Driving across the United States

PART 6: Black Hills of South Dakota, Crazy Horse, Mount Rushmore, the Needles Highway and a fantastic dinner

Korczak Ziolkowski, a Polish immigrant, had the vision to look at this mountain and see the greatness of Crazy Horse.

I love traveling with Rob … he has no problem going off track when something comes up that seems like a better option along the way. We are flexible about our route, about our accommodations, about what we will see and do.

AMusing Marilyn

Mount Rushmore is a granite group portrait

Observation Deck
Each face is about 60 feet high
This view of George Washington from the road was a surprise!

Crazy Horse has become a destination

Wow … today the summit is a tourist destination. Sorry to see this, actually. I hope they don’t destroy the fragile hole or the spirit of Crazy Horse.

Custer State Park has scenic highways and walking trails

The Needles Highway is only 14 miles long but takes an hour or more to drive

Needles Highway is narrow.
Eye of the Needle.
Headlights are a needed courtesy.
Everyone needs to be a polite driver. Please!!

Little Devil’s Tower Trail

Little Devil’s Tower Trail; the easy part.
We called this “The Squeeze.”
View beyond The Squeeze
Trail Needles?
We see you.

Thank you for the full moon.

Our Black Hills Home
Mountain lions??
Foreground is the goal; the actual carving in the mountain is already generations in the making. (Photo from 2005)

Some sights in a journey are so exceptional that you don’t need a camera to make a record, a memory. In this segment of our drive across the United States, Crazy Horse stole my heart. It is an engineering marvel and a testament to one man’s vision. It is a monument that exudes the spirit it represents even in the construction phase.

Rob made reservations for the Walker Homestead in Hill City for three nights; elevation 4,992 feet.  This is familiar terrain despite never having been here before. The mountains are made of solid stone, covered in evergreens and dotted by scenic lakes and streams like our beloved Adirondack Mountains of New York.  The homestead even came with three deer who wandered down through our back yard in the twilight hours.

In one long day, we saw Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse before driving the Needles Highway and stopping for a long walk. By the time we returned to Hill City it was 8:00 p.m. so we stopped at the Alpine Inn for dinner. It seemed like half the people in the Black Hills were there. But it was worth the 30-minute wait for a table.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial

Along life’s path there are some places you “need” to see because they are simply so well known that you figure you really should stop and check it out for yourself. Who goes to Paris and doesn’t make an effort to see the Eiffel Tower, right? The problem for me — and this is very personal — is that after seeing the photos as illustrations for hundreds of magazine articles, posters, postcards and on TV documentaries, the actual sighting can seem diminished. (Not always; Eiffel is worth it!)

It’s rather like getting excited at the opportunity to view the Mona Lisa in person, only to find that the original is just a dark little painting you wouldn’t want hanging on a wall in your home.  Sorry to say, but that was actually my first thought way back on that first trip to Europe.

I realize that a lot of people go all mystical over these icons, but I’m a cynic at heart. I believe those feelings sometimes have more to do with strategic marketing than any inherent beauty in the item or place itself. The response is a self fulfilled prophecy because who wants to say, “Yuck” to a $500 bottle of wine after it has been sold to you as a connoisseur’s rare delight? Anyway, I found Rushmore more annoying than spectacular.

Don’t get me wrong. The drive through the Black Hills is great. When we turned off the road, however, it was to enter a multi-level parking space reminiscent of the Mall of America on sale day. The Mount Rushmore National Memorial has a museum (facts and gift store) and then a wide deck with flags on either side leads to a viewing area. The National Park Service does a great job of making the view available while preserving the Black Hills.

In the end, I stood, looked up — and saw the same photo I had seen a million times already. Four former American presidents carved from the granite rock of a mountain. The big difference is that now I can smell the pines, the high mountain air. I close my eyes and understand why this place is sacred ground to many Native Americans. Too bad this memorial couldn’t have been carved in the Appalachians.

I took my obligatory photo alongside a couple of hundred other people. They were from tour groups bused in from retirement homes and veterans organizations across the country, mixed in with a few dozen biker groups, and many American and international families — Mom, Dad, Bro and Sissy — on a late-summer educational vacation.

Crazy Horse is a work of art in progress

In comparison, Crazy Horse is a horse of a different color. And no, after much reflection, I’m not sorry for that turn of phrase!

I fell in love with Crazy Horse. Maybe because the horse and man are as one? Or because the power and the majesty of the image is striking? Or maybe it is because of a distant memory of seeing this “crazy man” with long hair and a beard in a 1950s-era documentary, when Korczak Ziolkowski was nearly single handedly hacking at a hillside? He was a man with a vision to carve a colossal statue to this amalgam of a Native American hero. 

The mountain is still a work-in-progress. Today, the work is being carried forward by the children and grandchildren he had neither sired nor envisioned when he first began his work in 1948.  A far more challenging endeavor than the Great Pyramids in size and complexity. It was awesome to witness it being made. The introductory film, the (now) Indian Museum of North America and the Native American Educational and Cultural Center made for a nice afternoon.

The museums were a work in progress when we visited 15 years ago and have been greatly expanded. There is so much to see and do here. I could easily spend an entire day and would love to return to see the newer Mountain Carving Gallery.

The Black Hills are a sacred place and somehow this facility – the exhibits, the very buildings themselves, the story they tell – filled me with a sense of majesty.  It is awesome to think of this lone Polish orphan from Boston taking on the task of exemplify the spirit of an entire culture; to carve a mountain.  This place is about Spirit and I found it wonderfully uplifting.

The Needles Highway is a fun drive for those who love drives

Leaving the Black Hills National Park area, we moved on to Custer State Park, home to at least three scenic highways. We chose to do the 14-mile road known as the Needles Highway.  First we stopped to take a walk up, up, up one trail and then down, down, down…to find a half dozen deer on either side of the path in a glen.  It was a great diversion and good exercise.

Rob and I like to enjoy the journey as much as the destinations. Life for us is not racing to the next “thing” but to take in the sights and sounds and smells along the way because they are the next thing. The drive on the Needles Highway is well worth the time. Leave SUVs and trucks at home, drive 20-25 mph, and enjoy a couple of hours taking in Mother Nature at her finest.

A rock climber’s delight

There are three low, narrow tunnels – all short enough to see through so cars take turns, if needed. And there are plenty of spots to pull over and take photos.

The needles themselves are large rock formations that jut up from the forest like — well, like needles.  We stopped to take photos and watch for a while as an Englishman did a rope climb up though the Eye of the Needle – a fairly easy climb as these things go apparently, and often the destination for those who count rock climbing coup the way mountaineers count summits.

Memories for our eyes only

After going through the third tunnel, we chose to go back to Hill City via a road that would become unpaved.  What a trip that turned out to be!  The paved bits had switchback after switchback, and it wound up and up and then down and down, then back up and back down and then repeated itself again and again, like a roller coaster ride. 

Unfortunately for us, we were still driving our wreck of an old car and not the delicious sporty roadster that will be awaiting us in Europe next year, in the Spring.

At one point, it must have been around 6:00 p.m., give or take 30 minutes, we could see the full moon just as bright as a headlight, sitting low in the deep blue sky, framed by the tops of 50-foot Ponderosa pines overlooking the Black Hills.  The same trees we had driven by at their bottoms, some untold number of twisty turns ago.  Each turn brings forth another view-picture, another memory for tomorrow.  If this road had a name, we never saw it.

Just as some things are meant to be seen on the BIG screen, many of the images we see in the Black Hills are for our eyes only.  No camera could capture the fluidity of the light and shadow changes, the depth of the views.  No words can truly describe the feeling one gets when, while walking through a mountain glen a family of deer suddenly stand at attention, waiting to see if we are friend or foe, and then honor us by accepting our presence and begin to nibble on the grasses again.”

From our Journal, September 2005

Alpine Restaurant in Hill City was worth the wait

After one very long day in the Black Hills, the Alpine Inn in Hill City seemed like a wise choice when the alternative was me cooking a meal. We didn’t notice the sign that shows the night’s menu, but were happy to sit on the porch and wait for a table – marveling that there were so many people waiting although it was past 8:00 p.m. on this Friday night in a town with a total population of 860.

As we sat down, our waitress arrived promptly with pen and order book in hand to ask if we know the menu.  No, we respond.  Oh, well it is 9-ounce filet wrapped in bacon for $9.95 or a 6-ounce filet similarly wrapped, for $7.95, salad and baked potato included (2005 pricing; add $4 to those for 2020 prices).  Certainly made it an easy choice and, fortunate for us, we weren’t hankering for a pork chop.  We did get a drink choice and, as the waitress passes through to the next room, Rob wondered aloud what need she had for an order book.

After gorging ourselves on a very tender and tasty dinner, the waitress reappeared with a dessert menu – not quite 20 scrumptious things to choose from. It seems we had done this dinner backwards! Additionally, that order book suddenly made way more sense.

Boot Hill Cemetery — the final resting place for Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane

What trip to the Black Hills is complete without Deadwood? This is the dusty town featured in untold numbers of American Westerns. Just seeing the name on a sign shouts Boot Hill, and poker games gone astray in saloons with six-shooters smoking hot. Cowboys jingling spurs and saloon girls being naughty.

Alas, some expectations are too hopeful to be matched. We lost the battle to maintain the images of the Wild West from our youth and ceded to modern day vehicular traffic and gaudy souvenir shops.  The main parts of Deadwood were just too touristy for us. It didn’t fit the terrain but seemed popular with city folk who don’t know better.

And then we wandered off the main drag and found a museum – a gem, and the only redeeming quality in town for us.  Although small, the museum packs in a lot of information in a pleasant way and we enjoyed learning about the town and the lives of some of its more famous residents.

A quick look online today, to see if I could find a name for the museum — and to discover if it still exists — resulted in a TripAdvisor post titled, “The 10 Best Museums in Deadwood, South Dakota.”  Who knew??? I guess 15 years can bring a LOT of changes to a town. As a warning, the link only shows eight places and not all are actually museums. I believe the one we toured was the Adams Museum.

This post is one in a series that document our 400-day trip round the world (2005-2006). Each segment will be linked in at RTW.

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