Sunday, August 3, 2014

The Coussoules' Great Western Adventure: Days 11-13 in South Dakota - Mount RushMORE!

It was finally here, the moment Caroline had looked forward to for months - it was Mount Rushmore day!! We'd gotten a small preview from the parking lot of our hotel, getting us excited to see the famous landmark up close.
Way back in March when we planned this trip, there had been a couple of catalysts that sparked dreams of this adventure. One was my trip to Colorado in the fall for my cousin's wedding. I came home awestruck by the beauty of the Rocky Mountains, telling Justin we had to take a trip out there with the kids someday. The second was being home over the holidays and my mom talking about how she'd always wanted to see Mount Rushmore, and here she was not getting any younger and she didn't know if she ever would get there. I like to think that I live life All In; there are no guarantees for tomorrow; and as the days pass and I see my children growing up so quickly, I realize that in just a few short years, they will be gone, venturing out on their own great adventure. With all of that in mind, we picked my parents up and headed up the road to finally see Mount Rushmore - a bucket list item for my mom, a life list item for myself, and I would daresay for Caroline too, if she had a list of her own.
Mount Rushmore is so fundamentally American, not just in its sculptures of our greatest leaders, but in its audacity; in the dream to carve a mountain as the only medium large enough to embody the American spirit. It is a place to reflect on the endowment of our freedoms and the outsized nature of American life.
We spent some time in the Visitors' Center, watching the movie recounting the herculean effort to carve a mountain, looking at the displays and stories of the carvers, and of course, getting the passport stamps for the latest of our National Parks that we visited along the way.
Standing in the shadow of the mountain, with time to truly take in the art of the sculpture, one can't help but wonder if Gutzon Borglum originally planned to carve more than the heads of the Presidents. In the Sculptor's Studio at the base of the mountain, there is a model that seems to indicate that he dreamed even bigger than the monumental achievement completed in 1941.
After a couple of hours, we had done everything there was to do at Mount Rushmore. But here's the thing - South Dakota is so much more than the mountain. A map of the southwest part of the state has more attractions, historical sites, beautiful parks and general things to do than you could possibly do in a weekend, much less a day. But a day was all my parents had, so it was Dad's choice for the afternoon - and after grabbing some lunch, it was off to Deadwood, South Dakota.

I'm not much of a TV watcher, and I've never seen the HBO series by the same name. I do consider myself reasonably well-educated, but this trip had taught me that my education was more broad than deep when it came to the history of the American west. With Justin and the kids taking a needed afternoon break from the car, I went with Mom and Dad about an hour down the road to visit this town whose entire city limits were a National Historical Site. Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok - I'd always heard the names, but beyond the legend of the Dead Man's Hand and a vague recollection of having heard of Jane, I didn't know anything about the history of Deadwood. My post-vacation reading list was growing by leaps and bounds!

My lack of knowledge was fully offset by my dad's seemingly endless knowledge of history; with two degrees in history and a lifelong love of reading and learning about the past, he filled in the gaps in my knowledge as we toured the town.
It was really nice to spend the afternoon with my parents, and I was so excited that my mom had finally made it to see Mount Rushmore. We had a fun dinner together again that Sunday evening and then said our farewells, as they flew out the next morning.

We, on the other hand, had another big day of sightseeing in front of us! With almost two full weeks of the adventure behind us and two long days of driving in front of us, our plan on Monday was to take an easy drive through Custer State Park and then spend the afternoon relaxing and packing for the journey home. An absolute jewel in southwest South Dakota, the Park wildlife loop was a beautiful drive with vistas of grasslands and wildflowers, and in the true spirit of the West, the herd of bison we'd been yearning to see since first arriving in Yellowstone.
The kids were able to participate in a wonderful Junior Ranger Program at the Visitors Center while Justin and I relaxed in the shade. Driving the scenic loop, we were able to see much of the park and then drive back on the Needles highway. More dramatic beauty as we wound our way through the Black Hills area of the state.

Our third and final day in South Dakota began the long drive home. With the assumption that it would be difficult to ever get back to this stunning part of the country, we intended to make the most of it, and mapped out a detour through the Badlands and a stop at the Minuteman Missile Historic Site. Not everything was about history and natural beauty, though - South Dakota has its own South of the Border attraction, Wall Drug. Miles and miles of signs saying, Wall Drug! Stop at Wall Drug! I'd heard of it from my dear friend who originally hails from South Dakota, so we swung off the interstate, made a pit stop for one of the best donuts I've ever had, and had the good fortune to realize the National Grasslands Visitors Center was right down the street. Bonus passport stamp!
After two weeks of jaw dropping vistas and indescribable beauty, I wasn't sure there could be anything to top our previous stops. But oh, the Badlands - you've never seen anything like it, not imagined there was something so unique, so beautiful, so captivating.
I wish we'd had more energy to get out and spend time exploring. The Badlands is an entirely open area; there are no restrictions on where you can hike and explore. We were limited only by our fatigue and desire to get closer to home, now that we were on the tail end of the journey. By the time we got to the Missileman Historic Site, we had missed the opportunity to get tickets for the silo tour. If we ever make it back to that part of America, there is a new Visitors Center being built, and I'm sure based on the short film we saw and the few displays they had in its temporary home, it will be an amazing place to visit. Someday.
Of course we got the passport stamp!

For now, though, it was time to hit the road and really start putting on the miles. We drove all the way across South Dakota that Tuesday, through Mitchell for a short stop at the Corn Palace (foiled by summer renovations) and turned right at Sioux Falls into Iowa. Reaching Sioux City, our stop for the night, we arrived at the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center only to find it closed for the night. We decided to come back the next day, closing the chapter on our three days in South Dakota. So much more than the Mount Rushmore State!

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