Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Custer State Park

We hadn't planned on stopping at Custer State Park while during our Rushmore trip. But some friends told us it was well worth a visit. They were right. Sylvan Lake is beautiful and weird. The Needles Drive through the park is a winding meandering road full of switchbacks and one lane tunnels. Many of the tunnels were built to provide views of Mount Rushmore in the distance. The drive is not for the faint of heart. Steep drop-offs and roads that actually make 360 degree turns appropriately called "The Pigtails" can really try the nerves. The amazing scenery is definitely worth it. Another place worth more than a day's visit. But we were glad to have had the time to spend there.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

The Crazy Crazy Horse Monument

The Crazy Horse Monument often provokes skepticism. I've heard it derided as nothing more than a family fundraiser for the Ziolkowski family. I've heard people say they've returned twenty years later to the monument and haven't seen discernible progress. They've been working on the sculpture for fifty years and there is no end date in sight.

Still. It is a staggering achievement. And when you've seen the photos of progress from the beginning, it is astounding how far they've come. Finishing the face in 1999 was a big step. Seeing Crazy Horse's face really helps one envision the direction of the project. When you see it in person the scale of the thing blows your mind. It is much much larger than Mount Rushmore.  All four of Rushmore's heads could fit in just the head of Crazy Horse.

Now they could get this thing done much faster, if they accepted government assistance. The United States Government has offered assistance in the past and I have no doubt with taxpayer help this they could get done in twenty years. Right now there seems to be less than ten guys working on it at a time. I saw three or four working on it while we were there. The crew is small and the project enormous.

But they will not accept money from the United States Federal Government. That would defeat much of the point of the serve as a counterpoint to nearby Mount Rushmore...that these lands were Native American lands and if you're going to honor American presidents then you need to honor Native American leaders as well. And the Federal Government has a horrible record in keeping promises and treaties with Native American tribes. In fact, was there a treaty the U.S. Government ever honored or kept with the American Indians?

The museum at the base of Crazy Horse is extensive and impressive. The story of the family building the sculpture is fascinating. Korczak Ziolkowski was definitely a man possessed. His family is certainly not becoming wealthy off this project.

We ended spending half a day there. We rode a bus closer up to the base. We saw them jack hammering away on Crazy Horse's hand. We had a great time and definitely recommend paying the fee to get in. Ignore the naysayers who say to just stop on the side of the road to look at it for free. Go to the museum and visitor's center. Ride the bus up there. We really enjoyed the Crazy Horse Monument.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Mount Rushmore

We finally got to South Dakota and checked in to the Holiday Inn Express in Keystone. I recommend staying in Keystone if you wish to spend any time at Mount Rushmore. Keystone is right in the center of the action, a mile or so from Rushmore and very close to Custer State Park and the Crazy Horse Monument. Keystone is a bit tourist trappy but it's fun and our hotel was right around the corner from the main drag.

Our plan was only to spend two days in the area. But you could easily make it a longer vacation stop. There's lots to do and see. Helicopter tours, panning for gold, cave exploration...all kinds of stuff for kids and adults.

But our main objective was Mount Rushmore. I had seen it in 8th grade and yet I was still impressed. It's hip to say you were disappointed, that it wasn't as big as expected. I can't say that. It's massive and worth the trip. They've made major improvements to the base area since I visited back in the late 1980's. The observation area has been expanded and designed to spread the crowds out. The parking situation is much better with a multi-level garage system.

They have a newer trail called the Presidential Trail that takes you much closer to the sculpture since last I visited. The trail provides amazing close-up views of the four presidents. When you buy a pass to the monument, it's good for a year so you don't feel rushed (no pun intended) to move so quickly. We were able to leave and come back later in the evening for the night lighting of the presidents.

It is a bit surreal to drive up the highway and boom! there's four massive presidents looking down at you. Mount Rushmore is the ultimate American roadside attraction. We had built in a full day to visit so we checked out all the exhibits and various visitor centers at the base. We had a great time. I even enjoyed it more as an adult.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Detours in Nebraska

Last year when discussing our summer 2017 plans our son wanted really badly to see Mount Rushmore this summer. Both my wife and I had visited Mount Rushmore as kids. We decided that Rushmore would be the first leg of our summer vacation.

We decided to drive to give us more flexibility. Finding fights into Rapid City and then out of a town near Yellowstone was becoming too complicated. Getting rental cars to and from completely different locations was becoming a hassle.

So we drove. And drove. And drove some more. Our Dodge Durango was perfect for the trip and handled everything great.

We drove up north from Dallas through OKC and Wichita, hitting I-70 at Salina. We then shot north on US Highways at Hays, Kansas. We were going to sleep in Ogallala, Nebraska. As we were approaching a town called Alliance in Nebraska, my wife saw a sign for a roadside attraction called Carhenge. She said let's take the three mile detour and check it out.

I'm glad we did because Carhenge was pretty cool. Years ago, a Nebraska farmer had recreated England's famous Stonehenge with old cars. He had arranged them just like Stonehenge and painted them gray. This was worth stopping for. Talk about a classic American roadside attraction in the middle of nowhere! There were other sculptures on site as well, all made from old cars. Admission was free. We were all glad we made the unexpected stop.

We had packed picnic lunches and stopped at Chadron State Park in the Nebraska National Forest. Who knew that Nebraska had such beautiful topography. We drove up a small mountain (who knew Nebraska had mountains?) and ate lunch overlooking a fantastic forest. This was an unexpected highlight of the trip. That's one of the benefits of driving across America. You see all kinds of oddities and scenery not mentioned in the high tone tour books.

That first night we stayed at the Holiday Inn Express in Ogallala, although it was it's last night of operation as a Holiday Inn. A new Holiday Inn Express was set to open across the freeway and the old one was converting to the Lonesome Dove Lodge. Nonetheless we had a good night's rest before heading out the next morning for South Dakota.

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Epic June

Yeah, it's been a few weeks since I last posted. End of the school year was the normal mad rush. Then in June I was only home for six days out of the thirty days of the month. And I'm leaving soon for another trip, this time to see family in Indiana and Oklahoma. 

On May 31st, I flew out for my annual trek to Salt Lake City to grade AP World History Exams. I was a Table Leader once again this year. This was my third year as a TL and tenth year (10!) to grade AP exams overall.

Had fun in SLC. This year the timing was fortuitous. The United States Men's National Soccer Team was in town to play a friendly against Venezuela. I got tickets several weeks in advance. I had seen a game at the Rio Tinto stadium, but to see the USA was something special. Back in 1993 I had actually spent some time in Venezuela so that experience made the match even more interesting. I still have a soft spot for Venezuela especially since they are going through so much turmoil.

The game ended a tie. The game experience was phenomenal. We had a lot of fun riding the train to the match. Super time.

I also once again made it to the top of Ensign Peak which overlooks Salt Lake City. It's quite a hike but well worth the view. I also saw it as high altitude training for our upcoming trip to Yellowstone.

I'll post soon about our epic trip to Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse, Custer State Park, Yellowstone National Park and the Grand Tetons. It was a busy month of June. But it was an amazing ride!