Kadoka had a mom and pop cafe open for breakfast. We ate a large breakfast among the town folks of this crowded little place. An elderly woman with memory difficulties would write down the customer’s orders, scurry back to the kitchen to deliver them to the cook, then come back to the table and double-check with the customers what exactly it was that she had written down. We all suffered along with her through her shortcomings, waited much too long to get fed, but the food, when it arrived, was quite hot and yummy–undoubtedly the best breakfast of my whole trip.
The Badlands are called such because they caused early travelers much difficulty when trying to traverse them. These deep, beautifully colored and sculpted rivulets and gullies scatter randomly for miles in all directions throughout the park. The geological explanation for their existence has something to do with ancient sea beds drying up, land sinking and rising, and then you add in a dash of extreme soil erosion through wind and rain. These natural shapes look almost as if they had been built by ancient people, pyramid builders perhaps, because I could see much symmetry about the worn dirt faces of the cliffs and bluffs. I don’t agree with them being called Badlands. They’re truly not bad at all. Jeweled Lands would be a much more appropriate name, as the way the erosion has cut through mineral-colored soils reminds me of brilliant diamond facets. We stopped long enough at different vantage points around the scenic bypass loop road within the park to get a pretty good feeling for how unique and mystical this area must have appeared to the early travelers. I’m sure the US Cavalry chased Indians up and down and through this myriad of pretty canyons until there was no chase left in anybody.
We did a whirlwind tour through the park’s interpretive center in Interior, South Dakota. We skipped buying books and Badlands trinkets, watching videos, and signing up for walking tours, and opted to just drive slowly through the rest of this special place in the world, so poorly misnamed, as we headed further west to Rapid City. Many towns in California might aptly be named Rapid City, but this Rapid City in South Dakota should be named Slow City, when compared with California standards, unless, of course, the name has something to do with river rapids. We stopped on the edge of the city to fill Rosie’s little propane tanks with renewed energy and moved on without viewing any more of the town.
We began climbing into the Black Hills of South Dakota and I was able to look back and see some of how Rapid City was laid out on a river valley, between large mountains. Most of the city appeared to be rather dry and dusty, a common motif throughout the entire state, but as we climbed higher and deeper into the Black Hills, the scenery we’d been looking at for two days now changed dramatically. We saw a lot of amusement parks along this stretch of road near Keystone. Once you’ve seen Disneyland or some other major park, these are so…well, I’d like to say laughable, but perhaps humble is a more polite term. They appear to be someone’s weekend projects of cutting out stacks of plywood in many different crazy shapes and themes and slapping lots of brightly-colored paint on them. I didn’t stop long enough at any one of them to go over the details, but I imagine horses, buffaloes, cowboys, Indians, western forts, tepees, dinosaurs–all this camaraderie of two-dimensional objects and creatures, where you might pay a few dollars to bring your family inside and provide them with a little thrill.
The amusement site that we had in mind, however, something on a little grander scale than plywood playgrounds, lay just ahead–Mount Rushmore National Monument. We drove up out of downtown Keystone, a quaint and historical village a couple of miles below the grand monument, and paid the eleven dollar parking fee that is required of all visitors in order to view the monument for free. First time I’ve heard of such a scheme–to pay to view a thing for free. I suppose it is a way to get that money back from senior citizens who think they can use their senior pass here to save on travel expenses.
I never thought that in a life time I would see Rushmore, and yet here I was. Large, impressive, crowded with people, with lovely dry mountain air that day. We walked and looked over the presidential heads from many different angles and vantage points for a couple of hours. Seeing the monument in the flesh, or, rather, in the granite, invoked quite a few thoughts in me that day. Why was it built here, in such a remote place, where most citizens would never have a chance to see it? Is our American history locked into a time and place that will never change and that is why the monument was built? Were these presidents memorialized to remind us of a spell of history that is changing and we fear that it will be forgotten? What happens to the monument a couple of hundred years from now if some other form of government, some new nation, arises on top of the ashes of our own? Will this thing look silly to people in the future? What were the men thinking who planned, funded, and built this thing with such seriousness and determination? To me, Rushmore is now or soon will be about as mysterious and as misunderstood as the Egyptian Sphinx.
My sister kept telling me that one of the heads was John Adams while she was reading some literature that the park service people had handed her on the way in. I could see clearly that Washington was first on the left, then Jefferson, then what looked to be Roosevelt, then Lincoln. So if Adams was there, that meant that Adams and Roosevelt looked quite a bit like each other. We finally got it settled that Adams never made it this elusive, god-like status. We considered calling Janis’ husband, a diehard Republican aficionado, to tell him that Obama’s head was currently being added to the Rushmore structure, but that rumor could start a revolution in certain quarters of this country.
At the information desk inside the interpretive center I had one burning question that I felt I must ask before I could ever return to California with any level of comfort and satisfaction. Where, I asked, did Alfred Hitchcock shoot the opening scene in his movie “North by Northwest”, with Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint? The ranger solemnly replied that the building I referred to had been torn down and replaced with this newer one. See? Our culture suffers from such revisionism! What would happen if Communists took over America and tore down Mt. Rushmore? All seriousness aside, Rushmore is a kick. A place to wander, to imagine, to feel patriotic if one chooses, but, for me, to marvel at the audacity of anybody wanting to create such a thing.
We pulled away in the late afternoon with the mission in mind of finding a place to sleep that night. We missed a turn in the road and toured down town Hill City, another of those pretty little mountain towns that has been spared many of the improvements of modern civilization. I knew we were going the wrong way. The Garmin had been barking orders at me while I had been talking on the cell phone with my daughter in Hanalei, Kauai, concerning her upcoming trip to the mainland. We got Rosie turned around and on the right path toward Deadwood. We missed Sturgess, the Mecca for all motorcycle enthusiasts, by several miles. You just can’t see it all. Highway 385 north soon brought us to a delightful, wooded campground on Sheridan Lake, where we stretched, cooked, and slept.
We did not make many miles this day, 122 miles by Google reckoning, but saw much. Tomorrow would be another of those longer, harder drives that we knew we must make if we hoped to spend any time at all in Yellowstone, before turning our aim homeward. So far we’d enjoyed perfect weather, and since Labor Day weekend had transpired we had much of this wide open country to ourselves. We did not feel, in any respect, like we were fenced in, as memorialized by that Cole Porter song written for Roy Rogers. Janis and I grew up in small-town Washington at a time when this western, cowboy and Indian culture was still being celebrated, but now seems somewhat lost and forgotten. A visit to this small part of the country revived memories of our childhood ideals. Life here seems more like it did when we were kids. It is so pleasant to think that we can take those rekindled thoughts back home with us.