Although we had a great time camping in the backcountry, the severe winds made for a somewhat restless night. They were far better than the severe thunderstorms that were forecast, but it was still restless. We actually found out later that, had it rained, we would have been SCREWED until the rocks dried. Clay gets very slippery when wet (duh), and the formations become impassable. Lovely. Nonetheless, we had a site to leave no trace of, a civilization to find, and a park ranger to meet.
We found the hike back far less strenuous than the one out (probably that whole "know where you're going" thing), but had apparently not been going quite as due west the night before as we had thought. We got to what should have been our last opening in the formations and instead found a 100 foot high wall of rock that we were pretty certain we hadn’t climbed. Our legs and arms (there’s a lot of four limb climbing), had no recollection of scaling anything that large.) Fortunately, we went with Ceridwen's gut instinct (south) instead of Keath's gut instinct (north) and soon came around the bend to our opening and the final yards back to Vantom, who was waiting patiently for us, right where we had parked him the night before.
Despite our miscalculations, we still got back to the ranger station with plenty of time before our "Wild Adventure Hike." So breakfast it was! Today was a day of learning, and we learned two important things before breakfast: Lesson 1
- another camper who was waiting for the diner in the park to open advised us that they had some of the slowest service on Earth, so it be would best if we didn't do any dilly-dallying. Lesson 2
- the full-time RVer who had a temporary job as the host for the diner informed us that he'd been RVing in Florida through several hurricanes but the winds last night rocked his RV more than any hurricane. (Which shows that the Scorpions really weren't going to rock you quite as much as you may have thought. But rock you like a Badlands wind storm is really quite cumbersome.)
After breakfast, our ranger, Gary, and his trusty volunteer intern, Becca, took us on a two mile hike through the lower prairie, up the Badlands wall, and through the upper prairie. We walked along a drainage gully that got rather tight in some places and learned to do the butt scooch well on some very steep places. Wait until you see the height we came from in the photos. In fact, when driving along and looking at formations, we assumed we couldn’t get up to the ridge where we ended our hike, but that’s where we ended up.
Gary is a geologist doing a summer research project in the park, and was a veritable fountain of knowledge on how the Badlands formed, why they are the way they are, and almost anything else our small group managed to wonder out loud. Becca filled in all the bits Gary didn't know about, namely anything organic, whether four legged, eight legged, or rooted.
Aside from all the lessons we learned about the natural world, we had a couple more practical lessons: Lesson 3
- the route we took to our campsite last night was not as ill-advised as we had thought. Ranger Gary took us across some far more treacherous looking formations with some much steeper drop offs. Lesson 4
- prickly pear cacti hurt. (Yes, despite many signs and warnings about the park's number one source of injuries, Keath managed to put his hand full force in to a cactus. There is little solace in the fact that three other members of our seven person group did the same thing on the same plant as they followed us up the hill.)
When our hike came to a close we headed straight for the highway so as to make for the hills. We took a brief break when we realized that the combination of a sleepless night and strenuous hike had made us both hazards to the highway. A truckers’ pull off and a brief nap in the back of the van fixed us up for the remainder of the trip ... And not much else.
While we did stop at a few overlooks on the way in, we pretty much got to our campsite and immediately took another nap. However, we were way too stir-crazy and shortly thereafter headed for the Crazy Horse memorial. And we were very glad we did. It is an impressive work in progress, an impressive scale model, and an impressive collection of work. A South Dakota visitor info booth woman suggested we see the movie when we got there because it would "entirely change your view of him." We were assuming she meant Crazy Horse, though we were not sure what we were supposed to think of him before we saw the movie. It turns out, however, that she must have meant Korczack Ziolkowski, the artist who designed the monument, because the film told us little about Crazy Horse but and focused on the story of how Chief Red Cloud asked this Polish guy from Boston to carve a monument "to show the white man that the red man has heroes also." The film actually raised more questions than it answered:
1. Korczack and his wife had ten kids and seven of them are involved with the monument. What are the other three doing? We realize this is probably just really nosy, but come on, wouldn’t you want to know?
2. What sort of involvement does the Native American community have? It sort of seemed like they asked Korczack to build the monument and then left him to his own devices in terms of money and administration. When he first started, he worked entirely alone, without any help. It seemed odd that there were no volunteers from any of the neighboring tribes.
3. Aside from being involved in the Battle of Little Big Horn, what did Crazy Horse do? We actually learned all about this later when we read the well concealed story on the wall. He basically stood up to the white men, but he also led war parties against neighboring tribes and was generally fairly bellicose. This made us feel mildly better about being “The White Man”.
After watching the movie, we wandered the grounds. The grounds consist of the American Indian Museum and Cultural Center, the house of Korczack and his family (which they still live in and is home to a number of Korczack’s other works) and the viewing terrace. We viewed Crazy Horse, which basically consists of his face and a bunch terraces that have been blocked out to begin the carving of the horse. It doesn’t matter how little is done, though. It’s a whole mountain, in the round, and it’s huge. 87 foot high face, 22 story horse. It’s awesome. We wandered the museum and bit and checked out the artisans in the Cultural Center and then headed out so we could try to catch the fireworks over Mt. Rushmore.
Unfortunately, in order to view the fireworks from Mt. Rushmore, you have to plan really well. We found out at the Rapid City visitors center that the parking lots had been closed off at noon. We asked around and it seemed that the best place to see them was from Iron Mountain Road. We headed up there and stopped at the first overlook where we saw others congregating. The whole thing felt just like the 4th of July in any other neighborhood. People had blankets and coolers and camp chairs and were just generally hanging out, chatting and playing frisbie. The only notable difference was that there were no sparklers or personal fireworks, since the locals didn’t want to set their prairie on fire.
The fireworks were kind of silly, since we were so far away. The booms came long after the lights, and the display was pint sized. But it was still fun and we went back to our campsite happy.