Driving from Pennsylvania to Banff … Fourth Stop: The Black Hills

Rapid City, South Dakota is the gateway to the sacred Black Hills of the Lakota Sioux. The geography couldn’t be any more different than the Badlands, a mere 40 miles away. First, they are not really ”hills.” While it isn’t the Rockies, the elevations rise above the tree line in many places. These granite peaks, in some areas, reminded me of driving through Zion National Park … A little less red, but every bit as craggy

Most of these features are found in Custer State Park, a beautiful spot for vertical hiking, motorcycle touring, and just plain nature gazing. The first photo above shows Mrs Bear disappearing into a canyon slot. We circled around and came out at the lake you see in the second pic… Which is another massive change from the Badlands: ample water sources.

In other areas, the mountains are more spread out, and the granite domes reach above the tree-line. This attracted Gutzon Borglum, a noted sculptor, to select Mount Rushmore as the site to carve the four American Presidents that, in his opinion, represented the most significant events in USA history. Originally, the government wanted Presidents carved on narrow rock spires, but Borglum found this rock to be too fragile. He proposed to carve full-length Presidential profiles in the stone of Mount Rushmore.

Take a good look at the picture below … First, notice the granite debris that was blasted off the mountain and still lies below the faces. Borglum went down into the rock a couple of layers, and then smoothed out the surface before beginning the actual carvings. Second, notice that George Washington is the only President with a coat. The original plan was to carve the Presidents to their waists … But funding dried up as WWII approached and the plan was scaled back to include 60 foot facial profiles. Borglum died before the carvings were finished in 1941, but his son stepped in and finished the project.

Mrs Bear wanted to visit Rushmore just before dusk to avoid the crowds, hear the USAF band, and watch the lights come on.

So hiking the Black Hills and visiting Mount Rushmore was how we finished our day. But we began at the Crazy Horse Memorial, which as the crow flies is just a few miles from Rushmore. This project began after a Polish immigrant, Korczak Zialkowski, won a sculpting award in a national contest. This led to a meeting with the Lakota Chief Henry Standing Bear. Zialkowki was asked to consider carving a monument for the Lakota in their sacred Black Hills. WWII interrupted the proposal as Korczak enlisted and landed on Omaha Beach. After the War, he turned down government offers to carve memorials in the Allied cemeteries overseas, and accepted Standing Bear’s offer.

While discussing the project, the Lakota wanted the entire mountain to portray a carving of Crazy Horse … Ziolkowski realized he would never see the completion of the project in his lifetime, but he accepted with the proviso that the Monument would also provide educational and cultural programming to encourage harmony and reconciliation among all people and nations. Toward that end, Korczak twice turned down million dollar federal grants because he thought the strings attached to this money would prevent the larger calling of the Project. So to this day, the Crazy Horse Monument is funded exclusively by private donation.

Korczak was asked why he would devote the rest of his life to a project that he would never see completed … His response was that it ”gives me a reason to rise.”

It has been about eight years since our last visit to the Memorial. Our guide said that some returning guests say that they see no progress in the carving. But that was clearly not the case for us. We noticed that the entire mountain has been prepared for finer carving. A few years ago, the mountain was rather untouched below the level extenstion which would become Crazy Horse’s arm.

We become annual sponsors on our visits … Which allows us to ride up to the face of the monument and get the closest view possible. This requires about $175 for each of us, which we gladly contribute to the project. In fact, donating to this cause is at the top of my donation list.

Korczak married a woman who had come to the project as a volunteer. He and Ruth had 10 children. Most have stayed and taken leading roles in the project. A visitor’s center, museum of Native American art, and an educational center have been constructed. Visitors can tour the center and view the monument from afar … Or an extra $4 will allow a bus ride to the mountain base. These buses and our van do not run when active blasting is underway. So visiting on weekends is actually good.

I think we will join Korczak in the afterlife before his Memorial is completed. But it is certainly special to be a small part of its progress.

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