As soon as the 2014 company schedules came out last winter, I checked with our production manager and my supervisor, and then made reservations for Caravan's "Mount Rushmore/Yellowstone" bus tour. I timed it after the "ankle biters" (as our tour director—let's call him Tom—referred to them) had gone back to school. Thus I was on the "geezer" tour, where I was one of the youngest riders. Also one of two singles (our tour costs more, but we get two seats on the bus to pile our bags upon).
MUCH planning went into this, as I wanted to hit Casper, WY, to do book research for my "Three Worlds" series (see book covers at right). Finally I decided to rent a car at SLC, drive to Casper for a full day touring, and then hightail it to Denver, where I'd have an afternoon to look around before heading home the next day.
The night before I left, I was congratulating myself. All bags were ready to go, and I could sleep in until 8:40 the next morning—what a luxury!—before heading out to RDU Intl. Luckily, it hit me that I needed to print out boarding passes. Then as I sat down to begin that process, I began to wonder how I'd come up with the odd time of 8:40 at which to get up.
Ack! My plane took off at 8:40! Which meant I had to get up before dawn to get on the road. Whew, managed, though I hadn't gotten those boarding passes. Wasn't able to print them out on the way back, either. Is there something about the AA website that causes probs? Others seemed to get their passes okay.
It helped me wake up when the german shepherd in the security line developed a sudden fascination with the lady in front of me. He liked her front. He liked her back. His handler politely asked the woman if she could come with him, and she complied, looking surprised and yet not all that surprised. Hm.
Grabbed a yogurt breakfast at RDU. I was recovering from a significant GI problem that had started with a weekend's food poisoning and escalated from there. My doctor warned me that when my pills ran out, I might have some, uh, problems, so I should be sure to eat yogurt. This I managed to find, though I did indeed run into a prob when the pills ran out. TMI? I'll try not to do that again.
The first plane ride I ever took was TERRIFYING. First of all: plane. In sky. Nothing holding it up. Then: turbulence that lasted the entire ride. This time: Kind of relaxed. Hardly hyperventilated at all. So proud of myself! The flights home from the trip were even better, assisted by my yearning to get, you know, HOME.
Always check your planes before boarding. With four rides total, I had two happy planes, one zen-calm one, and one who merrily flapped its elevators at me (we ran into a bit of turbulence on that flight, something I think the plane enjoyed). Make sure you don't bother your plane on takeoff or landing, and thank them afterward. They appreciate it.
Dallas/Ft. Worth airport is HUGE, and requires riding a tram just to get from one side of one terminal to the other side, much less the next terminals. There are currently 5 terminals, with room set aside for a sixth. Each terminal has at least 2 stops, some of which may be in different counties. There are some very nice restaurants, lots of USO parlors, and all in all, it's a nice airport.
|Rapid City's brontosaurus (or whatever)|
Rapid City's airport, on the other hand, was TINY. The parking lot might hold 1000 cars. Maybe. There was a couple waiting for the same hotel shuttle. They'd arrived two days early for their tour. (Caravan runs one tour a day along the same route. Make sure you take the tour that starts on Friday, so you can see the Mormon Tabernacle Choir the next Thursday.) I'm not sure what their logic was.
Rapid City is a small city with a lively downtown and life-size "casual" President statues on the corners. Tourists stand next to the various presidents to have their pictures made. JFK's statue includes a young JFK, Jr. One of the presidents sits on a bench that you can share.
Went strolling in search of dinner, and an elderly gentleman enjoying coffee at a sidewalk cafe, yelled, "Great rack!" at me as I passed. Thanks a lot, jerk. I kept an eye out for him for the rest of the stay, and considered throwing a drink of my own at him so he could enjoy it, too.
Had a nice dinner at a pub, and the next night had one of the best Mexican dinners of my life at a little place down the street from the hotel. I was hoping to get my fill of fine Mexican fare on this trip, but this was the only place that had anything worth mentioning. (The Qué Pasa Mexican Kitchen and Tequila Bar. Find it. Eat there.) Also, I was very pleasantly surprised to discover that, unlike the restaurants along my New England trip last year, every last one of the cafes/restaurants I ate at on this trip knew how to make iced tea. Okay, one place served more iced tea-flavored water, and one place failed, but most were right on. Encouraging!
Iced tea is important.
Rapid City's in a deep valley. Looking out my hotel window, I couldn't help but notice a large brontosaurus, or whatever they're called, perched on the rim of the surrounding hills. Not quite sure why (except that there were a lot of Sinclair stations/drilling stations along our route, and their symbol is a bronty). This is confusing, as the most famous dinosaur discovered around RC was Sue the Tyrannosaurus Rex. (Named after the person who discovered her.) Now, over in Casper, WY, they've just installed a large TRex statue at the Tate Museum, though that museum's well-known for Dee, the Columbian Mammoth, who was discovered in that area by a guy named Dee.
After an organizational meeting, the next morning we all set off in our bus with Ray, our intrepid bus driver, and Tom. First destination: Crazy Horse.
|The model shows how it'll look when finished. In the distance, the round hole is the space under his arm, put in now so equipment can get through from the back.|
|The face is finished. Not sure how they'll put in the feather on top of his head.|
WOW!!!! Crazy Horse is FABULOSO!!! He's HUGE (6115 feet high, making Mt. Rushmore seem tiny), and the non-profit organization doesn't get a penny from the government for their work. He might get finished in 100 years. His face is done. A $4 tour got us on a school bus that motored right under the sculpture. This being a weekend, there was no blasting going on, but our bus driver told us that we HAD to stay inside the safety zone. Of course, two idiots immediately took off and man, did he yell at them! Really, the best locations for pics was where we were anyway.
Crazy Horse is more than a statue. The project was commissioned to be an answer to the US's thumbing its nose at Native Americans by putting up Mt. Rushmore in the middle of what was supposed to have been Indian territory. Chief Standing Bear said, "My fellow chiefs and I would like the white man to know the red man has great heroes, too."
When a reporter from National Geographic asked Crazy Horse where his lands were, he replied, "My lands are where my dead lie buried." Thus the pointing pose.
The site is also going to be a university, a museum, and hospital for Native Americans. There's an extensive model in the visitors' center that shows it all. Impressive! I stuck some serious $$ in their donations box. Some of Korczak Ziolkowski (the designer/sculptor)'s family still work on the project, though most are outsiders.
The center has a movie and large amount of display space as well as a well-stocked gift shop and craft demonstrations. Don't miss it! Note: not too much walking required.
The Black Hills of SD are also spectacular. At first they reminded me of the Appalachians, but they seem to be a bit higher (though I haven't been to the high Appalachians). Beautiful scenery.
|Tom said most tourists miss this pull-off view spot behind Mt. Rushmore, where you can see George W. in profile.|
A few miles down the road on the way back to Rapid City is Mt. Rushmore. This was conceived as a tourist stop out in the middle of nowhere, utilizing various rock spires to be Western heroes like Lewis & Clark, Sacajawea, Buffalo Bill, Annie Oakley, etc. The sculptor/designer turned it into a large rah-rah USA monument. You've seen the pics. I've seen the pics. It looks like its pics, except picture a terrible walking experience. Signs warn of uneven pavement, but you can go down (usually up) steps that have a rise of four inches or maybe 7 inches (which I think is somewhere near legal standard) or even a foot or more. In the same group of steps.
I don't see any way that Mt. Rushmore could be considered wheelchair-accessible. Lord knows I watched enough parents struggling with their children's strollers. Rushmore does have one elevator down to the theaters and gift store, but everything else has steps. Really oddball steps.
Well, there it was. Four heads. We got to see the "back" of Rushmore as well. The carving was supposed to be much larger but WWII was in full swing, the original sculptor/designer died, and they'd run out of government money (they couldn't afford to put Susan B. Anthony in the group), so they kind of threw up their hands and said, "Good enough."
|What it was supposed to look like.|
The cafeteria there (check out the chandeliers with the sculptor figures hanging from them) is supposed to be better than the restaurant at Crazy Horse, so we went there. It was good enough, plus a lot of people loved the ice cream shop. I never saw 2X tees in the gift store, though. Note: lots of stairs required to see everything up close, though the various visitor centers are pretty much on the same level (see elevator note above).
Mt. Rushmore is shtick; it is first and foremost a curiosity intended to bring tourist dollars to South Dakota. The exhibits are either about the making of the curiosity, or in some way wave a made-in-Taiwan flag in your face without really showing you why you should want a flag waved at you. Why are these four Presidents so important? The monument merely presents their likenesses to us. (There's a hidden Hall of Records with copies of important national documents like the Constitution. But like I said, that's hidden.) Crazy Horse is a continuing mission, a true memorial that not only honors an entire people, but sets up a system to strengthen them through coming years. It is education in so many ways, plus a sense of community.
For whatever reason, Tom shortened our visit by 15 minutes, which meant I missed the talk that one of the rangers gave about how the monument was carved. However, we'd seen a movie about it in the bus. Or maybe in the visitors' center. The more fleet-footed people on the tour reported that the talk held pretty much the same info, and could be skipped.
|Clicking should get you a larger version of this.|
Before I left NC, I checked the forecast for the route, and discovered that rain was forecast for all but one day. However, the only day it really rained was when we hit Little Bighorn. Along the way, we passed Sturgis, where for 10 days each year there is a HUGE motorcycle rally, and Caravan suspends its tours to avoid it.
As Montana turned into plains and valleys and rolling landscape and plains and plains and plains (Billings was in a deep valley surrounded by a rock ridge), we passed the Devil's Tower, as seen in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. When I say "passed," I mean we could see it in the distance. From a moving bus, I took a pic.
It began to rain as we approached. The Bighorn visitors' center is rather tiny, especially when a bus arrives with 48 people to add to the crowd. Less than half could fit into the lecture room (ordinarily they have lectures outside, but even so, they didn't have enough seating there as well), so I missed a second lecture on a different subject.
There are a few museum-type artifacts on display, and a modest gift shop that I'm hitting myself because I didn't get this one biography of a Lakota or maybe Crow (I think) woman that I haven't since been able to find anywhere, not even on the Bighorn site. However, they did have camera SD chips for sale, and by now I'd begun to suspect that I might have need of more memory before the vacation was through. I picked up a 2 GB one for, I think, $13, but changed my mind and reached for the 4GB. "Hey, it's only two bucks more," I told the clerk. "I'll take it." She called her supervisor over and they both went to check out the 4GB chips. Each one had a different price, higher than the next one. They gave me the one I'd grabbed, which was the cheapest. Yay! (No, I didn't have to use it, but it's there and available.) (And I'd begun to recharge my camera every night, just in case. Not quite sure how to read how much of a charge is left. One of the people on the bus had their charge give out just as our day's tour of Yellowstone began, so they didn't get any pictures until the next day, after they'd recharged.)
It was pouring cold, cold rain, but I'd exhausted the contents of the visitors' center and there was still a lot of time left on our stop. So I zipped up my raincoat and went outside. It was POURING. Wind was rough. For a while I thought it was sleeting, but recalled that highs that day were supposed to be in the mid-60s. It wasn't hail, but the rain was that hard! Ugh.
For outside touring, you've got the graveyard at the top of the hill with graves of the whites marked. There was a fire a couple decades ago, which allowed for precise study of various remains, etc., so everything's where it's supposed to be now. Down the hill there's a hiking trail with more gravestones marked along the way, and next to the visitors' center is a very large cemetery with (I was confused about this) veterans and American Indians through the years interred there. I think it goes up to WWII, but it may have more recent graves than that.
We stopped at Billings for the night. Next: Yellowstone! TO BE CONTINUED.