Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Mount Rushmore

Mount Rushmore is one of the most popular tourist sites in South Dakota (there are not many) and is also famous for being featured in one of my favourite Hitchcock films “North by North West” (1959).

It is impressive and very popular with Americans and the National Parks Service have managed to keep its iconic image reasonably well. The immediate area around Mount Rushmore however (the town of Keystone in particular) is horrible – please feel free to substitute “horrible” with any stronger word you know which covers terrible tourist tat, pseudo Americana, ugly architecture, every fast food low quality restaurant you can think of and much more. We went through it once and could not face going back there to take pictures to show how horrible it is.

Mount Rushmore Scale

Our first two images were from the road some miles away

George Washingtonand there is a special pull-in on the road to enable you to marvel at George Washington’s profile (his nose is 21 ft long).

Run by the National Parks Service, whilst it is free to go into, there is a charge of $11 for parking (and there is no public transport which goes to the park) so unless you walk in, you have to pay. Never-the-less the parking facilities are good, something we have come to appreciate when we are driving a vehicle 25ft long.

State Flags

Thousands of visitors pass between the state flags of America

Crowds looking

before arriving at a balcony facing the four presidents

Two tourists

including these two visitors.

Four presidents

To give it some scale, each eye is 11 ft across, the faces are 60 ft tall, the noses 20 ft long. In the “Sculptor’s Workshop”

12th scale

there is a 1/12th size model of what it was originally going to look like (note the clothing on Washington and the hands etc). A Ranger explains to us how the model was used to ensure that the sculptures on the mountainside were completed to scale using a pointer system first used by the Egyptians

Lincoln head

and also how the sculptor Gutzon Borglum suspended copies of each of the President’s faces in front of the faces on the mountainside so that the workman could remind themselves what the finished face was supposed to look like.

We also learned a pub quiz trivia fact

Jefferson Icecream

that President Jefferson was not just the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, he also wrote down the first recipe for Ice Cream in the United States. His ice cream is sold at Mount Rushmore!

The Cafe at Mount Rushmore featured in one of the closing

NBNW Restaurant with Presidents

scenes in North by North West so we had to

NBNW Restaurant

go there and have a drink and a little something. If you know the film you will recognise the fireplace and the windows through which the presidents can be seen..

Custer State Park

Having stayed a number of nights in proper camp sites, it is off to Custer State Park and a night out at a wild forest campsite even though the storms clouds are gathering

Sylvan Lake

and our walk around Sylvan Lake in the park which is noted for its beauty, starts out dry

Sylvan Lake-1

but we soon  we get absolutely soaked.

The following morning as we leave early to start a 1000 mile drive eastwards, the scene is very different,

Sylvan Lake

and the Custer State Park Bison are more keen on licking salt up from the side of the road than keeping an eye out for traffic.

Custer State Park Buffalo

Most of the I90 going towards Chicago is straight with two lanes in each direction

Long Road Ahead

and is boring drive. The land is flat and the fields are the largest we have ever seen but we have to travel this route in order to visit old haunts in Chicago.

However we do have Times Crosswords and a recording of Great Expectations to keep us occupied.

Monday, 29 July 2013

The Badlands and Missiles

South Dakota is mostly flat and empty and it is these features which make it possible to go and see a nuclear missile base out in the middle of nowhere.

On our way to see it, we dropped in at the Wall Drug Store – anyone who has driven the I90 will have noticed

Wall-1 Wall

hundreds of adverts for this store which was founded in the 1930s specifically to bring people to the town of Wall which then was famous for nothing.

Walls Drug Store

It started as one store and gradually expanded to be numerous shops on both sides of the street.

Walls Advert

It plays a lot on being an (now commercially driven) “Old Time Folksy and Friendly” place with free iced water for anyone and a free donut and cup of coffee for couples on

Wall for Honeymooners

their honeymoon (I am not sure if it is one each or one to share).

Old Timers-1 My wife is looking

but does sell the essential thing we wanted to purchase

Elk 2 Elk 1

for our Christmas tree – namely a Christmas Elk with bouncing legs labelled “A gift from South Dakota”. It also sells thousands of less useful items such as books, toys, gold nuggets and more.

The Badlands

Badlands entrance

Because we were here, we decided to divert through the Badlands. We had heard of the the name and they had featured in a number of westerns we had seen over the years but we had no idea what they were – what a surprise they turned out to be.


Called Badlands both by the Lakota Indians and also early French Trappers, they are 250,000 acres of sedimentary volcanic landscape which are hot and dry during the summer and cold, windy and snowy in the winter.


They also have a few other hazards.

Badlands one shot-1

Although there are some flat prairies in the Badlands,

Badlands one shot

there are numerous buttes, gullies and gulches


and as we drove around, we were astonished at the harsh beauty


of a landscape shaped by erosion. We could see numerous cracks and crumbling edifices and it was obvious that it is continuing to change.


As a native of South Dakota said to me, “there ain’t much out here to hit with a nuke so this is the best place to put a missile base”.

Back in the 1960’s at the height of the Cold War, America placed over 1000 nuclear tipped missiles in its most isolated heartland areas for use in a retaliatory strike. It was said that all of them could be launched within 5 minutes of the command being given and since they were 30 minutes missile flight time from Russia, at least they would have their retaliation in the air before the USA was destroyed. By then of course the United Kingdom would have been destroyed because we were only a few minutes missile time from Russia but we would have been happy to know that the Americans would have been retaliating for us.


Now there are only 500 (!) armed and ready to be fired missiles scattered across the plains and a couple of the old missile bases have been turned into visitor attractions run by the National Parks Service and anyone can turn up and have a look around. On the map above, the black bases have been decommissioned and the red ones are still active.

Missile advert

In the Minuteman Missile National Parks Office is a spoof advert for the Missile Wing which has a certain macabre feel about it. Visiting an old Missile Site is not easy, you first have to go to the office at a Gas Station (near 131 on I90) to get a ticket if there any left, then drive to the old Missile Base which is a few miles away at the appointed time.

The way our defence was organised was that there were


a number of Launch Control Facilities scattered around the prairies.


If your broke (or tried to break) in to one of these bases, you risked being shot dead as this warning notice tells you.


The bases were manned by around 10 people at any one time (two to fire the missiles, a cook and a number of guards).


They were connected to the outside world by underground cables and radio aerials contained within the above structure – if communication ceased via cables then they would assume that the worst may have already started and raise the aerials which were in this silo and attempt to contact their superiors.

Missile-5 Missile-6 Missile-7

Underground at all times were two missilers whose job was to fire the missiles on receipt of the appropriate command from the President or from an aircraft circling the US manned by a General (for use in case the President was dead). There were no missiles at the base, these were scattered around the prairie at unmanned underground missile silos.

The base is preserved exactly as it was when it closed – the games on the tables are those which the missilers (and other staff) played, the videos which they watched, the beds they slept in, all of the furniture is original – everything has been preserved.

It is possible to go down to the actual control room where the missilers were on duty and see the keys which were to be turned to fire the missiles. Unfortunately our tickets did not cover that  because by the time we had got to the office, that day’s allocation had already been distributed and only 6 people are taken down each hour.

Elsewhere off the I90  near Exit 116 is missile silo D9


which we also visited – this was one of 10 controlled from the Launch Centre we had visited earlier.


A protective window has been placed over the missile silo so that not only can we see into it but also passing Russian satellites can see into the silo. When we arrived, the window over the silo was being cleaned by a Park Ranger.


Inside the silo is what used to be a missile – now it is a training missile. Had it been launched and exploded on a target, its explosive power would have been more than half of all of the bombs used in WWII.


The silo door has been moved back so we can see down the silo – originally this would only have happened when they were loading the silo and also if the missile is to be fired..


The irony of this photograph is that the Ranger cleaning the window over the missile has recently come to the USA and become a US citizen. She had been living in the Ukraine before she came here and had been a Ukrainian citizen and therefore part of the population block protected by the missiles which this one was supposed to deter the Russians from firing!

A most unusual National Park.

Sunday, 28 July 2013

Our first and only Parade and Rodeo

Deadwood Entrance

Deadwood is a small town in South Dakota which is known for:

  • being the burial site of Wild Bill Hickok
  • being the burial site of Calamity Jane
  • the whole town being a National Monument
  • being the site of the annual “Days of 76 Rodeo” and Parade
  • having more Casinos than is good for any place

We are going there for the first four of the above – casinos will have to wait until we get to Las Vegas.

The parade is typical of a small town parade with people sitting down on the side of the street watching people they know pass by in the parade, everything being good natured and relaxed.

Parade 1

The parade starts with the National and State flags passing by (everyone stands)

Parade 2

and then the first of a number of marching bands

Parade 3

carriages of the sort which used to bring ladies into town

Parade 4

and a modern carriage with a native Indian perched precariously on top throwing candies (aka sweets) to all of the children

Parade 5Parade 6

and then numerous people dressed as themselves, or as somebody else or as a scene from history

Parade 7Parade 8Parade9Parade 11Parade 12Parade 13

Parade 10

or simply showing us that they can ride a long horned bull

Parade 14Parade 15

and then there was a selection of cars from all years and it finished with the Road Sweeping machine cleaning up deposits! It was nice to see it because it was totally relaxed with everyone having a good time and the children collecting enough of the sweets thrown at them to give them a sugar overload for the next month.

Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane

Above the town is Mount Moriah Cemetery where many of those who lived in the town during its past are buried.

Cemetery Sign

The road up to the cemetery passes a number of houses which were probably there when some of the early occupants were buried

House 1House 2House 3

and the graves of the two most celebrated occupants

Grave Signs

are marked with large plaques


and for Bill Hickok, a bust surrounded by offerings from his admirers which when we were there seemed to be lots of miniatures of whisky and strangely, a pair of sunglasses

Calam 1Calam 2

and something more sedate for Calamity Jane whose offerings were mainly money, presumably a recognition of her trade. It is impossible to see either of these and not to start humming “The Deadwood Stage is a coming over the hill……….”

High 1

Downtown Deadwood has been largely preserved but just to show that planners can make the same mistakes in any country, a few horrible modern totally out of place buildings have been inserted between 1800s originals (they do not deserve a photograph here).

High 2

Many of the original buildings are now casinos or selling to tourists

High 3

One building which has remained as it was in the 1800s is “Saloon No 10” where Will Bill Hickok was playing cards when he was murdered.

Saloon 10Saloon 10-1

The chair he was sitting in is preserved in a glass case over the door

Saloon 10-3

and inside, the bargirls are dressed as they might have been back in the old days

Saloon 10-4

and the floor is covered with sawdust just to give it the correct feel. We had to have a drink in there for reasons of research.


We had taken to riding down to town from our campsite at Whistlers Gulch on the bus and we were somewhat startled when the driver announced “we are going to have to divert, there is a gun fight going on” until we realised that it was one of the many re-inactions for tourists! Hopefully they were better than that at Cody.

The Days of 76 Rodeo

The Rodeo takes its name from the fact that in 1876 there was a gold rush to Deadwood because of discoveries nearby. Rodeos are a serous business and those that ride (perform) in them can earn significant money in prizes.

The Rodeo started off with the Pledge of Allegiance and a general veneration of all that it is to be an American and in this case, a farmer and rancher.

It was then announced that “Paul Harvey will address the Rodeo” ! I had not been warned about this and was rapidly thinking of what I was going to say when I realised it was not me but a famous (but now dead) broadcaster called Paul Harvey who was based in Chicago who was to address the Rodeo. I first encountered my alter-ego when I first came to the USA some 43 years ago and everyone then (as they have repeatedly done this trip) said to me “Do you know you share…..”.

However, half way through the Rodeo, an announcement was made over the Public Address system by the commentator, “I understand there are two people from London England here, would they like to stand up and give us a wave?” And so we did to a general round of applause. It turned out that the person next to me who had been explaining to us what was happening in each round had slipped off to the commentary booth and suggested they make an announcement.

During the rodeo we saw a number of different events including: Bull Riding – bulls are not normally known for their willingness

Rodeo 17

to be ridden and the rider has to stay on them for 8 seconds. He is judged according to how much effort the bull put into throwing him off and his style in staying on. If the bull is adjudged to have made insufficient effort, he is disqualified but given another chance if he wants it.

Rodeo 18

Having thrown off their rider (either before or after the 8 seconds), the bull usually shows its annoyance by chasing anything it can see in the arena and generally jumping around quite alarmingly. Other riders have the job of guiding the bull back into a cage at one end of the arena, sometimes lassoing it and making it fall to the ground until it realises resistance is useless. 

The Tie Down Roping event most impressed me because to be successful, it required not just the cowboy to show his skills but also the horse to play its part. A calf is let loose from a crush cage and it makes a bid for freedom

Rodeo 11

by running as fast as it can. The cowboy has to give it a heads start

Rodeo 12

and then chases after it and has to lasso it. If he does not give it a good enough start, he earns a time penalty and if he does not lasso it he gets disqualified.

ROdeo 13

Having lassoed it, he dismounts whilst the horse and the calf are still running,

Rodeo 14

runs to the calf, and has to throw it on its back

Rodeo 16-1

and tie its legs together. The horse has to stop the calf running forward and walks backwards whilst the cowboy is dealing with the calf, keeping the lasso rope just taut enough. The cowboy who accomplishes all of this in the shortest time wins.    

Rodeo 9

Steer Wrestling requires a cowboy on horseback to chase after a runaway calf

Rodeo 6

throw himself off his horse and wrestle the calf

Rodeo 7

to the ground

ROdeo 8

until the calf is completely prone. He who does this the fastest wins.

Bronco riding (both with a Saddle and Bareback) requires the cowboy to stay on an unwilling horse for a minimum of 8 seconds.

Rodeo 4

Scoring seems to involve how much effort the horse makes to dislodge him and the style the cowboy shows.

Rodeo 3

If the horse is judged to have made insufficient effort, he is disqualified but the rider is given another chance.

Rodeo 2


Rodeo 10

It seemed to us that a number of the cowboys suffered injuries during the Rodeo – not surprising really.

You may have noticed that it is Cowboys and not Cowgirls. There was only one event for “The Ladies” and that was barrel racing where they had to chase around three barrels placed quite far apart in the arena and the one who did it the fastest won the prize.

All of the events showed traditional cowboy skills as did some of the acts put on in between the skills events. 

Rodeo 19

We were treated to a hold up of the Deadwood Stage Coach during which numerous people were shot or kidnapped before a posse arrived who added to the general carnage but at least they recovered the gold.

Rodeo 11-1

Another interval act involved a fairly remarkable demonstration of the Rodeo Clown controlling his horse using voice commands only. It culminated with the horse jumping onto the bed of a moving flatbed truck.

It was an interesting event to go to and the skills and danger involved were quite extraordinary.