Friday, May 29, 2009

Wind Cave

Pictures in a cave never turn out very well. So, I didn't take many when we went to visit Wind Cave National Monument. Since the day turned out rainy and gray, it was a good thing to do.

The cave was a dry cave, so it didn't have many of the cave-like structures you would normally expect. It's the second longest cave in the world, and more passages are being discovered every year. There was an exploratory expedition going on during our brief visit. If you go, book reservations in advance. We made our reservations only a few days out, and we barely got a place. People showing up at the door had to schedule a tour in a few days.

Something I'd never seen before in a cave is in this picture. It's called cave bacon, and you can almost make it out. One of the biggest examples of cave bacon in the world is in Wind Cave, and now we can say we have seen it. Sarcasm aside, it was a cool thing and a good way to spend a rainy morning.

Fun with signs

I get a kick out of seeing interesting signs in new places. Here are a few of our favorites:

We got gas once at this franchise:

But my favorite is definitely this one. It's in Hill City:

The town of Deadwood

Old West legends like Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane still reign supreme in Deadwood, South Dakota. The town holds on to its wild and woolly days, and promotes it wholeheartedly.

The small city has recently developed casinos to generate dollars to go toward preserving the town's history. The casinos are quite substandard. They look like the dinky ones that are on the outskirts of Shreveport. The food was your standard casino fare. The shops were packed full of touristy junk that really wasn't that interesting. You know those cheap cedar boxes that have some cheesy logo on the top? Lots of those and souvenir spoons too. In all, a bit disappointing. If you aren't a gambler and you wanted to skip this city in a Black Hills vacation, you wouldn't miss much.

Kevin Costner has a casino here called Midnight Star and a few restaurants. He's got alot of his movie posters and costumes on the wall. Since "Dances with Wolves" was based out here, several tourist stops advertise props from the movie. Costner even built his own museum, dedicated to the buffalo.

The most interesting part was visiting the Adams Museum, which had nice exhibits featuring the history of Deadwood. We also went to the top of the city to see the cemetery and graves of the famous residents--Wild Bill, Calamity Jane, Potato Creek Johnny, and more.

Two things that I learned that suprised me here the most--prostitution was legal here until 1980. 1980?! Can you believe that?!

Also, Deadwood had a large Chinese population, lured here to build a railroad and then mine gold to send back home. Thousands came and thousands went right back home--they had no intention of staying. Out of the hundreds of Chinese buried in the cemetery, only two graves are there today. When the Chinese left to go back home, they took the bones of their ancestors with them.

Join 'em or Avoid 'em

That's the slogan promoted several places in the Black Hills. Come out for the big motorcycle rally in August and join in the fun, or avoid it all together. Dave and I drove the short drive to Sturgis just to say we've been there.

For starters, the town is very, very small...not even big enough for a Walmart or a chain grocery store. That said, it's a stroke of marketing and promotion genius that made a state bikers rally turn into a national must-go biker event. It brings millions of people here, and thousands (if not millions) of their dollars. One local girl told us people rent their houses out sometimes for 30-thousand dollars for a week. People we chatted with seem to feel the same way about it people do in New Orleans for Mardi Gras--sure it brings in money, but it sure creates a huge hassle.

I still couldn't get over how small the town really is. Why didn't someone come up with this for Hope, Arkansas? Sure would bring in more money than watermelons.

Have you been to Wall Drug?

Anyone out here will ask you if you go to South Dakota, "Have you been to Wall Drug?"

Now, Dave and I can say yes.

This was a great marketing scheme started by the wife of a pharmacy owner in 1931. She thought with Mt. Rushmore bringing new people out West, they might stop in the sleepy town of Wall for a free drink of ice water. Maybe while they sip their ice water, they might buy something else. So, she put up a meager sign advertising free ice water.

And the rest was history.

Now, the children of those store owners have dozens of signs hundreds of miles up and down I-90. We saw one that advertised Wall Drug 399 miles away. Some are rather comical. Most are on trailers and just parked in a field. I can imagine someone calling up a trucker and asking, "Did your 18-wheeler break down? Can we buy the trailer? Nah, we don't want to use it. We're gonna paint it and park it in a field." Forget billboards. Just paint a truck trailer and park it by a bobwire fence. Unfortunately I didn't get a picture of this phenomenon.

Wall Drug has since expanded to be the size of a shopping mall that's bigger than a city block. They've got a soap shop, a clothing store, an arcade, a cafe, and a pharmacy. You could buy just about anything cowboy you'd possibly want. They'd make Texas proud. Even if you didn't go for horseshoe decor, there are lots of opportunities to spend your money. Dave and I got our free glass of ice water, a few cups of 5-cent coffee, a free bumper sticker, and headed down the road.

But now we can say we've been to Wall Drug.

Eating Buffalo

One must try a few local dishes when visiting a new place.

This is an Indian Taco--Indian Fry Bread with buffalo meat. The bread was delicious; the meat was okay. Most buffalo tastes like beef--Dave's burger did--but this had an odd taste to it. Dave wound up eating most of it.

We only ate buffalo once, but several places advertised it. Actually as far as restaurants, there wasn't much to choose from outside of the routine sandwiches, burgers, and beef. It seemed like there was a combination of those three at every turn. And nice restaurants? Forget it. According to one local lady, "Blue jeans will get you into anywhere in South Dakota. Even a wedding." That says alot.

Instead, we ate better at our own campsite where we grilled steak & shrimp one night. It was the best meal of the trip!

The Boys

Locals call Mt Rushmore "the boys." Going to see this national monument is quite surreal. You see so many pictures of it that it's hard to believe you are looking at the real thing.
The first glimpse comes on the winding road leading up to the heads. Locals say this is packed for the fireworks celebration near the 4th of July. During the final night of our stay, we stayed in a great B & B where you could see the Boys in the distance.

As you can tell, it was a cloudy day when we visited. The following day the summer program and nightly lighting ceremony began, and we went back to see it. Ironically, the heads were in full view until the lighting. By that time, clouds had covered the top entirely and you couldn't see a thing. I also was surprised at the vast number of foreign tourists. I mean, this corner of South Dakota isn't really close to any big airports or coasts. It's a long trip.
This is the Avenue of Flags. See which one is right at the front? Purely by luck.
We went through the Ranger talks around "the boys." The most suprising thing I learned was that there wasn't a special committee or survey or whatever to choose the figures carved. Instead, the artist chose them because he wanted to. That would never happen today. Washington = foundation, Jefferson = expansion, Lincoln = preservation, and Roosevelt = development. Gutzon Borglum sculpted Jefferson first and didn't like him, so he just re-blasted it all and started over. There's a small sculpture Borglum made first as a model. One inch of the model equalled one foot of mountain. No one died in the carving, which happened mostly in the 30s. Pretty impressive.
Remember the ridiculous movie I mentioned before, "Naitonal Treasure 2"? There is some truth to a hidden room behind the monument. Borglum equated his sculpture to the great Pyramids or the Sphynx with the idea that we people today have only a small idea of Egyptian ideals or even identity. In thousands of years, people may not know who these heads are or what America stood for. So, he wanted to have a Hall of Records behind the heads which would include inscriptions of our important documents--the Constitution, Declaration of Independence, etc. Congress had already poured alot of money into this project, and by 1941 Congress had something a bit more important to fund. So, work came to a halt, the Hall of Records was abandoned, and the heads were left unfinished. Borglum originally had a full bust of each president planned.

It's something you should see if you ever have the chance. From my experience out here, guys seem much more excited about this than women do. Maybe it's a size issue.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

In the Paha Sapa

Our first camping site in Custer State Park on Sylvan Lake was beautiful. This picture might look a bit familiar if you've seen the movie 'National Treasure 2'. If you happened to sit through the awful movie until the end, you saw Nicholas Cage and his posse on top of this rock trying to find a secret passageway to a large treasure. According to the movie, this lake is right behind Mt. Rushmore. In reality, it's a good 10-12 miles away. But, you can hike all the way around it.

Hiking in the Black Hills was quite different from the Badlands. The lake hike was a short, but scenic jaunt. There were several people out enjoying the holiday weekend.

After a short hike, we drove the Needles highway which is a road with hairpin turns and one-car tunnels. You see some beautiful scenery, though.
Dave and I stopped for a picture. I'm sporting some great camping hair. There's no hair dryers at campsites, and I forgot mine. Going nearly a week without a hair dryer was really, really tough. It was worse than sleeping on an air mattress, worse than starting fires, and worse than packing up camp.

The Black Hills or Paha Sapa were actually named by the Lakota. From a distance, the pine covered hills appear black, thus the name. They are a sacred territory that was actually ceeded to the indians until white explorers discovered gold there. Then, settlers pushed in, the goverment took the land, indians resisted, and soldiers responded. The stories of Custer, Red Cloud, Sitting Bull, and Crazy Horse all resonate here. There are several museums and stores that tell their story and sell related goods. So many campgrounds share those names--sometimes a combination of the two. We saw a Custer Crazy Horse Campground. I doubt they appreciate sharing even a meager RV campground name. The Black Hills spill into Wyoming, and it was there that Custer made his last stand at the Little Bighorn. We didn't make it that far. The final indian massacre at Wounded Knee was nearby, though. But we didn't make it there either.

Originally, the men behind Mt Rushmore wanted to carve not presidents, but western heroes out here in the Cathedral Spires. Visionary Gutzon Borglum, who carved the heads, decided the rich easterners would much rather come see presidents than heroes like Red Cloud or Sacagawea. Borglum couldn't carve here on the Cathedral Spires. The rock wasn't right. I think that was a good thing, because they are a still a beautiful sight today.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Where the Buffalo roam...

It is quite a picture to see hundreds of buffalo roaming over the hills. The Badlands and Custer State Park in the Black Hills both have herds of bison. They roam freely in parts of the park, and it's not unusual to be caught up in a buffalo jam and then just wait until the herd crosses the road. What's the difference in buffalo and bison? We heard several explanations of this during our visit. "Bison" is actually the true name for the animal, but European explorers thought they looked so much like buffalo, the water buffalo that you see in Asia, that the name "buffalo" just stuck. They are the biggest mammals native to North America, and they are very large. Lumbering, slow, and fairly unconcerned with just about anything, until they get ticked off. Then, you better watch out. You know, a lot like Dave (by his own description).

You can drive yourself on several loops and dirt roads through the park and just watch for the wildlife. Some scurried away from us; others acted like they could've cared less.

We only saw a few mountain goats, and we had to wait for them to cross the road. They were in no hurry.

Antelope also seemed fairly unconcerned with the presence of cars and people. We saw so many of these it became almost a nonissue when we spotted another one.

One of the neatest animals we spotted was a badger. It was peaking out of a hole when we turned a curve, and Dave spotted it. So, we stopped and turned off the truck--there wasn't much traffic--and just stayed there quietly until it came out again. We watched it throw dirt out of a hole. I'm sure it was after a prairie dog, because they were all making quite a ruckus.

Speaking of prairie dogs, I think they are the cutest. They are small and have a chunky butt that just wiggles when they run. In my dream backyard, the prairie dogs would go very well with my peacocks, you think? I wish I could take some of the squirrels from my yard and lop off their tail and throw them out here with some of their country cousins. Maybe they could learn something about being charming.

Prairie dogs are actually rodents, but they get their name because they yip like dogs. As we drove through a few prairie dog towns, you could see them as they stood up, popped in and out of holes, and yipped some more.

Most wouldn't stay still long enough to take a picture, but this one did. He just turned around and looked like, what do you want?

Several animals had babies around, which are always fun to see. Spring has arrived to the prairie and hills, and it was nice to see it.