The good news about Mount Rushmore is that despite being a cliche of Americana, it’s genuinely breathtaking. Spectacular, actually, especially against a bright blue sky with clouds as fluffy as George Washington’s hair.
The bad news is that you can’t clamber all over the giant sculpture, getting up Teddy Roosevelt’s nose or hiding in Abraham Lincoln’s beard as if you’re in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1959 thriller North by Northwest. They just don’t let tourists get that close.
But the views from the approach roads and public paths are great nonetheless, and it’s an obvious place to start a visit to South Dakota.
On first thought, South Dakota might appear too big and too obscure a state for a week’s vacation. But that’s where Hitchcock and Hollywood come in handy. Pick from decades of movies set in South Dakota and you’ll find legendary towns, incredible wildlife and tumultuous history, all within easy driving range.
Think of Dances With Wolves, Little Big Man, How the West Was Won, Calamity Jane, Hidalgo, Badlands, Thunderheart – all the anti-westerns, crime thrillers and murder mysteries. They make an excellent, if eccentric, unofficial travel guide.
There is a notable exception. For reasons to be examined later, you can ignore The Revenant, despite Leonardo DiCaprio’s Oscar-winning turn as a mountain man mauled by a bear in South Dakota, whose tale of human survival became a legend.
So. Start in Rapid City, which is small and does not move rapidly, but where some good food and the performing and fine arts can be found. Check off Mount Rushmore and the nearby Crazy Horse Memorial of a figure on horseback being slowly carved into another mountain. Crazy Horse was one of the great Lakota Native American leaders who, along with the Nakota and the Dakota, comprise the First Nation the US came to call the Sioux.
From the mountains, head for buffalo country.
The buffalo, also known as bison, were almost extinct by 1900 but just about hung on, and can now be seen wandering in certain parts of South Dakota – if you know where to look.
Driving south from Mount Rushmore is already a lovely experience of meandering country roads, meadows, forests and craggy hills with fantastic overlooks. And on the aptly named Wildlife Loop road I saw my first buffalo of the trip, staring at me placidly from the edge of the woods.
Eager to see more, I ventured on a whim up a random dirt side road, not far from Wind Cave national park, and hit the bison jackpot. A mile or two along the track, I pulled over and saw dozens of buffalo lumbered over the brow of a tree-lined hill.
Their aroma pungent and with dust falling from their thick coats, they tramped right by the car towards the setting sun, huffing and snorting as they went. It seems unexpected to find them in woodland, but it’s a miracle they are here at all.
To the east of Rapid City, the flat landscape that leads to the Badlands is dotted with old homesteads and ghost towns amid modern farms and ranches.
Out of level terrain, a 50-mile wall of jagged rock suddenly rears up, dividing the prairie with a wide, high rocky barrier, where it’s searing hot all summer and devoid of water and shade (hence the name). The area’s a national park now and it makes for a weird hiking experience. In the past, it was a dreaded obstacle for wagon trains.
This was also where the Lakota tried to escape from the advancing US army in 1890 but were pursued south to a barren place where their last hope of resisting the white man died in the massacre at Wounded Knee, where hundreds of Lakota men, women and children were shot in cold blood. The 1992 movie Thunderheart, with Val Kilmer and Graham Greene, is set in the Badlands, are both good for scenery and insight.
As a visitor to the Badlands now, there’s a bleak allure to the topography, especially when sunrise and sunset bring out the orange and red layers of the rocky pinnacles and bighorn sheep are silhouetted on the tops of little buttes.
Hiking into the heart of the outcrop is just freaky. Hot as hell, dry as a bone and full of rattlesnakes. But somehow the remoteness and tranquility are calming.
Or, I was calm, until a large snake in the tough grass beside the narrow trail reared up and shook its rattle at me angrily. I leapt into the air with a shriek. The warning signs posted at the trailheads aren’t joking.
Beside the road circling the park, it’s easy to spot pronghorn antelope and thousands of prairie dogs. There are even small owls, which live in abandoned prairie dog burrows and sit next to the holes in broad daylight, staring unblinkingly at the passing motorists.
You can experience both sides of the American coin in the Badlands. On the north side is the tiny, tourist trap town of Wall with its locally-famouslabyrinthine drug store full of trashy food and souvenirs. And just a few miles away at the Minuteman Missile site, now a national historic site with a visitor center, you can see where fingers were poised above nuclear triggers, ready to dispatch ICBMs from silos during the cold war.
The south side is a sharp contrast – miles of inhospitable land where the routed Lakota were bundled on to reservations. There are few attractions there and the impoverished towns are dispiriting. But on a lonely rise near Pine Ridge and the Nebraska border is an evocative spot. Here stands a pathetic, ragtag little cemetery that’s about the only memorial to the Wounded Knee massacre.
Oddly, Johnny Depp said in 2013, around the time of his controversial outing as Tonto in the Lone Ranger, that he wanted to buy the Wounded Knee site and give it to the Lakota. But it’s never happened.
“Their land was lost to them, replaced by the wretchedness of the reservation, and the buffalo were all gone,” reads a quote from the book Spirit of the Plains People, which is printed prominently on a display board in the Prairie Edge store in Rapid City, which sells excellent Native American arts and crafts from the region.
The remote hilltop at Wounded Knee and the surrounding Pine Ridge Reservation are certainly a far cry from the lush Black Hills mountains further north, where the Lakota used to roam freely.
“Take me back to the Black Hills, the Black Hills of Dakota, to the beautiful Indian country that I love,” Doris Day sang sweetly in the title role of the 1953 classic Calamity Jane. Or was it “that I stole”?
When gold had been discovered in the Black Hills in the early 1870s, prospectors, gunslingers, soldiers, hucksters and bandits had driven the Lakota out ruthlessly.
Your heart may bleed at the travesty even as you can’t resist retracing the steps of Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok to the bars and casinos of the Black Hills canyon town of Deadwood, where they lived it up, died and are buried in a large, leafy cemetery on a hill above main street.
If Doris Day’s screen number is too dated and ridiculous to whet your appetite, think instead of HBO’s dramatic series that simply took the title, Deadwood. The cult TV hit was brutally killed off a decade ago at the end of its third season. But legions of fans are still wistful for its raw depiction of a potty-mouthed, drunken Jane and her ilk in the poker dens of the feral town. Recent talk of a big screen version refuses to die.
Wild West tourist schlock notwithstanding, hiking in the vast area covered by the Black Hills is superb. There’s even a sign down one tiny road near the town of Spearfish that declares that scenes from Dances With Wolves were shot there, even though most of the action in that movie takes place on the plain.
And so to The Revenant.
Here’s the thing. The movie interprets the real life story of Hugh Glass, who was almost killed by a bear while on a trapping expedition near what is now Lemmon in northern South Dakota. He was abandoned by his fellows and defied death by crawling a hundred miles then rafting down a river towards safety. It’s an extraordinary tale, graphically depicted on the silver screen amid sumptuous scenery.
The problem is, all that gorgeous countryside was filmed in Canada and Argentina, not South Dakota. And a quick Google search showed me that the journey from Deadwood to Lemmon would be long, with nothing very interesting to see or do when I got there, and not worth the pilgrimage.
What to do instead? No-brainer. I turned to a different page, figuratively, from my unofficial Hollywood handbook and drove a short way into eastern Wyoming, to Devils Tower. This huge rock formation has always been beloved but became world famous when depicted as the landing site for the alien spaceship at the climax of Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
In the decades since that 1977 mega-hit, Devils Tower could easily have become Disneyfied and there are plenty of green-alien fridge magnets to buy around there. But the rock itself is protected as a national monument so it’s relatively unadulterated – and out of this world. And it was such an easy, pleasant drive back to Rapid City.
Even after a busy week I’d barely seen a fraction of South Dakota, which covers a daunting 77,000-plus square miles.
But with a population under a million and the vast majority of it flat as a pancake, I knew I’d seen the most interesting fraction. The camera doesn’t lie.