From camping near Mount Rushmore to one of the most recognizable landmarks in the USA, here’s our Black Hills to Devils Tower road trip.
A fine yellow dust covered everything in our campsite. Jeannie the Jeep, the picnic table, our bikes, us. EVERYTHING. Mrs. Camp Host, a squat, gruff older lady driving a golf cart, pulled the tag from the post at the end of our campsite so new campers would know it was open.
“It’s the pollen,” she huffed. “That lake turns yellow. You can’t hardly breathe.”
“Oh, wow,” I commiserated, not sure what else to say.
“Eh, it gets better.” She looked around. “It’s worth it.”
And she was off on her appointed rounds.
We ate a breakfast of Wisconsin brats with a side of scrambled eggs and pita bread. We took a quick spin around the campground on our bikes, primarily to justify carting them for the past fourteen hundred miles. We also wanted to drink in a little more piney woods before resuming our journey.
We rode by a dad reading in the shade while his young daughters played in the lake. A couple packed up their two-person tent, and I thought how tiny it seemed compared to our six-person instant-tent behemoth.
But hey – Jim could set up and break down in five minutes or less, and when you’re camping one night at a time, that’s a big deal. Plus, we’re old. Older than they were, anyway.
Out of six nights, we’d camped four. Not only did we still enjoy it; we still loved it. Plus, because we chose to camp, our trip back to Mount Rushmore that morning would take just twenty minutes.
We got our first glimpse of the Memorial when we sighted Washington’s profile from the west. When we arrived at the gate, the attendant greeted us with “Hello, Illinois!” and a “Welcome back, sir!” after noticing our parking pass from the night before.
We parked, a little closer this time, and identified license plates as we walked to the entrance. Alabama. Wisconsin. New Mexico. Nebraska (lots of those). Missouri. Illinois. California. Washington.
People drove from all over the country to see this Shrine of Democracy, and why wouldn’t they? It’s a place of hope and higher ideals, ideals exemplified by those 60-foot faces. We didn’t spend a lot of time there, but it was worth returning so we could get another look in the bright morning sun.
Half an hour from Mount Rushmore is the Black Hills’ other mountain carving. Crazy Horse Memorial has been a work in progress since 1947, when Henry Standing Bear convinced Korczak Ziolkowski to carve a sculpture in Thunderhead Mountain to memorialize one of the Lakota’s most revered chiefs.
Originally Standing Bear wanted Crazy Horse’s likeness included on Mount Rushmore, and he repeatedly reached out to Gutzon Borglum. When he received no response, he talked to Korczak, who had worked with Borglum.
I don’t know what he said to the guy, but it sure was effective. The Polish-American dedicated his life to the project; his wife, Ruth, dedicated her life to the project; and four of their ten children have dedicated their lives to the project.
What originally was going to be just a mountain carving – although a massive one at that – has become an entire complex dedicated to preserving not only the legacy of Crazy Horse, but also Native American culture.
After Korczak’s death in 1982, Ruth switched the focus from sculpting the horse to sculpting the face, and she unveiled it seventeen years later.
At that point, the project had been in the works for fifty years, and when we visited another twenty years later, it wasn’t anywhere close to completion.
What’s taking so long?
The answer was inside. We followed the long drive, Crazy Horse’s profile in the distance, and paid our $24 entrance fee ($12 each). From the parking lot, the statue was still far, far away, and we realized we weren’t getting any closer unless we paid extra for the bus tour.
We opted to just see what we could see and entered the Welcome Center, which housed the gift shop and the Indian Museum of North America. We walked through the gift shop to the courtyard, and we stepped back outside in time to see a man and woman performing traditional dances.
Passing a fountain and an alabaster-white model representing Korczak’s final vision, we stepped into the Original Lobby and got a picture of the scope of this dream, and the challenges they’ve been facing to reach it.
From the beginning, the Crazy Horse Memorial has been entirely privately funded. Every entrance fee and every purchase in the gift shop goes towards funding this vision, and they’ve turned down federal money to remain independent.
In addition to the funding issue, there’s been opposition from some Native Americans who think carving the likeness of a man who eschewed photographs into a mountain goes against everything Crazy Horse believed.
Despite the obstacles, they continue, and you can’t fault the Ziolkowskis’ dedication. Ruth, who passed away in 2014, and Korczak are both buried in a tomb the sculptor carved into the mountain, and their children carry on their dream of honoring Native American peoples.
In addition to the museum, the Indian University of North America they founded enables students to complete a summer semester of study at the memorial, and by 2018 the foundation had awarded over $2 million in scholarships to American Indian students.
We browsed Korczak’s studio and home and the museum before leaving. After the looking-up-Washington’s-nose experience at Mount Rushmore, I suppose I expected we’d be able to get a bit closer, but this was a work in progress, and it’s likely to be unfinished for many years to come.
When it’s complete, it will be a testament to one family’s persistence and passion.
The Cheyenne and the Sioux consider the Black Hills the spiritual center of the world, so it seemed fitting that our next stop was the geographical center of the nation that grew up around it.
Except it wasn’t; not really.
In Belle Fourche (pronounced foosh), South Dakota, there’s a monument marking the geographical center of the United States. The center used to be in Kansas, but then Hawaii entered the picture and it shifted. The monument is located at the Center of the Nation Tri-State Museum/Visitor Center.
We parked in front of a post marking the Great Western Cattle Trail, which was next to an historical marker explaining this location as the geo-center of the country (sort of). A few yards away were Vietnam and Korean War Memorials, plus an 1876 log cabin, plus another dedication to soldiers who served in the World Wars and the Korean Conflict.
There was also a tribute to George Freeman Mortimer, “Friend of all South Dakota.” We were so overwhelmed by the sheer number of monuments we completely missed the actual Geographic Center of the Nation Monument located behind the museum, which I guess is OK, since it wasn’t the actual center, anyway.
The real center of the country is about twenty miles away, but it’s on private land so the city dedicated a symbolic monument.
We left the close-enough center of the country, drove west, and SD-34 turned into WY-24. If it hadn’t been for the billboard that said “WYOMING,” which was partially blocked by a parked SUV and a couple of ladies stretching their legs, we’d never have known we’d just entered our fifth state.
The thing about driving from one state to another is that you realize there’s no discernible difference when you’re crossing a border. The topography changes gradually – for the most part, unless you cross a mighty big river, and even that isn’t always enough.
Sometimes you can tell you’re in a different state because the road surface or the speed limit changes, but if your focus is entirely on the landscape, that invisible line never registers.
We passed a town called Aladdin, which seemed to consist solely of an ancient general store with warped wood red siding and animal racks perched above the three second-story windows.
A green sign in between one silver and one red mechanical gas pump declared the town had a population of 15 at an elevation of 3740.
More signs advertised antiques, which makes sense, since the store had been around since 1896. There was also a bar and a post office, and a clothes rack on the porch offered collared shirts for sale.
A few miles further we drove through Alva, population 50, elevation 3995. I could feel that we were getting closer, and then we crested a hill and caught our first sight of Devils Tower.