South Dakota road trip: It’s a rite of passage

For many of us, a road trip of 600-some miles into South Dakota, the Badlands and the Black Hills is a rite of passage.

It is the most classic of summer vacations, especially for families, who follow typically flat and easy-to-drive I-90 for a taste of the Wild West. They encounter Shady Brady hats and jackalopes (rabbits with antlers, stuffed) at Wall Drug Store en route, then Black Hills Gold and red clay pottery, working cowboys and roaming buffalo.

This is timeless Americana, but it took until this year for me to make the trek. I didn’t try to over-analyze the destination ahead of time, but simply presumed it would be wholesome, tame and predictable. Getting misty-eyed at the sight of Mount Rushmore and feeling awestruck while watching work on the Crazy Horse Memorial never occurred to me. But that is what happened.

This is our land of the free, home of the brave, place where the independent spirit seeks and sets seemingly impossible goals. Not much lasts forever, but these two iconic sculptures feel like exceptions.

What a legacy for their creators, which include Donald “Nick” Clifford, one of the last guys alive who helped carve Mount Rushmore.

He turns 87 on July 5 and began climbing the mountain for pay at age 17, during the Great Depression. “Back in those days, we were glad to have a job,” Nick says, and he didn’t care whether neighbors classified the mission as foolhardy.

Nick – who grew up four curvy, uphill miles from his job – had worked in quartz mines before helping to drill, winch and sandblast a quartet of presidential faces into the mountaintop. This was his job for three years; about 400 men made this their occupation during the 14 years of Mount Rushmore construction.

“It makes me proud to be an American, to have worked on something like this,” Nick says. He also played baseball “every day, rain or shine,” as a part of the Mount Rushmore team, which won consecutive-year state championships. Nick was a pitcher and outfielder; for sale are baseballs and books autographed by him.

At the Crazy Horse site, 17 miles southwest, no one predicts when work will finish. The massive undertaking (all of Mount Rushmore would fit into the head of nine-story-tall Crazy Horse) began 60 years ago, on July 3, when the first dynamite blast tore off 10 tons of rock.

Now the granite rubble exceeds 8 million tons. The face of the revered Indian warrior was unveiled in 1998; he was a Lakota, but this sculpture pays tribute to all tribes.

The work began because of Korczak Ziolkowski, the monument’s designer and sole laborer, for a while. He died in 1982. The sculptor began this project at midlife, at the request of a Lakota chief.

The work continues because of tour proceeds, private donations and the enthusiasm of the sculptor’s widow, Ruth, who still lives in the mountainside log home that her husband built in the 1940s. “If you love your job, it doesn’t seem like work,” the 81-year-old woman insists. “You are happy and grateful to begin each new day.”

Seven of the couple’s 10 children also are involved with the project, which Ruth considers “storytelling in stone,” on what others describe as sacred ground.

People make a mark on this planet in all kinds of ways. Not living to see the full impact of your thumbprint is irrelevant, when the dream and impulse are intense enough.

These two colossal monuments – stellar symbols of independence, character and hope – are one way to define freedom as another Fourth of July approaches.

You’ll also find mettle in South Dakota. Consider Sequoia Crosswhite, whose attire, dancing, handmade flutes and musical recordings uphold the traditions and history of his Lakota ancestors.

We heard his lilting melodies at Prairie Edge, a spacious and two-story gallery of Native American art/crafts in Rapid City. Head to Myspace.com to see the musician uphold his roots in another way, through a fusion of hip-rock, rock and lyrics about Indian heritage.

“It is up to my generation” to make sure cultural legacies are not abandoned, he says. There is not just one path for doing this.

Two hours southwest, near Hot Springs, more than 500 horses – particularly mustangs – run free on 11,000 acres at the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary. Founder Dayton O. Hyde’s working ranch is a nonprofit enterprise, established two decades ago as a response to the federal corralling of these animals, to prevent the over-grazing of public land.

So finding room to roam defines freedom in yet another way. Ranch tours and volunteer work experiences at the sanctuary are possible. Foal adoptions, horse sponsorships and other donations are welcome.

For more:

Mount Rushmore National Memorial, www.nps.gov/moru, 605-574-2523.

Crazy Horse Memorial, www.crazyhorse.org, 605-673-4681.

Prairie Edge, www.prairieedge.com, 800-541-2388.

Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary, www.wildmustangs.com, 800-252-6652.

Rapid City, S.D., tourism: www.visitrapidcity.com, 605-348-9217.

Note: South Dakota was the site for this year’s Society of American Travel Writers Central States chapter meeting, which means this visit was subsidized through the Rapid City Convention and Visitors Bureau.