Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Touring the Black Hills

I woke up Sunday morning feeling every bit as refreshed as I had the day after I reached the Arctic Circle. As I laid in my tent pondering the day's plans, I found it appealing that I didn't have to break camp and load Hester.  I had already offloaded most of my gear from the bike the afternoon before in a failed attempt to hold my tent down in the storm that battered the area that day.  Just riding away without extensive preparation would be a rare luxury on this trip.

I crawled out of my tent and left the mess behind inside.  It was liberating, like getting up and not making your bed...which honestly, I really never do at home anyway.  Ed was already up and stirring around his camp.  I dressed and wandered over to the RV park office to pay for an extra night's stay.  The office had a cooler with Monster Energy drinks and a snack rack with peanuts.  I bought a can and a bag...breakfast of champions!  As I paid for the camping spot, I asked the lady there what the rates were during the rally.  She replied that the rates jumped to $35 per night per person with a minimum of five nights, which included water, electricity, and WiFi Internet.  She added that campers are given wrist bands and all bikes and people must pass through a narrow security gate that would be manned 24 hours a day while the rally was in progress.  $175 for a week's camping with utilities during the Sturgis rally with access to their top notch, modern restroom and laundry facilities seemed like a bargain to me.  Honestly, I expected to pay $35 per night for my brief stay before the rally.

Ed and I discussed possible routes for our day of riding.  Both of us were somewhat lethargic about it all.  It's not that we weren't interested, we were just easy about it and neither of us had any real preferences.  Ed had heard that the geographic center of the United States was in a nearby town called Belle Fourche, South Dakota.  The actual center is still a matter of debate.  Kansas used to claim it, until 1959 when Alaska and Hawaii became states and Kansas lost its bragging rights, which is sad because Kansas has very little else to brag about.  We saddled up and headed for Belle Fourche.  From there, we planned to ride the scenic Spearfish Canyon route and make our way to Mount Rushmore.  The townspeople of Belle Fourche have erected a nice monument completely encircled with flags from all fifty states and there was a Korean War memorial as well.  We spent a few minutes relishing the splendor that was Belle Fourche and then headed out to Spearfish Canyon.  Ed and I had heard great things about this scenic route and were stoked to get to ride through it.  Unfortunately, hundreds of rental camper drivers had apparently heard about it too.  The ride was painstakingly slow.  I'm not one of those guys who has to ride fast all the time, but there are some roads that just command it and the Spearfish loop was one of them.  We piddled along at a speed only a Gold Wing rider could appreciate.  I suppose a benefit to the snail pace was that we were able to get long views of the canyons, waterfalls, rivers and wildlife that dotted the land.

We stopped to snap photos at several locations.  I was enjoying being able to ride in a short sleeve t-shirt without my chaps and leather jacket.  I really wanted to lose my helmet for a while like I did before my game of chicken with Bambi. That close call reminded me of how lucky I was and I decided to just keep the skid lid on.  The photo on the left illustrates just how clear and blue the skies were that Sunday.  The temperature was in the mid 70's and there was but the slightest of breezes in the air.  I noticed that the air up there smells different.  I think I've grown accustomed to the smog that surrounds the Dallas area because my sense of smell seemed heightened in the absence of it.  It was hard to believe that the area had been ravaged by such a violent storm just sixteen hours earlier.  The roaring rivers, waterfalls, and raised lake levels were a clear indication that several inches of rain had fallen.  The Spearfish loop is littered with trail heads and we saw many hikers suiting up beside the road and many more scaling the canyon walls.  I thought to myself that those people really needed helmets!

Ed and I rode past the Rimrock Lodge, Victoria's Tower, Eleventh Hour Gulch, and by a few working mines before making our way to highway 86 near Spearfish Falls at Cheyenne Crossing.  We then continued southward for about seventy miles toward Custer, SD.  This route would take us to the Chief Crazy Horse monument, from which we could hit Mount Rushmore on our way back to Sturgis.  I had heard the Chief Crazy Horse Memorial had to be seen to be believed.  Mount Rushmore gets all the mainstream press, many but riders said that Crazy Horse was not to be missed.  We stopped for gas and a cold drink and compared our differing GPS directions to a printed map.  An Army soldier home on leave stopped by and told us that improvements to 385 had been completed and that that road was a great route to the Avenue of the Chiefs that led up to the memorial.  When in doubt, I tend to trust the locals.  We decided to ignore our GPS and take the soldier's advice. The ride on the multilane highway was a welcome departure from the elephant walk that had been the Spearfish Canyon run.  Before we knew it, we were at the gate heading in to the Crazy Horse Memorial.  This monument was commissioned by Lakota Chiefs after seeing all the Mount Rushmore activity in their back yard.  Work on it started in 1948 as a solo effort by sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski. We rode up a long hill to the ticket booth and each paid $5 to enter the park.  Ahead of me, meticulously carved into the mountain was the profile of an enormous face.  Realizing the enormity of the face at that distance made me instantly realize that my $5 was money well spent.  I couldn't wait to get closer and to learn more about it.

Ed and I entered the pavilion and watched the twenty minute video presentation detailing the history and progress of the monument.  The sacrifices Korczak made to realize his dream were mind boggling.  While living on the mountain, he married and had ten children.  Five of them are still involved in the day-to-day operation of the monument's construction. Korczak died in 1982 at the age of 74, but his widow still lives on the property.  Progress is woefully slow, but the project is completely funded through donations.  The Lakota and Korczak twice turned down offers of over $10 million dollars from the U.S. government in favor of keeping the project private.  It's completion might come sooner if there were more cash infused into the process. I suspect I'll not see the monument completed in my lifetime. The term "monumental" truly applies here and although it will take generations to see it through, it will be completed on the Lakota's terms.
The Model & the Real Thing
After watching the video and wandering through the sculptor's residence and workshop, we decided to pay the additional $4 to take a bus ride down to the base of the mountain and get a closer look.  The enormity of the structure is mind boggling.  As a comparison, all four heads of Mount Rushmore could fit into Chief Crazy Horse's head when the monument is finished.  It's amazing that the sculptor was able to gain the ground he did without the aid of satellite imagery and modern cutting tools. 
The $9 Ed and I shelled out to see the Crazy Horse Monument was absolutely money well spent.  I'm a goal-driven person, so I can relate to the commitment the sculptor's family has made to seeing the project through.  It will be generations before the sculpture is complete, but I suspect those generations will have all included members of the Ziolkowski family.

Ed and I saddled up and headed towards Mount Rushmore.  We backtracked a few miles and made our way towards Keystone to the National Park.  The sweeping mountain roads were somewhat crowded, but this was a three day holiday weekend, so it was to be expected.  We approached the entrance to the Mount Rushmore park and saw that they wanted $11 just to drive on the road that allowed viewers to get a decent photo of the sculpture.  We weighed our options comparing Rushmore to Crazy Horse and both determined that our $11 could be better spent on dinner.  We found a spot on the highway to snap a quick photo and motored on back towards camp.
I'm not saying Mount Rushmore isn't an impressive accomplishment.  It's just that when compared to the Crazy Horse memorial, well, there's just no comparison.

It was after 5:00 and Ed and I were both hungry.  We both skipped lunch and the fuel from my breakfast of peanuts and Monster Energy had burned off hours ago.  Ed suggested we find a grocery store and pick up some steaks to cook at camp.  I had no cooking equipment, but Ed was pulling a trailer and had all sorts of camping gear.  I was impressed to the point where I can see myself picking up a trailer rig like that sometime.  I love riding and I love camping and if a trailer makes camping more comfortable, I'm up for that.  I wondered however, how a trailer would have survived the road from Destruction Bay and the Dalton Highway.  We made our way into some small town that I can't even find on the map as I write this.  Thousands of others did though as traffic was a snarl when we rode down the main street.  Eventually, we came to a dead stop just past the tunnel in the photo above and the line of cages stretched as far as we could see.  I decided to trust the GPS and we turned back looking for an alternative route back to Sturgis.  Ed and I found ourselves on a single lane twisty road that meandered along countless creeks and forests.  It was an unexpected treat after riding an hour on the highway after leaving Mount Rushmore.  The twisty road eventually dumped out on some other road that led us up to Rapid City and Interstate 90.  

We hit Sturgis around 7:00 and found a grocery store.  Shopping for groceries was the last thing I thought I'd be doing on the Alaskapade, but I was salivating over the prospect of a steak cooked on an open fire.  Everyone knows food cooked outside on a campfire is better than any food cooked in a restaurant.  We loaded up on steaks, beans, salad stuff, and bottled tea and headed back to camp.  Ed was as laid back a chef as he was in every other manner in which I observed him.  He had a handle on the cooking chores and two cooks in any kitchen can be a crowd, even if that kitchen is a wide open space such as our campground.  While Ed was cooking, I headed up to the topmost hill of the Sturgis RV Park to take a pic or two and shoot some footage for the Alaskapade! video.  While I was alone up there, I could see the entire town of Sturgis and for miles beyond it in three directions.  Sturgis was still dead.  It occurred to me that the essence of Sturgis isn't the place.  It isn't the volunteer prisoners who mope about the place.  It's the event.  It's the ride.  When I considered the bigger picture of the Alaskapade, it too was not about Alaska or even the Arctic Circle.  It was about the ride.  And it had been the ride of my life.  Throughout the trip, I had struggled to find profound things to say in the little self interviews I conducted in front of my video cameras.  Suddenly, I was overwhelmed with plenty to say.  The profundity of it all is yet to be seen when the video editing is complete and I find a place on the Internet to post it.  But I think I was able to articulate my feelings and observations clearly enough.  I suppose we'll see in a week or two.

Ed from Florida - Shrug from Texas
Several deer made their way down the hill behind us and wandered almost all the way into our campsite as Ed and I enjoyed a great steak dinner.  The reality is that it could have been more peanuts and Monster Energy and I would have enjoyed it just as much.  I had a great day of riding preceded by a picture prefect night of camping under the stars.  Tomorrow, the fun would be over.  I would be packing up camp in the morning and and heading home.

I pondered the accomplishments I had made on my long journey, all the places I had seen, and the people I met along the way.  This trip had been everything I had hoped for and more.  It was harder than I could have ever imagined, but it measured up and beyond the steep expectations I had set for it and for myself.  Ed and I sat at his camp and talked late into the night.  We talked for hours and we talked about nothing.  He pulled up my Alaskapade site on his iPad and started reading my account of heading to the Arctic Circle.  I eventually retired to my tent and left him there reading in the silence of the cool, crisp South Dakota night air.  I awakened hours later realizing I had forgotten to cover Hester.  When I stepped out, Ed was still reading. I stretched the cover over Hester and quietly crawled back into my tent anticipating another night of sound sleep.