I heard a lot of Montana ads while away and while I don’t remember it verbatim it was something about memories on the price of gas. Well that also fits this nearly 1,600 mile road trip. Total gas expenditures? $103.10. I’m not an organized enough driver to have also tracked the gallons that made for, but my rented Chevy Malibu was great on gas.
To go with the nearly sixteen hundred miles that this road trip covered, I took approximately one photo per mile: 1,573 photos. I’m still working through them, but my Instagram has a number of my favorites and I’m going to post them here as I write up the days they covered. Hopefully that takes less time than New Mexico did.
2017’s tackle of 50 before 50 started late with no new states earlier this year and to be honest, 2016 only added Wyoming* and West Virginia. As of now, and likely 2017’s year-end it’s looking pretty good.
But, starting at the beginning. Labor Day has turned into a great travel weekend and I booked this when I realized going away July 4th wasn’t going to work despite having a four-day weekend. It was much cheaper to fly into Denver than anything closer, which made the road trip longer, but I always enjoy the chance to visit Denver.
So Wednesday morning I flew in, picked up a rental car and pointed north. Super easy to do so as the speed limit once you’re north of Cheyenne is an insane 80 on I25. Luckily it’s dead straight and the car had cruise control. My first planned stop on this crowd sourced itinerary was Guernsey for some Oregon Trail history. When I took the exit off I25 for Guernsey I saw a sign for Fort Laramie and asked myself if it was worth the additional mileage. Despite my usual easy interest in anything with the word “fort“, I opted not to as I was tired and the road wasn’t great. Later in the trip I’d be regretting it and contemplating going ~100 miles out of the way to get there – I really should have brushed up on my Oregon Trail history before this trip.
Oregon Trail sightseeing got ethically complicated once I visited Wounded Knee on the way from Rapid City to Cheyenne, but none of that was a factor in Guernsey where I explored the names inscribed at Register Cliff and the extant trail ruts closer to town. Amazing that the soil has allowed the ruts to survive and it’s possible to walk along side the path of the pioneers. I was surprised to see the Pony Express markers as well.
From Guernsey it was a quick hope to Douglas, home of the jackalope. I had no idea that jackalopes were a thing outside Wall Drug, but Thursday morning my first two stops before the long-ish drive to Devil’s Tower were to visit the jackalopes in town, the largest and the former holder of that title. It took me a lot longer to get to Devil’s Tower than I anticipated, and I’m so glad I went with an early flight to split this drive into two days. I technically visited Wyoming last summer but this feels like much less of a technicality and I’m happy to officially call it state 32.
Devil’s Tower is weird. That’s the best way to put it. Fittingly, it’s home to a lot of UFO gatherings as it’s location for Close Encounters. What I found most surprising was that it’s much nicer looking from afar. In fact, my favorite photo was from outside the park grounds at the KOA where I stopped for a drink and wifi. While it was too warm and I was too time constrained to hike the base, I thought it was amazing. Is it the core of an old volcano? Petrified lava? Who knows. Like many stops on this trip I found myself imagining Native American and pioneers’ first sightings.
From Devil’s Tower I headed northeast and was pleasantly surprised to find that my route to Belle Fourche, SD would take me through Alzada, MT. My rules for counting a state, implemented after cheating to count Oregon in 2015, is that I have to spend money and see something interesting. This is why Utah doesn’t count despite taking the train across it last year. Both technically happened in Alzada, but it’s iffy. I’m not worried about counting it, as I plan to return to do Glacier and would love to see Little Bighorn. Heading east I was happy to see the South Dakota sign, my “home” through Saturday. Belle Fourche was missable but a nice, quick stop to stretch legs and enjoy the silliness of the Geographic Center monument.
I had no plans to do Sturgis, I didn’t really get it. But when I saw how close it was to Deadwood, I decided why not. That and I had a feeling it would be easier to get gas than in Deadwood. So I went, I didn’t get it. I did see a ton of Rally items on clearance throughout SD and Nebraska. I then spent the evening exploring downtown Deadwood. It’s certainly an interesting place – lots of Wild Bill history but overall faded glory. I broke the rule of not eating at a hotel restaurant as they all seemed the same along Main Street: casino buffers and the salad bar at Tin Lizzie appealed. It was an early night after a long day.
Friday morning started with a little back tracking up to Spearfish to come down through Spearfish Canyon. When booking this trip I’d originally planned to stay in Spearfish but then Deadwood appealed and the 20 minute backtrack didn’t bother me. It was nice to stay in a hotel with some flavor vs. anywhere USA. Spearfish Canyon was just magical. It had the expected trees, rock faces and streams, but also unexpected filming locations. I cannot believe Dances with Wolves is 27 years old!
When I hit Pactola Lake, a gorgeous oasis, I first found out why everything had seemed so hazy. Last summer I remember seeing the Rockies along I25 but when I didn’t I blamed it on the humidity in Denver. There seemed to be a haze in Spearfish, or rather it wasn’t as crisp as I imagined. I was surprised to learn it was fires in Wyoming and Montana that were affecting things-I’d have the smoke with me until I left Denver. Sad, frightening. The ranger at Pactola Lake was super helpful in fixing my map. I had print maps to go with GPS because I wasn’t sure about signal. She chuckled about a route I asked — she’d lived in the area for more than twenty years and hadn’t heard of it – except from people’s Google maps.
After asking if I was OK driving all afternoon she drew me a map that covered my route to Crazy Horse, Rushmore, Custer State Park and finally to Rapid City. Crazy Horse was the first stop and it was breathtaking, literally. The size is larger than I even imagined and there’s nowhere from within the campus that you can’t see it. Had it been less smoky I imagined I’d have seen it on approach. It’s just enormous and even if it’s never finished, what has been done is amazing -including one of the sons driving a piece of machinery off the mountain. The smoke made for some seriously hazy photos so I took a bus – literally, an old school bus, to the base where we got a stunning view including the back side which is more work site and less photogenic. Some grandchildren and nephews are still involved, which is great.
Aside from the aforementioned Dances with Wolves, Crazy Horse was my first introduction to the Lakota. (Sioux can be problematic, apparently). Sure, I knew Sitting Bull and I read Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee a long time ago, too long ago. But Crazy Horse’s intro video is where I first “met” Chief Red Cloud, whose quote lingered with me throughout the rest of the trip.
“They made us many promises, more than I can remember, but they never kept but one; they promised to take our land, and they took it.”
I also met Chief Henry Standing Bear, the man who wrote to Ziolkowski saying, “My fellow chiefs and I would like the white man to know that the red man has great heroes, too.” and subsequently commissioned Korczak Ziolkowski to create Crazy Horse after receiving no response to his request to have Crazy Horse added to Rushmore. Whether or not Crazy Horse said “My lands are where my dead lie buried” and despite the controversies surrounding it, the whole monument makes you think. In that sense I think it’s closer to complete. It’s a learning moment and one that is relatively unknown. I hope that as they make progress on the memorial, more of the Crazy Horse story comes out.
I was already re-thinking my glib “have not died of dysentery” comment at Guernsey as I thought more about the parallels between the western exploration and the broken promises to the Lakota and other Native Americans. There was more of that to come when I went to Wounded Knee and followed the Mormon/Oregon Trail pioneers through Nebraska on my way to Cheyenne on Sunday.
After leaving Crazy Horse I doubled back north to the turn off for Needles Highway which is possibly the most breathtaking drive. Part of what I loved about Australia was scenery in the Kimberley at Bungle Bungles/Purnululu National Park and Three Sisters outside Sydney. I always thought the US didn’t have it. I realized somewhere around Bandelier and Kasha-Katuwe that wasn’t true-I just hadn’t looked for them. I expected to be wowed by the Badlands (Saturday, write up and photos TK) but I didn’t look up the Needles Highway once it was recommended to me, although I knew about the tunnels. I didn’t expect to be thinking so much about Stonehenge and the Three Sisters as I made my way southeast through and into Custer State Park.
The wildlife at Custer is well known, but I was well into the “wildlife loop” and hadn’t seen anything so was expecting to be disappointed. Although I was OK with driving all afternoon, I was getting tired and antsy about making Rushmore before dark. I’m not crazy about driving in the dark even though the ranger had assured me it was a good road. As I crested a hill just before the road turned back north, I hit traffic. I was not happy until I realized it was due to burro and then buffalo watching. There was literally nothing to do but put the car in park and watch these silly (burros) and majestic (buffalo) animals.
Eventually, the road cleared and I headed toward Iron Mountain Road on approach to Mount Rushmore. I got my first view through one of the road’s iconic tunnels. My first thought? That’s it? It’s a lot smaller than I expected, especially having just seen Crazy Horse. That thought reminded me of my take on Seattle’s Space Needle having just been up to One World Observatory. As I drove closer, I debated whether I was going or not. This is apparently not uncommon. When I stopped at a scenic lookout outside the park for some photos, I still wasn’t sure, but I was curious to see it closer so I decided why not.
I’m glad I did. Comparing Rushmore and Crazy Horse doesn’t really help. Comparing Rushmore now to what it was in the 1930s when it was being done was the angle I decided to consider. Sure they’re relatively small, but they were an impressive feat. The light at sunset was great and as it was relatively uncrowded vs. what I expected, it allowed me time to contemplate the men memorialized on the mountain in light of current conversations about statues. I think now I might actually remember that it’s Teddy Roosevelt-fitting for his Parks’ heritage. Is it spectacular? I don’t know. I honestly think I was simultaneously awed and underwhelmed by it. That’s still true a week later. I’m very glad I went. The lighting ceremony was inspiring and Borglum’s work, especially the detail, is great. Is it a must see? No. Is it worth seeing? Yes. If you have a chance, do it before Crazy Horse so you’re not yet thinking of the size difference.
From then it was a relatively quick drive to my hotel outside Rapid City. If I thought Deadwood hotel dining was a bad road trip sin, McDonald’s at the hotel one upped it. I ended up with some odd dining overall this trip. Sometimes you do what you have to.