PrologueWhat we are doing, and why we're doing it!
The western end of the Dakotas is not as flat as the plains of southern Saskatchewan. While there aren't any mountains to speak of (other than some peaks in the Black Hills), the landscape is quite hilly. The rolling hills are generally covered with tall grass and sparsely populated with small stands of trees. Occasional ponds dot the lowlands amongst the hills.
This was the land that drew Teddy Roosevelt first for hunting, then for ranching. His ranchlands are typical of western North Dakota. They are covered by rolling hills and grasslands. They are also home to a few large prairie dog towns. Prairie Dogs used to establish large communities covering several acres. The large communities are now only found on parklands. While these overgrown gophers can be quite destructive if you are farming, they are highly social and quite playful.
T.R.'s two ranches are now National Parks, and the town that sat between them (Medora S.D.) has been restored. Medora is a fun place to visit, even though it's only reason for existence is as a place to visit.
In addition to the historic buildings, museums, shops and cafes, the town hosts what they call the "Pitchfork Fondue" and "Western Musical".
The Pitchfork Fondue is a huge BBQ where they really do cook steaks on pitchforks over huge BBQ pits. It's a big production, but it's very well run. The steaks were great! They were tasty, tender, and each one was adorned with a hole the size of a pitchfork tine.
The Western Musical is held in an outdoor amphitheater. The stage is set with full size buildings on rails behind a large stage. The opening act was a fellow that had been a regular on the Laurence Welk show singing a gospel song. The theme of the show might have been cowboys, but it was built on a foundation of religion and patriotism. We were entertained by the resident troop of singers, a Country/Western singer, a family doing some fancy 'trick roping', and inspirational moments provided by an actor portraying the late great Teddy Roosevelt himself. As the show progressed, lightning flashed in the western sky. We were supposed to see a re-creation of T.R.'s famous charge up San Juan Hill, but the impending storm cut the show short. As the grand finale culminated in fireworks, lightning and thunder we started parading out of the auditorium just as the downpour started.
The thunderstorm that night was unlike any storm we experienced living on the west coast. At times it sounded like we were in the middle of an artillery duel. The blasts came fast and furious and the coach was rattled by the thunder and buffeted by gusts of wind. It was, all in all, a most memorable night.
The Black Hills area of South Dakota is the tourist center of the state. It boasts caverns, gold mines, wild west ghost towns and, of course, Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Monument. It seems odd that they call the area Black Hills. With peaks over 7000 feet, I think that they qualify as mountains. We bypassed the other tourist stuff and headed for Mount Rushmore.
Mount Rushmore is probably the most spectacular monument that was never finished. It was designed to show the presidents from the waist up, but the sculptor's death put an early end to the project.
It's hard to get a handle on the scale of the monument. At first it looks immense, but the faces are 'only' 65 feet tall. The setting has a lot to do with creating the impression that the sculptures are enormous. The approach to the monument is lined with columns, and the carvings are well above the viewing area. The net effect is that you stand before a grand monument looking up at benevolent faces of stone.
Much as we tried, we found little of interest between western South Dakota and the Great Lakes. We've decided that we should follow the Missouri River down to St. Louis, then dip down to Memphis & Nashville before heading north to the Chicago area.