The Great American Road Trip: Part Four — The Black Hills

Nine or ten days in the car stopping off at American sites of great natural beauty and historical wonder.  With three kids.

The results were surprising to us all.

Click here to read Part Three.

Day Five: Wall, SD to Custer, SD

It was cooler on this day.  There was a steady wind.

We ate breakfast, packed up and said good-bye to our log cabin on the prairie.  We had grown rather fond of it.

But we knew spectacular things were ahead for us. 

The drive to Rapid City took less than an hour.  On the street corners, Rapid City features statues of all the U.S. Presidents.  They are all unusual and fun.  Another time we would like to come back to “Rapid” (The Major read somewhere that the locals refer to town this way.  Running Girl and The Fashionista spent much time making fun of TM for trying to act like a know-it-all) to explore some more.

The Black Hills really were black…at least from a distance.  TM and TF had an ongoing dispute as to whether the mountains were aptly named.  Up close, the peaks are rather green.


For the Sioux the Black Hills, Paha Sapa, are the center of the world, the place of the gods, where the warriors would go to wait for visions and to speak to the Great Spirit. In 1868, a treaty was signed which granted Paha Sapa to the Indians forever.

However, in 1872 miners began to invade the Black Hills in a search for gold. In 1874 the Army ordered a reconaissance mission. The Indians were not even notified, much less asked for permission. George Armstrong Custer and the Seventh Cavalry were sent on this mission. Custer reported that the hills were filled with gold “from the grass roots down.” This unleashed a horde into the Black Hills and the track cut by Custer’s supply train became known as the Thieves’ Road. In the spring of 1875, with the hills full of miners, the Army sent General Crook, in a nominal effort to comply with the treaty, to notify the miners that they were in violation of the treaty. However, he made no effort to enforce the law.

From Wikipedia:

On July 23, 1980, in United States v. Sioux Nation of Indians, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that the Black Hills were illegally taken and that remuneration of the initial offering price plus interest — nearly $106 million — be paid. The Lakota refused the settlement as they wanted the Black Hills returned to them. The money remains in an interest-bearing account, which now amounts to over $757 million, but the Lakota still refuse to take the money. They believe that accepting the settlement would validate the US theft of their most sacred land.

Now the Paha Sapa are a tourist attraction.  They are South Dakota’s Times Square, Vegas and Niagara Falls all rolled into one.  There’s a new kind of gold in them there hills — tourism.

Although the Black Hills turned out not to be as tacky as we expected beforehand, coming from the natural, unspoiled beauty of The Badlands, the commercialism of this sacred ground was bracing.  Bear Country, USA (which we later visited) located next to Reptile World near Santa Land, Mount Splashmore, Flintstones Bedrock City and Old McDonald’s Farm.  In the Hills, you can pan for gold and then go for a plate of $1.00 “Cowboy Pancakes.”

We played along.  But, we really tried to keep it all in perspective.  These beautiful outcroppings, lush pine trees and pristine waters really belong to someone else.

We came to the old gold mining town of Keystone which is located very close to the monument.  During the ride up into the Black Hills, a competition raged among the members of Kay Nou as to who would get the first glimpse of the monument.  The Major was driving.  As you may have learned, he is very competitive.  He noticed that all the hotels in Keystone faced in the same direction.  Using that as a guide, he pointed over his right shoulder and said “Look that way.”  RG and TF spotted the mountain first.  TM was driving a curvy mountain road and could not take his eyes off it.  The Major was crushed by this defeat.

Mount Rushmore is…much more spectacular than one would imagine.  I cannot describe it.  Ah, for the pen of a Balzac…

Instead, I will show you some photos:

This view you've seen.

But, have you seen this view?

Or this one?

Bet you haven't seen this one.

Some Rushmore facts that piqued our interest:

  • George Washington’s lapels are visible.  Never noticed that before.
  • Jefferson’s head was originally supposed to to be to the left of Washington’s.  They started carving it there, then discovered a fault.  They dynamited Jefferson and then redesigned the whole thing.
  • Sculptor Gutzon Borglum wanted to create “a few feet of stone that bears witness (to) the great things we accomplished as a nation, placed so high they won’t pull it down for lesser purposes.”  He knew that granite erodes so slowly that in 12,000 years the monument will have eroded only a foot.
  • There is no granite left in the mountain.  Therefore, there will be no more heads added to the monument.
  • Borglum worked so carefully that there was not a single mortality or serious injury during the course of the project from 1927 to 1941.
  • Washington = the father of our country; Jefferson = the author of the Declaration of Independence and the president who purchased the Louisiana Territory and set the nation on its westward course; and Lincoln = the savior of the Union and the president who extended the freedom to all.
  • But Theodore Roosevelt?  It is true that he curbed big business and had a great familiarity with South Dakota (he loved The Badlands).  However, it is important to note that the inclusion of Roosevelt was a political choice.  President Calvin Coolidge was especially concerned that TR be on the mountain because of Roosevelt’s support for the labor unions.
  • The National Park Service really got this one right.  The parking lots are recessed and basically invisible.  The parterre from which most people view the monument has no obstructions and offers nearly perfect views.  In the words of our friend, Mike Ring, “it is impossible to take a bad picture there.”
  • Although the mountain towers high above you, there is a sense of intimacy that cannot be explained.  You have to go to see it.

Roger Thornhill's "murder" was staged here.

In Keystone, we encountered one of those great South Dakota signs that advised us that the Hitchcock film, North By Northwest, was filmed in the area.  After viewing the mountain, we had lunch in the cafeteria where Cary Grant’s “shooting” takes place.  Little did we realize that we would encounter another great scene from that film a few days later.

Subway Dude asked if we could go zip lining after viewing Mount Rushmore.  As this was the first request he had made on the trip, we agreed.  Upon arriving at the cavern where the supposed zip lining was taking place, we were appalled by what we saw.  As real zip liners (click here to read “On The Road: The Great Smoky Mountains”), we disdained the silly conveyance they offered — you sat in it, and after zipping you a few hundred feet, they pulled you back up.

Instead we choose an alpine slide.  SD had done one of these in Austria, and he had a ball.  We all rode up to the top of a hill on a ski lift (complete with a view of Rushmore off to the right) and then slid down on plastic sleds on a fiberglass shoot.  Island Boy took the first ride on Mama’s lap.  The second run was on Papa’s lap and much, much faster.

The Major, The Fashionista and Subway Dude took a third run while Mama and Island Boy cheered us on from the bottom of the hill.  Papa took the “slow track” because there was too much traffic on the faster one.  SD occasionally shows signs of competitiveness with his father.  He jumped tracks at the start and took off in hot pursuit of his old man.  Along the way, he took one of the turns a bit too hot, and was thrown from his sled.

Let’s just say that Subway Dude earned a valuable life lesson that day: brake before you go into a turn.  We may only hope that this principle translates into his driving of automobiles.  The rest of the trip was nothing but Ibuprofen, band-aids and surgical tape for our hero.

We drove through the Hills to the town of Custer where our hotel was located.  Custer was named for the general even before the Battle of Little Bighorn (Custer’s big ass-whooping at the hands of Crazy Horse and his Lakota warriors).  Karma’s a bitch, pal.

We later learned that Custer was the site of huge Indian riots in the 1970s.  Russell Means, Dennis Banks and other leaders of the radical American Indian Movement (AIM) were on trial at the time for various crimes.

We were located about 15 minutes from the Wyoming state line.  Instead of subjecting these poor kids to more car time just to add another state to our haul, we chose a leisurely afternoon of swimming, mini-golf and ice cream sundaes.

For dinner we traveled to the gold mining town of Hill City.  Subway Dude took great delight in the fact that we found The Mangy Moose a bit too rough for our family dining standards, and we went instead to The Bumpin Buffalo across the street.  For our effort, we received an over-priced and very poorly prepared meal.  Oh well, you takes your chances when you dine in touristy areas.

After supper, we went to see some old friends who were all lit up in the best possible sense:

On the way back to Custer, Subway Dude and I engaged in a stimulating intellectual discussion.  The topic: how to arrange the heads of the four guys from The Hangover onto Mount Rushmore.

If you want to learn our valuable conclusions, read on.  If not, stop here and thanks for hanging in this far.

— The Major & Running Girl

Phil is the leader of The Wolf Pack.  As the Daddy, he obviously gets the George Washington seat.  Stu the Dentist fills the roll of wing man, thus he is Jefferson, ever peering over George’s shoulder.  Doug is always absent — he’s Lincoln, all by himself off to the left.  And that leaves…Alan, photo-bombing in the background just like Teddy Roosevelt.


One response to this post.

  1. Is Subway Dude OK now?


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