Noel and I like road trips. When we decided it was time to visit Yellowstone National Park, we made the choice to drive, rather than fly, to Jackson, Wyoming, where we would meet up with our tour group. We had booked a “safari” with Natural Habitat Adventures. We had traveled with Nat Hab twice before – to central Mexico, to see the wintering over of the monarch butterflies and to subarctic Canada to see the aurora borealis. The safari itself only lasted seven days, but driving at a relatively leisurely pace with several stops along the way expanded our journey to roughly 2-1/2 weeks.
We had driven a similar route twice before and had been quite pleasantly surprised at all the interesting places to visit along the way. Living in Chicago in the middle of the country where we fly to get to most places contributes to a kind of coastal chauvinism, that is, the subconscious belief that outside of the great city of Chicago nothing of any real significance exists except on the East and West Coasts. Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth.
Driving (which we share) to Yellowstone, however, requires some amount of planning. Noel always takes on that task. He tries to balance “long” driving days (5-7 hours) with “short” (3-4 hours) and non-driving ones. Our first day was a long driving day to Fairmont, Minnesota, “the bacon capital of the world.” We learned about Fairmont’s claim to bacon fame at the Green Mill Restaurant where the bar served bacon cocktails.
On our second day, another long driving day, our destination was a town in Wyoming burdened with the unfortunate name of Custer. Leaving Minnesota, we passed the turnoff for the “corn palace” in Mitchell, South Dakota. We had stopped there in 2017 on our second road trip west. In the late 19th century corn palaces were wooden structures decorated with all things corn as well as other local crops to show how fertile the soil was. The purpose was to attract settlers to the Great Plains.
Today the tradition lives on only in Mitchell. There the modest wooden structures have been replaced by a large multi-purpose community center that is redecorated most every year by three huge outdoor murals made with corn of many different colors, rye and sour dock, a kind of seedy perennial weed. All this, of course, attracts lots of birds which is the main reason the murals have to be redone every year.
The highlight of our day was a rest area off I-90 outside of Chamberlain, South Dakota, that I will never forget. We were privileged to see “Dignity,” a 50’ stainless steel sculpture of a native American woman that was installed in 2016 in honor of the 125th anniversary of South Dakota statehood. She holds a star quilt over her shoulders that is embedded with over 100 blue metal diamond shapes that quiver in the wind “like aspen leaves.” At night she is illuminated with LED lights. The sculptor is South Dakota artist Dale Lamphere and the star quilt’s designer is David Claymore, a member of the Lakota tribe. We weren’t able to see her at night, but one of these days we may drive out there just to see her lit up. She is also visible from the Missouri River.
While we were there, I had a quietly emotional chat with a woman docent about Dignity. While she was explaining the sculpture’s significance, she started to tear up as she cited South Dakota’s two other mammoth sculptures both honoring men – the four US presidents on Mt. Rushmore and the ongoing sculpture of Crazy Horse. Dignity honors the role of women, particularly native American women, in our great land. There is no admission charge to see Dignity, unlike the unfinished Crazy Horse figure. That work-in-process has come under criticism from some Native Americans who see the piece as disrespectful to the warrior and profiting only the descendants of the sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski who also worked on Mt. Rushmore.
In December 2017 Susan Claussen Bunger, an instructor of Native American social systems, wrote in the Sioux Falls Argus Leader, “She [Dignity] signifies people who have prevailed through the centuries. She represents all who resist and strive forward. She portrays a rallying cry for those who wish to be heard and valued. She stands strong and proud, meeting the morning sun and bracing against the nighttime cold. She contemplates the world through a pose of conviction and fearlessness. Her name is ‘Dignity.’”
Leaving Chamberlain to continue our drive to Custer, Wyoming, we passed cattle ranches and miles of corn fields that morphed into rolling hills punctuated by swarths of color created by acres of sunflowers and on this day the blue canopy of a big sky country. I-90 is surrounded by several National Grasslands parks and from it you can also catch a glimpse of the Badlands.
When we reached Rapid City, South Dakota, we turned off I-90 and headed for the Black Hills. In 1868 the US government ceded the Black Hills to the Great Sioux Reservation and forbade white settlements “forever.” The Lakota Sioux had taken the area from the Cheyenne in 1776. The end of forever came eight years later in 1874 when gold was discovered in the Black Hills and George Armstrong Custer was dispatched to take them back. The Lakota Sioux were eventually shuttled off to five smaller reservations and General Custer was dispatched into infamy by the resistance put up by Crazy Horse (aka Tatsunke Witko in Lakota) and his allies at the Battle of the Little Big Horn.
“Black Hills” is one translation of Pahá Sapá, the Lakota Sioux name for the area because the hills looked black from all the trees that covered them. Native Americans maintain the correct translation is “the heart of everything that is.” Unfortunately, a horrible 20-year infestation of mountain pine beetles has devastated the population of ponderosa pine leaving over 400,000 acres affected. When we were there two years before, we were told the infestation was declining. The beetle is native to the area and the infestation is apparently periodic. The first recorded one occurred in the 1890’s and lasted ten years. It’s pretty shocking to drive through this beautiful landscape scarred by acres of dead trees that look like there had been a monstrous forest fire.
In 2017 we visited the Crazy Horse sculpture and took a helicopter ride to see Mt. Rushmore, but this year our mission was to see the Mammoth Site in Hot Springs, South Dakota. Custer, Wyoming offered us a convenient place to stay for two days with good hotels and restaurants. The 40-minute drive to Hot Springs is quite interesting with grasslands blending in with the Black Hills still gorgeous in spite of the beetles. We passed prairie dog towns and the occasional buffalo.
The Mammoth excavation site is quite astounding, as is the story behind its discovery. The site was uncovered by a construction worker named George Hanson who was employed by real estate developer Phil Anderson to help clear the land for a housing development. Hanson’s son Dan recognized an unearthed item as a mammoth tooth. Clearly a man of principles, Anderson immediately stopped work on the site and contacted a paleontologist from the University of South Dakota to investigate the find. Later that year a complete mammoth skull and tusk were found. Anderson subsequently donated the land and all mineral rights to the non-profit institution that was established for the site.
What had been unearthed is a prehistoric sinkhole that had been formed during the Pleistocene era and fed by a warm artesian spring. The warm pond created by the spring and its vegetation attracted all kinds of animals from that long-ago era, some of whom became trapped by the steep sides of the pond and died there. As of 2016 61 mammoths as well as hundreds of other remains have been recovered. The site has the largest concentration of mammoth bones in the world and is an active excavation site. These are not fossils but real bones and, as a result, are very fragile. Many of the bones remain in situ which makes the site especially interesting.
The next morning we left Custer for Casper, Wyoming. The drive this day was pretty bleak through treeless country with no good food stops that we could find. We drove past lots of ranches but only saw the gates, no buildings, and several boarded up small towns. After settling into our hotel, we did find a decent restaurant and bar close by. We opted to eat bison quesadillas at the bar and had an interesting discussion with a local gourmand about the best way to cook bison meat. He maintained that bison meat is best when it is ground. It is too lean for steak and roasts. I agree with him. Our quesadillas made with ground bison were yummy.
Driving to Jackson, Wyoming, the following day, a Monday, we continued through the same bleak countryside as the day before. But as the miles passed, the mountains gradually made their appearance. Suddenly, on the shores of the Wind River some incredible red rock formations rose up along the barren roadside. Not long after that we reached Dubois, Wyoming, and the Cowboy Café. What a relief! I had a great lunch of Idaho trout.
Jackson was not far away. I was relieved to learn that Jackson is not named for Andrew Jackson but for Davey Jackson, a trapper who worked the area in the late 1800’s. From all appearances our hotel, the Lexington Hotel and Suites, looked great, located within walking distance to the town square and near lots of shops and restaurants.
The town square is famous for the four elk antler arches that act as entrances. The arches have to be seen to be believed and are a selfie paradise. Incredibly labor intensive, they are made up of 10,000 to 12,000 pounds of shed elk antlers and have to be replaced every 30 to 40 years because they deteriorate over time. The local Boy Scouts gather the shed antlers. Dubois also has an elk arch.
The next day was Tuesday. That evening over dinner at the historic Wort Hotel we met up with our travel companions and two Nat Hab guides Jean Lawrence and Sophie Mazowita.