Cattle Ranch to the Black Hills

We left the next morning after a meal of strawberries and cream, hardboiled eggs, and homemade raspberry muffins. Before breakfast, we didn’t know where we’d be that day, except for a drive through Deadwood and a landing point somewhere in the vicinity of Mount Rushmore. After breakfast, we had a fistful of destinations and a potential campground.

It was Day 6 and I finally felt comfortable with our intentionally unintentional itinerary. While we didn’t have a lot of specifics planned, we weren’t exactly throwing a dart at a map to choose our next location. I had stuck pins in our overnight spots – they just weren’t precisely placed.

I’m sure part of this lack of finite planning was to test my capacity for uncertainty, but the main reason was that I truly believed that through luck, optimism, and trusting in people, we’d have unexpected experiences that would make our lives richer and introduce us to areas we’d never see with a script.

(Spoiler alert: we did.)

Our first destination of the day was Bear Butte State Park. We’d seen this formation in the distance as soon as we neared Whitewood. It’s an isolated peak that juts 1,200 feet from the earth like a pyramid in the desert. It’s easy to see why it’s a sacred place to the Lakota and Cheyenne. No matter where we drove, its presence followed us like the eye of Sauron, albeit with a much more beneficent outlook.

To the Lakota, it’s Mato Paha, or Bear Mountain. The Cheyenne call it Noahvose. Both nations consider it a place of pilgrimage for meditation and peace, leaving prayer cloths and bundles tied to tree branches.

“Butte” is a misnomer. A butte, strictly speaking, is formed by erosion. Bear Butte, on the other hand, is the result of an intrusion known as a laccolith (you’ll see this word again). Magma lurched to the surface, pushing the rock above it higher.

Instead of breaking through, like a volcano, the magma cooled and became igneous rock. Then erosion removed the outer sedimentary layers, leaving behind a peak that has been a gathering place for humans for 10,000 years.

In 1857, leaders from several tribal nations, including Red Cloud, Crazy Horse, and Sitting Bull, met at Bear Butte to discuss the threat of the white man and his encroachment on their lands. They were right to be concerned.

By 1868, the Treaty of Fort Laramie established the Great Sioux Reservation, protecting land that encompassed the Black Hills, but it lasted all of six years. George Armstrong Custer broke the treaty in 1874 when he led an expedition to the area and confirmed rumors that there was gold in them thar hills.

After that, nothing could stop the influx of miners and settlers wanting their piece of the American dream. It was so egregious that in 1980, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the government had illegally taken the land and awarded the Lakota Sioux a settlement of $120.5 million, which by 2017 had compounded to over $1.4 billion dollars.

They refuse to take the money, though, because they want their land back. They believe that accepting the funds would constitute selling the Black Hills, and that is not an option.

Bear Butte in South Dakota

Without time to explore the park, we turned around at the cattle guard marking the entrance and made our way to Fort Meade, a mere three miles from Bear Butte. The fort was built in 1878 to protect white settlers from the Sioux.

This was ten years after the U.S. government had signed a treaty which prohibited travel and settlement by whites on the Great Sioux Reservation, of which that land was part.

It’s hard to reconcile this episode in American history. The family we’d just stayed with was descended from homesteaders, those same homesteaders that moved onto land that was supposed to belong to others, although the treaty had already been broken before their ancestor had arrived.

On a macro level it’s black and white. Treaties were made and broken as easily as putting crystal in a china cabinet and then dumping the whole thing, over and over. On a micro level, it’s one person trying to make a better life and another trying to keep a life he loves.

When we got to Fort Meade there were soldiers running drills. It felt odd to be able to drive right up and park next to active military training, but the South Dakota National Guard lives there and it’s an Army National Guard Officer Candidate School.

We arrived too early to enter the on-site museum, so we read the historical marker about the fort’s status as the home of the National Anthem. In 1892, Post Commander Colonel Caleb Carlton felt the need for a National Air, so at his wife’s suggestion, he began requiring that the “Star Spangled Banner” be played at every retreat and at the end of every concert.

He also wanted to “enforce respect for the flag,” so he made the men remove their hats and told everyone they needed to stand when the colors passed them. Others didn’t immediately catch on to the idea, and it wasn’t presented to Congress until 1918 – 26 years later.

After five failed attempts to pass a bill making the Star Spangled Banner the National Anthem, Congress finally made it official in 1931.

The National Anthem started at Fort Meade

It wasn’t even 9 in the morning and my head was spinning, so we went to McDonald’s. Don’t judge – they had free wi-fi. (Tip: EVERY McDonald’s has free wi-fi.)

It was now Monday and we’d been on the road for almost a week, and while we pretty much had things in order, we still needed to check in occasionally. Jim was already getting bookings for the caroling season. I had an immensely capable editor in place for The Local Tourist, but sometimes I didn’t give her all the information she needed.

So, we stopped at McDonald’s, ordered a couple of sodas, and mainlined caffeine and the Internet for about an hour.

And then, we drank beer, ate pizza, and bought truffles from a chipmunk.

Welcome to Deadwood.

I know, I know. Deadwood is all about the Gold Rush and Wild Bill Hickok and shoot-outs, etc etc etc. It’s also a couple of blocks of Disneyesque storefronts with casinos in every other window.

While I’m sure there’s lots to see, at that moment I was content to skip another history lesson and drink some beer. Fortunately, there was a brewery along Main Street, so we ordered a flight of beer, a pizza from the counter next door, and let the drama fade.

On the way out we filled up my fancy new pressurized growler. I was so excited about this thing I’d ordered a box of ten replacement CO2 cartridges for the trip, and two had come with it in the first place. (Believe it or not, I did not use them all, although I gave it the good ol’ road trip try.)

Deadwood, South Dakota

On the way out of town we pulled over at a white brick building with a wind-up van to the side and a huge bobble-headed chipmunk out front. Before we left the cattle ranch that morning (was it only that morning?), Miss Rodeo Queen had told us about this tasty place for hand-dipped chocolates, so we knew we had to visit Chubby Chipmunk.

Oh, how we wanted to dig into every truffle behind the glass, but we settled on four to go and went on our merry way.

One of the many suggestions Paul had offered at breakfast was a campground near Mount Rushmore called Horse Thief. We plugged it into our GPS and arrived at Horse Thief Campground and RV Resort.

While it looked fine, and their on-site store was stocked with all sorts of goodies like sunscreen, firewood, and 20-year-old DVDs, this was not the Horse Thief we were looking for. The place we wanted was on a lake and had no such things as electricity and showers. We didn’t mind the detour, though; it was a lovely afternoon and a gorgeous drive through ponderosa pines.

We found our Horse Thief, which was actually Horsethief, and after circling the campground a couple of times to see what was available, picked a large spot that was mostly shaded with sun filtering through the canopy. I could see settling in for a week, it was so perfect.

Fellow campers occupied a few other spots, but for the most part it was just us and Mother Nature, and she was in fine fettle that day.

This was our kind of camping. A scenic spot in the woods and people far enough away that we could feel secluded, without being all alone in the wilderness. We were happy to find it, but no sooner did we get set up than we had to turn around again and go back the way we’d just come, including passing the other Horse Thief Campground.

Our goal was to cut through Custer State Park by taking Needles Highway to Iron Mountain Road and end up at Mount Rushmore in time for their evening program.

Or, as some might call it, the Essential Black Hills Checklist.

Paul had provided these and other stops before we left. He knew Mount Rushmore was our destination, so he told us we had to drive Needles Highway and Iron Mountain. Those two drives are part of the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway, which is one of the most scenic drives in the country, so if I’d done a modicum of research I would have found them.

But what I might not have found was the direction we should take to get the most spectacular views.

And oh, my, were those views spectacular.

It was late in the afternoon when we left the campground. Fortunately, being June, the sun wouldn’t set for many hours. We needed the sunlight. Not wanted. Needed.

Completed in 1922, the Needles Highway was the impossible road. At the time, nobody believed it could be built. Peter Norbeck thought differently. A South Dakota State Senator, then Governor, then U.S. Senator, he thought it would be great to put a scenic drive through granite spires in the middle of the Black Hills.

He also thought having a bunch of faces carved into the side of a mountain would be cool, and if you’re going to do that, then why not build another impossible road with spirals that would put a modern-day roller coaster to shame.

I think I would’ve liked this guy.

We approached the first of his impossible roads and began the winding trek. It didn’t take too long before we encountered our first one-lane tunnel. It was nail-biting narrow, a slight ten-and-a-half feet wide. Fortunately, it was also short, and we were out of it and into our next hairpin turn faster than I could say “watch the mirrors!”

Groves of Ponderosa pines and paper birch, which thrive in this environment, lined the asphalt in between outcroppings of granite. The sky above this impossible road was an impossible blue, and it seemed impossible that this land was real.

After passing a sign for another one-lane tunnel, we rounded a bend and entered a land of wizardry and make-believe. We were on a road that shouldn’t be. There were parking spaces in between gray-granite peaks, and we got out to look at a valley filled with tall, tall trees and a wall of melded spires on the other side. It was like somebody took flaking shale, bleached it, and set it on end.

Above us, the blue peeked through a needle-eye-shaped opening in one of the tallest peaks. Back in Jeannie the Jeep, we threaded the Needles Eye Tunnel. Creating this tunnel was sheer hubris. “I want the road to go there,” so they blasted a hole in the granite.

All of eight feet four inches wide and twelve feet tall, it’s not for the distracted driver, or for anyone who parks like they’re docking a boat. Our Jeep was six feet three inches wide, so we had a whopping foot and half-an-inch clearance on either side.

We squeezed through with no scrapes or bumps and followed the narrow road, wending and winding our way through the spires. We pulled off to gaze over the tops of the black hills.

Hidden beneath the granite and pines were reserves of mica, feldspar, and gold, the gold that drove those early settlers to travel a harsh land and dig for riches. Driving through, I was grateful that Peter Norbeck believed the riches were above ground, too, and should be there for everyone.

Granite formation in Custer State Park
Black Hills of South Dakota

The Senator had ridden a horse through the Needles, so named because of the pointy formations, in 1920 to map out his road. What others said was impossible, engineer Scovel Johnson said could be done, “if you furnish me with enough dynamite.” It took two years and 150,000 pounds of the blasting powder, but they did it.

They weren’t finished yet, however. Once Norbeck had convinced Congress to provide funding for Mount Rushmore, he wanted another road, one that would be fitting for the monument. So, he got back on his horse, this time with C.C. Gideon, the Superintendent for Custer State Park, and they mapped out a route that would give the carved Presidents their due.

Gideon designed Iron Mountain Road so that the exit from each of the three tunnels would frame the monument. To do this, the road turns like a corkscrew on what are called Pigtail Bridges.

Our host from the night before had mentioned these “pigtails,” but it’s hard to picture them until you’re actually driving; turning and turning and turning until you get to another narrow tunnel, come out the other side, and get your first glimpse of Mount Rushmore. And then another. And then another. It’s ingenuous and awe-inspiring. Or, to put it the way I did as we pulled out of the Scovel Johnson Tunnel, “COOL!”

Despite being nearly seven at night, every lane to get into Mount Rushmore was backed up. We were all there to see the Evening Lighting Ceremony. We paid our $10 parking fee, which would be good for an entire year, and followed the attendants’ directions to the parking structure.

We’d seen the heads in the distance, but that first sight of their faces just above the multi-arched gateway was monumental. Mount Rushmore had never been a bucket list item for me. I knew I wanted to see it, but it wasn’t like my desire to visit Yellowstone or Crater Lake, so I was taken aback by my visceral reaction.

And this was before we read a sign outside the cafe proclaiming that Thomas Jefferson authored the first recipe for ice cream in America.

We ordered a bison burger and a scoop of TJ’s Vanilla and sat outside in the courtyard, listening to the symphony of languages swirling around us. A yellow-bellied marmot caused some excitement when he neared the patio and several of us jumped up to get a photo, but all I got was a really good picture of grass.

That’s OK. I was there for the Presidents.

Dusk came quickly, and after a quick walk under their noses along the Presidential Trail, we returned to the amphitheater and took a spot at the top of the stairs. Rows of benches descended to the stage, and although we were there before the ceremony began, the entire place was full.

Above, yellow light bathed the faces of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln. Below, a Ranger presented a brief history followed by a film that explained why sculptor Gutzon Borglum selected those four specific Presidents.

Including Washington was practically a requirement. The first president laid the foundation for the democracy, and that’s why his face is the most prominent. Lincoln’s role in ending slavery and preserving the union made his selection obvious, too. Not only was Jefferson the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, his Louisiana Purchase doubled the country’s size.

Roosevelt stood up for the common laborer by busting corporate monopolies and he connected east and west through the Panama Canal. Combined, those two achievements represented development to Borglum. It probably didn’t hurt that Roosevelt also established the United States Forest Service and a total of 51 Federal Bird Reserves.

Norbeck, the man responsible for making sure Mount Rushmore happened in the first place, was a like-minded conservationist who’d done for his home state what Roosevelt had done for the country.

After the film, the Ranger invited active members of the military and veterans to join him on stage, and everyone in the crowd stood, honored them, and thanked them for their service.

It was profoundly moving, stirring patriotism and pride in my country. This Shrine of Democracy, as Mount Rushmore is known, exemplifies the best of what America can be and, hopefully, aspires to be.

We left knowing that we’d return in the morning to spend more time at this unexpectedly moving memorial. Fortunately, our campground was a short jaunt on a less demanding road than we’d driven earlier. By 10:15 we were on our air mattress eating truffles. I was worn enough I’d even forgotten about the beer.

Tomorrow. I could drink it tomorrow.