Rapid City – Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse, and Many, Many Bison

Thanksgiving day was uber-awesome and action-packed. We saw two incredible monuments and a bunch of beautiful creatures. The word for the day is inspiration.

Mount Rushmore is of course on our list of must-do activities. It’s no. 3 on my list of all-time awesome monuments, after the Statue of Liberty and the Lincoln Memorial. I was super-stoked the first time I saw it six years ago, and I was just as excited to take Becci to see it for her first time.

We got an early start and made the 40-minute journey on Thanksgiving morning from Rapid City, South Dakota to Rushmore. It was a cold but sunny morning. Snow covered the ground for most of the ride to Rushmore.

IMG_2813.JPGAccidental shot of Mount Rushmore that Becci took while she was photographing the light on the mountains to the left. The Rushmore bit almost looks projected. After she had the shot, taken from the road, she said “Oh, that’s Rushmore!”

The road to get to the mountain is twisting, and there is an incredible reveal at the end. The sculpture on the mountainside is the work of Danish-American Gutzon Borglum and his son, Lincoln Borglum, who worked on the project from 1927 until 1941. Work was halted due to funding constraints related to World War Two, and was never completed as modeled (the model contains the chests and arms of the four presidents). Although it came out pretty well as-is.

The monument began as a publicity and tourism-boosting project that initially envisioned full-body, mountain-sized carvings of historical figures from the American west (such as Buffalo Bill Cody and Lewis and Clark). Gutzon, once fully involved, took over leadership of the project and created a national focus, selecting the presidential figures to be displayed. He was the main sculptor and for a good bit of the project acted as project leader as well.

The project itself involved hundreds of sculptors, working with power drills and dynamite, as well as ancillary sculptors, blacksmiths, carpenters, and machinists. Over 400 individuals were involved with Mount Rushmore during it’s creation. The design was tweaked repeatedly as work progressed and the mountain’s secrets (flaws) were revealed. For example, Jefferson was originally carved to the left of Washington, and was later dynamited off and moved to the other side of Washington due to the poor quality of the original granite. Amazingly, no one was killed or seriously injured during this monumental project.

Just in case you don’t know, the four cats appearing here are George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln. During my first visit to Rushmore a few years ago, I had a young couple ask me “who is the guy next to Washington?”. I explained that it was Thomas Jefferson, founding father, third president, contributor to the US Constitution, and author of the Declaration of Independence. “Oh, sorry, we are from Florida”, they explained. Ah yes, I’ve been to Florida. I know exactly what you mean.

IMG_2817.JPGI think we all know who this guy is. 4 out of 5 Floridians know as well.

IMG_2816.JPGClassic shot of the boys. That’s strong!

Becci took a photo of me holding up my Joe Perry autobiography in front of Rushmore (it’s for a best Joe Perry book photo contest), I tweeted said photo, and then we set out for our second destination of the day: the Crazy Horse Memorial.

Like Rushmore, Crazy Horse is an absurdly-ambitious (okay, crazy) rock carving project in the Black Hills of South Dakota, dedicated to great Americans. Like Rushmore, it is stunning. Unlike Rushmore, it isn’t a government project, and it is far from finished.

The Crazy Horse Memorial is a project depicting Crazy Horse, an Oglala Lakota warrior, carved out of an entire mountain. It was commissioned back in the 40’s by Lakota elder Henry Standing Bear, to be sculpted by Korczak Ziolkowski. Ziolkowski was a veteran sculptor of the Mount Rushmore project, and he took the commission in order to honor Native Americans, asserting along with the Lakota that native Americans “have real heroes too”.

The monument has been in progress since 1948, and is far from completion. If completed today, it would be the world’s largest sculpture, at 195 meters wide and 172 meters high. To date, only the head and part of the arm of Crazy Horse have been completed.

IMG_2818.JPGThe top of the Crazy Horse monument, carved out of an entire mountain. The drawing on the side of the mountain is an outline of how the horse’s face and head will appear once carved.

Because no known photographs or drawings of Crazy Horse exist, no one knows exactly what he looked like. The face shown was modeled based on verbal descriptions. Crazy Horse resisted being photographed and was deliberately buried where his grave would not be found. Ziolkowski envisioned the monument as a metaphoric tribute to the spirit of Crazy Horse and Native Americans. Crazy Horse said, “My lands are where my dead lie buried”. His extended hand on the monument symbolizes that statement.

His face is 27 meters high, which is freaking huge. By comparison, the Rushmore men have faces that are 18 meters high.

The memorial is a non-profit undertaking, and receives no federal or state funding. The Memorial Foundation charges fees for its visitor centers and earns revenue from its gift shops. Ziolkowski reportedly was offered $10 million for the project from the federal government on two occasions, but he turned the offers down. He felt that the project was more than just a mountain carving, and he feared that his plans for the broader educational and cultural goals of the memorial would be overturned by federal involvement.

After Ziolkowski died in 1982, his widow, Ruth Ziolkowski, took charge of the sculpture, overseeing work on the project from the 1980s to the 2010s. It was slow going. In 1998, the face of Crazy Horse was completed and dedicated. Ruth Ziolkowski and seven of the Ziolkowskis’ ten children carried on work at the memorial. Ruth’s daughter, Monique Ziolkowski, a sculptor, modified some of her father’s plans to ensure that the weight of the outstretched arm is supported. Ruth Ziolkowski died in May 2014, at the age of 87, but the children remain involved, and the project is still moving majestically forward, exactly as Korczak Ziolkowski envisioned. The monument’s motto, seen repeatedly on site, is “Never Forget Your Dreams”.

Thoughtful of that message, and thankful for the two incredible works of art that we had seen on Thanksgiving, we headed into Custer State Park for a drive along the Wildlife Loop. I won’t get into George Custer the man because in the end I’m not down with his life’s work, but he has a great little park. It’s full of bison, which are I reckon about my third favorite animal (1. dogs, 2. elephants).

Bison are incredible. (As everyone undoubtedly knows, but hang in there, thanks) They are slightly bigger than cattle, with enormous heads, big wooly heads and shoulders, odd shoulder humps, and undersized, short-haired back legs. They have little horns and low-set, sad brown eyes. They appear to have been designed by someone with poor aesthetic sensibilities and perhaps occasional difficulty with attention deficit disorder. And yet, they are somehow majestic, beautiful, stirring. I can sit and watch them eat, putter around, randomly gallop, and stare at me suspiciously for long periods of time.

There’s not much to say except this. If you can ever drive around in a nature preserve full of bison, you have to do it.

I’ve had many beers and it’s getting hard to spell properly, so I should let you go. Oh yes, there is one other thing to mention, At one point we stopped and observed some burros that were loitering around a small paved area in the park. When we stopped, they approached the car, looking for handouts. Becci isn’t fond of being approached by untrained animals, and she was not pleased when I unexpectedly rolled down her window to invite a buddy over. “No thank you, no thank you!” she protested at the eager burro. She also had some uncomplimentary things to say about me.

Once these critters realized that we weren’t going to feed them any Pringles, they started licking the road salt from the side of the car. It was weird having your car licked simultaneously by 7 burros. We were not into it and left.

Tomorrow: we Cowboy Up in Wyoming!

IMG_2815.JPGNice panorama. Some bison cross the road ahead of in Custer State Park. It doesn’t get much better than this, folks.

IMG_2812.JPGBison enjoying a lovely day in Custer State park. I love these guys.

IMG_2820.JPGMore bison in the road. I could sit and watch them for hours. And now I have.


IMG_2824.JPGBison on the hill.

IMG_2822.JPGBison in the stream.

IMG_2821.JPGBison crossing the road.

IMG_2819.JPGOne of Becci’s new best friends inspects the car.

IMG_2825.JPGThe driver’s side of Black Betty, post-licking. So weird.



IMG_2814.JPGThe locked gate at the end of Iron Mountain Road. The other end…the one we came in on… was open and oh-so inviting. We made a four point turnaround here on a tight road and headed back. Lucky for us it was just as beautiful a drive on the way back.

If you like short videos of people driving around, you are gonna love these.

Iron Mountain Road

Custer State Park

The Black Hills

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