South Dakota - Great Faces Great Places

Presidents rock!


While driving from North Dakota to South Dakota we noticed a curious thing - the Dakotas span two time zones! Back in the day the railroad magnates engineered this time conundrum, it appears to have no rhyme or reason as we flipped back and forth from Mountain time to Central time. After a while, I stopped looking at my watch and started searching for a tardis.

We were on a mission - to reach the centre of the United States of America. For those of you who have read Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, it teeters high on the bucket list. Belle Fourche South Dakota is the “geographical” centre of the US, which means it’s taking into account Hawaii and Alaska. It was good enough for now, we would find the ‘other’ centre when we reached Kansas.

Off Centre

As we rolled into the sleepy heart of America we began to doubt ourselves, there was no indication it was the centre of anything. After a few “Wait, is that something, stop, turn around, no, no, keep going, wait, is that something..” we found a concrete compass of America with Belle Fourche marked as dead centre.

I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting but I wasn’t expecting the centre to be so low key. From the country who brought us Disneyworld, I thought there would be more fanfare and hoop-la surrounding the town’s claim to fame. That said, perhaps I overestimate how interesting the centre of the world, sorry America, is to people. Plus, a slightly miffed Dom kept quoting the plaque, that accompanied the compass, which pointed out the actual centre is just outside of town, not in the town at all.

"Made it, Ma, top of the world!"
Selfies snapped it was time for food. A scavenger hunt ensued with more helpful navigation from me “Wait, is that something, no keep going, wait…”. We found ourselves on Main St whose ironic take on itself made the stop worthwhile. A hairdressers with the name “Hair2Stay”, a restuarant called “Miki Dees” and a newsagents called “Man Cave” that also sold knives!

Man's essentials

We had found the centre of America (sort of, give or take a few miles, and taking into account the entire 50 states) it was hard not to get a little excited...and then promptly leave town.

We arrived into Rapid City, it was scorching hot, one of those times when you get out of the car, rest your hand on the bonnet and scream out as you suffer a third degree burn “Sufferin’ Succotash!”. Our hotel concierge advised us “Storm’s a-comin’”, I smirked in disbelief, flicking my eyes at the crystal blue sky and took my burnt hand to our room. An hour later we were hunkered down under the duvet watching the night sky set electric by a raging thunderstorm.

The next day, lovely sun out again, we headed to the Dakotas famous Black Hills. First stop, the presidential Mount Rushmore.


It’s a little smaller than I imagined but it was startlingly elegant. Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln all immortalised in stone. The sculptor was a chap called Gutzon Borglum (try to say that after a drink). He felt a monuments dimensions should reflect its importance so he scaled Mount Rushmore to be as big as the Sphinx and the Pyramids. It represents a person 475 foot tall. His objective was ‘permanence’ like the great heads on Easter Island.

It was impressive and it certainly looked permanent. I don’t know enough about dead American Presidents to fall week at the knees at the colossal sight of them, but I can appreciate it is a symbol of patriotism, and may cause all sorts of stirrings and surges in Americans. To appreciate the other side of the story we headed across the Black Hills to the Crazy Horse monument.

The Crazy Horse monument is the Native American response to Mount Rushmore. Chief Standing Bear asked a young sculptor, Korczak Ziolkowski (try to say that after two drinks!), to come to the Black Hills and carve into the mountain. The chief reportedly said "My fellow chiefs and I would like the white man to know the red man has great heroes also." Nicely put!
Big as a mountain!
Unlike Mount Rushmore, which enrolled 100s of locals and had government funding. Korczak started out on his own with one drill and dynamite he would carry around his neck, climbing over 700 steps up (and then down and up again, repeatedly) everyday.

Korczak spent the rest of his life carving the native American hero Crazy Horse into the mountain side. In his spare time he managed to get married and have 10 children. His wife took over proceedings when he died. Nowadays 6 of their kids carry on the family legacy. You learn all of this in a heart warming video they play for you when you arrive. Forget your Mom & Pop shop, this is a Mom & Pop Mountain Top! You immediately want to whip out a check book and bankroll that baby.

The monument itself is very much a slow work in progress, especially given its need to self fund, it receives no government aid so relies on donations and visitors to the park. You can clearly seen the face of Crazy Horse but there is a way to go. When completed it will be the biggest monument in the world and the grounds beneath it will house a Native American University and Medical Center. Even as it stands now all of the Mount Rushmore Presidents would fit in the face of Crazy Horse.

Past and Future

There is a completed scaled down shiny white version of the statue sitting pride of place in the visitors centre, you can see how glorious this monument will one day look. I was hopping from one foot to the other, eager to come back and see the finished man and horse but alas I can keep hopping because I doubt it will be completed in my lifetime.

After grabbing a very quick and very awkward photograph with a native american chap, dressed up for the visitors like a rainbow had exploded all over his traditional garb, we were ready to head back to Rapid City.

Rapid City is home to a genius idea that every city should immediately follow - Storybook Island. A free section of parkland devoted to characters from famous children's stories. Children (and their bigger versions) tear through the Seven Dwarves house, rocket down slides on the way to Noah’s Ark, climb the beanstalk with Jack, swing on a monkey, ride a unicorn, the inventive fun goes on and on and it's all free!

Stepping into a Fairytale
After we'd danced with the Wizard of Oz and read a story with the Cat in the Hat, it was time for more Rapid City outdoor ingenuity.
The Dinosaur Park was created in the 1930s to remind kids of the creatures that roamed this planet. Given the Dakotas are home to dino fossils and epic craters left by the ice age, it is an appropriate place to host a tribute to the bygone days.

You've some neck on you!

You drive to the tippy top of a hill that overlooks the city then trip hop up the many stairs to reach these fine concrete specimens. There are just 5 dinosaurs in total but it's exciting to see their long necks stretch high into the sky, keeping a watchful eye on the city below. From chatting to a few locals, they are frequently visited and a rites of passage for Dakotan children. Thankfully they should be around for a long time as they have a historical protection order on them.

Downtown Rapid City is alive and kicking. As evening set in we moseyed our way to the historic district of Main Street and St Joesph’s Street. Within seconds we came across a live music fair, passing through it only to come across a rival fair. Both were full of happy people of all ages dancing, drinking and just kicking back. Artists Alley is awash with clever graffiti and pop up back alley stalls selling jewellery (not the knocked-off variety you see hucksters in SF selling down back alleys, this was the homemade stuff, turquoise stones hanging from leather strips, teenagers ornaments).

"He's behind you!"
Given the city’s proximity to Mount Rushmore there is a patriotic vibe about town. Every block has a statue of a President on its corner, there’s something homely about seeing these Commander in Chiefs poised in brass, waiting for the green-man to cross the street.

Howdy Cowboy
The road beckoned, we sailed out of town and stopped at Wall Drug. A top tip from the one South Dakotian I work with (in fact the one South Dakotian I have ever met and an example of their famous kindness). Wall Drug was originally a drug store in the town of Wall (ya see how it all fits together), it has been family owned and run since the 1930s but to still describe it as a drug store does not do it credit. It’s a cornucopia of Wild West Americana and a famous road side stop. We ate ice cream, popped into a church for weary travellers, bought Roisin a native american drum, sat on a cattle wagon, and slapped a cowboy on the knee… all in a drug store!

America’s best kept secret are it’s National Parks. They rival natural beauty that you’ll find anywhere in the world. We were not disappointed by the Badlands National Park. It’s vast canyons and tangled flora and fauna are jaw dropping (we saw a mountain goat meander to a mountain edge where one sunflower grew, he sniffed it and moved on).

Simple beauty
The word ‘Bad’ in the name is a misnomer, certainly in terms of aesthetics, perhaps if I tried to travel across the plains I’d have a few choice badwords to describe it myself. ‘Badlands’ came from the first French settlers who described the lands as ‘les mauvaises terres a traverser’, the complaint stuck.

There are buttes as far as the eye can see (calm down, that's a geology term). The rocks have bands of colours that shift and shine in the sun shine, remarkable.

We drove long and hard through the prairies, got lost and finally found ourselves at the site of the Massacre at Wounded Knee. It was here that hundreds of native Americans were slaughtered by the cavalry.

When we stopped the car a local woman came out of nowhere laden with beads and dream catchers. She told us eloquently of her grandmother’s tale of the massacre, she had witnessed her family being killed as she hid and watched. The woman spoke of the white man's historical broken promise to return the lands to the natives and of the white man's current broken promise to provide finances and resources for their communities.

As she told her horrifically sad story, I looked out over the field where the Massacre occurred and wished that more people would come and take stock of the atrocity of ethnic cleansing that happened in almost living memory.
Catchin' dreams

Deeply moved and with a dreamcatcher for Roisin to go with her drum, we moved on. By complete accident we stumbled across a genuine ghost town. The boarded up saloon with the sign "Lakota Indians Allowed" and animal heads hanging from its sign, the iron cage, presumably a jail, lying open. It was spooky as all hell.

A memorable end to South Dakota as we crossed the border into Nebraska.



  1. More about the ghost town Sheilagh!!
    Really enjoyed this post!?


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