Great Faces, Great Places

Warning: this piece is about a family vacation. Should not be read in the presence of small children or while operating machinery.

The Journey

           Why South Dakota? Well, Mt. Rushmore is on my bucket list along with being launched into the heavens by the Virgin Galactic space project. I can do mountain carvings now; space won't be available for a few years. The night before our flight to "Great Faces, Great Places," we stay in an airport hotel where the room doors are so heavy that it takes two people to open them. Thankfully my wife is also going on the trip, or we would've had to sleep curled up in the hallway.

          Farkel Airlines flies out of a former Air Force base dotted with Quonset huts. Going through security we basically have to strip. I can't even keep Kleenex in my pockets.  Tissues are definitely a potential threat.  My wife is wearing open toed sandals which she has to take off since she is under seventy-five. Eighty year old shoe bombers are obviously not a problem.  To board the plane you have to ascend a precarious portable ramp out on the tarmac.  Back to the fifties?  Once onboard, I'm seated next to two folks who are returning to South Dakota for high school graduations. One guy's daughter is graduating, and the woman has a niece who will sashay to "Pomp and Circumstance." Uncle Gomer has just gotten out of prison so he can attend the daughter's graduation, and the niece is five months pregnant, but barely showing. I tell them that I would be happy to attend the festivities but have a prior commitment with four presidents and a large herd of buffalo.

          On landing, we pick up a rental mini-van, and it takes me fifteen minutes to figure out the transmission shifter, six stage air conditioning and touch screen radio. I am a luddite in a land of tech freaks. Our hotel in Rapid City has one glaring disadvantage which I had failed to realize when booking. It is physically attached to Wally World Water Park, the biggest indoor aquatic experience in the whole region.  Of course our room is near the elevator, and the hallway is constantly a thunder with screeching kids and the pounding of their racing feet. I'd prefer being curled up in the hallway of the other hotel.


          And now the scenic wonders.  First, we head to the Badlands, a large rocky area that resembles a rhino's rear end and the wrinkles on the face of a lifetime smoker. The place is insufferably dry and extremely hot or cold depending on the season, with a wind that never stops. Both the Lakota Sioux and French trappers called the place bad lands. Only someone out of their mind would want to spend any time in the area. So, of course, nine hundred thousand tourists flock here every year. My favorite sign says, "Avoid the Prairie Dogs, They Have Plague." Driving back to the hotel, the check engine light comes on. This in a vehicle with less that five thousand miles. I call the rental company, and they say ignore the warning; it happens all the time. So for the next six days, I get to stare at the emoticon of an angry orange engine block that seems to scream. "If you don't fix this problem now, you're screwed!"

Mt. Rushmore

          For the trip, this is the big enchilada, the cat's meow.  The image that sells more souvenir plates than Niagara Falls.  It looks bigger than the pictures (ya think?). The wife and I are truly awed by the overall effect. We decide to get the " lightweight handheld wand" for the audio tour, 24 stops. We are the first customers of the day, and Mel the clerk has been out six months for triple bypass surgery. It's his first day back, and he can't figure out how to log us in on the new computer system. After twenty minutes (we could have finished the tour by now) he finally gets help from a young girl who rents kid strollers.  Maybe they should switch jobs.

          The audio tour tells us lots of stuff. Rushmore was carved by Gutzon Borglum and crew between 1927-1941.  Just something to pass the time during the Great Depression. Gutzon wanted to honor great cultural figures in American history, but it was a coin toss between the presidents and the Marx brothers: Harpo, Groucho, Chico and Zeppo.  It's still amazing that Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln made the cut.  I'm taking the obligatory pictures, and notice that the guy next to me is shooting gang signs as he takes selfies with the carvings over his shoulder. I guess he will text them to his Mexican Mafia buddies in San Quentin. Turns out our boy Gutzon had a short fuse and basically was meaner than hell. He got those heads carved through intimidation and the ability to convince people to come see some strange apparition in the middle of nowhere. Props to him. We pass on the souvenir plate, but I get a bookmark with the Marx brothers in profile.

Custer State Park

          I don't know about you, but I'm here for the critters.  The park is named after a dead white guy who got his whole command wiped out when he mistook ten thousand Sioux warriors for some Indian maidens making buffalo jerky.  Apparently, the twenty minute multi-media show in the visitor’s center is narrated by Kevin Costner because he was once seen dancing with wolves. The park is listed in the world’s top ten wildlife destinations, (which includes Daytona Beach on Spring break) so cameras and video recorders are in overdrive.  We’re digging on the buffalo herds while listening to R. Carlos Nakai flute music. Once millions roamed the plains, but by the 1880s there were less than a thousand left in the country after real sportsmen shot them from railcars.  Today, after conservation, there are about fifty thousand in the U.S. and Canada, and around twelve hundred call Custer State Park home. I expect to see some kid’s parents trying to take a picture of little Melinda sitting on Buffalo Billy but no such idiocy today.  The prairie dogs are lethargic during our visit, probably recovering from the plague. Pronghorns (antelope), wild turkeys and begging burros are more juiced. Animal Planet should park a crew here fulltime.

Devils Tower

          The five musical tones from Close Encounters of the Third Kind are bouncing through my head as we come over a rise and first see Devils Tower, Wyoming.  Geologists disagree on how it was formed or what it means, but this strange formation, which looks like a huge upside down garbage can, is sacred to Native Americans.  Everyone else sees it as a rock climbing project or simply an anomaly to mark off on the “I’ve been there” check list. I'm waiting for the space aliens to return Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) to the landing pad next to the tower, but it doesn't look like that's going to happen today.  However there are four buses of Japanese tourists who swarm the monument, buying every souvenir in sight.  I consider purchasing a plaster rendition of the tower, but realize I can do the same thing with mashed potatoes at a reduced price.

 Crazy Horse Memorial

          It seems appropriate that our last vacation stop is at a place that honors this dude who was part of the guys who wiped out Custer at the Little Big Horn.  Because of a sacred stone, Crazy Horse thought he was invincible until he was finally arrested, and some cowardly long knife stabbed him in the back.  The Sioux were ticked that their sacred Black Hills were being desecrated with the mugs of Great White Fathers, so they found Korczak Ziolkowski (try saying that four times fast) who was willing to carve Crazy Horse out of a mountain, the size of which would make Rushmore look like a postage stamp.  When the memorial is completed by 2110, or sometime in the next millennium,  the space people may land here instead of Devils Tower.  After all you will be able to see Crazy Horse from the Zeta Riticuli galaxy.  On leaving, we buy a necklace from a woman who is "an enrolled member of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe."   So what if the beads are from China and the silver from Chile?  There are some positives to "going native" on a trip like this, but I must admit, I couldn't bring myself to eat a buffalo dog or bear stew.  My loss, I'm sure.

The Return

          For the night return flight, oddly, we are waved through security with nary a shoe removed, computer checked or tissue examined. Seems we were chosen for a pre check program that assumes we are not a terror risk.  Maybe six days in South Dakota made us both look like we were over seventy-five. At the gate, awaiting departure, I am reading the local Rapid City rag. Above the fold, the headline: Judge Says Buffalo Chip Not A Town. And to think I almost missed the article.

          Once on the plane I decide to recuse myself from conversation, but the wife is busily chatting with her seatmate.  It seems that the woman is a widow who just visited a man she met on the internet. He has a hog farm in Wyoming, and she has to decide if she wants to spend the rest of her life throwing slop to Porky Pig.  If it was me I'd say, "tha tha tha That's all Folks!" but love works in mysterious ways.  After a two hour flight and a three hour drive home, we collapse in our humble abode. As my wife opens her suitcase, a card spills out headed Notice of Baggage Inspection.  Seems that TSA went through everything inside. Nice work fellas. You easily let through exploding computers but go crazy over dirty underwear. Oh for the days of the mighty Sioux and buffalo that run as far as the horizon.