It was time to head north through Nebraska to South Dakota to view a few national parks and historical landmarks located within the state. In South Dakota, I would learn a little North American history and stop off at a few towns along the way. It would be a beautiful, educational and seemingly endless road trip across the Great Plains of North America.
My first destination was the Badlands of South Dakota which is actually a national park and not the location of some dystopian nightmare movie. This involved driving for six hours or through the state of Nebraska, unfortunately, I didn’t have time to visit any locations to get an appreciation of the states so my take away was that it’s flat. I mostly passed farmland along highway 87 with little traffic or sites by the road, in comparison with my drive from New Mexico to Colorado I can honestly say I was decidedly bored, only my pumping stereo keeping me company.
The Badlands naming came from the Lakota/Sioux Indian nation that inhabited the area, “mako sica” translation “land bad. The extreme temperature’s in the area historically made region difficult to travel through but the naming reference is actually geological to describe the spirally sedimentary rock, gullies and ridges that are in the area. The unique nature of the park means that fossil remains of ancient horses, rhino’s and other animals can be found. The drive to and around the park gave me a sense of total isolation which I had not experienced in the USA previously, no matter where you are in America usually there is a town or traffic nearby but the Badlands area felt disconnected, more a sensation you get driving across Australia than my trip so far. The rocks were a mixture of red and white, there was little vegetation and I enjoyed my isolated experience.
I left the park and headed to the town of Wall, Wall is famous for two things, first its self titled as the “World’s Biggest Drugstore”, second is the road signs all over the United States directing people to visit. These road signs are not just located within the USA either but as far as London and Paris. When the town was built in 1907 it included this small chemist, but after a significant advertising campaign over many years, Wall has expanded into a fun park (and drug store) which employs most of the town’s population approximately 850. The drug store includes history on Wall’s development, western fashion theme shopping, carnival arcade games but most importantly a restaurant where I had a tasty burger and apple pie, I had not eaten all day. Wall was packed with tourists and provides a hub for those roaming long distance across the Great Plains. I purchased a cowboy hat, a checkered shirt and then back headed out.
My next stop was a short distance away, Rapid City, with a population of 75,000 it’s the second largest city in South Dakota and is ideally located to look at many of the attractions in the Black Hills area. After check in I asked the hotel reception how far the hotel was located from the downtown area to which he indicated a mile. I then asked time it would take to walk and he suggested I drive to which I said “I’ll be drinking” and he looked at me non-plussed and said, “So what”. I do find it odd how many Americans I’d met had this casual regard for drinking and driving, nevertheless, I decided to walk to the downtown area.
I had a surprisingly excellent night, downtown Rapid City is historical with a lot of refurbished 19th-century buildings and in these buildings, I met a lot of college students. My Aussie accent lead to me going on a pub crawl through the downtown area, a lot of shots, discussions on Australian movie stars and the origins of the band AC/DC (which is an Australian band, not American) and a lot of laughs. This eventuated in being invited to a college party at a house somewhere in the area and while this was very tempting, after my long-distance drive and limited timeframe I said thank you and goodnight. I walked back to my hotel, avoided being run over by a train heading into town (luckily I didn’t drive), and fell into a deep sleep.
The Black Hills is an isolated mountainous area and named by the Lakota Sioux as many of the mountains and rocks are black, the area is also covered in forest and a distinct contrast to the Badlands. My first stop was Custer State Park, a lush green location which is most famous for the approximate 1500 bison that live there. The park also includes a wide variety of other animals but I did not see these, only the bison (or buffalo) which included one that came up to the edge of the car. At 6 feet and weighing up to 900 kg they are quite an intimidating looking animal all covered in long length fur. The bison were almost hunted into extinction in the late 19th century by Plains Indians because of the demand and development of the expanding American West at thte time their furs were popular in the wild frontier.
My next stop and one I was not aware of prior to arriving in Rapid City is the Crazy Horse Monument. Crazy Horse was a Lakota / Sioux chief who led the combined Indian nations of Cheyenne, Lakota and Arapaho against General George Custer at the Battle of Little Bighorn, Custer’s defeat earned Crazy Horse great reverence and respect. The monument is on privately owned land and owned by the Crazy Horse non for profit organisation, and is currently being carved out of Thunderhead, work has been ongoing since 1948. Once complete the dimensions will be 195m long and 172m high making it the world’s second largest sculpture. The centre at the park entrance details the history of the North American Indian and includes a museum as well as cafe and merchandise. I did not have time to do the bus tour but from the observation point I took, I was easily impressed at the scale and size.
My third and final stop before continuing my road trip is the most famous and popular reason that people visit the area, Mount Rushmore. Four famous presidents, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln, are carved into the mountain and it was built as a tourist attraction. These presidents were selected for their historical significance in contributing to the founding, expansion and “unification” of the United States, construction was by 400 workers from 1927 to 1941.
The heads themselves are 18m in size which puts into perspective the endeavour and effort going into the Crazy Horse monument down the road. I headed up the Presidents Trail as rapidly as possible as there was a lot of cloud cover at the time and the president’s heads were clearly visible. It was a short run to the end of the trail and I looked at this epic and very detailed piece of work. I then headed back to the visitor centre, read up on some of the histories. If not rushing through Mount Rushmore like I was there are guided tours available and audio aids for those that want to take their time, the centre is also very detailed on the history of the construction.
Wow, South Dakota what an amazing state, I suppose people can fly and rent a car to check it out but like me, most of the tourist’s Id spoken to had roamed a great distance to get to this beautiful and historically significant state, it’s not just the destination but the journey. There was a lot of American history which I had only heard about in Western-themed Hollywood movies and it was fantastic to relate this area to those movies. More seriously I enjoyed learning a better understanding of the North American Indian and the expansion of the American West. The shame is I had only organised one night in Rapid City so my self-guided tour was rushed due to lack of planning and time constraints. Anyway, next would be a little more history in the city of Deadwood and then it would be onto Wyoming through Montana and my cabin in Yellowstone National Park, hope you enjoyed the read…