Day 33. NE/SD: badlands, dead men, presidents, gamblers

by Kevin May

My plan was flawed. I’d been aware of this for some time, but today was the day that I would have to confront it.

The west end of both Dakotas is in the Mountain Time zone while most of the rest of each is on Central Time. I wanted to visit Mount Rushmore this evening; Texas Jeff and Karen, on the basis of their extensive globetrotting, had implored me to see the Presidents by night.

This meant a drive of less than 300 miles with an additional hour thrown in when I crossed zones. This wasn’t so much the problem as the fact that I would cross back the following day, and be left with over 500 miles to cover and one hour less in which to do it.

It meant that I had no need to rush off this morning, and so I got up around eight and had a leisurely breakfast as Cheryl pottered around the house. I was particularly impressed by the jam, and complimented her on it. It was Very Berry Jam, whatever that meant.

It was an odd feeling leaving. I had only met Cheryl fifteen hours earlier, but I felt as if I’d known her fifteen years. It also felt more like I was just nipping out to the shops rather than driving away into the distance never to come to this place again.

As I turned the ignition, Cheryl came bustling out of the house carrying something. I wound down my window and she pressed a jar of the jam into my hand, as a present for “your girl back home” whose photo I had shown to Cheryl. This one had a sticker on the lid that read “Nebraska Food Industry Assn. WINNER. Jelly Division.” No doubt a fiercely contested competition, that one.

The road north to South Dakota continued to be eventless. Apart from the brief punctuation offered by Valentine, there was nothing to see but fields. I stopped to cash a travellers’ check at the Wells Fargo in Valentine. The cashier looked a touch flummoxed when I handed over my passport. As she nervously fingered the pages, I pointed out that the photo was at the back. She thanked me and then added apologetically that she’d never seen a passport before. Not even an American one.

Every now and then there was a cluster of trees that, at a guess, looked like they covered about five acres. Cheryl had been perplexed this morning by an overnight frost that had killed some of her plants. As I was crossing the state line, a voice on the radio confirmed that last night the temperature had dropped to 28ºF and that today it was expected to reach 92ºF. It struck me as quite a fluctuation.

To see the Badlands, I needed to turn west at White River on to a narrow twisting lane. It was my luck to get stuck behind a large cement truck that was moving more slowly than I would have liked, but fast enough for it to be difficult to get by. After almost thirty miles of jockeying, I finally managed to overtake.

No sooner had I got by than the road straightened itself out and stretched before me into the distance. I was whizzing along taking in what scenery there was on offer, when something red and disc shaped flashed by my window. It looked like a Stop sign, but I was over the junction and fifty yards down the road before I could obey its command.

I’d just jumped Highway 73. I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t seen it coming. I couldn’t believe how fast I’d been going. I couldn’t believe that I had just come belting straight across a main road with no right of way. I rested my forehead on the steering wheel and took a deep breath. Behind me, the truck arrived at the junction and took the precaution of actually drawing to a halt.

The Badlands could not be better named. As inhospitable terrain goes, this was even a notch up from the wildernesses of Nevada and Utah. It was a mass of craggy rocks and lumpy ground that looked like it was made of ash and concrete. There was no chance of even the Indians knowing this as a Land of Many Uses.

Wandering around it, I kept expecting the ground to crack under my feet. If the conspiracy theorists who believe that the Americans never really landed a man on the moon were right, this must have been where they forged the film. You could have put Armstrong, Aldrin and a lunar buggy down here at night and nobody would have known the difference.

With lunchtime fast approaching, I reached the Interstate. Before I set off for Rapid City, I wanted to visit Wall and the famous drugstore there. It had made its name by offering free iced water, a tradition that it still maintained, and with 30,000 customers a day it claimed to be the largest drugstore in the world.

Being a pedant, I noted that the pharmacy section was in fact rather limited, but there was loads else in the shop. It was enormous, but there were surely other shops in the world that were bigger than this. The major department stores for a start. It all depends upon how you define drugstore. If it’s a shop that sells a miscellany of old kak, then Wall’s claim probably had some validity.

Deadwood had recently legalized gambling on the condition that a hefty tax levy be put towards maintaining the town’s authentic western appeal and to pay for the main street to be cobbled.

Or at least that’s what my guidebook said. It seemed odd that a town probably most famous for being the place where Wild Bill Hickock met his end while playing cards – giving rise to the aces and eights that he held at the time being known as dead man’s hand – had only just embraced betting.

It looked like an interesting enough place, certainly more appealing than Cripple Creek CO, and so I looked around for somewhere to stay. I figured that I could have an hour’s wander around before I needed to set out for Mount Rushmore. I had gathered from the Visitors’ Center that it stayed open until eight.

I went to check out a couple of B&Bs that I had spotted earlier. There was no answer at the door of one. Nor was there any answer at the second, but the door was open. I walked in. It was a hair salon of sorts, but appeared to be someone’s front room. I came out and walked around the side to the door with the B&B sign. That led to the back of the same hair salon room.

I could see up the stairs and into what I assumed was a bedroom. A pile of clothes lay on the floor just by the door. I called out without reply. I passed up the opportunity to steal my fill of Paul Mitchell hair care products and left.

Before Mount Rushmore, I wanted to visit the nearby Crazy Horse memorial. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it was supposed to be impressive. I could see the outline of a man’s head on the mountain as I approached the barrier and paid the eight bucks for the entrance fee. I didn’t fully appreciate that this got me no closer to the (unfinished) monument than a hundred feet past the barrier.

If you wanted to get a closer look, you had to stump up another three bucks to take a coach to the foot of the mountain. You weren’t allowed to walk there by yourself. This piqued me somewhat, and on principle I declined to take the bus ride. Instead I took a distant look at the memorial. It did look incredible, and would be great when it was finished.

In the same style as Mount Rushmore, lumps of mountain were being blasted and carved away to leave the image of Crazy Horse on his crazy steed. I felt a bit stupid that I had not even realized that the work was way off completion. I also felt a bit stupid to have paid eight bucks for a view that I could have got for free from the roadside.

When I got to Mount Rushmore, I was glad to see that they were decent enough to be up front and give you the option. Eight bucks bought you parking rights and the opportunity to approach the monument as a pedestrian. The alternative – “remote viewpoint” – was free.

It was just as I had imagined it, only smaller. The four presidents looked just like the photographs I’d seen, which was hardly surprising I suppose, but they seemed tiny. Certainly Crazy Horse looked as if it were going to turn out to be a lot more imposing.

It was 6.15, and I’d been there, done that and taken the photograph. It was now a question of whether I sat it out until eight to see the after dark spectacular. A crowd was already gathering. It reminded me of my dilemma at Old Faithful, and I hadn’t regretted staying for that. I made up my mind to wait.

An amphitheatre of benches faced the monument, but I elected to stand at the back so that I could get away as quickly as possible when I’d seen the scene.

It started to get dark around 7.20, after arguably one of the most boring hours of my life. Next to me stood a large lady in her late thirties. “Have you ever seen the Presidents after dark?”. I wasn’t sure if she was speaking to me, so I replied with a tentative no and explanation that it was my first time at Mount Rushmore.

She obviously had been speaking to me, and she picked up on the accent immediately. Our conversation must only have lasted five minutes, but in that time she gave me a fairly detailed potted history of her life. She came from South Dakota but now lived in Columbus OH. She’d been to Mount Rushmore fourteen times before, but never after dark. Her mom and dad were still alive and well, living where they always had. He was a farmer. She’d gone to Ohio with her husband, but was now divorced. She had two kids, who were great. She worked as a pharmacist. She loved James Herriot books. She had difficulty keeping her knickers on whenever she met a man in uniform.

Her flow was only interrupted by the lights suddenly being turned on the faces by the flick of a switch. That was it. White spotlights shining on something that had been perfectly visible ninety minutes earlier. No colors, no music. I’d kind of expected a light show of sorts, but this was illumination at its most basic.

In truth, I was more entranced by the fireflies. All very nice, but barely worth the lengthy wait. It certainly wasn’t worth it given that I was still to sort myself out for the night.

I tried to break off the conversation, but was unable to until we had exchanged addresses. She told me that, if I were in Ohio in three weeks time, I should go to the Pumpkin festival. I told her that I would be there in six days’ time, and ran back to the car.

It had been an expensive day, and so I was more interested in cheap rather than luxurious accommodation when I got back to Deadwood. A motel called Thunder Cove was advertising rooms starting from $29.95. What’s more, deluxe continental breakfast was included, although I was unsure which continent was being referred to.

Before I was allowed to check in I had to sign an affidavit promising not to allow pets or smoking in the room, and to agree to pay $75 if I introduced either of those evils to any of the buildings.

The guy behind the counter had his patter off to a tee and ran through the welcome chat without breaking tone or pausing for breath. “No smoking. No pets. Breakfast from seven. Here’s a timetable for the trolleybus. Give 50 cents to the driver. No smoking. No pets. Would you like some ice? Here’s an envelope with a map and discount vouchers for places in town. No smoking. No pets.”

At least the guy in Delaware had had some personality. It wasn’t clear whether it was a one-off fine, or whether it accumulated to $150 if you engaged in both smoking and pets in your room.

The trolleybus facility was a bonus. It left and dropped off from directly outside the motel, and the next one was at 9.25. I dumped my bag in the room and rushed out on to the forecourt. I had five minutes to spare and so I sparked up two cigarettes and smoked them concurrently, in deliberate full view of the dalek on reception.

In town I headed for Big Al’s Steakhouse Saloon, which did food until midnight. It had been owned by a friend of Buffalo Bill, and Mr Cody had whiled away many an evening drinking and fighting in there.

This was not an establishment for the world’s most beautiful people. I was shown to a table and given a paper menu that was stiff from previous drink spills. Smokers puffed at every table.

I opted for the “filet” steak but when I gave my order to the waitress, she looked at me as if I were some kind of idiot. I had pronounced the “t” on the end of “filet” deliberately, so as not to come across as a gentrified ponce. “Oh, do you mean the fee-lay?” she asked with a laugh. Cheeky bitch. She was still laughing when she came back with the food. “What was it you called it again? Fillert?” It was obviously hilarious.

After eating, I took the remainder of my beer and sat on a stool by the bar. Just as I was finishing off the pint and contemplating another, a woman came and sat down next to me. She was wearing a short skirt and stilettos and her face was carrying an ungodly amount of make-up.

She opened her bag, took out a cigarette and then looked at me with a pout and asked if I had a light. She swiveled on her stool friskily, re-crossed her legs and ran her red talons up her calf to her knee. I couldn’t be absolutely sure she was a hooker but, if she wasn’t, I was prepared to bet she frequently got mistaken for one. Either way, I didn’t really want to find out so I quaffed and left.

Out on the street, I looked at the cobbles. They were very strange for cobbles. The road was made of small strips of red stone arranged in a fashion akin to parquet flooring. It was perfectly flat and smooth. I’d just call it fancy red paving.

I walked past a number of bars that were really just casinos. If I’d seen somewhere that appealed, I’d have stopped but nothing did. The fact that I was carrying a concealed tape recorder and probably wouldn’t have been the most welcome guest in a casino had nothing to do with it.

In any case, I needed an early start the next day given my schedule, and so was happy to wait when I reached the trolleybus stop. The timetable obviously was of very little use or accuracy. The trolleybuses just turned up when they felt like it, bang off time.

My motel was the last drop and I was back inside by 11.30. It had been my final taste of the Wild West. I could heartily confirm that these towns were not the places for vegetarian non-gamblers.

The next day I would turn finally and irrevocably east for home. It was a nice feeling.