We chatted with an old lady from our cave tour while we ate breakfast. By the time we had finished our cereal, we were such good friends she was showing us pictures of the time her husband’s Cornhuskers hat had blown into the North Platte River. One thing I love about traveling is meeting people. The old innkeeper man was jumping up and down behind the counter, trying to be as tall as Colby. He was an interesting man. Last night he asked us if we had any kids yet, and when we said no, advised us to “get to work.” This morning, his wife made fun of Colby for eating Fruit Loops, saying he’d have a sugar rush and I’d have to drive. I wish we could figure out if they were Russian or French – it’s been bothering me. Colby: “They were the kind of people you’d expect to smell funny.”
We took the scenic drive through Wind Cave National Park as we headed north. I saw what I thought was my first bison ever, until I remembered having seen some when I was in Yellowstone as a kid. And Colby reminded me that we saw some in Yellowstone when we went last month. Oh, never mind. We did start counting how many we saw, though, and were proud of ourselves for getting to 17, until we came around the corner and found the herd. There were well over 200, all spread out in a field. They were even in the road, farther down. It was startling, and so impressive. It really made us wish we had been able to see bison in all their glory, ruling the plains in herds 1000s strong. I’ve never been a conservationist, but I really do hope they have some reproductive success and can repopulate the plains country. If only because plains country is so much more interesting with buffalo in it. And then we can all eat buffalo again, and wouldn’t that be delicious? Plus, buffalo skin rugs are probably really warm.
After we left Wind Cave, it wasn’t long until we got to Crazy Horse Memorial. The admission price may or may not have been slightly exorbitant, but we were there, so we went. It was large. It isn’t done. They’ve been working on it for like 62 years or something, and it’s not done. There's no excuse for that, if you ask me. The reason for the exorbitant pricing came to light when we watched the introductory video and discovered that the sculptor's family has refused every repeated funding offer from the government - if there's one thing you can say for them, they stick to their political ideals. Unfortunately for us tourists, free enterprise has its price. Also, it has resulted in a lot of kitschy side attractions. There's also no lack of ambition around here. We saw an architect's interpretation of the end plans for Crazy Horse Memorial, and they got a little out of hand. Involving a reflecting pond, a museum, a university and a medical center. Whoa, kids. Try and finish the statue first.
I liked the idea behind the sculpture, though - to give the native peoples of this land a monument to their heritage. And I think the mountain will be really stirring and impressive when it's finished - I just don't know if my grandchildren will still be alive to see that.
After Crazy Horse, we moved on to smaller but more impressive things - Mount Rushmore. We were thrilled and amazed and inspired. It was spectacular. Alright, first of all, the original idea was to build statues of great western heroes out of the needles spires of rock in the Black Hills. How sweet would that have been? Okay, not as patriotic, but imagine seeing 400-foot tall full-body carvings of Lewis and Clark and Buffalo Bill Cody. YES.
Instead, the sculptor (prudently) thought that a sculpture that big should have a bigger meaning. He wanted to choose something symbolic of the men who helped in the founding, growth, preservation and development of our nation. So he picked Washington (founding), Jefferson (growth), Lincoln (preservation) and Roosevelt (development). Interesting! We really enjoyed reading little bios about each president included, and were impressed at each of these great men that have been our leaders. We especially enjoyed learning about Teddy Roosevelt and better appreciating why he gets to be up there with the big guys.
Before we left on our trip, someone who heard we were going to Mount Rushmore told us we had to try the ice cream. I keep trying to remember who it was. Anyway, it was such bizarre advice, we remembered it. Ice cream at Mount Rushmore? Turns out it's an institution, and it's also delicious. I felt very American, gazing at Mt. Rushmore with an ice cream cone in my hand. At some point someone pointed out how American Mt. Rushmore is - do nothing halfway. And make it really spectacularly huge.
Next was Badlands National Park. It was some of the weirdest landscape Colby and I had ever seen, but strikingly beautiful. On one side of the road, flat grassland rippled off into the cloudless distance, seedy stalks waving. On the other side, a sandy cliff dropped abruptly off into the most irregular maze of low grassy mesas and hills of dirt. The grass was a patchwork of colors, and the dirt was a rainbow. And in the far distance, a reptilian spine of weird, finger-like rock formations. It was so strange, and all in eerie pastels. So weird, and so pretty. And also there were more herds of buffalo. This time the bison herd covered the road again, and we had fun leaning out of the windows taking pictures of them while we waited for them to move. It was weird to have an eye-level view into a buffalo herd - they were all standing around, or sitting, in families or pairs, and... just doing whatever it is bison do on a daily basis. I almost felt like I was invading some kind of bison privacy, looking in. Imagine living life as part of a herd - there would be an undeniable sense of community belonging.
In other wildlife news, I spotted a fox with our binoculars. I was so excited. It was prowling around the edge of a bunch of prairie dogs and I hope it got lucky. And also we passed a group of bighorn sheep. Before I actually saw a bighorn sheep, all I knew about them was that Bill Peet book, Buford the Little Bighorn, and I would think of them skiing down a mountain on their horns. Now all I can think of is their creepy eyes. What you DON'T know about bighorn sheep is that their eyes look like they want to hurt you. There's something really sinister about bulging orange cat-slitted bighorn sheep eyes. You can just tell they're smarter than their domesticated cousins, and they're about to use the extra intelligence against you. NOT the kind of eye you want to have looking at you while you sleep.
On our way out to the campground, we stopped at a turnoff called Robert’s Prairie Dog Town. Dad? Why didn’t you ever tell me you had one of these? Are you like the emperor or something? Emperor Robert of Prairie Dog Town. Maybe you want to noise that around a little more. I can just see Gramps taking you there when you were little: “Robert, look around you. Everything the light touches will someday be yours.” Anyway, it was hilarious. I think prairie dogs are just about the most entertaining things. And I was thinking, if I were a buffalo, I would definitely want to eat them. I know buffalo are herbivores, but if you had all these little bite-sized morsels right by your feet all the time, wouldn’t you just want to try one, just to see what it tasted like? I bet bison secretly eat prairie dogs like all the time. Buffalo snacks. And if you’re not going to eat them, at least mess with them a little. The bison we were watching seemed completely ignorant of their presence. It’s just weird to see these huge behemoths wandering around the prairie, with this whole other population of teeny rodents going completely unnoticed beneath their feet. Maybe they drop kick them when no one’s looking.
The campground was exceedingly windy. I'm so tired of wind. It was also cold. We bundled up and cooked our dinner as best we could, then battened down all the hatches, staked down our tent in every place we could think of, and got in. Earplugs are the way of the future, as far as windy nights in tents. (Although, waking up several times during the night, I found my earplugs back in my right hand every time. Weird. I have a really determined subconscious).