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President setting

South Dakota offers wonders both natural and historic

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CRAZY HORSE MONUMENT, SOUTH DAKOTA -- Korczak Ziolkowski was a certifiable crazy old coot.

And in the best tradition of crazy old coots, he set himself a monumental task: He decided to carve a mountain, all 185 metres of it.

And if that weren't crazy enough, he made his way into town and got a beautiful young girl to marry him and have 10 children with him. Ziolkowski died in 1982, but most of his family now works at carving his mountain into a likeness of Crazy Horse, the Lakota chief who refused to surrender his people's land to the U.S. government in the late 1800s.

Ziolkowski worked as an assistant to sculptor Gutzon Borglum in the 1930s on the carving of Mount Rushmore, just down the road, a mere baby of a mountain at 142 metres. It made sense that Lakota leaders should ask Ziolkowski when they were looking for an artist to carve a mountain to let "the white man to know the red man has great heroes also," as Lakota Chief Henry Standing Bear put it.

(A hint at the scope of the Crazy Horse sculpture: It took 50 years to complete the figure's face with its 27-foot 6-inch nose. Completion is a long, long way off. Staff at the monument won't even hazard a guess as to how long it will take. We suggest five generations hence, and some of the staff nod.)

Ziolkowski's dream went beyond a massive monument. He envisioned the mountain carving -- the largest sculptural undertaking in the world at 172 metres high and 196 metres long -- as the focal point of a project that would include the Indian Museum of North America and a university and medical school for native people.

You can see a glimpse of Ziolkowski's vision in the cluster of buildings at the foot of Crazy Horse. There's a visitors' centre and gift shop, restaurant, the Ziolkowski family home and a hall for native artists to sell their work. Be sure to catch the outstanding display of arrowheads in the basement of the native artists' hall.

And do not miss the Black Hills Gold Nature Gate Ziolkowski created. Each panel of the gate contains golden silhouettes of creatures indigenous to the Black Hills, from prairie dog to dinosaur, bighorn sheep to bird of prey, coyote to crane.

The Laughing Water restaurant's menu boasts Kuchen, the official dessert of South Dakota -- although our waitress confides she never heard of it before starting to work here. For something different, try the Indian taco dessert. Sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar, it is a wonderful take on an old standard.

It costs $125 to go up the mountain, and they say it's well worth it as the view is breathtaking. We made the mistake of going in the afternoon -- twice, we were so keen -- but the threat of lightning kept us on the ground. Go early in the day when lightning warnings are scarce.

Dramatic weather makes the Black Hills even more beautiful and if a storm keeps you off the Crazy Horse monument, head to the scenic drives of Custer State Park. The Needles Highway, named for the needle and eye rock formation at the top -- and originally called the Needless Highway by many locals who thought it was a waste of tax dollars -- is best known for its views of the Black Hills.

But it's the Iron Mountain Highway that offers the best view of Mt. Rushmore. Round a curve, and suddenly there they are: Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln, in all their six-storey-high glory. Sculptor Gutzon Borglum began carving with dynamite in 1927, unheard of at the time, and the monument was declared completed in 1941, although the original plan was for the figures to be depicted from the waist up.


The project's aim was to draw tourists to the Black Hills, but the steady work it created for hundreds of workers put meals on many tables here during the Dirty 30s.

Two million people a year gaze up at the faces on the mountain the Lakota people once called the Six Grandfathers. The memorial park around the base of the mountain, which covers a whopping 520 hectares, boasts interpretive centres, the Avenue of Flags and an amphitheatre for special performances and daily activities. You won't get a better view of the presidents than from Iron Mountain Highway, miles away, but the memorial park is worth a visit.

Custer State Park is just up the road. In fact, it's central to just about everything worth seeing in the region. There's camping there, but for the less hardy there are four lodges dotted throughout the park, the State Game Lodge the Bluebell Lodge, the Sylvan Lake Lodge and the Legion Lake Lodge. All hit a note between rustic and luxurious, with stone fireplaces, loads of wood and animal trophies on the walls.

We stayed at State Game Lodge, President Calvin Coolidge's summer White House in 1927 when he discovered the wonders of the region.

The place is a bit president-mad. The sign on the lodge's gorgeous verandah declaring it Coolidge's summer White House also lists President Dwight D. Eisenhower as a visitor in 1953. And the bar at the Sylvan Lake Lodge has cocktails named for presidents. (Enjoy the Honest Abe: vodka, a splash of Triple Sec, grapefruit and cranberry juices over ice. And be grateful to Frank Lloyd Wright for advising the lodge be rebuilt at its current location in a forest of pine and spruce after a fire destroyed the original in 1935.)

We found the verandah at the State Game Lodge a marvellous place to sit with a coffee and watch the swallows dart in and out of their nests along the verandah's ceiling. First Lady Grace Coolidge used to sit and knit on the porch, her pet raccoon Rebecca nearby. There's a picture of them, cuddling up, in the lodge's presidential dining room. Now, there's wireless access on the verandah so Grace could have emailed her human friends.

They still tell a funny story here about the president's visit to the Black Hills which started as a three-week vacation to escape all that irritated him in Washington. Coolidge took up trout fishing. Although he'd never fished before, he was spectacularly successful. That was more than beginner's luck as the locals had stocked the creek with big fish from a hatchery. Coolidge extended their visit to three months from three weeks.

Expect to see quite a bit of the wildlife the Coolidges so enjoyed. The Wildlife Loop winds through a massive game reserve with buffalo, pronghorn antelope, prairie dogs and wild burros -- descendants of the burros of gold prospectors from the rush of 1874. The park's mountain goats pop up here and there. The day we went looking for the wildlife loop, two quite happily blocked traffic on a fairly busy stretch of the park road.

Notice how the buffalo you see on the loop seem different from the buffalo you may have seen in a zoo. The park's buffalo graze and mill about and wallow -- roll over and over in a dusty patch. Then it hit us: They lack that catatonic quality even the best-kept zoo animals can get. They are busy going about the business of being buffalo and don't even notice you.

The burros are a whole other story. They are very people-friendly, poking their heads into car windows. Do not feed them even if the people in that car ahead of you are feeding them cheese doodles at an alarming rate.

When you need a break from the wildlife, visit Rapid City, about 50 kilometres north of Custer State Park. Rapid City is also mad about presidents. On many of the downtown street corners, there are bronze statues of presidents.

Here is Harry Truman holding up the famously wrong headline that he had lost to Thomas Dewey; there is Nixon sitting in an ornate chair, little Chinese dogs carved into the arms, representing his history-making trip to China -- the artist's kindness to the disgraced president. Over there is John F. Kennedy showing John John a toy airplane.

As you work your way around downtown, street corner by street corner, president by president, check out the shops. Who's Hobby House, 715 Main Street, is a great place for presents to take home for kids of all ages. Have coffee and snacks at Alternative Fuel, 620 Main, and check out pictures of the staff with Ed Harris and Jon Voigt visiting while shooting National Treasure 2.

But the jewel of the downtown retail is the Prairie Edge Trading Co. and Galleries, the corner of Sixth and Main, which boasts the finest collection of Native American art, crafts, books, music and cultural artifact reproductions. Watch for posters around town announcing special guests at the shop. On the day we were there, three Navajo code talkers, veterans of the Second World War, were visiting. (About 420 Navajo served in the U.S. Marines as code talkers, their native language proving an effective code the enemy could not break.)

The historic Alex Johnson Hotel, listed with the National Register of Historic Landmarks, has hosted six presidents, Coolidge, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Nixon, Gerald Ford and Reagan. When we visited, a staff member listed John McCain. "Well, almost a president," he explained.

Alex Carlton Johnson, vice-president of the Chicago-Northwestern Railroad, built the grand hotel, "the Showplace of the West," as a living tribute to the natives of the Black Hills. Johnson's fascination with native culture shows up in the building's décor and architecture. Be sure to pop into the lobby to see some of the aboriginal points of interest, such as the chiefs' heads carved into the tops of the lobby pillars and the chandeliers made from spears and torches. Book a room after the $8-million renovation is completed in spring 2010.

Plan your visit for a summer-time Thursday and watch Summer Nights make Rapid City's downtown streets come alive with special events. The festivities happen on 6th and 7th streets and -- in theory -- end at 8:30 p.m.

But later on, Arts Alley -- a back alley graffiti artists have turned into a place of wild colours and images -- becomes a concert hall. On the evening we were there, late into the night, another, more impromptu, summer night happened. Musicians gathered in the alley to jam, the music -- a happy zydeco sort of sound -- filling the night air, drifting up to hotel windows where people propped themselves on window sills to enjoy.

It's the kind of happy surprise you come to expect in the Black Hills on your travels. You just have to keep your eyes and ears open.


Other things to see in the Black Hills

Mammoth site

The Mammoth Site in Hot Springs, about an hour south of Custer State Park, is a paleontological site that takes you to the edges of a Pleistocene era sinkhole where scientists have excavated the remains of 55 mammoths. About 26,000 years ago, a cavern at the site collapsed into an underground spring, leaving a steep-sided hole which trapped the mammoths, Columbian and woolly. Kids and the scientifically inclined will be fascinated. The gift shop is full of items made of petrified elephant poop. These include lip balm and notepads; "Made by Elephants," the tags boast. Again, kids and the scientifically inclined will be fascinated.



Pop over the state line and see the Devil's Tower National Monument in the distance. The 30 kilometres you'll drive along Highway 24 will teach you the true meaning of wide open spaces. Stop in Aladdin, population a mere 15, famous for the Aladdin General Store. Established as the Wyoming Mercantile in 1896, the store is on the National Register of Historic Places, a well-preserved example of late 19th century vernacular mercantile architecture. It carries everything from clothing to antiques to antler art. There's a small hole-in-the-wall bar on one side and a cold beer goes down nicely as you sit on the front steps and watch the world go by. A warning: The store has no running water so the "facilities" are a couple of nicely kept two-hole outhouses out back.



Wild Horse Sanctuary

The long drive onto the plains south of Hot Springs to the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary is well worth it to see herd of American Mustangs roaming free. The ranch has been described as one of the most primitive and wild places left in North America. The sanctuary offers two-hour guided tours or three-hour private tours year-round to see the 400 or so mustangs.



Chuckwagon suppers

"This is the real west," the locals keep saying throughout South Dakota, but at no other time will it feel quite so "real west" than when the baked beans hit your tin plate at a chuckwagon supper. At the Fort Hays Chuck Wagon Supper and Cowboy Music Variety Show, just outside Rapid City, you can tour buildings used in the movie Dances With Wolves until the supper bell rings. Then all the wannabe cowboys and cowgirls line up for an authentic chuck wagon supper: a tin plate of beef or chicken, potatoes, baked beans, biscuits and coffee in a tin cup. Cowpoke fare is not fine dining, but all is forgiven when the music starts and you feel like you're part of a Prairie Home Companion show.




Deadwood is known for gambling, movie gear and the graves of Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok who was gunned down here (and here and here and here if you pay attention to many signs in town.) This national historic landmark is a fun town you should not miss -- even if you do feel a bit cheesy having your picture taken (as I did) beside many of Kevin Costner's movie costumes at his Diamond Lil's restaurant, a good place for lunch. The Celebrity Hotel is a great, central place to stay on the main strip. Its lobby is full of movie paraphernalia and cars from the movies, including one of James Bond's Aston Martins and a tuxedo or two. The kids will love the gunfights held several times a day inside #10 Saloon and outside on Main Street.


German tourists

The German people have a love affair with the Wild West. It's been explored in an exhibit at the National Cowboy Museum in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, where experts opined the Germans' fascination dates back to the 1820s when James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales was published.

You'll see that fascination full-blown throughout the Black Hills, with German tourists living the dream in their cowboy hats and boots, asking tour guides and locals what was it really like when the buffalo roamed and the deer and the antelope played, a childlike delight on their faces. It's contagious. Their enthusiasm will lift you and maybe even inspire you to try on a 10-gallon hat or two in the gift shops.


-- Julie Carl

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 8, 2009 E1

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