Saturday, August 13, 2011

In the Land of the Wild Hogs

The day I was offered my new teaching job, I immediately went home and started booking hotels for this trip. My general goal was to pay somewhere between $50 and $80, with a few exceptions (Las Vegas in particular). But when it came time to find a hotel in the Black Hills of South Dakota, I ran into problems. At first, everything close to Mt. Rushmore was coming up at over $250 a night on Priceline. Expanding my radius as far out as Rapid City and the Wyoming border didn’t help. I couldn’t figure it out. Why, of all the places I’d be visiting, why was this one so much more expensive? Eventually I stumbled upon the answer when Priceline offered to search nearby towns, and one of the options it gave me was Sturgis. A few clicks later and I realized I’d be in South Dakota at the same time as the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.

For those of you who’ve never watched American Chopper, Sturgis is the largest biker rally in the world. During the first week of August, the state’s population frequently doubles with the influx of bikers. But from what I saw today, that’s not entirely true. It would be more accurate to say that 90% of the vehicles on the road this week have no doors.

At first, this had me worried. My experience with this brand of biker, from my hotel in Bozeman, from Yellowstone, and from the gas station along the highway where hundreds of them had decided to congregate and prevent anyone else from using the pumps, gave me the impression that I’d be spending the day amongst an impolite, aggressively pack-minded group that would not always show the highest regard for the needs of those around them (how’s that for politically correct?). In other words, the kids on the varsity baseball and football teams from high school.

Fortunately, they were all well behaved. Aside from a little profanity, which doesn’t bother me at all except when children are close by, and they weren’t, my biggest complaint about the bikers was that their 2-cylinder engines (or maybe their wrists) could not manage to maintain their speed on inclines. It probably didn’t help, either, that they also pulled up next to each other and started chatting while they were moving. For the most part, though, they weren’t flagrantly slow and I wasn’t in a hurry to get anywhere today.

After sleeping in until 9:00, my day started with a trip to the Crazy Horse Memorial. On the way there, I realized that my hotel, aside from being the only place within 100 miles that had rooms this week for $50 a night, was in a perfect location. It took 20 minutes to get to Crazy Horse, and later only 25 to get to Mt. Rushmore. As it turns out, I should have done the two in the opposite order, because Crazy Horse was pretty damn impressive.

Even for a sculpture that’s been in-progress for over 60 years and is nowhere near approaching completion, Crazy Horse is a wonder in the making. When finished, it will be the largest sculpture in the world. Too bad none of us will ever get to see it completed. There are a few models around the visitor complex, though, to give us a sense of just how much more dramatic it will become.

Speaking of the visitor complex, I was also very impressed with what it had to offer. I had thought that, since this sculpture appears to be, in part, a Native American response to the desecration of one of their sacred spaces at Mt. Rushmore, there would be an undercurrent of anti-government sentiment running through the materials there. Instead, the vast exhibit halls (so vast that the very large gift shop didn’t feel tacky at all), celebrated the art and, to a lesser extent, culture of all Native American tribes. In contrast to Monument Valley, which focuses almost exclusively on the Navajo (and don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing at all inappropriate about that. Monument Valley is sacred to the Navajo because they are the ones who live there), the collections here gave a real sense of unity, cooperation, and peace between the tribes. I’m not sure if it was their intention, but the curators of the museums at Crazy Horse effectively give the impression that this site will serve as the Great Native American Melting Pot.

The one bit of political commentary actually came from my biker friends, with some encouragement from the orientation film. In it, the designer’s wife explains why the tribal elders running the project have repeatedly refused federal funding that would aid in the completion of the carving before the end of time. They believe, she tells us, that if the people want to see this done they will come forward with the money themselves. It’s not right to just sit there and wait for a government handout.

That line got actual applause from a good portion of the viewing audience. That bothered me. What they, and the rest of the right wing of the country who oppose stimulus spending don’t understand is that accepting a $10 million grant from the government to finish carving Crazy Horse is not a “government handout.” It’s an investment by the federal government in a vast public works project. If this thing was fully funded tomorrow, they would be able to hire hundreds of workers – not to mention purchase plenty of heavy equipment, which would cause a positive ripple effect for the companies supplying that equipment. Although I understand the Lakota elders’ hesitance to accept assistance from the same government that has so often tried to screw them over, the fact that a room full of non-Native Americans cheered that decision tells me that they would have done the same thing in their hometowns if offered federal money to, say, fix a bridge. I don’t know if they realize, but they’re not saying no to a government welfare check, designed to just pump money into an area that needs it, like it’s a charity case. They’re saying no to jobs. “We don’t need your money and we don’t need any of those jobs either!” Well, yeah you do. Maybe you’ve got a job that lets you take a road trip to Sturgis for 2 weeks in August, but not everyone around you does. Don’t selfishly refuse aid on their behalf. I guess it’s just part of that lack of concern for others that I’d noticed earlier. Anyway, that was my gut reaction to their gut reaction. Rant over.

While the Indian museum (their wording) was interesting (which is really saying something, given my standing on most museums), I had other places to get to today, limiting my time there, and I wanted to see the world’s largest sculpture in progress. I was very fortunate that, only 20 minutes after I arrived, the disembodied voice over the loudspeaker announced that there would be a blast on the mountain shortly. So I took my place outside, amongst the biker throng, and waited. Greggy wanted big boom.

The voice was kind enough to give us 5, 3, and 1 minute warnings, so I didn’t have to hold my camera up the entire time. When the time came, there was a momentary fireball, followed by a massive cloud of rock and dust.

Once everyone had ooh-ed and ah-ed, then we finally heard the boom. And it was a mighty big boom, indeed. For some reason, I wasn’t expecting a sound at all, so I must have jumped a foot in the air when it arrived. Over a mile away from us, the sound even made the floor of the observation veranda vibrate.

Shortly thereafter, I was off to my next destination, Mt. Rushmore. After arriving, parking, heading up the stairs into the first of several formal outdoor entrance corridors,

passing through the hall of flags,

and finally getting my first unobstructed view of this famous symbol of American democracy, my first reaction was, “They’re so small!”

As well-done as the monument area is, the carving itself pales in comparison to Crazy Horse. The 4 60-foot high Presidents sit at the very top of the mountain, with half a mountain and an enormous talus pile below them. Crazy Horse is the entire mountain. An exhibit there explained that all the carvings on Mt. Rushmore would fit in Crazy Horse’s head. Although, Mt. Rushmore was completed (well, as completed as it is today) in 14 years, while Crazy Horse is in year 63. I also think it was part of the plan to have the faces sitting so high up, so as to give them a symbolic divine connection. And eventually, after walking around there for a while, you start to get the sense that these things are pretty darn big, too.

I was never able to figure out if the Mt. Rushmore National Memorial is a National Park, National Monument, National Historic Site, or what, but there were park rangers in their unmistakable hats all over the place, and when I first got in, I was handed a copy of the “Granite News,” which looked and felt exactly like the newspaper I’d been handed upon entering every national park. After reading it, I decided to take the Presidential Trail, which leads to the foot of the mountain and gives people the closest view of the Presidents possible. At times I could have seen up Washington’s nose, except from that angle I realized he doesn’t have nostrils.

For a half-mile trail that was a little steep with a lot of stairs at the end, the views were certainly well worth the effort.

At the bottom of the trail was Gutzon Borglum’s studio where he oversaw construction on the mountain. It houses a 1/12 scale model of the intended finished carving, which would have included far more than just the Presidents’ faces. I also happened to get there as a ranger talk was about to begin. The retired-art-teacher-turned-ranger gave a combination art and history lecture, effectively teaching everyone in the room how to distinguish between bas relief and sculpture in the round, and between additive and subtractive sculpture. Once a teacher, always a teacher.

After making it back up the trail and spending far too much money at the gift shop, I was off to my next destination – Deadwood. Only an hour away (again, how are these things so close together? It’s a minor miracle.), Deadwood is arguably the most famous Old West town in the country. It’s best known as the place where Wild Bill Hickok met his untimely end during a poker game while holding two pair – aces and eights – a hand that would become known as “Dead Man’s Hand.”

A deck of cards left at Wild Bill's grave
But Deadwood is more than just Wild Bill, although his specter can be found all over town. It was also home to Calamity Jane and Sheriff Seth Bullock, both of whom are buried in Mt. Moriah Cemetery in town.

Actually, Bullock and his wife are buried over a quarter mile from and over 750 feet above the rest of the cemetery. If the Presidential Trail didn’t count as a hike, the walk to see the Sheriff certainly did. A tour of the cemetery included stops at all of their graves, as well as other local characters of various repute. The guide guests are handed as they enter gives some biographical information about some of the more interesting figures in Deadwood lore. At times, the guide is just as politically correct and coy as I expect people at the time would have been when describing said characters. My favorite entry:

Prentis Bernard, alias “Vinegar Bill,” died December 8, 1907. Colorful characters are a hallmark of Mount Moriah Cemetery.” 'Vinegar Bill' being a prime example. Bill’s infatuation with a soiled dove inhabiting the “Mansion”, a notorious Deadwood brother, caused his demise. After finding her in a compromising position with another man, Bill pulled a gun and grievously wounded his supposed rival. Struggling for his pistol, the paramour shot Bill dead. The local mortician kept his remains for ten days, but no one claimed the body so it was buried stark naked in a coffin which was several inches too short. The County Commissioners, upon hearing of the outrage, forced his reburial at Mount Moriah in Potter’s Field.”
Other figures included a madam with a “heart of gold,” buried alongside her pet parrot, and the town’s first minister, who was murdered by Indians. The headstones implied that people in Deadwood either lived to age 95, or rarely made it to 30.

After leaving the cemetery, I considered stopping in town to walk around Main Street, where many of the buildings have strong ties to Deadwood’s wilder days, but the place was so overrun with motorcycles that I decided to just drive through. Even today, it’s easy to picture gunfights in the streets and prostitutes hanging out of the windows – basically any shot from the HBO series Deadwood (which is really the reason why I wanted to go there in the first place).

Over the years, Deadwood has kept up its somewhat lawless reputation and is today a haven for gamblers (legal in the town for decades), drunken college kids, and apparently bikers. In a town with a population of 1,380 I spotted 3 custom bike shops, several tattoo parlors, and at least 2 places that specialized in leather (the biker kind, thank you very much). So once I’d done the historical stuff, the rest of the town wasn’t really my kind of place.

On the way back, I tried to remember the scenic route that I had wanted to take. The problem was that when I wrote it down, I didn’t know where I was going to be staying, and it turned out that the road led nowhere near Custer. So I picked a road that, based on its several switchbacks and path through a state park, looked scenic on Copina Jr. As it turns out, it was the approach to the Needles Highway, which is definitely one of the most scenic routes in the state. Maybe tomorrow, on my way east, I’ll head back that way and take it out towards the Badlands. We’ll have to see, because there were a few interesting-looking places in town that I might want to stop at, too. The route that I did end up taking, however, placed me in front of some cows right around sunset. Well, to call them cows is a bit of an understatement. I’ve seen elk with smaller horns than what these guys had.

I found it funny that I was watching these massive beasts, which could easily turn, charge something, and skewer it like a cocktail wiener, but at the same time, it was so quiet that I could actually hear them munching on the grass. It just didn’t seem to fit, but it made my little herd all that much more endearing.

Leaving the cows behind, I headed back to Custer to have dinner at the Dakota Cowboy Inn Restaurant. When I drove in yesterday I saw a whole row of restaurants right across the street from the hotel. Since I’d been meaning to have a good piece of meat in the homeland of Angus beef, I did a quick search on Yelp and this place had a full-fledged 5-star rating, which I’d never seen before. So I stopped in and had their prime rib, which is apparently their specialty. Perfectly cooked, very tender, and reasonably priced. My plan was to have dessert, too, but my entrée put an end to that idea. The waiters were very friendly (except mine, sort of, who had as much personality as my left sock), so if you’re ever in Custer, I recommend the place.

Tomorrow I leave the land of Harley and David, hopefully, since I’ve noticed their prevalence decreases in national parks, and even more so when any walking is required to get somewhere in said parks. Instead, tomorrow I start making my way towards the land of Michelle Bachmann, Cheeseheads, and eventually, Da Bers.

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