tMichaelB is the web site for Tom Bengtson, who writes about business, religion, family and politics.

Thursday, September 30, 2004

The Glory of the Black Hills

School is underway all across America, and my nephew recently left home to begin college in the Black Hills, a place my father took our family on vacation when I was a little boy. Attempting to relive that happy experience, I took my own family to the Black Hills a couple of summers ago.

It took us two days to drive a loaded mini-van from our home to Hill City, where we lodged during a four-day stay in the Black Hills. There was a stop at Mitchell along the way to visit the famed Corn Palace. The corn-constructed murals that make up each of the outside walls of the building are changed periodically, and when we were there, there were depictions of a rodeo, a motorcycle and 19th century Native Americans. The palace is a basketball arena on the inside, but when we were there the space was being used for a craft fair.

Mitchell is an important marker on Interstate Highway 90, the main thoroughfare running east and west through South Dakota. East of Mitchell, the cropland we saw looked lush and green, despite the dry conditions typical for late summer. West of Mitchell, the country shifts to ranch land. The earth is brown and flat, with only minimal vegetation. It is about 60 miles to Chamberlain, where the highway crosses the Missouri River. Chamberlain is the last major landmark before we would reach the Badlands National Park, which serves as a kind of gateway to the Black Hills vacation area.

When I made this trip as a boy, I remember my father commenting that there “is nothing between the Missouri River and the Badlands.” It is a barren space, to be sure, but there is something there – open space, something a city person may tend to discount. As we drove west, I saw the rusted weather veins, the abandoned farm dwellings, animals grazing on the low groundcover. I pointed out the sights to the kids, but they failed to take notice. The scenery only made them hot and thirsty, and my oldest asked if we would be staying someplace that had a swimming pool.

Sixty-five million years ago, South Dakota, along with Nebraska, Kansas and all the other Plains states, were thousands of feet under water. What we know today as the Gulf of Mexico reached far up into North America, dividing the continent into two, with the Rockies on the West and the banks of the Mississippi River on the East. As the water receded over millenniums, it left the rich, fertile land that today serves as grazing acreage and cropland for one of the most important agricultural regions of the world.

The most impressive visit of our Black Hills stay was to Mount Rushmore. I remember visiting the site as a child, finding only a minimally cared-for lookout before the massive faces of Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln. This time, I was greeted by a huge visitors’ center and amphitheatre. Trails led up near the faces, and there was a museum that described the efforts by Gutzon Borglum to construct the monument. Flags from all 50 states and six U.S. territories lined a walkway to the main lookout, adding color to an already impressive site. The improvements were part of a $56 million redevelopment of the site completed in 1998.

We especially liked the evening lighting ceremony when a National Park Service Ranger explained the significance of the presidential choices: Washington represents the struggle for freedom; Jefferson the ideal of self government; Lincoln equality, and Theodore Roosevelt the future as his term bridged the agrarian age with the industrial age at the turn of the 20th century. It took 14 years for Borglum to complete the project begun in 1927.

We found paradise in the region at Custer State Park, where the turquoise water of Sylvan Lake provided a picturesque environment for hiking and rock climbing. The pinnacle of the 73,000-acre park is Harney Peak – at 7,242 feet – the highest point in the state. The view from the top is magnificent. There was wildlife everywhere and we were able to take pictures of bison and big-horned sheep that came right up to our car windows as we drove along the Wildlife Loop Road.

Wind Cave, a national park, was another highlight. Located just south of Custer State Park, the cave features 82 miles of mapped passages. We saw about a half-mile’s worth during the tour we took. The walls and ceiling of the cave are filled with “boxwork,” something akin to honeycombing, only made out of rock. It was cool in the cave (about 50 degrees), which was a welcome change from the humid August weather.

On our way home, back along Interstate 90, we stopped for an afternoon at The Badlands National Park, 244,000 acres of jagged rock and colorful stone spires. When you look out over the landscape of the Badlands, you think they could film some kind of a movie out there about aliens or life on another planet. And, in fact, the park has been used as a move set on occasion. The park is filled with fossils and the ranger, who told us about the Gulf of Mexico coming up this way, also told us scientists learn about the evolution of horses and sheep by looking at the rocks lying around. The tallest rocks are eroding at a rate of about one-half inch per year and, I am certain, the park did seem a little smaller than it did when I was a kid.

The perspective of a child is always so grand. As we made our way home, my kids said they wanted to go back. Maybe we will next summer.

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