By Jug Varner
Looking at Rapid City, South Dakota on a map, you might think, “You can hardly get there from here,” particularly from a distant starting point. A lot of people might have allowed that feeling to deprive them of a wonderful treat — myself included until now. Maybe that explains the relatively light traffic from La Crosse, Wisconsin to Rapid City.
South Dakota people are warm and friendly and welcome you to their state with old fashion small-town hospitality. Actually, most of their towns are small; Sioux Falls (pop. 110,000) and Rapid City (65,000) are the two largest. Tourism is their primary industry and they certainly have an abundance of interesting things to see and do. Welcome center workers across the nation could take a “how to” lesson from those helpful ladies at the state line near Sioux Falls.
One of the cleverest ideas I've seen for a military monument has got to be the USS South Dakota Memorial in Sioux Falls. This landlocked city had no way to bring the actual ship here when the Navy announced its 1960s plan to scrap this most-decorated battleship of WWII. That didn't stop a citizens group headed by WWII Marine fighter pilot ace, former South Dakota Governor Joe Foss. This committee raised enough funds to bring a 16-inch gun, a flag mast and other shipboard items to a local park. When added to a low-wall outline in the shape and dimensions of the USS South Dakota, the overall effect created a surprising curbside illusion of the real thing. A small building “amidship” houses a museum with an interesting collection of the battleship's artifacts.
Unfortunately, I saw no billboards east or west of the city to alert travelers about this unique attraction. I just happened to randomly select 12th Street as a route from our hotel to the downtown area, or I might not have known it existed.
Mitchell, SD is the hub city of a large cornbelt area and its population is only 14,000, yet it has one of the world's most unusual buildings: Mitchell Corn Palace. Originally created to help attract migration to the region, the first Corn Palace opened its doors for the Corn Belt Exposition of 1892 — its participants awed by the sight of the exterior walls decorated from top to bottom with native grasses, grains, and various corn.
Perhaps the constant stream of tourists stopping annually to view its rare decor, minaret towers and interior displays, collectively outnumber those who attend its public functions. Each September artists replace the old design with new ideas requiring thousands of bushels of area products - at a cost of $100,000 — beckoning folks to come back for another look. As Yogi Berra might have said, “Don't miss it if you can.”
Farther down the road, we detoured to see the famous Badlands National Park. Locals told us the best time to be there is from pre-dawn to sun-up, or from late afternoon to early evening. Not having that timeframe, we were content with the early afternoon effect and let our imaginations do the rest. This uncommon land was publicized recently as a locale for filming the movie “Armageddon.” Having since seen that film, I found it difficult to recognize the Badlands as the set of an asteroid hurtling toward Earth. As usual, the filmmakers bent the truth considerably, or else they didn't learn their science out of the same book I read. As a reviewer in Navy Times stated, “If you missed seeing the movie, it's not the end of the world.” The Badlands Park, however, with its geological and paleontological treasure is certainly worth seeing.
Arriving at the junction of I-90 again, we were only a mile from South Dakota's premier “tourist trap,” Wall Drug Store. This was no surprise, since its highway billboards ballyhooed it as far back as Michigan. The advertising fulfilled its purpose of causing us to stop and see this conglomeration of “stuff” that would require several pages to describe. But a cursory observance convinced us there were about 10,000 more items than we had time to view. Thus we left it to the kids (who obviously were delighted with the place) and others with enough vacation time to explore it. More important things awaited us at the end of our South Dakota trail.
To me, Mount Rushmore seemed a very appropriate place to be on the Fourth of July. My first glimpse of those incredible faces carved in granite was thrilling, and the awe didn't subside all the time we were there enjoying the ambiance and learning about this patriotic work of art. The new visitor facilities opened two weeks before our arrival. It offers good parking and includes: a visitors center, amphitheater, sculptor's studio, view terraces, Avenue of Flags (every state flag), information center, gift shops and restaurants. Advance knowledge prior to arrival is helpful, but nothing takes the place of being there and learning about it first-hand.
Our visit to the Keystone museum of Gutzon Borglum, creator of the Rushmore sculptures, provided additional background to enhance our appreciation for the monument and its sculptor. Many of Borglum's works are on display, such as working models of the Presidents and a cross-section of Lincoln's eye to show Borglum's method to make it appear life-like from a distance. Each President's head is 60 feet high (the Statue of Liberty's head is only 17 feet), each nose is 20 feet long, each mouth is 18 feet wide, and each eye is 11 feet across.
Ziolkowski began the project in 1938 and his wife and family continued it after his death, completing the face and part of the outstretched pointing arm and hand earlier this year. It already dwarfs the size of Rushmore's four Presidents. A 17-foot model stands on the visitor's center viewing veranda, where we could compare it with the progress on the mountain sculpture in the distant background. It is exciting to see this work in progress and to contemplate its ultimate completion some time next century.
The Black Hills area offers many natural, cultural and recreational
activities such as: Jewel Cave National Monument; Custer State Park; Wind Cave National Parl; Buffalo Gap National Grasslands; Devil's Tower (Wyoming); Ft. Meade; Crazy Horse Memorial's Indian Museum of North America, and Native American Educational and Cultural Center; wildlife; rivers; streams; campgrounds; and historic places
We visited the colorful old mining town of Deadwood, home of such western notables as Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok. Lunch at Kevin Costner's restaurant and gaming house (Diamond Lil's) was a good mix of “then and now.” Costner became interested in the town while filming his epic movie “Dances with Wolves,” and displays some of his on-screen wardrobes from several movies.
Also on our itinerary was Ellsworth Air Force Base, home of the 28th Bomb Wing, 12 miles east of the city. The base's population of 10,000 could qualify it as one of the state's “larger towns.” Active and retired military can request reservations for temporary quarters while visiting the area. A special attraction at Ellsworth is the South Dakota Air & Space Museum, displaying aircraft and missiles from WWII to recent years and other historical items.
If you plan a visit to the area, do yourself a favor and get a copy of the VISITOR MAGAZINE published in Rapid City. (Call 605 343-7684.) It is beautifully done and tells all you need to know about where to go and what to see.