by Carmen Doyle
I recently went to South Dakota for a family reunion. Rapid City, SD is about an 18 hr drive from Ft. Wayne. I discovered once again that the “hearty pioneer spirit” that my ancestors allegedly had skipped me. A two-day trip in a car going at least 60mph is hard enough, a week long trip by a covered wagon going 60 miles per DAY would be horrible. I like rest stops that feature vending machines or better yet, an outlet mall! Somehow the accounts from the Little House books I devoured as a kid have failed to convince me that traveling across country by wagon would be fun. At least Mom and I took the pretty route- avoiding the Nebraska Sandhills.
We made the trip in two parts- Wednesday we drove to western Iowa, and stayed the night with Mom’s best friend. Wednesday highlights featured our favorite I-80 restaurant, which sold, among other things, Auto Bingo. However, none of the Bingo cards featured a spot for “Adult” stores- and I saw many ads for those. We also stopped briefly to shop at an outlet mall. (Also not on Bingo cards.) A really neat thing I found was a Visitor Guide to Pottawatomie County- which is where we were headed. Another reason I’m glad I’m not a pioneer? My phone was acting up and the wireless wasn’t working, and I was trying not to panic- what if there was a big storm and we got off course? My wireless not working meant that using Google Maps would be useless. And nobody has PAPER maps anymore! Or what if we had to change a flat tire and couldn’t get online to figure out the proper way to do so? And how could I check email and Facebook without access to internet? Or what if…? Fortunately, nothing happened, and only the last mile going into Neola was bad rain, and we didn’t get behind any big trucks.
Thursday, Mom and I got up early(-ish) and went to the cemetery to visit the graves of my grandparents and uncle. My wireless being difficult, I couldn’t send Dad a photo to reassure him that the graves were being properly maintained. Later, we met up with my Aunt Linda and cousin Layla to continue the drive to SD. We didn’t stop again until Sioux Falls, and I realized that using a Garmin to find a local restaurant can be a pain.
SD is a pretty state, very different from IA and IN. There are few farms, and most of what we saw from the car window was cattle and rolling green hills.
Almost as soon as we entered SD, we began to see signs advertising “Wall Drug”, which seemed to feature brownies, nickel root beer, and all sorts of wonderment. (There are more Wall Drug signs in SD than there are “Adult” billboards along I-80.) We got suckered into stopping there, only to find it was a big tourist trap- two blocks of stores designed to look like log cabins, connected to each other. While I did find a bookstore in the complex, we didn’t find any brownies or nickel root beer. If you’re crossing SD, ignore Wall Drug. Driving all over town for two blocks of tacky tourist shops disguised as log cabins isn’t worth it.
We finally arrived at my Aunt Marilyn’s house that evening- again finding that GPS only works when you can read the street signs- and drove up to the cabin we had rented for everyone to stay at. Only about half the family could make it- eight people. (Since the major purpose of the reunion was for the Schmidt kids- Mom and her three siblings-to get together, the reunion was a success.) The cabin was huge, three stories high, with a wraparound porch, fireplace, a mud room off the kitchen and a huge living/dining room with a smaller side room for the TV.
The upstairs level, accessible via a metal spiral staircase, featured a large open room filled with bookcases, which were full of books related to the area as well as old board games. There was a room connected to that, which featured four beds, bunk beds, and a trundle bed. The setup was great- every bed (except the bunk beds) sat in a niche and had a small lamp sitting above it- perfect for reading. And since there was a bathroom on every level, it meant that everybody could brush their teeth or shower without waiting for the rest of the family to get out. The walls of the cabin were decorated with elk heads, bear heads and skins, and a bison head. Disconcerting at first, but as Marilyn pointed out, when people come to visit Rapid, they want the lodge experience- animals on the walls. That didn’t stop the rest of us from planning on how we would redecorate if we lived there. (It was probably the result of the Architectural Digest and HGTV magazines that someone had brought for reading material.)
The cabin was designed for families- there was a tree house in the yard, which featured electric lights. Built in a pine tree, it creaked whenever the wind blew- and the wind seemed to always blow. The beds were unfortunately too small for adults, so I had a good excuse not to sleep outside.
The first full day (Friday) we were in SD, we went to Mt. Rushmore. I’ve been before, but I still found it awe-inspiring. It’s HUGE. Pictures don’t do it justice- it’s not until you’re there that you can appreciate how awesome that a sculpture was literally carved into a mountain. Admission is free; however, you pay for parking. A parking pass is good all year for the license plate on the car. There is a viewing platform when you first enter through the Avenue of Flags. The Avenue of Flags features (of course) the flag of every state (displayed alphabetically) along with the date of their admission into the Union. You can stay in the viewing area for the classic view, as well as visit the Borglum Museum, or you can take the Presidential Trail. The Presidential Trail gets closer to the carvings, and includes a look at one of the old compressors used to power the machinery that Borglum and his workers used to carve the mountain. We got to see the Sculptor’s Studio, where a ranger gave us a talk about how the mountain was carved (mostly dynamite) and we saw a scale model used in carving the mountain. The model was 1/12 the size of the carving, but Abe’s head was taller than the ranger giving the talk.
Much to Layla’s disappointment, there is no secret vault hidden behind Mt. Rushmore (as seen in National Treasure 2). There were originally plans for a Hall of Records, intended to hold copies of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence, but Borglum never got financing to complete it. (Years later, a capsule with copies of important documents was placed there. It’s not accessible to the public.) I loved the Presidential Trail- it was so cool to see the faces at different angles. I had forgotten my camera, so I used my cell phone to take photos. I wanted a photo of everyone with the mountain in the background. When I called for the Schmidts to pose, another tourist asked how we spelled our name- it turned out he was a Schmidt as well, but from Saskatchewan instead of Nebraska. He volunteered to take a family photo so that I could be in the picture as well.
At Mount Rushmore, I bought a “Passport to your National Parks”- so my new goal is to visit every park on the list. (One down, 400 to go)
Saturday, we started our day with a small hike to Stratobowl, the site of the first successful stratospheric balloon launch. Stratobowl is a natural depression in the valley, so we went to the overlook. The view is magnificent. If you’re there in the evening, I’m told you can really see the different colors of the rocks. We also saw a few large birds (but no eagles) flying over the trees- Marilyn said they like the updraft there.
We then went to Bear Country, a drive-thru wildlife park. At first, it seemed kind of a juvenile thing- a drive-through zoo? It turned out to be really enjoyable. It’s almost like a reverse zoo- YOU’RE the one in a cage (your car) and the animals just wander around. We saw big horn sheep; a mountain lion; bison… the coolest part was the bears. They are huge, and they look so cute and cozy. (We were warned to keep our doors and windows shut while driving through the bears.) A few bears even meandered within a few feet of the car windows. (If the bear had turned his head, he could have hit the car.) Aunt Barb and I kept telling Uncle Steve to slow down/stop the car so we could get better pictures. The only problem with taking pictures from a car interior is that sometimes my photos included more of the car than the animals. We saw a bear splashing in a pond, and several bears lounging around on trees. The bears even seemed to “patrol” the exit- several bears just walked up and down by the exit gate. A sign said to move the car slowly and the bears would move aside. They did move aside for our car, but the car behind us had their bumper bit by one of the bears. A few cars behind us got a great photo-op of two bears wrestling each other. The bears also liked to chew on old elk horns – the elk grow new ones every year. It was early enough in the year that the elk and deer still had “velvet” on their horns, and the bison were shedding fur. (Bison are not good looking, especially when they’re covered in shaggy fur blotches.) There were signs near our cabin that warned to watch for Big Horn Sheep, but the only ones we saw were at Bear Country. While my house in IN has deer, Bear Country had reindeer- which looked more like the ones pictured pulling Santa’s sleigh, and much bigger than the reindeer the Botanical Conservatory has during Holiday Fest.
Sunday was the big day- we had all decided to go to Crazy Horse for Volksmarch, a 10k walk/run-- 6.2 miles didn’t sound like a bad walk until I started and realized that I’d be climbing up a mountain. And not on a well-maintained path. Nope, the Crazy Horse Volksmarch path is mostly forest paths, visible only because of the thousands of feet that have previously traveled the path. Volksmarch is the only time that visitors are allowed up the mountain, as the sculpture, which will be the largest in the world when completed, is still under construction. To get an idea how big Crazy Horse is, Mt. Rushmore would easily fit on his outstretched arm. A problem with a long difficult hike is the difficulty of everyone in our family staying together. As we started, Mom held my hand and gave me the same speech she has her preschoolers say before a field trip: “You’re my buddy, I’ll watch out for you.” Within 20 minutes, she was far ahead of me. The majority of the time, all I saw of her was a pink blur somewhere ahead of me. Our family didn’t manage to stay together while walking- as Layla said, “We’re not all super-aerobic robots” after a few “hurry-up” motions were directed our way.
One of the most interesting parts of the Volksmarch was the wide variety of people participating. There seemed to be a lot of older people participating, as well as families with young kids. Nothing to make you feel like you need to get in shape like being surpassed by an elderly couple discussing recipes or a dad with an exhausted seven year old in his arms and a toddler on his back . One of the most dispiriting parts of the Volksmarch was discovering that you’ve reached the final check point- but aren’t at the top of the mountain yet. And that the top involves a steep climb uphill. I was weary from the 6.2 miles I’d just walked, but it would have been ridiculous to stop so close to the top. When I finally reached the top, the view was worth it. We stood on his arm, directly below his chin. The head of Crazy Horse is complete, so it was cool to see how big he is. (It looked like his pupil was as tall as me.) We got to see how far his arm will extend when his wrist and hand are finished.
Going down the mountain was much easier- we got to use the road. While I was in the visitor center, I met a woman from Fort Wayne, who turned out to be the head of the Fort Wayne Volksmarch association. She informed me of a few upcoming Volksmarches here and said they’d be less rigorous than Crazy Horse. So, anyone up for a 10k?