We left Valentine, Nebraska in good spirits, excited to get to South Dakota and a three-night stay in Custer State Park. The neatly groomed farms of the midwest are now behind us and we pass signs–Broken Leg Road, Antelope Ranch, Black Calf Pass– that remind us we are now in cattle country and headed into the wilder west. So far, we had managed to snap pictures of every official state sign, most of them large and bright and proudly proclaiming state mottos. But the state sign crossing into Mission, South Dakota is small and sad, ashamed maybe that its guests would be entering here, a town of the Rosebud (Sioux, Sicangu Oyate) Indian Reservation, where the poverty rate hovers near 50 percent and unemployment is more than twice the rate of the rest of the state. We missed the picture, capturing instead a sign just beyond it for the Rosebud Casino.
Mission seemed mostly bleak, a stray dog running with a paper bag dripping of something in its mouth, the windows of a trailer covered in billowing plastic, a group of young men standing around a garbage can and a rusted pickup truck with only two tires. Above the entrance to one of the few municipal-looking buildings is painted, in blue unstenciled letters, “Through these doors walk the future of the Sicangu Nation.”
Clouds have moved in and it starts to rain as we drive out of Mission. Even in the rain, the land all around us is beautiful, with its wide sky and green and gold hills that seem to roll on forever. Blond, black and Palomino horses stand so still and proud they seem more like statues; only their manes blowing in the neverending breeze give them away. It continues to rain as we drive on a road that seems endless, where no one is behind us and no one is in front of us. At one point, we reach a red light. We stop and wait, thinking something will trigger the light to change. When it doesn’t, we wait some more, wondering if maybe this is Candid Camera or one of those silly What Would You Do? scenarios. Finally, we go through the light, feeling ridiculous for waiting in the first place. Later, we come to another red light, this time behind a South Dakota truck that blasts through, barely braking.
By the time we reach the Badlands, named for their rugged and unforgiving terrain, the rain has subsided and the sky is starting to clear. We are listening to a news program on satellite radio about the wildfires further west so we are happy that everything here, even against pale brown and orange buttes, still seems green enough.
The speed limit is 80 miles an hour here, laughably unattainable for the Woodebago, who is most comfortable between 55 and 65. We reach the Black Hills by late afternoon, now feeling tired and stir-crazy from driving all day. We are griping at the kids, who are griping at each other and then griping back at us. The only sight we want to see at this point is our campsite. But then we pull around a bend and at the entrance to Custer State Park there are more than two dozen buffalo running across the street. They are right in front of us, behind us, next to us and we are all amazed and too startled to get any good pictures. As the days go by in Custer, we see hundreds of buffalo (technically bison but more commonly called buffalo) and manage a few good pictures. The males, especially, are stunningly large, with enormous furry heads that seem too heavy for them to carry. We later read that their skulls are so thick that bullets at the right angle can actually bounce off. Mostly, though, bullets have successfully killed the buffalo, who were nearly brought to extinction through sport and as a primary military strategy during the 19th century: kill the buffalo, conquer the Indian. By the turn of the century, when the Lakota Indians had lost many battles and much of their land, there were only a few dozen buffalo left.
Custer State is home not only to buffalo but also elk, pronghorn antelope, wild burros, wild turkeys, and booming towns of prairie dogs, which are really related to squirrels, not dogs. One evening, at a ranger talk about prairie dogs, we got to see a few hilarious Animal Planet clips of prairie dogs that now have us joking “Allan, Allan, Allan” whenever we see them. They were not in our campground, which was a lovely site nestled in ponderosa pines, but they seemed to be everywhere else. At night, our site was quiet and dark, and the best yet for a late-night viewing of the Milky Way (so they tell me; I stayed inside, choosing eighteen minutes by myself over any view of any galaxy).
A main event for our Custer stay was to visit Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse so we packed up one morning and headed out on Needles Highway, a 14 mile-long scenic road with hairpin curves, narrow tunnels and bridges called “pigtails” that loop around and over the road. Driving the toad is wonderful on a road like this, where we can enjoy the twists and turns and pull over easily to take pictures of Mt Rushmore, which seems to be perfectly framed in the distance around every corner.
From a distance and up close, Mt Rushmore looks just like the postcard version. It is impressive, but not really surprising in any way. Gabriela imagined it would be bigger and Elian wanted to know why Roosevelt got the worst spot, set in a turn of the mountain and hardest to see from every view. We drove on to Crazy Horse, making up pneumonics along the way to remember the order of the Presidents in the mountain–We Just Really Love (pizza), Will John Risk Lives…
There aren’t many postcards of the Crazy Horse memorial, at least not compared to Mt Rushmore, and the kids had never even heard the name of the Lakota leader who led the defeat of Custer in the Battle of Little Bighorn. Then why is the state park named after Custer, they asked. Still pondering this, we arrived at the entrance gate. Both kids balked at the $28 fee per car to enter, knowing we are tracking and budgeting every dollar and no doubt wondering how this might affect the night’s dinner options. But we explained that this memorial is not publicly funded (never has been) and we soon learned from the visitor center that its story–one that is far from over– is important for us to know and worth far more than the entry fee.
The sculptor, Korczak Ziolkowski, was invited by Lakota chief Henry Standing Bear to create a memorial to Crazy Horse. At the time, Ziolkowski, a Boston-born Polish American who had won 1st prize at the 1939 World’s Fair despite no formal art education or training, was working on Mt Rushmore, assisting sculptor Gutzon Borglum. To design and build Crazy Horse, virtually alone and with little money, was an extraordinary undertaking but Ziolkowski agreed, blasting the first rocks in 1948 and spending the rest of his life (he died in 1982), along with his wife, Ruth, and their ten children, working to create what is hoped to become the world’s largest sculpture. At 600 feet, it is taller than the Washington monument; all of Mt Rushmore can fit in the head of Crazy Horse.
The sculpture is far from complete and there is no estimate for how long it will take. Fifty or sixty more years, one staff member surmises, but there are too many variables to really know. Right now, they are working on the outstretched arm of Crazy Horse, pointing out over the Black Hills proclaiming that “my land is where my people are buried.”
The memorial offers plenty of views of the mountain, but it is also an Indian heritage center with exhibits and performances. G was enthralled by a Lakota woman and young girl performing hoop dances and debunking some myths about certain tribes. We have many sounds and calls but the only people who pat their hands over their mouths are in Hollywood, she explained.
That night, our last in Custer, we watched the first of a series of History Channel DVDs about the West, this one profiling Buffalo Bill and Wild Bill Hickok. G hated to learn that Buffalo Bill was named for hunting, not saving the buffalo. Elian was fascinated to know that before Wild Bill was a feared killer in the west, he was a kid in Illinois, raised by abolitionist parents, and then a member of the union army. Both men died sadly, Buffalo Bill old, penniless and entertaining mostly eastern crowds with half-truths about the west, and Wild Bill at a poker game, shot in the back with a hand of Aces and 8s, now known as the Dead Man’s Hand.
Our own western adventure continues with Wyoming next–a week in Yellowstone–and then Montana.