Wise Guys

It’s been one year since our visit to Mt. Rushmore, and what could be more American than re-posting this episode on Independence Day…

There’s no better way to celebrate the 4th of July, than a trip to Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Memorial. Sure, the crowds were large; that was to be expected. But once the cars were garaged, the pedestrian traffic was easy to negotiate. And with everyone looking up at the mountain, the Presidents’ faces and intentions were never obstructed.

GW

Jefferson

Roosevelt

Lincoln

It was also a time to celebrate family. There were plenty of kids riding in strollers, hanging from moms in carriers, or balancing on dads’ shoulders. Generations of families–many of them immigrants–had gathered to pay homage to the principles of freedom that make our country a beacon for the oppressed and downtrodden.

Seniors were being escorted through the Avenue of Flags by their grandchildren. Extended families organized group pictures at the Grand View Terrace, unified by their love of democracy and their reunion T-shirts.

All expressed awe at Gutzon Borglum’s grand vision and remarkable achievement–the transformation of a mountain into a national symbol visited by approximately 3 million people every year.

long shot

The 14-year process of carving the rock began with dimensionalizing the Presidents’ portraits through Plaster of Paris masks, on view at the sculptor’s studio-turned-museum.

Sculptor's Studio

Additional exhibits detail the construction of the memorial, and the tools used by workers, like the original Rand & Waring compressor, which powered the jackhammers for all the finishing work.

compressor

A little known fact is that Mt. Rushmore was once intended to be a tribute to the “Five Faces of Freedom,” but funding ran short when the Congressional appropriation approached $1 million during the Great Depression. Hence, the unfinished carving of the Great Ape to the right of Lincoln serves as a reminder that we are never far from our true ancestors.¹

Planet of the Apes

No less ambitious, and equally as impressive, the Crazy Horse Memorial is a work-in-progress located 16 miles away in the heart of the Black Hills–considered sacred land by the Lakota people.

Crazy Horse LS

Conceived by Korczak Ziolkowski in early 1940s,

crazy horse model (2)

the memorial, when completed will stand 563 ft. by 641 ft. across, and is expected to be the largest sculpture in the world. Already, the completed head of Crazy Horse measures 60 feet tall…

Crazy Horse CU

…twice the size of any of the presidents at Mt. Rushmore. While the first blast was conducted on the mountain in 1947, the current prospects for the memorial are to complete the outstretched arm during the next twelve years. There is no completion date available for the finished carving, which has been financed entirely by private funding since its inception.

Mt. Rushmore was created by a Danish American. Crazy Horse was created by a Polish American. And visitors to both destinations manifest the melting pot that has brought us all together as Americans. It’s our diversity that makes us strong, our ambition and determination that makes us great, and our compassion and sacrifice that make us whole.

These are the values reflected from the faces we’ve immortalized in stone. Yet, we would honor them more by living according to these principles.

Happy Birthday, America!

fireworks1

¹ Just kidding, but the photograph is real and has not been retouched.

Satisfaction

Bridal Veil Falls in Spearfish Canyon, SD was special not just because the cold mountain water rushing down the mountainside provided a welcome relief from the summer heatwave, or because of the occasional bursts of rainbows sparked by the resultant spray, but from the satisfaction of being able to share it with my niece and her significant other who were able to synchronize their vacation to meet us, and experience the falls together. This photo is dedicated to them.

Bridal Veil Falls Spearfish Canyon

Cavfefe

What better way to escape the summer heatwave than to explore a cave. But Leah and I were literally at a subterranean crossroad of epic proportions. South Dakota’s Black Hills boasts two of the most highly respected holes in the ground anywhere in the world, and we only had time to explore one of them. Would it be Jewel Cave National Monument or Wind Cave National Park? Which cave deserved our business?

The driving distance didn’t matter since only 30 miles separated both locations. But there were other factors to consider when evaluating which cave is the better cave. When it comes to status, Wind Cave wins hands down, since it’s a National Park, and everyone knows that a National Park can’t be Trumped. On the other hand, Jewel Cave is only a National Monument, and monuments can be Zinked at any time.

We had to consider how Jewel Cave’s grand viewing rooms are endowed with a stunning collection of traditional stalactites and stalagmites, while Wind Cave holds 95% of the world’s rare boxwork formations.

As for whether size matters, Jewel Cave ranks third worldwide–four places ahead of Wind Cave at number seven in the world. However, Wind Cave has the most complicated and concentrated matrix of any cave system in the world, with new veins still being tapped.

And then there’s temperature. Jewel’s thermostat is set at 47°F, whereas Wind turns up the dial to 53°F, registering “six degrees of separation”.

And both caves offer an extremely popular assortment of tours that always sell out early on a first come first serve basis.  Such a dilemma!

What’s an amateur spelunker to do?

Social media was consulted in deciding the matter, but there was no clear winner. While Jewel seemed to win the popular vote, Wind was preferred by the experts for its unique characteristics and wall structure. Yet, neither side could come together to form a coalition of consensus or compromise. And whose to say if there was voter tampering, or how many were fake views?

If travel maven and cave cognoscenti couldn’t figure it out, then how were Leah and I going to manage.  We gave consideration to caves previously visited since starting out on our trip: Mammoth Cave in KY, Kickapoo Cave in TX, and Carlsbad Cavern in NM. But in the end, we settled it by tossing a buffalo head nickel. We figured, either way, we couldn’t go wrong, as long as we got there early!

And the winner was tails…

tails

no passing zone

We were on our way to Wind Cave, and time was of the essence, but try explaining that to the road hogs (bison) blocking the road.

As expected, the Visitor Center parking lot was filled to capacity. I dropped Leah at the entrance crosswalk where she made a beeline for the ticket counter–beating out a Medicare couple, an escort pushing a wheelchair, and a busload of boy scouts.

And it paid off. We scooped up the 11:20 am Natural Entrance Tour (shown in red),

map

which officially started at a marked clearing, featuring a hole in the ground the size of a ranger hat. Ranger Lisa demonstrated the barometric possibilities with a yellow ribbon: if pressure rose inside the cave, the ribbon would blow outward from the hole; but if cave pressure was low, the ribbon would be sucked inward–making this a cave that “breathes”.

Ranger Lisa punched her secret code into the keypad, and the steel door buzzed open, like a scene from “Get Smart”. We followed a dimly lit channel of steep stairs that snaked through a claustrophobic passage of popcorn-coated walls,

popcorn.jpg

until we reached the Post Office. I can only surmise that its name comes from the butterfly of boxes stretched across the ceiling…

Room 2 ceiling

with the names of past generations of visitors posted inside the boxes

artifact

ceiling graffiti

wall

We followed Ranger Lisa down another set of meandering stairs along a poured concrete walkway that took Civilian Conservation Corpsmen eight years to complete, hauling inner tubes filled with sixty pounds of wet cement around their necks. We reassembled as a group at Devil’s Lookout to examine a ceiling dominated by intricate boxwork and delicate needle-like growths of calcite called frostwork.

looking up

That’s when Lisa cut power to the lights and the cave went dark. We were instructed in advance to turn off all phones and shutter all cameras. Children with glow shoes were warned to stand still or risk an extra minute of darkness away from mom or dad.

The darkness brought giggles and Halloween howls from some of the kids, but for many it was a minute to imagine what it was like to be led by Alvin McDonald on a candlelight tour during the 1890’s, when it only cost a $1.00 to crawl through the dirt.

The tour concluded in the assembly room with a brief discussion about the geologic timeline–when the cave was born between 40 to 50 million years ago as determined by sedimentary layers of rock pressurized in the cave walls.

collapse

Finally, the fastest elevator in all of South Dakota whisked us to the surface, and the tour was history.

elevator

Dear Trip Adviser, I believe that going to Wind Cave National Park was a good call, ’cause there was lots of really neat stuff on the walls and ceiling, and especially ’cause I got to pinch Leah’s ass when the lights went out.

Battle Lands

It was 103 degrees outside and we were melting. “Where are the trees? There aren’t any trees here,” moaned Leah. There were no shadows to hide from the relentless sun. Even the clouds had forsaken us. Fortunately, they had drifted into the distance, providing the coveted contrast that landscape photography almost always requires.

Cedar Pass peaks

With the mercury steadily rising over the Black Hills of South Dakota the past few days, and the forecast not cutting us any slack from the heat, we bit the bullet we dodged in Belle Fourche, and decided to leave early the next day for Badlands National Park.

Except it was almost noon by the time we got underway. We really did try to get leave on time, but life got in the way, and in a small way it was a small blessing. We mapped a route to our destination with a way-point to Walmart, since we needed an assortment of groceries and dry goods, and I needed a new camera chip, having filled the last chip with nearly 4000 shots–half of them from StreamingThruAmerica locations.

“Make sure when you format this chip, that it’s compatible with your camera,” the associate advised. “Otherwise, you have three days to return it.”

“When are you planning on doing that?” Leah asked.

“As soon as we get back to the truck,” I answered, “I’ll insert it into the memory card slot, and I’ll know right away if it’s working.”

That’s when I discovered that I left the camera battery charging in the Airstream.

So we rode back to Rapid City to retrieve the battery and stow the groceries. “But if I hadn’t bought the chip in the first place,” I rationalized, “then we would have driven all the way to Badlands, and realized that the camera was useless. No battery, no camera; no camera, no photos; no photos, no blog.”

“Right! Meanwhile, it’s cooking outside! And we’re going to get there, and not be able to do anything. Why don’t you put that in your blog?” Leah announced with a healthy dose of sarcasm. The heat had definitely taken a toll on human relations. From that moment, neither one of us felt like making the trip, but we also couldn’t imagine missing a National Park, so we d(r)ove into the fire, hoping to adapt to our inhospitable surroundings, much like Badland’s earliest pioneers.

We drove across a 45-mile stretch of I-90 East, counting 60 Wall Drug billboards and road signs along the way.

“We should go there,” Leah informed.

“It looks like another South of the Border,” I hedged.

“But it looks like fun,” she tempted.

“We’ll see,” I relented.

We arrived at Badlands National Park during the hottest part of the day. Even the bugs were in hiding. Crossing into the park at the Pinnacle Entrance, we took an early side-road to Sage Creek Basin Overlook in the hopes of spotting wildlife along the prairie. But the animals had better ideas other than baking in the blistering sun.

Instead, we admired the scarred lunar landscape of Pinnacles Overlook,

Hay Butte Overlook

and claws of vulcan mounds crawling across the Hay Butte Overlook. It resembled a box of burnt streudel.

fields on fire

We backtracked through Roberts Prairie Dog Town–mindful not to pet a varmint potentially infected with bubonic plaque–and continued along Badlands Loop Road to Ancient Hunters Overlook, trying to imagine early tribes scouting the lowlands for buffalo,

Ancient Hunters Overlook

much the way I was location-scouting for worthy photographs of black Pierre Shale.

rock brittle

We continued our air-conditioned trek to Yellow Mounds Overlook, where the surrealism was so profound, we had to leave the comfort of the cab to explore by foot…

yellow mounds

receding yellow mounds

leaving us to wonder how 35 million-year-old fossilized soil could weather into something so beautiful, yet other-worldly.

Burns Basin Overlook, while stunning in its desolate vastness, was beginning to look like every other overlook. I feared we were becoming “geo-jaded”.

Burns Basin Overlook

But that feeling quickly faded after we sighted a bighorn sheep lounging on a breezy slope, surveying the best way to Wall Drug.

bighorn sheep look out

I stealthily walked around the cliff edge as far as I could to score the best possible angle without falling into the abyss.

bighorn profile

It was a standoff–both of us locked into position. She remained frozen as a statue, but I held my crouch under the blazing sun until my subject finally cooperated.

Bighorn CU

Leah was waiting in the truck with the air conditioner running. “I can’t take much more of this,” she vented. “It’s just too hot out there, and I can’t even bother to get excited about any of this. You’re out there taking pictures while I’m stuck in the truck, and it’s not fun for me.”

“Tell you what,” I negotiated, “We’re at the point of no return, so we have to finish the park drive. But I’ll make it quick, and I’ll buy you an ice cream at Wall Drug on the way home.”

Fortunately, the road opened up to grasslands on both sides, and a 45 MPH speed limit. We made good time until we arrived at Panorama Point, and the light was perfect.

“Go ahead,” she conceded, “we’re already here.” I tight-roped across a knife-edge ridge as far as I dared…

striped-cliffs.jpg

to capture the enormity of the jagged peaks.

Panorama Point

Just around the bend, I discovered the Big Foot Pass Overlook, on the right side of us,

Big Foot Pass Overlook

followed by the White River Pass Overlook on the left side of us.

White River Valley Overlook

Cedar Pass Fossil Area (2)

It was overwhelming.

We ended our tour at the Ben Reifel Visitors Center, where Leah enjoyed the film presentation, while I strode across the prairie grass for a closer look at The Wall.

The Wall detail

I kept my promise to Leah, driving to Wall just as the weather was quickly changing.

Wall Drug silos

The silos at the end of town re-created an ironic juxtaposition to the Badlands scenery.

Rain clouds gathered against gray skies, and the temperature dropped enough to cool rising tempers. But after a diet of Badlands drama under theatrical settings, I found it nearly impossible to buy into the Wall Drug über-kitsch experience.

Wall Drug Frontier Town

Occupying 76,000 sq. ft. of retail space in downtown Wall, it’s a fascinating rags-to-riches story from the Great Depression, and it stands as a titanic testament to American consumerism.

But it’s really a shit show, with “wall-to-wall” tourists.

Still…the donuts were fresh, and the 5⊄ coffee was hot,

…and most importantly, it brought a smile to Leah’s face.

Ride ’em, Cowboy!

We drove into the storm until it surrounded us. Lightning was brewing in the distance and then it was beside us. “Do you think they’re gonna cancel if it’s raining?” inquired Leah.

I really didn’t have an answer. “I’m certain that rain or shine is pretty much the rule here. This event is sold out, and there are no rain-checks for this sort of thing,” I hoped.

As we were approaching Belle Fourche (known as the geographical center of America), the rain abated. We dodged a bullet, but the evening was early. We navigated our way through town by following the crowd.

Townsfolk were homesteading on their claim of sidewalk with folding chairs and coolers in an effort to capture the best view, hours before the fireworks. Leah and I were on our way to our first rodeo in the “official” middle of nowhere.

We picked up tickets at will call, and continued through a cowboy arcade of beer, buckles and bows, mixed with the sweet smell of manure. We were shown to our seats by an usher in his sixties. Wiping them dry, the usher cautioned, “I hope I only need to do this once.”

“How much did it rain here?” Leah wanted to know.

“Not so bad. Couldn’t tell ya if it’s gonna start up again, and I used to do weather forecasting for a living,” the usher confessed. “But you know what they say about South Dakota weather?… ‘If you don’t like the weather, wait fifteen minutes and it will change.'” I looked up from my seat. We were sitting in Row C, and the overhang eave was positioned perfectly over our heads.

“Could that explain why you’re an usher today?” I jested.

The usher turned back without hesitation. “That’s what my wife asks!”

The evening opened with a salute to America. Retired Sgt. 1st Class Dana Bowman, Special Forces maneuvered through a dark and gloomy sky, dangling from his Coca-Cola-sponsored parachute.

skydive salute

Bowman streamed into the arena amid cheers, proving to naysayers that the first double-amputee ever to reenlist in the military has the audacity to demonstrate that disability is only a state of mind.

skydive complete

The 98th Annual Black Hills Roundup attracted cowpokes from near and far,

chew and spit

each one competing for a share of $170,000 in prize money with a daring-do skill set that defies sanity. It’s risky business, but the guys on the rodeo circuit take a beating for eight seconds of work–often times coming up lame and short on funds.

thrown

Yet, if they don’t remount, there’ll be no payday. So riding injured is a way of life. The roundup was filled with traditional rodeo events:

flying cowboy
Bareback Riding
The cowboys ride one handed and cannot touch themselves or the horse with their free hand. The cowboys spur the horse from shoulder to rigging, trying to make a qualified ride of 8 seconds. Cowboys are judged on their control and spurring technique, and the horses are judged on their power, speed, and agility. A good score in the bareback riding is in the mid 80’s.
steer wrestler
Steer Wrestling
Steer wrestling is a timed event, and cowboys compete against each other and the clock. Bulldoggers start out in the box just like the tie-down and team ropers. The barrier is placed across the box and the steer is loaded into the roping chute. As soon as the cowboy nods his head the steer is released and he charges after it on his horse. The steer wrestler catches up to the steer as quickly as possible and then leans over, jumps off of his horse and grabs the steer by its head. A winning time is usually between 3 to 4 seconds, but these big boys keep getting faster and faster. Breaking the barrier in the steer wrestling results in a 10 second penalty which effectively puts you out of the money. The bulldogger then plants his feet and tosses the steer onto its side, thereby stopping the clock.
saddle bronc
Saddle Bronc Riding
As with bareback riding, the mark out rule is in effect. The cowboy spurs from the front of the horse, back to the skirt of the saddle in an arcing motion. The cowboy must constantly lift on the hack rein to keep his seat in the saddle. Scoring is the same as in all the roughstock events with 1-25 points given to the cowboy and 1-25 points for the animal by each of the two judges. Cowboys are judged on control, spur motion, and timing. Saddle broncs are judged on their bucking ability. A good score in the saddle bronc riding is in the high 80’s.
bull rider before
Bull Riding
As with bareback riding, and saddle bronc, bull riders ride with one hand and cannot touch themselves or their bull with the free hand. Doing so results in a no score. Two judges give 1-25 points for the cowboys performance and 1-25 points for the animals performance. 100 points being the maximum, and is considered a perfect ride. Cowboys can spur for extra points, but just staying on the bull for 8 seconds is the main priority. A good score in the bull riding is in the 90’s. There has been one perfect score of 100 in the PRCA.
bull rider after
 Thrown Bullrider
roping
Team Roping
Team roping is the only team event in rodeo. The two cowboys involved in team roping have unique goals. The first, known as the header, does just what the name implies and ropes the head of the cattle. The other cowboy, known as the heeler, ropes the heels or legs. The header is the first out trying to rope the head as quickly as possible without breaking the barrier. Once the catch is made the header dallies and turns the steer left. This opens up the way for the heeler to work his magic and rope the legs. The clock is stopped when there is no slack in both ropes and the horses face each other. If the barrier is broken a 10 second penalty is added to the time. Also, if the heeler manages to catch only one leg, then a 5 second penalty is added. In addition to these penalties there are only 3 legal catches that the header can make. These are: both horns – one horn and the head – the neck.

Barrelman Dennis Halstead provided slapstick shtick between events, while concessions provided corn dogs, cookies, and coffee.

clown

Not to be outdone, Cowboy Kenny Bartram and his protege performed X-Game stunts on their steel horses after all the real horses had been stabled for the night.

flying cycle

And if that wasn’t enough, the night finished with a flurry of fireworks.

fireworks1fieworks3fireworks2fireworks4

It rained for much of the drive back to the Airstream in Rapid City, making the trip longer than necessary, but a time for reflection. The America I witnessed tonight was spirited and inspiring.

It was cathartic for the cowboys to chew tobacco, drink beer and raise hell, while young families dressed their kids in patriotic onesies, and showed off their newest Western boots. It was an evening dedicated to perpetual promotion–from the ads, the banners, the announcements, the props, to the flag-waving riders.

Banner girl

And it was a chance to see how important rodeo is to the qualifiers, and applaud how they risk their futures to compete and entertain the crowd.

But more than anything, I was grateful that I would wake up tomorrow feeling better than the cowboys.

* Description and Rules provided by PRCA.

 

Wise Guys

What better way to celebrate the 4th of July, than a trip to Mt. Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Memorial. Sure, the crowds were large; that was to be expected. But once the cars were garaged, the pedestrian traffic was easy to negotiate. And with everyone looking up at the mountain, the president’s faces and intentions were never obstructed.

GW

Jefferson

Roosevelt

Lincoln

It was also a time to celebrate family. There were plenty of kids riding in strollers, hanging from moms in carriers, or balancing on dads’ shoulders. Generations of families had gathered to pay homage to the principles of freedom. Seniors were being escorted through the Avenue of Flags by their grandchildren. Extended families organized group pictures at the Grand View Terrace, unified by their love of democracy and their reunion T-shirts.

All expressed awe at Gutzon Borglum’s grand vision and remarkable achievement–the transformation of a mountain into a national symbol visited by approximately 3 million people every year.

long shot

The 14-year process of carving the rock began with dimensionalizing the Presidents’ portraits through Plaster of Paris masks, on view at the sculptor’s studio-turned-museum.

Sculptor's Studio

Additional exhibits detail the construction of the memorial, and the tools used by workers, like the original Rand & Waring compressor, which powered the jackhammers for all the finishing work.

compressor

A little known fact is that Mt. Rushmore was once intended to be a tribute to “Five Faces of Freedom”, but the funds ran out when the original budget approached $1 million during the Great Depression. Hence, the unfinished carving of the Great Ape to the right of Lincoln serves as a reminder that we are never far from our true ancestors.¹

Planet of the Apes

No less ambitious, and equally as impressive, the Crazy Horse Memorial is a work-in-progress located 16 miles away in the heart of the Black Hills–considered sacred land by the Lakota people.

Crazy Horse LS

Conceived by Korczak Ziolkowski in early 1940s,

crazy horse model (2)

the memorial, when completed will stand 563 ft. by 641 ft. across, and is expected to be the largest sculpture in the world. Already, the completed head of Crazy Horse measures 60 feet tall…

Crazy Horse CU

…twice the size of any of the Presidents at Mt. Rushmore. While the first blast was conducted on the mountain in 1947, the current prospects for the memorial are to complete the outstretched arm during the next twelve years. There is no completion date available for the finished carving, which has been financed entirely by private funding since its inception.

Mt. Rushmore was created by a Danish American. Crazy Horse was created by a Polish American. And visitors to both destinations manifest the melting pot that has brought us all together as Americans. It’s our diversity that makes us strong, our ambition and determination that makes us great, and our compassion and sacrifice that make us whole.

These are the values reflected from the faces we’ve immortalized in stone. Yet, we would honor them more by living according to these principles.

Happy Birthday, America!

¹ Just kidding, but the photograph is real and has not been retouched.