The center of the world

_C1_3223.JPGThis mountain bears the likenesses of some of the most influential people in United States history and took more than a decade to carve. It’s a striking and masterly monument, without question. But even more impressive, at least to me, is the other history tied to Mount Rushmore and the rest of South Dakota’s Black Hills.

From a geological perspective, some of this rock is about half the age of the planet. Some of it is the rounded and durable granite you see above. Other outcroppings have been squeezed and deformed, sometimes until the original rock layers are vertical, and sparkle in the sun with countless flecks of mica. All of it is topped with rugged pine and spruce that give the Black Hills their name.

As for humans, they’ve been living around here for at least 12,000 years. The hills are therefore heavy with myth and religious significance, including ties to Oglala Lakota creation stories. A holy man named Black Elk called this place the center of the world, and his people called Mount Rushmore The Six Grandfathers, referring to the earth, sky and four cardinal directions, which might make Rushmore something like seizing and then carving into the Sistine Chapel. The U.S. swore it wouldn’t take these lands but broke the promise because of gold. (The U.S. Supreme Court in 1980 ruled several tribes were owed compensation now worth more than $1 billion because of this, but they haven’t taken it, preferring to get at least some of the land back.)

Despite all of this, it isn’t hard to see much of the Black Hills as they have been for ages, even just around the corner from the monument.

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IMG_2719.JPG(Note the climber there in the lower middle)

The Black Hills also hold more wonders hundreds of feet underground, and I don’t mean that gold. Wind Cave National Park, about 20 miles south of Rushmore, holds at least 150 explored miles of passages that could connect to several times as many unexplored miles, according to the National Park Service. Those passages are often brimming with formations called boxwork — tangled, glittering, translucent blades of calcite about the width and sturdiness of tortilla chips. I couldn’t photograph it adequately, but try to imagine this coating the walls and ceiling around you:

IMG_2681.JPGSome chambers feature calcite in other forms, like spiky frostwork and little rounded blobs called cave popcorn, or, in this case, both:

IMG_2682.JPGIn the end, all of the Black Hills’ contents have something to offer. Just remember where you’re standing.

Thanks for looking,

Dan

Through the Wall

C1_3356.JPGSouth Dakota’s plains of grass and corn and sunflowers stretch smooth and gentle for hundreds of miles until they reach the Wall. Half a million years of water and wind have carved a jagged rampart here that runs about 80 miles long. In another half a million years, it’ll be gone. But for now, the heart of Badlands National Park looms over the ground like the steeples and rooftops of a petrified city. Their sides reveal around 70 million years of history, including millennia of human conflict and reverence that continue today.

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_C1_3379.JPGA loop southward from the interstate swoops through the park’s northern, busier half, giving the bulk of visitors a good sample of the land’s various personalities. One section near the main entrance holds a grove of junipers and cottonwoods, thanks to falling rocks that have compacted the ground enough to catch the rainwater they need. In other sections, erosion has gouged sharp ridges of chalky, crumbly, barren rock bleached enough to reflect a second dose of the sun’s heat. Toward the end of the loop, the smooth Yellow Mounds and prairie dog towns with thousands of yipping residents show a softer side. It isn’t all cuddly, though. During our drive, a coyote darted across the road and disappeared into one of the towns, then ran back a second or two later with a motionless prairie dog in its jaws.

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_C1_3399.JPGIt’s around this point that the road forks. Most people end their visit here, following the paved highway to the right straight out of the park. For the few who stay, the road forward becomes gravel for mile after brain-rattling mile. That was our path. A deeply sculpted butte with a spectacular reputation, Sheep Mountain Table, waited at the end.

The road cuts through pastures and actually exits the national park for a while, passing by a mostly abandoned, creepy little town called Scenic. We got there in the late afternoon, giving it an eerie sort of light. The strangeness continued as we crossed back into the park: The carved slopes in this single area sport countless mushroom-like formations that looked like a crop of foot-tall Stonehenges. They’re essentially tiny buttes, capped by rock that’s more wear-resistant than their skinnier bases. We were alone. A mile or so and the mushrooms were gone. The rutted road soon became impassable for anything but four-wheel-drive trucks. The last couple of miles would be on foot.

Somewhere along this final stretch, we entered the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, a century-old monument to the damage the United States has done to the Oglala Lakota tribe. Its residents are exceptionally poor and wounded by alcohol sold by the millions of cans across the state border in Whiteclay, Nebraska — an ongoing lawsuit by the tribe aims to put an end to that. (For more information about it, I recommend the University of Nebraska’s nuanced, well-done reporting here.)

The government pushed the tribe into this reservation as part of a treaty it soon broke by taking the sacred Black Hills nearby and other lands. U.S. forces killed at least 150 adults and children near this section of the Badlands in 1890; the Wounded Knee Massacre would be the final real conflict between the indigenous people of the Plains and this country.

This suffering and other cultural history have made the area sacrosanct to tribe members. Some have tried to work out a way for the tribe to manage this section of the park instead of the U.S. National Park Service, though the effort seems to have stalled. Still, showing respect while here strikes me as an absolute requirement. We walked quietly on the gravel as bright blue birds flitted around. They seemed to be keeping an eye on us, or maybe just keeping us company. Tantalizing vistas occasionally appeared to one side or the other, teasing what waited ahead.

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IMG_2634.JPGIt wasn’t until the last few dozen feet of the road, which ends at an overlook, that the full splendor of Sheep Mountain Table opened up around us. The only sounds were a soft wind rustling the junipers and some buzzing bugs. I just stood there for a few moments staring in slightly misty-eyed awe.

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IMG_2655.JPGI stayed as long as I could, but daylight was fading. It was the perfect ending for the day. We drove back to the hotel in Rapid City under the slimmest sliver of a crescent moon.

Thanks for looking. Up next, let’s talk some more about those Black Hills.

Nebraska

_C1_3166.JPGI was born in Missouri, but I’m from Nebraska. It was home from third grade to college graduation. I wrote my first essay, took my first photo on a digital camera, spent hours after school in quiz bowl practice, picked up a trombone for the first time, went to prom and grew up, mostly in a town right outside Omaha with cornfields down the street from my house. But I never saw the state’s Sandhills like this, splashed with millions of yellow flowers.

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_C1_3157.JPGOne-fourth of the state, or around 20,000 square miles, is covered with sand dunes held in place by a blanket of grass. These Sandhills are probably most widely known for their cranes and their ground water: The political fight over the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada, which has gone on since my college days, raged the loudest here thanks at least partly to the hills’ high water tables. The hills, as I found out, also erupt with native plains sunflowers when conditions are right.

Gentle hills and fields might what many people imagine when they think of Nebraska, but I spent most of my Nebraska years in the more urban east near Omaha and Lincoln. Almost two-thirds of the state’s 2 million people live in or around those two cities. Lincoln, home of good friends, my alma mater and the state’s towering limestone and marble capitol, was my first stop this trip.

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IMG_2613.JPGThe photographic star of this leg, though — besides the eclipse — was Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo. It’s been called the world’s best zoo, and I was always thrilled as a kid when I got to visit its aquarium and huge, living indoor rainforest. I’ve missed its vivid colors and relatively spacious exhibits since my visit to Tulsa’s zoo three years ago. I’ll never get tired of going.

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_C1_2779.JPGNext I swung by Omaha’s historic Old Market. Shops, restaurants and breweries line its cobblestone streets, including in one of my favorite spots, the Passageway.

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After that, it was back to Lincoln for a bit, then west and north through those old Sandhills. Much more rugged scenery in the Badlands and Black Hills of South Dakota was up next.