In the Black Hills of South Dakota...
The Black Hills are a wonderful place filled with interesting sights and history, so this will be a longer than normal post. Sorry! :-)
The day I arrived into South Dakota, was one of the tougher days of the trip. There was either a headwind or a crosswind most of the day that made each mile seem twice as long. But, a strange thing happened as I crossed the border into my home state. I got the feeling that everything is better in South Dakota! The pavement definitely got better. (Nebraska could learn something from SD on shoulder pavement.) It felt like more people were waving as they passed me. The road changed directions just enough that the wind wasn't so troublesome. And within a few miles there was a roadside park that was prettier than anything I'd seen since the mountains of Colorado. A nice little pond with a few trees, grasslands covered in yellow blooms, birds chirping, and a covered picnic table to sit at and take it all in while having a bite to eat. Unfortunately, the feeling lasted only a few miles. Then the road angled back into the wind. The wind got stronger with more gusts. And traffic picked up as the day wore on. But it was fun while it lasted and it felt like a 'welcome home' to me.
I took a day off in Hot Springs, SD before diving into the heart of the Black Hills. This town must have been something in its heyday. The town was founded by a rich industrialist by the name of Evans around 1890. With a natural hot spring here, he envisioned the town as a spa destination to attract weary cross-country travelers. He started a sandstone quarry a few miles from town that was used to build many beautiful stone buildings throughout the town. He also started what is now known as Evans Plunge, which is still the world's largest indoor spring-fed pool. In the 1970's another attraction was discovered - a site where hundreds of mammoths were trapped, died and preserved in the muck of a sinkhole 20,000 years ago. But, like many small towns across the US, Hot Springs has fallen on hard times. Many of the beautiful stone buildings sit empty due to the decline in tourism and the dwindling mining and timber industries in the Hills. But I still enjoyed the signs of quirky small-town life here such as on the Senior Citizens Center - 'Texas Hold 'Em Tournament, Every Friday Night' and at the VFW hall - 'Karaoke Saturdays at 7pm'. I like that they spread them out so you don't have to pick between poker and singing on the same night! I don't know about your family, but my grandma never played poker and my dad, who was a VFW member, never sang anywhere but in church (and that was was more of a low mumble than real singing).
In the 1880's, a railroad line was built through the Black Hills to support the mining and timber industries. It ran from Deadwood in the north to Edgemont in the south until 1981. In the late 80's the idea of converting the abandoned railway to a hiking and biking trail was developed. Then Governor George Mickelson was a strong supporter of the idea and after his untimely death in 1993, the trail was named for him. The full 109-mile route of the Mickelson Trail was completed in 1998. This was my route for three days. The trail is very well maintained and was a joy to ride. No traffic, spectacular mountain scenery, easy grades up and down the hills, over 100 trestle bridge crossings, several tunnels drilled through granite mountains, interesting sites like the Crazy Horse Monument and Homestake Mine, historic towns like Custer and Deadwood, old ghost towns like Mystic and Rochford, and beautiful side trips to places like Custer State Park, Sylvan Lake and Needles Highway. Anyone with an interest in a two or three day bike trip, would be hard pressed to find a better location than the Mickelson Trail.
One of the trail highlights for me was the Crazy Horse Monument. The story of this monument is really amazing. In the 1940's, a sculptor named Korczak Ziolkowski was asked by the Sioux Indian tribe if he'd be interested in carving a monument in the Black Hills so that "the white man will know that the red man has heroes too". Korczak was a self-taught sculptor and had been an apprentice of Gutzon Borglum's at Mount Rushmore. He decided to make this project his life's work. He had $174 to his name when he arrived in the Black Hills. In the beginning he worked alone on the mountain. He lived in a tent at the site for the first 7 months. There was no electricity, water or any other conveniences. Korczak made his first dynamite blast on the mountain in 1948. That detonation removed about 10 tons of stone. Since that time, over 1,000,000 tons of stone have been blasted from the mountain. The scale of the thing is enormous. When finished, the sculpture will be the world's largest at 563 ft tall by 641 ft long. To get an idea of how big it will be, the four faces of Mt. Rushmore would all fit within just the head of Crazy Horse. Because of the massive size, progress is measured in decades. Korczak died in 1982, but the project continues to be run by his wife, Ruth, and their children. They had ten kids and all but three still work on the project. When I lived here, the sculpture was little more than an outline painted on the mountain so you could envision what was planned. Now, the face of Crazy Horse has been completed. It was unveiled in 1998, 50 years after work began. Work continues on the massive head of the horse that Crazy Horse will ride. The other amazing thing is that the project is all privately funded. The main source of revenue is admission fees to the visitor's center at the site. The family has turned down government grants of over $10 million because they believe that this is a free enterprise project. It will only be funded as long as people are interested in coming and seeing the work.
In my opinion, the most beautiful place in the Black Hills, and maybe in the country, is the area around Sylvan Lake and the Needles Highway. Granite spires and monoliths spring out of the pine forest in dramatic fashion. Geologists say that these rocks are some of the oldest exposed rocks in the world at over 2 billion years old. Getting to Sylvan Lake involves steep switchbacks up the hills with the road going through narrow one-lane tunnels built right through the granite. These tunnels are only 8-10 feet wide making navigation on anything wider than a bike a challenge. Sylvan Lake sits near the top of the mountain range. It's a small lake, but in an impossibly perfect setting. The lake is surrounded by pines and sheer granite walls. The lake is used by campers, fishermen, people in paddle boats, swimmers and hikers who walk the path around the lake. Nearby is a beautiful lodge and restaurant and the area is a popular place for rock climbing.
The Mickelson Trail ends in Deadwood. The twin towns of Deadwood and Lead made their fame during the 1870's gold rush. Mining began at the Homestake Mine in 1876 and the mine was in near continuous operation for the next 125 years making it the longest operating mine in history. More gold was pulled out of the ground here than any other mine in the western hemisphere. Since the mine closed in 2001, plans to build an underground science lab on the site have been made. The depth of the mine shafts make it possible to conduct atomic particle experiments that won't be impacted by cosmic radiation. Lab space will be built at 5000 and 8000 ft underground.
Deadwood was a real wild west town. This is where Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok lived. Hickok was famously shot while playing poker at the No. 10 Saloon. Ever since, the poker hand he held (a full house with aces and eights) has been called the Dead Man's Hand. In the 1990's Deadwood legalized gambling as part of its 'historical heritage'. Of course, gambling has now taken over the city. Every hotel, bar and store has at least a few slot machines. It's hard to decide if this has really been a good thing for the town or not. On the positive side, it has dramatically grown the economy, created many jobs and improved the infrastructure of the town. On the negative side, the town is cheesily touristy. During summer, re-enactments of Wild Bill's shooting are held in the streets three times a day. Any semblance of normal businesses have been pushed out of the historical district.
After Deadwood, I'm headed to Rapid City to revisit my old college haunts and then across the state to my home town. I guess I'll find out if you really can go home or not.