<< Day 52: Badlands National Park to Custer, South Dakota | Day 54: Rapid City, South Dakota >>
Custer, South Dakota
When I told Sebastian that we were going for a jeep tour this morning, he looked at me and hesitantly asked, “Is it going to be like Colorado?” Apparently, our previous jeep adventure up into the 12,000 foot high tundra, with frigid and intense winds, had left Sebastian with a bit of lingering . . . oh . . . shall I say “apprehension” about the prospect of another similar experience.
I assured Sebastian that the weather was much warmer here, that there would be no snow or piercing winds, and that we weren’t climbing steep switchbacks to get to the top of any tall mountains. I must admit that his big, trusting eyes still held a touch of doubt as we headed out.
We were to meet our jeep guide inside Custer State Park, which has 71,000 acres and is the second largest state park in the United States. The park is the home to large herds of bison (buffalo), as well as wild burros, antelope, mule deer, mountain goats, coyotes, and many other types of wildlife. We hoped to see some of these beautiful creatures on our 2-hour ride with Buffalo Safari Jeep Tours.
Inside the Park, we passed Legion Lake.
The road was very twisty, with one curve after another.
The State Game Lodge Chapel was small and quaint, sitting in a large field of green grass.
We arrived at the jeep tour office and met Ken, who would be our tour guide, or “scout,” this morning.
Ken retired 13 years ago and has worked here for the past 13 summers. His wife works in the nearby general store. They spend their winters at their home in the central area of southern South Dakota.
We were joined on our tour by Glen and Karen from Illinois, who graciously offered to sit in the rumble seat after the children (remembering the Colorado experience) unequivocally and vehemently refused Ken’s invitation to sit in the back.
Ken mentioned that the weather this summer has been one of the coolest ever recorded here. Over the past two months, we have heard these same words from people in towns across the United States.
The first animals we sighted were a pronghorn antelope mother and baby.
Some wild turkeys and their many babies (called “poults”) were partially hidden in the grass nearby.
There is a fence around the state park airport to keep out the buffalo. Along the fence are a number of bluebird boxes.
We saw a bluebird sitting on the fence, but it flew away before I could snap a photo.
This great blue heron was taking off from a small pond.
The park had large open areas of grassland.
Across one field, a white-tail buck was eating some grass. We admired its large rack of antlers. Ken said that the hunters would probably get that deer during hunting season. Once each year, the park is opened up to hunters to keep the number of deer and other wildlife within desired limits; only South Dakota residents are allowed to hunt here because the area is a state park.
Ken said that he doesn’t hunt anymore; he prefers to look at the animals now, rather than shoot them.
We saw the pens where the buffalo are herded up to be counted and sorted.
The new buffalo are branded on their hip area with a number that represents the current year—for example, this year the brand would be the number “9” for the year 2009. This brand allows their age to be easily assessed in the future. Buffalo live to be 20 to 25 years old, but the park will usually sell the buffalo at 11-12 years. The park generally tries to maintain a herd of 1500 buffalo. That number was cut back to 1200 or 1300 over the past few years due to the lack of rain and resulting low grass supply. However, the grass this year has grown thick because of the plentiful rains, so the number of buffalo will probably be increased to 1500 again.
Custer State Park has a large paved ring road that travelers can use when driving through the park on their own. However, Ken took us on the interior dirt roads, many of which were only accessible to park personnel.
We soon came upon a small herd of buffalo.
There was a small baby, probably a week old, nursing.
The young ones have an orange/red coat of fur.
Late July and early August is mating season, when the buffalo bulls can become very aggressive. The bulls will often wallow in the dirt to leave their scent and to show their strength. One bull rolled around on the ground and then stood up and looked directly at us, as if to say, “Did you witness my power and vigor?”
A large bull was growling at us, similar to a lion (the females make grunting noises).
One of the bulls came veeeerrrry close to the side of our jeep, growling and looking directly at us.
This prompted Genevieve’s preservation instincts to kick in—she said anxiously, “Can we please go?!”
Ken said that he has had his jeep T-ed in the past by a bull.
I would say that being up close to such magnificent, large creatures generated in me a lot of awe and respect, with a healthy touch of fear.
The bulls were definitely keeping an eye on us.
We saw one bull sitting out in the field away from the herd. Ken said that when the bulls get to be a certain age, they lose interest in the herd. Every year, about 10 of these older bulls are singled out by the park to be “hunted” by people who pay $5000 for the experience of shooting a buffalo.
As we drove away from the buffalo herd, we passed a mule deer (which has large ears).
A view across the park lands:
The sun was playing peek-a-boo behind the puffy clouds.
We passed more pronghorn antelope, who always stopped to look at us with their large eyes before they eased away.
This hawk was flying overhead.
Ken drove us to various canyons, looking for a larger buffalo herd.
As we traveled along this 2-track road, a grasshopper flew into the jeep, landed on my leg, and then flew away again in the blink of an eye.
Logs and underbrush had been cleared into large piles that would be set on fire when the ground was covered in snow.
We rounded a corner and hit the buffalo jackpot—a small group was straight ahead, with more buffalo on the hillsides.
Ken drove our jeep right into the midst of the buffalo—we were completely surrounded.
This young bull had a number “6” brand on his hip, which meant that he was born in 2006.
We could have sat and watched the buffalo for hours. Here are Glen and Karen in the back:
Many of the male buffalo had glued themselves to a particular female, not letting the female get more than a few feet away from them.
A steady of stream of buffalo were joining the small herd, coming from a small canyon to the right.
Ken drove the jeep over to the canyon, and we were lucky enough to see this large bull drinking from a pond.
We still had some other areas of the park to visit, so we reluctantly said farewell to the buffalo.
On the way back to the paved road, we saw two white-tailed deer, with long tails that have thick white fur underneath.
Back on the pavement, we discovered that the wild burros had created a huge traffic jam.
The burros were lined up by the sides of the road, greeting people and seeking some snacks. They were very friendly. Some nibbled on the treats that Ken provided.
Other burros preferred the sweet grass by the side of the road.
This baby looked so soft:
We all had a wonderful experience on our Custer State Park tour. Hopefully, we have successfully removed any remaining negative associations that the children might have with the phrase “jeep tour.”
We returned to our campground, where we all took a short nap.
This afternoon we visited the nearby Crazy Horse Memorial. As we approached the entrance, we could see the profile of Crazy Horse, carved into the mountain.
A closer look:
The memorial was started in 1948 and is an ongoing art project. Here are a model of what the finished sculpture will look like:
When completed, the carving of Crazy Horse and his horse will be the world’s largest sculpture, at 563 feet high and 641 feet long.
At the Welcome Center, we watched a short film about the history of the project, and we also looked at the many exhibits.
The sculpture’s design was created by artist Korczak Ziolkowski, who had been one of Borglum’s assistants in making nearby Mt. Rushmore. Mt. Rushmore had been carved into one of the granite peaks in the Black Hills, which has always been a sacred site for the Oglala Lakota band of Native Americans. Korczak was invited by Lakota elders, including Lakota Chief Henry Standing Bear, to design and create a memorial so that people could see that "Native Americans have heroes too."
Crazy Horse was a man of integrity who was a chief and a great leader of his people. He witnessed the United States break the treaty that expressly granted the entire Black Hills area to the Lakota nation. He also saw his people starving and freezing when the United States failed to provide the blankets, food and other supplies that were promised when some of the Lakota agreed to live on reservations. Crazy Horse never signed any agreements with the United States, and he never lived on a reservation. He fought for the rights of his people in response to the atrocious and dishonorable conduct of the United States. He is considered a hero to the Native Americans, much along the same lines as George Washington is viewed as a hero by many in the United States for fighting against the unacceptable conditions imposed by England.
Crazy Horse was stabbed in the back in 1877 at the age of 35 by a white man at Fort Robinson, where he had been enticed by the U.S. soldiers under the premise of a peace talk. As he arrived at Fort Robinson on his horse, someone had called out derisively from the large crowd of onlookers, “Where is your land now, Crazy Horse?!” Crazy Horse had looked out toward the Black Hills and pointed, saying, “My lands are where my dead lie buried.”
This image of Crazy Horse pointing above his horse is one that Korczak created to honor and memorialize the spirit and strength of the Native American people. With the memorial, he said that he hoped “to make right” a little bit of the tremendous wrong that had been done to the Native American people. Korczak called himself a “storyteller in stone.”
The first blast on the mountain was done in 1948. Korczak worked alone for the first ten years. His ten children eventually started assisting with the project. He worked tirelessly until his death in 1982 at the age of 74. He twice turned down offers of government funding in the amount of $10 million. He was against any type of government assistance and did not believe that the taxpayers should foot the bill for the memorial. Instead, he believed that the project should be funded by the public through donations that reflected their interest and support of the memorial.
The project is currently directed by Korczak’s wife, Ruth, who began managing the project after Korczak’s death. She is assisted by seven of their sons and daughters.
The face of Crazy Horse was unveiled as complete in 1998, the 50th anniversary of the first blast.
At the Welcome Center, we met Dewey, who was manning the booth for the Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation.
Funds donated to the Foundation could be specifically earmarked for carving the mountain, and every donated sum would be doubled via a matching grant from a local businessman. As I scanned the sign that addressed donations, I noticed that certain donation levels would entitle the donor to a private tour up to the top of the Crazy Horse mountain. The amount of $250 would allow 2 adults to go, with children being free.
I had some birthday gift money that I had received last month—I had been saving it for something “special,” but nothing had enticed me so far. (I don’t normally like shopping, although I do have a weakness for books and art.) I thought briefly about how experiences have always been more important to me than material objects. What a perfect birthday gift it would be—to go to the top of the Crazy Horse Memorial. I turned to the kids, “Do you want to ride to the top of the mountain?” Their blasted chorus of “Yes! Yes!” almost knocked me over. Okay then, the decision was made. I signed us up for membership in the Foundation. Not only were we contributing to a worthwhile cause, but we received something priceless in return.
Our guide was a wonderful man, Tom Wilson.
Tom was warm and funny, as well as very knowledgeable about the Crazy Horse project. His parents knew Ruth and Korczak well, and were in their wedding party. Tom lived near here as a child but then moved to Denver as a teenager. He loves his current job at the Memorial, and says, “You can go home again.”
Tom loaded us in a van, and we started out toward the top of the memorial.
We passed the “Closed to Public” sign:
We turned left to start our upward climb near this old homestead.
Driving up from the back side:
We all put on hard hats when we arrived at the top (elevation 6,503 feet).
Tom told us that he wanted us to walk forward, out onto the “arm”, and not look back until he gave us the signal.
We walked forward.
Okay, now turn around!
I was speechless. The massive face was so heart-wrenchingly beautiful . . . with the perfectly carved details, the color variations in the stone, and the diagonal rock veins slicing across here and there.
The face is 58 feet wide and 87 ½ feet from the chin to the top of the head. The nose is 17 ½ feet long, and the forehead is 37 ½ feet tall. All 4 of Mt. Rushmore’s faces could fit on the side of Crazy Horse’s head, after it is finished. Here is a photo to show perspective, with Tom, Ben and Genevieve at the bottom.
The view of the surrounding area was fabulous. Here are Ben, Sebastian, Tom and Genevieve:
The Visitor’s Center seemed so far away.
We could see some construction equipment about half way down the mountain.
The Memorial has about 10 people who work on carving the mountain, with 5 to 7 people here on any given day.
The woman below was working on her computer, mapping out the rock faults.
A lot of the facial carving was done by Kevin Hachmeister, an engineer who has been here for 18 years.
Here is a photo of Kevin doing some finish work on the nose in 1994:
Genevieve has been learning a lot about rocks during our travels over the last two years, and she says that she wants to be a geologist. She asked Tom if the rock in the eye was "metamorphic." Tom seemed surprised and said, “Yes!” They then shared a lively discussion about the different rocks that can be found here, including muscovite and termaline.
Here is Tom “talking rocks” with Genevieve and Sebastian.
We walked out to the tip of what will be Crazy Horse’s arm. Here is a view looking back.
About 7 feet of this top surface will be removed to get down to the top of the arm and shoulder.
The center point of the sculpture was marked with a cross post.
Here is Genevieve holding a piece of mica that she found.
We had to have a “family photo” of course!
And a photo with Tom and the kids:
Another family photo, at the bottom of the mountain.
We will never forget our ride to the top of the Crazy Horse Memorial. Tomorrow is Sebastian’s 7th birthday, and Tom asked Sebastian if he would return 10 years from tomorrow (on Sebastian’s 17th birthday). Sebastian said, “Sure!” It will be exciting to see what changes have been made and what shapes have been uncovered in the granite. It will also be good to visit with Tom again.
We returned to the Welcome Center and explored the museum area. Sebastian wanted to live in this tipi.
Korczak was very adamant about presenting the Crazy Horse Memorial as a “gift” to the Native Americans. Here is a poem that he wrote:
We wandered out to the viewing patio:
Here is another sculpture that Korczak carved from wood.
In the Native American Education and Cultural Center, Genevieve and I found a picture of the Cherokee Nation flag, which we believe is part of our heritage.
In the basement area of the Center, there was an extensive collection of Native American stone artifacts.
Outside the Center were the Black Hills Nature Gates, beautifully crafted with the shapes of bears, deer, birds, plants and other animals.
One final look at the Crazy Horse sculpture. Yes, we were up there!
The 69th Annual Sturgis Rally was starting in a few days, and all of the towns in the Black Hills were swarming with motorcycles and riders. We stopped in Custer, which had created a special parking area for bikes in the middle of the street.
The grocery store on the main street had a good selection of fresh produce and other items, as well as great prices, so we stocked up on supplies.
We wanted to get a closer look at all of the beautifully painted buffalo that were being displayed all over town. We discovered that the buffalo were part of the 5th Annual Buffalo Stampede Art Auction. We walked around and admired the creative vision of each artist.
Here are some of our favorites:
Genevieve (our "rock star") really liked the diversity of colors and textures on this wall.
This white-tail deer bid us good night as we returned to the campground.
What a memorable day!
<< Day 52: Badlands National Park to Custer, South Dakota | Day 54: Rapid City, South Dakota >>
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