Woke up in Nebraska National Forest. As we made breakfast a rafter of 20 large wild turkeys wandered into the campground. Karrie and I watched in peaceful silence as they bobbed their heads and pecked at the ground. One by one they seemed to become aware of us and change directions, slowly making a large arch around our campsite. Personally I had never seen so many turkeys at once and found it quite entertaining. Karrie later told me that she always sees groups this large in PA, but she enjoyed seeing them too.
Between the turkeys and the oak trees at the campground we could tell that we were already progressing east. After breakfast we hopped back in the van and continued north into South Dakota. As we crossed into Wind Cave National Park we began seeing dozens, no hundreds! of prairie dogs out in the fields. They were adorable and Karrie was giddy with joy as we watched them pop up out of holes, run around, and socialize with one another. We also saw two huge bison grazing on the plains. I’ve seen bison on ranches before, but something about these two seemed larger, more powerful and majestic. They were at home on these plains and even though they moved across the landscape, their mass made it feel like they were literally attached to the land, the same way a large boulder is seen as being it’s own object while simultaneously defining the terrain.
We arrived at the visitor center around 10:30am. Unfortunately you are not allowed to explore the cave independently, instead you sign up for guided tours to see short sections of the cave. The next tour wasn’t until 1pm so we entertained ourselves by reading tons of information about the park and eating lunch in the van. This park has a lot of cool history and science behind it, so we had no trouble keeping busy. The Natural Entrance Tour allowed us to see a lot of the cave’s defining features like the original windy entrance hole, boxwork and popcorn formations, as well as many of the impressive projects completed by the CCC back in the 30s that made this part of the cave more accessible to visitors.
We definitely enjoyed our tour and all that we learned from the Park Ranger leading us, but having only traveled about a ¼ mile we still felt to a certain extent that we hadn’t really seen the park. Karrie decided that to really see a place you need to hike at least 2 miles of it. I like this standard.
Back above ground we decided to explore more of the surface beauty of the park. We drove up route 87 to the pull off for the Rankin Ridge Fire Tower. There was a nice 1 mile loop hike up to the tower and back. Karrie had pent up energy from seeing so many cool sights from car and cave that she actually ran most of the trail. It felt good to be free to explore. It was really windy at the top, but the views were excellent.
After the hike we were back on the road. We had one more sight to see before the sunset: Mt. Rushmore. The road there was wild! We drove through one lane tunnels and wound down spirals that looked like giant pig tails, weaving in and out of trees and open views. It felt like something straight out of a Mario Kart video game.
Mount Rushmore wasn’t anything like I expected. I figured there would be a large pull off on the side of the road where you could view the faces of Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson, and Roosevelt; maybe a large plaque describing the history of the site and the significance of these American Presidential icons. Instead we were greeted by a huge marble entrance gate that resembled a tollbooth for the fanciest highway you can imagine. Prominent signs stating: ENTRANCE FEE $11 PER VEHICLE were plastered everywhere, but as we approached the one lane that wasn’t blocked off with cones we found there wasn’t anyone there to take our pass or our money.
Not observing any signs of the site being closed, nor any instructions on how to pay, we decided to drive in through the open gate. We soon found ourselves in an enormous parking garage that was as equally extravagant as the entry gate. It felt more like we were going to a shopping mall than going to view nature. Back on the surface we found more grandiose concrete and pho-marble buildings, gift shops, restrooms, and even an ice cream store that boasted something about how Jefferson authored the first ice cream recipe in America.(Therefore it is relevant and you should eat it?)
Continuing on, we passed under all 50 state flags. I could see the monument and a large viewing platform. “Finally,” I thought “The reason we came here. We can leave all of this fanfare behind us and see the sight!” As we reached the low wall at the end of the viewing area I expected to see trees and rock leading to the base of the mountain. Instead I found myself at the back of a huge amphitheatre similar to what you would find at Sea World, except a large stage took the place of the oversized fish tank.
Karrie and I both agreed, “This is... wierd.”
We walked around more, finding a small pavilion dedicated to the man who directed the building of Rushmore. There was a plaque displaying a bulleted timeline of the construction of Mt. Rushmore, but no substantial history of the fellow, any of the workers, or his artistic vision.
We came to the intersection in the walkway. One direction pointed us back to the parking garage and the other to some unknown building. A young couple was walking toward us from the direction of the unknown. I asked if there was anything that direction worth seeing. “Uh, well, you get slightly closer to the base of the monument. That’s about it. No information or anything substantial.” I could tell by his response that they were equally perplexed and weirded out by this place. I thanked them for the insight and Karrie and I decided we’d seen enough. Check it off the list, let’s get back to the van before someone steals something.