Saturday, July 4, 2009

Roaming the Black Hills

Custer, South Dakota (mile 5,260)

July 2

We are staying in Custer, South Dakota through July 4, because it is centrally located for so many interesting things to see and do in the beautiful Black Hills of South Dakota.

First on our list of activities was a visit to Mount Rushmore National Monument. We got there at 10 a.m., and didn't leave until about 1 p.m. This is a lot longer than we planned to stay, since we didn't anticipate that it would take so long to get a good look at the faces and take a bunch of photos from different angles.

We hadn't counted on the excellent audio tour, which takes over an hour and a half, if you listen to all the optional material, which, of course, we did. That's not counting the stop along the tour route at the Mount Rushmore Museum, which has two films and lots of exhibitry; or a stop at the workshop at the foot of the mountain where the scale model of the monument was, and still is, kept. We stopped here for a great ranger talk about tools and techniques the workers used to translate the model to the mountain (1 inch on the model=1 foot on the mountain).

Much was made in the tour and museum of the meaning behind Mount Rushmore—how it stands from freedom, liberty and democracy. Little was made of the Native Americans' objections to the carving upon their sacred mountain (although it was acknowledged and glossed over).

Putting together the pieces from our visit to Fort Robinson yesterday and our visit to Mount Rushmore today, here is our untold story of Mount Rushmore. First the U.S. government wanted some of the Lakota Sioux territory for westward expansion, so they negotiated a treaty to push them into their northern lands in the Black Hills, in return for providing the tribe with food and supplies. Then, Custer found gold in the Black Hills, settlers followed and trespassed on the Indian lands, and the U.S. government made a decision not to stop the settlers or help the Sioux people protect their land, violating the treaty. The Native Americans were once again forced off their land--including places, such as Mount Rushmore, that were sacred parts of their religious beliefs and ceremonies—and sent to nine reservations. Years later, the government subsidized a huge project to blast tons of rock off one of their sacred mountains as a monument to democracy, freedom and liberty.

Ironic, isn't it?

Although that story wasn't told as fully as we thought appropriate, there were many other stories that captivated us.

We were interested to learn that the sculptor who designed and supervised the creation of Mount Rushmore, Gutzon Borglum, had previously been hired by the Daughters of the Confederacy to do a twenty foot stone bust of General Lee on the side of Stone Mountain in Georgia. He disdained their vision, claiming it would look like a postage stamp on the side of a barn door, and designed instead a monumental scene of General Lee riding over the side of the mountain leading a mounted column of brave soldiers. He started it, but eventually he and the ladies just couldn't see eye-to-eye, and he left the project, taking his model with him. His unfinished work was dynamited off the mountain, and a new artist was hired to do a considerably less ambitious portrait in stone of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, General Stonewall Jackson, and General Lee, each astride their favorite horse.

We've seen it. It's nice, but it's no Mount Rushmore.

We timed our visit perfectly—it started to rain just as we left Mount Rushmore, optimistically armed with sandwiches for a picnic when the rain let up. We took the scenic route, a very narrow winding "pigtail" road up and around Iron Mountain, with scenic views over the mountain's sheer dropping sides, and a few one lane tunnels thrown in (honk before entering to avoid meeting someone head-on). This photo of our GPS screen gives you a bit of an idea of the twists and turns in our mountain route, although without a third dimension to show the terrain you miss the full picture.

This sort of drive normally causes me some anxiety, even the best of weather, but when the rain began pouring down so hard that our visibility was reduced to a few feet, and our windshield wipers even on their most flailing speed could not keep up, my cardiac palpitations hit warp speed.

Then the hail began.

Fortunately, Dick found a dirt road turning into the woods, and by the time the hail reached the size of big strawberries we were under a pine tree. When it became clear that the hail, wind and torrential rain weren't going to stop soon, we broke out our lunches, and watched the forest around us become a winter wonderland. Nearly half an hour later, the hail stopped, and we continued our drive down the mountain, our car coated with pine needles, moss, lichen and little baby pine droppings that looked sort of like brown catkins from a pussy willow tree. One side of the mountain was wintery white with lots of downed branches and water sluicing across the road like whitewater streams, the other looked as though it had just experienced a little sprinkle.

When we got out of the car at the Visitor's Center of Custer State Park, we found that we had several dents in our car roof from the hail.

After we got the lowdown on the many places to hike around the park, and the many programs they offered, we decided to hike up a mountain on a "Lover's Leap" trail, then do a ranger-guided caravan drive around the park's Wildlife Drive at 6 p.m. We only met one other family on the trail, and when it came time for the caravan, we were the only people who showed up. They didn't cancel the drive due to lack of interest—the ranger gave us a private driving tour. We stopped for a huge herd of over 100 buffalo that were grazing roadside, and casually crossing the road stopping traffic. We saw small groups of pronghorn antelope at least a dozen places along the road, and there were lots of deer. There were many small birds and animals to enjoy, too--turkeys, rabbits, meadowlarks, and such.

But, by about 7:30 p.m., it was raining pretty hard again, and when we stopped at a spot with wild burros who were tame enough to come up to your car windows begging for food, we told our ranger we were begging off the rest of the tour—the thought of slogging a mile round trip on a muddy trail, even to see the biggest tree in South Dakota, was just too much for us after our already very eventful day.

(We had a similar experience the next morning, when we were the only people who showed up for the 8:30 bird walk. The friendly and energetic naturalist took us on our own private nature walk. She was a botanist as well as a birder, so she was able to help us identify many of the wildflowers we had been admiring around the park, and she even told us how the native people used them for medicine, dyes and food. We had a wonderful time, and just as we got to our car, the rain began in earnest.)

On our way out of the park we passed a beautiful big log lodge that had a restaurant sign out front. We went inside and found that it was called the Blue Bell restaurant, because the man who built the lodge back in the early 1900s was a Bell telephone executive—the old Bell Telephone logo was blue. The interior featured exposed log walls and beams, with lots of animal trophy heads on the wall, and a big inviting fireplace (not burning in this season). Its warm and rustic hunting lodge atmosphere reminded us of the Adirondack camps we have admired back east. It was the perfect place to relax after a very full day (especially since they even serve wine in this state park—a very nice touch).

1 comment:

  1. Sorry to hear about the hail dents in your car roof. One souvenir from your trip that you did not want to take home with you. I think the curvy road looks awesome! Did you have dramamine with you?