Sunday 11th October
This morning we made our way through Custer National Park into the Black Hills. Our first stop was at the Crazy Horse Memorial which is a large mountain carving of the Lakota leader Crazy Horse.
When we arrived we watched a short film which gave the background to the memorial. The project started when Lakota Chief Henry Standing Bear invited the sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski to carve the mountain (similar to Mount Rushmore) with a hero from the Native American tribes. Work started in 1948 and the sculptor’s family are still continuing the task today. It is more than the sculpture, the Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation has been set up and on the site is the Indian Museum of North America, a Cultural Centre and the Indian University of North America. It is a nonprofit, educational and cultural project financed primarily from admissions fees. We walked around the large visitor centre and the museums. Out on the Viewing Veranda there is a scale model of what the finished sculpture will look like, showing Crazy Horse looking out over landscape with his hand pointing to the Black Hills in answer to a question he was asked, ‘Where are your lands now’ he reportedly said, ‘My lands are where my dead lie buried’.
Crazy Horse was born locally at Rapid Creek – now Rapid City. He died at Fort Robinson, Nebraska in 1877. He was at the fort after surrendering when he was stabbed by an American soldier.
Whilst walking around the centre we met Tina, from Yardley, Birmingham. We chatted for a while and it turned out that Flair photographed her wedding at Yardley Old Church in 1988!
We got back onto winding roads through pine forests with large granite outcrops to make our way to Mount Rushmore. On the way we stopped while a couple of wild goats crossed the road.
The sculptor Gutzon Borglum carved this memorial between 1927 and 1941 with the help of over 400 workers. This famous monument of the heads of four US presidents was selected on the basis of what each symbolized: George Washington, the struggle for independence; Thomas Jefferson, the idea of government by the people; Abraham Lincoln, ideas on equality and the permanent union of the states; and Theodore Roosevelt, the 20th century role of the US in world affairs.
We walked down the avenue of flags representing the 56 states and territories towards the Grandview Terrace below the memorial. It really is a feat of artist engineering, no wonder it is one of the nation’s most iconic symbols, very impressive.
Also around the site Is a museum, visitor centre, theatre and the sculptors on site studio where the original model and many of the tools he used are on display. There is an amphitheater below the faces where in the summer there is a ranger led programme with a talk, film and lighting of the monument. This time of year the monument is lit a sunset for a couple of hours.
We moved on driving through the town of Keystone where in the late 19th century the gold mine here was one of the top producing mines in the US. Then when Mount Rushmore was developed tourism took over from mining. There is an old town and a new retail area that we passed through where the frontages are old style west, one with a stage coach attached to the first floor.
We continued north through the Black Hills to Deadwood. On the way there were several renditions of, ‘Oh the Deadwood stage is comin’ on over the hill, interspersed with ‘Take me back to the Black Hills, the Black Hills of Dakota’ both nearly as good as Doris Day’s versions. Deadwood was a gold rush town and is set in a v-shaped valley or gulch, surrounded by steep forested hills. Many of the old buildings in Deadwood still stand and some are quite substantial giving the impression that the town was financially well heeled.
Here Wild Bill Hickok was shot in the back of the head whilst playing poker in Nuttal and Mann's - Saloon No. 10 - not as fancy a title as the Golden Carter mentioned in the song. He died in 1876 and had been in the town less than a month.
Calamity Jane was also a local resident. She arrived from Cheyanne on the same wagon train as Bill Hickock. Walking along Deadwoods streets and glancing into hotels and bars we noticed most have got slot machines and gambling tables. In 1989 deadwood became the third place in the US (after Atlantic City and Nevada) to allow legal gambling. Apparently a significant amount of the revenue is earmarked for historic preservation and has helped in the rejuvenation of the town. We took a trip up to Mount Moriah the cemetery high on the hill amongst the trees where the famous characters and the founding families of the town are buried. Wild Bill Hickock is buried here and next to him is Calmity Jane. She died in 1903 at the age of 53 and apparently it was her dying wish to be buried next to Wild Bill.
There is plenty going on in the town although some of the entertainments, like the gunfight reenactments have finished for the summer but the narrated trolley bus tour was still operating, telling the history of the town and its characters. On our way back to Hemosa we called in to Mount Rushmore to see the monument lit up at sundown.
Monday 12th October
Up before dawn to travel the 10 miles to Custer State Park to go wildlife watching. The park is named after George Armstrong Custer who led an expedition into this unexplored region in 1874. It was during the expedition that gold was found on French Creek in the Black Hills which started the gold rush here. The park has prairie, lakes and granite hills, Ponderosa pines and 1,300 head of buffalo roaming. On our journey around the park we saw wild turkey, Pronghorn antelope, young Mule deer, some of the Buffalo
and the most enchanting of all, Prairie Dogs. They are actually not dogs at all but rodents that live in underground towns, very similar to African Meerkats. This morning they were on top of their earth mounds, stretching into the air, high on their back legs.
We also saw a Black - footed ferret pocking his head out of one of the Prairie Dog holes. Back in the 1980’s these ferrets nearly became extinct and there is now a reintroduction programme taking place. They live in the Prairie Dog burrows and their main diet is Prairie Dog which must lead to very difficult neighborhood relationships!
After our early start we decided to go to Blue Bell Lodge - one of the historic lodges within the park - for breakfast. The log-cabin ranch style lodge is set amongst pine trees and as well as the Dining Room has log cabin accommodation, stables and chuck wagons for hayrides and cookouts. We certainly had a hearty cowboy breakfast called the ‘Old Timer’ two eggs – over easy, ham, hash browns, toast and coffee on tap.
Now that we had seen what was on top of the Black Hills we thought we have a look at what was underneath, at the Jewell Cave. Two brothers discovered the cave in 1900 after finding a hole in the mountain blowing out cold air but it was too small in size for humans to enter. Therefore in true wild-west fashion they made it larger with a blast of dynamite. They entered the cave and discovered the walls covered with calcite crystals that sparkled like ‘jewels’. At first they thought this sparkly material was quartz which is often found with gold and so they filed a mining claim. There was no gold and Calcite crystal had little commercial value, therefore, they decided to develop the cave into a tourist attraction. Eventually Jewell Cave was made a national monument and the family of the brothers sold their claim to the government.
Very conveniently our group of about twenty made our way down into the cave by elevator together with our guide, Ranger Mike.
We travelled through rooms, chambers and passages ascending down stairways to 370 feet. The cave is strategically lit to reveal the calcite crystals, flowstone and stalagmites. Jewel Cave was formed by acid rich groundwater and Mike went on to explain the geology, formations and colours of the cave. So far the cave is 177 miles in length, the third longest cave in the world, and they are still exploring. Airflow studies indicate that there is a lot more cave yet to be discovered.
Tuesday 13th October
Stayed around camp today.
Wednesday 14th October
Picked up the SD-44 in Rapid City east towards Badlands National Park. Drove across grassland for a few miles and as we came over the brow of a hill the landscape changed and we saw rock ridges in the distance.
At the small town of Scenic we turned off onto the unpaved Sage Creek Rim Road. At first the landscape was similar to moonscape with clay-like mounds looking like a mogul field. Continuing on for 25 miles we past mixed grassland and fields of sunflowers. Then the land dipped and we descended into the national park with ridge covered grassland, a few roaming bison and trees following the line of the Sage Creek. We climbed out of the valley with views of wide open wild country. Came across a town of black tailed prairie dogs sitting on top of their dirt mounds, Sandy was very animated and would have liked to have got out there to scatter them all.
Good views over Sage Creek basin. Saw a hawk flying at close range over the valley, it had beautiful markings.
High plains grassland continued and we saw a herd of Pronghorn antelope lying in the grass enjoying the sunshine.
The overlook in the valley to our right was of rugged clay coloured sedimentary rock Badlands, interspersed with grass butte plateaus. In the far distance we could see the outline of the Black Hills.
The road became paved and we descended through the badlands landscape. The rock became stripped with yellow, red and light grey formations denoting that 75 million years ago there was a shallow sea here and as the climate changed it became forest and then eventually grassland. The colours indicate soil and fossil remains from each era.
Came to Big Foot Pass where in 1890 Chief Big Foot and a band of 350 Miniconjou Indians cleared an unused trail that gave them access down the Badlands Wall as they fled from the US Army. Five days later Chief Big Foot and 200 of the tribe died at Wounded Knee, 65 miles to the south.
Next was the Fossil Trail showing how animals either adapted, moved or became extinct as the landscape and climate changed. Erosion in the Badlands started about 500,000 years ago when rivers cut through the rock carving fantastic shapes in what was flat flood plains. The erosion continues at about an inch a year.
We left the Badlands on the I-90 and had good views all the way of the Wall of rock that is the heart of the Badlands escarpment stretching for 60 miles west to east.
As we approached the small prairie town of Wall we saw a forest of signs advertising what to do in Wall. We cruised down the tree lined Main Street and soon came to Wall Drug. This drug store was purchased in 1931 by Ted and Dorothy Hustead. Business was very slow when Dorothy had the idea of advertising free iced water to entice thirsty travellers into the store instead of them motoring on by. The signs went up on the highway and they have never looked back. From that time on the business has grown into a multi-million dollar shopping and tourist attraction and is still run by the Hustead family. It is now a drug store, restaurant and a western style shopping gallery.