Everything’s kind of sedate in Rapid City

The Thinker by Rodin

How strange to find myself back in Rapid City hardly a year after I last visited the place. How odd to ascend the steps into the Mount Rushmore Memorial and see again so soon the chiseled faces of dead presidents. Yes, in one of those quirks of fate, here I am again in this remote and rarely visited area of the country, this time on business. Tonight I am spending the last of five nights in Rapid City, South Dakota.

I cannot claim to have seen much of Rapid City during my first visit. My wife and me boarded then at a comfortable three star hotel near the interstate but spent most of our time in the Black Hills. I noted then statues of former presidents on the street corners in Rapid City, but had little time to assess the character of the city other than remark on its overwhelming white Anglo Saxon constituency. It’s Wonder Bread land around here. This is certainly not bad in and of itself, just weird when you live in Northern Virginia and cannot go to the store without hearing a half dozen languages.

Now, sequestered at least at night at the Alex Johnson Hotel in “downtown” Rapid City, I have a chance for a fairer assessment of the city. I put “downtown” in quotes because the ten-story Alex Johnson Hotel is by far the city’s tallest downtown structure, for human habitation anyhow, in this city of sixty thousand or so souls. At least Rapid City has a downtown area, with most of the buildings but three stories high. At least there are few boarded up businesses in Rapid City, which was not true of Salt Lake City when I visited it last year. The Dakotas are fairing reasonably well in the economic downturn. While there is no sign of vigorous growth, at least there are few signs of the more prevalent economic decline found elsewhere across the country. There is plenty of free street and off-street parking here in downtown Rapid City and nary a parking meter in sight. The businesses downtown may not draw hordes of people, but the rents must be cheap enough where it doesn’t matter that much.

There is an historic old movie theater across the street from the hotel, as well as a comic book store and a salon called (no kidding) “The Best Little Hairhouse” (if only it were in Texas). Within a few blocks of the hotel there are also train tracks and an imposing Aby’s Feed & Seed. So those of you thinking of moving to Rapid City need not worry about a city that is overly industrialized. For tourists, Rapid City is a conduit to the Black Hills and many wonderful natural attractions that lie in all directions of Rapid City. As for Rapid City itself as a tourist destination: eh, not so much, unless you like to see statues of presidents and other notables on street corners. For the residents, the city is wholesome and clean, which certainly can’t be said about most cities its size, as well as billboard friendly. I have not found one single homeless person here in downtown Rapid City. Instead, this being a deeply red state, I find lots of pickup trucks, guys wearing ten gallon hats and a really crappy local paper.

There are hints of coastal values. You can find Starbucks here, although Seattle’s Best seems to have a bigger lock on the local coffee business. There are a few trendy fashion outlets but only one really nice hotel (a Radisson). As for the Alex Johnson Hotel, which saw its first guest in 1928, it is comparatively old and quaint and recently underwent an expensive renovation. This makes it kind of historic for an area without a long history. The restoration aimed to maintain the hotel’s original character. My bed is certainly comfortable (and rumors of bedbugs have proven false) but in retaining much of its character, it still feels more like a two and a half star hotel rather than a three or four star hotel. Buffalo heads on the lobby wall and a Native American themed chandelier can be found in the lobby.

My room has character and quirks. The original tub and toilet have been retained. Chips on the toilet bowl have been epoxyed back into place. The tub comes with two sets of faucets, the lower one if you want a bath, the upper one for a shower. The faucets also turn in peculiar directions. I am used to hotel doors shutting themselves, but mine does not. Opening the window can cost you $30. The walls must be original, because for three nights my neighbors had noisy parties that would have hardly been noticeable at most other hotels. Only earplugs and keeping the air conditioning fan on all night allowed me to get any sleep. The elevators are also showing their age: ascending slowly and sometimes jerkily, and pausing for an inordinately long period before shutting. On the plus side, I’ve enjoyed some fabulous sunrises and I could not ask for a better view of the Aby’s Feed & Seed. And there is a Seattle’s Best in the lobby.

There is also pretty good dining to be found here in downtown Rapid City. Two thumbs up for the fine dining at the Firehouse Brewing Company around the corner, if you don’t mind paying thirty to forty dollars for a really good meal (with dessert and drinks). You can also find more plebian fare at Sanford’s Grub and Pub that is doubtlessly themed on the 1970’s TV show Sanford and Son. The restaurant comes complete with enormous and very reasonably priced meals, friendly waiters, wheel rims as part of the decorating motif and various garage sale junk on the walls. If you want tasty and greasy food for not much money, Sanford’s is your dining choice in Rapid City. Of course, there are plenty of places to dine in Rapid City that specialize in grease and easily digested carbohydrate entrees, including a place on the city’s outskirts where you can have all the pancakes you can eat for five dollars.

Sylvan Lake, on Needles Highway in South Dakota's Black Hills
Sylvan Lake, on Needles Highway in South Dakota's Black Hills

The Black Hills hug the city’s southern and western sides, but there are lovely buttes to be seen in any direction. The Black Hills are a misnomer, too small to be hills, but still puny compared to the Rocky Mountains a couple hundred miles to the west. Still, having spent Monday before my meeting with friends in the Black Hills, I found even more reasons to overlook Rapid City’s conservative values and mediocre newspaper and think of it as an eclectic retirement destination. A group of us arose early on Monday to witness an annual buffalo roundup, which was fun but somewhat anticlimactic, as there were no thundering herds of bison. Rather we watched a couple hundred bison moving slowly at the insistence of a few dozen cowboys and their 21st century equivalents, men in SUVs thundering across the treeless hills of Custer State Park. What was worth the pre-dawn hassle of getting up to see a buffalo roundup was the enchanting, beautiful, must-be-seen Sylvan Lake, high up in the Black Hills we visited later in the day. The dam on one end makes the lake artificial, but on a temperate late September day with blue skies and light breezes, the lake (along with some rock crevices) proved to be deeply satisfying to my jetlagged eyes.

Until Wednesday, the weather was surreally warm during the day, but it has cooled off a bit. This is in contrast to the Mid Atlantic, which has been drowning in rain and cool weather during my absence. With work behind me, I look forward to returning to the greener and cooler East tomorrow.

South Dakota’s enchanting Black Hills

The Thinker by Rodin

For most of us air travelers, America’s north central states are just flyover country. I have flown over the Dakotas more times than I can count. Yet until Sunday I had never set foot in the Dakotas. Perhaps this is because they are so hard to get to. The airlines give the Dakotas short shrift, making flying into these unpopulated states difficult and expensive. So we fly over them instead and mostly what we see out the airplane window seems featureless.

Yet, the western side of South Dakota is anything but flat. It is framed by The Black Hills, which push up against Wyoming’s eastern edge. While not quite The Rocky Mountains, The Black Hills are an appealing destination nonetheless. There is a surprising amount to do in The Black Hills. A family could easily spend a week or more there without feeling like they had seen it all.

Getting to The Black Hills from our starting point of Boulder, Colorado (where my wife and I spent a couple days with my brother Tom and his wife) made for a memorable driving journey through the eastern half of Wyoming. It takes about six hours of driving to get to Rapid City, South Dakota from Boulder. You pass through hundreds of miles of empty land. It is not empty desert as you might find in Nevada, just miles of buttes with virtually no people and little in the way of trees to obscure your view. This is big sky country. For a while The Rocky Mountains shadow you to your west, and then they recede altogether. I-25 reveals a land dappled with vegetation which is not quite desert. Occasionally you pass picturesque places like the Platt River, but mostly the area consists of enormous ranches where widely scattered groups of cattle graze. For an east coast guy like me, Wyoming is appealing for its remoteness and its feeling of being unspoiled. It is not quite unspoiled. If it were unspoiled, it would be rife with bison and Native Americans on horseback. The bison were hunted to near extinction long ago and the Native Americans are now largely sequestered on Indian reservations on far less interesting land. Eastern Wyoming is a pacified west, with only an occasional oil derrick to spoil its majestic view.

Pass from Wyoming into South Dakota and not only do you find yourself in the gently rolling Black Hills, but you also feel you are in a different climate. Wyoming feels dry but South Dakota, at least its western side, receives more rain, so there is more vegetation, more green things on the fields and plenty of pine trees and gently winding roads. Yet like Wyoming, it still feels remote. This is something of an illusion. While South Dakota remains one of our least populated states, if you travel through The Black Hills you will find plenty of tacky tourist traps, roadside family restaurants, inexpensive campgrounds as well as some first class tourist attractions.

My wife and I took in three such attractions on Monday, working from our home base, a Country Inn & Suites in Rapid City. Rapid City, like The Black Hills near which is sits, is a pleasant city in its own right. While the East Coast sweltered under a heat wave, we enjoyed blue skies, dry weather and highs around eighty degrees. There are lots of dead presidents in Rapid City. Since it is something of a way station for people on their way to Mount Rushmore, it plays up its association with U.S. presidents by placing metal sculptures of presidents on its street corners. It is also a thoroughly white area of the country. If you are Anglo Saxon, you will find plenty of your own ethnicity in this state. Rapid City also ensures that you have to wade through plenty of traffic lights on your way to Mount Rushmore. Naturally there are plenty of businesses catering to tourists along Mount Rushmore Road. We noted some pretty inane tourist attractions, including a Cosmos Mystery Area and an Old MacDonald’s Farm that would make even Mr. Rogers retch.

Mount Rushmore
Mount Rushmore

Mount Rushmore remains a worthy destination, but what makes it distinctive is not just the chiseled images of four great presidents on the face of The Black Hills, but its frame of the beautiful Black Hills themselves. One can of course marvel at the engineering involved in making Mount Rushmore back in the 1930s, but the geography only allows you to see it from a few angles. There is a large promenade and theater which sits before the mountain that will tell you more than you probably want to know about the memorial, and a trail you can take with many steps that will take you half way up the mountain, but no further. You can look at models of the memorial in a sculptor’s studio.

Crazy Horse Memorial
Crazy Horse Memorial

To my mind, far more impressive is the Crazy Horse Memorial some twenty miles away, which sits atop its own mountain not too far from the town of Custer. It is a work in progress. Some sixty years since construction began, the memorial consists mainly of Chief Crazy Horse’s head and an exposed tunnel of granite. When completed, this memorial will dwarf Mount Rushmore. In fact it will be in the largest chiseled work of art in the world, surpassing even the Great Pyramids. Construction might have proceeded at a faster pace had Korczak Ziolkowski, the obsessed visionary who also helped chisel Mount Rushmore not spurned government money. The Ziolkowski family still directs work on the mountain, and supports its construction primarily with fees contributed by visitors. At $10 a person or $27 for a carload, it looks like the project will remain well funded through private sources. For an extra $4 you can take a bus ride to the base of the memorial, or you can observe it from a distance, and enjoy the many buildings on its campus. It is hard to find fault with the project, which seeks to honor a distinguished and fiercely independent Native American chief for all posterity. There are many Native American artists selling amazing works of art on premises. The scope of the project is audacious and is unlikely to be completed in my lifetime, or even my daughter’s. To get a sense of the scale of the project, Crazy Horse’s face, which has been completed, is much larger than the engravings on Mount Rushmore itself. Still one cannot feel more than a bit humbled by the size and scope of this amazing engineering endeavor and labor of love. I do hope that one day it is fully realized. If so it will be a new wonder of the world.

Jewel Cave National Monument
Jewel Cave National Monument

After seeing so much enormous statuary, we were glad to end our day underground touring Jewel Cave, also located in The Black Hills. The Crazy Horse Memorial and Mount Rushmore are monuments to man’s audacity and ambitiousness. Jewel Cave is a monument to Mother Nature, who has the luxury of time to dazzle us with underground delights. Over the years I have gone on a number of cave tours, but our tour of Jewel Cave was by far the most extensive and interesting of the bunch. Jewel Cave is enormous, measuring 146 miles. It is likely a lot larger, since based on air pressure calculations only about three percent of the cave has been mapped. The site was designated as a national monument by President Teddy Roosevelt, so it is perhaps fitting that his face is chiseled in granite on nearby Mount Rushmore. Two elevators take tourists down nearly three hundred feet below the visitor’s center. We had an excellent park ranger who guided us on a ninety minute tour of the cavern. We marveled at the diversity of rock formations and crystals in the cave, which is second in size only to Mammouth Cave in Kentucky. Having the cave managed by the National Park Service made quite a difference compared to places I am more familiar with that were privately run. The park ranger provided a great deal of cave history and explanations for the natural works we witnessed. The extensive sets of staircases made traversing the cave as painless as possible. The forty nine degree temperature made it invigorating after being outside all day.

If you have been flying over South Dakota like me, you are doing yourself a disservice by not stopping by for a proper visit. It is time to consider South Dakota as a vacation destination. For those enamored with natural wonders, there is much in South Dakota to enchant and delight.