I woke up at 4:00 AM from my hotel room in Denver. I couldn’t wait to get on the road, up through eastern Wyoming, and onto the Black Hills of South Dakota where I’ve never been before. We stayed at a large DoubleTree hotel across from where to old Stapleton Airport used to be. The original control tower still stands as a reminder, but forgettable box stores and buffet type restaurants now reside on the old runways and tarmac. “There’s a Super Wal-Mart that’s open 24 hours” our cab driver told us. Cab fares from DIA; Denver’s “new” airport, that’s not so new anymore after more than 20 years of use, are steep; but the taxes, surcharges, fees and whatever else on a car rental from DIA can nearly double your rate. One way around these charges is to rent a car from the Avis desk at the DoubleTree at Stapleton; which we did, however you still need to take a cab from DIA first. You still pay fees, of course, but you don’t get your pocket picked nearly as bad. I’m not one who likes to add layers to the logistics, but the savings in this case was well worth it.
“Why didn’t you take Uber,” the middle aged Asian woman at the Avis desk asked with a slight accent. “You could have gotten here for half of what a cab cost.” She seemed to have been in the States for a while, she knew all the idioms of the American vernacular quite well. We just shrugged, there really was no reason to willfully overspend on transportation. I guess in the back of my mind, I’m just not ready to embrace a technology that’s ready to eviscerate another industry. Not that I’m necessarily sentimental to taxis, but there are times where I simply wouldn’t mind the twenty-first century taking a sabbatical.. Such resistance cost me an extra twenty-five bucks, but there’s cab driver in Denver that got to survive another day.
I got the family up, and by 8:00 we finished breakfast at the Stapleton IHOP where DC-10’s and 727’s used to roam and got on the road. We headed north on I-25, where we’d pick up US 85 in Cheyenne before cutting over onto US 18 East into Hot Springs, South Dakota.
The traffic from Denver towards Fort Collins on a Thursday morning was terrible. Why? We’re going against the logical flow of rush hour, but every few miles or so there was a sign warning us to expect very heavy traffic for the forthcoming solar eclipse in a few days. The thing with these signs is people actually slow down to read them. What is it with these signs? You get on a plane and make no bones about ignoring the safety demonstration, but on a highway everyone slows down to 30 mph to read the same message every eight miles. So, thanks to the signs telling us to anticipate traffic in the near future, we had traffic.
But it did clear up, and once we got to Wellington, Colorado where the Front Range sprawl finally subsides, it was open road from there. My sons, ages 9 and 10, have been on the road before. They’ve seen the open space of this vast continent, but most of that open space still had the scat remnants of mankind; a billboard, a lone standing warehouse, a truck stop in the distance. It’s not sprawl per se, but it’s been corrupted. I guess finding true purity in land these days is like hunting for a unicorn; but eastern Wyoming still comes pretty close. Save for the fences and powerlines, you could almost assume this was the same landscape that Kerouac wrote about decades prior. And yet, you have to make a point of this to your kids. “Guys, look…there’s nothing”. You have to emphasize that seeing nothing is something. We flew two thousand miles so you can appreciate…nothing. It almost sounds Seinfeldian.
We’d base ourselves for a full week in Custer, South Dakota, however our first stop was in the town of Hot Springs on the southern fringe of the Black Hills region. Hot Springs, as you may well imagine, got its name quite literally from the warm water springs in the area. In fact, calling the town Hot Springs is a bit of a misnomer since the springs really aren’t that hot, but rather lukewarm; thus suggesting a pinch or two of hucksterism rooted in the town’s history to lure tourists. There are a number of grand historic buildings with the traditional stone-faced facades that were quite prominent of late 19th century architecture, but Hot Springs is a place where travelers tend to spend a few hours instead of a few days. The motels look like you’d find an old bed vibrator mounted on the headboard, and could use a fresh coat of paint. Nevertheless, once the boys saw the water slide at the outdoor pool at Evans Plunge, a natural mineral pool that is Hot Springs’s biggest attraction, there was no going back in the car. We were committed. We took the plunge, so to speak, at Evans Plunge.
Evans Plunge, which has existed since 1890, is a one of kind place that has a large indoor pool, and smaller outdoor pool, that’s fed by a natural, thermal spring on the north end of the facility. The pool itself is somewhat shallow – maybe four or five feet deep at the most – that’s lined with small, soft rocks along the pool’s floor that are surprisingly pleasant to walk on. There are two slides in the indoor area that offer a nice ride into the very clear, very refreshing water, but it’s the outdoor slide that really shoots you down quite fast. We enjoyed the outdoor slide for a while until the late afternoon thunderstorm rolled in, dropping the temperature considerably, and causing the staff to require that everyone go inside in case of lighting. Since we did catch a bit of chill, it was wonderful to enjoy their rather clean and well-maintained sauna, steam room and hot tub at the end of the day. And while their amenities are fairly up-to-date, like much of the town, however, Evans Plunge has a bit of dated look to it. With its fluorescent lights and corrugated metal ceiling, it just as well could be a place to store extra spools of electrical cable. But this is South Dakota after all, a manly land that doesn’t need shiny ribbons tied around much of anything; much less a natural spring pool.
|Mural on the side of the Hot Springs police station.|
We drove north up Route 385, through Wind Cave National Park, where we had our first sighting of bison grazing and pulled over and get the first of many pictures of them. This the South Dakota equivalent to gawking at the Naked Cowboy in Times Square. It was cool and breezy, with a lovely late afternoon sun getting ready to set. The bison seemed pretty indifferent to our looking at them. There were signs along the road warning of the dangers of bison. They’re not friendly animals and are prone to attacking humans; but these bison, totaling three, seemed pretty stationary and content as long as we kept our distance. We did.
Once we arrived in Custer, we went straight to the Shady Rest Motel. It’s not so much a motel as it is a group of twelve cabins which rest at the base of the Black Hills State Forest upon a woodsy hill; though still walking distance to town. Since the Shady Rest is situated a bit up and out from Custer’s center, in order to be better seen, all of the cabins remain painted in bright yellow with red trim. It’s part of the great tradition the Shady Rest has enjoyed since it was built in the 1930s; where you can still smell pinewood inside the cabins. Though the best thing about the Shady Rest is its owners, John and Ann, who are two very congenial souls and are always glad to help. We got well acquainted with them during our week’s stay, and since both were former park rangers in the Black Hills, there is no better source to get the local skinny.
|One of many sculptures in downtown Custer, SD|
We found Custer to be a terrific place to stay since most attractions are within a reasonable drive, not to mention there being a great mix of shops and restaurants along its handsome main drag. There are plenty of places to buy a T-shirt in Custer as well, where Sturgis merchandise was already marked down since the rally had recently ended. Among those T-shirts is a surfeit of pro-Trump apparel just waiting to jump off the racks. One shirt had Trump on the back of Harley giving the finger to…who knows…the Universe, I guess. Another had Trump pointing a shotgun at presumably anyone who’s still unconvinced he’s making America great again. But the most memorable was the one with Trump, again on a motorcycle, but riding solo on the front of a noticeably two-person saddle that read, “IF YOU CAN READ THIS, THE BITCH FELL OFF”. On one of the other racks was a hoodie, also marked down for whatever the reason, that had the Stars and Bars of the Confederate Flag as its sleeves. I thought the navy-blue background would do much to bring out the color of my eyes and asked my wife if she wouldn’t mind waiting for me to try it on.
“No!!!!” She said with a dash of vehemence.
“But it would look great in Essex,” I said. Essex, as in Essex, Connecticut. A scenic town on the southeastern shoreline that doubles as a protective game park for the endangered American WASP. The schools are great, and it’s a nice place to raise a family; but it’s also rife with Subaru’s and Volvo station wagons boasting stickers from clubby, eastern colleges and the Episcopal Church. I moved there seven years ago from New York, where I’m trying desperately to stave off the whiteness that my time in the city helped to curtail. That’s what I liked about the Black Hills. If for some reason you actually wanted to shop at Vineyard Vines or J. McLaughlin, you had to get on a plane. Guns were far more abundant than neckties.
This went on for a few minutes, but it was the boys that found this little tongue-in-cheek dialog the most tedious, and so we moved on to Mount Rushmore. I never did try on the Rebel Flag hoodie.
I’ve wanted to go to Mount Rushmore since I was in third grade. I guess you could say it’s been on my “Bucket List”, though that’s a term that’s wormed its way into the American lexicon that I can’t stand. Nevertheless, it’s always something I’ve wanted to see, and this was finally the day to do it: August 18, 2017. I was very excited.
It was an easy drive to Mount Rushmore from Custer, passing by Crazy Horse along the way. What’s cool about approaching the monument is that you don’t really see it until you’re practically there; at least not from our direction anyway. We queued up to entry gate; one of those things where visiting the park is technically free but you must pay ten bucks to park. That ten bucks is good for a year as long as you hold on to your parking pass, however. We stashed the car where there were extra-long parking spaces for the huge SUV we rented in Denver and made our way up.
We first walked through the Hall of Flags, a walkway about the length of a football field that leads up to the main viewing area. It was added in 1976 as part of the bicentennial and consists of flags from all 50 states, all US territories and the District of Columbia. The flags, in case you’re wondering, are placed alphabetically; which means that Alabama is the first flag and Wyoming is the last. I was corrected, incorrectly, by somebody who said they were placed in order of their admission in the Union, but he was clearly wrong. I mean, all you have to do is find any car registered in Delaware to know that it’s the First State. It says so on its license plate. It’s always said so on its license plate, and that was not the first flag flying in the Hall of Flags. The audacity of some people to spread fake news like that.
I did find it apropos that Connecticut, where I live, and is a state that has taxes on tax, and is facing a $2 billion budget deficit with legislators wrangling until the wee hours of the night to solve, had its flag all twisted around the pole. All the other flags flew free and mightily in the light Black Hills breeze that morning, but not Connecticut’s. It looked sick. “How fitting is that,” I said. “Connecticut’s flag is all screwed up like the rest of the state.” Nobody knew what the hell I was talking about.
For me I loved Mount Rushmore. I could sit from the main viewing area and look at those four presidents all day. The sky was a deep blue, there were very few clouds. There’s a relaxed feeling there, a peaceful admiration. A place, one has to assume, where people like me have waited a very long time to visit and wanted to take their time. It’s not Zen, there’s no feeling of “oneness”, it’s not spiritual, but it is a place to give your Type-A personality a day off. People speak quietly among themselves, much like being in a large city library, where you know you can get away with talking but don’t want to be noticed. There are no signs to be quiet. There are no overbearing park rangers hovering around like at some stuffy art museum. If your cell phone rings, you find an unobtrusive spot to take the call. It’s just understood.
We walked around the Presidential Trail, where we, along with everyone else, stopped to take pictures every few feet. It’s a paved trail maybe around mile or so in length that in some places requires one to go up and down steps. It’s a leisurely walk that’s mostly shaded, where you can get a nifty look of, say, Teddy Roosevelt from a perspective you’ve never seen before. A bit further up, a terrific profile of George Washington waits for you. There’s a slow burning excitement that comes as one gets closer the busts, right along the base of the slope where all those thousands of lichen covered boulders rest from the blasting done decades prior.
|George Washington from a different angle at Mount Rushmore|
There is something about the Presidential Trail that I feel needs to be mentioned. Something that’s rather indicative of the widespread obesity problem in this country, and the fact that many Americans are just not in good physical shape, but I found it troublesome that there were warnings along this short, paved trail -- albeit with some steps -- indicating that it was strenuous. To me, strenuous means a triathlon. The Presidential Trail, in terms of exertion, is about the same as walking around your average shopping mall. But you’re seeing this more and more now in places that were constructed before we became the fattest nation on the planet – careful folks, there’s eight steps to the bar, please consult with your physician to make sure you’re healthy enough to join us for a drink. For a monument that’s all about the boundless possibility of America, to see a strenuous warning along the Presidential Trail goes well beyond sad irony. It’s downright pathetic.
I am aware of the indigenous perspective of Mount Rushmore as well. That the Black Hills were sacred. That treaties were signed with the Lakota to let them keep the Black Hills, only to have those treaties later be broken once gold was discovered. That this was stolen land, where the spirits that inhabited this stolen land were disrupted by the desecration of a mountain by carving four white faces; forever reminding those of their conquerors. Mount Rushmore is pure arrogance. But damned if they didn’t pull it off. Like putting a man on the moon decades later. It doesn’t change that it was pure arrogance, but it’s arrogance with an asterisk. As if to say, “Yeah, I get it…but have you ever seen that thing?”
What’s less forgivable is the town of Keystone just two miles down the road. Keystone, like all its neighboring Black Hills burgs has its roots in mining, but when the fortuitous decision to blast four heads on a nearby mountain was bestowed upon them after all the ore was hauled away, the town’s new destiny as an el dorado of T-shirt shops, bad pizza and faux Indian artifacts was hatched. Things like cheap dreamcatchers, presidential chainsaw sculptures and quartz geodes are in full abundance. Most of the stores have generous amounts of floor space, but there’s not much differentiation among their offerings, that is, unless you’re a connoisseur of the five-dollar refrigerator magnet. You can hop from the “Trading Post” to the “Mercantile” to the “General Store” and essentially stumble through all the same crap. And yet, the two hours or so of meandering through this district of dross was still two hours of vacation. It wasn’t stolen time, like waiting, inexplicably, for an hour to have the tires rotated, or going to the DMV. But two hours was plenty and I was glad to have parked for free. What I found interesting was wife’s take on Keystone, which was much different than mine.
“There’s a weird vibe here,” she said.
“Like something subversive?”
“Really?” I was intrigued. She went on to talk about these three guys she saw in a store with my older son. I too was in the same store with my younger son, but towards the back and completely unaware of this. They seemed to know each other, though they were pretending not to, as if this was some kind of sting they’ve done before.
“Like shoplifters?” I asked, though I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to risk being prosecuted for stealing this junk.
“Like something predatory, I didn’t want to let our son out of my sight.”
She went on that she sensed this pall over the town, that the contrived, carnivalesque, Wild West hijinks that was Keystone; with its cheesy reenactors and related kitsch, was masking some underbelly. Something dark. Something icky. That lurking thing that paying customers aren’t supposed to see near the back tents of the circus. It wasn’t in plain sight per se, but something was there; the way house-hunters walk away from that perfect home for no logical reason.
Is there proof of this in Keystone? Is there a history? Not that I’m aware of, but one never should question a mother’s intuition.
Upon returning to Custer from Keystone we had Mexican food for dinner. While leaving the restaurant we heard distant music coming from the first evening of the Southern Hills Music and Arts Festival, or SHMAAF. The baseline to ZZ Top’s “Cheap Sunglasses” was carrying through the outskirts of Custer like a well hit golf ball, and so we followed the tune up to where it was coming from. Seems these days nearly every town has some kind of music festival; which has been a nice boon for long forgotten bands like Foghat and Kansas among others, though there’s no mistaking these things with the major league festivals. This was only SHMAAF’s second year, where the sparse crowd of perhaps a few hundred confirmed the festival’s nascency. The stage was sloped downward from where we stood, where we watched for free from a distance a little-ways up from the entry gate. On stage were some local cover band. They had just gone into a competent rendition of “Brown Eyed Girl”. Though seeing a band of sexagenarians play Van Morrison was like hearing Wild Cherry at a wedding reception. There was a bit of a “ho-hum” vibe in the air, and I wasn’t feeling terribly compelled to catch the end of their set. I was feeling even less compelled to hang around for Jefferson Starship, the evening’s headliner, who as far as I was concerned sucked in their “prime” back in the 1980s. Some things just don’t get better with age, and I could only imagine Grace Slick, assuming she’d actually be fronting the band, needing oxygen to perform at the mile-high altitude. The $54.00 ticket price didn’t help either. We split.
Ann from the Shady Rest greeted me the next morning with an apology over something she didn’t do. “I’m so sorry about this…this…rock concert that was going on last night. We could hear it from here.”
“Oh, I know, we stopped by last night…for a little while anyway.”
We chatted for a few minutes about the show among other things, and then I told her as politely as a could that there’s really no reason to apologize. It’s like taking the blame for a hailstorm. But that’s Ann.
It was Saturday morning, August 19th, my eleventh wedding anniversary, and nothing says romance like an eight-mile hike in Custer State Park. Custer State Park is among the stalwarts of not just South Dakota State Park system, but for state parks nationwide. Covering more than 71,000 acres, the park offers a broad terrain of majestic hills and prairies, along with much wildlife to include bison, gazelles, pronghorn elks and its famous “Begging Burros.” We’d needed to make three trips in order to feel like we covered enough ground, though there was still plenty left unexplored.
We came in the Sylvan Lake entrance, way up in the northwestern tip of the park. Sylvan Lake is a small body of water. By Eastern standards it would be thought more of as a pond than a lake, where the area is measured in square miles instead of something one swims across. But since there’s not a lot of rivers or surface water in the Black Hills, anything greater than a puddle deserves some hyperbole. It was a Saturday afternoon, and much was going on around the lake with lots of grills a’blazin’, and the sounds of kids having fun. We even stumbled upon a wedding along the shores of Sylvan Lake. After all, there’s no better day to get married than August 19th.
We picked up the Harney Peak Trail, Number 9, one of the most popular trails in the park, and proceeded upwards to the summit. Along the way were the large, jagged “cathedral spires” that loosely resembled the Garden of the Gods near Colorado Springs. There were ample opportunities to view scenery as we ascended the trail, which culminated at the fire look-out station at the summit. While the summit was well populated with other day hikers, many of whom we saw earlier in the day at lower elevations, the fire station had this ghostly abandoned feel to it. The doors creaked and shut quickly due to the stiff breeze, reverberating in a thick echo inside the station. Downstairs were the eerily empty sleeping quarters the rangers once used. My sons and I went through another door onto a large observation deck where we could only stay on for a short period of time; not because of being overrun by other hikers, or that it was unsafe, or that we sensed a malevolent entity stalking behind us, but because there was this massive swarm of termites, or winged ants, that chose to inhabit this deck. We’re talking tens of thousands of these things getting in our hair, in our ears, in our noses, clinging to our clothes and so on. Why, the frustrated entomologist in me wanted to know? What are they doing here? They were biting too, and those bites began to itch a bit once the perspiration soaked in. We just sucked it up. While being eaten by these insects, I did notice something a bit unexpected on the rocky summit nearly four miles up from the foot of the trail. There was this large group of teenagers, about fifty or sixty strong, in the company of several ministers donning full Anglican cassocks on this rather warm day, collars and all. These ministers seemed to enjoy these robes, making a point to stand downwind so they would flap and flutter in the air. They all stood upon rocks that were higher than the rest of the teens, as if they were each some triumphant general planting his flag in victory. They moved in a certain way. There this fluidity to them. An almost serpentine undulation that swayed unconsciously. Were they connecting to God? It was impossible not to notice how they were moving in front of this group looking upwards at them. I wondered how they got up there, these ministers, as I just couldn’t imagine them making the sweaty hike in full clerical regalia; but I guess they did. It’s become an indelible image etched in my mind.
We descended down, taking our time to smell the roses and take in the scenery once again. I could sense this hike going for about an hour too long, but there was no choice but to keep on trucking. Endurance isn’t a suggestion. Just before we concluded our hike, we stopped into a small mica cave where my future geologists took samples to bring back home. A short while afterwards we were back at the car.
“We have about an hour and a half before the rodeo,” my better half said. “I’d like to go back and freshen up.” Nothing says romance on your wedding anniversary than going to a rodeo after a long hike.
“If there’s ever an event where you don’t need to freshen up, it’s a rodeo.”
The official name of the rodeo was the Mount Rushmore Rodeo at Palmer Gulch. Palmer Gulch is an old Black Hills resort that’s been owned and run by Kampgrounds Of America, a.k.a. KOA, since 1977. Although I never really thought of a KOA being a resort, this expansive property offered well beyond the standard RV park amenities to include a full-service hotel, deluxe cabins, mini-water parks, go cart rentals, hayrides, horseback riding and of course much, much, more! In fact, this was the third largest KOA in their entire portfolio, which we didn’t dispute as we went on and on and on to get to the back of the place where the rodeo was held. And yet, as American as this setting was -- this mobile Levittown comprised of thousands of luxurious RV’s and campers, there was a frenzied dash of the Third World mixed in as well. Look to the right, and a 13-year-old comes out of nowhere on the family UTV – hit the brakes! A second later, three toddlers catapult from behind a $100,000 Winnebago into the road – hit the brakes again! A sixteenth of a mile from there, three elderly women leisurely straddle on their bikes at .00861 MPH, blissfully unaware of the traffic jam they’re causing. Driving on the right side of the road, or for that matter just using the road, is merely a suggestion; a passing thought while daydreaming by the firepit. I hadn’t had so many vehicular close-calls since living in Queens. Where’s the damned rodeo?
We finally parked thanks to numerous signs and attendants pointing us into the right direction. And after paying the very reasonable admission (KOA guests got in for free), we had pulled pork sandwiches and headed to the bleachers to get a good seat. Things were filling up fast. Down below there were cowboys; and these were real cowboys from dusty ag towns like Lusk and Torrington, teaching youngsters the finer points of tossing a lasso and other roping methods.
“C’mon guys,” I said to my boys. “Go on down there.”
“We’re not cowboys,” my younger son said.
I pointed to a kid in a bright orange Under Armor shirt and matching shorts that he likely got at the Paramus Mall. “You think that kid’s a cowboy? Go on down there…come on.”
“I don’t want to…”
I pointed to another kid, this time in Adidas garb, and made another suburban reference but it was to no avail. They seemed content just to observe.
I haven’t been to too many rodeos before, but I will say this, the bulls and the broncos and the men and women who ride them are very important, as are the clowns, but having a terrific announcer makes or breaks it. We had one that night, in that of a convivial Coloradoan by the name of Mike Heitmann, who was meant to call rodeos in the way Burl Ives answered his calling to narrate Christmas specials. He ushered in the rodeo bonhomie with his soothing patriotic drawl, got us on our feet, and despite the daily ignominy with our president, had us remove our hats, put our hands over our hearts, and watch the finest flag of the greatest country the world has even seen be ridden by a pretty young cowgirl. And after we hummed along to The Star Spangled Banner and honored our soldiers, we introduced ourselves to our neighbors, told them where we were from, and gladly shared whatever snacks and munchies we had with us for the duration of the night. It was rodeo time, almost. But first came the Cowboy’s Prayer, written by the late Clem McSpadden which goes like this:
Our gracious and heavenly Father, we pause in the midst of this festive occasion, mindful of the many blessings you have bestowed upon us.
As cowboys, Lord, we don't ask for any special favors. We ask only that you will let us compete in this arena as in the arena of life.
We don't ask that we never break a barrier, draw around a chute-fighting horse, or draw a steer that just won't lay. We don't even ask for all daylight runs.
We only ask that you help us to compete in life as honest as the horses we ride and in a manner as clean and pure as the wind that blows across this great land of ours.
Help us, Lord, to live our lives in such a manner that when we make that last inevitable ride to the country up there, where the grass grows lush, green and stirrup high, and the water runs cool, clear and deep, that you, as our last Judge, will tell us that our entry fees are paid.
The more traditional events of broncos, barrel races, team roping and bull riding ensued. Bull riding, of course, is the main event, however a number of these bulls were very stubborn with coming out of the chute. You could hear the chute boss from the other side of the field getting pretty irate. After all, it’s show business Mike from Bismarck informed me, and if the animals don’t cooperate, the company putting on the rodeo doesn’t collect its full fee, or gets stiffed entirely. Though the longer the bull waited to exit the chute, the more his bovine fury intensified, and man did you see some guys get tossed. This is always a crowd pleaser. Just like crashes at the Indy 500. At the same time, to see a rider hold on for the required eight seconds is just as impressive, as you’ll be hard pressed to find another eight seconds that comes much tougher. Seemed that the “Indian Cowboys”, as they were called, coming off the reservation from Kyle, South Dakota were the ones to beat on this night. It’s like they were glued to the saddle or something.
On Sunday morning we had breakfast at the Baker’s Bakery & Café. The Baker’s Bakery & Café enjoys hanging a sign of woman with her head turned and one knee bent backward, thus causing her skirt to wave just enough to expose her backside. However, rather than show raw gluteal flesh on this enticing image, each of her cheeks are substituted with sandwich rolls; giving her a warm, yeast-risen derriere fresh out the oven. The accompanying tag line reads, “You’ll Love Our Buns.” I didn’t have their buns, but rather their breakfast burrito which could have been mistaken for tank ammunition in terms of its size. In fact, I had already heard about this breakfast burrito by several locals earlier in the week, as the worst kept secret in Custer seems to be how much Rachel Ray loves this particular dish. When ordering, one has the choice of having their burrito served plain or “smothered” with a thick, jalapeno based topping and cheese; though having it “smothered” does cost a buck more. Then again, who wouldn’t have it “smothered”? The thought of having it plain was unfathomable. It was one of the easiest dollars I ever spent. Delicious and incredibly filling, this breakfast burrito definitely lives up to its celebrity status. I would enjoy it two more times that week.
|"You'll Love Our Buns" at the Baker's Bakery & Cafe in Custer, SD|
After breakfast we headed to Bear Country USA near Rapid City. I had read about this place in preparation to coming out, not to mention seeing it heavily advertised in the ever-growing pile of tourist collateral in our cabin. Bear Country USA describes itself as a “Unique, Drive-Thru Wildlife Park in the Black Hills of South Dakota.” It’s a fair description, though I think the word unique is way overused. However, the remoteness that one might connote with a “wildlife park” is not to be found. Route 16, a busy four-lane highway, runs right beside the place; and there are numerous, non-descript clusters of capitalism marking the outer fringe of Rapid City that can be seen as well. There is still plenty of open space out there. Lots of grassland. Wild grassland. The same grassland that once was home to some 80 million head of bison. It’s just that this grassland now gets interrupted every half mile or so by a lube shop or self-storage place. But if you’re able to block that out and apply some imagination, you can kind of, sort of, get that “wildlife park” feel. It’s just takes a little meditative discipline, and poof, you’re ready to see some bears.
Bear Country USA begins slowly with the hopeful promise that you’ll build up to something more exciting before you leave. Think of it as a Ravel’s Bolero type of theme park model. We started out seeing some gazelles, or whatever they were, as well as some other type of ungulates lazily snoozing in the shade. Around the corner laid another motionless organism we couldn’t identify. Yawn…
“This kind of reminds me of the panda exhibit at the National Zoo,” my oldest son said.
“You mean with how all the animals look dead?” I said.
We went around a few more uneventful bends until we came unto a welcome traffic jam. Ahhh… the bears! Not just one or two of them, but about forty. Just like that! The excitement level went from 0-60 mph in just one turn. They started approaching us. I rolled down my window, despite the numerous signs saying not to, as a bear got closer to freak out my wife. It worked. I did it again, but now she was annoyed. Now the boys started doing it. Up down, up down with the windows. For the life of me I just couldn’t seem to find where the window locking button was. Boys…what are you doing???? Another great moment of my leading by example.
Bears were in front of us. Bears were in back of us. Bears to the right. Bears to the left. I put the SUV in park, thus sending a telepathic message that it was OK to take a siesta underneath the front bumper. A bear answered the invitation. We didn’t move for a while.
“You’re starting to cause a bottleneck,” my better half said. There were about a dozen cars lined up behind us.
“You mean the bear is. He’s still napping against the front wheel.”
“You could back up and go around…”
I didn’t do that since there was, in fact, ample space for the other cars to go around. Why they chose not to is anyone’s guess. Besides, for all the hours that have been stolen from my life crawling in traffic, I was actually enjoying being stuck in the car like this. I liked having the bear there. After all, he chose us.
The bear eventually moved and we continued on at 5 MPH, stopping every fifty feet or so to look at more bears on the other side of the car door. The auto tour finished up with a small family of bison taking all the time in world to cross the road in that wildlife park kind of way. Afterwards we checked out the zoo for a little bit. Great fun…
Next stop was Rapid City, or simply “Rapid” as it’s known locally. Rapid City, like most municipalities of comparable size in the Great Plains, looks much bigger than its population of 74,048 would suggest. In New Jersey, it would be just another crowded bedroom community with hemorrhaging property taxes. In South Dakota, it gets its own airport and could be the kid brother of places like Denver, Omaha or Salt Lake. There’s a small, but steady building boom on the outskirts of town with lots earth moving equipment clearing space for new senior care and other types or retirement communities. It’s also the beneficiary of some pretty deft self-promotion, where colorful, twilight images of the fountain in Main Street Square have become Rapid’s symbol of urban vitality. The fountain looks bigger in pictures than in real life, and while there are a few blocks to poke around for an hour or two, Rapid City in many ways is just the latest town to embrace the new economy of craft beer and gourmet hamburgers. Shopping-wise, however, Rapid City is a stark upgrade for those weary of browsing through gem shops and T-shirt stores. Those places exist too, of course, but there are a number of merchants with more sophisticated offerings that are a galaxy removed from Keystone. One place in particular is Prairie Edge right on Main Street. Prairie Edge, which consumes half a block and is three floors high with a broad variety merchandise, is the crown jewel of Black Hills retail; selling high-end western and Native American themed clothing, furniture, art, jewelry and related accessories. This is where you get your $4,000 Lakota war bonnet or beaded buffalo hide. It’s perfect for those who recently came into a small inheritance, or just won ten-grand playing the scratch-off lottery, and can go on a freewheeling shopping spree for ceremonial tunics and decorative buffalo skulls. For everyone else, life takes Visa.
We considered having lunch, but it was the middle of the afternoon and we were still full from the massive breakfast we had at the Baker’s Bakery & Café. So we nixed that idea and were about to get in the car when a sign marking Art Alley caught my eye. “Let’s check it out,” I said.
Art Alley which runs between 6th and 7th Streets in downtown Rapid City is a huge strip of graffiti art painted by the local Michelangelo’s of the genre. Nearly every building was covered from ground to rooftop with wonderfully colorful imagery and expressive statements. This is premium street art, a place where you could shoot a music video and trick the world into believing it’s Queens.
“It’s like we just died and came off the 7-Train.” I said, somewhat incredulous that I was in South Dakota.
“I know,” said my wife. “Let’s take some pictures.”
And so we did. Up and down the alley. Right side, left side. Close up, wide shot. It was all good, but that was about the most Rapid City could do to hold our interest. We headed back to Custer for an early dinner.
|Partial view of Art Alley in downtown Rapid City|
Monday, August 21 was the day of the eclipse. This damned eclipse. I didn’t even know about the thing until I made my reservation at the Shady Rest Motel in early April. Traffic getting out of Denver that weekend was supposed to have been horrendous; at least that was the buzz at the rodeo Saturday night. We were two hours north of the direct eclipse path where coverage was estimated to be around 96% -- not bad I thought. If we wanted that remaining 4%, we had to go south. Fort Robinson, a.k.a. “Fort Rob”, Nebraska was supposed to be a hot spot for eclipse watchers, but we were weary of the possible traffic. The Badlands was another option since that was south as well, though not directly in the path. We figured it may have been a cool place to see it due to its lunar looking landscape, but we ruled that out as well.
I got to say I was pretty irritated about the eclipse. We chose coming to the Black Hills in the latter half of August to avoid any of the Sturgis hubbub. We weren’t expecting for things to be more hectic than usual. And they may not have been, but I was sort of in doomsday mode thinking the Badlands entry gate would be bottlenecked like that of a well-traveled bridge on the eve of Thanksgiving. I pictured ten-year-old kids selling bottled water alongside the snarled road from Wall to Interior. But then what? Squander this once in a generation chance to see this thing? The last major eclipse for me was in fourth grade, 1979, where it decided to be cloudy that day. I mean…I can’t blow this. I was finding this stressful. We decided to keep driving to a minimum where we made our first planning gaffe of the trip. I did most of my homework on the places we wanted to see, and when you get the gist of going to various parks with paying the entry fees and so forth, you assume it’s pretty much the same everywhere you go. However, that’s NOT the case at the Crazy Horse Memorial, and we went in there blind.
We had driven past Crazy Horse a number of times already, and since it was close by, we thought we’d give it a try to see the eclipse. It’s a long road to the entrance, kind like going down a lengthy ramp into parking garage in New York where it’s an absolute bitch to turn around after discovering the feloniously high rate. Better park now or else miss the opening curtain for “Cats”. Well, Crazy Horse was kind of like that for us. I guess we could have turned around at the entrance, since the fee for our car was $28.00, but instead of missing “Cats” we were afraid of missing the eclipse. We threw out our gumption in haste. Could we just drive up to the monument? Was there a good viewing area for the eclipse? Where was everyone else? There was no time to ask these irksome questions, tick, tick, tick. Just pay the outrageous fee -- the eclipse is in two hours -- it was like getting on the last chopper out of Saigon.
“Just park up there and go to the visitor center…” The woman at the booth told me.
“I can’t just go up?”
“You have to park and go to the visitor center first,” she said a bit more emphatically. I felt my first tinge of buyer’s remorse.
So we parked and entered the visitors center up the road. We learned quite quickly, that $28.00 was just the base fee to get in. To do anything else was an upsell unless we wanted to see the small museum and learn about a warrior nobody knew much about because that’s how he wanted it. In fact, if there was anything that went against the spirt of Crazy Horse, it was this site and its superhero grandiosity. Assuming it would someday get finished. Since construction first began in 1948, there’s not much more than a big face. A face, mind you, that was never photographed since that’s how he wanted it as well. A face that looks white by the way. We could buy bus tickets for another four dollars each to go to the base of the monument.
“You mean we can’t drive up on our own?” I asked.
“Can we go on the monument?” I asked since I’d seen pictures of people happily meandering underneath Crazy Horse’s nostrils.
“You can go to the monument,” the woman at the counter said. “To go up to the face requires a special donation.”
“Is there a suggested amount?”
“About $150.00 per person.” She said, holding a straight face.
I quickly did the math, that was $628.00 including the non-refundable fee we just paid. About what our total airfare to Denver cost with frequent flyer miles. That seemed high; especially since the ten bucks to see Mount Rushmore was good for 365 days, which we had visited three days earlier and could easily get to before the eclipse began around 11:00 AM.
“Is this a good place to watch the eclipse?” I asked rather directly.
She just shrugged and said nothing, breaking off eye contact with me. I assumed that meant no in the same way an airline employee indicates you’ll miss your connection by staring at the computer screen. I asked for the three-day re-visitation pass. As she handed me the little yellow piece of paper she said, “This is also good for the laser viewing on Wednesday night at 8:30.” I never knew that Laser Crazy Horse was a Lakota tradition. I wondered if they’d be playing Led Zeppelin.
We hightailed it out of there and headed up to Rushmore.
We arrived at Mount Rushmore with well over an hour before the eclipse was to start. It may us feel a little silly for acting so hurried at Crazy Horse. I hate it when I overthink things. But here we were.
The vibe was mellow and subdued that morning at Mount Rushmore; more so than when we went on Friday. It was noticeably less crowded too, like hitting the town beach after Labor Day. We showed our pass, parked in the big vehicle area and headed up. We were mindful of the time, but did a quick jaunt along the Presidential Trail and then plotted a corner in the parking area that offered a full view of the faces, hills and the vast prairie directly behind us.
The clock struck 11:00, and there was noticeable change to the color of the sunlight; going from bright yellow to feeling like it was 6:30 PM. It was as if a giant lens filter was placed in the sky to give the Black Hills a soft umber hue. It was a neat effect for forty five minutes or so, but I was hoping for some darkness and to see the prairie get swallowed up by a gradual lunar shadow. It didn’t happen. I had two cameras, one from my phone and the other was Canon digital job that I’ve had for about ten years. I held them up and tried to watch the eclipse that way but to no avail. Even with only a small sliver of the sun remaining uncovered, its powerful rays still kept the moon bleached from view. The only clue of an eclipse was the change in light color. To see it, you really needed those eclipse glasses that were now sold out everywhere you went. I recalled them being available in some of the towns we drove through in Wyoming a few days before, but I didn’t bother. To me they seemed like a gimmicky product that would be used once and then tossed out. But guess what, they actually work and are the only way to really see the damned thing. Fortunately, there was a friendly group of elderly women nearby who were generous with sharing their glasses. It was sort of a makeshift communal viewing area, where the children of stubborn parents who were skeptical of the effectiveness of eclipse glasses could go witness this event before they reached middle age. Mine went over there, along with my wife. I was fine being alone for a few minutes. And that was it. The eclipse over and I was hungry. We went to have lunch in nearby Hill City.
We ate at the Hill City Café. A popular local spot with a cabinesque décor full of bearded, manly men enjoying generous portions of lumberjack fare. It was crowded, and so we were seated in the adjacent room with the less cabinesque cinderblock walls and tiny windows.
“I guess this is where the put the tourists. Like being seated by the bathrooms at Le Cirque,” I said to my wife. My boys gazed up at me with that pre-teen look in their eye that told me I was sounding like an ass. I slinked into my menu.
The food came where I thoroughly enjoyed the Hot Beef Combo that was comprised of two large halves of a roast beef sandwich separated by a gulf of mashed potatoes in between. The kicker was the gravy, all 17 gallons of it welling up in my plate in a thick rich puddle.
“I’m sorry,” I said jokingly to the young waitress. “I meant extra gravy.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry, do you want more?”
“Oh no, no, no…I was only kidding. It’s perfect…delicious.”
I got that look again from the boys. I bowed down in shame and quietly finished my meal. I guess I needed to tweak my humor. In any case Hill City Café gets the thumbs up. Tasty stuff.
We decided to make our second trip to Custer State Park for the balance of the afternoon. Since we hiked two days prior, we wanted to see the vastness of Custer State Park which meant doing so by car. We made a number of stops along the way to do a brief hike or enjoy one of the many, many spectacular views. We followed the Wildlife Trail which had us salivating for more game after having a taste of it the day before at Bear City USA. There were a few herds of bison at Custer State Park, but it was hit or miss as to when you’d catch them. One day you’d see them, the next day you wouldn’t. We picked the right afternoon, where the backdrop of the rolling prairie and rocky hills made this like an American safari. I thought about how it was kind of a sad travesty. That seeing bison in the open land was now such an anomaly, something that you do, when they were once in such abundance. I also couldn’t help but notice how incredibly dry the Black Hills were; only to be confirmed by Smokey the Bear who marked the city limits of each town we entered. Forest fire danger ranged from moderate to very high that week. A major part of this was due to the mountain pine beetle. We saw this a few years earlier in Colorado, where massive swaths of grey gouged the once pristine greenery of the Rockies with thousands upon thousands of dead trees. The problem has spread to the Black Hills as well. Previously healthy slopes now looked like they were clear cut for timber. You can see huge piles of dead trees stacked neatly by the forest service to help stem the ever-looming threat fire all over the area. Thankfully things weren’t burning on this day, which enabled us to be engulfed in a herd of bison along several sections of the wildlife trail. I so badly wanted to run around with them despite the ubiquitous instruction saying otherwise. I didn’t, but the impulse to do so was genuine. Everything is just too controlled these days. I could feel for Crazy Horse.
|Bison looking down from higher ground in Custer State Park.|
There was a nervous anticipation going through me as we got closer to “the rez.” The land was more open and lonesome. I wasn’t really sure what to expect, or how welcome we would be. It’s a sensitive place. It’s a notorious place. A place with extreme poverty and wanton violence that stings quickly and slithers off into the vast expanse of nothingness. There is no industry and therefore no jobs, leaving an unemployment rate ranging between 80-95%. The average male life expectancy is 47. The average female life expectancy is 52. Only Haiti in the western hemisphere is worse. Alcoholism is estimated to be as high as 80%. There is no public transportation to service the reservation, and if you’re among the very few to actually have a job, chances are it’s located in Rapid City, a good two hours away, where a reliable car is needed to get there. Living quarters are often squalid and overcrowded, sometimes with 17 or more residents living in dwellings the size of a mobile home. It’s estimated that up to a third of these dwellings lack either electricity or running water or both. There are many ways to die at Pine Ridge: murder, suicide, diabetes, heart disease, heat stroke, exposure, poison, liver failure or fiery auto crash; all of which occur at rates well above the national average. Then there’s the less measurable ailments of boredom, depression and despair to go along with everything else.
Our first stop was the Red Cloud Heritage Center on the grounds of the Red Cloud Indian School in the town of Pine Ridge. The Heritage Center serves as one of the main cultural engines on the reservation and is home to a renowned art gallery. When we arrived however, the gallery was closed. It was just bad timing as they were turning over to a new exhibit that week. But since there are no parks or public restrooms on the rez, this was an ideal opportunity to use the facilities in the gift shop. There were no other customers inside, and we all went into the solo unisex bathroom, one by one, which forced us to partake in an inordinate amount of browsing through the gift shop. It was awkward, and I got tired of faking my interest in whatever I was fumbling through. Just flush the toilet already and let’s go. There was also a staff meeting of several women going on in front of the shop where I couldn’t help but think we were imposing upon. They insisted that it was alright, but such tolerance is always best rewarded with a purchase. For me, I was set; and I was antsy to get going, but my better half started trying on earrings for God’s sake. I rolled my eyes, as if to say that she didn’t have to get them just because we crashed their meeting, but she insisted that she really wanted them. I wasn’t so sure at the time, but she got them anyway. They’re actually quite nice.
I couldn’t help but feel like I was on the defensive at Pine Ridge. I was absent of confidence while there, feeling apologetic and obsequious instead. It was a big reason I felt awkward in the gift shop. It’s easy to say, “oh, come on, who gives a #%&*”, but as a first-time visitor it’s extremely hard to not be aware of yourself. Your white self. And even though there’s no gate or special crossing to access the rez, you still feel like a trespasser. As if you’re a bunch of sheltered suburbanites visiting the rez simply to be amused by the extreme hardships of the have-nots, or in this case, the have-nothings. Much like going to the zoo. It wasn’t designed to feel comfortable and hospitable for its permanent residents, much less for daytrippers like us; and it’s not. The roads are long and desolate, and the cars that pass by you on the opposite lane do so at very high speeds, hopefully by a sober driver. This was the last place where I wanted to get in an accident, or make a roadside repair, or fix a flat tire. This was the last place where I wanted to need help. And yet I wanted to be there. I wanted my sons to see the truth. Heck, I wanted to see the truth. I was a fascinated by this truth, as ugly as it was. Maybe I am circumventing the fact that I too am a gawker to some extent. That I’m no different than those urban explorers traipsing around the abandoned blocks of Cleveland and Detroit for kicks. But I was curious.
We next drove to Whiteclay two miles south of the town of Pine Ridge. Whiteclay is an unincorporated town literally yards across the Nebraska state line. Population 11. There are no schools or parks or playgrounds or any type of community center in Whiteclay. There’s no police or fire department, or for that matter any municipal services of any kind. Whiteclay exists for the sole purpose of selling beer to those on the reservation where the sale of alcohol is forbidden by law. There are four beer stores blended in with a half dozen or so other abandoned buildings; most of which used to be bars that closed because of the constant violence there. Death is no stranger to Whiteclay, and thus, since beer can only be taken out, the consumption of alcohol and the drunkenness that ensues is often on public display. Whiteclay has been commonly dubbed as a “rural skid row,” and has been used repeatedly as an example of capitalism gone awry, where 4.9 million cans of beer are sold annually from just these four stores alone. Seeing Indians passed out throughout Whiteclay is a common site, where discarded cans and bottles are found strewn all over both sides of Highway 87; the town’s only road. Whiteclay is only about the length of a long city block. You can stand on the state line and hit the first beer store with the good toss of a frisbee. There’s been resistance to Whiteclay. That the economy of this little dusty burg, with its ugly, tattered stores lined with corrugated metal rooftops and siding, has for too long poisoned those on the rez by fueling alcoholism and all the maladies that go with it. To many, Whiteclay is evil. Others say that if Whiteclay were forbidden to sell beer, those from Pine Ridge would simply have to travel farther to get it, which would make it even harder to contain the widespread problem of drunk driving. Liquor licenses have gotten revoked recently due to this increasing backlash, only to somehow get magically reinstated later. Crudely written graffiti reads “DEATH WHITEMAN” on one building. On another, a higher-road message calls for solidarity and boycott. Things were fairly quiet by the time we arrived at mid-morning, though customers seemed to be making their way into town. We continued onward to Wounded Knee.
We backtracked through the town of Pine Ridge en route to Wounded Knee, passing a Pizza Hut, about the only name brand business in all of the rez’s 3,469 square miles. The infamous dilapidated homes and piles of junked cars around them could also be seen throughout, but not everything was that way. Wounded Knee was about a twenty-minute drive from Pine Ridge. It is not a tourist destination. There is no welcome center, and there are no signs along the road to whet your appetite with getting there like that of Wall Drug. There’s one quick reminder shortly before its unofficial location at the junction of BIA 27 and BIA 28, where you slowly, and I mean slowly, navigate up the deeply pockmarked dirt road to the cemetery. Down below overlooks where the massacre happened on December 29, 1890.
We parked the SUV just before the top of the hill, where at first glance things seemed fairly sparse. Just another car or two and because of that I didn’t bother to lock our vehicle. As we walked towards the cemetery I was immediately greeted by woman named Trisha wearing an Oakland Raiders t-shirt with a big hole in the chest. She extended her right hand and gave me a limp handshake. In her left hand she was holding a tightly bound bundle of sage.
“I’m here to tell stories about what happened here at Wounded Knee,” she said.
“Where ya from?”
“Connecticut,” I said.
“Been to Wounded Knee before?”
“You’ve probably heard the official story of Wounded Knee, but I’m here to tell what really happened…”
She started out by explaining her ancestral connection to Chief Red Cloud. I still had my walls up and I wasn’t feeling comfortable with her. I would have preferred to explore the site on my own, so I didn’t connect all the dots as to how she claimed her bloodlines with the great chief. We were locked in, walking side by side in the cemetery where she pointed out the mass grave surrounded by a chain link fence covered by hundreds of prayer ties. I let her continue with telling her story about Wounded Knee, but it troubled me to hear it get distilled down to how she was about to get her electricity turned off, and so, could I help her out a bit? She didn’t look healthy, and I had a few thoughts about how else she might spend the money. Nevertheless, I helped her out.
As I watched her go away, a van pulled up and made a dramatic stop, causing a cloud of dust to kick out from underneath the tires. More storytellers, about six or seven of them. They quickly got out of the van and made a hard line to some new visitors. I was standing alone, where my wife and two sons were somehow exploring the grounds without any escorts in the back. I then realized that I left the SUV unlocked with my wallet hidden in the console. My wife’s purse was in there too. I was picking up bad vibes from these guys, and considering how isolated we were, was wondering if they might be trouble. I kept walking up and back in the cemetery with one eye on my family and the other on the SUV. I became very self-aware of how these guys would perceive me if I acted upon my mistrust of them. I did not want to draw their attention. Then again, I also had listen to what my instincts were telling me, which was to quickly get back to the car and lock it. It was very conflicting since I was trying to be sensitive to the surroundings, and yet, I was feeling extremely manipulated at the same time. My ego didn’t want me to be a pushover; and I questioned the appropriateness of using Wounded Knee as place to seek handouts. But if they didn’t do this, how else would they get money? The rez was a proven dead end; just as it was designed to be, and this was one of the few places where visitors actually got out of their cars and walked around. It’s much easier to say no to your average panhandler on the street. Unfortunately, dealing with this overshadowed what I was hoping to experience there.
As I returned from locking the car to regroup with my family, I was approached again.
“Where ya from?”
“Been to Wounded Knee Before?”
Evidently this guy was the caretaker of the cemetery. Or least this one of them anyway. He looked to be around 30, very frail and emaciated. His hair was disheveled and he was wearing an old baseball cap. He had a thin mustache, but there was a teary glaze in his eyes that, like Trisha, told me that he was just not well. His story varied a bit from Trisha’s. Apparently, there were serious rumblings at one time about building a resort hotel just down the hill from the site of the massacre.
“So much of what you hear about Wounded Knee is a lie,” the caretaker said. He told me there was going to be some kind of South of the Border type of development with an Indian theme. That got the kibosh, thankfully, but then the US Federal Government threatened to come in and make Wounded Knee a National Park, which would require a welcome center and museum to serve as a propaganda machine for the bus tours of white visitors coming each day. Mount Rushmore is already enough of a middle finger to the indigenous people, but commercializing Wounded Knee with gift shops and stupid Americans? No way, this was their land. Though because the Federal Government wasn’t subsidizing Wounded Knee, the residents of Pine Ridge were on their own in terms of maintaining its preservation; and that costs money. Would we be able to help? I hesitated since I just been through this with Trisha. Nevertheless, we helped again.
The dudes in the van never got to us, I guess they saw that Trisha and The Caretaker beat them to it. Nothing was taken from the car either. We hopped in the SUV and drove a few hundred yards down to where the actual incident occurred. At the site there’s a large red sign that explains what happened. However, you’ll notice that on the sign there’s a plate that reads “Massacre” at Wounded Knee that was placed over the original lettering. This was an obvious correction. The sign previously read “Battle at Wounded Knee”. Many lies indeed.
I didn’t feel compelled to read both sides of the sign. There were a lot of words there, and I just got the oral rendition at the cemetery. I was hoping we could just walk around on our own. There were a few more visitors milling about than at the cemetery, where you felt pretty exposed. Then another van pulled up. Again, everyone quickly got out; like firemen arriving to a burning house and took their positions. Then came that greeting again.
“Where ya from?”
“Been to Wounded Knee before?”
His name was Michael, though I was curious what his Lakota name was. Michael was missing a few teeth and there was no need to explain his situation. He was in rough shape though we found him rather likeable and charming. He reinforced that Wounded Knee was no battle, that it was indeed a massacre. He seemed to instinctively know that we were already abreast of what happened in 1890, so his focus was on the 71-day siege of the town in 1973; where two were killed and 13 wounded. This was led by the heavyweights of the American Indian Movement, or AIM. Guys like Russel Means, Dennis Banks and the brothers Clyde and Vernon Bellecourt. It was a long struggle, rooted in undercover infiltration by the FBI and the patsies they put in positions of authority to undermine their efforts. He pointed to where some of the buildings stood during the siege. None of them are there now. The confrontation got pretty hot, where the military was brought in with their grenade launchers, armored personal carriers, helicopters and everything else. It got more than two months’ worth of media coverage and greatly raised the awareness of the cause. This also led to even more deleterious action by the Federal Government.
“We’re all sick from the water,” Michael said. “The Feds poisoned it. Everyone is sick.”
I didn’t argue the point that everyone was sick. They sure looked it, not only the people we met, but the everyone else we saw. Whether it was due to the Feds poisoning the water is subject to further investigation. But there was no doubt, this place was sick. Michael showed us a laceration between thumb and index finger that was not healing properly. Probably already infected. He told us he needed to get to the hospital, but it was a long way to go and he was low on money for gas. Could we help him out? We did for the third and final time.
There was mystical quality to Michael. He raised his arms in a way that suggested we had been granted charter membership to Pine Ridge, where we would be divinely protected for the remainder of our journey. “Enjoy the rez,” he said with a big smile. We headed to the Badlands, assuming we still had enough cash to pay the entry fee.
The Badlands wasn’t just up the road. It was another 70 miles through the deep interior of the reservation where we’d pass through the hamlets of Porcupine, Kyle and Potato Creek before heading north on Route 44 towards the town of Interior and the southern entrance of the park. We didn’t stop until we got there.
We entered to pay the fee. The young, female, passive-aggressive ranger seemed to enjoy telling me that she was out of maps. I’d have to go inside the Ben Reifel Visitor Center to get one. I mean…fine, I planned to go in there anyway. I was tempted to let her know that being a park ranger was far better than rotting away in some cubicle and that she ought to lighten up. Thankfully I didn’t. We made our pit stop, got oriented, browsed through the oversized, almost-impossible-to-avoid gift shop, and began our exploration of the park.
We did what most people do. Drive for a mile or two, park in one of the many viewing areas, walk around a bit, take pictures. Repeat. There were a number of signs warning of rattlesnakes. Could there be in that hole you’re standing on son? We didn’t see any, both a relief and a disappointment. What’s wonderful about going to the Badlands is you see two forms of contrasting scenery at the same time. The Badlands aren’t bad, they just weren’t hospitable to foreign travelers in the 19th century. Instead they offer a rugged, lunar beauty in the foreground which reflect different colors of sunlight at different times of day. What you see at lunchtime looks different at dinnertime. The background is a massive openness of naked land as far as the eye can see. These two dimensions blend seamlessly. Like some type of figure-ground image. It was here at the Badlands that I got my first true appreciation of the beauty of the Plains. It looked like an ocean, which as a coastal Easterner was always the safety valve I needed to not feel swallowed up in urban mass. I didn’t have to be on the water per se, but seeing it, or being close to it, was my remedy to that terrestrial form of claustrophobia. I was struck by how it impacted me. I felt a certain weight get released from my chest. I felt lighter, better. There’s just something therapeutic about uncluttered space. Especially when it reaches the horizon. For years, I never really understood how someone from Nebraska or North Dakota could be homesick. I mean…there’s nothing there. Exactly, they’d tell me. There’s nothing there.
The road that’s most traveled at the Badlands is the paved Loop Road. It goes for about 29 miles and ends at the northern Pinnacles Entrance which takes you up to Wall and I-90. It then becomes the less traveled unpaved route called the Sage Creek Rim Road. It’s this road that takes you to the bison. These are the hard core ornery bison. The ones that will ram your car with their head. Trample you to death if you get too close. The really good bison. They’re also way the hell out there, and by now we had been in and out of the car for nine or ten hours.
“Oh, let’s just go down a little bit…”
So we did, but the hard rumpled sand on the Sage Creek Rim Road was sending shock waves up my middle-aged spine. And after two miles of this at ten miles an hour I had enough.
|One of the rock rormations at the Badlands. In the background is a vast "ocean" of uncluttered land.|
“Wall Drug guys?”
Wall Drug. I mean, how could we not go to Wall Drug? It would be like bypassing Rodeo Drive while in Beverly Hills. Wall Drug was founded in 1931 in the town of Wall, South Dakota. At the time the town was made up of only 326 citizens. Most of them were experiencing hard times from the Great Depression. Business was bad, and the circumstances in the surrounding the community were equally bad. If they were going to make it they needed customers from beyond Wall to come into the store. They did so by offering free ice water to those passing through. Not just water, but ice water in the days before modern refrigeration and air-conditioned cars. Who wouldn’t want that after traveling for hours in a hot car?
Billboards for Wall Drug could be seen for hundreds of miles throughout South Dakota and its neighboring states. It’s become a Marketing 101 example of effective self-promotion. As a result, Wall Drug has become the Macy’s Herald Square of the region, offering everything from artwork, Christmas ornaments, souvenirs, western wear, hats, belts, t-shirts and a billion other related things. Some of their merchandise seems to have blown in a southwesterly direction from Keystone, while at the same time you can purchase a $700.00 pair of Lucchese cowboy boots. If you’re hungry, chances are you’ll find an open table in its 520-seat café. There’s still free water too, thought it wasn’t ice cold on the day we came.
“It’s like goat pee,” I said.
Nevertheless, the boys got a couple of modestly priced cowboy hats, and we all had great fun browsing around for a while in this famous roadside attraction before venturing back to Custer.
On Wednesday morning we decided to go to Jewel Cave National Monument. Jewel Cave is only about 15 minutes west of Custer. Unlike most national parks, Jewel Cave requires some advanced planning where you must schedule a guided tour. The tours fill up fast, so it is best to arrive by 9:30 if you want to see the cave on the same day. We snagged the remaining few spaces for the 12:40 tour. The downtime allowed us enough time to go back to Custer for another breakfast burrito at the Baker’s Bakery & Café. Yum…
It gets cool in the cave, about 49* Fahrenheit so we brought our fleeces as suggested. The ranger who was coordinating the tour asked where everyone was from, and, like many of license plates we saw that week, many of those on the tour hailed from Minnesota and Wisconsin with a few Texans and Californians thrown in the mix.
Jewell Cave is the third longest cave system in the entire world with nearly 190 mapped miles of passageway, however some geologists estimate the total length being as much as 5,000 miles. It taps into a massive aquifer with a surface area covering about half of the Louisiana Purchase and supplies the drinking water for numerous states throughout the Midwest. The tour takes roughly two hours and the rangers are quite knowledgeable and friendly. There’s a certain brand of humor that comes with being a park ranger tour guide. It’s probably a job requirement, where one blends old lore with silly riddles along with a pinch of shameless Gong Show shtick. You laugh more because they’re actually telling the joke than for the joke itself. You’re right, that slab of dolomite does look like a piece of bacon ha, ha, ha… I wish I could recall more, but there’s something about jokes that are hard to remember. But it’s all good fun. The tour offers a nice sampling of “rooms” with various rock formations, colors, stalactites and stalagmites and all those other geological ingredients to make this a great cave. Nice to see the boys asking good questions to the ranger as well.
For the balance of the afternoon, we made our third and final visit to Custer State Park but the bison where nowhere to be found that day. Like I said, it’s hit or miss, and this was their day off. There was still the scenery to enjoy of course. That never gets old.
It was Thursday morning and after a full week, it was time to bid adieu to our friends John and Ann at the Shady Rest Motel and move on up to Hulett, Wyoming and Devils Tower.
It’s about a two-hour drive to Devils Tower from Custer. We made a pit stop in Newcastle, Wyoming where our battleship sized SUV almost got clipped as it protruded somewhat beyond the tightly compacted island of gas pumps. It didn’t make sense for this gas station to be so cramped in America’s most sparsely populated state, but it was. You’d think I was filling up at a Hess station in the outer boroughs. Thankfully the other vehicle missed...but barely. They say football is a game of inches. So is getting gas in Newcastle.
We arrived around noon and were able to check in early at the Best Western Devils Tower in Hulett. As we entered the lobby, there was huge inflatable alien. It was precariously balanced against the wall; just enough so the air conditioning streaming downward from the ceiling vent wouldn’t blow it over. It wasn’t held up by any strings or tape, so there had to have been some sort of geometrical calculation to how this thing stood. I wondered how this esoteric mathematical knowledge was transferred. Could there have been some extraterrestrial influence into how this decorative alien was standing? You know, like the Pyramids of Giza? Perhaps the setting was causing me to overthink this, but alas, it was just teetering back and forth on its own. That was until the boys started wrestling with it.
I looked over at the woman at the front desk. He lips were grinning but her eyes were showing full-on consternation.
The inflatable alien was there because, in addition to the serendipitous discovery of the eclipse, it just so happened to be the 40th anniversary of the release of Close Encounters. How’s that for a middle-aged reminder? I remember seeing that in the theatre in third grade. All of all times to visit Devils Tower. Who knew?
“Boys…for the third time…”
It was time to leave the hotel.
Founded in 1906 Devils Tower was America’s first national park and you can tell by the layout of the place. It’s not flawed in any way, but the visitor’s center isn’t the most commodious of buildings, the parking lot is tight and the facilities are somewhat rustic. It’s like comparing a strip mall built in 1955 with one built in 2002, there’s just more room for cars and people and all that extra space that we as Americans seemingly need to have. For some reason I envisioned there being some huge field at the foot of the Tower, where one could play frisbee, or have a picnic. There are a few picnic tables scurried about, and a fountain for potable water, but the Tower just rises few hundred yards from the visitor center. There’s no build up like at Mount Rushmore or Bear City USA. You just get out of your car, and boom, there it is. You can walk to the base of it in two minutes.
There are various hiking trails, but the most popular trail is the paved walkway that goes around the circumference of the Tower. It’s a little more than a mile long, but we managed to take a few hours to travel this distance; leisurely stopping every few feet and just be in the moment. There were signs of fire all around the trail, where charred trees and grass could be seen throughout. It was incredibly dry with a steady breeze blowing in all directions. One rouge campfire or carelessly tossed cigarette could spark a devastating conflagration. I wasn’t sure if the charred remnants were from fires set intentionally to eradicate the flammable scrub brush or not, but it looked like a gang of ruffians somehow got their hands on a few flamethrowers and used them to played tag. Alongside the grooves, or “clawmarks” on the Tower you can often see climbers going up or down. They look like fleas in contrast to the igneous grey rock, where morbid hopes of the seeing the rope snap cross your mind. These thoughts are private, of course, unless one of your offspring expresses the same thing out loud.
“Dad what if one of those guys fell?”
“Oh my goodness…that’d be just awful. Just awful. You know… To see one of those guys fall and die…horrible. Just horrible.”
We continued around, it was a busy late summer day at the Tower. The boys invented a football game with pinecones. They’re always inventing games like that. While they played pinecone football, my wife and I sat down, people watched, and said hello to whoever came by. It’s so good to see how America has become less homogenous these days; an eclectic bunch seeing the Tower for sure. We headed back to Hulett for dinner.
|Late afternoon outside Devil's Tower where the first clouds of a massive electrical storm were starting to roll in.|
Hulett Wyoming is about two blocks long, but unlike Whiteclay that looks like dusty mess that shot out of a lidless blender, Hulett is a compact, walkable little town with a few restaurants and antique stores that look right off the set of High Plains Drifter. The Rouges Gallery welcomes shoppers with four wooden coffins outside that are framed with what looks like an oversized croquet wicket of tangled antler horns. Hulett looks and feels western, but it’s thankfully not too overdone in the way some New England towns inflict their quaintness with countless white houses, warm cider and overpriced maple syrup. We looked for a place to have dinner. There was The R-Deli, but I’m mistrustful of anything called a deli west of Pennsylvania. I’ve been burned by “delis” in non-traditional deli areas; though the sandwich menu actually looked quite decent. We then walked over to the Ponderosa Steak House. It had a warm feel to it that was accentuated by a number of cozily lit neon signs on the walls. It was small however, and all the tables were full when we poked our head in. The menu seemed a bit pricier than what we were looking for as well. Across the street was the Red Rock Café. The Red Rock Café looks like the basement of a church where everyone goes after Sunday mass to have lemonade and refreshments together. I wondered if there were little animals from a Christmas manger scene stashed somewhere. The café doubled as a flower shop, where they also sold a variety of bric-a-brac to accompany any floral purchase. The food came quickly. It was wasn’t bad; though I thought the bill was higher than expected. I guess I was getting a little cost conscious since we were towards the end of our trip. I was getting a little tired of eating out as well.
“Everything alright there,” asked the owner. She also happened to wait on us and noticed my giving the check some extra scrutiny.
“No, it all seems to add up right,” I said. I didn’t want squabble over some nickel and dime matter. Especially in a small town like this.
As it turned out, I’m glad I kept quiet about the check, since it led to a friendly conversation where she mentioned that her husband was from Brooklyn. In fact, she told us there were a number of people from New York and New Jersey living in northeastern Wyoming. Interesting, we thought. Of all places to discover that your plumber grew up in Rahway, I wouldn’t have guessed it happening in metro-Devils Tower. Another sign of the looming apocalypse for sure.
The skies above Hulett were looking ominous as we exited the Red Rock Cafe. From a distance you could see flashes of lightning translucently illuminate the clouds. They looked like giant cotton balls held in front of a strobe light. The storm was coming…just not yet. We walked back to the Best Western on the outer fringe of Hulett’s center. Nobody wanted to swim in the small indoor pool downstairs, even though that was one of the main reasons I chose to stay there. And, unlike the rest of the family, I wasn’t in the mood to watch a Seinfeld rerun on TV, which unbelievably was from 25 years ago already. After all, with Hulett being the new Miami for New York transplants, why watch a sitcom set in Manhattan? I figured I’d get a better taste of the street life; maybe stumble upon some late-night shawarma or something. I went for a walk.
The soft glowing bulbs of lighting were quietly moving in. On little cat feet, if I may steal a line from Carl Sandburg. It was now dusk. I walked through a residential neighborhood where some of Hulett’s 383 citizens leerily watched me pass by; their silhouettes filling up the widows. The dogs were on to me as well; giving me a hard, full-throttle bark as if I were the Midnight Rambler. More silhouettes appeared in the windows. I walked through town again, along the main road, and stood on a bridge crossing over the shallow, narrow Belle Fourche river. Just before reaching the bridge I passed the office for Crazy Woman Realty. There’s an old phone booth outside of the office’s front door. Inside the phone booth is a mannequin of a woman wearing a skimpy bikini. This woman must be crazy man. She doesn’t mess around, as there’s a photograph of her and her partners holding an AR-15’s with the slogan, “Come, you are not alone. We have you covered.” She clearly likes her Second Amendment rights, as do many in these parts, and I’d think you’d be a fool to stiff this woman of her commissions. Nevertheless, she seems to know her stuff when it comes to intricacies of Wyoming real estate and its related customs; where trespassing is verboten and cattle rustling is still a hangable crime.
|Outside the office of Crazy Woman Realty in Hulett, WY.|
The thunder grew gradually louder as I stood on the bridge. I must have been on that bridge for at least an hour thinking about everything and nothing at the same time. Darkness had settled in. Then the first serious crack of thunder happened right over me. That was the ten-minute warning to seek cover. Maybe five in this case. Time to get back to the hotel but I just couldn’t leave. I had to hold on to this for as long as possible. This storm was a siren, and the enticing sounds of its thunderous rumble was morphing into the dangerous creature it really was. This was a full-on electrical storm, and it was about to lay its wrath on Hulett in a matter of minutes.
I made it back to the hotel in the nick of time. Moments later, a machine gun of electricity came down in rapid fire. Little Hulett was in the vortex of a plasma sphere. The lighting struck from all angles. Vertically and horizontally. It was the horizontal streaks that really put the zap on us onlookers, like some beam coming out of the Death Star. How could it not strike the surrounding wilderness? How will this parched area not be burning up by the morning?
The lighting struck something, somewhere, and Hulett went dark. No power. However, that didn’t mean the hotel was in chaos. The door locks were battery powered, so no problem there, and the hallways had backup floodlights just for these kinds of reasons. As for being able to see inside the hotel room, all you had to do was keep the curtain open and let the Gods light it up. This was the first time I ever stayed in a hotel when the power went out.
There was a remarkable calm throughout the property. A demeanor that just shrugged its shoulders and rolled with it. No griping. No bitching about not expecting to deal with this for whatever rate they were paying. No asking the young woman at the front desk, who probably never experienced this situation before, about getting a refund or discount. As with most power outages in the summer months, the circumstances pushed many of the guests outside. This wasn’t your average storm, and thankfully there was a large canopy over the main entrance where we all stood and marveled at the sky.
A camaraderie quickly formed among us. One or two of the guests broke out their very expensive cameras, mounted them on tripods and tried to capture their own National Geographic picture of the storm. A local Hulettite with long grey hair and a thick beard struck up a conversation with me as the rain pelted down on the canopy above. He said that the power doesn’t go out too often, but it does from time to time.
“How long does it take to get restored?”
“Depends,” He said. “Takes a while to get up here.”
This was true, the two towns of any decent size, Sundance and Belle Fourche, South Dakota were 36 and 47 miles away respectively. Hulett’s nearly 400 residents weren’t exactly on the beaten path.
The reactions to the lighting were one part surprise, one part fright and one part of being in awe. Nothing ever beats what the natural world brings forth. We stayed out there. Kept watching. Kept playing the odds that getting struck was of similar probability to winning the lottery.
The storm eventually moved on, but even the locals said that this was a nasty one. I smelled no smoke, saw no orange blaze in the surrounding blackness. All should be well for returning back to Denver the next day. We went to sleep, only to be jolted out of our slumber around midnight when the lights and TV shot back on. An unrequested wake-up call in the form of restored power.
Regardless of the power going out, there was just something we all sensed that said it was time to get home. Time for a home cooked meal. Time to sleep in our own bed. We had a about a seven hour drive ahead of us, where we made a few pit-stops in the towns of Lingle and Torrington. Traffic getting into Denver was just as bad as getting out on this Friday afternoon. Denver’s greatest fear and desire of becoming Los Angeles had finally, simultaneously, become actualized. We made it to our newly built airport hotel, ate at the world’s busiest Ruby Tuesday’s down the road a short while later, and watched some preseason football before crashing early.
Our wake-up call came promptly at 4:30 AM. There was a surprising number of people already up at that hour around the Denver airport. You need time at DIA. It’s definitely a “process” with regard to dropping off a rental car and making your flight on time there. But we managed just fine, made our connection uneventfully, and got home to Connecticut by late afternoon.