Apache Junction Seekers

Al and Linda enjoy visiting new places and having new experiences. In 2006, we spent 4 months in Europe and originally created this blog to keep friends and family informed. After a long delay, I'm trying to catch up with what we've been doing since then and hope to carry on into the future.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

It was still raining in Wisconsin, so it had been a good choice to change our plans. We spent one night at the state park outside Chadron, Nebraska, then headed due north toward the Black Hills. Another Smithsonian Magazine article, this one less than a year old, had featured something called The Mammoth Site. We were in the area and who could resist? You can see from the photo that it’s hard to miss the entrance.

Besides its paleontological significance, The Mammoth Site is a marvelous example of cooperation, civic pride, and inventiveness. The actual location, almost right in the middle of the town of Hot Springs, SD, was in the process of being graded for a planned residential subdivision when a bulldozer unearthed a giant bone and the operator stopped. The developer called in an expert from Chadron State College, just down the road in Nebraska, who identified the bone as being from a mammoth. The developer gave permission for some survey work to determine if there was anything else of significance and when this survey indicated that the site was full of mammoth bones, he decided to stop the development. Note that he didn’t have to do this because they were old animal bones, not humans. A non-profit was formed to buy the land from the developer at his cost and he ultimately became a huge supporter of the museum. His only stipulation was that the bones stay in South Dakota and not be shipped off to some faraway museum warehouse. The inventiveness came in when it was decided to leave most of the bones in situ, in other words, where they were found. When you enter the museum on the guided tour, you are on elevated walkways that provide great views of the bones, although I didn’t manage to get any great photos.

The bones sit on pedestal-like protrusions of the original material, formed by further excavation around each collection of bones. This grouping is the skeleton of an almost complete mammoth, missing only its head. It doesn’t take an expert to see the skeleton, but it certainly took many experts to come up with the plan for displaying the finds. You get a whole new appreciation for how the excavation is performed. There is also a museum wing with a fiberglass replica of a full-size mammoth and one of a complete skeleton as well as information about some of the other fauna that was unearthed at the site. Well worth a stop if you’re ever in the Black Hills.

We knew that the Black Hills were a major tourist attraction, but it had been some time since we had seen anything like it. Everyone has seen Mt. Rushmore, in the movies or travel photos if not in person. We have flown our plane over it at a low elevation (under the guidance and permission of the control tower at nearby Ellsworth Air Force Base) and we’ve driven to it. It had been a few years, however, and while the faces themselves haven’t changed, the crowds have swelled and there is now a parking structure with a $10 fee for parking and cars lined up for the privilege. On the same flight, we had flown over the Crazy Horse memorial and I have the photos to prove it. Alas, in the intervening decade it’s hard to see much progress on such a giant rock carving except for possibly refining the facial features, a massive project in itself but only a small part of the intended end result. Here’s what it looks like today from the parking lot. I think it's going to be a multi-generational project and none of us will see it to completion. You have to admire the vision of the sculptor even if you might not agree that this is something appropriate to do. But what the heck, I guess the local Native Americans think it's OK and you know how they are quick to take exception to things.

There are a number of caves in the area, two of which are operated by the US Park Service and others boasting of their particular greatness are privately operated. There is a Reptile Garden with a huge parking lot that was almost full. There is the Mystery Area, numerous ghost towns, Lead and Deadwood, Sturgis, on and on. Everyone wants to get your money during the short summer season. And apparently everyone but us is willing to cooperate and spend, spend, spend. We looked at the open pit of the Homestake Mine but couldn’t see any point in taking a “surface tour”, whatever that might be. When you live in Arizona, you’ve seen mines and even if this one yields gold instead of copper, it’s still just a big hole in the ground, as you can see in the photo.

I'm not sure where the idea of creating identical fiberglass molds of an animal and then having artists decorate them originated, but the small town of Custer SD has enthusiastically embraced the concept as you can see from these samples.

Faux -Western towns all start to look alike but there are plenty of people who are entertained by wandering along the boardwalk, looking for a souvenir. When you are retired and on an open-ended trip, you don’t have to make every minute of your vacation count. We get more pleasure from the doe and her two spotted fawns, who graze around our RV site just outside of Custer, or the pair of wild turkeys who shepherd their three young through the RV park.

My theory is that the Black Hills are so popular because a) they are so central to most of the country and b) they are on the way to Yellowstone for anyone living to the east and c) they are lovely but not particularly threatening like some of the wilder portions of the Rockies and Cascades.

A word about Custer, the general that is. How come all these cities, counties, parks, national forests, etc. are named for the guy who lost the battle? At least they’ve changed the name of the battlefield site to the Little Bighorn Battle Monument.


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