Vacation Time: The Western Swing (Part VI)

We left Fargo and drove across Minnesota to our next destination.  When we planned the trip, we asked Richard and Russell what they wanted to see out west.  Mount Rushmore?  Check.  The Crazy Horse Memorial?  Check.  Devil’s Tower?  Ditto.  To my surprise, however, they also expressed an interest in seeing the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota . . . and that was our next destination.

After a few hours driving we approached the Mall of America, took advantage of the ample parking spaces provided, and entered the mall.  I’m not sure what I expected, but when we got inside we found a really big mall,  and that was about it.  Sure, it had an amusement park in the middle, and lots of stores on multiple levels, but it looked and felt like any mall found anywhere in America, just bigger.  There really wasn’t anything to do but shop, which none of us felt like doing.  After looking around for a while we hit the road for Minneapolis.

We had stayed in a few sketchy places on our trip, so we decided to splurge and stay in a nice downtown hotel in Minneapolis.  It was well worth it.  Minneapolis has a vibrant downtown, and we enjoyed walking around for a bit of exploration of another thriving Midwestern city.  We had a good dinner and went to see a movie in a downtown theatre.  The only unusual thing I noticed was that everyone out on the streets seemed to be smoking, which gave the place a significantly different feel than Columbus, where a public smoker is as rare as as an honest Chicago politician.

The next day we drove to Evanston, Illinois, to explore the Northwestern campus where Richard would soon be attending college.  By that time, we were within range of Columbus, and the pull of home had become irresistible.  The next day we got up earlier than normal, drove the final eight hours of our Western Swing, and happily dropped our bags at the old homestead with another family vacation under our belts and some good memories to treasure.

Vacation Time:  The Western Swing (Part V)

Vacation Time:  The Western Swing (Part IV)

Vacation Time:  The Western Swing (Part III)

Vacation Time:  The Western Swing (Part II)

Vacation Time:  The Western Swing (Part I)

Vacation Time: The Western Swing (Part V)

We left Cody, Wyoming in the morning for a short and leisurely drive to Red Lodge, Montana — one of our shortest drives of the entire trip.  It was a beautiful summer day, with a bright blue sky and high white clouds.  As we drove we encountered, yet again, the spectacular western vistas that had become an expected part of our drives.

Red Lodge is a former mining town that I had never heard of before I started doing the planning for the trip.  I was interested in going there because Red Lodge is home to the Pollard Hotel, an historic hotel built in 1893 that was recently refurbished.  When we got to Red Lodge, it was as if the whole town had been encased in amber in, say, 1920.  The Pollard exuded history and turn-of-the-century class.

After we checked in we drove out of town to find a place to explore the countryside, which has a dramatically different look and feel than the dusty landscapes of Wyoming and South Dakota.  Red Lodge is nestled in the piney high country, and we found a perfect spot with a rushing stream, a walking path that wound through cool pine forested countryside, and interesting rock formations.  It felt good to get out of the car and do some hiking, and even though it was a beautiful spot with national park-quality scenery there was no one else there.  The moment made me feel, for a short time anyway, like a settler moving through virgin countryside in the 1880s.

After our hike we returned to Red Lodge, had a fine dinner at the Pollard Hotel, and explored the town.  Kish and the boys found a fine candy store and loaded up on all kinds of unusual “penny candy,” which helped fortify them for the next day’s drive.  And it was a long drive — our longest of the trip, I think — that took us from Red Lodge, through Montana and the whole of North Dakota, ending in Fargo.  Kish and the boys, gorged on penny candy, dozed as we drove through the beautiful, open North Dakota countryside.  When we got to Fargo we didn’t seen any pregnant police officers or legs sticking out of wood chippers, but we did find a bar that served very welcome cold beer.

Vacation Time:  The Western Swing (Part IV)

Vacation Time:  The Western Swing (Part III)

Vacation Time:  The Western Swing (Part II)

Vacation Time:  The Western Swing (Part I)

Vacation Time: The Western Swing (Part IV)

The next morning we left Deadwood, drove west, and crossed the state line into Wyoming.  Our initial goal was Devil’s Tower.  It is another iconic location in the American West, made even more so by being featured so prominently in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  It is also out in the middle of nowhere, and it takes some time to get there, even driving at “western speeds.”

Richard at Devil's Tower

The long drive to Devil’s Tower is worth it, because the sight of the Tower is so striking.  It sits by itself in the rolling countryside, like a colossal tree stump that has been vertically clawed by a gigantic bear or a landing spot for the chariots of the gods.  It is visible for miles as you approach, looming larger and larger in the windshield.  When you finally reach the base of Devil’s Tower the impact is overwhelming.  The massive, grooved rock overhead, guarded by the rubble of huge stones that have slid off the rockface, has an almost physical presence.

Richard and Russell immediately began scrambling up the rocks surrounding Devil’s Tower, heading up to an area on the monument itself.  There are no fences to keep people away, just a sign that advises that climbers will proceed at their own risk.  No kidding!  Kish and I half expected to see bodies cartwheeling down the rocks after a misstep.  Fortunately, that didn’t happen, and the kids were, I think, exhilarated by their climb.  As they scrabbled up the rocky base of Devil’s Tower, Kish and I explored the surrounding area, which was interesting in itself.  The Tower is sacred to native Americans, some of whom had left little message bundles tied to the trees at the bottom of the Tower.  As the breeze moved through the trees dotted with the colorful bundles, my thoughts turned to what tribal life was like in the shadow of the Tower, long ago.

The view from our seats at the Cody Rodeo

After leaving the Tower and getting back onto the interstate we headed to our farthest western destination, Cody, Wyoming.  The idea was to see a true western town and a true western rodeo.  Cody filled the bill admirably on both counts.  After checking into a somewhat lame hotel just outside of town, we drove back to Cody, walked around the well-preserved downtown area, had dinner at an Italian restaurant, and then drove out to the Cody night rodeo.  What a great scene!  You sit in bleachers, drinking beer and watching some of the best rodeo found anywhere, complete with roping exhibitions, trick riding, bronco busting, calf wresting, and rodeo clowns. The smell of leather, dust, and animal sweat is in the air, the athleticism and skill is extraordinary, and testosterone levels are through the roof.

My sense is that many people drive by Cody, on their way to nearby Yellowstone Park, without giving a second thought to stopping.  In my book they are missing something.

Vacation Time:  The Western Swing (Part III)

Vacation Time:  The Western Swing (Part II)

Vacation Time:  The Western Swing (Part I)

Vacation Time: The Western Swing (Part III)

On the road into the Crazy Horse Memorial

We awoke to a brilliant blue sky and warm temperatures and then, stoked by a hearty breakfast, took a short drive to the Crazy Horse Memorial, which is still under construction and has been under construction for years.  We also visited it on the Webner family trip west in the 1960s, and it has made some progress since then, but not as much as you would think in nearly 40 years.  The Crazy Horse Memorial is much larger than Mt. Rushmore, and the kids actually thought it was more memorable than Mt. Rushmore.   Walking around the grounds of the Crazy Horse Memorial, you realize that, in a profound way, it sends its own special message about out country’s treatment of native Americans.  Why should it take decades to complete a monument to native Americans?  (Note to Congress:  if you are going to pass another stimulus package — God forbid! — we could do worse than contribute whatever funds are needed to complete the Crazy Horse Memorial.)

Kish and Richard at Custer National Park

After visiting the Crazy Horse Memorial it seemed like a good idea to get out into the countryside on a beautiful day and get some exercise.  We therefore visited the nearby Custer National Park, which is an enormous, largely ignored tract set squarely in southwestern South Dakota.  The Park has many different trails, and we selected one at random.  Almost immediately, we came upon an enormous, fly-blown pile of droppings.  At that point, Kish decided to stay back with the car, and the boys and I struck out over the prairie.  The trail wound through woodland and a skittish prairie dog community, past streams and rock faces, and during the entire walk we did not see another human being.

At one point, however, we did see, up ahead on the trail, what appeared to be a very large, very dead animal.  We quickly decided that the better part of valor would be to bypass that area, so we scrambled up a hillside and back down again a safe distance past the remains.  Still later in the walk the trail took us past a solitary, munching buffalo, which also caused us to loop around while keeping a wary eye on the shaggy beast.  When we finally got back to the car we felt like we had gotten a good taste of the real, unadorned West.

Our day ended with dinner and a stay at the Bullock Hotel in Deadwood.  Deadwood, of course, is one of the evocative names of the Old West, and Kish and I were big fans of the excellent HBO series of the same name.  I’m sorry to say that Deadwood was a real disappointment for us.  Sure, you can see where Wild Bill Hickok supposedly was shot, and the Bullock Hotel itself is an interesting bit of Americana.  For the most part, however, Deadwood seems like a sad mass of cheesy gambling establishments and tawdry bars.

Vacation Time:  The Western Swing (Part II)

Vacation Time:  The Western Swing (Part I)

Vacation Time: Waterfront Bars

What is it about waterfront establishments that are so conducive to a pleasant drinking experience?

A view from the deck at Banana Bay

Beers rarely taste so good as they do when you are sitting at a picnic table, gazing out at the surf from under palm trees and a thatched roof, and eating a hot conch fritter.  There are two good waterfront venues within walking distance of the Pisciottas’ home, and we’ve taken advantage of both of them on this trip.

To the left, about a 15-minute walk away, is Banana Bay.  It has a big covered deck with picnic tables that looks out over the broad sweep of Banana Bay and a sand spit that stretches far out into the ocean at low tide.

Chuck at the entrance to the Sand Bar

To the right, past Club Fortuna, is the Sand Bar.  It is a smaller establishment with a narrow entrance off the beach, two outside decks with good views of the beach and ocean, and a dim interior bar with a sand-covered floor and a collection of local characters.

Banana Bay is more of a lunch restaurant with a drink menu, whereas the Sand Bar is more of a bar with a few food choices. They are both good options for a cold beer on a hot day.

Vacation Time: The View From The Deck

The infamous Pisciotta deck

We’re down in the Bahamas, at the Pisciottas’ sumptuous home in the Shoreline development outside Freeport.  It is a fantastic, relaxing place where we always enjoy ourselves. So far, we’ve managed to eat some good Caribbean food, drink beer at several oceanside bars, and crash a party thrown by some of the many Brit residents in the development.

The view from the foot of stairs at the bottom of the deck

We particularly enjoy the sprawling deck, which looks out over the Atlantic and is well-suited for a breakfast talk, a mid-afternoon siesta, or drinks before the evening festivities.  It has a great view of the ocean, and when you sit out there, sipping a beer and listening to the gentle sound of the ocean, you can’t help but relax.

Vacation Time: The Western Swing (Part II)

We left Tea early in the morning, heading west on I-90. In the days before the Fourth of July, I-90 is a road dominated by campers and RVs, all heading west. The sun was bright, the sky was blue, traffic was sparse, and the exits were few and far as we rolled through the flat South Dakota farmland. Soon we reached one of the great outposts of roadside American kitsch: the Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota.

It’s not easy to describe the Corn Palace to people who have never been there. You park in a parking lot, walk though the maze of shops and souvenir stores that seem to guard the building, and then suddenly before you is a building decorated entirely in corn. And what a building it is, too, like a fantasy castle with Kremlinesque onion domes, turrets, pillars, and arches. Who knows why or how such a bizarre contrivance was begun — but it sure feels right when you see it. You admire the intricate designs and the countless hours that must have been spent affixing the corn to the facade of the building. There’s not much to do inside, except visit the gift shop and look at the pictures of the prior designs of the Corn Palace. To the embarrassment of the proprietors, one of the designs — I think it may have been 1919 — prominently featured a swastika, and the management therefore placed a sign underneath helpfully, and somewhat apologetically, pointing out that the swastika was a symbol also used by native Americans.

We then got back on I-90 and rolled west, driving hundreds of miles past towns like Kennebec and Murdo, until we got to the Badlands. At about that point the farmland has ended, and you suddenly realize that you are in the American West, in all its majesty and mystery, flaring colors and curious rock formations and plant life. The Badlands is a striking introduction, with its dead and eroded hillsides reaching out to the traveler like fingers. After being cooped up in the car for hours you have to get out and explore, hike through the hillsides, and stand atop a promontory point and look out to the far horizon, marveling at the endless apparently lifeless terrain. The Badlands provides one of those sweeping western vistas that makes you feel small.

After that humbling experience it was important to reestablish our priorities, so we drove immediately to the legendary Wall Drug in Wall, S.D. After seeing endless acres of desolation it was important to experience endless acres of consumer goods and knick knacks. Richard bought a cowboy hat, we took good looks at other western paraphernalia, and then got back on the road to Rapid City.

Checking out Mt. Rushmore at the end of the day

As the sun began to set, we reached Mt. Rushmore.  I visited there during the ’60s, on a family driving trip  out west, but seeing it again really packed a punch.  It is very cool to realize that we spent the money to carve the likenesses of four of our greatest presidents into the face of a mountain in the Black Hills, and that realization, and the mountain sculpture itself, stirs strong feelings of patriotism.  How many countries would tackle such an outlandish project?  In that sense, Mt. Rushmore not only recognizes Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt, it also commemorates the big-thinking, roll-up-your-sleeves attitudes that have helped to make America great. After taking in the view from the plaza we walked on a path that winds underneath the face of the monument, which gives you some interesting perspectives on the figures and the challenges involved in carving them.

Our day ended in the foothills of Mount Rushmore. We stayed at a hotel that also was an RV park. After having a hearty dinner we walked the RV grounds in the gathering dusk, admiring the massiveness of the vehicles, the cookout awnings, and the general partying atmosphere.

Vacation Time: The Western Swing (Part I)