American Sabbatical 019: 9/23/96

Rocky Raccoon

9/22-23... Black Hills.

We are parked on a dirt road looking back at the Black Hills. While Peggy draws them, I’ll try and describe our search for Rocky Raccoon. Peggy got up yesterday in the campground in the night and came face to face with a buffalo in the moonlight. Custer Park is full of them, but it seems strange to see bison browsing in the woods.. although they did, and do, of course.. and among the Winnebagos. Four-legged time warps.

Black Hills (Peggy)

We chose to leave our tent pitched by the brook, and circle the hills, starting out for Mt. Rushmore. The road from our camp was a narrow serpentine blacktop, twisting and spiraling steeply up and vertiginously down through the dark ponderosa parklands. Virtually no understory, but occasional breaks of mountain meadow, and sudden views of jutting pinnacles and great domes of sedimentary and granite rock. An altogether bold and muscular place. One-lane tunnels ninefoot by ninefoot kept us alert, as did the shoulderless drop-offs alongside. In a couple of places there were ‘pigtail bridges’ where the road curved round in a spiral on trestles and passed under itself.

Mt. Rushmore
Suddenly, framed in a stonecut tunnel there was Mt. Rushmore. In fact, that is the only view uninterrupted by construction. The locals say the park has been “Washingtonized”, and the foundations for bigger car parks and information centers are well in progress. Maybe just as well. The lot was FULL, on a September Sunday. I can’t imagine it in high season. The state of South Dakota provided the initial financing for this monument, way back when, to bring tourists to the area, and it’s proved a great investment. Now the feds want to play, too.

My initial response, upon finding the view from the lot blocked by a large colonnade of granite pillars cum gift shoppes, was disgust, but once up into the memorial way leading toward THE VIEW, I switched horses. This neo-Romanizing way out in the hills is somehow apt. Making a processional way to a granite hill somehow fits. Yes, we have chiseled away at the mountain and put Great American Portraits on a mountainside.. but isn’t that part of the story? The exaltation of the individual. Isn’t this our ancestor worship, and our nature worship, all curiously stirred together?

From Maine.. Mt. Rushmore is a tourist curiosity, perhaps, or a memorial to four dead presidents, but up close the stew is richer. For one thing there is a fifth personage honored here: Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor. His presence rises up with the rocks. Then there is the setting, this rugged mountainous parkland that jumps out of the high plains. Now, tourist traps make me very uncomfortable, unless they are honkytonkcomic, so I was surprised to be moved by such a dubious icon as Mt. Rushmore. I find monumental sculpture, generally, a cheap trick. It awes us by scale, not content, or artistry. But here is the premier American artform, portraiture, done to scale with the place, the American West. And it works. Hats off to Borglum, and to us.

I might add that Jefferson comes off rather badly in the portrait department..and then there’s TR. Teddy is one of Peggy’s heroes, but is he one of the four horsemen, part of the supreme pantheon? Borglum thought so, although the promotional arguments of his day were half-hearted.. all about the Panama Canal and Trust Busting as big steps in bringing the continent and people together, blahblah. From this distance TR belongs on Rushmore because he was an Easterner transformed by the West. Washington was the indispensable man, Jefferson sang the song and envisioned manifest destiny, Lincoln (of the West) held us together, and Teddy lived out the westering dream. TR is the more real to us, perhaps, because he hasn’t been iconized into a higher heaven. Read his books, especially The Winning of the West. Although, inevitably full of his rahrah, they tell our mystery tale.. about the frontier.

4 Horsemen

From Rushmore we completed our tour of the Black Hills with a stop at Sylvan Lake for a walkabout. The lake is at the top of the park and climbers were rappelling off Harney Peak in the background while mythic figures of stone rose out of the waters before us. Some masses of stone have a powerful presence and these granite personages were a cthonic counterpoint to the chippings at Mt. Rushmore.

Harney Peak
We rode the rollercoaster back to bisonville and tried to smother ourselves with another wet wood fire. As the emigrants did, so we have to learn (or relearn) the little details of camping. That using an aluminum spaceblanket over you make your bedding a sodden sweatlodge. That camping in a stream valley beside a mountain puts you in a cold draft. That you can’t argue with wet wood. But the list of petty miseries would make you cry over your keyboards. It rained both nights we spent in Custer State, and we figured that three was too much, so we broke camp and went in search of new wonders to see...besides the dead elk in the back of a hunter’s pickup on the way out of camp. (Amazing rack..what a grand animal.)

It was my turn to be the cause of a museum stop: the HIGHLY ACCLAIMED NATIONAL MUSEUM OF WOODCARVING in Custer. You have to admire these mom-and-pop museums. First, having the nads to charge $6 per to get in, then having coin-operated exhibits inside. This MUSEUM featured the collected animated woodcarvings of Dr. H. Niblack. Well, what can I say? The carved cowboy-booted furniture may have been the best. Or was it the old lady (full sized) in the outhouse you could disturb? Or... in fact, it was an endless collection of hideous mechanized carvings, and I promise NEVER to bequeath a carving museum, ever.

We had intended to drive 60 miles south into Nebraska to see THE WIDELY ACCLAIMED MUSEUM OF THE FUR TRADE, but the Niblack impresarios (since 1967) told us we better call first, as the old couple who ran the place might be out napping. We decided not to risk another mom-and-pop show, and let’er smoke for North Dakota.

Where we are now, at our favorite modem jack .. a Super8 .. in Bowman. Peggy has jumped into a warm John Grisham, so this will go out solo voce.

9/23.. Deadwood.

We did stop in Deadwood to look for Rocky Raccoon, by the way. There’s nothing as dead as an easy money town on a Monday morning, which may excuse my lapse of memory.

Approaching Deadwood from the south the first thing you see is a towering mine tipple, hanging over the skyline, with a big white industrial shed perched on top of the black tailings. The Homestead, biggest gold mine in North America. The big shining still lords it over Deadwood after 100 years, and tourists from Omaha and Wichita still flock there to find it. Only now they play the slots and the BlackJack tables instead of panning the creeks. A town that canonizes Wild Bill Hickcock and Calamity Jane can’t be all good.

Homestead Mine

We’d stopped for a bite, but the only eateries were casinos. That meant the prices were low, though, so we were content to listen to the wurlitzer musak and the payoff fanfares. The neon and chrome glisten 24 hours a day in these places, and it was hard to guess the time once inside. In fact it was 11:30AM, and they were still on the breakfast menu. That kind of place. Peggy pleaded with the waitress for something green, which caused a commotion in the kitchen. In the end the waitress brought a sliced raw zucchini (how did they know about Mainers and zucchini) with sour cream, shaking her head about such exotic tastes.

Ladies of Deadwood
I still contend that a chain of vegetarian restaurants with their own greenhouses could succeed in America, but they’d have to sell the green stuff as some foreign cuisine. After a gambler’s breakfast I strolled the main street, looking for a showdown, or someone to brag to....or some trace of Rocky, or Nancy, or Dan. I’d been humming that damned tune for two days and I expected it would be playing in at least one saloon. All I heard was the entire Roy Orbison canon. Why is it that all smoky barrooms featuring slots and shots have the Orb crooning low on the juke? And is it true that widow ladies from Dubuque don’t die, they just play the slots forever? Deadwood may be wild on Saturday night, but it’s a sad place full of deadeyed Dicks and Janes on Mondays. The only action was the lingeried lady-mannikins in the windows above Wild Bill’s Bar. Rocky’d checked out.

Descending out of the Black Hills we found someone had poured bleach on the landscape. The dark ponderosa pines which give the hills their name thinned out, clung to the last hillocks and ridgelines, and then it was dry grasses for a million miles. Forgive me if I can’t seem to stop wondering on this higher plain. Imagine a huge beige room with one black spot on the wall. Every subtle detail stands out like that in the Dakotas. Here is an illuminated surface of shades so close, and yet with endless variations, from the palest yellowgreen through all the light browns to an alkali white...and across such a canvas the shadows of clouds come as a shock.

Today the sky was full of inflated cumulus, white, gray, and black, hanging in an iridescent blue, so close overhead you could almost touch them.. and their shadows slid over the grasslands bringing swells and dips into relief in their passage. Almost flat and formless in the glaring sun, it was the shades of the big sky dancing that gave texture to the earth.

"Open Range"

Distant buttes and lone mountains stand up like waymarks on a sea journey, but no ocean looks half so vast, because it is without definition of the middle distances, and is never seen (in a boat) from such heights as atop prairie swells. And that big sky all around. This is a hard place to be small minded. Or if you are it will crush you. The way small details loom large is like small town life anywhere. Life is in the little things. A dead badger on the shoulder. A herd of antelope spooking and bouncing off when you stop the car. A touch of red flowers along an alkali stream. The intense yellowgreen in a low seep. A change in the earth tones. A change of cropping. This landscape demands all your attention to appreciate its fullness. A place that can shock you to silence with its scale, and move you with a fenceline, is a wonder. I can’t imagine anyone out here capturing it on canvas, or anyone back there understanding if they did. We are full up to our eyebones with it, and its right outside waiting for us in the morning. G’night little doggies.

9/23... TR’s ranch.

Riding across the big empty in western North Dakota, with bleached prairie to the horizon, you suddenly come to a brink and look down into a mudscape sculpted by gigantic children: the Dakota badlands. This is the place where Teddy Roosevelt bought shares in a ranch, then started his own. The place, he said, that made him President. It is wild enough to shake you out of an urban complacency, to be sure.

The earthshapes look like molten muck, baked and carved. Apparently that’s close to the truth, as much of the techtonics resulted from burning lignite which melted the sedimentary overburden, which slumped into the yellow and salmon crazyclay now exposed. Megacotta. The sparse vegetation clings to narrow niches defined by moisture. Down in the bottom, along the Little Missouri, the cottonwoods thrive, the grasses are rich and green, and the buffalo roam.. at least that’s where we saw one.. hard by the comfort station in the campground. Do we see a pattern here? In the sheltered coulees aspens and cottonwoods were turning bright yellow with the first frosts, while the junipers and the sages dotted the prospect with blackgreen and dusty ultramarine. We stopped to try and draw a draw, but our sixshooters were too slow. Tough stuff, these subtle hills.

We picked up a copy of TR’s book(s) about his ranching days, illustrated by Remington, which was missing at the Bowdoin library all year. His clarity of prose is just as refreshing as the wind up a coulee.

TR's Ranch (Bryce)

TR's Ranch (Peggy)
We considered camping with buffalo again, but that breeze WAS cool, and the day was still young, so we sidled over into Montana, and did the sights of Wibau. That took us til closing time.. the statue of Wibau, himself, and the one restaurant, that is. Then we decided on another Super8 (because it was the only lodging available). There we were surprised to discover that Mr. Modem won’t recognize a whiny dial tone, so I didn’t get to send some snappy prose to you eager listeners..

hello.. are there any listeners out there? Maybe you’re waiting for Peggy:

(Memo # 19)

Sept. 22 - Badlands, Buffalo, and Black Hills

Who? settlers, ranchers, tourists

What? badlands, a type of landscape

Where? North and South Dakota

When? always

How? difficult land to travel, farm, ranch

Topics: Badlands and badlands, Black Hills, Mt. Rushmore, TR.

Questions: Why are the Black Hills called black? What and where are the badlands?

Dakota Highway

So far the most beautiful states we’ve seen have been Iowa and South Dakota. I am amazed I haven’t read more about them. Iowa was smaller scale, a patchwork of fields of different crops with lovely green river valleys. The Dakotas are open and vast. The colors are subtle, the horizon endless. Crossing the Missouri River at Chamberlain, we began to see the amber waves of grain, only they were beige and wheat and taupe with subtle changes of hue. Very beautiful and lonely and vast. Rolling swells. Then you begin to see the weird upthrust shapes on the horizon. You get closer and then are in the badlands, at Badlands National Park, SD., endless masses of fractured buttes. Some of the landscape looks chiseled, other parts look like hasty mud pie jobs.The roads twists around and up and down. The colors change from beige to pink and umber.



At Badlands, we took the tourist loop and then headed off on a dirt secondary road. Suddenly we were alongside 4 buffalo who ignored us. We got to watch them close at hand, grazing and dozing and ambling along. They are quiet, healthy, majestic animals. I was surprised that the heavy coat is only around their forequarters. We stopped in a grassy valley, took a walk, and scared a coyote out of his drinking spot. Back in the car and we drive into the middle of another small buffalo herd just crossing the road. Incredible to glance up at a butte and see a buffalo outlined against the sky.

All the national parks seem to have buffalo herds and “Beware of Bison” signs. I had every intention of doing so until a buffalo blocked my path as I walked at dawn toward a campground bathroom. Stopped me dead. We’re told they are “quite aggressive” and a sign of impending attack is a tail lifted right up. Hard to see the tail in the predawn gray. I decided to take a more circular route. He didn’t seem to care one way or the other. When I mentioned the campground buffalo, the manager said he had to “shoo” eight or ten out a week! Glad you told us!!

There are two ways the word “badlands” is used. It IS a generic term for a certain kind of landscape - broken buttes and many small canyons. So many states have "badlands" in this sense, both North and South Dakota, Montana and others. However, THE Badlands (with a capital B) seems to be the national park in South Dakota. This is why it’s so confusing when you read about the area.

Good Morning


Mt. Rushmore

The Black Hills are truly beautiful. We would call them mountains in Maine The softwood trees really do look black at a distance and are a shock next to the subtle plains grasslands. There is no undergrowth, so the Black Hills seem like an English manorial park with grass and small meadows and glades throughout which buffalo and elk and deer graze. A large area had been hit by a fire some years back. There are lovely campgrounds and trails. We camped two nights. We drove to Mt. Rushmore.

Our first sight of the mountain was framed through a small tunnel as our mountain road brought us in view. It’s breathtaking. First of all I didn’t really know how high the cliff is that was carved. You can’t just walk up and gaze up at the faces, they are VERY high up at the top of a mountain and the viewing area is basically across a valley. This makes the feat of carving them even more impressive. The Parks Service has added a stone processional way from the parking lots to the view. Impressive.

And you have to be astounded at sculptor Gutzon Borglum’s vision. The scale is incredible, the work it took outrageous. Tons of rock were removed. It took fourteen years (1927-41), 380 workmen, and $989,000 to complete.

There are sculptors working in that scale today - Christo wraps huge buildings in canvas and surrounds chains of islands with pink plastic. Stan Herd makes huge pictures visible from the air in fields - i.e. he both plants specific things to get certain color and also cuts parts of fields to attain details. A second mountain sculpture (of Native American leader Crazy Horse) is in the process twenty miles+ away, and from a distance you can really see that they are cutting huge chunks off a mountain.

Earth Sculpture

Borglum first thought of two full length figures. The choice of TR was his. Why? Borglum admired him, barnstormed for him, saw a connection to the Dakotas since TR owned ranches here. The sculptor may even have welcomed controversy as free PR. The faces seem to vary a lot in the skill of the carving. Washington seemed less detailed. I would not have recognized Jefferson if I hadn’t been told it was him. Lincoln and TR seem the most detailed and true. A local woman told us she visited them in all weather to see them in bright sun and shade and winter. The sculpture was intended as a tourist draw. It is and deserves to be, a national icon that didn’t disappoint.

Other Badlands and TR

High Prairie
I really wanted to see the part of this country identified with TR, so we set off for North Dakota. It was about a five hour drive across open grasslands with occasional buttes. TR actually owned 3 ranches - The Maltese Cross and Elkhorn were two. He came out in the early 1880’s to hunt and got fascinated by the life. He invested that first year with two partners - $14,000 for 400 cattle. He went back to his job in the NY legislature, but returned for visits several times.

After the sudden deaths of his wife and mother TR retreated to the ranches for two years. In 1886 there was a hard winter and he lost many cattle. Eventually he went back east. He is quoted as saying that he would not have become president without the experience in North Dakota.

The park itself is glorious, a stretch of badlands quite different from those in South Dakota. The Little Missouri River ambles through so there are cottonwoods groves in the flats and a fair number of hardwood trees, so we saw a real fall. The colors in the rocks and buttes are black and brown, in South Dakota they are much more pink and auburn. In this N.D. park we saw, again, buffalo, elk, deer, one large rattler on the road (they like the warmth) and colonies of prairie dogs.

The Western Road

Prairiedog town
I’d say they have a prairie dog problem. Their “towns” cover ten, twenty, fifty acres with hole mounds every ten feet or so, the animals scamper about, totally unafraid. They are RIGHT by the road and they have even burrowed up UNDER THE ROAD. We saw one or two news holes in the pavement and a LOT of patches. The road maintenance crews must hate them!!!

At the visitor center is TR’s cabin. I had seen pictures and was eager to view it in its right setting. Well, I saw the cabin and it was great, but...... once again the facts are humorous. This IS the original cabin, but it’s VERY well-traveled. It was taken east several times for various world fairs, during and after TR’s presidency. Its current site is seven miles from the original ranch. Well, Plymouth rock has been moved all over too!

TR's Cabin

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