Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Mount Rushmore, More Big Dakota Art

The first idea of putting large sculptures on mountains to attract tourists to the Black Hills was to have heroes of the West carved into the needles. When Gutzon Borglum was hired for the job he said that if he was to do the work the sculptures would have to have a more national significance than local Western figures. He chose the four Presidents for the work and scouted the area, choosing Mount Rushmore because its southeastern exposure with its direct sunlight would enhance his work. The results are spectacular.

There are many places with distant views of Mount Rushmore National Memorial. It is too bad that Borglum's original plan to allow tourists access to the top of the mountain was never realized. It would be great to see the view across the Black Hills to the prairie that the Presidents will see for eternity.
Sculpture of the sculptor Gutzon Borglum.

The Avenue of Flags with 56 flags of the states, districts, territories and commonwealths of the US create an impressive entrance to the memorial.

Of course, Mount Rushmore is all about BIG. Each head is approximately 60 feet high. If head to toe figures had been carved they would have been 465 feet high with the feet at the bottom of the rubble pile behind us.

Mount Rushmore before the work began. Over 90%, 450,000 tons, of rock was removed using dynamite before jackhammers were used to honeycomb the rock to weaken the granite so it could easily be removed. The final step was to use a bumper tool to make the surface as smooth as a sidewalk. All this work was done by the workers hanging over the front of the mountain in Bosun chairs. Miraculously, not one worker was killed.

The Presidential Trail offers a different view. Washington was chosen as the "Father of Our Country," the leader of the Revolution and the first President. Lincoln was chosen as the "Great Emancipator" who held the country together. He was Gutzon's favorite president and he named his son Lincoln. Jefferson was chosen as the writer of the Declaration of Independence and for expanding the nation with the Louisiana Purchase. Roosevelt was the most controversial choice because he had only been dead for eight years but Borglum felt the building of the Panama Canal during his Presidency realized the dream of Columbus of a water route to the Pacific. He was also a personal friend of the sculptor.

In the sculptor's studio is the original 1:12 ratio plaster model Borglum sculpted. Look carefully and you can see the finished work through the top of the window. Precise measurements were made on the model using a protractor on the top of the heads and a plumb line. These measurements were then multiplied by 12 and transferred to the mountain to show the workers what rock needed to be removed.

Here we are with Don "Nick" Clifford who worked on the project from 1938 to 1940. Nick has written a book on his experience as one of the the 400 workers. It was great to meet and talk to someone who knew Borglum and was there when the project was completed. I always think it is neat to look at things from the perspective of how closely people and events are connected. I met Nick in 2011, Nick knew Borglum in 1939, Borglum knew Roosevelt 1900. Through three people I have a connection going back over 100 years. Neat! Even though the work was not totally completed it stopped six months after Gutzon Borglum's death in 1941 as WWII was threatening and money ran out. Mount Rushmore is a must see as a great American icon and BIG Dakota art.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Custer State Park

As we drove from North Dakota into South Dakota across the prairie we began to notice off in the distance this long line of hills that appeared to be black. It became quite clear how these hills got their name. Custer State Park is a great place to get an up close look of the Black Hill. The highway through the park has fabulous views of the hills and many different animals. The rock formations in the Black Hills are very interesting. These are called the Cathedral Spires.
More granite formations that have survived years of erosion. These types of formations are called needles
Little Devil's Tower is a smaller version of the one in Wyoming.

The fire tower at the top of Harney Peak at 7,242 feet.

Here we are at the top of Harney Peak. This is the highest point between the Rocky Mountains and the Swiss Alps, so we felt like real mountain climbers. The actual climb was not that difficult as we started at 6,145 feet and the 3 1/2 mile trail was not very steep.

The fabulous 360 degree view from the top makes the climb well worth the effort. The brown trees are dieing because of an invasive pine beetle. Because of Global Warming the winter have been to warm to kill the beetles. We have seen this same issue all over the West.

Chris and Jim Guld are the Geeks on Tour. We have crossed paths with them several times on the road. This year we just missed them in Nappanee, IN and Madison, WI and they were right behind us when we got off the interstate in Rapid City, ND but turned off to another campground. On our Harney Peak hike we met them on the trail. They travel the country doing computer classes at RV rallies. We have taken the classes and purchased one of their videos and would recommend both. They are also on their way to the Escapade Rally in Gillette, WY so we look forward to seeing them again and taking another of their classes.

These stacks of logs are part of the effort to control the pine beetle. The diseased trees are logged and the small logs are piled up to be burned when it is wet enough to control the burn.

The Needles Highway is a must do in the Black Hills. This is why we tow a car. It took this bus about fifteen minutes to squeeze through this tunnel that is one of five.

We saw more wildlife in the park than we have seen in a long time. This is a great place to see the buffalo roam and the deer and the antelope play. Here a few sheep on the side of the hill right along the road. They were knocking rocks down on to the road.

A white tail buck with his rack still in velvet.

A pronghorn.


The park has a herd of 1300 buffalo who have free range to roam. The signs in the park read, Animals At Large. This is where the movie Dances with Wolves was filmed. We saw this herd of 200 or 300 coming across the hill so we stopped and waited and were rewarded with really up close sights and sounds. Click here for a short video of the buffalo surrounding the car.

Each September the entire herd is rounded up and placed in corrals to be examined. The newborns are branded and some are sold to keep the herd at a manageable size. Several people told us that seeing the entire herd running across the prairie is a must see so we have decided this a very good reason to return to Custer State Park again in the future. We really enjoyed spending time in the park and highly recommend a visit. You are sure to see buffalo and if you drive through in late afternoon you have a very good chance of seeing all the other animals as well. Very cool!!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Drugs, Missles & Badlands

On our first day in the Black Hills we did a 200+ mile road trip to the Badlands. Driving big distances is to be expected "out West" as things are spread out over a very large area. We stopped at Wall Drug and two national park sites.

As soon as we were on the interstate we began seeing signs urging travelers to stop at Wall Drug. The store became a big stop starting in 1936 when, after five years of not being able to attract business from the highway, they put up their first sign, "Free Ice Water." Business grew so rapidly that in 1937 they had to hire eight girls to handle the crowds who, after getting a free drink, began spending money. Oh yes, they still offer free ice water and, as the saying goes, the rest is history.
The small store has grown into a whole block of buildings selling just about everything, from authentic Western wear to typical imported Made in China tourist junk. It really has changed a lot since my visit in 1964 on my way to college in Montana. We can now put Wall Drug on our been there done that and don't need to go back list.

Just down the road from Wall along I-90 we discovered a different kind of national historical site, a Minuteman Missile launch command center. There were once hundreds of missile silos across the Great Plains. I was surprised to learn there are still 500 deployed. The sign at the entrance warned that in an emergency visitors must be capable of climbing two 15 foot ladders. While waiting for the tour we got some inside background from another visitor who had been a construction supervisor building command centers and missile silos all over the Great Plains. The group was so big they split it in two and while we toured the top side facilities the others went down the elevator to the underground command center. The top right pic is the building we toured. The top left pic is a ranger climbing the ladder after the elevator broke down. We ended up leaving and did not get to see the command center or find out if the group that did had to climb out. Bottom is the top of a missile silo a few miles away and the inside of the command center we did not get to see.

Next we drove through Badlands National Park. The land in the park was once an ancient sea floor that has eroded to produce spectacular, beautiful formations. There is very little water and in many places it looks like a moonscape.

A big horn sheep on the ridge. We also saw buffalo in the distance.

As with much of the West this year, the Badlands are greener than normal because of so much snow melt and rain. Here, the distant rain seems to dry out before hitting the ground.

The clouds began to clear and the colors became more brilliant in the sun.

The colors change with the different layers of rock and as the sun moves across the sky.

There is also a lot of tall and short grass prairie in the park.

Badlands National Park is different from the badlands we visited in North Dakota. It was formed by erosion and is more varied in color and appearance. It is a worthwhile stop and an easy drive off I-90 and you can stop for free ice water at nearby Wall Drug.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Bully About Medora

As I write this, we are at the Heartand RV Park in Hermosa, SD and, as you can see by our States Visited Map, we have now stayed in all of the lower 48 in our rig. The places we have seen and the things we have done continue to be wonderful.
We stayed a week in Medora, ND just outside Theodore Roosevelt National Park and when we first walked through the town, all of ten small blocks, we wondered what we would do here for a week. It turns out that Medora is a great destination with plenty to keep us busy. The park includes a north and south unit and the remains of Roosevelt's Elkhorn Ranch. We did all our exploring near the 37 mile loop road in the south and found plenty of interesting sights. The national park, the only one named for a person, honors Roosevelt's ideas about nature and conservation that he developed while visiting here in his early life. These years are well documented in David McCullough's book Mornings on Horseback. It is fortunate that these lands were set aside for a park as the surrounding Little Missouri National Grasslands are the site of a huge oil boom and there are many wells surrounding the park.

A must see in the park is Painted Canyon overlook at sunset. The colors were spectacular and we saw many elk and buffalo off in the distance.
Much of the red rock, scoria, is from the natural burning of the underground coal that turned the clay into brick-like rock. As someone who grew up in a coal town with a coal furnace I can honestly say I never thought of those waste piles as beautiful but in this setting they really are.

The Little Missouri River flowing through the park. This spring they had the worst flooding in years and the entire valley was under water.

We saw a lot of wildlife and were really up close with many of them. We saw these wild horses grazing on the short grass prairie in a typical Western setting. Only when we downloaded the picture on to the computer did we notice the horses standing on the ridge.

Shown at the top are elk and at the bottom is a mule deer.

There are a few hundred buffalo in the park and we saw several herds. These ones were right by the road. The calf was trying to eat and at one point mom even kicked it away. This bull was giving us the evil eye so we moved on.

There are several prairie dog towns in the park and you could take a thousand pictures of these "cute" little critters. We like these two hugging each other while surrounded by a herd of buffalo.

Another day we went on a trail ride. We have not been on a horse for many, many years and Rudy with Jim and Zinger with Nanc where well suited for two novices. There is a trail ride in Medora but we opted for the one at the Peaceful Valley Ranch is inside the park. When they saw our name as we checked in, the owner told us her vet was Dr. Tidball. The only place I have ever met a Tidball that was not a close relative was in Montana almost 50 years ago so there must be a Western branch on the family tree.

There were only four riders on our ride and guess who got to eat the trail dust. I did see much more then horse butts. We went through the middle of a prairie dog town and got an up close look because they are used to the horses. We also saw a small herd of elk and rode along a ridge with great views of the park. I did not get good pics as I was busy hanging on.

Near the Visitors Center is the original Maltese Cross Cabin that Roosevelt had built near here as part of the cattle operation he invested in when he visited in 1883. The chest by the bed and the rocking chair were both owned by TR.

Another stop is the summer home of the Marquis de Mores who started an ill fated cattle business and built the town of Medora, which is named after his wife. The plan was to slaughter the cattle here and ship them in refers cooled by ice by rail to St. Paul. The chimney is all that remains of the slaughter house. The tour of the 26 room home was very interesting as it was in the de Mores family until it was given to the state so most of the furnishings are original.

Another major attraction is the Medora Musical, a very entertaining show of Country and Cowboy music that celebrates the history of Teddy Roosevelt and North Dakota with songs and dance. Also included in the show was an act by Rudi Macaggi, a circus acrobat. We really enjoyed the show and all the things we did in Medora.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Along North Dakota's Enchanted Highways

During our first morning in Medora, we received an email from Mark and Renita Brackin, 07 mates who we last saw in Texas two years ago. They were in the nearby national park campground and wanted to get together. Once again, seeing friends along the way is one the the greatest things about this lifestyle. We have been amazed at how green North Dakota is at this time of the year. The picture below will help explain why. From the last post you can see that here in North Dakota they are really serious about there BIG highway art. We continue to see some great examples of this as we travel.

This year has been one of the wettest in North Dakota in many, many years. They had a huge snow run off in the spring and a lot of rain this summer. There were three places along I-94 that were down to one lane because of water. Here the right lane and the road into the rest area are still flooded. From all the equipment we saw it looks like they are going to raise the road above the "new" flood level.
This is typical of what you see along the road. Great fields of wheat, miles of prairie and a big sky. It is not usually this green but the ranchers are all happy because they have been able to cut so much hay for winter feed.

There are also many fields of sunflowers. Sometimes they all seem to be ignoring you as they are turning their heads into the sun. It is neat to see them follow the sun across the sky.

We were driving to the campground to see Mark and Renita when we saw the white truck with their signature red canoe. We stopped at a pullout and talked for a while. They invited us to dinner, which was great, and to get caught up on our adventures. We do follow each other's travels closely via our blogs. Make sure you check out Mark's blog, he is a great storyteller. Mark and Renita often write about their rock collecting and I kid him about weighing down the rig with stones like Lucille Ball in the movie, A Long Long Trailer. That said, they shared the results of their collecting and jewelery making with us and we were very impressed. Duh, I did not get any pictures but here is a link were you can see and buy their work. After not seeing them for a couple of years, we will see them in a couple of weeks in Gillette and again this winter in Q. They are also planning to do Alaska next summer so we are looking forward to crossing paths more often.

More North Dakota "LARGEST" sculptures. Since 2001 "Geese in Flight" has been the world record holder for the largest scrap metal sculpture as recognized by the Guinness World Book of Records. There are seven sculptures, with four more in the planning stage along the Enchanted Highway between I-94 and Regent, ND. They are the work of Gary Greff, a teacher and principal, who was looking for a way to bring people to the town of Regent. He put up his first work in 1991. You can see Nanc standing in front of the sculpture to get an idea of how big it is. The largest goose is 19 feet long with a 30 foot wing span.

The Deer Family was added in 2002 and Grasshoppers in the Field in 1999. You really have to see them to understand the size. The deer is 75 feet tall and the grasshopper is 50 feet long.

Fisherman's Dream includes a small mouth bass, walleye (almost as big as mine), catfish, northern, salmon, bluegill and a 70 foot rainbow trout coming out of the water. Pheasants of the Prairie has a 40 foot high rooster, a 35 foot tall hen and three chicks.

Teddy Rides Again is a tribute to Theodore Roosevelt's role in the history of North Dakota. It is made of 9000 pounds of used oil well pipe.

The Family was the first work Gary put up in 1991. Pa is 45 feet tall. We were lucky to meet Gary at the Enchanted Highway Gift Shop and Ice Cream Parlor where we stopped for a cone. He told us the whole project is about bringing visitors to the area and is funded by donations. The final four are a web with a spider and fly, a 102 foot Harley-Davidson, an American Indian and a huge Enchanted Highway sign on the interstate. He did say he has a couple more sites available for anyone who has a theme in mind and a $100,000 to donate. If you are crossing North Dakota a trip down the Enchanted Highway is well worth the time to see all the works of art made of scrap material. It certainly makes you appreciate how BIG everything in the west really is. While we did the drive in the CRV each stop has a parking lot that can accommodate any size vehicle.