Towers, Ghosts and Big Faces

Trip Start Jun 12, 2012
Trip End Oct 18, 2012

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Where I stayed
Central State Fairgrounds

Flag of United States  , South Dakota
Sunday, July 29, 2012

Howdy folks,

For once on our roadtrip, we didn't get up early, in fact we didn't leave until 10am. That is pretty late for us and we enjoyed lounging around the hotel room enjoying the last remnants of normality. When we finally got underway, we rejoined the Interstate 90 Highway east until Moorcroft where we turned to travel northeast up to the Devil's Tower. We got a glimpse of the tower over the horizon before heading into a canyon and losing sight of it. When we came out the other side. There it was gleaming like a beacon on the horizon. We drove up to the information centre and the tower seemed to be a little bit green even, eerily because of some close encounters We learned that the tower was originally formed as part of a subterranian lava upburst that cooled over many years and the soil above it eventually eroded away. Apparently it was much bigger previously, but had weathered over the years which is evident in the boulder field around the base. Its current height is 1200ft tall and has many hexagonal columns around the sides which look cool and make it popular with rock climbers, which we saw when we walked the 2kms loop around the base. The local Indians object to the name however and call it the Grizzly Bear Lodge due to folklore. The only wildlife we saw were a hundred prarie dogs inhabiting the surrounding fields. Interestingly, the Devil's Tower was the first National Monument and Yellowstone was the first National Park making Wyoming the only state to have both. 

We journeyed back to the interstate, crossed into South Dakoda and stopped shortly afterwards at Spearfish to grab a cool drink. The weather has been really warm across the midwest and makes stops in airconditioned fast food joints pretty inviting. We were trying to decide whether to keep going all the way along the interstate to Rapid City or to travel down through the Black Hills. With no couchsurfing available, we decided to head for the hills!

Our only stop of the afternoon ended up being Deadwood which is a real wild west town in the middle of Deadwood Gulch. Most of the town revolves around gambling and tourism so we were half content. The gambling aspect is as much a part of the town since it was formed in 1870 and there are plenty of slot machines and casinos. The other part is the history because it was famously the place where Wild Bill Hickok was shot holding the Dead Man's poker hand. The story goes that he joined a poker game on 2nd August 1876 where he was sitting with his back to the door. Jack McCall walked in and after a few drinks shot Wild Bill in the back of the head. He was later captured and eventually hung. Calamaty Jane is also reportedly to have been a local as well.

After walking around for a few hours and taking in the many tourist shops and bars, we decided to set up our tent and drove west through Lead to Hanna Road where there was a Black Hills National Forest campground near a stream. The cool water was quite refreshing so I went for a dip. We decided to go back into town for the local play about the trial of Jack McCall, but missed the re-enactment of the slaying. The play was entertaining enough even if the local band was more miss than hit country music.There were plenty of Harleys in town for the Sturgis motorcycle rally as well - one of the oldest in the country.

Luckily we put the fly on the tent that night, because it rained a bit with some thundering and lightning. We packed up the tent in a rain shower and headed back to Lead to steal some Wifi from the local Day's Inn hotel. Theft of the electronic kind whether it be power or internet is quite satisfying to a travelling person! Once we had our fill, we drove south along Highway 385 towards Custer. The Black Hills are an interesting mix of canyon hill landscapes and eclectic tourist areas. On the way south we travelled through Hill City which is a similarly themed wild west town and past the Crazy Horse sculpture which is an unfinished hillside excavation similar to Mt Rushmore. The only difference is that Crazy Horse is a 64 year unfinished business where you can only clearly make our the face of the famous Indian. We weren't keen to pay for such an attraction.

At Custer, we passed the adventure golf and Flinstones themed campground on our way west to the Jewel Cave National Monument. Apparently under the Black Hills lies the second longest cave system in the world and quite popular because there was a line up for tickets for the various tours that they run. Had we known that a reservation was the best way to do a tour, we would have booked one in advance. Because we didn't, we had to settle on a 20 minute introductory tour which was much too short. To access the caves we took an elevator down! We only stood in one of the larger rooms that was sealed off from the elevator shaft with a heavy metal door. The reason was because it is apparently a 'breathing' cave which means that if there is a difference in pressure between the cave and outside then it draws or blows air to compensate! It would definitely be worth going back to take a proper look, but sadly we didn't have the time.

Driving back through Custer and past Crazy Horse again, we came across the area's main attraction: Mt Rushmore. There is a narrow, winding road which goes through the Ponderosa pine forest and granite canyons becore it pops out on the lefthand side as you sweep around the bend. Our first thought was wow its much smaller than expected. The mountain was more like a ridgeline and certainly not the national memorial to democracy which it claims to be. American's are quite patriotic like that and the theme was definitely evident in the surroundings including the Presidential Trail loop that went under the noses, the picture of every US President and Flag in the dining area and the nightly ampitheatre lighting ceremony. The actual interesting things about George, Tom, Teddy and Abe is that it was carved by Gutzon Borglum's team in only 14 years from 1927 to 1941, it was supposed to include their bodies and a hall of records behind Lincoln (but they ran out of funding after his death) and that dynamite was used mostly to carve out the features. It was great to hear that there weren't any deaths during the sculpting either.

After spending an hour or two there, we were ready to head into Rapid City. The drive swept downwards past the town of Keystone onto the plains. We filled up fuel and got some food before driving to the Central State Fair campgrounds. We were a bit puzzled when we got there because we had read that it was $10 to camp there, but nobody answered the phone when we rang to check availability and nobody was around when we got there. We eventually set up the tent, had dinner and went for a walk around the neighbourhood without anybody disturbing us. Free camping baby!
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