A gloomy day at Mt. Rushmore

Monday, May 14, 2018

Winter-like weather greeted us when we rolled into Hill City, South Dakota, Friday afternoon. Hill City is known as the “Heart of the Hills,” due to its close proximity to both the geographical center of the Black Hills, and the local tourist attractions.

It rained off and on the first two days we were here, and the temperatures hovered in the forties. On Saturday, we decided to brave the rain and cold and visit Mount Rushmore. It is after all, the inspiration for our trip.

South Dakota historian Doane Robinson is credited for conceiving the idea to carve the likenesses of famous people on a mountain in the Black Hills to promote tourism in the region. Had Robinson had his way, we would be looking at Lewis and Clark, Red Cloud, and Buffalo Bill Cody atop Mount Rushmore instead of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln. It was the sculptor, Gutzon Borglum, who selected the four presidents for the monument. Borglum felt the quartet represented the most important events in the history of the United States: Washington was the father of the new country and laid the foundation for democracy; Jefferson represented growth; Roosevelt represented development; and Lincoln represented preservation.

The mountain was shrouded in fog when we arrived. Undeterred, we waited out the low-hanging clouds and our persistence finally paid off. As if it had been orchestrated, the fog begin to shift, moving slowly from left to right, as one by one, it unveiled the faces of the four presidents. It was still overcast, but at least the “mountain was out,” as they say. We decided to take the Presidential Trail for a closer look at the iconic carving. Part of the trail is closed for renovations, but the path we took was open to the base of Mt. Rushmore, where I was able to get some halfway decent shots of the sculpture.

Sunday morning’s weather was a repeat of Saturdays, but we decided to take a chance and visit the Crazy Horse Memorial. Thunderhead Mountain was blanketed in fog when we arrived, so we went to the welcome center and watched a film on the making of the sculpture. Afterward, we toured the museum, which has countless pieces of American Indian art and artifacts from tribes across North America. Nearly all of the relics on display were donated.

Crazy Horse was a leader of the Oglala Lakota tribe. He was born circa 1840, and was originally named Curly, because of his wavy hair. In his mid-teens he was already a full-fledged warrior. After Curly reached maturity and strength, his father, also named Crazy Horse, gave his son his name and took a new name, Worm, for himself. On June 25, 1876, Crazy Horse led a band of Lakota warriors against Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer’s Seventh U.S. Calvary, at what would later be called the Battle of Little Big Horn or Custer’s Last Stand. Two hundred and sixty-eight officers, soldiers, Indian scouts and civilians perished at Little Big Horn, including Custer, his two brothers, and his brother-in-law.

It is a misconception that Custer was a general at the time of his death. Custer was initially commissioned a second lieutenant in the 2nd U.S. Calvary Regiment. In June of 1862, he was promoted to the rank of captain. By the age of 23, he was brevetted (temporarily appointed) to brigadier general. In 1864, Custer was brevetted to major general, a position he would hold until after the war was over and the volunteer troops had mustered out. At that point, he reverted to his permanent rank of captain. He was promoted to lieutenant colonel in July 1866, a position he would hold until he died.

On January 8, 1877, Crazy Horse’s warriors fought their last major battle against the U.S. Calvary at Wolf Mountain, in the Montana territory. His people struggled through the winter, weakened by hunger and cold. Crazy Horse ultimately decided to surrender with his band to protect them. Under a flag of truce, Crazy Horse went to Fort Robinson in Northwest Nebraska. Four months later, a bayonet-wielding military guard fatally wounded Crazy Horse. He died either that night or the following day.

There are no known photographs of Crazy Horse. He believed that having his picture taken would take a part of his soul and shorten his life. Consequently, Zorczak Ziolkowski, the sculptor in charge of the project, created Crazy Horse’s likiness for the sculpture based on descriptions from survivors of the Battle of Little Big Horn, and other contemporaries of Crazy Horse.

The Crazy Horse sculpture is a work in progress. If and when it is finished, it will depict the Lakota warrior riding a horse and pointing into the distance. Since the fog never lifted during our visit, we were unable to view the monument, so we decided to try our luck again today.

We awoke to sunshine and warmer temperatures this morning, and returned to the Crazy Horse Memorial to view the carving. The monument is located a mile from the welcome center, accessible only by bus. During the short ride, our tour guide told us some interesting facts about the carving: Crazy Horse’s face is 87’6” high. In comparison, the heads of each of the four presidents on Mount Rushmore are each 60’ high. This year mark’s the 70th anniversary of the Crazy Horse Memorial. There is no estimated date for the carving’s completion. Ziolkowski began work on the monument in 1948. He died in 1982. After his death, his wife, Ruth, took charge of the sculpture, opting to complete Crazy Horse’s face instead of his horse, as Zorczak originally planned. Four of Zorczak’s children and several of his grandchildren now work for the Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation. The foundation does not accept any federal of state funding. The project is financed only by admissions and contributions.

After viewing the carving, we drove to nearby Custer State Park, named for Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer. I suppose it is a paradox to go from the memorial of the man ultimately responsible for Custer’s death to the park named in Custer’s honor, but we cannot simply eliminate the portions of our nation’s history we find distasteful. It is these vignettes of America’s past, stitched together like pieces of cloth on an infinite quilt, that make our country what it is today.

Custer State Park is huge, covering over 71,000 acres of hilly terrain. The park was founded in 1912, and is home to numerous wild animals, including nearly 1,300 bison. The park features an annual bison roundup and auction on the last Friday in September, drawing more than 10,000 people. Several hundred bison are sold at auction each year. The park began the annual roundup back in the 1960s in order to eradicate brucellosis, a bacterial infection that spreads from animals to people. The herd was certified brucellosis free in 1965, allowing for the sale of live animals. The annual roundup is used in conjunction with the fall sale as a way to manage the size of the herd, and to provide an opportunity to brand and vaccinate the calves. On average, the park’s grasslands can support about 1,400 head of bison.

After driving on the Wildlife Loop—the only things we saw were bison—we made our way over to the Needles Highway. It is a nearly 38-mile state highway that snakes its way through the Black Hills. It was named for the region of eroded high granite pillars, pinnacles and spires located within Custer State Park. The highlight of the highway is the Needles Eye Tunnel, the narrowest tunnel in South Dakota. Only one car can go through the tunnel at a time, and according to what I’ve read, huge charter buses manage to squeeze through the tunnel on a daily basis.

Now, that is something I would love to see.

The Happy Campers
This is how you dress for mid-May in the Black Hills
Crazy Horse
Crazy Horse Monument
Bison grazing at Custer State Park
The Needles
“Needles” in Custer State Park


Needles Eye Tunnel
Needles Eye Tunnel



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