My first day crossing from the Black Hills of Wyoming into those of South Dakota was jam packed with sights. After finding my intended route blocked off for a parade (don’t worry, we’ll get back to this), I took a longer and less scenic route to Mount Rushmore via highway rather than byway, but also close enough for a small detour to the geographic center of the US- okay, so the actual spot was calculated to be in a field about 20 miles outside the town of Belle Fourche, but they figured people were more likely to visit if they placed the sight in town so… here we are. Back on the road to Mt. Rushmore, though.
The town of Keystone is like a giant tourist trap with fudge shops (why are there always fudge or taffy shops in these places?), fake old timey saloon storefronts, fake panning for gold, fake anything western you can imagine. Aside from dodging silly people crossing the street in non-crosswalks it was easy to hightail it through here without a stop.
Upon arriving at the actual Mount Rushmore I was dismayed to find there was a fee to park there. It isn’t much- $10 per car- but on the principle that this is a national monument and should be covered by my park pass I got stubborn and refused to go in. Ha! This should surprise no one who knows me. I have no problem paying for extra concessions like tours, excursions or camping, but something about this rubbed me the wrong way since the company has people pretty much over a barrel. Anyway, I found a few highway turnoffs where I could take photos that are probably just as good as what I’d see inside because how much do stone heads change, right? Plus someone else said there was some construction going on. Sorry old white dudes! Your faces were lovely from front view, profile, and far away regardless.
From the monument turnoffs I turned back and took this winding scenic byway through teensy tunnels of rock, around pigtail ramps, and up to overlooks in the black hills. I must have been in full stubborn mode that day (I’ve done fairly well avoiding falling into this not so flattering or useful trait of mine over this trip but we all have our days) because I also decided I was too cheap to pay the state park entrance to go on the famous Needles scenic byway where amazing rock formations grace the hairpin turns on this route toward Custer where I wanted to end up anyway, but alas, I dug my heels in again and turned around, took the same lovely route back to giant head central, and took the highway route to the Crazy Horse Memorial outside Custer. This was a great road to see why the Black Hills are so named, because in direct sun or in shadow the pines really do look almost black covering the hillsides.
This is a private monument site and I had no problem paying in for this one since the fees go toward the ongoing construction, the museum on site, and a Native University. The museum was filled to the brim with native art from around the country, photos, and information on the design, construction and main sculptor. It was a great story all around and made it less evident that the actual memorial viewing only takes a few minutes unless you opt for an extra tour to the bottom of the sculpture. The process of bringing the vision of Crazy Horse on horseback pointing the way forward is still unfinished, but the sculptor’s children and grandchildren are hard at work to this day now that he’s passed. Had I found a campsite nearby I would have returned for the light show at dusk, but alas it was not to be.
The next day I went to Deadwood early in the morning for breakfast and to arrive before they shut down the town road again (the very same I couldn’t pass the day before) for another parade. Along the way I drove through Sturgis, home of of all things motorcycle and overtaken in early August annually with a giant biker gethering multiple people have told me to get out of town as a lady on her own, so my 6:30am drive by was good enough for me. The annual Days of ’76 rodeo was in town in Deadwood so I set up my chair and watched the parade go by then took off to explore the old time town. All I knew about Deadwood was that there’s a show set there and it was something to do with the old west and shootouts. I was basically right on! The main thing they push in town is that it’s the site of Wild Bill Hickok’s murder and grave, along with being an old gold rush town. I walked up to the cemetery where Wild Bill and Calamity Jane are buried next to one another- the story goes that he was killed during a card game in a saloon (I watched a shootout re-enactment at the very saloon which took forever) and later when she was on her deathbed requested to be buried beside him, though some say this was because they were lovers but more say he disliked her and this was her ultimate revenge to torment his soul. Either way a fun story.
While I wasn’t sure it was the best idea in this place where no one social distances or wears masks, I bought a ticket to the afternoon rodeo figuring that it was outside, it was GA so I could move to wherever were the fewest people, there was an evening show so I expected fewer people to opt for the full sun daytime show, and it was fairly cheap so I could leave if it was terrible. Luckily I guessed right and it was fine (side note- I was one of 2 people wearing a mask in the crowd and got some weird looks for sure wherever I went). Going in I was mildly uncomfortable with the idea of a rodeo because I hate the idea of the animals getting hurt and being used for this craziness, as well as the humans maybe being trampled or hurt. This feeling did not go away but it was way more exciting than I anticipated and sucked me in despite not understanding the rules at all.
I spent some time in Rapid City to do errands but took advantage of being here a few evenings to wander the street corners downtown which are adorned with life size (except Taft, they downsized him because the metal would have cost too much- ha!) statues of all the presidents through G.W. Bush. I found 20-something before it got super dark. Also downtown there’s an art alley where people can get approved to do graffiti art, a brewery in an old firehouse, and a haunted hotel where a little girl, a bride, and maybe more (also the hotel Hitchcock and Cary Grant stayed while filming North by Northwest’s Rushmore scenes). I went in and didn’t feel any ghostyness, but at the firehouse pub I sat next to some dude of questionable reliability and sobriety who claims to be an amateur ghost hunter and has experienced the paranormal here, so… you never know.
From Rapid City having showered twice and had an oil change in the van, and stopped outside town at a replica Norwegian Stave church which was pretty and serene. It totally channeled the stave churches I’d seen in Scandinavia and I appreciate the simple, well constructed natural beauty and small detail work. Onward I went south to Hot Springs area where I aimed to visit the Mammoth Site. This museum and active archeological site was once a sink hole where at least 20-something male mammoths met their end and have been excavated over time. You can walk around the site with a good audio or printed guide and see the actual bones, footprints, teeth, and more in place. Super cool!
In Hot Springs I was treated to a beautiful sunset over the stream and waterfall, tasted the natural spring water (gross), and was camped in a parking lot with 3 other vans of travelers like myself. We had a #vanlife party on the sidewalk! Well, by party I mean we all played Uno by lantern light while a homeless man snored on a picnic bench, and toured one another’s rigs. In the morning 3 of the 4 vans decided to take a hike together through nearby Wind Cave National Park- a park I’d never heard of even once until now.
The cave of Wind Cave was closed, but my new van hike pals (a pair of sisters and a guy on his own) found an 11-12 mile hike loop to do which took us past several prairie dog town, past a surprise prairie rattlesnake, beneath some sort of bird who’d caught a still squealing rabbit or something, by a wandering bison who hogged the path, and on a little side trip to peek into a little cave. This required crossing a muddy stream which was… an adventure for some of us. Going one way I leapt over from a rock to the shore, but going back ended up stepping right into the mud. Memorable for sure this way, though, and I have a feeling I’m gonna be a sleeper hit in the background of all their youtube channel videos. Or not.
It was fun to hang out with some people, though I was totally more like their mom than anything offering cut vegetables on our lunch break and providing band aids and moleskin, but I’m kind of happier to be 35 than 23 these days. It doesn’t stop me acting like that age occasionally anyway! Well, back to my solo time and off to the Badlands.