And Devil's Tower
Sat 2 Jun 2012 - Sun 3 Jun 2012
We left Thermopolis after a morning dip in the hot springs on June 2nd to make our way across Wyoming to Devil's Tower, the famous mashed potato sculpture seen in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, only a short distance from the Black Hills of South Dakota. The tower is such a shock, rising vertically out of the prairie, that it's no wonder the Native Americans in the area considered it sacred and connected it to several myths, mostly involving giant bears. The weather on this particular day lent an atmospheric helping hand to the ominous power of it; as we set out on the trail around the perimeter of the tower, some of the most terrifying storm clouds I've ever seen began to loom over our heads, with lightning flashing frequently enough for the two of us to emphatically decide to head back to the car, and never mind the trail. Walking around Devil's Tower is probably not worth being killed in a giant electrical storm.
Near the tower on the surrounding prairie, however, PRAIRIE DOGS!
MEEP MEEP MEEP! We could have watched/listened to them all day. Forget meerkats (though I'm sure they're lovely); they should make a TV show about these little critters. And they had babies! PRAIRIE PUPPIES! I made sure to drive well under the speed limit because I'm not sure if there is anything worse I could do in my life than run over a baby prairie dog.
The storm was right on our tail, however, so eventually we had to drag ourselves away.
We flew southward on straight, empty highways ahead of the awful stormfront, while weather reports warned of violent gusts of wind, hail, and impending doom. I think Matt has some pictures of the storm that he will upload at a later date, but trust me, we were being chased by the Nothing. Luckily, only a light, tense rain had begun to fall when we finally pulled into the driveway of Historic Log Cabins, a "Ma and Pa operated motel" in Hot Springs, and as it turned out, the storm blew northward again, so the Magnum was spared any hail dents. The proprietors of the cabins are evidently obsessed with Christmas, as the whole place is decorated with various items of Christmas paraphernalia. Staying in a wee little log cabin was super cozy -- it was a bit like we were kids playing house -- but I felt right at home, since the ceilings were the same height as those in the basement apartment I used to occupy in my mum's house in Sydney i.e. very low. I loved it. I would absolutely live in a tiny log cabin so long as I had a barn with HVAC for all the music instruments next door.
Time out: so, this is really confusing, and it took me a while to get it straight in the planning process, so I should probably devote a quick paragraph to it: Hot Springs, South Dakota, as shown above, is a town just south of the Black Hills that has a really awesome mammoth fossil excavation site. Mammoth Hot Springs, however, is a stop on the loop road in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, and as far as I know, does not contain a mammoth. And Hot Springs State Park is in Thermopolis, Wyoming the town where we actually bathed in hot springs that morning. They have dinosaurs there, not mammoths. Good? One of the things I learned on the trip is that America is not so good at unique place names.
On June 3, we woke up fresh and well-rested to a beautiful morning in South Dakota. Our task: see as much of the state as we possibly could in a single day, and be on the other side of it by bedtime. Stop one: the aforementioned Mammoth Site, an active fossil dig containing the remains of 59 mammoths (and counting) who were daft enough to fall into a mud sinkhole. They have similar programs to the Wyoming Dinosaur Center, though it does seem they have managed to tap into more funding -- the whole site is housed under a pavilion, so you're actually digging indoors, which must be nice. I sort of prefer the authentic Jurassic Park feel of the dig in Thermopolis, not to mention the fact that dinosaurs trump mammoths. The coolest thing about mammoth remains is that they're dealing with actual bone, rather than fossilized bone.
There's something really very sad about the theory - for which I think there's ample evidence - that mammoths are extinct because early humans butchered too many of them. One of the exhibits there is a replica mammoth bone hut constructed of an ungodly amount of bones. It looks like something out of Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge, enlarged. Human beings can be pretty terrible.
After mammoths, it was time to whip through Wind Cave National Park to the land where obsessive men blast human likenesses into mountains: Crazy Horse Memorial and, of course, Mount Rushmore National Memorial, the most deeply American thing in the whole world. I was actually quite pleasantly surprised by the Crazy Horse visitor center, which is a sprawling museum and market for Native American art and crafts. It turns out the memorial was conceived with the full cooperation of the area tribe; I thought I'd read somewhere that it was just a misguided Polack who had no connection whatsoever to the natives. Among the other scuptures by Korczak Ziolkowski on display was a larger-than-life bust of Paderewski; I am ashamed to admit that I knew of him only as a musician and had no idea he was also Prime Minister of Poland at one point and an all-round national hero.
By chance, we had arrived at Crazy Horse on the one weekend of the year when visitors are allowed to climb up the mountain and dance about on the statue's outstretched arm. If we'd had more time, we might have attempted it, but from what I could tell, it was a fair hike (nothing like Half Dome, but more than we were prepared to handle).
Mount Rushmore, basically right around the corner, was ... I dunno. I've always thought the whole idea of dynamiting presidents - or anyone - into the side of a mountain was a bit insane and arrogant. Then again, I thought Egypt was pretty cool, and if insane and arrogant doesn't describe the pharaohs and their monuments, I don't know what does. In any case, there it was, massive and ridiculous, the only National Park Service site in the country with an $11 parking garage fee (not covered by the National Parks Passport). AMURRIKA!
Our day was not done. We had one last stop before making the sprint eastward toward the border: Deadwood. No, we didn't go because of the HBO show, although we enjoyed the first season years ago. Husband Matt has an actual ancestral connection to the place! This is exciting to me because I've never had the pleasure of an ancestral connection to any place: I grew up so far removed from Greece and China, and records are generally so poorly kept there (in very difficult languages, to boot), that the idea of exploring my family's geneology is laughable. But sometime in the late nineteenth century, forebears on Matt's mother's side of the family with the last name Chapman passed through Deadwood, South Dakota, and on the way, at least one child died and was buried in the famous Mount Moriah Cemetery, which also contains the remains of -- you guessed it -- Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane. We searched the registry and discovered two children with the last name Chapman buried in a single plot, but the headstone is lost, so we anticlimactically snapped a picture of a section of grass (another of Matt's shots). No matter -- it's still cool.
We sped toward the moon as it rose over a pink twilight sky. Suddenly, thwack! Thwack! Thwack! As the sun set, the insects came out. Swarms of insects, smacking into our windshield at 90 miles per hour. It was worse than anything we'd encountered anywhere else in the country, even the Everglades. I'm not exaggerating: it sounded like heavy rain. Some of the insects had so much mass they reverberated like rocks hitting the car. They'd bounce off the roof on their way over. I've never seen anything like it.
It was impossible to get a good picture of the carnage -- this was after I had squeegeed some of the insects off. As Matt said, it's the only time he's ever had so many dead bugs on the front of the car, that it smelled like dead bugs. It was brutal.
Mind you, while we were stopped at the gas station, we saw a dented SUV with a missing headlamp that had just hit a deer. There are worse things to kill on the road than bugs.
We grabbed dinner around 10PM at a little place called Murdo Drive-In: they're super-friendly and make a delicious burger and milkshake. If I lived anywhere nearby, I'd be there every day. This might be sacriligious to say, but they may even rival In-N-Out.
I can't even really remember pulling into a motel somewhere outside of Sioux Falls.