#WOMBATSDOAMERICA Day 13
Blogging our recent US trip day by day, four weeks after the event.
Sunday 17th August – Take me back to the Black Hills
We made an early start at 7:30 for the long drive west to the Black Hills. We stopped for breakfast and gas at a filling station where, Barry told us, the only white prairie dogs “in the world” could be seen. We saw them. They are what we called marmots when brown ones entertained us many years ago in the rhino enclosure at Chester Zoo. Crops in huge fields hugged the road for a while. Wheat mostly, or milo (a crop used for animal food), although we also saw large fields of happy sunflowers. The same bright flower stood tall along the margins of the Interstate occasionally. Scattered beehives squatted by the road, and stone fences lined the flat land. I enjoyed passing a sign to a town called Vivian, which reminded me of our beloved friend. Another sign exhorted us to “WEAR FUR” to keep wildlife populations in balance.
We passed a ghost town, Okaton, that was up for sale at $20,000. I think Barry was quite tempted. Near Kennebec Janine pointed out a small abandoned house up on a hill that was slowly falling apart. Now I may have confused the details here, but I think Janine’s cousin Christine had been born there. Janine will put me right if I’ve got this wrong. The cousin was a much longed for child; when she was born her parents went to the expense of putting in a proper wooden floor on top of the dirt. They’d also bought her a piano, which must have looked incongruous in such a tiny shack of a place. There’s a story there, if only I had the time to write it. We paused again briefly at another rest stop where a pleasant woman gave Mary and I each a South Dakota pin badge as a reward for being English.
Barry took a loop through the Badlands rather than heading directly into the Black Hills. The sun blazed down as the terrain grew craggy and all dusty-pale colours. Sheer peaks of multi-layered sandstone thrust up at the bluest of skies. We left the car and went to explore, ignoring a sign that said ‘Beware Rattlesnakes!’ We walked through the scrubby brush to a viewpoint nearby, where the vista before us caused a sharp intake of breath.
Millions of years of wind and water erosion have chiselled spires, deep canyons and jagged buttes from the earth. This has revealed millions of years of sediment that paint a remarkably coloured landscape. Sunflowers spattered the scrub-grassed ground. I loved the way the different coloured strata ran right across the various peaks and buttes. It was hard to imagine the thoughts of early settlers in horse drawn wagons when they first met this impossible, unforgiving landscaep. We saw a tiny frog that was quite happy with it.
Leaving the Badlands, we were soon among pine-swathed hills. In Rapid City we saw a few of the presidential statues that sit on street corners. We passed Lake Pencola, which caused a flood in Rapid City in the Seventies when a dam gave way. We were now approaching the Mount called Rushmore. From brief glimpses on Streetview, I had gained the impression that it was quite small, but I am pleased to report that in reality it is magnificently huge.
A parade of state flags fluttered in the sunshine, leading up to the viewing platform, where my mind just went Whoa! A scramble of rocks, left there in a wide scree after being blown from the mountain with dynamite in the Twenties and Thirties, led the eye up to the titanic faces. Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln gaze out across the land from enormous stone eyes, beautifully carved with realistic pupils.
We watched a short movie about the construction. Most of the carving was done with dynamite to get the rough shape, which was then fine-tuned with jackhammers and ‘bumpers’ to smooth the final surface. Jefferson was originally intended to be to the left of Washington, but during construction they found there was not enough rock there to support the head, so they blasted away the half-formed face and carved him out the other side. Then they discovered a crack that would have split his nose, so that he had to be moved back and rotated eighteen degrees. Remarkable construction skills in a time before computers. We took a little walk beneath the heads for a different viewing angle, before going for ice cream and a smile at a cheeky chipmunk that scampered around the tables and chairs.
I bought a book written and signed by Nick Clifford, 93, who was a driller on the construction of the monument back in the Thirties. Had a good chat with him. We talked about a brusque librarian who had asked for a 50% discount on his book, how to spell ‘Wombat’, my hat, how the workers had reached the top of the mountain to do their work, Mary’s hair, and how handsome he had been back in the day. Nice old feller. He gave me a baseball card from when he was on the team that the workers formed.
So, back in the car to Deadwood. The highlight here was Mount Moriah Cemetery, “Boot Hill”, which perched like a dark crow on a high prominence that soared above the town. We paid a dollar to pass through the gate and quickly found the last resting place of Wild Bill Hickock, with Calamity Jane close by. Barry, a font of information as ever, told us that Wild Bill did not much like Jane. When she died, his ‘pals’ had her buried next to him as a kind of grim joke.
My lasting love of cemeteries was greatly satisfied by grassy slopes, and sweeping arcs of gravestones of all shapes and sizes, each marking the end of a person that once breathed, ran, loved, sneezed and, perhaps, cried. Many stones supported small cairns of rocks and pebbles, especially on the numerous Jewish graves on Mount Zion. In the Children’s section were buried over 350 infants who died from scarlet fever and diphtheria in 1878-1880. Elsewhere, a mass grave held the remains of people who died in a boarding house fire in 1883. Unlike in Erie, there were no US flags, save the large one that flew from a flagpole on Brown Rocks overlook, which gave a panoramic view of Deadwood Gulch and the town.
Barry pointed out a one-time gold mine atop a hill opposite that had now become a research institute, researching into… I don’t know. Something that requires depth, obviously. He also revealed that he actually owned a gold claim out there, where he had found a small amount over the years.
Deadwood, the town, was annoyingly touristy, and we simply drove right through and headed back down the I90. We drove through Sturgiss, where bikers gather in their hundreds at the beginning of every August. Every business in the town seemed geared towards this event. It was deserted when we passed through.
In Rapid City we stopped to eat at a place called Golden Corral, which was a vast buffet. You pay around ten dollars and just keep filling your plate with whatever food you fancy – roast meats, Chinese food, pizza, curries, salads. I can’t remember what I ate, but Mary noted some down – shrimp, ham, pot roast, sweet & sour pork, bread, meat loaf, hush puppies, soggy rice, and tough teriyaki beef. Plus lots of desserts. I do remember I did visit the chocolate fountain.
We stopped at Wall Drug (so called because of being in the town of Wall, which did not occur to me for ages), a fascinating warren of shops and tacky touristy things. There was much to gawp at, but for me the old photographs covering the walls near the T Rex (don’t ask) were the most fascinating.
“Anybody wanna donut?” – Barry, several times.
“I still get excited when I see a big horn ‘cos we don’t see them that often.” – Janine.
“My ring did not come off my butt.” – Janine.
Posted on September 14, 2014, in #WOMBATSDOAMERICA, America, Badlands, Black Hills, Calamity Jane, Cemetery, Deadwood, Graves, Holiday, South Dakota, USA, Wall Drug, Wild Bill. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.