Day 32: Devil's Tower to Spearfish, SD

Here are a few things you might not know about Devil’s Tower. First, it is a site of major spiritual significance to several Plains Indian tribes. Native Americans regularly come to the Tower and tie prayer cloths on the trees around it. You’re not supposed to touch them.

We got to Devil’s Tower at 8am, before it was inundated by busloads of tourists, and walked around the base for a half hour. You might know that the Tower is a world class site for “crack” climbers, who shimmy up cracks in rock faces with the help of ropes and steel chocks. The second thing you might not know is that the Indians don’t like this activity. We counted ten people in four parties on the rock face, and several more were on their way to the base when we got back to the car. Look closely at the center of the close-up photo of the rock face and you can see two of them. A Sioux medicine man is quoted in the visitor’s center as saying, “When people climb on this sacred butte and hammer metal objects into it, the tower is defiled . . . It is like they pounded something into our bodies.” A climber is quoted next to the medicine man, saying something like, “We touch the monolith and measure it by our sweat.” I think the Indians should win this one. They were here first. But the National Parks Service merely asks climbers to stay off the rock during the month of June, and most do.

The third thing you might not know about Devil’s Tower is that it’s crumbling. It is a big hunk of granite, a volcanic intrusion that was originally several hundred feet below the earth’s surface. It emerged as the Belle Fourche River eroded the soft stone nearby, and the six-sided columns that run up its face are cracks that formed as the stone was exposed. The base of the Tower is surrounded by big boulder fields, and although geologists estimate that no big columns have fallen in the last 10,000 years, they are sloughing off. In several hundred thousand years they might be calling it Devil’s Pinkie.

Many buses and big RV’s were in the parking lot when we returned from our hike, including a load of kids from Great River Middle School in St. Paul. This is one of the only public Montessori schools in the country, explained a teacher, and part of their curriculum is taking kids on a three-week camping trip to Yellowstone, the Tetons, and the Black Hills. The kids stay in tents and have homework assignments every night. They were great kids. They cooed and made excited sounds when we told them about the bike trip. Jim and Sara, who spent their careers counseling young people, were enthralled.

We rode out of the campground around 10:30 am with 65 miles to go to Spearfish, a town about 10 miles east of the South Dakota line. The Black Hills really are black when viewed at a distance, and we rode up and down buttes and through lush green valleys. It was a day of low clouds, and they acted like an acoustic damper; everything was quiet and still. One section of State Route 24 had had its asphalt cracks painstakingly repaired with lines of tar that seemed to wiggle and squirm as you rode over them.

We went through Hulett, a compact village that has its own school, newspaper, medical clinic, and football field; and Alva, a hamlet that didn’t seem to have anything going for it except for seven adorable kittens living under the post office. Then we rode through a section of Black Hills National Forest that was even more stately and verdant than the cattle ranches had been. We paused for a fine lunch in Aladdin (pop. 15) at Cindy B’s Café, which was hopping. Everyone seemed to know everyone else, and they chatted easily with us. It was very pleasant, and it took a while. Cindy B. made me a grilled ham and cheese sandwich that had about a pound of incredibly tasty home-cured ham in it. It isn’t wise to eat a heavy meal before exercising and I felt like I had Silly Putty in my guts all afternoon, but it was worth it.

We rode south on state route 111 and then east on a frontage road that ran parallel to Interstate 90. On this road was the Vore Buffalo Jump, which was closed for the season. It is a sinkhole that was used by Plains Indians as a convenient way of killing lots of buffalo at once, in the days before they acquired horses. Several tribes would get together in the fall and collaborate. Scouts gently herded buffalo into a run that was bordered by natural and man-made barriers; sometimes an Indian wearing a calf skin imitated a wounded calf to get the herd to move closer. At a moment carefully chosen by the most skilled scout, everyone screamed and made the herd stampede, so that dozens or hundreds of them fell into the sinkhole. Arrows and spears quickly dispatched the buffalo that weren’t killed by the fall. Then the Indians did a mass skinning and butchering so they would have food, warmth, and all the other things buffalo provided them over the long winter. The sinkhole is now a 40 or 50-foot deep midden pile of buffalo bones, spear points, and other valuable Plains Indian artifacts. It is managed by a not-for-profit that hopes to build a big center on the site. I’d like to come back and see the dig.

There was no welcome sign when we crossed the state line, which is a minor disadvantage of following low-traffic routes. However, we did notice rain clouds to the south. The rain started with about ten miles to go, and by the time we got to the campground we were soaked. It continued until we went to bed. The weather forecast had been for a 20 percent chance of rain. Jim says that with the luck we’re having, this means that it will rain 20 percent of the time. Tomorrow we head deeper into the Black Hills.

Days 33 & 34: Spearfish to Crazy Horse Monument, SD

The rain had passed by the time we woke up. Shortly after sunrise we spread our soaked bike clothes and gear out to dry. We set off about 9am for a seventh straight day of riding.

The Biblical injunction to rest on the Sabbath really starts to make sense when you’re doing menial labor. Things wear out fast on a march. There isn’t much snap left in your legs after a week, the scenery isn’t quite as beautiful as it was on the first day, you need to sleep late, and a hundred little things need repair. Our ride on September 13 went south through the Black Hills. One of the things that had shaken loose in the last week was planning. The route we had plotted out was another butt-kicker, but we didn’t know it until it was too late to turn back.

Spearfish is at the northern end of the Black Hills, at an elevation of about 3,600 feet. When we started up Spearfish Canyon, we didn’t know that the “hills” include Custer Peak, elevation 6,800, and that we were going to damn near climb it. The South Dakota Guide, compiled by locals hired by the Federal Writers Project and published by the WPA in 1938, raves about this canyon: “The upper portion of the canyon is comparatively shallow and open, but, farther down, the rock walls on both sides are higher and steeper; in the very depths of the canyon, the sun strikes the road and the creek bed for only a brief interval each day. This region lies in the so-called Deadwood Formation, made up of gray to red sandstone, greenish shale, and both slab and pebble limestone. The canyon, lined on both sides with cliffs of this material or at least a rimrock, is filled with constantly changing color, which varies still further in different lights. Here also is green pine, interspersed with the slim white trunks of birch, poplar, and quaking-asp. Private cabins, in the woods on both sides of the road for most of the distance, often can be rented for extended periods at very reasonable terms. Fishing is good at many points throughout the canyon and, for those who are not deterred by the temperature of mountain streams, swimming is available.”

Seventy years later, it’s still an apt description. We saw the rental cabins; we even saw people fly fishing in the bright sunshine. Things changed near the top, though. A big smudge of bruise-colored clouds swept across from the west, and the temperature dropped from 70 to 48 in a half hour. We stopped to put on warmer clothes and curse our luck. The forecast had said there was a 30 percent chance of rain as a northern cold front came through, and it looked like our bad luck was holding. Then the Trickster God who controls these things put an exclamation point on our situation. At the top of Spearfish Canyon is Icebox Canyon, a three-mile pull that is straight uphill with no breaks. It was sweaty when we were climbing and cold as soon as we stopped. At the top, the wind was howling and rain was clearly on the way.

We turned south at the top of the ridge and caught the tailwind. Our plan was to get on the George S. Mickelson Trail, a 109-mile rail bed converted to a bike path that runs the length of the Black Hills. Next to the trail is a county road that is paved except for one 15-mile gravel stretch. The Mickelson was good-looking but slow, with a soft pea gravel surface. We needed to make time to beat the rain, so we stuck to the pavement. After about 8 miles we stopped at a trailhead and found a warming hut. It was for skiers, but hey. I built a fire and we put on even more clothes. When we went back out, it was starting to rain.

The spine of the Black Hills is just east of the Mickelson trail. After a few miles of rain and high wind, we decided to take a five-mile gravel road over the top to get to State Route 385, which would be paved all the way to camp. We wanted to avoid doing 15 miles of gravel in the rain. This snap decision might have been correct, but it also lengthened the trip considerably and added even more climbing. The gravel road was pretty, with pastoral scenes of heifers and cows, pine forests, and a bluebird that flew across the road in front of me. But it was 3pm when we finally hit the paved road. We found grilled cheese sandwiches and hot chocolate at the Last Stand Bar and Grill, along with three ancient locals who were sitting in the warmth biding their time. “You ever just want to get in the truck?,” asked one of them. “I sure would. Icebox canyon would be the deal-breaker for me.” He added that weather like this was not unusual for the Black Hills. He remembered a year when there was five feet of snow on the ground on October 19.

We continued south on 385, pushed by the wind. The rain stayed on the other side of the ridge, and as the afternoon wore on the sky lightened and patches of sunshine broke through. The route turned east on state highway 44, which we will follow all the way to Minnesota, but the Trickster wasn’t finished with us yet: our campsite was still 17 miles south. We might have called Sara to pick us up, but the cell phones weren’t working. We pushed on. We rode up and down several more big hills. In times like these, Jim tends to get an adrenaline rush and push harder, like a horse trying to get back to the barn. I, on the other hand, turn into a robot and slog along in low gear, thinking dark thoughts.

The cell phones started to work just north of Hill City. I was whipped and not in the mood for any more recreational riding. We called Sara and took refuge in a convenience store, drinking chocolate milk and reading the papers. By the time we got to the Rafter J Bar Ranch Campground, we had put in another 65 miles and had probably climbed 5,000 feet. But Sara had done it again, bless her heart. The campground is a luxury outfit that had slashed its prices for the off-season. We soaked in a hot tub, cooked and ate dinner in a real kitchen, and slept in heated cabins as the rain played itself out.

Day 34: Two Monuments At Rest
Rest days are a different kind of challenge. There is still a lot to do – laundry, repairs, writing – but once you start to relax, you’re even more tired than you are during a work day. I spent the morning sleepwalking through various chores, then met up with Jim and Sara to go visit the Crazy Horse Memorial.

It was a beautiful day. We sat on the viewing platform in front of this massive project — 563 feet high, 641 feet long – and Sara reminded me of psychologist Erik Erikson’s model of the developmental stages in human lives. Erikson says that in late middle age (i.e., after the kids leave home) people tend to find strength by working for something that contributes to the betterment of society. People who are motivated by what Erikson calls “generativity” don’t care so much whether or not the project gets finished during their lifetime. This kind of thinking also tends to produce social change at the deepest level. Land Trusts are good examples of institutions driven by generativity. The Crazy Horse Monument is another.

Korczak Ziolkowski, a talented Boston sculptor fresh from World War II, started working on the monument 61 years ago with no funding to speak of. He was recruited in 1939 by a Sioux chief named Henry Standing Bear, back when Mount Rushmore was brand new. The photo shows the two of them at the first “visitor’s center.” “My fellow chiefs and I would like the white man to know that the red man has great heroes, too,” said Standing Bear. He was no fool. His brother Luther was a national Indian leader who had negotiated major reforms with Presidents Hoover and Roosevelt. Luther had also toured with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. And those Standing Bears gave us quite a show.

Ziolkowski died in 1982. His widow and seven of their ten children continue the work. The project has a staff of 60 and is directed by a nonprofit foundation that has an annual budget of $5 million. It has never accepted state or federal funds, and there is no word yet of when it will be finished. The project is in the hands of the people and private enterprise. It costs $27 a carload to get in, and admission includes a 40,000 square foot complex of museum exhibits, Indian art, a theater, the sculptor’s log home studio, and of course a restaurant and gift shop. Most of the art was heartfelt but not very good. The museum tells an incredible story about Ziolkowski’s persistence and vision, but it needs a better curator. The monument, however, is the real deal. It’s worth taking a long drive just to see it.

The completed memorial will show Crazy Horse astride a horse, pointing to the east. The story goes that after Little Bighorn, Wounded Knee, and his own capture, a white man taunted the great warrior by asking, “where are your lands now?” Crazy Horse replied by pointing and said, “My lands are where my dead lie buried.” I’d like to believe that the four fellows on Mount Rushmore blink every time they hear that one.

We continued into Custer to eat lunch and bag another monument. My wife Tania is a former Board member of the Society for Commercial Archeology, a group dedicated to the study and preservation of roadside architecture and diner french fries. She had tipped me off to the existence of a 60-foot sculpture of Dino the Dinosaur at Flintstones Bedrock City Theme Park and Campground. It is a 1964 concrete gem, and I am pleased to report that it is freshly painted and perky as ever. In my opinion, Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble were fine actors whose talents were sadly unrecognized during their lifetimes. It was an honor to visit this must-see memorial to cartoon history. I would like the white man to know that baby boomers have great heroes, too. Then it was home to the hot tub, dinner, and an early bedtime. Tomorrow we ride through the Badlands.