As I travel this country of resplendent beauty, I continue to marvel at the staggering beauty of the landscapes that unfold before me even in the most unlikely places. After driving miles and miles through the vast high desert of rolling hills, sandstone cliffs of red and yellow hues, and passing many interstate exits with “No Services” signs, I found a little slice of heaven in an unlikely spot about a mile off interstate 80. The smell of sage infused the air as I pulled into a small gravel turnout ahead of a thunderstorm that hit ferociously with rain, wind and pea-sized hail.
I awoke the next morning to a bright sunny day. The crisp morning breeze wafting the delicious smell of sage into my open windows while the morning birds sang to those who would listen. The view out my large front window is of the snow covered Rocky Mountains, still over 100 miles away. I marveled at how comfortable I have become traveling alone and staying in out of the way places. I have no more fear of wild animal attacks, and no anxiety about nefarious people creeping up on me in the middle of the night. I don’t think that it is a matter of bravery or courage on my part, but more of a confidence in analyzing a true threat to my safety. Today, the only current threat is the herd of cows walking through my campsite to get to the nearby river.
Another fascination I have about traveling, is the people that I meet along the road-as I have written about before-mostly kind and generous, sometimes quirky, and always worthy of a story. When I’m not isolated in the middle of nowhere, I like to stay in city or county parks in small towns because I never know what interesting things I might stumble upon. Take for example the town of Edgemont, South Dakota. With a population of just over 600, it has a lovely city park with a pond, playground, and a covered bridge (Don’t see many of those out here on the prairie). Adjacent to the park is a museum that is housed in a converted fire station, and contains a hodgepodge of artifacts on a variety of topics: rock tracings of ancient petroglyphs, a variety of rocks and crystals found locally, railroad memorabilia, farm and ranching tools, household items from the early 20th century, surveyor’s maps, artwork from local artists that depict the surrounding landscapes, and even a restored Ford Model T car.
Two men were hanging out waiting for the next visitor to enter the museum. One was middle aged with gray hair topped with a railroad hat, a long gray beard, and wearing jeans held up by a pair of red suspenders. The other man, in his 70’s, proudly walked me through the museum pointing out that 2 Presidents, Theodore Roosevelt and Calvin Coolidge had visited Edgemont in the early 20th century. A woman, also in her 70’s, arrived about 30 minutes later carrying the most beautiful homemade pie I have ever seen. It was topped high with meringue that was browned to perfection, with the hand made crust peeking out around the edges. She offered me a piece out of politeness, that is often only found these days in small towns from generous people. I just as politely declined, but asked what kind of pie it was. She said, “Rhubarb” (which seems odd to me as I have never had a rhubarb pie with meringue)
As I left the museum that day, the half-eaten pie lay on the table, and the three elders sat in casual conversation as long time friends will. I complimented them on their museum and their lovely town, and left regretting that I didn’t at least taste a piece of that beautiful pie.
Note to self………Next time, have a piece of pie!
I traveled eastward into the heart of South Dakota, and came to understand why so many people rave about the Black Hills- It is beyond words to describe the natural beauty of the mountains our Native Peoples consider to be sacred. Granite rock formations jutting from the earth are surrounded by forests of ponderosa pine, birch, oaks, and cottonwoods, all competing for the viewer’s eye. As I wind through the hills, up and down steep grades, a lake appears nestled in a hillside, flanked by vertical spires of rock that have been exposed to eons of wind, water and snow melt which have smoothed and shaped the rough edges.
I spent two days in Custer State Park which contains 71,000 acres of some of the most sublime natural landscapes that America has to offer. It is home to a herd of free-roaming buffalo (Bison), friendly burros that beg visitors for food through open car windows, mountain lions, Elk, and imported goats that escaped captivity and (literally) headed for the hills. Winding roads with switchbacks slow traffic to a crawl so that the traveler can drink in the scenery.
Roads, tunnels (so narrow and low that my rig did not fit), and visitor lodges were built in the 1920’s and 1930’s primarily by labor provided by convicts, and then later by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), which was part of the New Deal initiated to help people who were out of work during the Great Depression.
Today, at over 100 years old, the park that had it’s beginnings as a state forest and game preserve is enjoyed by over 2 million visitors every year. Its’ breath-taking scenery should be on everyone’s bucket list.
THESE ARE PICTURES TAKEN ON OUR HIKE AROUND SYLVAN LAKE IN CUSTER STATE PARK:
My next destination was iconic Mt. Rushmore, which has been on my bucket list for many years, especially after seeing the classic 1959 movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock, “North by Northwest”. It stars Cary Grant, Eve Marie Saint, James Mason, and other notable actors. The climax of the movie takes place when our heroes find themselves trapped on the cliff behind the monument, and are forced to climb down the face of George Washington to escape from the bad guys. Only Hitchcock could inspire a lifetime of yearning to see Mt. Rushmore!
Driving to Mt. Rushmore, I came across the Crazy Horse Memorial, unexpectedly- The profile of the Great Lakota Sioux warrior, “Thasunke Witko” can be seen for miles, and will be 563 feet high and 641 feet long upon completion. Crazy Horse was chosen to be representative of all the Native Americans because as Chief Henry Standing Bear wrote, “My fellow chiefs and I would like the white man to know that the red man has great heroes, too”
Crazy Horse was instrumental in the defeat of Lt. Col. George Custer at the Battle of Little Bighorn, also known as the Battle of Greasy Grass in 1876. Crazy Horse fought in many battles against the U.S. Government, after many broken treaties, and failure of the government to protect Indian lands and Native people from infringement by white settlers, gold seekers, and buffalo hunters. He was a full-fledged warrior by his mid-teens, and was known to ride into battle with a single hawk feather in his hair, a stone behind one ear, and a lightening symbol painted across his face. As a warrior, he was never defeated in battle or captured by his enemies.
Crazy Horse died in the custody of the Army at Ft. Robinson, Nebraska where he surrendered himself peacefully. He was stabbed with a bayonet by a post guard after he, allegedly, resisted being taken to jail. He died a few days later from the wound at age 35, and lies buried in an unknown grave in the Black Hills. The outstretched arm with the left index finger pointing is symbolic of his words spoken after being taunted by a white man, where are your lands now? He replied, “My lands are where my dead lie buried.”
The site of the memorial, Thunderhead Mountain is considered to be sacred ground by Native Americans, thus the ongoing controversy- opponents have likened it to pollution and desecration of the landscape and environment of the Black Hills.
I drove the 17 miles to Mt. Rushmore with a heavy heart and tears in my eyes thinking about our Native Peoples being stripped of lands, oppressed and murdered all for the sake of greedy homesteaders and gold seekers and even today, for oil. Then, I arrived at Mt. Rushmore- the faces of 4 white men presidents looking out on to the sacred Black Hills. My perspective is forever changed.
Continuing my journey east and leaving the lush forests, pristine lakes, and magnificent granite outcroppings, the landscape opens up to the wide view of the prairie. I traveled through the National Grasslands of Buffalo Gap on highway 44 towards the Badlands. The wind swells and the grasses undulate in a sea of green.
When I arrive at Badlands National Park, I am struck by the contrast in scenery from just 100 miles ago. I am greeted by sharply shaped cliffs with striations in a rainbow of colors, inhospitable temperatures soaring into the 90’s in the dry summer and plunging to zero in the windswept winter months, and eery rock formations that appear to be right out of a moonscape. There are rattlesnakes, stinging insects, huge spiders, and the White River appears milky white due to suspended silt. The famous architect, Frank Lloyd Wright visited the Badlands in 1935, and called it, “….an endless supernatural world more spiritual than earth but created out of it.”
South Dakota is definitely on my second bucket list-places I want to go again. It is truly an amazing place!