<< Day 51: Mitchell to Badlands National Park< | Day 53: Custer, South Dakota >>
Badlands National Park to Custer, South Dakota
We woke at 4 a.m. to the pounding rain on the roof, accompanied by bright flashes of lightening that lit up our room through the shades, and followed by the sharp cracks of thunder.
The air today was surprisingly cold, with a brisk wind that chilled us through our clothing.
Our first stop this morning was the Minuteman Missile Visitor Contact Station, which was near the entrance to Badlands National Park.
During the Cold War, the United States maintained 1000 nuclear missiles ready to be launched at a moment’s notice. At the time that the Minuteman Missiles were installed, the Cold War had been ongoing for 16 years, and fear in the U.S. was rampant.
In 1961, the first Minuteman Missile was test fired. 150 missile silos were placed across the western plains and in the Black Hills of South Dakota, all aimed toward the former Soviet Union. No missiles, however, were ever fired at their intended targets.
The missiles could be launched via underground control centers that were miles away. Thanks to Hollywood, many people mistakenly believe that the missiles could be launched by pushing a single big red button. In reality, the separate actions of two officers were required, with each simultaneously turning a key 12 feet apart; then at another launch site, two additional keys had to be turned simultaneously. The entire process would take less than 5 minutes.
In 1991, the U.S. and Soviet Union signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, under which each party agreed to reduce the number of active missiles by one half. The Minuteman Missiles near the Badlands were removed, and the land was sold back to the original owners—with instructions that they couldn’t dig more than 2 feet down.
There are still almost 500 Minuteman Missiles throughout the Great Plains—in the states of Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, Colorado, Wyoming and Missouri.
Genevieve worked hard to complete the Minuteman Missile Jr. Ranger requirements, and she earned an embroidered Jr. Ranger patch as a reward for her efforts.
Sebastian opted for some snuggle-time with me.
Driving back to the Badlands park entrance, we passed the Ranch Store, which had a large Prairie Dog sculpture out front.
We also stopped briefly at the Prairie Homestead, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Prairie Homestead included a sod house that was built by Ed Brown and his wife when they settled here and claimed their 160 acres under the Homestead Act.
We returned to the Badlands National Park Visitor’s Center.
Genevieve showed Ranger Paul her completed Badlands Jr. Ranger booklet. Ranger Paul carefully went through all of the information, asking her questions. Then he swore her in as a Jr. Ranger.
We still had several more places to explore today before we reached our next campground, which was near the small town of Custer. We set off to drive the 29-mile Badlands Loop Road, which took us through some breathtaking scenery. I just couldn’t get enough of the stripes—it was so fascinating to follow a dark stripe along one set of peaks and then see it continued within the next set.
The road curved through the tall land formations, and then crossed an area that had stretches of prairie land to the right.
To the left, the land had eroded into a valley:
We then cut down into the “Yellow Mounds.”
We veered off onto a dirt road and rattled our way 5 miles down the washboard surface to reach Roberts Prairie Dog Town. Here is Sebastian with his binoculars (notice the buffalo in the background).
Far off in the grass, we could see some bobbing dark shapes—the prairie dogs.
The prairie dogs were very wary of people and would scoot into their holes if we started moving in their direction.
Before leaving, we wanted to get a closer look at the resting buffalo.
This was the first buffalo that we had seen in the “wild”, so we were very excited! We walked cautiously down the road to get a better view, keeping a safe distance from the animal.
We wondered why he was so far away from the rest of his herd, which dotted the landscape in the distance.
One last look at the Badlands:
At the end of the loop road was the famous town of Wall, which is known for its large, touristy drug store.
The Wall Drug Store was started in 1931, during the Depression, and became famous for offering free ice water to weary travelers. It now has numerous other attractions and is visited by up to 20,000 people per day, including many who come on tour buses.
We decided to drive through the town of Wall and check out the drug store—we didn’t need to buy anything, but we thought we’d try to get a “feel” for the place to see if we might want to stop.
The homes in Wall were modest:
We thought the expresso bar inside of a car repair shop was a good combination:
The Wall Motel advertised that it was “retro affordable”.
The rooms looked quite “retro” from the outside. With a completely empty parking lot, it was hard to tell if the slogan was working.
We followed the signs to the Wall Drug Store, turned the corner, and . . . saw masses of cars and a long line of tourist shops. Oh my.
We opted to keep rolling down the road. Our next stop would be the Mt. Rushmore Memorial.
Sebastian fell asleep almost immediately.
The Firehouse Brewing Company had great roadside ads that had first grabbed our attention yesterday on our drive to the Badlands. Each billboard was accompanied by an old fire engine in an eye-catching pose.
(We didn’t eat at the restaurant, but we got a kick out of seeing all of the old fire engines along the highway.)
The sky above the prairie was covered with dark rain clouds, but light blue was peeking out from behind.
Rain did indeed splatter our windshield, but not for long.
The edge of Rapid City had some new tract housing developments--these were the first that we had seen in South Dakota.
Approaching the Black Hills:
A fire had raged through here in the not-too-distant past.
This bridge had wooden support beams, instead of the steel and concrete arches that we were accustomed to seeing.
The rock interior of this tunnel had been given a cement coating.
Near Mt. Rushmore is the town of Keystone.
Entering the national park.
Our first glimpse of Mt. Rushmore—the figures are on the far left side of the rock formation below.
I could barely contain my excitement! I had wanted to see Mt. Rushmore for such a long time. In doing research for this trip, I had come across an article in which the writer had expressed “disappointment” about how “small” Mt. Rushmore was.” I had prepared myself for a short rock cropping with fairly small carvings. Wow! Was I ever astounded! I was standing before a magnificent, granite mountain that stood 465 feet above the ground, with four 60-foot faces carved on it. And it was AMAZING.
The faces on Mt. Rushmore were carved between 1927 and 1941. The original idea for a mountain sculpture had come in 1923 from Doane Robinson, who was South Dakota’s state historian.
Here is a bust of Robinson:
Robinson had been looking for a way to increase visitors to the state, and he had envisioned a rock carving with the faces of various Native American and western heroes, such as Sacagawea, Red Cloud, George Armstrong Custer, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark.
However, the chosen sculptor, Gutzon Borglum, decided that “national” heroes, such as George Washington, would have a greater appeal. (As a side note, Borglum was also a member of the Ku Klux Klan, a racist, white-supremacist group. His personal views undoubtedly colored his choice of who would—and would not—be placed on the mountain.) Here is a photo and bust of Borglum:
Borglum chose the four depicted men—George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln—because of their role in preserving and expanding the territory of the United States.
Borglum created the faces with the help of 400 assistants. He died unexpectedly in 1941. His son, Lincoln Borglum, tried to carry on his work for another 7 months but ran out of funds.
About ten years ago, a new Visitor’s Center and museum was completed, along with a Presidential Trail that wound around to the base of the carvings and gave a close-up view of the Presidents. (Hiking the trail is sometimes referred to as “taking the nostril tour.”)
About 30 feet down the Presidential Trail, we spotted a mother and baby mountain goat.
(A ranger at the Visitor’s Center later told us that sightings of the white goats had been rare recently.)
Near the base, we came across Ranger Emily, who was enthusiastically sharing her wealth of knowledge with a large group of visitors. We eagerly listened in.
The children remembered much of the information from the Mt. Rushmore book that we had shared together over the past two days (“Who Built Mt. Rushmore?”), and they were very engaged in Ranger Emily’s talk. They even raised their hands and answered a few of Ranger Emily’s questions!
We did indeed get a good view of the presidents’ noses.
George Washington was out front:
Thomas Jefferson was on Washington’s left.
Jefferson originally was supposed to be on Washington’s right, as shown below.
However, after two years of carving, a big crack was discovered in the granite. Jefferson’s image was blasted off, and a new carving was started on Washington’s left side. Moreover, Jefferson’s head is tilted upward—some think that this tilt represents Jefferson’s intellectual contributions to this country. However, the actual reason for the tilt was to preserve the structural integrity of the stone. When carving Jefferson’s face, Borglum discovered a crack through the nose; he then changed the design to tilt the head back so that the crack would run through Jefferson’s mouth.
Next is the often-shadowed face of Theodore Roosevelt.
Ranger Emily said that many visitors do not even know who Theodore Roosevelt was (or why he is important enough to be on the mountain). She stated that Borglum knew Roosevelt personally. Under Roosevelt, the U.S. Forest Service was started, and Roosevelt preserved 230,000,000 acres of land as part of the national park system. (Ranger Emily explained that Roosevelt had a strong connection to wilderness areas. When he was only 24 years old, his mother and his wife had died on the same day. He had moved to South Dakota and had relied heavily on the healing power of the land.)
Abraham Lincoln is next to Roosevelt:
Lincoln is the president who worked tirelessly to preserve the union of states during the Civil War.
Near the base of the monument is Borglum’s studio, which has many exhibits regarding the creation process. The design for the monument changed many times. This model showed the figures carved down to their waists.
Inside the museum was another design, showing Lincoln beside Jefferson.
The museum had many large photos and displays. Here is Sebastian in front of a photo that shows the scale of the faces.
The museum also had a small device that allowed people to view video segments of specific dynamite blasts that occurred on the mountain. After pressing a small button to select the desired blast, a visitor could then push down a handle and pretend to detonate the dynamite. Sebastian gave it a try:
(He was quick to point out that the handle did not actually trigger the video blast—the video started as soon he selected a blast option button; the explosion then occurred on the screen regardless of whether or not he pushed the handle down.)
In the Visitor’s Center, we watched the short movie about the history of Mt. Rushmore. Then Genevieve finished completing all of her assignments for the Jr. Ranger program here.
Ranger Jeannette, from New Orleans, carefully checked over all of the information in Genevieve’s booklet.
Then she swore Genevieve in as a Jr. Ranger for Mt. Rushmore.
Genevieve had earned three Jr. Ranger badges today! Her brain is definitely a thirsty one. You go girl!
One last peek of Mt. Rushmore (Washington’s head) as we left the monument:
These beautiful rocks were nearby:
Our campground tonight was near the small town of Custer.
The town had a display of painted buffalo. I snapped some quick shots, but we planned to come back tomorrow and spend time admiring the artwork.
As we were reviewing today’s activities before bed, Sebastian remarked that Mt. Rushmore “seems like it’s boring, but it’s fun.” He then clarified that he had thought visiting the monument would be “boring” because he wouldn’t be “doing” anything. He said that it had actually been “really fun going on the walk and seeing how pretty everything is.”
Genevieve added that Mt. Rushmore was “really beautiful” and that it had been “very cool to see a mountain goat and her baby.”
Hmmmm . . . “really fun,” “pretty,” “really beautiful,” and “very cool”—yes, my precious children, it was indeed all of those things for me too . . . and more . . . because I got to share the experience with you.
<< Day 51: Mitchell to Badlands National Park< | Day 53: Custer, South Dakota >>
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