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Dakota Fawning, Part II

July 25, 2011

"I'm crushing your head!"

When you’ve seen something in pictures more times than you can count but never seen it in person, seeing it in person can be anticlimactic. The Hollywood sign, for example, was nice to see in person but I had seen it already in so many movies and TV shows that it didn’t feel new. Very few things can overcome that familiarity. The Statue of Liberty is one of them–so majestic in person that every time I see her it’s like I’m seeing her for the first time.

Mount Rushmore was somewhere in between. It was exciting to see the mountain/statue, partly because it’s so famous that it’s one of those things you know you have to see at some point in your life and partly because we’d seen license plates from 45 different states on our road trip and we knew there was a decent chance we’d find the last 3/5 in the parking lot (we saw two, leaving only Arkansas, Alaska, and Hawaii). But Mount Rushmore also looked just like it does in all the pictures, so it had a certain familiarity to it.

Rushmore is billed as a bastion of patriotism, but I’ve always thought of it as more of a marvel of large-scale sculpture and engineering than anything else. Sam, apparently, thought of it as a work of art and was entirely unimpressed with the engineering feat:

There’s a half-mile loop trail that gets you away from the huge crowds at the main viewing area and much closer to the mountain, providing new views from interesting angles. It was during that little hike that Rushmore really impressed us both. The busts look like the presidents from far away but we didn’t appreciate the level of detail until we got a closer look. Sam focused on the hair (“There’s so much detail in Teddy’s mustache!”);  I was particularly amazed by the eyes.

If Friday was a driving day with a little bit of sightseeing, Sunday was a sightseeing day where even the driving was part of the sightseeing. I think it’s fair to say that 90% of the interesting things to do and see in South Dakota are scattered in the Black Hills. That’s more of a compliment to the Black Hills than an insult to the rest of the state. the problem is that I was unaware of this concentration until a few weeks ago. So when I was first planning the trip and blocking out rough activities or areas for individual days, I alloted only one day for Rushmore and the Black Hills area. We easily could spend a week here, but at this point that’s not an option (especially since Sarah is meeting us in Seattle on Friday). So we tried to jam as much as we could into the one day we’ve got here, with the understanding that we may have to steal a bit of Monday from Montana.

From Mount Rushmore it’s a half-hour drive to the Crazy Horse monument, a Rushmore-like statue of the great Lakota leader on his horse that’s currently being carved into a mountain that dwarfs Rushmore. It’s been in the works for about 50 years already and is nowhere near completion, thanks to the immense scale of the project and the small workforce (it’s privately funded and thus most of the work is being done by the now-deceased sculptor’s grown kids). But his face was finished a few years ago and part of his arm and the vague outline of his horse’s head are visible, so with a bit of imagination you can see where this thing is headed.

More important, we saw license plates in the parking lot from Arkansas and Alaska, leaving us with only the entirely unrealistic Hawaii to find.

Up next: Jewel Cave, a mostly limestone cave full of crystals and interesting rock formations. Its status as the second longest cave in the world (154 miles and still “growing” thanks to continued exploration) has earned it National Monument status. The best parts were 1) when our extremely enthusiastic and ntertaining tour guide used The Hamster to demonstrate how the cave was discovered …

and 2) a 20-foot ribbon of reds, oranges, and white that looks so much like a giant piece of bacon sticking out of the cave wall that the scientific term for the formation is actually “cave bacon.”

From Jewel Cave we headed east to Custer State Park, where a road called Wildlife Loop took us winding through the natural habitats of several of the park’s animal inhabitants. You never know what you’ll see in any given spot on any given day, but we got pretty lucky. We saw white-tailed deer in several places …

… and a dozen or so of the park’s famously precocious burros, including this guy who wrongly assumed we had food for him …

… but what I really wanted to see was buffalo. There’s a herd of about 1,300 of them living in the park, and rangers at the entrance told us that a bunch had been spotted earlier in the day on the western part of the loop road. With only about a mile left of the road we had seen none, but then suddenly there they were! Maybe a couple hundred buffalo sitting, walking, drinking, and completely ignoring the several cars that had pulled over to watch them.

Like Rushmore, the buffalo looked just like in all the pictures we’ve seen but were much more impressive up close. Enormous, powerful, brutish, hairy, filthy, and yet regal. Or, if you ask Sam, cute. (“Is there anything more adorbale than a baby buffalo? How awesome would it be to have one? Dad, can I have a baby buffalo for my birthday?”)

Our next stop was not a stop at all but a scenic drive. Specifically, a the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway, named one of the Top 10 Scenic Drives in the country. Winding roads through the Black Hills National Forest, hairpin turns, one-lane wooden bridges, gorgeous lakes, and, at one point, through the ponderosa pines a very distant view of Rushmore:

The drive was alternately thrilling, terrifying, and breathtakingly beautiful.

What better way to follow it up, then, than with a little gold digging? Literally. You can;t go to the Black Hills without trying to find at least a few specks of the gold that’s in them thar hills, so as we passed through the tiny town of Keystone we stopped in at the Big Thunder Gold Mine and did a bit of panning. This particular mine is a bit less touristy than some of the others in the area, and they take you to an actual creek with real equipment to do panning like the prospectors used to. Unfortunately, that takes four hours, so we had to settle for simpler panning in the creek-fed troughs they have right outside the mine.

We found a few tiny flakes before Sam insisted on doing some gem panning as well. That’s done by grabbing a big scoop of dirt and rocks, plopping it in a little basket with a screened bottom, sifting out the tiny stuff, and then trying to match each remaining rock to a chart showing several types of worthless gems. Being colorblind, I had neither the interest nor ability to do this, but Sam enjoyed this immensely.

By the time we left Big Thunder it was about 7:30 pm, and we still hadn’t eaten dinner or gotten to the last two places on our overly ambitious itinerary for the day. Deadwood and Belle Fourche could wait until Monday but our hunger couldn’t, so we stopped at the first picnic area we passed for yet another side-of-the-road cookout. This one had much nicer scenery than the others, though.

Bellies full, we headed toward Deadwood with a plan to crash at the first motel we found. This was not a good plan. We ended up at the Black Hills Inn & Suites, which sounds nice but looks … not nice, and smells … not nicer. This place is such an antiquated dive that they still have actual keys to the rooms (and shag carpeting, and the smell of the previous occupant’s coffee, and curtains that don’t quite cover the whole window …). But it’s got beds, and after a day like Sunday that’s what we needed most.

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