Sensational South Dakota

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This is a good lesson to stay focused and to write every day. We left South Dakota more than two weeks ago and already I’m feeling like it’s a memory. The best writing happens during the excitement of exploration and discovery! I must be vigilant and write every day so that I don’t lose that explorer’s edge! At this point, I think I’m going to write a novel.

Looking back over the course of my life, I can’t remember anyone recommending a visit to South Dakota until we started RVing. Lots of RVers have visited South Dakota and many of them set up domicile here the way we set up domicile in Texas. Now, having spent a month touring the state, we wonder why more people don’t vacation here. It’s so diverse in both landscape and people. 

Between touring South Dakota and reading several books about the history of the west, an idea has come to me: the history of New England and the Atlantic coast is the story of westward expansion of Europe. By planting settlements in the New World, the hope was that a larger empire would be created for England, France or Spain, whichever country dug its claws in deepest. New England’s history is about our separation from England and King George III. From school trips to Old Sturbridge Village and Boston, those history lessons were repeated and shaped our view of the history of America. As students in New England, our understanding of the west was pretty much limited to Roy Rogers, Bonanza, Gunsmoke, etc. It was a cowboys vs. Indians fairy tale, the “Wild West,” where the cowboys wore freshly pressed shirts and bandanas and were the good guys and Indians learned their lesson and became subservient.

In the west, history is different. There are no Minute Men, tea parties, or conferences of men with powdered wigs and elegant discourse. The history here is more recent and raw. What I mean is this: my great-great-great grandparents were born around the time of the Boston Massacre — that’s 251 years and five generations ago. The history of the west — with Kit Carson blazing trails and American soldiers killing off the bison and the native people — is so recent that my grandparents were in their 20’s when Geronimo died. It was only 130 years ago that the Army massacred 150 Sioux at Wounded Knee! 

“History” in the west is recent, it’s palpable, it’s still mourned, and it is real. I can’t speak for younger generations, but we really never spent a lot of time on the history of the west when I was in school.

I could write an entire blog about the atrocities that were visited on the Native Indian people. As we traveled through the eastern part of South Dakota, I imagined nomadic tribes moving through the rolling hills of the plains in search of bison. The topography quickly changed as we reached the center of the state to a much flatter horizon, shorter grass, tiny cactus and then, The Badlands … fragile mountains of sandstone, lime, clay in multiple colorful layers. This area was named “mako sica” (bad land) by the Lakota people because of the rocky terrain, lack of water and high temperatures. So, when reservations were set up, where did the US Army send the Oglala Lakota people? The 2 million acre tract of barren, dusty land just south of The Badlands, of course! This was the tribe of Crazy Horse.

Continuing west, the terrain continues as a flat, dry prairie until suddenly dark mountains rise in the distance covered with Ponderosa pines and huge columns of granite, The Black Hills. Within these mountains, if you look closely, you’ll see remnants of mines that popped up during the gold rush of the late 1800’s, an event which led to huge wagon trains bringing tens of thousands of people to the Black Hills in search of gold. Few made their fortunes, but this expansion led to further atrocities against the native Indians who had lived fairly peacefully here for centuries. Originally, the Lakota were given this land by the US in the Treaty of 1868, but within months a gold nugget was found and we removed the Lakota to that barren tract south of The Badlands.

It’s a history that can’t be ignored when you visit a Walmart in the middle of nowhere and almost everyone you see looks to be of Native Indian heritage. I can’t help but wonder how they can live among us, the descendants of the “white men” who wiped out their ancestors, and not feel bitterness. 

But, for now I’ll push those thoughts aside and concentrate on the exploration of South Dakota! 

Our first stop in The Black Hills was Sturgis. What better time to see what this town is like than one month before the deluge of half a million motorcyclists? Talk about the dichotomy of “white America” vs. “native America.” We spent three nights in Sturgis, and it was probably two nights too many. The town of Sturgis is not much more than a bunch of bars, motorcycle shops and t-shirt vendors, and it appears that nothing much happens in Sturgis until August and the annual motorcycle rally. Despite all the bars in town, we were hard pressed to find any live music as the band listings didn’t begin until August 1. In the meantime, the bars’ websites promoted the upcoming bikini and painted body contests that would be featured during the rally. We walked to the historic Knuckles Saloon & Brewery and had a couple of average beers and some average food, but that was our only real outing in town. The rest of our time was spent driving to Deadwood, Spearfish, Lead and Belle Fourche. These towns all figure prominently in western history and movies, but are now pretty much tourist traps filled with souvenir shops and casinos.

The Knuckle Saloon in Sturgis. Lousy beer, average food. At least we can say we’ve been to Sturgis.
Historic Deadwood has, unfortunately, gone to the tourists.
The historic sites are now either souvenir shops or casinos.

The real beauty of The Black Hills is seen in Custer State Park!

Everyone you meet who has visited South Dakota says, “make sure you drive the Needles Highway,” and now we know why. The views are incredible, and the narrow winding road through the granite “needles” that stick up toward the sky, driving through multiple one-lane tunnels along the way, was impressive.

Four of the single-lane tunnels on Needles Highway in Custer State Park.

We spent hours driving around looking for wildlife, and after seeing a few bighorn sheep, pronghorn antelope and millions of prairie dogs, we were itching to see something new and exciting. Well, we found it! Bison, probably a couple hundred of them crossing the road en mass! Wow! What an experience. Needless to say, cars had come to a dead stop while everyone watched with fascination as these monsters walked wherever the heck they felt like it. There was one bull who was SO big, he was almost as tall as a cargo van! Whenever a dog somewhere back in the line of traffic would bark, the mothers and calves would run to safety. Eventually, the park rangers had to come out and clear the road — one sat at the ready in his truck while the other stood in the road and cracked a bullwhip on the pavement to make the bison clear the road. It was a crazy experience. We’re so glad that we got to see that!

Look at the size of this guy next to the van!!
Mom and calf.

While across the country we’ve all been impacted by the smoke from wildfires in the west, it was even more impactful to drive through areas where forest fires have destroyed acres of trees. Fire is a very real concern in the west, and having traveled in the southwest before we’re used to seeing “burn ban” signs. We drove past an area of about 3 miles that was devoid of trees. I looked online and found that a wildfire had burned here a couple of years ago. It’s such a sad, desolate site.

Two pictures showing the destruction of previous forest fires.

Of course, we visited Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse monuments while here. Mount Rushmore was very crowded, so we didn’t go in any of the buildings except the artist’s studio to see the original scale model of Rushmore. Here’s some information in case it comes up in a trivia contest … originally, Thomas Jefferson was supposed to be the president furthers to the left, but during sculpting half of Mr. Jefferson cracked and fell away, so the monument was reconfigured. This is probably why the right side of George Washington’s head looks unfinished … that’s where Jefferson was supposed to be. Also, we had never noticed until visiting the monument that Mr. Washington is the only one with lapels. Mr. Lincoln has a collar, but that’s it. This is because the monument was never finished! Mr. Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor, had run out of money and was traveling to Chicago to petition donors for more money for the project when he suddenly died. Mr. Borglum’s son, Lincoln Borglum, was named head of the project. But, it was 1941, we were still recovering from the Great Depression and closely watching the war that was raging in Europe. Lincoln Borglum knew there would be no money donated … the project was broke and his father dead. He declared Mount Rushmore finished.

You can see President Washington’s lapel, although it is not exactly carved into the rock. If you look closely you can see a similar outline of a hand under President Lincoln’s chin. The hand is supposed to be holding his lapel. Also, the right side of George’s head is not finished, nor is the left of Abe’s head.
In this plaster cast by Gutzon Borglum, you see what the finished Rushmore monument was supposed to look like.

What we found even more inspiring than Mount Rushmore was the Crazy Horse monument. It’s been under construction for almost 70 years and it is nowhere near complete, and probably will not be completed in our lifetime. The sculptor of this monument was a relative unknown in the art world by the name of Korczak Ziolkowski. Born in Boston to Polish immigrants, Korczak was orphaned at age one. He grew up in a series of foster homes where he was very poorly treated. One of his foster fathers worked in heavy construction and brought Korczak to work with him where he learned to work very hard and gained the heavy construction knowledge that would serve him well in South Dakota.

Korczak, on his own by the age of 16, took odd jobs to put himself through Rindge Technical School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Rindge was a public institution founded through a donation to the town made by Frederick H. Rindge, a Vice President of Union Oil and director of Edison Electric, whose wish was that “the plain arts of industry be taught…for boys of average talents, who may in it learn how their arms and hands can earn food, clothing, and shelter…” Boys were taught firefighting, woodworking, drafting, and various other technical trades.

After graduating Rindge, Korczak became an apprentice patternmaker in the shipyards on the Boston waterfront. He experimented with woodworking, making beautiful furniture. At age 18, he handcrafted a grandfather clock from 55 pieces of mahogany. Korczak never took a lesson in art or sculpture, he studied the masters on his own and began sculpting in plaster and clay. At age 24, he used a coal chisel to carve his first bust of Judge Frederick Pickering Cabot, the famous Boston juvenile judge who had taken an interest in and encouraged Korczak as a boy in the foster system. Cabot’s philosophy was that what many delinquent children really needed was someone to believe in them and support them. Korczak never forgot. 

At age 31, another bust by Korczak won first prize at the 1939 World’s Fair. Korczak moved to New Britain, Connecticut, to begin life as a professional artist. Moving to West Hartford, Korczak launched a successful studio career doing commissioned sculpture throughout New England, Boston, and New York. When he realized that there was no memorial to the town’s native son, Noah Webster, he spearheaded a fund raising campaign, bought the materials and created the sculpture that still stands in front of the West Hartford Public Library. Two years later, he went to South Dakota to work on Gutzon Borglum’s Mount Rushmore project. That experience marked a turning point in his life. He came to realize that the Lakota people resented having the faces of four American presidents carved into their hills. He made a promise to the Lakota that one day he would return to commemorate a hero of the Lakota Sioux as well. In 1947, he returned to do just that.

Crazy Horse, as depicted by Korczak, is not an exact likeness, it’s more of an “Everyman” native Indian man, on horseback, pointing over the top of his horse in a southeasterly direction, to the land of the Lakota where many of his people died fighting for their land and way of life.

Three views of Crazy Horse: top is a close-up, next is a distance shot, third is a plaster cast of what the completed monument will look like by the artist Korczak Ziolkowski with the monument under construction in the background.

In addition to the memorial, there is the very impressive Indian Museum of North America, which houses collections from all tribes across the country, as well as The Indian University of North America. It’s a pretty impressive campus, and admission to the museum is free. We were very impressed with the size and scope of the museum and actually had to return another day to finish seeing it all.

I love this sculpture of a shawl dancer by Allen and Patty Eckmanmade entirely from paper.

After spending a week in the Black Hills, we moved a little farther south to Hot Springs, South Dakota. It’s amazing how many hot springs there are in this country! We’ve now been through several states that boast hot springs among their things-to-see. We haven’t bathed in a hot spring yet, because it seems every time we’re near one, it’s pretty hot outside and the thought of climbing into a hot bath doesn’t seem inviting! One day, we will try it. In the meantime, there are other things to see and do.

Hot Springs, SD, is the location of what is casually known as “the mammoth site.” This is a great story: a developer in 1974 was poised to build homes on a large tract of land that he purchased, when his excavator, George Hanson, turned up something that looked like a really large bone. Hanson, thankfully, stopped construction immediately and contacted four local universities, none of which was willing to come out and see what he had unearthed. Unwilling to give up, he and his son, who had taken some archeology classes at little Chadron State College in Nebraska, contacted a professor there who immediately went to see what they had found. A little more digging led the professor to believe that they had found the bones of three or four Colombian Mammoths. The development project was immediately abolished, and after more research was done, the developer donated the site to become the Mammoth Site of Hot Springs.

Excavation continued, and eventually a building was constructed around the site for protection. Archeologists have been able to ascertain that a deep sink hole had opened up about 140,000 years ago and filled with water. They believe, from fossil finds, that vegetation grew within the rim of the sink hole, fed by the water that had collected within. Mammoths, being vegetarians, were drawn to the lush green vegetation and some may have fallen into the sink hole as they attempted to graze. Once in the water surrounded by sheer limestone walls, those mammoths were unable to climb out. Over the next few million years, ash and blowing sand filled the sink hole leaving the remains of the mammoths trapped in the layers. To date, archeologists have found the bones of 61 Colombian Mammoths and 3 Wooly Mammoths. And excavation continues.

First thought upon entering: Wow!
Excavation continues.
Except for a few specimens which have been removed for research, they leave all bones and tusks exactly where they find them.
Those oval-shaped things near the center of the picture are teeth the size of shoeboxes!
Bob standing beside a juvenile Columbian Mammoth skeleton …
… and beside a replica of what a full-grown Columbian Mammoth would look like. Behind it is a replica of a much smaller Woolly Mammoth.

Needless to say, this was yet another highlight of our travels!

After leaving Hot Springs, we traveled south and then east through Nebraska. It wasn’t part of our original plan to visit Nebraska, but my daughter Laura booked a trip to Kansas City to visit her boyfriend, Jim, who took a job there. Being only two states away, it just seemed illogical not to head to Kansas City to see her! So, the next time we post will be from a more easterly point. Until then, I hope everyone stays cool, dry and flame-free from the excessive heat, hurricanes and wildfires that are plaguing this country right now!

Abandoned root cellar near Keystone, SD.
On the side of the road near Pringle, SD.
Pile of old bikes … art installation? In Pringle, SD.
Another beautiful sunset, Hot Springs, SD.

One thought on “Sensational South Dakota

  1. This is just awesome. I’m so glad that you’re exploring the country. Can’t wait to do this myself one day!!

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