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Black Hills

July 23, 2010

From Greybull we had our choice of two routes across the Big Horn Mountains. We opted for the one that I had done with Sky some years ago. I couldn’t really remember it, but I remembered that it was a good way to go. I suppose that’s a good way for this sort of memory to work. It guides you somewhere, but lets you rediscover. Not unlike the plastic castles in the fish tank, though. The road up Shell Canyon was twisty and steep and we rode it pretty hard considering that I had no rear brakes, and we were both loaded with gear. On the way up the temperature dropped about 20-25 degrees. We passed a rancher’s hand-written sign about a sheep crossing ahead. We’d been passing all sorts of wildlife warning signs throughout the trip and seeing nothing. So why should this be different? We rounded a curve and had to slam on the brakes and then proceed to wade through hundreds and hundreds of sheep all over both sides of and completely across the road for some miles. They were very funny playing with us darting back and forth across the road.

Across the ridge, the road descended down an equally steep course with more sweeping switchbacks than before until we reached the plains below leading towards the Black Hills of South Dakota. I think that of all the terrain we’ve travelled, nothing has compared to what you see in eastern Wyoming and the Black Hills.



It’s a beautiful combination of gentle and dramatic landforms, forests of dark green conifirs and open space, populated and unpopulated. Devil’s Tower was our destination for the night

Devil's Tower

and we arrived in late afternoon and stayed at a KOA campground right at the base of the monument.

DT Campground

LB and Friends

We did our laundry, ate dinner at the campground cafe and under the starry sky watched a movie on the outdoor deck. Yes, it was Close Encounters (of the Third Kind). What a hoot! We kept looking over our shoulders to see if something might be rising from behind the tower right over there.

In the morning we entered the park and walked around the base of the monument. Climbers were already busy at work trying to reach the flat top which, in indian lore, elevated the Seven Sister princesses being chased by bears up to the heavens to become the constellation Pleides. The bears left their marks on the sides of the mountain as it rose up skyward. WE think there is a secret DOWN elevator at the top that only climbers are allowed to know about, because we never saw anyone coming down.

Seb at DT

Morning climbing


The plain around the base is inhabited by hundreds of little prairie dogs.

One of hundreds

After leaving Devil’s Tower we entered the Black Hills and planned a route to take in the Crazy Horse Memorial, the Needles highway, and Mount Rushmore and leave us in position for the Badlands area.

Crazy Horse was a complete surprise to us. When I was in the area in the late 70’s I had only barely heard of it. I seem to recall it as merely a plan in someone’s head, and I figured it must have been completed by now. It is in fact a stupendous undertaking: carving a mountain into a 560 foot high sculpture of Crazy Horse mounted on his steed. The ceremonial first blasting was in 1948, and so far only the face of Crazy Horse is complete. The horse is blocked out, but has no form yet.

Crazy Horse Memorial

Crazy Horse is watching you.

The projection is for completion in approximately 140 years! The project is being conducted by the family of the sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski (born in Boston) whose dream the memorial is. Work is financed entirely by the family, visitor fees, and contributions. There are no federal or state funds accepted. In addition to the carving on the mountain, a spectacular Visitor’s Center has been completed. Ultimately the site will include museums and university-level study facilities. Mind boggling this was!

The Needles highway had been billed to us as a road closed to automobile traffic and dedicated to motorcyclists. Alas, not true. It was quite a ride, running up into a section of the hills studded with thousands of tall pointed formations,


one lane tunnels–some barely wide enough to pass a pickup truck, and tight switchback curves which were quite challenging at 10 mph. The tunnels were quite fun. The sensible protocol for passage seemed to be that a line of cars would stop and accumulate at one end of the tunnel until the tunnel was clear, and then the line would proceed through as oncoming traffic stopped to wait its next turn. While we were there, we never saw more than 10-15 cars stopped to wait their turn and the informal system worked well. At the entrance to one of the tunnels we pulled off to the side in a small parking area and watched the antics of several drivers who didn’t have the sense and patience to get with the program. With a car at the head of the line stopped (because only she could see cars already in the tunnel) the next guy in line tried to go around her and enter the tunnel only to have to back out and get back in line. The joker behind him was getting very frustrated with the delay and was sufficiently brainless that he couldn’t figure out why the guy in front of him had to back out. He thought he’d try his luck and with tires a-screeching jumped out of line and tore into the tunnel only to be turned back by a much larger SUV coming out. By this time he had to back out fuming and swearing in view of a sizeable crowd that had gathered to watch. It was quite a spectacle.

As we approached Mt. Rushmore, the view from the road was all we needed. It was crowded, getting late and we were getting hungry. Then too, after Crazy Horse it seemed rather paltry. We ate dinner down the road a bit still in view of the site.

The originals


We pulled out of the Black Hills and headed east, and, after making the obligatory stop at Wall Drug,

Wall Drug

entered the north end of the Badlands National Park. The Badlands is a very strange place. It is a large basin of volcanic ash that has been carved into canyons by winds and water over the course of 500,000 years.



The formations that have resulted are not particularly large (maybe 500 feet tall), but they are proportioned and shaped very much like the huge canyon carvings like the Grand Canyon in Arizona. Looking out over the Badlands, the cliffs and peaks that you might expect to be several miles away, are really only a few hundred yards away. We hit it just before and after sunset,

Badlands Sunset

(with a bonus almost-full moon rising)

Moonrise at Badlands

and the colors and shadows added to the effect.

After the Badlands it began to get dark as we continued east across the plains to Murdo, South Dakota about an hour east of the Badlands. Here we encountered a strange motel phenomenon. In this small town of perhaps 50 businesses, half of which were motels, they all seemed to be full. The first one shook her head sadly when we told her we had no reservation, and she clucked and sent us to one that she thought had room. We took her suggestion and drove to the other end of town to find a motel whose large lobby was decorated to the nines in overstuffed antique furniture, gaudy wallpaper, dried flowers, mirrors, antique dolls, and heavy drapery. It looked like it might have been a high-class brothel from the 1870s! The only room the concierge had was an outlandishly decorated (he showed us the pictures) two-bedroom suite each with two king-sized beds. He realized it was overkill for us (even though we’d paid more for a room on this trip), and apologized that none of the other rooms he had were available (he showed us their pictures also). Then he helped call around town looking for other rooms. He explained that this suite was available only by dint of a last-minute cancellation. We asked him what accounted for the high occupancy and his eyes opened wide and he said “I don’t know, it’s just always like this.” Out in the middle of nowhere at no particularly festive time of year (except that it’s summer). He helped us find a room at a motel in the middle of town.

On the way back through town, it appears that I forgot to come to a full stop at the town’s one crossroad stop sign and the local sheriff was none too pleased. Especially so since I didn’t know he was a chasin’ me and just went on my way to tha motel, hitched my steed up to tha hitchin’ post and moseyed on in to see the motel man. I heard a call: “Hey, come back here!” and turned to see the red-faced sheriff and his red-lit car lighting up the night sky (it clashed badly with the pink neon trimming the entire front and sides of the motel). I was able to disarm his anger within a few minutes by being as sweet and innocent and apologetic as I could be. We talked about the trip, and at the end he said: “Now what we have here is just a warning. You don’t havta pay a fine or go to court or anything like that, it’s just sort of a note that we talked about this.” And off he went. When the motel proprietor came out he was sympathetic and asked what happened. When I told him, his jaw dropped and he said “Gosh he hasn’t given out just a warning in over twenty years!”

“Now,” he continued, “the room is really small and it only has two small beds. And the bathroom is very small. But it’s clean, and I hope it will be OK.” It was late, we were tired, the room was fine, we slept.


One Comment leave one →
  1. victoria permalink
    July 31, 2010 1:04 pm

    You’re the stuff legends are made of!

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