Sunday, June 19, 2011

Happy Father's Day: South Dakota Trip, Part 3

I'm dedicating this installment to my dad, who, with my mom, was brave enough to take three kids under the age of 14 on a six-week cross-country trip back in 1970. Mom took along her electric skillet so we could have a hot breakfast most mornings in whatever motel room we were staying in. Our picnic lunches included vienna sausages and deviled ham (neither of which I can abide to this day). We usually ate out only once a day, for supper.

Our car overheated one day in a remote portion of Montana or eastern Oregon (after 41 years, I don't recall exactly - but I'll bet my dad does). Nonetheless, Dad and a local managed to get us back on the road and to that day's destination. My father had meticulously mapped out our route and lined up all our lodging in those pre-internet days. Deviled ham aside, it was a trip of a lifetime, and the inspiration for me to return to South Dakota these many years later, when my nephew's wedding presented a perfect opportunity for another, not quite so long, road trip.

I'll forewarn you this post is a long one. Pour yourself a cup of coffee (or your beverage of choice after your Father's Day festivities have quieted down) and settle in for a little armchair traveling on one of my most spectacular days in South Dakota.

After two nights in my Custer State Park cabin at Sylvan Lake, I was on the move again. But before I would dine in Rapid City, I wanted to see more in the southern Black Hills. After I checked out at Sylvan Lake Lodge, I saw this deer.

Although you’ll see lots of billboards on I-90 for touristy cave tours, the two caves I kept reading about that sounded truly compelling were Wind Cave National Park and Jewel Cave National Monument, both to the south and west of Custer S.P.

I've come to the conclusion that much of the most detailed and helpful advice I read about vacationing in this part of South Dakota pertained more to the busier part of the June-August tourist season and that I lucked out being there Memorial Day week.

Particularly for Jewel Cave, admonitions to obtain advance reservations and aim for the first tour of the day made me feel like a slacker for not having called before I left Ohio. Even the official website for Jewel Cave insists you must speak to a live person to reserve a spot for any cave tour, provide credit card info, then arrive at least half an hour ahead to pick up your ticket. I called first thing Monday (Memorial Day) hoping to book something – anything! – within the next two days. Turned out availability was wide open for Wednesday, so I settled on the second “Scenic Tour” of the day. Trying to leave myself plenty of time to arrive that prescribed 30 minutes early, I ended up at the Jewel Cave ticket booth about 15 minutes before the first tour started and was asked if I wanted to go on that one instead. Sure – that would leave more of my day for other explorations!
Jewel Cave’s “Scenic Tour” is limited to 30 people, but there were fewer than 15 that Wednesday morning. I dutifully adhered to all the (official and unofficial) advice about peeing beforehand, not taking a purse or water bottle, and wearing closed-toe shoes and a light jacket in the cave’s constant year-round 49 degree temperature. As I waited in the visitor center for the tour to begin, I saw several earnest young men in hiking boots and dirt-smudged kahkis gather indoors, then move outside for what I gathered to be a planning discussion. My first take was that they were guides for my cave tour and wondered what I’d gotten myself into, on this 1 hour, 20 minute tour with 723 steps, proclaimed on the website to be moderately strenuous.

Not to worry. Those guys must have been some of the avid (and trained) cavers who extend the mapping of Jewel Cave, the “second longest cave in the world,” each year. Soon an announcement came over the PA system, and a National Park Service employee in official dark green garb headed up our tour group, with two others following at the rear to make sure no tour-goers went astray. We descended in an elevator that took us the equivalent of 23 stories into the cave, to the “upper cave" elevator exit. With ramps and plenty of stopping points to listen to our guide, I found the tour more exhilarating then strenuous. The tour was over all too soon when we emerged to take the elevator from the "lower cave" stop.

Our friendly and informative NPS tour guide explained lots of geological stuff I have failed to retain, even though she presented them in accessible terminology. Some cave formations are likened to popcorn, there were “draperies” that made me think of Scarlett O’Hara (or Carol Burnett), and when she pointed out one magnificent formation they call “Cave Bacon,” I could see exactly why. Alas, I have learned that photographing in a cave is even more challenging than in a dimly lit restaurant. So I’ll just share these photos that kinda sorta turned out.

Next on my itinerary: Crazy Horse Memorial. I wasn’t even aware of this mountain carving the first time I visited South Dakota in 1970. I'll bet my dad wasn't either. But I learned this mammoth project was begun in 1948, after Lakota elders asked Korczak Ziolkowski, a Polish American fighter-turned-sculptor from Boston who had worked on Mt. Rushmore, to undertake the memorial “so the White Man would know the Red Man has great heroes also.”
It took 50 years for the sculpting of just Crazy Horse’s face to be completed, and far more work remains to realize the completed carving of Crazy Horse on horseback, pointing in the distance as an homage to this quotation from him: “My lands are where my dead die buried.” Here’s Korczak’s model of the sculpture on the outdoor deck of the Crazy Horse visitor center complex.
Korczak died in 1982, but work is being continued by his wife (who still lives in the visitor center) and many of their ten children. The project is operated as a non-profit and has accepted no state or federal funding. Initially funds were raised by charging visitors a mere 5 cents per carload. (Now the cost is $10 per person over the age of six or $27 per carload, with reduced rates for motorcycles and free admission for Native Americans, active-duty military personnel, Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops in uniform, and residents of surrounding Custer County.) During the summer months, a laser light show is projected on the side of the mountain every night.

During that family trip 41 years ago, we stopped at Mt. Rushmore, and I recall being non-plussed. Mountains are beautiful just as nature has sculpted them. It struck me as presumptuous in the midst of such scenery to carve faces of four dead presidents on the side of one. I declined to stop and pay to see Mt. Rushmore this trip, but was very glad I visited Crazy Horse.
The scope of the Crazy Horse Memorial goes far beyond the mountain carving itself. Struck by white hostility toward Indians when he first arrived in the area, Korczak envisioned the project in a larger cultural and educational context. The current visitor center complex encompasses two movie theaters where you can watch a 20-minute orientation film (do not miss it!), an enormous museum of Native American artifacts, a conference center, and a Native American cultural center, in addition to restaurants and a gift shop. Native American artisans conduct demonstrations and sell their wares.

Eventually the grounds are to be home to a medical center and a university for Native Americans from throughout North America. Although the family and the memorial’s foundation could have raised funds by selling stone blasted from the mountain to be turned into gravel, they are keeping it all on site, where it will eventually be used in building those facilities.

The visitor center is still a fair distance from the mountain itself. But you can hop on a school bus that takes you to the base of the mountain, and well worth the $4.

These bus tours run about every 15 minutes during the summer and last about 25 minutes. You get to see the mountain from the far side of the visitor complex, then can disembark at the midpoint of the mountain. I thought I’d learned a lot from the orientation film, but our bus driver shared many more fascinating details. He’d clearly worked there a long time, knew the family, and cared about the mission of the place.

The size of this thing is hard to grasp (all four presidents on Mt. Rushmore collectively are smaller than the face of Crazy Horse, if I recall what my bus guide said correctly). Here are photos from the base of the mountain I shot thanks to that bus ride.

I had one more "must-see" on my list before heading to Rapid City for dinner: Iron Mountain Road. The 17-mile drive from Crazy Horse to Mt. Rushmore is so scenic and lush with trees, I didn’t mind the several stops I encountered for road construction and one-way traffic. I was surprised at what a close view I had of the dead presidents from Hwy. 244 as I drove past the entrance to Mt. Rushmore. But I would see them again – several times – after I turned south on 16A, that portion of which is known as Iron Mountain Road, part of the Peter Norbeck National Scenic Byway.

Norbeck was a South Dakota governor, U.S. senator, and conservationist whose name I’d seen repeatedly. Among the projects he championed for his native state of South Dakota were Mt. Rushmore and Iron Mountain Road, which features several more of those one-lane tunnels – these designed to perfectly frame views of Mt. Rushmore.
Iron Mountain Road squiggles through rugged terrain and also includes “pigtail bridges,” which are kind of like three-dimensional figure 8s or corkscrews. The road doubles back on itself so that even if you’re going in just one direction, you’ll be able to see Mt. Rushmore framed in those one-lane tunnels both from ahead and in your rear-view mirror.

At the top of Iron Mountain Road is a scenic pull-off where you can see Mt. Rushmore like this.

It was disjarring to go from that kind of landscape to my motel in Rapid City on I-90. But I had  a dinner reservation at The Corn Exchange, which I'd read somewhere was the best restaurant in South Dakota. This Western-casual-meets-fine-dining storefront in downtown Rapid City did not disappoint.

My appetizer was this corn and scallion buttermilk pancake topped with house-smoked Black Hills trout, a cucumber-horseradish raita made with Cowgirl Creamery creme fraiche, and these spectacular eggs.

For my entree, I went with a house specialty, the Corn Exchange steak, made that night with bison from local source 777 Buffalo Ranch.

After such a great meal, I couldn't resist dessert, this lovely chocolate pot de creme with raspberries. A satisfying conclusion to a very memorable day.

xoxo to all, and especially to my dad,


MakingSpace said...

Wow, gorgeous! I felt like I was on the trip with you! Thanks for taking the time to share all of your trip.

moi said...

What a wonderful way to say Happy Father's Day to your pop. As a veteran of many such cross country family trips as a kid, I, too, have to tip my hat to the parents that seemed to so casually put up with what would drive me to drink in about 2.5 seconds.

Thanks as well for giving me even more reasons to plan another trip: The Corn Exchange and the Cave Tour, which we didn't have time to do. And to revisit Crazy Horse, one of my personal heroes.

JWR said...

Thanks for the homage to your 'ole dad. FYI - not only did we have the radiator boil over in eastern Oregon (and saved by a tourist in a camper with water0 but we also had a flat tire that day that required local help to get us to the next town and a replacement. Also, we bypassed CHM because at that time not even the face was finished.
Wonderful memories and the food update was great. Sure beat the vienna Sauages et al of '70.

Sharon Rudd said...

MS, so glad you stopped by!

Moi, The Corn Exchange also has a sister business next door called The Potted Rabbit that sells take-out goodies that would make a lovely breakfast or picnic.

Dad! I'd forgotten that flat tire. But I do remember that was a very long day. Thanks for getting us there safe and sound!

Jenny said...

Eggy! Did we comee from the same family? We too took a cross country car trip in the early 1970's. We alternated between camping and motels and I'm sure what was better for worse? I do know those KOA campsites had showers and pools and vending machines! I loved Mt.Rushmore and your pictures are fabulous. This part of our country is vast and crazy beautiful... but spread out and hard to see completely unless you do take the time to drive all over. Like we did. And you too.

darkfoam said...

stunning photos!! i dearly want to get up into that part of the country sometime before i start falling completely apart .... lol .....

Dani said...

How Cool! Love your trips Eggy!

LaDivaCucina said...

Long post is right, Eggy, I'm still trying to finish up your last post, you are as prolific with your posts as a bunny in the Springtime!

LOVE all the photos and will be back later to read more too. YOu are brave girl for going into cave, me no likey....was it claustrophobic?

Ok, back to work for the event tomorrow! xo

Aunty Belle said...


Wow again.
Hooray for yore daddy! Reckon we all took a similar trip--I recall stayin' in a motel that wuz built to look like tee pee 's --ha!! those are all gone now.

Eggy, I will read more, but fer now--that cave bidness is somethin' else. I ain't a big fan of goin' in caves but this musta been amazin'. An' I ain't never seen Mount Rushmore--really wanna git thar'.

An that corncake an trout appetizer--yum!1

Velva said...

Fabulous, fabulous and fabulous again. What a great road trip through South Dakota. Childhood memories have a way of bringing us back.