Third of three installments – Final
By WARREN RESEN – Member North American Travel Journalists Association
After more than a month on the road, it was time to turn around and start heading back east.
Leaving Cody, Wyoming, we headed for Devils Tower in eastern Wyoming, a must stop before entering South Dakota. This remarkable monolith, the remains of an extinct volcano, was used as a focal point in the movie “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” It was also this nation’s first national monument so declared by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906.
Devils Tower, a sacred place to Native Americans, is a destination for climbers who flock to this rock rising 1,267 feet above the surrounding countryside with its summit at 5,112 feet above sea level. During June it is closed to climbers and reserved for Native Americans who still observe their ancient spiritual traditions on the site.
Picture taking done, we left Devils Tower for Deadwood, South Dakota, a place of legend from the days of the Old West and Hollywood movies. South Dakota is a casino state today and Deadwood is no exception.
The main industry here after gambling is tourism and history buffs will enjoy its historic downtown. Not to be missed is the requisite late afternoon western town good-guy-bad-guy-shoot-out on one of the main streets; always a crowd pleaser. After the long drive from Cody, Deadwood was our jumping off point to visit South Dakota’s Badlands.
The Badlands, so named by Native Americans, lives up to its name even today. Viewing the maze of buttes, canyons, pinnacles and spires in the park’s 244,000 acres, it is hard to believe that anyone tried to cross it on foot or horseback. The land is stark, barren and otherworldly but beautiful to see…from a distance.
After losing a few dollars at the slots in a Deadwood casino we headed south driving through the heavily forested Black Hills of western South Dakota on our way to one of America’s premier tourist destinations, Mount Rushmore, and another destined to possibly overshadow it in the future, the Crazy Horse Memorial.
In contrast to the bleakness of the Badlands, Black Hills National Forest is a visual delight. The ever changing scenery and terrain in the 1.2 million acres of tree-covered mountains and meadows offers more than 920 miles of trails for hiking, biking, horseback riding, cross-country skiing and snowmobiling.
Reservations were made in Custer, SD a few miles south of Crazy Horse at the Chalet Motel, a 1938 motor court hotel (motel) with the original individual cabins. Family owned and operated by Vernon & Karen Olme, it is definitely worth a stop. While the cabins transport you back in time and do not have the glitz of a new motel chain, they do offer reasonable rates, flat screen TVs, microwaves and small refrigerators. Reservations assured, it was off to Mount Rushmore and then the still under construction Crazy Horse Memorial to its south.
Mount Rushmore is truly a unique American icon and deservedly so. It imparts a feeling of awe and pride to visitors standing under the replicas of four great American presidents. Take the walking path, clockwise, leading under the heads of the presidents for an easy downhill stroll.
In the movie “American Treasure: Book of Secrets” (2007) with Nicholas Cage, he discovers buried treasure behind the heads on Mount Rushmore. Believe me when I tell you that there is a basis of truth for this. Do some research or visit the monument for yourself.
The next day and evening were spent at the work-in-progress site of the granite mountain being shaped into an icon for Native Americans. The Crazy Horse Memorial was begun in 1948 by Korczak Ziolkowski the man who sculpted Stone Mountain, Georgia. When finished, there is no scheduled completion date yet, it will be the world’s largest 3D mountain carving at 563 feet high and 641 feet long. The almost completed head is 80 feet tall. The four heads on Mount Rushmore by comparison are each 60 feet. Korczak’s family, along with volunteers, continue with the Herculean task of carving the mountain which is being funded solely with private donations.
The complex and sculpture are there to honor all Native American people and educate visitors about their history and heroes. On-site is a large educational and cultural center, museum, restaurant (I had tatonka/buffalo stew), gift shop and the sculptor’s studio-home and workshop. Every evening a multimedia laser light show is projected onto the unfinished monument. Admission to the evening show is included as part of the entry fee.
A leisurely drive from Custer to Denver brought us back to reality with its big city traffic and hustle. Two days of sightseeing was not nearly long enough to see everything the city has to offer but it did give us time to visit the “Unsinkable” Molly Brown House, the wonderful Denver Botanic Gardens and take a tour and have dinner on the amazing linear 16th St. Mall. Then a pressing appointment in Asheville, NC necessitated a not-so-quick 1,400 plus mile drive.
Driving almost twenty-five non-stop hours through the plains states and sleeping in our car for a couple of hours in a parking lot behind a Quality Inn surrounded by wheat fields was a new experience. It completed the cycle of sleeping accommodations: tent, KOA cabin without facilities, flea bag motels, new chain motels, five star hotels and finally the front seat of our car.
Asheville is an amazing city. There’s always something happening. Friday night in downtown Asheville with its street theatre, vendors and crowds was like experiencing Greenwich Village, NY on steroids. Then it was time to head to Florida and home.
There will be follow up articles about New Orleans, Santa Fe, Jackson Hole, Cody, Denver and Asheville and the Historic Hotels of America properties in which we stayed. They more than made up for sleeping in a tent and car. We arrived back home after driving almost 9,000 miles, visiting 21 states.
The only near accident during the trip happened on our return, about 10 miles from home in the southbound lanes of the Florida Turnpike north of Exit 99 in Palm Beach County. I had to make an emergency maneuver to avoid hitting an alligator crossing the road proving the old adage that the most dangerous place is home.
Over the years, we have traveled to many countries and seen magnificent sights, usually man-made edifices. This trip was about seeing the beauty and diversity of America not just a rock, waterfall, canyon, mountain or building. The magnificence of this country goes on and on. As the British couple we met Old Faithful said to us, “This is a beautiful country.”
This trip was something Jeanne and I had wanted to do way back in our 20’s before LIFE got in the way. One of the saddest things we hear from people as we recount our adventures is, “Someday we’d like to do that”. We are both well past retirement age and the people most often saying “someday” are contemporaries. Our answer to them is, “Someday is now.”
There are many major national parks we did not visit on this trip. Another month on the road would have been helpful. However we will be going out again.
The National Park System began under President Theodore Roosevelt. In 1872. Yellowstone was the first of the National Parks, a system now encompassing more than 84.4 million acres. Besides protecting fragile ecosystems and wildlife, many parks are home to historic lodges, cabins, hotels and inns that are available for public lodging.
These historic properties, the oldest being Old Faithful Inn, Yellowstone National Park (1904) are either designated as National Historic Landmarks or are on the National Register of Historic Places. The operator of guest services at Yellowstone, Crater Lake, Death Valley and Grand Canyon National Parks, Xanterra Parks & Resorts of Colorado, recently announced that they have partnered with Historic Hotels of America to promote the historic authenticity and ambiance of the properties they operate.