South Dakota: Where Presidents Compete with Tumbleweeds and Brontoburgers
Mount Rushmore is the main attraction in southwestern South Dakota, but there's considerably more fun to be had in the area's weirder, wilder parts
The only food at Wind Cave is sold in vending machines, and when we surface we're starving.
I'm excited to go to Flintstones Bedrock City, a campground in Custer with exhibits and photo ops, where you can actually order a Brontoburger. But the place is lame, in a word, and we head to Hill City, where we prepare to get an Old West photograph taken. The young women at Looking Back Photo (now closed) decide that I should be a "rugged cowboy" and Shawnda a "saloon girl." Let's just say that her credentials are more impressive than mine.
When we call that afternoon, Sage Creek Grille, another M.J. favorite, says we don't need to reserve. But we arrive to find there's no room. We sulk our way over to Pizza Works (now closed), where we sit outside and peer up at the glowing Custer sign atop the hill. For dessert, we split a satisfying piece of blueberry pie at Reetz's, also known as the Purple Pie Place because, well, it's hard to miss.
- Comfort Inn & Suites301 W. Mt. Rushmore Rd., Custer, 605/673-3221, choicehotels.com, from $133
- Sage Creek Grille611 Mt. Rushmore Rd., Custer, 605/673-2424, dinner entrées from $18
- Purple Pie Place,19 Mt. Rushmore Rd., Custer, 605/673-4070, $3
- Wind Cave National Park605/745-4600, nps.gov/wica, Candlelight Tour $9
- Flintstones Bedrock CityHwy. 16, Custer, 605/673-4079, $8
Day 3: Custer to Spearfish
The Comfort Inn puts out a nice breakfast: Styrofoam cups hold single servings of waffle batter, and there are two waffle irons in the common room. But we can't pass up Chute Roosters, outside Hill City, if only because of the name. The food is forgettable, but the owner's a charmer. Roberta Wilburn, who bought the place in 1998, tells us about the ghost who haunts the building, an old dairy farm. When I try to buy a Chute Rooster mug (it's a rodeo term) she can't find the key to the vitrine, and promises to mail the mug if she ever locates the key. I fear she won't remember, however, as she's quite excited about the Elvis impersonator who'll be stopping by that evening (note: The restaurant is now under new management).
And then, Rushmore. It might just be the world's greatest tourist trap--the idea for it came from state historian Doane Robinson, who in 1923 proposed that a monumental carving would draw more visitors to the Black Hills. It was a rare case of a historian actually making history. We're moved by the ambition and the artistry, but Rushmore is a bit of a yawner. Should it be seen? Absolutely. Does it take long? Not so much. We felt the same way about Crazy Horse Memorial, the Native American rejoinder to Rushmore, when we passed it yesterday. The scope is astounding, but we just didn't get much out of it--of course, we also didn't stop. Why pay $10 when we could see it from the road?
M.J. raved about a burger in Rochford, a blip of a town, so we take Route 17 out of Hill City. It's unpaved part of the way, and the Black Hills are beautiful. At times, the road runs parallel to the Mickelson Trail; popular with hikers and cyclists, the trail traverses the length of the Black Hills from Edgemont to Deadwood.
Moonshine Gulch Saloon, the burger place, is dingy and strange--words that can mean good things to me, but not to Shawnda. The ceiling is covered with business cards (including mine, now), baseball caps, snarky signs, all sorts of things, all coated in dust. We get a kick out of a rock next to our table. Painted on one side: PLEASE TURN ME OVER. Painted on the other: M-M-M THAT FEELS GOOD. The burger isn't bad, but the place freaks Shawnda out--particularly the photos of customers bottle-feeding a fawn next to an 8-by-10 glossy of a hunter holding antlers, the rest of the deer's corpse visible in his truck. She has to work up the nerve to go to the ladies' room. But not only is it fantastically clean, someone has written inspirational graffiti on the walls. It's perhaps the last place one would expect a quotation from Euripides.
While my obsession has never been as strong as the one in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, I've always longed to see Devils Tower, across the Wyoming state line. (The apostrophe got lost when the government proclaimed it a national monument, and all the bureaucrats in the world can't squeeze it back in.) Shawnda and I are heartened to hear that after climbers discovered that the tower is especially sacred to Native Americans in June, the number of climbers that month has dropped 80 percent. Scrambling over the boulder field at the base is enough climbing for us. We have a good laugh over the names given to the climbing routes ("Old Guys in Lycra"), the exhibit asking visitors to write what Devils Tower means to them ("It gives me the creeps"), and a tasteless T-shirt in a nearby gift shop ("I like it on top").