- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 15, 2017

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Rapid City, South Dakota, is where the west begins. It is here, in the western part of what was once mostly empty Dakota Territory, where the Great Plains of the upper Midwest gradually give roll to the volcanic Black Hills, a place sacred to the American Indians for centuries, and thus a fitting place for a still-ongoing memorial to one of the native people’s greatest warriors.

It is also here, in the state’s largest city west of the Missouri River, where frontier living and the traditions of European settlers and millennia of American Indian culture co-mingle to foster something new and yet wholly American.

It doesn’t hurt that Rapid City is also nestled among some of the most beautiful natural real estate in the entire United State.

What once was a backwater trading post and a onetime industrial hub is now a city of high culture, Western cuisine and adventure, as well as nearby monuments of stone commemorating some of America’s most singular and famous figures from across her centuries — both pre- and post-European contact.

It helped that gold was also discovered in them thar hills.

The Washington Times spent time recently in the Rapid City area, as well as enjoyed some sights a bit further afield in this rather special part of the American landscape.

 

Thursday:

If you live anywhere east of Chicago, you’re out of luck on direct flights to Rapid City, but thanks to regional hubs like Minneapolis and — for me — Denver, the trip from the East Coast to this area requires but two legs.

It’s still a new day, and I’m pumped on adrenaline considering that I haven’t been to South Dakota in 28 years. My geologist parents took my siblings and I to “the West” in the summer of 1989, starting in Salt Lake City and finally ending nearly three weeks on the road here in Rapid City.

I’m incredibly curious to see what nearly three decades hath wrought, and I can think of no better first stop to do precisely that than at the Crazy Horse Memorial (12151 Ave of the Chiefs, Crazy Horse, South Dakota, 57730, 605/673-4681).

First begun by Polish-American sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski in 1948, the still-unfinished monument is the world’s largest mountain carving. Why, after nearly 70 years, is it still not complete? It was the wish of Ziolkowski, a veteran of the nearby Mount Rushmore carvings, that the project be entirely privately funded. Ziolkowski, decrying what he believed was government overbearance and/or waste at Rushmore, stood his ground that no federal or state moneys would ever be used at Crazy Horse.

Be that as it may, the results are what they are: Mount Rushmore, funded by the government, broke ground in 1927, with stone masons working tirelessly until the work was revealed in 1941; Crazy Horse, with its fierce private-sector mentality, remains far, far, far from finished 69 years after Ziolkowski commenced his quixotic errand.

Ziolkowski set to work with a pickaxe, enlisting friends and his 10 children on the endeavor worthy of Fitzcarraldo. His wife, Ruth, educated the brood in a one-room school they built themselves, and when the children came of age, all 10, despite leaving temporarily for college, returned to work to make their father’s dream a reality.

This includes daughter Jadwiga Ziolkowski, who meets me in the lobby of the museum. Her father died in 1982, and Ruth followed in 2014. But Jadwiga and her siblings — as well as their own children — continue on.

Spend time in the museum, learning not only about Korczak, Ruth and their descendants, but also the geologic and human histories of the area, and Korczak’s fondness for American Indian culture, epitomized by the prototype for the Crazy Horse sculpture pointing to the Black Hills, the home of his people. You can also check out Korczak’s artwork, photographs of the family, American Indian pottery, photographs of the sculpture’s progress over the decades and see home movies of Korczak himself hard at work.

The bus tour to the site is an absolute must. You can get closer when the engineers aren’t moving rock about, but today that’s not possible. However, it’s much further along than it was when I was hear as a 9-year-old, and up close you can make out the complete visage of the Indian warrior. Our guide tells us that Crazy Horse’s arm “should” be finished in the next decade.

The bigger question is, of course, when will it be completely finished? Estimates “back then” said the 1960s. A man on the tour even recalls visiting as a child in the early-‘70s, hearing at the time a projected unveiling of 1980.

Thus it goes. When there’s money, they move the dirt. When there’s none, they don’t.

A short drive from Crazy Horse is Custer State Park (13329 U.S. 16A, Custer, South Dakota, 57730, 605/255-4515), a 71,000-acre expanse of natural wonder and beasts of the north.

Take a leisurely drive through verdant fields, and keep your eyes peeled for the elk and bison that call this lovely area home. (But be advised, you should never approach the buffalo. Enjoy them from afar — preferably in your car.) If you happen to be here in September, you can watch the annual “roundup,” where cowboys corral more than 1,000 of the animals for display and sale in auction.

Also check out the famous tunnels inside Custer, through which Mount Rushmore, 15 miles due north, can be framed on a clear day.

Returning back to Rapid City, I check in at the famous Hotel Alex Johnson (523 6th St., Rapid City, South Dakota, 57701, 605/342-1210), a 143-room property located in the heart of downtown, boasting an old-world charm and accenture in its design.

I am met by Jessica Pulscher, director of sales for the business, and she gives me a rundown of the artwork and history of the property. The hotel’s namesake, Alex Carlton Johnson, was a magnate for the Chicago & North Western Railroad, and spared no expense in its decor. Six presidents have stayed here, and a sign on the room in question lists them as far back as Calvin Coolidge. (The most recent was Ronald Reagan.)

There are rumors — some substantiated — the hotel is haunted. With a wry smile, Jessica tells me to keep my eyes and ears open for any strange doings at night.

Rapid City Director of Tourism Julie Jones-Whitcher meets me in the Alex Johnson lobby for a personalized walking tour of downtown. In all honesty, I have very little memory of the city except for the airport, from which my family and I departed at the end of our ‘89 trip. What I discover today is a vibrant, hip and thoroughly happening urban enclave that is far more than “just” a medium-size city of the west.

Among its treasures are Art Alley, a strip behind several businesses where local artisans paint, by permission of the city, the walls on either side to glorious effect. Downtown also boasts various shops of American Indian and other Western artifacts and modern and traditional crafts, many craft breweries and, its piece de resistance, the “City of Presidents” sculptures. There is one life-size mockup for every chief executive who has served our great nation from its founding under George Washington and on through to George W. Bush. (Barack Obama’s statue is due to be unveiled in 2018.) Each one has the former leader in appropriate dress and in a pose that highlights something unique about him. Ergo, Abraham Lincoln is seen comforting a young Civil War soldier, Teddy Roosevelt in his Rough Riders getup and John F. Kennedy holding the hand of his son mid-stride.

Julie takes me to Murphy’s Pub [510 9th St, Rapid City, South Dakota, 57701,605/791-2244) a local institution among the beer cognoscenti, Irish or non. It’s a great spot to sit outside and enjoy a South Dakota beer, whether the Lost Cabin Scotch Ale from here in Rapid or a Crow Peak Cream Ale from Spearfish, South Dakota. I also enjoy tasting a Mercenary IPA and the West River Pale Ale from Miner Brewing Company.

It’s a Friday night and the town is absolutely thrumming. Music at Main Street Square presents local talent on an outdoor stage in the happening town square, and I quickly find my bliss at Press Start (504 Mt Rushmore Rd #2, Rapid City, SD 57701, 605/791-1600), a vintage arcade bar of the type I have recently covered for this publication. Old-school games — including the original “Indiana Jones the Temple of Doom” can be enjoyed along with some more quality craft suds for hipsters eager to embrace nostalgia and get a nice buzz simultaneously.

I walk back to the Alex Johnson for some martinis at the Vertex Sky Bar, which is a rooftop bar with a rather healthy liquor collection and some absolutely knowledgeable barkeeps who will whip up some rather singular cocktails. I enjoy a chocolate martini on the outdoor deck, where guests warm up by a fire pit with their drinks. 

I head back down to my room for some needed rest — daring the ghosts to disturb me.

 

Saturday:

When I was last here 27 years ago, we pulled up to the ranger station, where my father asked if there were any open campsites.

“Yeah, a couple,” said the gate agent, his tone all but decreeing, “You foolish tourist.”

The experience of camping in the Badlands is not soon forgotten, nor are the memories, three decades later, of awakening at 7 a.m. absolutely dripping in sweat from summer’s heat infesting the tent.

I need my creature comforts these days, air conditioning chief among them, so for my return to Badlands National Park (25216 Ben Reifel Rd., Interior, South Dakota, 57750, 605/433-5361), I crank up the AC and crank up Bruce, who, while not specifically singing about these parts, nonetheless decreed “you gotta live it everyday.”

Badlands simply cannot be done justice in photographs. Formed by mineral deposits and then eroded over millennia and baked in the terrific desert head, the red-and-white bluffs dare the visitor to look away — as well as treat them with respect. Indians called this place home for centuries before European contact, and got to know not only the best trails through them, but the ever-important water supplies hidden among the seeming desolateness.

Whether you’re here for a few hours or several days, you must be absolutely cognizant of your water supply. It’s called Badlands for a reason, and on a typical summer day like today, the sun is brilliant above, with temperatures knocking on triple digits and no shade to be found. (And for those as pasty as me, sunscreen is also a requirement.)

If you enter the park from the north on U.S. 240, your first stop should be the Pinnacles Overlook, where the reality and the gravity of this place will strike you with its starkness of color, dryness and stark beauty. Try your best to say on the paths provided, but you can venture closer to the precipices for awesome photographs (but be careful).

For optimal experience, proceed west to east through the park, whose shape represents the state of West Virginia with a giant comet tail attached. If you’re feeling adventurous, hop out of the car and take a stroll on the Castle Trail. Mind you, this is a very steep hike, so you need shoes with some grip, as well as a constant awareness of your surroundings and steps. The full loop could take hours, but if you go up to the first ridge, you can enjoy a nearly 360-degree view. Smile at your accomplishment, take the requisite selfie, and down some agua before heading back down.

To learn more about the geology of the place, the Ben Reifel Visitor Center offers a comprehensive primer — as well as restrooms. Don’t forget to refill your water bottles while you’re at it.

After exploring the glory of the primeval, I’m of a mind for some modern convenience. Ergo, it’s time to pop by the famous Wall Drug Store [510 Main St, Wall, South Dakota, 57790, 605/279-2175], a 76,000-square-foot drug store and gift shop featuring multiple spots to eat. Whether you’re after a meal, tchotchkes or simply a stroll through an oddball piece of Americana, this is a definite spot to check out in the area.

I aim back west on I-90, my destination a rather infamously historical former mining town to the north of Rapid City.

Whether or not you were a fan of the eponymous HBO gunslinger series, the town of Deadwood is an icon of a bygone era, when the frontier was as lethal as those who inhabited it. Among the visitors hoping to strike it rich were Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane, often found in the saloons and gambling houses on the main drag. You can visit the Saloon #10 (657 Main St., Deadwood, South Dakota, 57732, 605/578-3346), the gin joint where Hickok was shot in the head by rival card player, the drunken Jack McCall, on August 1, 1876.

(Hickok, at the moment he was shot, had the dead man’s hand in his fingers, two black aces and black eights.)

Deadwood CVB’s marketing director, Amanda Kille, meets me for lunch at Deadwood Social Club, located directly above Saloon #10. Over delicious martinis and the wild boar dip appetizer, Amanda informs me that gambling was legalized in Deadwood in 1989, making it the third place in the U.S. to do so after Las Vegas and Atlantic City. (At the time, this was understandably still a novelty.)

Directly downstairs, Amanda introduces me to Remo Addington in Saloon #10’s rather extensive whiskey bar, where 171 varieties of the good stuff are on offer. Remo, a genial fellow who clearly knows his liquids, offers up a flight of Old Forrester. The 1870 is smooth as all hell, and rather apropos for this place haunted by the ghosts of the Old West. The 1897 actually boats a healthy hint of spiciness, and the 1920 115 proof is like breathing fire. To cool my tonsils, I get a pour of Buffalo Trace Select.

In the adjoining room of the saloon, I catch a reenactment of Wild Bill’s final moments at the very table where he died, and outside on Main Street, actors also play out a shootout in front of the storefronts, showcasing just how wild was the west in Hickok’s day.

I take a stroll up and down Main St., popping in a few more bars and even plopping down — and losing — $20 at the blackjack tables. But my fortunes turn upon discovering The Midnight Star (677 Main St., Deadwood, SD 57732, 605/578-1555), a tavern owned by none other than Kevin Costner, who filmed 1990 best picture “Dances With Wolves” around South Dakota. Memorabilia from throughout Mr. Costner’s career is on display at the top-floor pub Diamond Lil’s, from his baseball getup from “For Love of the Game” to the suit he wore in the Depression-set “The Untouchables.”

My next stop is crucial before dark. I remember seeing those stone faces nearly three decades ago, as well as the evening speech the ranger gave in Mount Rushmore’s amphitheater. And so to Mount Rushmore National Memorial (13000 Hwy 44, Bldg. 31, Keystone, SD 57751, 605/574-2523), completed the year the U.S. entered the Second World War. Many stone masons, experts and other workers labored here during the Great Depression, hewing from solid granite the faces of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt over the course of 14 arduous years as a way to both honor America’s past while also conjuring a way to draw in tourist dollars to the then-remote Black Hills.

Visit the museum to learn more about the planning, construction and history of how the monument was constructed, and why these specific four men were chosen. Take the requisite photos with the statue heads (or, if you’re like me, take one where you get your head there as the “fifth” wheel). Or take a leisurely stroll along the hiking paths surrounding the monument.

Most importantly, stay for the evening lecture in the park’s amphitheater. When I was here 28 years ago, a ranger related that a man she observed once refused to stand for the National Anthem — “I don’t like the way things are going” — and how such thoughts were anathema to George Washington, et al. Tonight, a much young ranger tells of losing his fiancee in a car accident, and then coming west to find his new purpose.

At the conclusion of his lecture, great lights beam illumination upon the faces of the four presidents in the South Dakota evening, drawing applause. The house lights come up, and the ranger then invites veterans of all five branches of the armed services to the stage, drawing not just more applause but a standing ovation.

Is there a better way to cap the day than with a beer? If you find one, kindly do not [ital] let me know about it. So back to Rapid City, where I find myself at the oldest brewery in town, Firehouse Brewing Company, (610 Main St., Rapid City, South Dakota, 57701, 605/348-1915) situated inside a former firehouse (natch). This is a fun spot, with a lively outdoor patio to watch the hipsters amble by as a talented solo guitarist covers the hits of today and yesteryear in turn — and takes requests.

The winner is the Firehouse Red, with its crisp taste and easy profile and the blue buffalo burger entree is outstanding.

I wish I had more time. I was told there was so much I had to see here in Rapid City, and I only got to some of it. I can only hope it’s not another 28 years before I return again.

Somehow, I don’t think it will be.

For information on Rapid City, go to VisitRapidCity.com.

 

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