Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Black Hills - Deadwood, Crazy Horse

After resting for several days (and doing some schoolwork), we finally had enough energy to do some more sightseeing in the Black Hills of South Dakota.

On Friday, April 25th, the boys and I took a car trip one hour north through the Black Hills to the small "wild west" town of Deadwood.  This is the place that legends are made from.  Deadwood was a boom town that arose when gold was discovered in the Black Hills in the late 1800's.  The town was legendary for its lawlessness.

Several notorious persons came out of Deadwood, the most notable being Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok, who was shot in the back of the head while playing poker.  The hand he was holding became known as "Dead Man's Hand" -- a pair of black eights with a pair of black aces.  His murderer, Jack McCall, was tried and hanged in the Dakota Territory.  (Remember, the Black Hills weren't part of the Dakota Territory yet; it was part of the unceded Indian territory, the contentious area that General Custer fought for and lost in the Battle of Little Bighorn.)

We spent some time exploring the Adams Museum in Deadwood which showcased the history of the small town.  In it, we saw the pistol used to kill Wild Bill Hickok.

What a bonus!  In the museum, we also saw a display touting the independent spirit of the frontier homeschoolers!

Afterwards, we drove up and down the main street just to get a feel for the "Old West".

We bypassed the Mount Moriah Cemetery which is the final resting place of both Calamity Jame and Wild Bill Hickok because we were getting hungry and needed to find a place to eat.

After we finished exploring Deadwood, we drove to the Crazy Horse Memorial.  Crazy Horse was a Lakota Indian warrior who led a warring party of Oglala Lakota at the Battle of Little Bighorn.  Today he is being memorialized in a monolithic sculpture, much larger than Mount Rushmore, at Thunderhead Mountain.

The memorial is a work in progress.  Started in 1948 by a sculptor who worked on Mount Rushmore under the direction of Gutzon Borglum, Korczak Ziolkowski worked tirelessly on the monument until his death in 1982.  Today his family continues the tradition of sculpting the mountain, funded entirely by private donation and sales.

We spent about an hour or so exploring the museum which focuses on the history of the American Indian. It was quite interesting seeing just how many Native American tribes were represented.

Additionally, we had the pleasure of meeting a Lakota docent who dressed up my youngest boys in traditional attire and set them up for a picture with the monument in the background.

Another bonus!  While we were at the Crazy Horse Museum, we saw a painting of... a coach-and-six!

Sunday, April 20, 2014


Very early on Easter morning, before the sun began to shine, I drove Steve to the airport so he could fly back to San Antonio for a couple of weeks while the kids and I stayed in the Black Hills.

We said our goodbye, then I drove the hour back to the camper again.  As I drove westward through Custer State Park, the sun was starting to rise in my rearview mirror.  It stirred something spiritual in me, and I was able to have my own private Easter sunrise service right there in the privacy of my own vehicle.

I returned home at about five minutes past seven, but the kids had already awakened and found all the Easter eggs that the Easter Bunny had left behind and they had already started eating their Easter donuts.

We apparently picked the perfect campground to be for Easter because there were wild rabbits everywhere at that campground!  I had mentioned to my youngest boys that I wasn't sure the Easter Bunny would find us there in the Black Hills, but my 8yo retorted, "Oh yes he will!  His henchmen are EVERYWHERE!"  (Where do they come up with these things?)

Later in the day we watched a few movies, including "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" with Dick Van Dyke.  While watching the movie, I think I found our family's new theme song:

So Easter Day came and went without much fanfare for our family this year.  Steve got settled into his hotel room in San Antonio, and the rest of us took the day to rest since we were so worn out from the pace of the previous two weeks.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Black Hills - Custer State Park, Mount Rushmore

Even though we had an exhausting day on Friday, Saturday morning we woke up and did some more sightseeing in the Black Hills before Steve had to leave to go back to San Antonio.

On Saturday, April 19th, we started our day off by driving to the nearby Sylvan Lake.  There's nothing particularly special about this lake, but our family's well-loved movie "National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets" has a scene that was filmed there, so we went to the exact spot where the Nicholas Cage, Jon Voight, Ed Harris, et al, stood.  We even stuck our hands in the rock that Nicholas Cage stuck his hand into.

We continued our drive by following the Needles Highway, a windy, twisty, curvy mountain pass through the Black Hills.  The road includes three single-lane tunnels and several magnificent viewpoints.  It is called the Needles Highways because of the needle-like basaltic rock formations found in this area of the Black Hills.

When we finished the Needles Highway, we found ourselves in Custer State Park, home of the 1500-head herd of free-roaming bison.  We stopped at a picnic area next to a mountain stream to eat our lunch, then continued along the Wildlife Loop Road to see if we would have more luck this time in trying to see some bison compared to when we visited the National Bison Range in Montana.

Sure enough, not only did we see bison, but we saw a LOT of bison!  They were everywhere!

It is interesting to note that Custer State Park is the location of the annual Buffalo Round Up and Auction held each September during which over 10,000 people attend.

One particular section of the Wildlife Loop Road is well-known as being the home of the "Begging Burros".  We were cautioned by a Wall Drug employee to keep our windows up if we encountered these wild donkeys, and I'm glad we heeded her advice!  The burros weren't at all shy about approaching vehicles, sticking their heads directly into the cars, and refusing to leave until fed!

When we finally had seen enough of bison and burros, we left Custer State Park along the Iron Mountain Road - another windy, curvy, twisty mountain pass.  Again, we passed through three (different) single-lane tunnels until we emerged in the town of Keystone where we found Mount Rushmore.

At Mount Rushmore, we started at the visitor center and then proceeded to the Grand View Terrace where we had a perfect view of Mount Rushmore.

Then we all walked along the Presidential Trail which follows along at the base of the mountain.

Then Steve and the older boys continued on the more strenuous section of the trail while I took the younger boys back to the visitor center to finish up their Junior Ranger workbooks.  We met back together again on the Grand View Terrace then took a quick view from the older Borglum View Terrace.

There really isn't much to do at Mount Rushmore (this time of the year) other than see the famous faces sculpted into the mountain, so we didn't spend too much time there.  Once you've seen it, you've seen it.  But it is an awesome sight to behold.  It stirs one's patriotism and makes you ponder how this country came to be and how man can transform the earth to such a great magnitude.  (And we got a kick out of seeing these guys while we were there:)

As it neared dinnertime, we decided to head back home again.  It had been two very busy days, and Steve was leaving early the next morning.

Black Hills - Minuteman Missile, Badlands, Wall Drug

We spent our first day in the Black Hills thawing out from our 4" of snow, but on Friday, April 18th, we had quite a full day of adventure.

We rose early, ate breakfast in the car, and drove two hours northeast to the Badlands area of South Dakota.  But our first destination wasn't the Badlands; first we stopped at a newly-formed national park called Minuteman Missile National Historic Site.

Here's an irony:  in 1997-1999 we used to live at Ellsworth Air Force Base, right in this area.  As a matter of fact, our 16yo son was born there.  But back then, this historic site didn't exist.  Well, it DID exist, but not as a historic site!  This makes me feel old!

This site is the only park in the National Park Service devoted to telling the story of the Cold War.  Ellsworth AFB used to be one of the country's several missile bases, and the fields of South Dakota were discretely littered with ICBM silos.  (ICBM = intercontinental ballistic missile)  This park was established in 1999 to preserve two 1960's missile sites:  the Delta-09 missile silo, and the Delta-01 launch control facility.

We were so fortunate to receive a private tour of the launch facility given to us by a NPS volunteer who used to be a missileer at that very launch facility.  He definitely knew his stuff!  First we toured the entire "visible" part of the building.

Then we took the elevator underground to the launch control pod.  The door was massively thick, and it was so strange to think that for forty years someone sat in those chairs 24/7, just sitting and waiting for the command to turn the keys.

Later we drove a little distance to see the missile silo itself, one of 450 missile sites nationwide that now sit vacant.  (There are still 500 active nuclear missiles deployed in the upper Great Plains.)  There inside the ground sat one Minuteman II missile, a lonely remnant of the Cold War.  On July 31, 1991, President George Bush and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which began the reduction of nuclear arms stockpiles.

This was truly a unique field trip for the kids, and I know all of us learned a lot.  Even Steve and I, who grew up during the Cold War and remember as young adults when the Berlin Wall fell, learned quite a bit.  The park movie was geared toward kids, so even the younger boys understood what the Cold War was about by the time we finished.

After we finished touring the Minuteman Missile Historic Site, we drove only a couple miles away to explore the Badlands National Park.  The native Lakota people knew this land as "mako sica" which means "bad lands".  Indeed, it is difficult to see how any life can prosper in this dead terrain, yet it does have a human and natural history.  This area used to be the bed of an ancient sea, one which extended from the Gulf of Mexico to Canada and from western Iowa to western Wyoming - essentially, most of the area known as the Great Plains.  Fossilized animals have been found in the park, and both Lakota and homesteaders shaped this land in more recent times.

We started our time at the visitor center by eating our packed lunch at one of the picnic tables.  Then we wandered inside to watch the park movie and explore the museum displays.

Afterwards we drove to the trailhead parking lot and walked an easy trail called the Window Trail.  This trail took us to a lovely overlook above the badlands valley.

Then Steve took three older boys on a strenuous trail (the Notch Trail) while I took three younger boys along a moderate trail (the Door Trail).  I can only speak on my own experience, but Steve shared some of the pictures he took on their hike.  One highlight was a log-ladder that they had to climb to get to the top of a cliff.

As for us, we took the boardwalk until it ended, then followed the markers among the rock formations until we reached the end of the trail.  By the time we were done, we seemed to be in the middle of complete wilderness!

By this time, everyone was worn out.  (It was hot! Can you believe it hit 80 degrees when only one day earlier we had 4" of snow?!?)  We got back into the car and drove the rest of the way through the park, stopping at some of the many scenic overlooks along the way.

One unique area was the Yellow Mounds.  For some reason, this area has yellow rock formations, which really stand out against the otherwise drab scenery.

We left the Badlands National Park right around dinnertime.  The way that we exited the park dumped us out in the very small town of Wall, home of world-famous Wall Drug.

Wall Drug is a phenomenon in and of itself.  In 1931, Ted Hustead purchased the drug store in the small town with a population of only 231 people.  Business was slow at first until his wife had the idea of offering free ice water to thirsty tourists on their way to Mount Rushmore 60 miles to the west.  Business picked up, and today it is an international attraction bringing in more than 2 million visitors and $10 million each year.  They still give free ice water to travelers (and yes, we did have the free water with our dinner!), as well as offer free coffee and donuts to honeymooners, veterans, priests, hunters, and truck drivers.

Wall Drug is probably best known for their billboards, for which they pay $400,000 annually.  They claim to have billboards on every continent, including Antarctica.  The other things they are famous for is their legendary "Jackalope" and their roaring T-Rex.

We stopped in just before they were closing up for the day.  We ordered our dinner - bison burgers, of course! - then wandered around the 76,000 sqft mall of Wall Drug.

By the time we left Wall Drug and drove the two hours back home again, we had had an exhausting day, but one that we will remember for a long time.