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Saturday, Spires and Stars


This morning we were determined to take advantage of the complimentary breakfast, since technically, as my mom has said before, “it isn’t free if you paid for it.” The large dining area was a commotion of hotel guests filling their bellies before going out to sightsee. Thomas and I were sitting not too far from the long counter of food. When I was getting my breakfast, I noticed something I had never seen during our many hotel stays. There was an automatic pancake maker contraption that was getting a lot of action. From what I could tell, you hit a button and wait for a perfectly round, cooked pancake to come out the other end. No dispensing of mix or pouring necessary. While I was eating, I noticed the pancake maker went rogue and dropped a pancake from the conveyor belt onto the counter with no apparent maker to collect it. Within seconds, a woman appears. I don't know if she hit the red button for a pancake, or if this automated machine was well on its way to singularity, but she followed the 3 second rule and picked it up and put it on her plate. Since we made a dash to grab breakfast before it ended, we weren’t exactly show time ready. We still had to brush teeth, clean faces and the like. The itinerary for today was to go to Crazy Horse Memorial and to Custer State Park. Originally, when I was organizing the trip, the plan was to try to get accommodations at Custer State Park but fortunately for them (and our loss), they were booked solid ahead of the start of the summer season. The high demand of this park area is also because of the close proximity to many other popular destinations.

Unlike Mount Rushmore National Monument, you aren’t able to see Crazy Horse Memorial from the road. In addition, Crazy Horse Memorial is not a federal or state project and your admission directly supports the completion of the sculpture. Cars and RVs from across the country were parked neatly in rows as we pull into the lot. I already had some idea of what to expect. My parents had made a trip to this area years ago and they were impressed with Crazy Horse, more so than Mount Rushmore, if one were forced to compare. At the base of the parking lot sat a rambling complex with the mammoth sized, partially carved, bare granite mountain in the distance. Once inside the Orientation Center, where you purchase your ticket for entry, you find all the owners of the cars. It was crowded, but not unbearable. It was what you should expect for a Saturday at the height of the tourist season. Honey colored, glossy pine walls force you to go back in time, or at least remove yourself from the modern world and into a natural environment. In front of us in line stood a father and his young son that we casually begin chatting with. The places we had traveled and were traveling to were the topic of the short conversation; we all had big smiles.

Behind the desk for tickets was a theater showing a movie about Crazy Horse, spanning from its inception to today. Sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski, born in Boston but of Polish descent, is the great visionary behind this memorial. His earlier work, prize-winning sculptures featured in the 1938 World’s Fair and assisting in the sculpting of Mount Rushmore was how he gained recognition and ultimately the commission of the memorial. The motivation for the commission is said to be the Lakota Indians rebuttal to Mount Rushmore’s construction in the Black Hills. By treaty, the land belonged to them and they should have had a say as to whose likeness is carved into their land. A lot of original video of Ziolkowski was included in this film, giving a real sense of who he was and his character. If any actor could have played him in a movie, Marlon Brando would have hands down been the only option. Ziolkowski was charismatic, bull headed, determined and unconventional. Of Brando’s characters, it would have been Dr. Moreau (The Island of Dr. Moreau) meets Terry Malloy (On the Waterfront), with a dash of Don Vito Corleone (The Godfather). A person would have to be a little of everything and anything to dare have the vision to even think to single handedly try to carve a mountain. To give some perspective of the size, the already giant portrait of Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln (Mount Rushmore) is said to be able fit inside the head of Crazy Horse.

Ziolkowski would marry Ruth Ross, who came out to the Black Hills to assist in the carving. Eventually they would have 10 children, all of who became as involved and passionate about carving Crazy Horse. Merely watching Ziolkowski and his family was inspiring, trying to accomplish the unimaginable. He would climb back and forth, up and down, shooing off animals, carrying heavy loads precariously up a hand made wooden ladder, dynamiting tons of rock and practically defying death with every step. It was preposterous and it rubbed off on his family. There is one part in the movie where one of his sons recounts a story of falling off the side of the mountain while still inside a tractor, dropping many feet below and miraculously surviving. He gets back in and continued to work. By the time of Ziolkowski’s death, 34 years had passed with his family working tirelessly at his side, doing what they could to complete the memorial. To this day, his family lovingly continues to carve into the living stone in his honor along with the help of staff and foundation members. Thank goodness for the dreamers and those that turn a deaf ear to the naysayers. I can’t imagine how uninspired the world would be without the illogical and seemingly impossible goals of others.

The movie was a good place to start. It puts the entire complex within context. Inside the Orientation Center is where you get your first framed view of Crazy Horse at the Wall of Windows in one of the wings of the Indian Museum of North America. Overlooking the mountain in the distance, it is a picture perfect place to see the memorial with your own eyes. On the other large wall across from the Wall of Windows are rows and rows of stunning portraits of the survivors of the Battle of the Little Bighorn (also known as Custer’s Last Stand) by artist David Humphreys Miller. In the center of the room is a reference book for the portraits where visitors can learn more about the individuals represented. After seeing these strong, proud faces that were the indigenous people of this county, you have to wonder how different the course of history would have been if their land and life hadn’t been so grievously taken away from them by the Europeans. How different the fate of their lives and this country could have been.

Adjoining the museum was the gift shop that we spent a fair share of time trolling before we ventured outside to the viewing veranda. I had a specific souvenir that I was trying to find, especially because I wanted it to be authentic and made by the people of the land, not mass produced elsewhere. To me, that is one of the tragedies of tourism; you think you are buying authentic Native American pottery only to turn it over and see a made in China stamp. Needless to say, there were quite a lot of other things I had my eye on, including the lidded jar I wanted to buy to replace a sugar bowl for a coffee lover back home. I end up leaving with a few postcards instead. I would hunt for the perfect sugar bowl later. People are all over the place. The viewing veranda is the one place that you can get a clear view of the memorial and it was busy. Taking a tour is the only option for getting a closer look. The cheaper tour is a bus ride to the base and for those that have a more charitable bone in their body, you can get a face-to-face tour ride to the top for a minimum donation of $125.00. If I had disposable money, I would have gladly taken the trip to stare Crazy Horse in the eye. From our vantage point at the veranda, its true size was inconceivable. Without getting closer, I will have to take their word for it and try to surmise its size by the scale of the people standing at his nose in my camera lens.

After a while, like many of the sights along the way, you can only take so many pictures. We peep our heads in the restaurant at the end of the viewing veranda and quickly became discouraged by the long line. Food would have to be found elsewhere. As we walk towards the exit we pass a 1/34th scale model that is purposefully placed in the same line of sight at the actual mountain carving. A person can stand there and easily visualize the end result (whenever that will be). Don’t get me wrong, it is a breathtaking sight to see and it looks according to plan, but I have no idea when it could feasibly be finished. People probably thought Mount Rushmore was impossible. My sick, twisted joke is that the precise moment Crazy Horse is officially finished, will be right at the moment that asteroid hails down from space and destroys Earth. Yes, I know it is an awful thing to say and they have accomplished a great deal, but wow is there a lot to complete. There was a lot that we didn’t see on the way out: a replica of Ziolkowski’s log studio home, a sculptor’s workshop and a Native American Cultural Center.

On the way to Custer State Park, the route took us back past our hotel and onto the main road. It looked like we had missed a parade by minutes. The last of the parade spectators were local folks. They had their folding chairs and were walking home presumably. One of the floats had a sign for the class of the 1981. It was a pickup truck towing a few people sitting and drinking on black wrought iron patio set, very nonchalantly. They were chilling hard. Since we had to drive past Hill City, we stop as suggested earlier, to look for Thomas’ Black Hills sweatshirt he was personally hunting. In the beginning we go into the stores together, but it was only a matter of time that we went our separate ways and met back up. We both drop some big cash on more perfect souvenirs for ourselves and loved ones. During my shopping spree, I met some lovely people that over the course of friendly conversation, I end up telling them why I was there and gave them my elevator pitch and a card. All this shopping and we still needed to eat. We randomly select a place called the Bumpin Buffalo Bar & Grill with a downstairs and an upstairs covered balcony. The upstairs was cool. Above you had a 360-degree view of Hill City and the bonus was that you could write on the wood beams. Many others, who once dined there, grabbed sharpie and pen and magic marker. There was a group of men practically falling off of their bar stools trying to write high above their heads at the bar. When we finish our meal, Thomas tells me to write something so we can film it. I don't know why I hadn't thought about that. In my most legible hand, I write, “C Brown EBT 2016.” What a way to leave our mark, literally. He did the same. Before we left Hill City, I retrace my steps for last minute purchases while Thomas drives to the gas station. It was time to go, before I wasted any more money and time.

To get to Custer State Park, we take Needles Highway, one of the many scenic routes. Every turn was a dumbfounding view. The drive is a slow wind up with the peaks of granite in long, vertical finger formations on either side. Right before Needles Eye Tunnel, there is space for people to park. Naturally, it is a jammed parking lot. Everyone wants to get out because they see all the other people and the view. We luck up and there was a spot on the side of the road. Thomas parks and we gather our cameras. To the left, we climb up the rock, explore and take pictures and gazed at this curious landscape as the sun filtered its way between the high points. Throughout the entire time we were there, we heard this loud incessant squeak like a car with bad breaks. Walking back to the car, we come to realize that the noise was a baby woodpecker in a perfectly rounded hole, high in a tree peeking it's head out, calling out. The mother eventually flies in and fed her baby and the baby bird quieted down on its full belly. Press to hear bird

By this time, after having been there long enough to pay attention to cars exiting through the Needle Eye Tunnel, Thomas devises a plan for filming. Needles Eye Tunnel is exactly as it sounds. Imagine if you will, that you are holding a sewing needle in your hand. Now look at the shape and focus on the eye of the needle, that small opening where the thread must enter and pass. All traffic, on either direction, like the thread, has to pass through a single lane, narrowly cut out in the rock, barely wide enough for a car. The final plan is for Thomas to stand through my open sunroof with his camera, filming our drive through the needle. Before I pull off, he pops out the top and I hit the gas slowly. As you would expect, we had an entire audience for this stunt, only feet away, cheering us on. Slowly, I thread the needle with half of Thomas’ body sticking out of my car.

Once you pass Needles Eye Tunnel, you wind back down the mountain and can funnel off to a small parking lot before a switchback. From here, you have a much different view of the valley below and the rock formations. Also from the parking lot, you can access the Cathedral Spires Trailhead. With cameras in hand, we go across the street to one of the overlooks and take pictures, and then we split. I decide to start walking to the start of the trail at the edge of the rock. There were colorful flowers and trees and rays of sun dancing in silence. Not to soon after, the peace of my surroundings was interrupted by a familiar sound. Overhead, I see the drone making the loud, buzzing noise. I continue to take pictures and Thomas finds me on the trail. Briefly we talk about the drone while we begin to walk and revel in how awesome the footage would have been had his not been broken. Minutes after our discussion, we hear a loud crash followed by thuds. The air is now void of the buzzing. Sometimes the grass is not greener on the other side. We felt sorry for whoever was at the other end of the controller; it was easy to sympathize. At least Thomas was able to retrieve his broken winged bird. This drone operator would be taking a wild guess as to where the drone fell, not to mention, the possibility that the dangerous terrain could make it irrecoverable.

There was never a conversation about how far we were going to walk the trial. It was more of a continuing amble of photo taking and looking. It wasn’t until we run into other people on the trail that we decide to take it to the end. I was only concerned about two things. Number 1, the person that highly recommended that we take the trail to its end made a comment to the likes of, “If you can make it.” Subtly hinting to the fact that this was a strenuous hike. Number 2, I had to go to the bathroom and what started off as a small walk is going to turn into a 3 mile round trip hike. Either way, the closest bathroom was by no stretch of the imagination nearby. I had already made peace with myself that if worse came to worse, I was prepared to heed the call of nature in nature. It would not have been my proudest moment, but my bladder felt as though it was squeezing in on me and pouting about the extended journey.

This entire time, I had lost sight of the fact that further along, when I first entered the trail, there was a woman with two small children. I had not seen them since Thomas met up with me, which means that they are still ahead of us. If the small lads can make the hike, I can too. Briefly this pushes aside concern number 1. There were only a handful of people that pass us along the way. The trail was nowhere close to the popular ease of a sightsee drive; it was deserted. One of the last trail goers we pass gave us the heads up to be mindful of two bucks at the trailhead. At one point at the end of a steep climb up the trail, the footpath disappears. We knew that we were on the trail because it couldn’t vanish in thin air and that family was still somewhere ahead of us. Plus the people that passed coming from the trailhead described the end as quite beautiful. This could not have been the end. It wasn’t that beautiful. There was no big fat arrow or even a clear spray-painted square that informs hikers that they are still on the right path. When I look ahead, I was facing a stone dead end and a clearing to the right that was overgrown with ground covering and steep jagged rocks. In the end, we assume that this clearing is the unlikely continuation of the path. Carrying camera gear made it a challenging task. The incline of the path requires a hand on the cameras to prevent them from swinging and potentially hitting rocks, leaving one hand to support the climb if needed. This was a heck of trek and I still had to go to the bathroom.

On the other side of the unmarked path was the clearing to the trailhead. The narrow, heavily wooded path opens to this vast, airy landscape and low and behold, my missing family materializes. They gained another family member that must have been out of view when I was behind them. We say hello as we cross paths. The sun was pouring into this bowl shaped field shed light on an apocalyptic wood and stone scene. For a moment, this was the place that time forgot. Cathedral Spires Trailhead was all ours. There was not another soul to be seen or heard, except for the bucks that I had already forgotten about. It was only us out there is the weird and wonderful environment and we look at all of the power of nature before us.

When we get back to the car and start putting our cameras away, we see a young couple walking back out of the trail. They were coming towards the parking lot. As they got closer, I could see an object in his hand and it is a drone. The two were probably in their early twenties at best. He was blond, fair and tall and she was significantly shy of his height, with olive colored skin and dark hair. His face was distinctly full of anguish. I ask if that was his drone that we heard crash. It was. Thomas and I recount seeing it in the air and ultimately hearing it plummet. We commiserate and share our story about the loss of Thomas’ drone; it was a drone pity party. According to the young man, the wind may have caught it and taken it off course. He purchased it only a few days ago. With some detection work and hiking, he was able to find it. I ask if he had to go off trail. He informs us that it was off trail but he is an avid climber and was able to navigate the course; that was the only way he was going to be able to recover it on the rocky bottom, off trail. He tells us that he climbed Devils Tower in 9 hours. Apparently, when he and his friends reached the summit, they were immediately forced to leave because of an unrelenting swarm of flying ants. Even in our envy, we were glad that he was able to get the drone back and it was fixable. Our conversation swayed to a quick meet and greet. They are living here while the young woman goes to college at the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology. I remember seeing a sign for the school and thinking what does that mean exactly. As we were ending our conversation, another car pulls up next to them and the people start to talk to him about his drone. It’s funny how these flying cameras are always a point of interests for people.

We take the Wildlife Loop back leaving Custer State Park, but we didn’t actually see any animals. Or at least I think it was the Wildlife Loop. What we did see were piles of wood that were skillfully piled into teepee shapes. Silly me thought that animals made them, but after discussing it with Thomas, we agree that it had to be man made and was most likely an effort to collect the many fallen trees. Happily for me, there was a bathroom at a pullover. Thank goodness because I could no longer extend the stretch of my bladder. On the drive, Thomas begins scouting for a place to take night shots. He settles on a serene lake that does not have a lot of neighboring light. The plan will be to return later, once it gets dark. With the location scouted, we go back into town near the hotel. Thomas wanted to get something to eat along the main street in town. He ends up choosing Pizza Hut. We browse the nearby stores while we wait for his food. T-shirts with pro Trump/ anti-Clinton illustrations and slogans were inescapable. Interestingly enough, there were a lot of storefronts that had signs reading Blue Lives Matter. Seeing the political apparel and signs gave us plenty to talk about while we walk. Around the corner, there was a firemen's ball with live music. We moseyed over there for a minute or two to listen. I think we both felt a little out of place. The pizza was collected and we return to the hotel.

Time had gone by and it was officially dark, the stars were all out. Thomas and I regroup and head back out the lake. With no streetlights and hardly any traffic, this was a smart choice for a night shot. Twinkling above was a sea of stars that you can already see with your naked eye. Timidly I ask Thomas for a tutorial on taking night shots. I never want to be a pest with him but I want to learn. His night shot of Washington at Mount Rushmore was extraordinary and I wanted to try. Gently he tells me what I need to do and being the great teacher that he is, he explains why. I try to drop my nerves and listen and learn. While he is setting up his shot, I am like a child, mimicking his moves. Tripod was set to stabilize the shot, settings are changed, timer is set and I hit the button and walk away. I eagerly listen for the click and run over to see the final shot. I have not been this excited in a while. I did it (with Thomas’ help). He took a peek at the image and the suggested a few tweaks. I make the changes and I got more than I expected. The stars were now mine to capture. As we continue to shoot, the full moon becomes as bright as the sun and begins to rise above the trees and shines on the water. The night almost becomes the day with this new light and we call it a wrap and head to our home for one more night.

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