1408 Miles: Black Hills

Early the next morning we head to the Black Hills in South Dakota, a large patch of mountains just off the border with Wyoming. Before the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, South Dakota was the home of Sioux American Indian tribes and this bit of history comes alive at the Crazy Horse Memorial, a yet incomplete mountain carving aimed at creating a Native American version of the nearby Mount Rushmore National Memorial. When completed, it will stand 563 feet high – around nine times higher than Mount Rushmore – and and 641 feet long.

In 1929, Lakota Sioux chief tribes led by Chief Henry Standing Bear invited Korczak Ziolkowski, a sculptor from Boston, to carve Crazy Horse’s image on a mountain in what is now a privately owned land. Ziolkowski had just worked briefly on Mount Rushmore and won first prize in a New York fair for one of his sculptures. Construction proceeds at a glacial pace though. The work started with a blasting in 1948, and 64 years later, only Crazy Horse’s face is finished. The Memorial Foundation twice turned down an offer for federal funding, insisting that the project be completed through individual initiative and private enterprise. Financial resources come mainly from admission fees and souvenir sales.

At present, work is being done on the monument’s outstretched arm, and further blasting and torching are planned in the future. Ziolkowski died in 1982, way ahead of his project’s completion date – should there ever be. But his vision for the memorial stands firm. “We still have a long way to go to fully complete the mountain and carry out more fully the important educational and cultural goals which are our primary purpose,” he said.

According to Richard, it will take around 40 more years to complete – “Who knows, some of you may be able to return and see the sculpture finally finished.”

We take a bit of a break from U.S. history and head to the Bear Country, just south of Rapid City. Spanning more than 250 acres, the park trumpets that it’s “the home of the largest collection of privately owned black bear in the world.” Three miles of paved roads wind through the park, with vehicles filled with passengers gawking at the animals – bears, moose, elk – in their large enclosures.

Bear Country opened in 1972, when Dr. Dennis “Doc” Casey and his wife Pauline wanted to share their enthusiasm of the animals with the public. “There were no zoos nearby when we opened,” Pauline says in the park’s website. “We wanted the people of Rapid City to enjoy the animals like we did. What we envisioned as a local attraction has grown to draw people from all over North American and some foreign countries.”

Leaving Bear Country, we return to our field trip on American history. And no such excursion would be complete without heading to the mother lode of American patriotism, the “greatest free attraction in the U.S.” – the Mount Rushmore. The mountain, named after a lawyer – Charles E. Rushmore – who investigated mining claims in the Black Hills in 1885, was chosen by sculptor Gutzon Borglum as the site of the iconic sculpture mainly because of its granite’s soft consistency and its ideal location (the sun shines on it for the most part of the day). The work started on August 10, 1927 and continued for 14 years until Borglum’s death in 1941. Since that time, no work has been done on the carvings, save for the constantly spruced-up visitor center at the base of the mountain.

The four presidents on display were chosen for what they symbolized. George Washington, the first U.S. president, represents the country’s victory in the American Revolutionary War. Thomas Jefferson, under whose term the U.S. acquired the Louisiana Territory and thereby drastically increased the size of U.S., symbolizes democracy. Abraham Lincoln, who abolished slavery and prevented a split of the Union, embodies equality and unity. And Theodore Roosevelt stood for the American contributions to the world at the turn of the 20th century.

As the afternoon sun further descends to the horizon, Richard gathers us back to the bus. Overwhelmed by today’s tight schedule, further complicated by my three seatmates’ lingering at the Crazy Horse memorial, I slump at my seat and fall fast asleep. We’ll be heading back to Cheyenne, where we will stay for the night and charge for a long drive across southern Montana to Gardiner, where the Yellowstone Park’s northern entrance sits. Today is history, tomorrow is geology.

Class dismissed.

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