GAR: Day Eighteen – Gillette WY to Rapid City SD (256mi)

Last night’s rains broke, and revealed a wonderful blue sky this morning. That was good news, as we had three stops on the docket for today.

This morning, we left Gillette, heading for Devils Tower National Monument. It’s been a dream of mine since I was a kid to see this monument… and way before Close Encounters of the Third Kind featured it as a landing strip! I can remember seeing a US stamp from the 1930’s with the Tower on it, and I was smitten.

We drove off the interstate, headed toward the Tower, topped a hill, and there it was! Out of this rolling farmland was this towering form, reaching skyward. It was a really cool moment for me. We drove on to the monument grounds, flashed our park pass, and headed to the welcome center.

As we learned, there are many Native American legends about the Tower, and the mythology associated with it. I also learned that this is a very sacred place to the tribes in the area, who see this as a holy site. I have a lot of respect for that. In fact, when we drove around to the other side of the Tower to get a better view, there was a sign warning us not to disturb prayer bundles left by the local tribes. Very cool, and very serene.

We also tried to fly a kite while we were on the backside of the monument — wide open spaces and some wind — but there just wasn’t enough wind to keep the big kite aloft. Sio had a tiny little fairy kite, and it flew like crazy. Go figure. 🙂

We left Devils Tower, and eventually crossed into South Dakota, heading toward our second stop of the day, Mt. Rushmore National Memorial. I don’t think I’ve been to a national park or monument that was so built up. I guess I figured it was like many others — you just drive up, take a walk, see the monument, and then leave. Not here. Rushmore has a vendor-run parking complex, an enormous front arch, and a sidewalk shaded with flags from the 50 states plus US possessions. Once you pass all that, there are several rows of bench seating for pondering the monument… and an entire open-air auditorium below for watching the nightly lighting ceremony. It looks like hundreds of folks could experience that from the valley floor. Unfortunately, our schedule wouldn’t accommodate hanging around for the lighting very well. Maybe next time.

The thing that struck me most was the size of the monument. It’s big, but I really expected it to be bigger. Don’t get me wrong — the heads are massive in size — but I was expecting heads on a gargantuan scale. Not a disappointment, but like most of the rest of Mt. Rushmore, it was part of learning about what must certainly be one of the most visited national monuments.

A short distance away from Mt. Rushmore is the Crazy Horse Memorial. Aside from being a cool work-in-progress, it’s a great example of one man’s dream being borne out, one chip or blast at a time. I wasn’t aware of the scale and scope of this monument. This thing will be huge when it’s finished, somewhere near six times the size of Mt. Rushmore. That’s amazing. What’s more amazing is that this family operation has been carrying on for over fifty years. Just about ten years ago, the head of Crazy Horse was finished and unveiled, and it is amazing to see it across a huge valley and realize the enormity the sculpture will have.

The plans for this site don’t end with the monument either. There are big plans for a Native American university with a huge campus full of buildings. This is one impressive dream. I don’t know if I’ll live to see it completed, but it will be a very cool site/facility when they’re done.