Crossing into South Dakota this Sunday morning it’s a run of around 27 miles on Highway 16 till you come to the very quaint town of Custer – yep, named after the, well some would say great soldier, explorer, icon of America. Coming into Custer its clear to see they have had a load of rain – we stopped at a nice gallery in town and the chap there told us that they had some near record rains in the past couple of weeks – thankfully the weather today was starting to clear – a very positive omen for viewing Mount Rushmore. Again the guy in the gallery said that it had been foggy up there the day prior but cleared later – can’t see any problems today. We had a good talk to the guy in the gallery – he was into aircraft so we were talking about museums to visit, and he was explaining some of his art (photography) on display, and that he was hoping to come out to NZ to go to Warbirds over Wanaka. We had a nice walk around the town – the main street had brightly painted / individually painted buffalo – bit like the giraffe thing we had going on in NZ (subsequently we have also seen a collection of painted up Moose in one of the towns we have been through). Custer serves as the lower hub to the Badlands National Park, Mount Rushmore and also the Custer State Park that is all through this area. We hiked back to Romin and with the gallery guys advise we headed west into the park on 16A – being a State Park you have to pay admission (we have a National Park pass that doesn’t cover State Parks) but if you say you are passing through to connect with the road to Keystone (Mount Rushmore base town) you don’t have to pay. Entering the park / the drive through the park was really nice – we even saw a couple of huge bull bison sitting on the roadside very content.
We stopped at the Custer SP Visitor Centre to get the lowdown on the area. They had a very good movie that plays – with Kevin Costner narrating. Turns out the area here was laden with bison back in the days of the Indian and then the ‘white man’ came along and decimated the species – there had been something like 30 million bison in the area it is estimated and then ‘we’ came along to ‘transform the land’ for farming, settlement, whatever, and reduced the bison herd to only around 1000 – irony is that we weren’t necessarily killing the bison for it’s meat or pelt / fur – we were just killing them to clear them, and to maybe push the Indians away from this area. Thankfully someone / something stepped in to save the last of them and now in the Custer SP there is a herd of around 2500. Turns out that we had only missed the annual stampede and roundup by a couple of days (this happened on Friday) and is an annual event to bring in the heard to do a count, vaccinate the young and they split off around 400 annually to be sold. Some of our actions in the past beggar belief. Whilst we didn’t spot anymore bison on our drive in this area we did spot turkey buzzards, deer, and some more Pronghorn Antelope (still struggle to connect this animal with America as I keep thinking it should be in Africa). A bigger bonus for Carol in this area was the fall colours that were starting to play out for us.
Now whilst in this area the main route up to Mount Rushmore is to follow Highway 16A as it winds its way through to Keystone – along the way you have to pass through 3 Black Hill tunnels (there are 6 in the area in total). Now under normal circumstance a tunnel would be fine, but this are just openings cut through the rock, so at their widest the tunnels are just over 13 feet wide (but a couple are 9 feet or less) and only around 11 – 12 feet high (again, one tunnel is only 9 feet 10 inches) so not wanting to wedge Romin in one of these openings we opted to cut out of the park across to the town of Hermosa and then we cut back in towards Keystone (tunnel free road) on Highway 40 – around 16 miles. All the distances in the Park area weren’t great but due to the windy nature of the road and presence of livestock, speed is kept to 35 or lower so it takes time, but allows you time to take in all that the area has to offer. Having climbed up to almost 4400 feet you come to the very touristy town of Keystone which essentially sits to the east of Mount Rushmore and is where all the motels, souvenirs and eateries are for ‘Rushmore’. From Keystone you climb up the hill some more till you come to Rushmore – you do get a nice glimpse of the Mount Rushmore faces from the main road before you come to a large destination parking lot with big American flags and the like. You don’t pay to ‘view’ Mount Rushmore but that do charge you to park – its all very controlled and there is a large multi-level car park – a little surreal for my liking.
Parked we head in – along with a load of other people to get a proper view of Mount Rushmore – easy to see why it’s such a national icon. I guess it’s that time of year – the summer peak is over so a lot of ‘attractions’ are having work done on them – Mount Rushmore was no different – the main amphitheatre area was closed, and turns out it’s been closed now for a couple of years whilst repairs / updates are being completed. From the looks of it the amphitheatre gets you a good couple of hundred metres closer to the base of the mountain. Instead there are a load of temporary construction fence panels obscuring some of your view which was a pity. So, Carol and I opted for the base walk and it was well worth-while – climb and all (I think there were around 300 steps to climb, but it wasn’t constant). The hike was the absolute best way to take in this sight – you got the best uninterrupted views of the faces and could really get a sense for how they were made. We’d had a look at some of the history on this area and were quite surprised to find that Mount Rushmore was only ‘completed’ as such in 1941 – it could be argued that it wasn’t completed but the principal sculptor / designer behind this all – Gutzon Borglum had died and with the US entering WW2 the government put a halt to anymore funds for the monument and called it ‘complete’ in 1941 and open to the public.
The story behind the monument was really interesting – a South Dakota state historian had this notion back in 1923 that if the state had a big carving up on the mountain face that it would bring tourism business to the state so he approached Borglum and they then set about getting federal and state legislation passed to get the funds needed for the project. That process took a couple of years, and governments and it wasn’t until President Coolidge in 1927 who fell in love with the area whilst holidaying one summer, that the funds were passed. Construction began in 1929 but it was a very on an off process with funds drying up and having to wait for new funds to be released. In total a team of around 400 worked on and off on the sculptures. The plan had been to extend the sculptures to include torsos but obviously the funds weren’t there to do so. Interesting fact Jefferson’s face was actually carved to the left / west side of Washington’s but after 18 months of work, a flaw was noticed in the granite and they had to reposition Jefferson to the right / east of Washington – who would have known. Borglum’s son started working with him on the sculptures in 1933 and was credited with do the completion work after his father passed in March of 1941 – the sculptures were declared complete on 31 October of 1941. The cost for this – just under $990,000 so not too bad I guess – a redevelopment was completed in the 1990’s and this cost $56 Million. It wasn’t until 2005 for that the faces were ‘washed’ for the first time. The noses are around 20 feet long, eyes 11 feet across, and mouths 18 feet wide. I was impressed – you have to have a good look at the area to appreciate the process needed to create what they have – blasting, drilling and chiselling away the granite.
Suitably impressed we moved on from Rushmore and headed on round to Hill City and then on up into the Sheridan Park area where we found our parking spot for the evening. That night we were woken by a heavy thunder and lightening storm and then the rain came – needless to say we woke on Monday morning to some dampness around us but we got back onto the main road and it wasn’t long before we were heading into Rapid City South Dakota – the rain getting heavier the closer we got. I’d located that there was a classic car museum in Rapid City – opening at 9am so we headed off thinking we would get there early. After going past the place that the GPS said was the museum address, with the gates all locked up we found we had to park up on a side road to wait for 9am when it was scheduled to open. Excited I rocked up just after 9am only for the guy to tell me they shut the museum up for the winter the previous week – despite my pleads that I had come a long way to have a look, he wasn’t interested in taking any money from me to turn the lights on – very disappointing (website said they would be open to end of October). My consolation was having a look around the used classic cars they had for sale in the yard – nice collection of machines wasting away from the 1950’s. My back up was to head on over to the Ellsworth Airforce Museum – surely it wouldn’t be closed – and no it wasn’t.
The Ellsworth base (named after a brigadier who died in a military aircraft crash in the early 1950’s) was a key base for the US during the heights of the Cold War with the USSR. Ellsworth was South Dakota’s central base for the Minuteman Nuclear warheads that was located ‘strategically’ across South Dakota (there were 15 silos in South Dakota) in the 1950’s – to early 90’s. These silos were manned 24/7 – the ‘Missileers’ performed 24-hour shifts – I would have been a bit worried about how alert they would have been after anything more than an 8-hour shift. The missiles that contained a 1.2 megaton warhead – equivalent to 1 million tons of dynamite. The Minuteman sites in South Dakota were deactivated in the early 1990’s (apparently 450 active sites still exist across North Dakota, Montana and Wyoming – the Upper Great Plains) and one of the sites was turned into a museum attraction in 1991 – not that I was keen to go and have a look at it. But the museum proper at Ellsworth whilst small (roughly 30 aircraft on static display inside and out) was very good. Inside there was a load of info to study up on and outside taking pride of place was a B-1B Lancer supersonic bomber. Then to cap things off even more there was a couple of active B-1B’s doing touch and go landings at the neighbouring airbase – I was lucky to be able to see one of these planes up close and actually operating.
The best part of 3 hours consumed we headed on out of Rapid City on Interstate 90 – time to get some miles behind us. As you might image the run across South Dakota was, well pretty flat. Our vista as we travelled along was paddock after paddock of corn / maize, sun flowers and soya bean (as we would later be told) – produce / cropping in this area was very strong. Around 130 miles across on the Interstate I stopped at the little town of Murdo – home of the Pioneer Auto Show and Antique Town. We had overlooked the fact that we had jumped another time zone coming across the plains and so instead of it being 3pm it was now 4pm – museum viewing time would be tight, but I pushed on. The facility here consists of around 36 rooms / sheds. The collection here consists of cars obviously, but also a load of old farm machinery, and a big collection of era relevant pieces from the early 1900’s. Not a bad collection – maybe a little hemmed in I felt – they almost had too many cars in some sheds and the lighting wasn’t that conducive to seeing them all that well. But I appreciated Carol sending me round to have a look. The American Pickers TV program had been to the museum a couple of times and had some buy ups so that was pretty cool. The museum is being run by the 3rd generation of family.
With daylight fading we kept pushing on – we travelled another 70 miles or so to the area of Chamberlain. The Missouri River stretches north to south – running out of Canada and down on through the US – a big waterway and where we crossed it on the Interstate there were houses / homes along the water’s edge, many with boat houses attached. On the east side of the river there is a Visitor Centre and setting proudly overlooking the river is the large Dignity Statue – statue of a large Indian woman (known as the ‘lady of the plains’) with her quilt stretched out across her back – the quilt consisted of diamond panels that moved with the light / wind. By the time we reached her it was almost dark so she was lit up – impressive sight. We found a camping spot down near the river and parked up for the day. On Tuesday morning we pushed on across the Interstate a further 50 miles before cutting north on Highway 281 – north towards North Dakota. Our last stint in South Dakota involved 160 miles of running north – our landscape not altering much between flat pastural land of corn, sunflowers and soya bean. Another state down it was time to go experience another – albeit briefly.