March 2015 - Snow, Statuary and Stripes

Ralph's Blog

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I'm going to include a bunch of links in this blog, there are so many interesting details behind what we saw that I couldn't fit them all in. I encourage you to check some of the references, there's some interesting stories there.

Once again we got some pretty good diesel mileage (sounds funny, but we don't use gas in the pickup) on our way out of Yellowstone. We dropped about a mile of elevation on our two day trip to Custer SD. The town is named for the much maligned general, but we didn't see any real memorials to the man. There was much more to the man who we only remember for being killed so spectacularly. Check out his web page on Wikipedia, it's an interesting read.

On the way we took a side trip to National Monument the Satan-obsessed early settlers called the Devil's Tower,a very impressive rock formation that Native Americans prefer to call the Bear's House or the Bear's Lodge or some similar variant depending on their tribe. Looking at the rather steep and narrow road up to the visitor's center we opted to unhook the Gypsy Wagon and ascend with the pickup alone. Good choice, that; we might have made it and been able to park and turn around but it would have been hairy.

We had to stop for another Animal Jam, this one where some genuine cowboys on genuine horses were herding genuine cattle across the road in front of us. Of course the one maverick cowboy on an ATV kind of spoiled the rustic scene, but it was fun to watch. Things like this are what makes being a tourist worthwhile.

Arriving at the almost deserted campground we pushed the button to open the trailer and listened to the contented hum of the hydraulics, that is until a loud BANG! From the bedroom interrupted our serenity. We looked around and couldn't find any problems, so we cautiously continue to open the trailer without any further problems. When I went out to hook up the water I found the curtain rod we use to keep the closet doors closed while we travel sticking out of the side of the trailer. With words I won't repeat I removed the rod and covered the hole with duct tape. Oh, the joys of the traveling life!

Of course the big attraction nearby is Mount Rushmore. The place is impressive, but I found the museum in the visitor's center as interesting as the carving itself. Gutzon Borglum, the chief sculptor, solved some amazing engineering challenges and artistic hurdles to create the monument with some pretty primitive tools. Sadly, much of the interesting stuff was closed as we were there off season, even the hiking trail was closed for repairs. I did get a picture of Judy in front of Gutzon ?? studio.

A few miles away is the Crazy Horse Memorial, a partially completed memorial to the Native American leader. Refusing any government grants, the work has been slow. Sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski's and his family survived on grants and by running a dairy farm in primitive conditions while he carved alone. There were times where he had to ascend and descend the mountain several times a day when his cranky air compressor died in the middle of the work. The third generation of his family are still carving the mountain to this day; who knows how many generations it will take to complete.

How it will look when it's done

There is a wonderful visitor's center but the lack of funding is apparent from the many roof leaks in the fairly new buildings. Definitely worth a visit, it's a fascinating place. The best part was the bus driver, who was full of interesting and humorous stories about the place.

The town of Custer turned out to be full of surprises; in fact Mount Rushmore turned out to be much less interesting than all the other interesting places we found. We usually find the local tourist bureau or visitor's center and load up on tri-color brochures that urge you to spend all your money in the area before you return home.

On our way into town from the near-deserted RV park we passed a sign for the National Museum of Woodcarving. It's a private museum, but if they say it's National I won't argue because it's a great place to visit. Most of it is the incredible collection of Harley Niblack, who created automated dioramas of incredible detail. He was so good he collaborated with Disney on their animatronics projects. You can see one of them on You-tube. They also have a great gift shop and resident carvers you can watch work if you are there at the right time. A fascinating place.

We were delighted to find two caves nearby to explore. This was a great idea since the weather was cloudy and rainy, not a day to be exploring the great outdoors. Flipping a coin, we started at the Jewel Cave. Luck was not with us, however, as the elevators were broken and they weren't offering tours until they were fixed. As we were walking out we met three elderly women on their way in. We stopped to tell them the elevators were broken and one of the women says "That's no problem. This lady is Jan Conn, she and her husband were the ones that explored this cave!" Jan looked like 'Oh, not again' but she must have been used to such introductions.

After a bit of conversation they went in and we left for the Wind Cave, which was open. There we had a brush with fame as the ranger was very impressed we had met Jan Conn in person. If you followed the link you will appreciate just how much Jan has done in her life, the hero-worship is justified.

The Wind Caves has some 300 concrete stairs. Along the way someone asked about them and we learned they were the product of the CCC. Once again we were impressed by the phenomenal legacy the Civilian Conservation Corps left for this country. Those concrete stairs were made by the CCC workers filling an inner tube with 80 pounds of concrete, hanging it around their necks and walking as much as a mile to the construction site. There they dumped the concrete and walked back for another load. Amazing!

Then there's the badlands. We were hoping to see them in the sunshine, but the weather wasn't cooperating. We drove an hour or so the area on the back roads because we were sick of Interstates. The GPS didn't help much but we had a map and followed it as best we could. The map said the entrance was north of us, but the only road we found was a one lane dirt track. We drove on for about ten miles and finally turned back. Darned if the dirt track wasn't the actual entrance, which turned into a good asphalt road at the park entrance, which was in the middle of nowhere.

Even on a cloudy day near sunset the scenery is spectacular. We had a small Animal Jam (we were getting used to them by now) when a herd of goats decided to cross the road, but they were fun to watch. Somebody must be watching them because several were wearing tracking collars. Thanks to the Internet we found out a little bit about what was going on.

We took the main roads back as it was getting toward dark, only to find an endless series of billboards inviting us to visit Wall Drugs, which boasted just about every kind of business you can imagine in addition to being a drug store. I mean like one every 500 yards for miles and miles. What the heck, we detoured to Wall, SD to see what it was all about.

What we didn't realize was it was Sunday night, there wasn't a darn thing open in the town. What a disappointment! Not even a glass of free ice water, which was what brought the desert store to prominence in the 1930s. I guess it will have to wait for the next trip.

We got back to the Jewel Caves, which had an extensive system of modern steel and aluminum decking to enable us to walk through the twisting cavern. The jewel part comes from the many calcite crystals in the cave, which refract the lighting beautifully. Early explorers thought they had found diamonds and were very disappointed when it wasn't true. With 178.91 miles of mapped cave it's the third longest cave in the world. We only did the half mile scenic tour, but it was well worth it. If you want to get muddy and crawl on you hands and knees there are tours for that, too.

Cave Bacon

One other remarkable thing happened while we were in Custer. We saw a sign on the local credit union for a folk orchestra and storytelling concert. Of course we checked it out and found our way to the library at the appointed time. We met some very nice people and there in the orchestra was Jan Conn. Talking with the people there we found she is an accomplished musician as well as cave explorer and had even made the bass flute she was playing. The evening had the feel of Golden Link's Tuesday singarounds, lots of people gathered to enjoy the music. Wonderful evenings like this are one of the greatest pleasures of traveling the country.

Jan Conn is on the left with the bass flute

Naturally, as we were ready to move on the weatherman was predicting a major snowstorm to hit the area about noon the day we were leaving. We woke early and were ready to leave by 9AM, but the weather had arrived early. As we pulled out of the RV park it began to show in earnest.

Custer is in a valley with some pretty steep hills around it; by the time we hit the first climb I had a bad feeling. Hauling 8 tons of RV in the snow is no fun, climbing a hill in the snow is a pain. About halfway up the hill I started to slip, and looking back in the mirror I saw about a thousand cars behind me - no pressure, eh? The further we went the slower I had to go as the wheels slipped. I wish I had put it into 4-wheel drive before starting up the hill, but I was stuck in 2-wheel drive; you have to stop completely to change over and I knew I wasn't going to be able to start up again if I stopped. I was moving pretty slow by the time the hill flattened out and I gratefully pulled to the side of the road to let all the traffic pass.

After an hour or so of challenging driving we finally made it back to Route 90. Reaching the Interstate we were amused to find gates much like you'll find in a parking garage along the road; the area is subject to some pretty serious storms and they have to close down the road often enough to justify the big gates. We drove through several short blizzards that day, having to slow or stop several times, but the gates stayed open. The next day was no better, snow and lousy driving.

We were relieved when it started to rain, and least rain doesn't pile up - or so we thought. After several torrential downpours we were now coping with the possibility of floods. So, blizzards, torrential rains, what could come next? Oh yeah, tornados, we were in the Midwest.

Well, not really a tornado, but when we reached the Missouri River the winds were howling outside the RV that night, the trailer was shaking lustily as the gusts blew through the trees of the campsite. It's easy to psych yourself out under such circumstances - you remember all the pictures of shredded houses in the trailer park after a tornado and start to wonder if you'll be featured on the 11 o'clock news, at least the parts of you that the rescuers pick up.

Morning eventually came after an uneasy night's sleep, we were in one piece and nothing was damaged. The day's travel took us to Mineral Point, Wisconsin to visit an old friend and to see Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin East.

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