Two Lane Gems, Vol. 2: Day 7 – Black Hills to Devils Tower

Author Theresa L. Goodrich presents an excerpt from Two Lane Gems, Vol. 2: Bison are Giant and Other Observations from an American Road Trip. Enjoy!

A fine yellow dust covered everything. 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 finished the last of our Wisconsin brats (they’d been frozen when we started and we had a really good cooler) 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.

Looking for the best places to camp in the Midwest? Camping at Horse Thief Campground near Mount Rushmore in South Dakota

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.

Mount Rushmore - The Faces of Liberty
Mount Rushmore

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.

Crazy Horse Memorial in the Black Hills of South Dakota

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.

Sculpture of Crazy Horse

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.

Center of the United States

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.

Aladdin, Wyoming, Population 15

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.

Being a child of the ‘70s, I have seen Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which means that my first glimpse of Devils Tower was not a complete shock to my system. But I still wasn’t prepared for its impact. Next to the Belle Fourche River, it shoots straight up into the sky. As we neared I could begin to see the vertical lines on its surface, lines that looked like a creature had dragged its claws from summit to base.

We circled the laccolith (told you you’d see that word again) and found a campsite under the cottonwoods. We nearly had our pick, so we chose one with a view of the tower.

Who am I kidding – in that campground, every site had a view of the tower. I was about to get on my bike and ride to the entrance so I could deposit our fee when a park ranger, a large man with a white scruffy beard and two dachshunds sitting next to him, pulled up in his golf cart and offered me a ride. This was Bob from Texas, who volunteered up North during the summers and went home in the winter.

We circled the loop and he stopped at each occupied site, making notes in his legal pad about who was leaving when while his dogs licked my face. After I dropped my envelope at the pay station, he kindly returned me to Jim and wished us luck on our journey.

That night I breaded pork chops and paired them with a salad of iceberg, cherry tomatoes, cheese, and ranch dressing. It felt like a Western-y type meal to make on our first night in Wyoming. After dinner we sauntered over to the amphitheater for the evening program, which had already started.

When we sat down, the ranger, a petite and passionate Native American woman, was explaining that more than twenty tribes consider Devils Tower a sacred monument. The name is wrong, she explained. The nations that consider it sacred call it Bear’s Lodge, Home of the Bear, Aloft on a Rock, Tree Rock, Great Gray Horn, Brown Buffalo Horn – none of which mean “devil.”

Yet when Army Commander Richard Irving Dodge visited in 1875 on a scientific expedition, he wrote that the Indians called it Bad God Tower, which he changed to Devil’s Tower. Some think it was just a bad translation; others, like the ranger, think it might have been intentional.

“One of the tactics {of conquest} is to take away the place names,” she said. There have been several efforts to change the name to Bear Lodge, a translation from the Lakota Mato Tipila, but they’ve been shot down every time.

We walked the short path back to our campsite and quickly put everything away for the evening. A strong wind ripped through the flat lands surrounding the tower and kept up most of the night, but we felt strangely at peace.

Would you like to read Two Lane Gems, Vol. 2 without ads? It’s available on Kindle and Paperback. (Paperback books purchased through the link below will be autographed.)

1 thought on “Two Lane Gems, Vol. 2: Day 7 – Black Hills to Devils Tower”

  1. Awesome reading Theresa.
    I never knew about the Crazy Horse Memorial, extremely interesting reading.
    Thank you

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