Checking in from Mitchell, South Dakota …
Leaving Yellowstone, we headed east through Montana and Wyoming. At an early stop in one of the canyons, we met a National Parks Ranger who was saddling a couple of horses. Ranger Donna was preparing to head off by herself into the wilderness to check on hikers. Since I really like horses and adventure, I was little envious of her job. Could get a little lonely though, and this country can be threatening. To emphasize the raw nature of the land, the roads are marked every quarter of mile with stakes that measure snow levels, three and six feet.
In southern Montana, we visited a truly historic site—Little Big Horn—the scene of Custer’s Last Stand. On this rise in the plains on June 25-26, 1876, a Seventh Cavalry force of 647 men under the command of George Armstrong Custer faced approximately 1,800 Indians from the Lakota Sioux, Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes. The army was trying to return the tribes to a reservation, while the Indians commanded by Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull and Gall wanted to reclaim their original territory. With a textbook case of arrogant leadership, military mistakes and miscommunication, the Indians won an overwhelming victory. Custer, who was actually a Lt Colonel but had assumed a brevet promotion to Major General, had split his forces and was entrenched with just over 200 men on the high ground. Forces under Majors Reno and Benteen were located some distance away. Five of the Seventh Cavalry companies were annihilated including Custer and all the men with him. The casualty count for the US forces was 268 dead and 55 wounded; for the Indians, 136 dead and 168 wounded. It was sobering to see the stone markers where the men had fallen.
As we eased into northeastern Wyoming and South Dakota, we entered the Black Hills. This area was so-named by the Indians due to the pines that cover the hills and are such a dark green that they look black from a distance. In the Black Hills, we visited two world famous landmarks—Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Memorial. Driving around a curve in the mountains, Mount Rushmore with its sculpted countenances of Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt is pretty amazing. This sculpture was started in 1927 by artist Gutzon Borglund and was basically left in its current state since 1939 when Borglund died and funding dried up. The Crazy Horse Memorial was commissioned by the Oglala Lakota nation in 1948 based on drawings by Borglund with original sculptor Korczk Ziolkowski to honor the Native Americans. It is far from finished with a projected completion date of 2120. If and when it is finished, it would be the largest memorial on earth.
Wildlife is plentiful in the Black Hills. We came across pronghorns, antelopes and deer and saw several flocks of wild turkeys. In the Wind Cave National Park, we got really close to a small herd of bison (buffaloes) with an even larger herd grazing in the distance. The bison are huge and considered dangerous, but they appear to be docile and even a little lazy. Maybe these particular animals are just too used to gawking tourists.
We also did a few drive-thrus of a couple of famous towns in the Black Hills. Sheridan, Wyoming is the hometown of Buffalo Bill Cody. And Deadwood, South Dakota is where Wild Bill Hickok was shot in the back and killed while holding a full house poker hand of aces over eights.
Leaving the Black Hills, we entered the Badlands of South Dakota. The Badlands were so named by the Indians as a “bad land to cross.” This is an area where soft sedimentary rock has been eroded over time by wind and water into a colorful and unbelievable landscape marked by canyons, ravines, gullies and hoodoos. No two parts of the Badlands are alike, yet each part is remarkable and strangely beautiful in a raw and unique way. Definitely, a must-see part of any trip to the West.
We are now headed back to North Carolina with hopes to see other parts of our great country.