Mt. Rushmore and Crazy Horse, South Dakota

Mt. Rushmore National Monument

Visiting Mt. Rushmore was one of the main reasons I wanted to go on this 2,000 mile road trip. Anti-climactic? Sure. Just a hunk of rock with faces in it? Sure. Freaking awesome? Absolutely. Sadly, I was foiled by tons of rain and lots and lots of fog. The rain was so heavy that my friend T and I simply stood there under umbrellas or the small overhang at the visitor’s center and stared at the fog for….probably 90 minutes total, waiting for it to clear just a little bit and more-or-less disappointed. I took a hundred pics with different camera settings and angles, hoping for some photo magic. Nope, no magic. My photo fairy godmother was busy or something because almost all of my pics turned out as a wash of gray-white fog with a few outlines of trees in the foreground. This was one of the “clearer” moments to see the mountain and her Presidential faces.

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And this was as clear as it got. Kind of cool in a spooky mystical way? Yes. But I also desperately wish we’d had 3 minutes of no fog for a little more appreciation of the carvings. Next time, South Dakota. Next time. (Ditto on the Badlands which were closed due to flash flooding and washed out roads.)

Crazy Horse Memorial

The first thing you’ll notice is that there is actual SUNSHINE in these pictures…which lasted for about 45 minutes and I was glad we took the opportunity to see as much of this mountain carving as possible while the sun was out and the fog was at bay. Well…kind of glad. The 90 minutes we spent at Crazy Horse Memorial was the most frustrating part of the entire trip, rainstorms and picture-ruining clouds included.

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Chief Crazy Horse was a Lakota warrior most famous for defeating General Custer at the Battle of Little Bighorn (Custer’s Last Stand). In the 1940’s Lakota Chief Standing Bear approached one of the masons/sculptors of Mt. Rushmore and asked him to build a memorial to Crazy Horse and the Lakota people. This mountain is that memorial, although if we are being completely honest, it seemed to be more a memorial to Korczak Ziolkowski, mason/sculptor, and his family than a memorial to the Lakota. Korczak (Core-JACK) and his brood have lived near this hulk of granite for almost 70 years raising funds to complete their plans for a 600-foot tall sculpture, museum, and school for Native Americans. This all sounds lovely in practice, however the Ziolkowski (Zull-COW-ski) family refuses any sort of government funds–a fact that tell you about eleventy-million times–and the gowing is very very slow. The visitor’s center and “museum” are complete, but they are more a memorial to the Ziolkowski struggle than to the Lakota. Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of Native American items in the museum, but the plaques simply state who donated the item and say NOTHING about the use or history of it. The marketing is all about the Ziolkowski’s and their determination to finish and fund this project, there is very little on Crazy Horse the man or the Lakota tribe, historically or currently. Outside of the actual carved mountain I found the whole thing very distasteful and rife with offensive political incorrectness. Honestly, there is a longer segment in the informational video about one of the Ziolkowski daughters who ran the gift shop (and an accompanying room in the “museum” dedicated to her life) than there is about Custer, Crazy Horse, the massive crimes the U.S. Government committed against the Native American people, or the current struggles or triumphs of the Great Plains tribes COMBINED. Wrongity-wrong-wrong.

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This is what the sculpture will eventually look like…you know, sometime in the next 300 years when they actually finish it. (And you’ll notice the fog returned with a vengeance. You’re supposed to be able to see the outline of the carved mountain behind this smaller scaled version so you can see progress and where things will end up and such. But, fog. More and more fog. And rain.)

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And this is what is complete so far after almost 70 years of work: Crazy Horse’s face and the top of his arm.

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Ok, I KNOW IT TAKES A WHILE TO CARVE A MOUNTAIN INTO A 600 FOOT TALL HORSE AND RIDER! I just feel like there is some gross mismanagement of funds on this particular project. “Keeping it in the family” has resulted in strange priorities, a lack of true business sense, and a skewed board of directors. Refusing any sort of governmental funding (which, I assume, also means grants from Arts foundations?) has slowed the process significantly and their marketing is abysmal and horrific. Honestly, their brochures look like a 7th grader made them in Microsoft Paint circa 1995. They tout education opportunities for Native American students, but I find it ironic that none of those opportunities include an internship in civil engineering, or drafting, or architectural blasting, or ANY of the activities that are required for completing this monument. Overall–in my opinion–a huge fail with a impressive partially-carved mountain behind it.

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Have you been to Crazy Horse Memorial? Did you spend the next 2 days of driving time ranting and raving with your equally offended and annoyed girlfriend about the misuse of funds and idolization of a sculptor instead of a learning opportunity about a great Lakota hero and the horrible things the U.S. Government and General Custer did to the tribes of the Great Plains? (Oh, that was just us? Hm, well, they don’t call me Feisty Harriet for nothin’.)

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Mammoth Site, Hot Springs, South Dakota

Earlier this spring a friend and I went on a 6-state road trip throughout the Midwest. After 3 days of rain and a number of foiled plans for our outdoor and national park adventures, we stumbled on to a completely indoor and therefore dry attraction and immediately decided to stay. This was one of the more awesome parts of our trip, partly for the lack of blinding rain, but also because it was just so dang cool.

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The Mammoth Site of Hot Springs, South Dakota is a live paleontology dig site where scientists are painstakingly excavating bones from dozens of mammoths, both North American Columbian and woolly varieties. The museum is fantastic, the informational video is short and full of interesting facts, and there are a ton of activities for kids.

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Why are there so many mammoth bones in one location? Well! Let me tell you! (Nerd alert!)

Once upon a time, thousands and thousands of years ago during the Ice Age, there was a sink hole here that was eventually filled with a warm, spring-fed pond with all sorts of delicious, tender plants growing around it. Many, many mammoths (all of them young males, btw) climbed in for a drink, a swim, or a snack and slipped down the steep, shale walls and were unable to ever get back onto dry land. So they starved and/or drowned and settled to the bottom of the pond, only to be covered by more mammoths who were looking for juicy green snacks and a warm bath. Eventually the graveyard-pond filled with dirt and sediment, the spring was diverted, and the bones were preserved in hard-packed mud.

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It’s important to mention that these are not fossilized bones, they are very brittle, very dry, and a lot of care and expense has gone in to securing the site and constructing the giant museum over the dig so work can continue year-round without exposing these fragile remains to harsh South Dakota winters (or day and days and days of rain). This is a museum that has been done right, it was so interesting with lots of information and interactive components.

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This is a skull of one of the mammoths with tusks intact (doesn’t it look like a giant squid?). Each skeleton is named, the skull above is of the giant Napoleon Bone-Apart (ha! puns!) and one of the best preserved skeletons they’ve uncovered so far. It was so awesome to be able to walk all around the open pit and see the different parts that scientists are working on and studying.

MidWestRoadTrip_Mammoth Site Hot Springs SD_feistyharriet_June 2015 (4)Looking down into the pit from the catwalk over the top. It is amazing what they have done in the last 60 years using primarily dental-type tools, dry brushes, and tiny little instruments. As they uncover remains they measure and test and research them, often making molds of the bones to help preserve them. Science is awesome, ya’ll!

I’m not gonna lie, my inner geek got all sorts of giddy-excited about this unplanned stop. If you are in western South Dakota I highly recommend spending two hours here. During the summer they have a number of activities where kids and youth can become junior paleontologists and actually do some excavating and digging, more info is on their website.

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