Road Rally 2018: Chasing Legends in South Dakota
For the classic summer road trip, head to South Dakota's Black Hills. Our 2018 Road Rally checked every box in the land of granite presidents, mythical (maybe) jackalopes and the site of Wild Bill's very bad day.
If you suspect South Dakota's Black Hills were purpose-built for the all-American road trip, you aren't too far off. The raw material has been there a long time, with roughly 8,000 square miles of granite peaks, trout streams and pine forests on the prairie's edge, garnished by a stretch of otherworldly Badlands just to the east. At the dawn of automotive tourism, a few big thinkers looked at all that and envisioned a national pilgrimage. In the early ‘20s, leaders pushed for mammoth carvings (a plant to sculpt Western historical figures morphed into Mount Rushmore). Then came signature pieces like Iron Mountain Road, in 1937. The twisting, begging-for-someone-to-invent-Instagram drive features curves and bridges designed to force travelers into a slow tour. With those anchors in place, a tourism ecosystem filled the gaps. State parks? One of the country's biggest and best. History? Watch for the presidents, gunslingers and native leaders. Kitsch? We'll get to the jackalopes.
So for Midwest Living's second Road Rally, it was no-brainer to partner with the South Dakota Department of Tourism on one drive to rule them all. The theme: Chasing Legends. Over four days, our caravan planned to track down Abe and Teddy, Wild Bill Hickok, Crazy Horse, and the living symbol of the West. Our first stop pretty much picked itself. Like millions of station wagons and minivans headed west before us, we kick it off at a drugstore gone wild on the doorstep of the Badlands.
Our South Dakota Checklist
• Wall Drug
• The Badlands
• The Minuteman
• 500-Pound Tortoises
• Rushmore's Last Carver
• Thomas Jefferson's Ice Cream
• Stan the T. Rex
• Crazy Horse
• A Sacred Butte
• Wild Bill Hickok
Our team goes shopping in tiny Wall (above and below) for the essentials: personalized sheriff's badges, fake rattlesnake eggs and two dozen cake doughnuts. Once, there was just a drugstore here, a struggling one back in 1936. But then the Hustead family posted signs out by the Badlands promising Free Ice Water and quickly learned the power of roadside marketing. Now, almost 2 million visitors come annually to this sprawling kitsch palace for the DIY gold mine, animatronic T. Rex, cowboy gear shop and, yes, free ice water. Generations of kids (including us) have posed beside the 6-foot jackrabbit, then returned years later with their own kids (including ours) to repeat the photo op. I ask Rick Hustead about additions on the way, and he barely seems to grasp the question. "We just want to do really well what we've always done," he says. With that reassurance, we feel confident that whenever we have grandkids, the rabbit will be waiting.
Know your Jackalope
Is Wall Drug's 10-foot tall jackalope actual size? One that big is certainly rare.
Are they dangerous? Look one in the eye and find out. We'll be waaaay over here.
Can they actually imitate cowboys singing ballads at night? Pitch perfect.
Why do they love thunderstorms so much? They mate only during lightning flashes.
Wait: Are they even real? You hated The X-Files, didn't you?
For most visitors, the Pine Ridge and Rosebud reservations are vast, distant neighbors to Badlands National Park. So artist Jennifer Reisser (below right, in white tee) set up shop in a log cabin near the park gates "to catch tourists and help our local artists. A lot of visitors don't know how to get to know native culture." Her shop carries work from native artists on the reservations and other areas. Much of it is surprisingly affordable, given its authentic provenance and workmanship. Our crew left with beadwork, earrings and a decorative, hand-fletched arrow.
Our Badlands-area base camp both makes us want to be cowboys-and convinces us we probably wouldn't last a week. Phil Kruse's family started farming and ranching in 1918 on land tucked between the Badlands' looming south wall and the border of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. At dinner, Phil pulls down Depression-era photos and spins yarns about all the cougars and droughts and blizzards. But during our stay, we see only the romantic side, with sunsets setting the Badlands aglow like a lost city of gold and Amy Kruse serving pancakes made with the ranch's whole wheat. Years ago, she came to work a summer at Badlands National Park, met Phil and signed up for a cowgirl's life. Now their kids, Russell, Katie and Jake, lead guests out on the range every morning to watch the "chicken stampede" and feed calves.
After dinner, we take a horseback ride with Phil's nephew Marshall, who rocks a Sam Elliott moustache and says things like, "I'll do just about anything as long as I get to ride a horse while I do it." Mounted on faithful steeds named Sweetheart and Poker Alice, we ride through endless pastures on a long loop around Hurley's Butte. A coyote lopes up the craggy side, and Marshall recalls, "I thought for a while I wanted a coyote pup for a pet. But when I tried to take one out of those caves, I decided it wasn't a great idea."
A thunderstorm moves in from the west, massive curtains of rain hanging 10 miles down the valley. Before the storm reaches us, Hurley's Butte seems to split it, and the rain flows around us like a stream swirling around a rock. By nightfall, the storm has nearly moved on, and we sit on the Kruses' back porch, watching the lightning stretch its silent, glowing fingers across the far edges of the Pine Ridge.
Showing shocking motivation, we roll out at 4:30 a.m. to catch sunrise along the Door Trail at Badlands National Park. In a few steps, we're in another world. Blue light gives way to sunrise, revealing a rugged scene of buttes, spires and canyons. We can't help thinking of ancient cities, cathedrals and scenes-from Road Runner cartoons.
"To millions of people who passed by here on Interstate-90," park guide Jim Boensch says, "it probably just looked like the house of some paranoid rancher." We're in the rec room of a low-slung building surrounded by high chain-link fence near Exit 127 north of the Badlands. The décor is vintage ‘80s, complete with one of those full-wall whitetail deer murals I coveted as a kid.
But 31 feet below all the Reagan-era blandness sits a room straight out of Dr. Strangelove. It's a concrete pod guarded by a 16,000-pound blast door. Inside, Jim shows us where he and another Air Force officer once sat, prepared to turn keys that would launch Minuteman II missiles lurking in nearby silos. At the Cold War's height, the Air Force missiles in western South Dakota could deliver 75 times the firepower of World War II anywhere on earth-within 30 minutes.
Today, this command center and South Dakota's last silo are part of the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site, South Dakota's newest national park sites. You'll need a reservation to tour Jim's old workspace, but drop-ins can peer into the silo at Exit 116 or see the visitors center at Exit 131 beside the Badlands. During our chat, Jim focuses on the peacekeeping power of intimidation. "I had a wife and two kids back at base in Rapid City," he says. "I had no interest in participating in World War III." Amen to that, Jim.
Johnny B wears a black cowboy hat with gold-plated snake rattles on the crown, because, of course he does. He's heir to Reptile Gardens, a classic Black Hills attraction. His dad started the place in 1937 by approaching cars that pulled over atop a hill outside Rapid City to cool their engines. His shtick: lifting his hat to reveal a rattlesnake coiled on his head. "Then he'd convince them to pay 10 cents to watch him jump in a pit and play with rattlesnakes," Johnny B says, still delighted by his dad's ingenuity.
When we say we're looking for road-trip icons, Johnny B takes us straight to the 500-pound tortoises. "Before America had a lot of zoos, these were the first encounter with truly exotic animals for millions of children," Johnny B says, scratching one of the tortoise's necks in the spot where tortoises apparently love to be scratched.
Then we head for the display of slithery assassins. As I stare down a black mamba through sheet of glass, I fight back a monster case of the willies. And I have no doubt why Johnny B and his dad are legends.
Four Essentials for a Rapid City Evening
Firehouse Wine Cellars Cheese plates and a toast in the private basement barrel room.
Kol Craft cocktails (is that cotton candy in the mojito?) and designer pizzas at the city's hppest eatery.
Press Start Grudge matches of Pac-Man, Frogger and pinball on 15 classic machines in Kol's basement.
Vertex Sky Bar Drinks around fire pits atop the classic Hotel Alex Johnson. Cool enough for Cary Grant and Hitchcock during the filming of North by Northwest. Cool enough for us.
One big reason to follow our trail this year: 97-year-old Donald "Nick" Clifford. He holds court three days a week at Mount Rushmore, recounting his role as a carver-the last one still living. He's only recently come to recognize just how historic his work was. If you meet him, ask for an autograph from the hand that cut Roosevelt's chin into a mountain
Historic treat alert! When he wasn't penning founding documents, Thomas Jefferson recorded a recipe for America' first ice cream. You can get a cone at Rushmore's Memorial Ice Cream Shop.
Peter owns that garage in the neighborhood that every kid wants to peek into. In his case, it's an old Hill City auditorium, which holds the public museum of his Black Hills Institute of Geological Research. The cavernous space swarms with yawning rib cages, twisting bony tails and skulls full of dagger-size teeth. The institute's two biggest finds have been Sue, the most intact T. rex skeleton ever found (now at Chicago's Field Museum), and Stan, second only to Sue.
"I love dinosaurs for the same reason kids do," Pete says. "They're monsters. But they're real. Dinosaurs are like the gateway drug for science."
Sandi Vojita, co-owner of Prairie Berry Winery, sums up a Black Hills vacation: "It's like going to a concert. You want to hear the songs you know, but you also want a few new ones." Her town of Hill City, a centrally located base for a visit, provides a solid version of that set list.
1880 Train Ride about two hours to Keystone and back on a steam train straight out of a Western.
Chainsaw Art Yes, you need a group photo in a giant chair festooned with bald eagles and labeled with "Freedom" and "Liberty."
Alpine Inn Sources say the Napoleon at this German-theme landmark is the state's best dessert. We're not arguing.
Red Ass Rhubarb Wine When Prairie Berry ran out of this crowd-pleaser five years ago, they say a riot nearly ensued.
The New Stuff
Prairie Berry & Miner Brewing It's not all Great Plains fruit wines. The sleek winery makes European-style grape wines and has a new brewery and concert space. Check out menu items that are still Black Hills rarities, like antipasto platters.
Warrior's Work & Ben West Gallery This gallery's paintings, sculptures and wearable art would feel at home in Park City or Aspen.
To answer your question: It should be done in about 50 years. But you really should know it's rude to ask an artist what's taking so long. Korczak Ziolkowski started carving the great Lakota leader into a mountain near Custer in 1948. It's no accident that the family focused on Crazy Horse's face after Korczak's death in 1982. "The world probably wondered if we could do this after Dad was gone," daughter Monique says. "So my mom decided to give him a soul. And the windows to the soul are right there: the eyes." For a $125 upgrade to the regular $12 visit, you can ride a van up the mountain and stand below those eyes.
If you've never seen a bison up close, get cows out of your head. They're like bison about as much as Basset hounds are like wolves. And now we're staring at one-the legend most of us came to see-10 yards away. The bull's enormous head looks ready to toss our Jeep like an irritating fly. Farther along the famed Wildlife Loop Road, we find more of Custer State Park's 1,200-ish bison. Dozens of cinnamon-color calves bounce around as the herd clogs the road, utterly unconcerned with us. Once, 30 million of these beasts ruled the Great Plains. Those left haven't lost an ounce of their regal bearing.
Bear Butte, its top shrouded in fog, obviously isn't a typical state park. We know the Lakota and Cheyenne hold this mountain (like all of the Black Hills) sacred. But as with so much of the area's troubled legacy (tribes legally own most of it under a broken 1868 treaty), we aren't sure how to interact with the story. So we stop at the small visitors center to meet park manager Jim Jandreau, who grew up on the Lower Brule Indian Reservation. The key, he explains, is to see Bear Butte as a church. Walk quietly up the 1.8-mile trail to the top and don't disturb prayer cloths left in trees to represent "one's needs and hopes."
Jim works hard to educate visitors that Bear Butte is no mere rec area. "It used to be a carnival atmosphere. People would take a cooler to the top and kick back with a few cold ones," he says. "What church would you do that in? It's different here now, and I like this feeling better."
We work backward in the infamous mining town of Deadwood (if anything, the HBO show underplayed how rough it was). We head first to Wild Bill Hickok's hilltop grave, which lies beside the real-life Calamity Jane's. Then we wander the historic main street to Saloon No. 10, where Bill played his last poker hand in 1876. (Sort of. The exact spot makes for a long story.) And then we give in and do it: the old-timey team photo, complete with boas and plastic revolvers. "Wow, this is really happening," says our youngest member, Mason. Indeed, kid. Once a road trip gets rolling, you just have to enjoy the ride.