Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Travel Rewind: Head for the (Black) Hills (2007)

Travel Rewind: Head for the (Black) Hills (2007): (This month's rewind theme is journeys out west...pictures are on Smugmug) I could have spent a couple hundred more dollars and flown into Rapid City SD, putting me within a brief drive of the Black Hills area. Instead I chose to save the money, fly into Denver and drive up 6 hours from there. Given the price of gas, I doubt I saved much money, but I am so glad I did it that way. Before we get to that, though, my requisite travel rant.

Apart from the fact that turbulence was so bad that I twice spilled my Diet Pepsi all over myself during the flight, I have little to complain about air-wise since I was able to snag a last second exit row seat. It was a 2.5 hour flight and I was more or less dry by the time it was over. So far so good.

Then it took Northwest a full hour to get the bags on the carousel in Denver. And I would probably still be waiting if some Good Samaritan hadn't noticed that the bags were coming out on a different carousel that the one indicated on the screen. (I can't blame Northwest for not announcing the carousel change because, after all, it's just what we'd be expecting.) Then there were so many people waiting for rental car shuttles that it took three busses and 25 minutes before I was able to squeeze into one to get to the Dollar car rental center. Then it was 45 minutes standing in line at the Dollar office, before I even got to the rental desk.

My 2.5 hour flight landed at 10am and it was another 2.5 hours just to get my bags and pick up my car. Unreal. If anyone is listening, this is why the travel industry is so deeply hated. Every airline and car rental employee knows what's coming on any given day, it makes no sense whatsoever that the simplest things should turn into an 11-letter word that begins with "cluster."

Why do I bother to gripe? It's not like it does anything but give me the delusion of a just revenge. I vow to stop with the travel rants. There is no point in subjecting you to them for the sake of personal catharsis. [[update: where have you heard this before? - dam]]

Anyway, as soon as I got to the car rental desk things got better. I had arranged for a convertible PT Cruiser, which they didn't have so they upgraded me to a Sebring convertible. With Sirius. Sweet. Well, the Sirius thing was sweet. The Sebring is a remarkably crude vehicle for this day and age. But the top went down and that's all that mattered to me.

The road from Denver goes straight north up through Colorado into Wyoming. It was sunny and hot in Colorado and, once outside the Denver traffic, I was enjoying cruising along topless (the car, not me). As you make your way north of Ft. Collins, things start to change. You are no longer in industrialized Colorado. This is the Real West. Eventually you cross into southeastern Wyoming and hit Cheyenne. I stopped for lunch and it was my first clue that the little towns around here were not the scions of convenience they often are back in Michigan. Cheyenne is a something of a hard-scrabble town. It's rough around the edges, though it's trying to gentrify like the rest of the country. You'll see dark and dirty bars and thrift shops right next to an art gallery or a day spa. Nothing is gussied-up in anyway, which is very cowboy of them.

I parked downtown (and put the top up) and took off on foot to find a friendly chuck wagon. As I reached the center of town the deluge started. Thick sheets of rain. I ducked under an awning to watch the nearly deserted streets of downtown Cheyenne as they got drenched. A strange feeling that came over me: How in the world did the circumstances of my life ever lead me from a lower-middle class birth Detroit to a point where I was standing under an awning on a street in Cheyenne, Wyoming during a thunderstorm nearly 47 years later? It was a good thought -- I now had distance from my routine life, which is kind of the point of travel. As the rain subsided somewhat I took the opportunity to dash into a local restaurant whose name I can't recall but whose servers struck me being overachievers when it came to flare, scarfed down a cheeseburger that had been cooked into submission, and headed off into deeper Wyoming.

Remember the final sequence in Castaway where Tom Hanks is out in farmland, roads extending off in into the distance and not another car in sight. That's what Wyoming ranch country is like: austere, craggy grasslands extending into infinity, framed by amazing thunderstorms -- just like a director would have ordered up from Special Effects -- saturating the plains in torrents of rain. Occasionally the scene is peppered with a lonesome, ramshackle building or a scattered herd of cattle, but that's about it. Other than the immeasurably long coal trains chugging back and forth, it probably looks pretty much as it did 150 years ago.

Apart from a single stretch of interstate in West Texas that has a speed limit of 80, 75 is about the highest limit you'll find in the U.S. (the days of unlimited speed limits in Montana are long gone) and that is what the limit is in this area. It underscores how much space there is in the West. You can easily find yourself in a spot where the next town is a 70 or 80 miles away. They need high speed limits because there is so much ground to cover. If you wanted to, I'm sure you could safely cruise at around 90+ on the endless stretches of flat straight roads. I don't think I saw a cop the whole trip once I left Colorado.

Once you enter South Dakota, things get mountainy and twisty again. For all their beauty, travel-wise the Black Hills is stuck in the 1970s. But that's probably how everyone wants it. There are no good restaurants to speak of and why should there be? There are three audiences here -- plain-talkin' local cowboy types, bikers left over from the Sturgis rally, and road-tripping families -- none of them are particularly interested in fine culinary experiences. Accommodations are almost entirely of the motel variety, which makes sense. Everybody who doesn't live here is on a road trip and hasn't made reservations because every day is going to be hit or miss schedule-wise, and it's not like your eight-year-old is going to appreciate turn down service. As a result, towns like Custer and Hot Springs and Keystone don't really have the quality and refinement of your average small town in Michigan or some other coastal area. They are merely convenient stopping points.

My motel, the Chief Motel, in Custer, SD, was typical. Pull up to the door, step out and ask the nice man behind the counter for a room. You knew he'd have one because the vacancy sign was lit. Get your key and park right in front of your door. I had forgotten how convenient motels were. No parking valets, no bellhops, no concierge. Focus shifts from service to cleanliness and functionality. The Chief Motel did fine: exceedingly friendly and helpful proprietor; clean as a whistle. It has a nice pool/hot tub that I never availed myself of. You get a coupon for a two dollar breakfast at the diner down the street. The only chink in the armor was non-functioning wi-fi, but I have come to expect wi-fi to function at about a 50% rate in all levels of hotel. And besides, I was probably the only one who even noticed.

There is what might be termed a "downtown" area of Custer -- about a block and a half long with a handful of shops and cheapy restaurants, but nobody comes to the Black Hills for a casual stroll down Main Street in a quaint little town. People are here for the parks and monuments. If you rise early you can do two monuments and a park and be back in time for dinner. I know, 'cause I did.

First up was Crazy Horse. Positioned as a paean to Native American culture, it is a quixotic project originally assumed by one man, Polish immigrant and Mt. Rushmore assistant Korczak Ziolkowski, back in 1946 and continues through his family to this day. When finished, the Crazy Horse memorial will dwarf Mt. Rushmore. It will consist of a single mounted figure of Crazy Horse heroically pointing off into the distance; currently it is only a big face carved in the mountain that can be seen from far, far away. It's taking so long to finish for a couple of reasons: 1) it's truly huge, and 2) it is financed entirely through private donations. Apparently they turn down any government money for fear of losing their purity of focus. They have no specific timetable or expected completion date; they just keep working. The Ziolkowski clan is obviously focused on the journey rather than the destination. If they ever do get it finished it will almost certainly be a wonder of the world.

The project's introductory video -- shown in the very nicely done visitor's center/museum -- is much better than most. The story of the early stages of development, when the sculptor was working on it alone, make him seem like the lead in a Werner Herzog documentary. The odds were staggering, the task daunting, but he seems to have been quite sanguine about the work for work's sake. It's really a great story.

At Mt. Rushmore -- an older, richer, and more renowned monument -- the presentation is much slicker. Rushmore has to be one of the most photographed places on earth. It's very dramatically designed with an amphitheatre built near the base and obviously ready for various shows and presentation. At the base of the mountain is a pathway which you can walk around and see up all the president's noses. Despite the fact that everyone has seen Mt. Rushmore in photo and film a million times, it remains an impressive sight. Well, it is once the sun burns away the clouds. For about the first hour I was there, the low hanging fogginess completely obscured any view of the faces.

As impressive as it is, Rushmore seems unfinished in a way. The base of the mountain is covered in a cascade of rocks that were stripped off in the sculpting process. Also, Washington is the only figure who has much more than a head. I understand that the original design had torsos for all the presidents, at least that's how the scale model is shown in the (on-site) sculptors studio. Still, Rushmore deserves its popularity. And popular it is. You'll need some patience until everybody gets out of the way of that picture you want. Toto, we're not in Wyoming anymore. Bonus: The high volume of tourists justifies an ace on-site cafeteria -- possibly the best food in the Black Hills.

You can exit Mt. Rushmore by traversing Iron Mountain Road and end up in Custer State Park. Iron Mountain Road is a beauty -- winding through the forest, past overlooks, single lane tunnels (honk to make sure no one is coming through from the other side), and pigtail bridges (shaped like a corkscrew). If you've been to Maui, it's kind of like the Hana Highway in miniature.

Once in Custer State Park proper, the main thing to do is follow the Wildlife Loop, approximately 20 miles of two lane road through the heart of the park and past bison, pronghorn antelope, and prairie dogs. But the first animals you meet are burros. They are certainly feral, but almost completely tame from a life of being hand fed by tourists. They stand in the middle of the road, blocking cars and sticking their heads in the window in the hopes of being offered a snack.

Beyond the burros you'll cross paths with a herd or two of bison. From a distance there is little difference between them and a herd of cattle. Move closer and they tend to get skittish. Walk within 50 yards and the tension builds; the dyspeptic looking males begin to stare you down. Best not to push the issue. The Pronghorn antelopes are somewhat more solitary and a lot faster. They won't bother to wait until you are in range, they just take off at rough twice the speed limit for cars, occasionally taking huge leaps over uneven terrain. Likewise, the prairie dog communities react en masse to warning chirps from their sentries and duck into their burrows in a heartbeat.

What I'm saying is getting a good pic of these critters would take a load of patience and a lot of luck. Ironically, the only way you can readily get in close proximity is in your car. They have learned not to fear cars -- probably because of the low speed limit and the fact that they can count on the cars to stop dead in deference to their lazy shuffle across the road. So if you happen upon the critters near the edge of the road, you can stop and take snaps from your car without spooking them. Once you get out, unless they are burros, they'll be off.

One of the nice things about travelling west is that everything is time shifted to the AM. Wake up at 8 by your internal clock and you find it's only 6, so you get the impression of having an extra long day (which you don't really have because you run out of steam a lot earlier too). I was up early the next day heading east to the Badlands.

The gateway to the Badlands is the town of Wall, SD, wherein you will find the famous commercial enterprise known as Wall Drug. Now, I am not one to decry a nicely done tourist trap. I am totally OK with a block or two of crap shops that feed off tired travelers that are in need of a place to stretch their legs, a souvenir spoon, and a clean, well-lighted bathroom. If they are important enough to people that they will stop for them, then by all means, build a town around it. That's what they did in Wall. They built the enormous Wall Drug, and across the street sit a handful of t-shirt shops, cheap jewelry stores, and dark and dingy bars of the sort in which they specialize in South Dakota. That's the town.

Wall Drug takes up about a full block and is the ultimate cathedral of chintz. But everyone stops there when touring the Badlands and Black Hills, and everyone buys something. In my case, it was a small bag of stale trail mix and a bottle of water in case I found a decent hike in the Badlands. You see? I saw right through the tourist trap fa‡ade and they still ended up with some of my money. Like a two-bit call-girl, Wall Drug may be tawdry, but it's got what you need, and it's where you are.

If there was a single star of the Black Hills it would be Badlands National Park. I can only describe The Badlands as otherworldly. You get the sense that you are on the set of a sci-fi flick. In comparison to the other rocky outcrop parks I've seen, I would say they are more dramatic than Zion in many ways -- less rounded, but the same sort of color stratifications -- and though they are not quite as alien as the bizarre formations of Bryce Canyon, I believe they cover a larger area. There are a few relatively short hiking trails. For a quickie hike try Saddle Pass which is not so much a hike as a short scramble up a steep and rocky path to the peak of a particularly high out-cropping.

Plan on spending a goodly amount of time in Badlands National Park. The main road through it has many scenic overlooks and you should stop at most of them. There are amazing sights around every corner. Unless you have a couple of cars or are looking to cover many miles, hiking is mostly out and back kind of stuff, which is only half satisfying. The Badlands would benefit from a shuttle service. If I return I'll plan on bringing a bike so I can leave it at one point, hike for an extended length, then bike it back to my car.

Leaving the Badlands I took the road less travelled (it doesn't go past Wall Drug) and swung south of the park and through Buffalo Gap National Grasslands.

The Grasslands stand in direct contrast to the Badlands. Just a monotonous sea of grass. 'Sea' is the correct word. The horizon is nearly unbroken in all directions, just as if you were out on the ocean out of sight of land. It would likely drive some people mad to have effectively no visual cues to break up the horizon for an extended period. I found it eerily fascinating. I was struck by a desire to pick a direction and start walking. I was put off from this by the rattlesnake warning signs.

Barreling through the Grasslands on a two-lane blacktop you get a very strong sense of isolation unlike anything you can get back East. I think, in the span of two hours, over the course of well over 100 miles, I saw about three other cars. I saw one person far off in the distance on a tractor, and I saw another walking amidst a small herd of cattle carrying a rifle. That's it. And it can get even more deserted should you choose to turn down any of the numerous dirt roads, many of which lead through the Lakota Reservation. Every time I go out West, I am awed by the vastness.

The next day I was to reposition from my motel in Custer to a place in Deadwood, about 90 minutes north. Instead of the direct route I chose to take the long way around and circle back through Wyoming to Devil's Tower.

Devil's Tower, is the landmark to end all landmarks. It would be strange-looking even if it was surrounded by similar geologic features, but standing as it is, solitary and towering over everything around it, it looks like some strange flight of imagination. As if some impossible large child filled his plastic bucket full of sand, and turned it upside-down, leaving a near perfectly cylindrical obelisk with a flat top. It is immediately clear why Spielberg used it in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

The Tower has a nice circular path around it which permits you to take pictures of it with variously angled sunlight. I must have taken fifty in the course of walking the path, none of which do it justice. The attention of most observers eventually gets focused on the rock climbers. It turns out, you can climb this monstrosity. The method of doing so involves shimmying up grooves the run up the side. As the world's worst rock-climber, I was deeply impressed.

I would guess that if you were trying to draw boundaries, Devil's Tower would be about as far west as you would go and still be considered to be in the Black Hills region. It's a couple of hour's drive from the main areas in South Dakota and, as usual, you find yourself going through little towns, the most notable of which is Sundance, WY, from whence the Sundance Kid got his name: decent place to stop for gas and a snack; nothing out of the ordinary for the region, however. Next stop Deadwood.

At first glance, Deadwood seems to be nothing but low-end casinos and dive bars -- which is probably exactly what the prospectors who came here 120 years ago thought. It's a small town and you can walk up and down the entirely of Main St. in the span fifteen minutes, as a result most everyone comes in for a day trip or a quick overnighter to drink in the history and drop some coins in the slots. But looking deeper, it reminded me of a poor man's Savannah in that it is a city clearly dedicated to its past. Restorations are done under the watchful eye of a committee, with an eye toward long-term constancy. In fact, the stated intent of allowing casino gambling was simply to generate enough of a revenue stream for restoration and renovation.

Like the entire region it is lacking in decent restaurants -- that is to say, they are none. But there are plenty of serviceable options and unlike other towns in the Black Hills you can wander the street in the evening and find stuff do -- in other words, you can get out of your car. Short of staying in Rapids City, I think that makes Deadwood the choice location for exploration of the Black Hills and beyond.

I stayed at the Celebrity Hotel, which I can certainly recommend. Somewhat out of sync, it is a Hollywood themed hotel in the heart of the Old West. They've decorated with some cool genuine Hollywood displays -- Magnum's car, Bond's suit, etc. Good friendly service; a rooftop deck so you can make like Al Swearingen and keep an eye on the town activities; free wi-fi. The rooms are clean and functional and continue the Hollywood motif (mine was Audrey Hepburn themed; I slept under a Breakfast at Tiffany's poster) with the added benefit of towel heaters in the bathrooms. Nice. Recommended.

The next day, on the spur of the moment, I decide to drive to Montana. Funny thing about this trip is that all the driving didn't bother me in the slightest. There was nothing resembling "traffic" and the scenery was beautiful. I had Sirius for my companion. I just stopped anytime I felt like it. The act of driving actually became relaxing. As a result, I was looking forward to the 4 hour drive from Deadwood to the site of Custer's Last Stand.

The journey along route 212 (as opposed to the big freeway) goes through two Indian Reservations -- Cheyenne and Crow. Indian reservations are depressing places. Like everything else in the rural West, they are ranch or farmland punctuated homely little centers of activity including a gas station, convenience store, seedy-looking bars, repair shop, etc. And while there are no signs anywhere in the region of affluence or luxury, on the Cheyenne Reservation this center of activity is clearly deep in poverty. There are smashed windows and other signs of vandalism. Much is in general disrepair. The cars are decrepit.

The Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument is a little island of federally administered ground in the Crow Reservation. Presumably because of the tourist trade surrounding the battlefield, the area immediately nearby appears a little more modern and developed than the Cheyenne. There is even a KFC situated at the point where Custer made his deepest drive into the Indian army in his attempt to escape.

I find the events surrounding Custer's Last Stand and the aftermath to be utterly surreal. At that point in time, the various Indian tribes were getting hammered. The best they could hope for was maybe a successful raid now and then, meanwhile in any sizeable engagement or in any long-term context, they were just getting demolished militarily -- not to mention by famine and illness. Then a series of events occurred that got many tribes to unify into one fighting force, they converged at Little Bighorn and had an unprecedented total victory over Custer. You would think it would occur to them that maybe this was the way to do things. Maybe by unifying they would have vastly more military, diplomatic and political power. Perhaps not enough to win the war, but better than what they got. But no, they celebrated their victory and then said, "You know, this is nice and all, but it's time we got back to getting the snot kicked out of us everywhere we go. Let's split up." Meanwhile, you have Custer, who by all accounts was a tedious, pretentious little prick and only a middling-at-best commander, suddenly becoming great hero and a rallying point in the Indian wars.

A century or so passes and it only gets weirder. Custer falls out of favor as popular interpretations start focusing on his shortcomings. The Indians are now the good guys, but it's really hard to sell military heroism when you outnumber your enemy by something more than 20 to 1, so instead we re-characterize the Battle of the Little Bighorn in a larger context as a gloriously doomed, last ditch effort of the Indians to "defend their culture." From start to finish, the whole process is a paradigmatic exercise is spinning historical events to grind your axe. It's lunacy worthy of a Paddy Chayefsky screenplay.

In contrast, the Memorial grounds themselves are blissfully peaceful. This is probably because they are essentially a cemetery. There is roughly an acre or two of (mostly local) veterans interred on the grounds, while many of Custer's soldiers have headstones placed where they fell.
Of course, you always go to high ground to make your last stand, and so the view from the monument is quite expansive. It's probably not better than any of a dozen or so views I had experienced in the previous couple of days, but it was a sunny day, there was a nice, soft breeze, the visitors were all subdued and low-key. I sat quietly on the grass, looking miles off into the distance, and appreciated just being in Big Sky country and, once again, thinking about how, nearly 47 years ago, I got on a path that led me to standing on a hilltop meadow in southeastern Montana.

I was down to my last full day and it was raining intermittently. My plans for a day hike or a trail ride were dashed. Instead, I hung around Deadwood mostly; visited the official Deadwood Visitor Center and Museum and did a bit of urban hiking through town up to Mount Moriah Cemetery where Deadwood notables such as Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane, and Seth Bullock are laid to rest. Most people drive up or take a tour bus, but if you are reasonably fit, there's a better way. North of town center there are a set of stairs (called the City Steps) that lead you up through a wooded area and let you out in a residential area above the main town. From there you need only wander up a couple of devilishly steep side streets to the cemetery. It's an interesting walk through residential Deadwood but, I repeat, quite steep.

Admission to the cemetery is one dollar. It's a pretty and peaceful place and, if you time it right, when the tour busses come by you can overhear the lively presentation from the tour guide. At one end of the cemetery there's a nice overlook that lets you look down on Deadwood and out over the surrounding hills.

At the other end is a path that climbs high up the hillside to one lone gravesite, that of Seth Bullock and his wife, who are held in special affection by the residents of Deadwood. Bullock was truly a man of his time. As a prominent resident of Deadwood, which was a point of confluence for anyone who was anyone in late 19th century America, he is one of those historical characters who seems to be only a degree of separation from most of the important events and personalities of his day. He lived in the middle of the great movement to "revenge" the massacre of Custer. To him, Crazy Horse was a real person, and potential threat to safety and fortune. One of those faces on Mt. Rushmore was his good friend, Teddy Roosevelt. When he saw bison, he saw food. He likely toured the Badlands without the benefit of stale trail mix and bottled water from Wall Drug.

From Bullock's grave the path seems to go higher, possibly all the way to the top of the surrounding peaks. I didn't take it. I like that I left a higher peak to be climbed. Just in case my path leads back here someday.