Tag Archives: South Dakota

South Dakota – Observations

August 25, 2014

Today is my last day in South Dakota. I spent a surprising amount of time in South Dakota! Or perhaps it merely feels that way because there was so much to write about. I say “was,” but in truth, I’m not done yet. So here, in random order, are my final observations on the state of South Dakota.

1) South Dakota has a neat yet rather depressing twist on the roadside crosses people sometimes put up to mark the scenes of accidents. All along the highways – fortunately not too frequently – you find these government-sponsored signs at the sites of highway fatalities:

Think    Why Die Cropped

The program was put into place in 1979 in order to raise awareness of the dangers of drunk driving, which evidently accounts for half of the sign placements(http://dps.sd.gov/enforcement/accident_records/think_sign_information.aspx).

“Think! Why die?” Crude sentiments, perhaps, but they get the job done. I’m inclined to believe that rush hour would be a lot safer back home if they threw up a sign every time someone was killed on a freeway. It would be sobering indeed to see how quickly we run out of room on our medians.

(Note: I’ve since discovered that Montana maintains a similar program through its American Legion, which makes me wonder how many other states employ a system like this. I really think it’s a great idea that should be more widely adopted.)

Highway Fatalities

2) The cows in South Dakota – of which there are many – are really smart. These ones were intelligent enough to find the only shade in a seemingly endless open pasture and find respite en masse from the ninety-degree heat, although I have to think the “outliers” must be quite low in the cattle caste:

Cows in Shade

South Dakota cattle are also very romantic. Just listen to this one, who decided to serenade me to sleep with his sweet, sweet song. (Fonzie says to take two “cool” points if you watch all two minutes of my cows-walking-around video – Heyyy!)

3) Towns in South Dakota really know how to party. Take the town of Mitchell (population 15,000), best known for a structure called the Corn Palace.

“Corn Palace!” I hear you exclaiming.

“That’s right, the Corn Palace!” I exclaim right back.

I must confess, though, I was a bit disappointed with the building once I found it. I mean, I expected a giant palace made out of corn, something along the lines of a story from the Arabian Nights, didn’t you? Unfortunately, it isn’t as “corny” as it sounds! Ha ha ha! (Oh yes, I’m laughing, but you don’t have to. In fact, please don’t – it will make me worry about you.) No, instead, it’s the civic auditorium, where concerts and such are held. However, it is profusely decorated with corn and corn products inside and out, which must guarantee that if you perform there, you’ll have lots of folks lending you an “ear” (hee hee hee):

Corn Palace Outdoors

Corn Palace Outdoors II

Corn Palace Indoors

Corn Palace Indoors II

Oh, yeah, and I nearly forgot to mention it, but right outside the Corn Palace, they had set up a street fair. Not your ordinary street fair, mind, but a full amusement park right in the middle of Main Street, complete with rides for kids…

Amusement Park III

…and grown-ups…

Amusement Park IV

… ridiculously unhealthy but oh-so-delicious fair foods…

Amusement Park I

…even a Ferris wheel that towered over the nearby business buildings. Guess that’s one way to keep an eye on what’s really going down on those upper floors!

Amusement Park II

4) South Dakota doesn’t only know how to advertise; it knows how to deliver. There are probably a good twenty billboards on the interstate guiding you to the Corn Palace. But that is nothing, nothing compared to the advertising campaign of Wall Drug. They must have more than a hundred billboards dotting the interstate east and west of the town of Wall – their campaign possibly even surpasses the tourist trap “South of the Border” in South Carolina – all of which proclaim, in nostalgic, old-time signage, the wonder and virtues of Wall Drug. This is a place that, according to their advertising, should have absolutely everything you can possibly imagine in the way of service and product, from picture-taking props to pottery to an apothecary shoppe to a do-it-yourself mining company. And once you get there, you discover that it actually does have all of those attractions, plus many, many more. How else would you fill up a building too big to fit in a single photo?

Wall Drug

5) There’s one agricultural product that’s widely grown in South Dakota of which I was entirely unaware. Unaware, that is, until I began running across seemingly endless fields of them. So many, many sunflowers! Who knew?

6) South Dakota is one of the few places you can make this joke and have it make sense:

“Look! It’s a Little House on the Prairie!”

Little House on the Prairie

This is not, of course, the Little House of Laura Ingalls Wilder fame; that’s over in the modern SD town of De Smet, where the Ingalls family had the homestead that provided the setting for four of the Little House books. Still, there’s something inexpressibly charming about spotting these modern homesteads dotted about the landscape; you can almost imagine the residents churning butter by hand and stocking up on victuals for the long, harsh winter. Even now, it can’t be an easy life for those brave souls who decide to attempt it.

Tomorrow I will be in North Dakota, which I vividly recall being the buggiest state in the Union. Will it re-earn the title, or will it be supplanted by its southern relation, whose insects are, even now, so firmly encrusted upon my grill that a whole winter’s worth of California rain won’t wash them away? Can’t wait to find out – North Dakota, here I come!

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If you would like to see more photos from my cross-country travels, please follow my new Pinterest account at http://www.pinterest.com/lorilschafer/.

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For updates on my forthcoming memoir The Long Road Home, which I am drafting during this road trip, please follow my blog or subscribe to my newsletter.

The State of Our Union with the Pine Ridge Sioux

I’m driving east again on Route 18, a rural highway that runs south of the interstate through South Dakota. It’s a good road; quiet. Like many regions of the Great Plains, this area is dotted with reservation land. To those of us who are acquainted with American Indian history, the names of the places you pass along the way ring with bitter familiarity. The town of Pine Ridge, named for the former Indian agency in which Native American affairs were administered. Rosebud, the reservation that gave its name to certain branches of the Lakota, now often collectively known as the Rosebud Sioux. Wounded Knee, site of the massacre that’s generally conceived as marking the end of American Indian resistance to white settlers and their way of life.

Traveling through this historic section of the country makes me both happy and sad. Happy that the Native Americans still have land to call their own. Sad over the lengths to which they had to go to defend it. Happy that the peoples who were here before us still retain portions of their culture and heritage, and a remnant of their sovereignty. Sad, because of the conditions in which they retain them.

I visited Wounded Knee as I was working my way west towards Rapid City. Like the fiasco at Sand Creek, the 1890 “battle” that transpired there is often termed a massacre. What other term would you use to describe the slaughter of women, children, and largely unarmed warriors?

As I pulled up to this comparatively obscure landmark, a Native woman and man immediately approached my truck. They welcomed me effusively to the site, then directed me where to go and what to see. There wasn’t far to go, or much to see. The memorial of the massacre is a weather-worn and faded sign at the edge of a field…

Wounded Knee 1

Wounded Knee 2

Wounded Knee 3

A gated patch of cemetery, containing the gravesites of more modern Sioux warriors, several of whom died in service in World War II…

Wounded Knee Cemetery

Wounded Knee Gravestone

And a ragged-looking museum, selling souvenirs.

Wounded Knee Museum

I soon grasped the reason behind the effusiveness of the greeting. The man and woman held up trinkets of their own design for me to examine, perhaps to buy.

“You see, there isn’t much work around here,” the woman explained.

No, I thought. I imagine there isn’t.

As you drive through this broad stretch of reservation land – the eighth largest in the nation – you notice two things. One, the settlement is quite obviously poor. The towns are lacking in storefronts, the houses are dilapidated, the cars and trucks are rusty and old; the people, even, wear the downcast look endemic to those stricken by a lifetime of poverty. You witness them walking along the highway, those who don’t have cars or bicycles, in the blazing summer sun. I noticed that some of them were lugging bags of groceries in their hands or on their shoulders. I wondered how far they’d had to walk. I never even saw the store.

The second thing you notice is that these people, individuals though they are, truly do constitute a separate nation within the nation. Yes, many of their laws are similar to ours, but then, that is true of most modern nations. There are many Native Americans, of course, who do not live on the reservations, who have not chosen to remain in that kind of life. But among the faces of those who have, you plainly perceive a people. They still retain the characteristic and utterly unique appearance of Plains Indians; they still, in spite of nearly four hundred years of governmental efforts to consolidate and homogenize them, resemble a tribe.

The visitor center at the Crazy Horse Monument, a hundred miles southwest of here, contains a large and rather elaborate museum of Native American artifacts. Along with the spectacular headdresses for which the American Indians are perhaps best known, you can view beautiful beaded garments for both women and horses…

Beaded Dress

Pony War Bonnet

A sample tipi and sweat lodge…


Sweat Lodge

Even an traditional “winter count,” complete with drawings, by means of which many of the native tribes tracked the history of their people.

Winter Count

These are not the objects of a poor people. These are the objects of a people with leisure and wealth.

Tucked away in a corner of this vast building I spied a book, a three-hole binder filled with pictures of the various flags of the surviving American Indian nations. Beneath most of them were written the historical territories and current population of each of the represented tribes. Some of them – particularly the eastern tribes – consisted of very few members. I suppose this is because the eastern tribes – those who did not escape to the West or into Canada – had a longer history of contact with white men, and their populations were therefore decimated earlier and to a greater extent. I would imagine, too, that among those who did survive, the genealogical records are more complex and difficult to unravel because several more generations have passed since they wandered freely over their own part of the continent.

By contrast, the Plains and other western tribes were forced off of their native lands almost in modern memory. Their history is not confined to some distant and largely unwritten past, in retellings reconstructed by white men alone. Although they ultimately lost the war to maintain their land and way of life, they succeeded in ways their eastern counterparts often did not, because it was the western Indians who truly captured the white American imagination. They had names, individual personalities, identities that conveyed that Native Americans were more than merely a mass of “red” enemies. Who will ever forget Sitting Bull or Geronimo, Chief Joseph or Captain Jack? They were leaders, warriors, rebels, even showmen; they earned both the settlers’ and the government’s respect. They were not just “Indians.” They were people.

Perhaps this is why the vast majority of reservation land is out here, in the West. Not only because there were fewer whites to want the land, but because the Indians of the West fought harder to keep it. They had to. By the time the war against the Indian reached the plains, Native Americans knew with dreadful certainty that this was their last stand; their last chance to retain their native ways, their peoplehood. They had little choice but to fight.

Most of the eastern tribes could have had no such foresight. This is perhaps why, for example, there are currently only about eight hundred Mashantucket Pequots, some of the first native New Englanders. The tribe did not even receive federal recognition until the 1980s. I actually knew that even before I saw the book of flags because this was how Foxwoods Resort Casino in central Connecticut – one of the first and still one of the biggest of its kind – came to be built. As independent sovereign states, recognized tribes are permitted to operate gambling enterprises on their own land in states that otherwise prohibit gaming. This development has been a terrific boon for native peoples, and has also provided an additional incentive for nearly extinguished tribes to reestablish themselves in the last twenty years. Indeed, in many parts of the East, casinos are often the sole visible reminder that Native Americans still live among us. Yet small as these tribes are, they are nonetheless difficult to forget when so many of our cities and states – like Milwaukee and Chicago, Massachusetts and Connecticut – bear derivatives of their names.

But here in South Dakota, where a substantial portion of the land is given over to reservations, and where Native Americans comprise nearly nine percent of the population (http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/46000.html), the tribes are much larger, and very much in the public eye, as they are in a handful of other places in our shared nation. As many as a hundred and seventy thousand Sioux, more than three hundred thirty thousand Navajo, including those of mixed tribal designations (http://www.census.gov/prod/cen2010/briefs/c2010br-10.pdf) still reside in what is now the United States of America. Overall the remaining American Indians number nearly three million people, and comprise roughly one percent of our population – the smallest by far of our defined minority groups.

Yet they’ve survived. They have naturally lost much of their native culture, a process that began even before they were restricted to reservations. What remained of their historic modes of existence has also largely vanished, a change that commenced with the settlers’ invasion of the Plains and that has, of course, continued throughout the decades of what we term progress. Even without white interference in Indian affairs, it is difficult to imagine, in the twenty-first century, that the Plains Indians would be making cell phone calls while hunting buffalo, and watching satellite TV in tipis.

Yet it is equally difficult to imagine that, at one of the most saddening, sobering sites in American Indian history, some survivors are reduced to selling trinkets. You can’t blame them for doing it. Man’s first need is always to feed his belly. Honoring the history of your people loses much of its importance when your children are going hungry.

And there is something surprising, even baffling, about the degraded state of the Sioux in this area. Because when you’re traveling through the rest of South Dakota, you cannot help but become aware of just how much work is available there. Institutions as huge as Capital One advertise for help on the radio, the radio stations advertise for help on the radio; over and over you hear businesses pleading for workers to fill positions for which experience is “helpful, but not required.” And once you’re in the cities, the need for labor becomes even more apparent. The fast food restaurant chains, instead of advertising their specials, virtually all seem to post “Help Wanted” on their outdoor marquees. Motels post signs seeking maids and janitorial staff. These may not be the best jobs, but they’re jobs – entry-level positions that most anyone can obtain. One Walmart I saw was hiring clerks at $10.50 an hour. Not a grand sum, certainly, but considerably higher than the Federal minimum wage of $7.25, and higher, even, than the California minimum wage of $9.00 per hour. That’s a living wage in a place where you can rent a one-bedroom apartment for less than $500 per month.

Curious to see if my impressions were correct, I looked up the unemployment rate in South Dakota, and sure enough, it’s between 3.1% and 3.7%, depending on the locale – a rate so low that you can barely call it unemployment, particularly when you compare it to the current average Federal rate of 6.1% (http://dlr.sd.gov/unemploymentrate.aspx).

South Dakota seems to be one of the few places in the country where there’s plenty of employment to be had, yet for the Native Americans on the Pine Ridge Reservation, “There isn’t much work around here.”

The woman wasn’t exaggerating. I decided to look up the statistics on Pine Ridge, and they were even more horrifying than I had suspected, with an estimated 80-90% rate of unemployment and the second lowest life expectancy in the Western hemisphere (http://www.re-member.org/pine-ridge-reservation.aspx).

The statistics for the Navajo, the massive tribal group that occupies a section of Southwestern desert hundreds of miles from here, are nearly as staggering, with 42% unemployment and 43% of the population living below the poverty line (http://navajobusiness.com/fastFacts/Overview.htm).

Yes, the Native Americans have survived. But here in the West, at least, they have not thrived. Somewhere there is a disconnect between their countries and ours, between American life and Native American life. Somehow in losing their land and their livelihood, one might have expected that they would at least have gained the benefits that the modern-day United States has to offer. Yet on many of the reservations, this does not seem to be the case.

It is true; the Native Americans are their own people, members of a world they can call their own. Unfortunately, for many of them, it is a Third World, enclosed tightly – and perhaps irrevocably – within our First.

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If you would like to see more photos from my cross-country travels, please follow my new Pinterest account at http://www.pinterest.com/lorilschafer/.

For updates on my forthcoming memoir The Long Road Home, which I am drafting during this road trip, please follow my blog or subscribe to my newsletter.

Nightmare in Hot Springs II: Death Springs Eternal

(a continuation of this post)

The sinkhole at Mammoth does not only contain fossils of mammoths. Other large animals did occasionally slide down the slippery slopes and become trapped inside, but the excavations conducted so far have indicated that such events were comparatively rare. Many of the other mammals and scavengers that resided in the area, having in general paws and claws, were more likely to be able to scramble their way out of the hole if they did end up inside it than the mammoths with their flat, poorly gripping feet. One notable exception is a truly rare find indeed, the bones of one Arcdotus Simus, the giant short-faced bear.

Giant Short-Faced Bear

He wasn’t lightly termed a giant; this fifteen-hundred pound beast stood twelve feet on his hind legs, while his height at the shoulder when he was on all fours matched that of a human.

This brutish fellow makes the modern-day black and grizzly bears (shown below on the left) look perfectly cuddly by comparison. Indeed, it puts one in mind of other Ice Age creatures, like the saber-toothed cat, which was similarly a bigger and far nastier version of the modern-day mountain lion.

Bear Skulls

What an amazing continent this must have been, in the days of the Ice Age! It’s difficult to imagine creatures of such size and ferocity living alongside humans – perhaps because they don’t anymore. It’s even hypothesized that it was not climate or habitat change, but man himself that directly caused the extinction of the oversized animals that were once plentiful upon the North American continent. Is it a coincidence that many of these species – which could have had few natural predators – went into decline with the arrival of human hunters?

There have in human history been numerous cultures that derived a majority of their sustenance from a single species like the mammoth, which could provide not only food, but clothing and shelter as well. Witness, for example, the mammoth bone houses built by ancient tribes of the Ukraine, Poland, and the Czech Republic:

Mammoth Bone House

Mammoth Bone House Inside

Imagine how eerie it feels to the modern person, accustomed to walls of wood or stone, to sit in the barely penetrable darkness surrounded by hundreds of bones of long-dead creatures, the sounds from outside the hut muffled by the skins covering the enclosure. To the ancients who lived in such places, one must have been continually reminded of what a gift the mammoth was to the humans who hunted it, of how tremendously its death could improve the lives of those who sought it.

Mammoth Bone House from Inside

But one can imagine, too, how too much dependence on a single species could ultimately lead to the failure of a culture or a people. Many animal species have been hunted to their ultimate demise; however, probably countless more have become extinct indirectly, owing to loss of habitat, to man’s “conquest” of the environment. And it is not the only so-called lesser animals that are vulnerable to losing their livelihood in this manner. The Plains Indians provide a classic example of a similar disaster befalling humans. For ultimately it was not the war against the Indians that defeated the Indians; it was the vanishing of the buffalo, the reduction of their range, the wholesale slaughter of herds for their furs. Without the buffalo, the people of the Plains had no means of making a living on the land for which they fought. In his lack of regard for animal, man once again destroyed man.

There was a final exhibit at the Mammoth Site concerning recent newsworthy finds, particularly in Russia, of carcasses of mammoths found frozen and nearly intact, so well-preserved by the frost, in fact, that the meat was still good. This represents a fascinating development in the study of archaeology, for it is my prediction that as global warming continues and previously glacialized areas are exposed, we will discover more and more bodies of Ice Age creatures that have been cryogenically preserved down through the ages. Indeed, areas like Russia, much of which is, and historically has been, wilderness, are likely rife with such remnants long ago buried in snow and in ice. There have been no visitors to disturb them, no people to poach the tusks, no dogs to drag away the bones.

But in spite of the immeasurable boon to science, I fear it will be but a small comfort, as the ice around the earth melts away, if we uncover the remains of long-lost creatures that flourished during the last Ice Age and are able to study them. For much as we may admire the creatures who came before, their bones and flesh can only serve as a grim reminder of the extremes of which our planet is capable, and of what can happen to species that are ill-prepared to adapt to drastic shifts in the weather.

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If you would like to see more photos from my cross-country travels, please follow my new Pinterest account at http://www.pinterest.com/lorilschafer/.
For updates on my forthcoming memoir The Long Road Home, which I am drafting during this road trip, please follow my blog or subscribe to my newsletter.

Nightmare in Hot Springs: A Serial Killer Strikes Again

About an hour south of Rapid City lies Hot Springs, South Dakota. But there’s a darker side to the naturally occurring warm water around which the town is based. In fact, during the last Ice Age, the creatures that lived around Hot Springs were continually stalked – by a serial killer!


One of the killer’s many victims.

Yes, indeed, the scene at Hot Springs is the stuff of which horror movies are made. It was only in the last century that evidence of this monster, which, astonishingly, continued to murder its victims over a period of seven hundred years, was finally uncovered. As there can be no statute of limitations on such a series of heinous crimes, archaeologists are working around the clock to catalogue the remains of perhaps hundreds of victims of this deadly killer. Who could have done such a thing? What unholy terror could have repeatedly destroyed – and with apparent impunity – such terrific and powerful beasts?

For you see, the primary victims of this diabolical criminal were not flightless birds, or helpless little mammals, but some of the largest land creatures known during the last Ice Age – the mammoths!

The better-known woolly mammoth paled in size compared to the much larger Columbian mammoth.

The better-known woolly mammoth paled in size compared to the much larger Columbian mammoth.

I am relieved to report that the murderer of these majestic creatures has at last been identified. This hardened criminal will escape punishment, I fear, as it, too, has long since been buried. But the evidence of its crimes lingers, and the whole sad story may finally be told.

It appears that some twenty-six thousand years ago, when mammoths were still plentiful on the North American continent, a sinkhole developed in the region, much like this one that was used for the Vore Buffalo Jump. However, in Hot Springs, the force of the collapse caused the hole to tap into a warm artesian well, which in turn caused grass to grow in the area year-round, even in winter. When food was scarce, mammoths would be naturally attracted to the site. They would snack on the grass, then perhaps climb down the sides of the sinkhole for a sip of water. Once inside, their flat feet would be unable to gain traction on the slippery sides of the sinkhole, and they would become trapped inside, floundering about helplessly until they either drowned or starved.

Mammoth footprints. Surprisingly, they don't make much of a mark. Comparatively few remains of smaller mammals have been found at the site, likely because animals with claws rather than hooves were better able to scramble out of the sinkhole.

Mammoth footprints. Surprisingly, they don’t make much of a mark. Comparatively few remains of smaller mammals have been found at the site, likely because animals with claws rather than hooves were better able to scramble out of the sinkhole.

Thus, unlike at Dinosaur National Monument, the tragedy at the Mammoth Site was not mainly the result of a single event, such as a drought, but rather a series of accidents, likely all nearly identical in form. It is worthy of note that every one of the many skeletons that has been uncovered at Mammoth came from a juvenile male. Knowing what we do about modern-day elephant societies, which are matriarchal, these were likely young elephants which were banished from their herds and went off on their own, and therefore had no wiser, more experienced mammoths to warn them against the dangers of the sinkhole. In addition, these lonesome individuals, being outcasts, probably traveled further afield than the others did in their search for food.

After about seven hundred years, the sinkhole had filled in to such an extent that it evidently no longer posed a hazard for mammoths and other local creatures. The mammoth tragedy, however unhappy it was for its victims, has resulted in a truly spectacular archaeological find. Nearly all of the bones have been left in situ, which means they still lie virtually as they were found.


Clearly identifiable mammoth skulls.

Indeed, the site is an active archaeological dig; you can see on the board the new bones that have been uncovered during the current season alone.


You can see, too, that the bones at this site are much easier to pick out from among the dirt and rocks than those at Dinosaur, and this is because these bones have not fossilized. They are evidently not old enough for the bone to have been replaced by harder minerals, leaving mere casts of where the remains once were. Instead, we see here the original bones, which, visually, have a markedly different texture from fossilized bones, which resemble rock.


Mammoth tusks. I don’t care how well-preserved they are; I’m not licking one!

According to our tour guide, if you’re in doubt, you can also identify a bone by licking it; if you’re tongue sticks, it’s bone. I confess that that little tidbit rather put me off the idea of pursuing a sixth career as an archaeologist.

Now, as at Dinosaur, this incredible find was made possible by mountain building forces in the region, namely the uplifting of the Black Hills, which brought the rock layer containing the mammoth skeletons closer to the surface. The remains were found, as these kinds of things often are, during excavation for a new building. It makes you wonder how many more such sites lie beneath the surface, especially in these rural mountainous regions, just awaiting discovery.

And, as at Dinosaur, the nature of the tragedy that befell these creatures created a set of conditions in which large numbers of skeletons would be found in one location. Unlike at Dinosaur, however, there was no river or flooding to jumble up the remains of the creatures that died, which means that many of the skeletons have been found largely intact, as is very apparent when you examine the uncovered bones.

Be sure to return for Nightmare in Hot Springs II: Death Springs Eternal, in which we conclude the story of the killer at Mammoth by examining one of its other unwitting and now-extinct victims – the giant short-faced bear!

* * *

If you would like to see more photos from my cross-country travels, please follow my new Pinterest account at http://www.pinterest.com/lorilschafer/.

For updates on my forthcoming memoir The Long Road Home, which I am drafting during this road trip, please follow my blog or subscribe to my newsletter.

They Call It Rapid City Because If You Don’t Hurry, You Might Miss Something

It never fails to come as a surprise. The midwestern states always seem like vast stretches of nothing until, wham! They hit you with something truly spectacular. Or, in the case of Rapid City, with many things truly spectacular.

It doesn’t seem like much at first. A good-sized town tucked away in the northeast corner of South Dakota, not far from Sturgis of “Sturgis Raw!” fame, which fans of The History Channel will recognize in an instant as the site of one of the biggest motorcycle rallies in the world.


They call this area The Black Hills. But it is perhaps best known for one rather grayish-tan hill:

Mount Rushmore

Every day, thousands of people flock to Mount Rushmore, to this ultimate homage to dead presidents. It is so cheesy, yet so reassuring. It reminds us that in fifty years currently popular celebrities like Kim Kardashian and Pitbull will be long forgotten – yet these four presidents will live on in the American imagination. Not because of their principles, not because of their achievements, but because some sculptor thought it would be really cool to memorialize their heads on the side of a mountain.

And you know what? It actually is really cool. And what’s even cooler is that they livened up that dull, colorless mountain by turning the entrance to it into an Avenue of Flags containing the banners of each of the fifty states:

Avenue of Flags

The whole monument is so cool, in fact, that another sculptor – with entirely different motives – decided to attempt a similar gambit some twenty miles to the south:

Crazy Horse Monument II

Any guess what famous figure that’s supposed to be? Maybe this will help:

Crazy Horse Model

That’s right; this mountain is – or is going to be – a monument to Crazy Horse, the famed Indian warrior who inspired such fear and admiration in the spirits of white men, and who, a century and a half later, remains an icon of the Plains Indian to both red and white men alike. This massive project – which, if completed, may be the largest sculpture in the world – receives no federal funding and has been a work-in-progress since 1948. However, I think it’s safe to say that even if the project is never finished, it has ensured that Crazy Horse will enjoy a permanent place in American history.

It is perhaps ironic that not far south of the Crazy Horse Mountain lies Custer State Park, named for the cocky yet ill-fated Indian fighter who met his doom on a Montana battlefield which I hope to see again later in my trip. It is perhaps fitting that General Custer and his outmoded ways of thinking have been commemorated by an equally antiquated theme park, which has been constructed in the city that also bears his name:

That’s right – in Custer you can order food from the Flintstones drive-in…

Flintstones Theme Park II

… or make a call from the Bedrock phone booth, which can be really handy if, like me, you have a third-rate cell service provider and your phone hasn’t worked in a week.

Flintstones Theme Park III

Yes, Rapid City has an abundance of special charms that you won’t want to miss. You don’t have to worry about hurrying down to nearby Hot Springs, though – this guy definitely isn’t going anywhere:


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If you would like to see more photos from my cross-country travels, please follow my new Pinterest account at http://www.pinterest.com/lorilschafer/.

For updates on my forthcoming memoir The Long Road Home, which I am drafting during this road trip, please follow my blog or subscribe to my newsletter.

With a Name Like Badlands, It Has to Be Good!

Join me, if you will, on a journey through one of the most forbidding destinations in the Great Plains. But I warn you – there’s danger in them thar hills, dire and perhaps deadly danger!

Unless, of course, you’re driving around comfortably in your car, as I was. Just play along, people!

Upon entering the park south of Wall, South Dakota, your first view is of this, the Pinnacles formation. It’s hard to convey in a single photograph just how massive this is – these formations literally go on for as far as the eye can see. How daunting it must have been to early settlers of the region, not knowing when – or if – the Badlands would ever end.


The soil colors are caused by the decomposition of different plants at various points in the area’s geologic history. The layers became fossilized and were thus preserved in the “rainbow” arrangement we see today.


This section almost reminds me of Arizona’s Native American cliff dwellings – except that no rational, civilized people would build a home here when they had a nice, comparatively comfortable desert available to them.


There doesn’t seem to be much in the way of wildlife here, either, except for insects, and, of course, these lovely fellows.


Notice the teeny little  structure up top – then imagine trying to climb your way up the sides of this enormous crevasse.


I’m pretty sure this is what Tolkien had in mind when he pictured the land of Mordor. Let’s hope Sauron isn’t still hanging out in here somewhere.


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“Les terres mauvais à traverser” – Badlands National Park

Take a look and see if you can guess why French-Canadian fur trappers called this section of the South Dakota prairie “bad lands to cross.”

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If you would like to see more videos from my cross-country travels, please check out my new YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCb5RugrJMSHh6_4hkgHmkMA.

For updates on my forthcoming memoir The Long Road Home, which I am drafting during this road trip, please follow my blog or subscribe to my newsletter.

South Dakota – No Place I’d Rather Be

I have been awoken by lightning. Great, powerful flashes of it, flickering in an asynchronous beat all around me, in every imaginable rhythm, in every possible direction. It is as if the heavens have decided to let down their giant disco ball and are twirling it around the gods’ roller rink in celebration of summer.

I am sleeping in the parking lot of a casino just over the border of South Dakota. Technically I am on Sioux land; the flag flying in the wind by the casino door tells me so.

The sky was threatening to storm, all day, it seemed, not because of storm clouds gathering, or because of darkness overhead, but because of the heaviness in the air. You can feel a thunderstorm brewing long before you can see it. It assails the subconscious long before the senses.

The rain washes in torrents down my truck window. I have to go to the bathroom, but I’ll wait. That is the beauty of thunderstorms; what seems to differentiate them from ordinary rainstorms, which can last all day; the way they release their tension, and then travel down the road, to threaten some other town, or some other open prairie. They are like motorists, in that way; you rarely have to wait long for them to pass.

It has been about ten minutes now, and the rain has settled into a drizzle. The lightning flashes have grown fainter, and farther away; the party has moved on to another scene, another venue.

I climb out of the truck and walk down the road a ways to the nearby truck stop. It’s warm outside, very warm. It smells wonderful, like fresh rain on fresh grass. It smells like New England. It feels like New England, too; that heat of summer that never seems to let go, even in the night. It clings to your body, your bed, your home. To the earth itself.

It’s one of the aspects of the Bay Area to which I’ve never grown accustomed. How cold it is at night, even in summer. It never feels natural to me, the chill that descends in the evening, making you question whether it’s really July or August or September. How I’ve missed those warm, sometimes even scorching summer nights. How, even all these years later, I still long for them.

This heat, this midnight warmth speaks to me. The rain speaks to me. The lightning, yes, even the thunder and the lightning speak to me. They speak to me of home, of security, of comfort. My heart – in spite of itself – speaks back.

I am walking back across the parking lot to my truck. I feel as wonderful as the air smells. It is one-thirty in the morning, local time. I have slept for about three hours. I am almost tempted to move on, I feel so awake, so alive now.

But I won’t. I feel at home here, in the back of my truck, in the parking lot of an American Indian casino, in a largely uninhabited portion of South Dakota. It feels natural to me, being here, cuddling up in my little bed and sleeping here. This is where I wanted to be all along. I knew it, without knowing why. I still don’t know why. I only know that it suits my mood. It suits me.

I almost wish I could stay here for a while. I wouldn’t mind finding a little place to hole up in, and enjoying the rest of a truly rural, truly traditional – to my mind – summer, while it lasts. There would be plenty for me to do, plenty for me to enjoy. I could sit and watch the rain, then watch the sun dry it up. Sit and smell the grass; smell the rain feeding it, the sun feeding it, too. Let them feed my soul and feed my spirit, the sun and the rain. Let them fill me up, too; let them warm and wet me, watch me revive under their nourishment, watch me grow.

But I know I can’t. I shouldn’t. I’ve got to be moving on. While there’s still time.

Here there doesn’t seem to be any time. Only the sun, and the rain, and the never-ending growth of new grass.