Journal: Horsethief Campground North, Black Hills National Forest, Saturday evening, July 22nd, 2017
It’s a little before 10 pm, the last vestige of the sun’s light has left the sky. The starlight is somewhat obscured by the slight haze and the ambient light from this bustling, heavily populated campground. The children’s shouting and crying are finally quieting down but the teens and adults are still chatting, and some are partying. I chose this site, one, because it was available (it was the last one) and two, because of its proximity to the hike I have planned for early tomorrow, I’ll tell you about that after it happens. My tent is pitched for the night, my clothes are ready for the morning. I’ll be glad when the night is over and I can leave this campsite. I’m regretting choosing this spot because all the hubbub is breaking the peace and beauty that this forest could bring, and worsens the disappointed surprise I’ve been feeling since I entered the Black Hills.
The first attraction (as a street sign identified it) that I came across after entering the Black Hills from the north is Deadwood. This Old West town has been converted to a sort of quaint Disneyland of themey cutesy old-timey trinket-mall combined with Las Vegas excess. I’m sure that if I expected to arrive at Disneyland-LasVegas, I’d think nothing of it, or take it all in with the sense of humor that usually keeps me from turning curmudgeon. But for the last few days I’ve been immersed in national parks, monuments, memorials, forests, and other spaces that move one to wonder and contemplation and even enlightenment. They’re managed so as to showcase, and to protect, and to educate about the natural wonders or important historical occurrences that caused them to be instituted. When I saw that ‘Black Hills National Forest’ sign among the lovely pines across from a glowing red clay hillside, I was happily anticipating more of that since that’s primarily what I was here for.
But here on Deadwood’s Main Street, the greed for gold, which drove our theft and rape of this natural treasure from those who treated it with the leave-no-trace care that did much better justice to its grandeur, is celebrated without any apparent self-consciousness. The signs proclaim ‘Black Hills Gold!’ and ‘Celebrity Hotel!’ and ‘Gaming!Gaming!Gaming!’. I would not presume to speak for any Native American of the Great Plains, but I can imagine that seeing this screamingly cartoon take on the gold rush, for the sake of which countless numbers of their people suffered, died, and were dispossessed of the homes and ways that gave life its meaning, as a result of greed for that ultimately useless soft yellow metal… I imagine that if I saw this while remembering what happened to my ancestors, I would want to vomit or set it all on fire.
As I continued my drive, I passed tacky billboard after tacky billboard, loud recreational vehicles roaring by painted in garish colors, each casino and resort and gimmicky attraction following on each other’s heels with tedious regularity, my mood continued to slump.
As there was a just enough light left to get a look at one of my destinations, I followed the signs to Mt Rushmore. I arrived not long after sunset. It’s crowded and it cost $10 to park in the massive parking garage across from the monumental sculpture carved out of the rock of the cliff side (my magic annual national park pass didn’t work to waive the concession parking charge, as the signs refer to it). The parking garage is actually well-designed for its purpose: it fits a huge number of vehicles while not interfering with the view of the sculpture and directs the considerable traffic very efficiently.
Mt Rushmore is an impressive, beautifully executed sculpture. There’s an excellent telling of the creation of the Mt Rushmore sculpture by PBS’s American Experience, I very much recommend it.
I don’t care so much for the bust of creator Gutzon Borglum that I pass on the walkway to the viewing platform. It’s the work of Borglum’s son Lincoln, who helped sculpt Mt Rushmore especially in the finishing stages after his father’s death in 1941. It’s technically good but rather stiff. Except for the redeeming little smile on the lips, the portrait bears an unfortunate resemblance to those forbidding Lenin busts and sculptures so omnipresent in parts of midcentury Europe. Gutzon Borglum had talent and perseverance and sculpted many of the most important figures in American history, and I’ve encountered his work many times throughout my historical travels. However, I’m not an admirer of him personally either; perhaps that contributes to my impression of his portrait bust. He was a rather unscrupulous character and an unabashed white supremacist. I’ve no doubt he was aware of the incongruousness, even insult inherent in carving U.S.-presidential portraits into this U.S.-stolen mountain.
It was sort of a carnival atmosphere when I approached the viewing platform. Patriotic music started blaring over the loudspeakers, and I heard talk of a light show. I was struck by the lack of diversity in the large crowd: I could count non-white people there on two hands. Born and raised in Southern California and having lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for fifteen years, I always find a lack of diversity discomfiting. I am used to being around a wide ethnic variety of people and I love it.
I think about which of the four presidents would approve of their 60-foot-tall likenesses here. Washington and Jefferson: no, surely. Both were wary of the power of power to corrupt one’s character, and neither believed in deifying other human beings, especially themselves, in the way this extraordinary sculpture seems to do. I’m a little less sure that Lincoln would wholly disapprove: he did believe in the unifying power of symbols, and he was an extremely ambitious man, though I think he was one of those rare characters whose ambition did little to erode his integrity. On the whole, I still think he would disapprove. Of the four, I think Theodore Roosevelt would most likely to approve if it, with his outsize personality, love of power, and ‘great man’ theory of history. He was a committed conservationist and was instrumental in creating the National Park system, but I still think he might approve of this particular exception to the rule of forbearance when it comes to altering natural wonders.
After a short time, I left. I was in no mood for a light show. The sculpture is impressive and looks lovely in the low soft light of the evening, but it just doesn’t belong here in the Black Hills.
Journal: On Black Elk Peak, Black Hills National Forest, Sunday afternoon, July 23rd, 2017
I woke up refreshed and cheerful this morning. The campers, cabin vacationers, and partiers of last night are getting ready for the day. Their evident satisfaction with this beautiful morning after a day and night of fun made me feel more kindly disposed towards them, and I chatted with several of them while waiting for a shower stall to open up, including the hospitable couple from the campsite next to mine who loaned me their camp light last night to set up my tent by.I packed up my tent and drove to the Sylvan Lake recreation center, where there’s a hotel, cabins, and structures for boating and water sports, and where I’ve been recommended by a few people to start my Black Elk Peak hike from. The young woman at the front desk looked and sounded quite a bit like Winona Ryder, but taller, leaner, more what’s often called ‘girl-next-door’. She looked to me like a local and a hiker so I approached her; my guess turned out to be right. I asked her about the hiking trails to Black Elk Peak, and she hesitated. I assured her that I’m a sturdy hiker and was looking for the best hike, not necessarily the most popular one. Her smile broadened, and she directed me to ascend via Trail #9, the Black Elk / Harney Peak Trail, from the Willow Creek trailhead rather than the Sylvan Lake one. The former is longer and more strenuous, but, she said, much more spectacular. ‘That’s the one, then!’ I said. After all, I’ve gone all this way to do this, so best do it right.
She was the first person in the Black Hills that didn’t react negatively to my calling it Black Elk Peak. It was finally renamed by the U.S. Board on Geographic Names last year after years and years of protest. Until last year, it was named Harney Peak after General William S. Harney, whose forces massacred Native American women and children in the wars for the Plains. When I had asked various people for directions and advice or just mentioned my plans in conversation, the response was invariably a rather sour look and something like ‘Oh, you mean Harney Peak. It’ll always be Harney Peak around here.’ I realize people like familiar things to remain familiar, but I’m still disappointed by this ungenerous reaction. I mean, c’mon. We’ve taken these hills by force and trickery and are milking them for cash to this day, and we’ll never give them back. Let a little something of their sacred history be memorialized here, too.
Returning to my story, the woman at Sylvan Lake Hotel was right. I’m so very grateful that she sent me here. This 9 ½-mile out-and-back hike is glorious, from gently winding sandy horse trails through pines and voluminous wildflowers to steeper, narrower climbs between fantastic rock formations….
…. Continued later the same day: I stopped writing just there because I of a happy interruption.
As I was writing what you just read, I was perched on a rock near the edge of the peak with a very long, nearly sheer drop under my feet. At overlooks like this one, I like to reverse-Spiderman towards the edge, creeping face-up along on all fours so I can’t slip as I near it, until I find a hollow I can sit in. The depression needs to be deep enough so I can tuck my rear well into it and feel that there’s no way I can fall unless I really tried (this tactic allowed me to fully enjoy the grandest view possible of the Virgin River canyon at Zion National Park from Observation Point not too long ago). I took my photos from my perch and then was inspired to write. I was so absorbed in my writing that I was unaware of what was happening right next to me until I heard the tinkle of a bell and someone say, ‘Whoa!’ I swing my head around in the direction of these sounds and see a couple with their medium-size dog (the bell was on its collar) well behind me on the rocks. I swing my head back around again to the white shape they were looking at rather near to me on my right, also near the edge like I was.
It was a female Rocky Mountain goat, a mature one, with curved pointed horns. She was perhaps twenty-five or thirty feet away from me. I was surprised that such a large animal could come so close without my noticing, but I think the people who know me best would not be surprised. When I’m reading or writing, generally, I’m pretty oblivious to what’s going on around me. I carefully gathered up my things I had tucked into another crevice next to me, buckled my pack around my waist again, and backed up a little farther from the edge, moving slowly all the while. I wasn’t afraid of her since she was very clearly not afraid of me so long as I didn’t approach or make any sudden sounds or movements. She kept half an eye on the dog which was carefully restrained by its owners; it was quiet, tensed in riveted attention. After apparently satisfying herself that the dog was no threat, she turned her attention to me, sniffing energetically and edging herself in my direction, chewing her cud all the while. At a certain point, she turned and walked purposefully towards me, coming to a stop about 8-10 feet away. I’m only a little nervous, but not as a result of her behavior: she was still at ease. I was just aware that she’s a wild animal, she’s very large, her horns are efficient tools for ridding herself of enemies, and I’m near the edge of a cliff. It’s her natural habitat, but not one I could so navigate gracefully if I needed to beat a quick retreat.
We observed each other for quite a while at these close quarters. She continued to sniff: at my scent? at the snacks in my bag? and to watch me, sometimes looking at my straw-colored hat flopping in the wind. I could almost reach out and touch her: she was only about two steps and an arm’s length away. At one point, however, I coughed, and she shied away about ten feet.
After quite awhile, I decided it’s time to go. I was thirsty, and I noticed my legs were getting sunburned. I still had a long trek ahead of me, mostly downhill, but steep and very hot. I rose slowly to my feet, and the goat ambled a few more feet away. I looked back at her at the edge of the rocks as I leave. She looked grand standing there, ageless.
I wound my way back down, and the sandy trail sparkled under my feet. It’s as if the passing stars, in their slightly changed positions in each night sky, left a pinpoint of their glow behind, except where spilled moonlight stuck to the ground in the form of shining rocks and large luminescent pieces of mica. The trail is beflaked liberally in many places by thin little sheets of this translucent and opalescent mineral.
The trail was also bounded by exuberant sprays and stands of wildflowers. The wild raspberries were bursting with fruit along most of my course up and down. The ripe berries fall off their stems with very little encouragement and are as effortless to eat too. They’re so tender that chewing and swallowing are almost unnecessary: just roll them on your tongue then press gently in your mouth and they dissolve away. I must have eaten one or two pounds of them on the round trip.
At the bottom, I rested a bit, then headed to the nearest KOA center for some ice. I was soaked in sweat and covered in dust, the latter stuck firmly to me from the former. First I poured several pints of water over the ice, drank several pints of that down, then poured a warm bottle of beer from the car over the rest to enjoy that when I reach my next destination. I headed east on 244, then south on 385.
In the early 1930’s, Lakota chief Henry Standing Bear approached Gutzon Borglum with a proposal to create another monument carved into the Black Hills. This one would immortalize his cousin, the great warrior Crazy Horse, a leader of the victorious Native American forces at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876. Not surprisingly, Borglum turned him down. Standing Bear persevered in his search for another sculptor willing to undertake this massive project, and he found one: Korczak Ziolkowski, who had assisted with the carving of Mt Rushmore for a time. Standing Bear discovered him in a 1939 article about his prize-winning sculpture of the Polish pianist, politician, and independence activist Ignacy Jan Paderewski.
Ziolkowski thought the project sounded like a worthy endeavor. He worked on this massive sculpture, which already dwarfs the Mt Rushmore sculpture, with determination and single-mindedness for the rest of his life. He did preliminary work on the Crazy Horse Memorial throughout the early 1940’s when he wasn’t serving in the military, then arrived in the Black Hills in 1947 to begin creating the actual sculpture. He married and had 10 children during this time as well, and died 35 years later on October 20, 1982. His wife and now many of his children carry on his work. It won’t be fully finished for another several decades at least. By the way, it’s fully funded by private donations and the proceeds from entry ticket sales, so if you believe it’s a worthy project too, you can donate here.
After I arrived at the Visitor Center, I looked at a few of the several thousand interesting and beautiful artifacts and artworks throughout, and then make my way back outside to get a better view of the memorial itself. At the bus stop, I rested, waiting with the other tourists for our ride closer to the sculpture, not generally accessible by foot since it’s an active work site. I sipped my cold and watery beer, ate my beef jerky, and chatted with other travelers.
After I lingered at the visitor center and museum for awhile, I set off on my journey north and east to my next destination. On my way, I returned to Mt Rushmore, which was pretty much on my way, to see if I felt differently about it. The beauty of Black Elk Peak, seeing the Black Hills there as I longed to see them, and then seeing the noble and fitting endeavor of the Crazy Horse Memorial had left me feeling uplifted and inspired. Perhaps I could appreciate this work of art more fully and positively in my very different frame of mind.
No good. I still felt the same about Mt Rushmore as I did the day before.
To be continued….
Sources and inspiration:
‘Battle of Ash Hollow‘. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.
Brown, Dee. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1970
Crazy Horse Memorial, website by the Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation
Howard, Brian Clark. ‘Highest Point East of Rockies Renamed for Native American.’ National Geographic online, Aug 12, 2016
Jackson, Joe. Black Elk: The Life of an American Visionary. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016
‘Mountain Goat‘. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.
‘Mount Rushmore‘. Season 14 Episode 4 of American Experience, PBS
Neihardt, John G. Black Elk Speaks, 1932
Shaer, Matthew. ‘The Sordid History of Mount Rushmore: The sculptor behind the American landmark had some unseemly ties to white supremacy groups‘. Smithsonian Magazine, Oct 2016
Taylor, Alan. ‘Statue or Bust: Around the World in Lenins‘. The Atlantic, Oct 9, 2014