dig.
Although the Mammoth Site rocked, we had to roll back to the Black Hills.
It was late afternoon when we arrived at Crazy Horse Memorial. Pulling in, I already noticed the progress made over the past 30 years since I was last there. Crazy Horse isn’t just a mountain carving. Albeit is it the largest mountain carving in the world. And it’s not just about one Indian chief or one sculptor either. It is all these things and more – a work in progress – representing a complex myriad of importance.
When I was here last, as a kid, what stood out in my mind was a bullet-ridden sign out front. The Crazy Horse Memorial withstood much opposition in its early days but has since grown into a first-class American success story.
A sculptor who had been involved with the Mount Rushmore project was invited by Lakota Chief Henry Standing Bear to build a mountain memorial honoring the cultures, traditions and living heritage of North American Indians. On June 3, 1948, sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski began work on a mission that would consume his life and most of his family’s well past his death in 1982. The blasting and carving of the mountain continue today. When it is completed, the entire mountain will not just be a carving on the face of the rock, it will be a 360˚ sculpture, 641 feet by 563 feet in-the-round, of Chief Crazy Horse erupting out of the mountain with his horse. Crazy Horse’s stone head is large enough itself to house all of Mount Rushmore’s presidential busts. How’s that for perspective?
The project is completely funded by the money spent by visitors, donations and other private contributions. It was decided from the beginning that no federal or government money would be accepted due to the fear of losing control of Ziolkowski ‘s and Standing Bear’s vision.
The Crazy Horse experience isn’t just the incredible visual of the work-in-progress. There is much more. For starters, there’s a 40,000 square foot museum dedicated to the history and culture of North American Indians. In addition, there’s a Native American Cultural Center with artisans at work and wares for sale. While browsing the endless array of beautiful creations throughout the buildings, my daughter took particular interest in the native tales about Devil’s Tower. She was so enthralled by the folklore, it would again spontaneously change the itinerary of our trip the very next day. But that’s a story (or detour) for the next stop on “Holiday Road.”
Like the mountain itself, everything seems enormous at Crazy Horse Memorial, including the gift shop. As with the morning incident, it’s often the little things or free things that make the lasting memories of a family vacation. I think the Ziolkowski family understands that. While we were there, there was a big bin of nice rounded fist-size (okay –double-fist-size and some triple) rocks from the Crazy Horse mountain blast site free for the taking. Now the kids have a piece of Crazy Horse in their own backyard and it didn’t have to cost Dad a penny, but we left a donation.
Dinner-time. Back at the hotel that was too nice for our purpose, we decided to walk to a restaurant.
Dit-dit-dit doot-it. That was my attempt to spell the sound of the opening tune to the old television show, Sanford & Son. Welcome to Sanford’s. If you think a junkyard is the last place you’d go for a good meal and fun time, you’re wrong. Located in Rapid City, Sanford’s entertained the kids even though they’ve never seen the show. They just knew this was a unique setting for eating. It isn’t every day that you eat at a restaurant with light fixtures fashioned from washtubs and TVs buried in a hodgepodge of discarded items more commonly strewn about a junkyard. We really liked it! So much in fact that it served us dinner two nights in a row when we swore to try a different eatery every night. The montage of junk a.k.a. art was a sight that set the imagination on fire. As a bonus, the food was tasty and the price was right.
Once we were done with dinner, we had one more calling – Mount Rushmore!
When we arrived, it was dark, windy and cold …really cold. We bundled up and made our way to the main building. Outside, a crowd gathered. But we needed warmth so we ducked inside and got lost …in the stories of this fascinating place. For example, Mount Rushmore National Monument is incomplete. Unlike Crazy Horse, when Rushmore’s sculptor, Gutzon Borglum, died in 1941 so did the project. His son tried to carry on for several months before halting the project all together. It remains unfinished to this day. Another point of interest that doesn’t seem to dawn on anyone is why the name “Rushmore?” The answer is simple. An attorney from New York City by the name of Charles E. Rushmore was sent to the area in 1884 to check property titles. He asked the name of the mountain. It didn’t have one so locals named it “Rushmore” after the inquisitive attorney.
It is no coincidence that Crazy Horse was built nearby Rushmore’s monument. The Native Americans took offense to Rushmore being carved on their lands and answered with a sculpture of their own only more grandiose in scale and design. Rushmore’s museum is filled with great gems of information about the history and people involved with building this iconic piece of American history honoring Presidents Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson and Teddy Roosevelt.
Noise outside grew as did the nighttime crowd despite the cold. It was drizzling to boot. None-the-less, tired kids and all, we braved the elements for what turned out to be such a touching ceremony, we all had goosebumps (unrelated to the weather conditions). The evening ceremony takes place in an outdoor amphitheater with the monument center stage. The ranger talk was inspirational as it focused on the Presidents. The setting rung of patriotism and history. It was followed by the film Freedom: America’s Lasting. It climaxed with rousing music and illumination of the memorial creating an unforgettable experience.
I was proud to be American!
It’s uncanny how unforeseen obstacles can create a better result than what was originally planned. Sometimes, it’s just best to blow with the wind.
When we woke up the following morning, that’s just what we did.
By Rocco Satullo, your tour guide to fun!
Next Stop: Coming Soon
Last Stop: Badlands National Park