DNA X #18 The Black Hills

October 16th, 2010 by

The Black Hills

Weather- sunny, 65F
There are certain American icons that we grow up hearing about. In every history book there is a picture of Mount Rushmore; can you name the presidents? We read about the battle of Wounded Knee, Custer’s Last Stand, Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull. These pieces of our history played out around the Black Hills of South Dakota. This geographic center of the US is named after the Dakota Sioux people. We drive through arid land, high plains covered in sagebrush and few trees. In the distance rise the Black Hills so called by Native Americans because the Ponderosa Pines and granite cliffs look black from a distance. It looks ominous and as we climb up out of the plains the road weaves and winds into the hills. The area is rich in history and preserved lands.

DNA-XOn our way to the town of Custer we pass through Wind Cave National Park where we see a herd of bison grazing. We go by Jewel Cave National Monument, the second largest cave in the US (can you scale over 700 steps?). Black Hills National Forest surrounds the parks. Not far away are Badlands National Park and Devils Tower, our first National Monument (1906) in nearby Wyoming. It’s hard to know where to start so we head to Custer State Park. Without proper planning we arrive in town and notice every hotel is booked. We want to stay in the park at a lodge but alas there is no room at the inn. Management notifies us there is one cabin left near the lodge so we take it. Upon inspection we find a dark, run down shack with a rubble strewn “yard” accented with a “fire pit” under the bedroom window. Blackie’s parking space is twelve inches from the pit. Near by cabins have a similar setup. Chief inspector Jay scowls at the scene and notes that if the place is full (as advertised) there will be numerous campfire sing-alongs and debauchery all night long (no AC so windows open). Most likely he is right so we make a quick getaway and head into town. After checking with three hotels we somehow land the very last room at a Holiday Inn. We inquire as to the multitude of people and get a “are you clueless?” stare. Of course, it’s the annual Buffalo Round-Up! Every year Custer State Park rounds up the herd, which they claim is the “purest” herd left on Earth. The whole herd is vaccinated and the young ones are sold for breeding or…?. The whole scene reminds us of the round up of the wild horses in Chincoteague (DNA X #7). 20,000 people descend on Custer, stampede into the park at 5am where the rangers close the gates behind the masses until the round up is complete (who’s rounding up who?).

We decide to avoid the crowds and take a beautiful drive up the Needles Highwaythrough dramatic rock formations and single lane tunnels carved into the granite hills. We stop at the Crazy Horse Memorial. This incredible sculpture is massive. The project began in 1948 when Polish sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski and Lakota chief Standing Bear dedicated the mountain to become the world’s largest mountain carving to honor the culture, tradition and living heritage of all Native Americans. Ziolkowski worked on the mountain for years by himself with hand tools and dynamite. He scaled rickety hundred foot ladders hauling his heavy tools and had only the resident mountain goats to keep him company. His family continues the project today with no government funding. The mountain continues to be formed by hand as well as by giant earth moving equipment and precision explosive engineering that removes tons of granite at a time. There is also an excellent museum and art gallery on site with plans for a future university and medical training center. Not far away in Keystone is Mount Rushmore National Monument. The giant faces of Jefferson, Washington, Lincoln and Roosevelt stare down over the nearby plains. There is a nice trail around the base of the sculpture. After seeing the Crazy Horse Memorial it was hard to believe that all four of the president’s faces would fit in the carved face of Crazy Horse!
DNA-XWith the round up complete we get a room at the historic State Game Lodge built in 1921. Two presidents visited the lodge and Coolidge made it the summer White House in 1927. The quaint lodge has great food featuring local game. Herds of big horn sheep and deer and wild turkey wander around the property. The next day we venture to eastern Wyoming to visit the famous Devils Tower National Monument. Its stark profile is visible from miles away. The debate continues as to how it was formed but most scientists agree it is a remnant of magma from an extinct volcano exposed by erosion of the softer rocks round it. This is a sacred site for many Native Americans and their prayer flags decorate some of the trees around the base. As we approach the monolith we recall the famous Close Encounters movie and feel the enormity of the tower as it rises 1267 feet above the Belle Fourche River. The only aliens we saw were other goggle eyed tourists. There is a great trail around the base of the tower and you can see the changing faces of the rock. There were several rock climbers attempting the summit – are they crazy? – and the whole park is home to a protected town of prairie dogs, Pip was happy! South of the tower we visit Fort Laramie, National Historic Site where the confused saga of western American history played out. Strategically placed near the Black Hills, it was established as a private fur-trading fort in 1834. It evolved into a military base where conflicts between cowboys, emigrants, gold seekers, missionaries, soldiers and Indians forever changed this land. Onward… to western Wyoming.