Sunday, June 16: Even I couldn’t escape the Mount Rushmore National Memorial to Manifest Destiny without spending a little money in the gift store. I might be a cynic, but I’m still an American.
Once we made our getaway, we drove south on U.S. 16. We got a stunning look at the the pine beetles’ savagery of the Black Hills. Then we passed on the Crazy Horse Memorial, which left me feeling a little guilty. My ancestors have been around these parts for a while, so I can’t help but feel complicit in the whole genocide thing. Nonetheless, stopping at Crazy Horse wasn’t going to undo the damage done.
I wouldn’t have gone to Rushmore either, but for Becky. Hazy pangs of ancestral guilt weren’t about to persuade me to drop another $20 on another man’s testament to his own vainglory. Not on the same day.
We were bound for Wind Cave National Park, the junior ranger quest having become something of an obsession. We passed through the park after the visitors center had closed for the day, so we continued on to Hot Springs.
We were tired and vulnerable. It was Father’s Day. The season’s penultimate episode of “Mad Men” would air in a couple hours. Free-parking options. All the circumstances conspired to place me at the counter of America’s Best Value Inn alongside Fall River. I was face to face with smiling manager Ahmedur Chowdhury. I had no chance. He’d escaped Bangladesh. I was easy money.
Has two kids, including the cute boy in the Superman T-shirt whom I said hi to on the way in. I’m not Superman, he assured me. Funny thing. I thought I was being suave and charming.
I asked about the going rate. Ahmedur said it was $79.95. No way, I smiled. Way out of our budget. Sixty-nine, he returned with a smile. He smiles a lot.
It is part of the job description, I suppose. I said no again, politely. He asked what our budget was. I said $50. I began to make my exit. I wasn’t going anywhere. This much Ahmedur knew.
“Fifty-nine ninety-five,” he said.
I was beaten. I surrendered.
At least Max got in an evening swim, and Becky got to watch Mad Men. She loves her Mad Men. Can you believe they shot Kenny?
And there were waffles in the morning. Ahmedur was there, too. So was his smile. He smiled when he asked if he should put out more waffle mix. He smiled when he waved away the flies.
He spent seven years in Los Angeles before relocating to South Dakota to run this little tourist shop. I wish they’d open a restaurant on site. The beguiling aroma of South Asian cuisine taunted us while we swam in the pool on Sunday night.
As we always do, we scuffled to meet checkout time in the morning. I thought about Ahmedur. I should try to engage him in conversation. But some days I’m just not up to the task. I asked him how his family are treated in this provincial western town. He smiled. He said people are nice.
I imagined you could pee in the pool and call him an epithet, and he’d still smile.
I wanted to ask him how his expectations of the immigrant experience matched up with the reality.
Maybe I’ll give him a call yet. But what’s he going to say? Smiling at guests in a Wild West tourist town must be preferable to a whole host of alternatives. Beats breaking up toxic ships on the Bay of Bengal or cranking out clothes for Walmart in an 11th-floor firetrap for 29 cents an hour.
And so all I got to show for Hot Springs and my $59.95 (tax not included) is this photo of the Evans Hotel, the town’s architectural centerpiece. Once the Indians had been properly dealt with, the white man began to come to Hot Springs for its curative waters. Everybody was taking the water cure in the late 19th century. Everybody, in particular, who belonged to the well-to-do business class. They came here to bathe in the 88-degree spring water. They drank the water.
Fred Evans saw all this tomfoolery going on, and he was no fool. He built himself a handsome, five-story palace. He built it out of pink sandstone from his own quarry. talk about a win-win. He furnished it in the finest European style. You could play golf or hit the tennis court and then take a soak in the Evans’ private bathhouse. Warm water was piped in from the spring. Good times.
Wonder how they would’ve greeted Ahmedur Chowdhury’s great-grandfather had he shown up at the desk of the Evans Hotel? But there I go again.
Reluctantly, I drove away from America’s Best Value Inn without engaging Ahmedur in further conversation. We’ll always have Father’s Day, though. And his smile.
We drove to Wind Cave National Park. Since I’d never heard of Wind Cave, I hadn’t considered what a bustling tourist racket it might be. I had no idea it had been a thriving tourist trap for more than a century.
But it is. I suppose caves, from Carlsbad to Custer, always are. And so it was we signed on for $18 worth of underground education. We filed into the elevator and plunged 15 stories into the earth with our guide, seasonal ranger Whitney Reary.
I liked Whitney. She works here three months a year and has been doing so for the past seven years, ever since her husband came out to work for the railroad.
I especially liked her fondness for the Civilian Conservation Corps. The CCC did most of the work to make the subterranean pathways of Wind Cave amenable to the modern-day tourist. They installed the first elevators, concrete walkways and lighting. Before that, you had to tour it with a bucket and a candle.
After we returned to from our subterranean journey, I caught up to Whitney and asked her about the CCC.
“I love the idea,”she said. “And I think we should do it again today. It gives people a job when they need it, and teaches them something useful as well.”
As for Max, we learned caves aren’t his thing. He wasn’t impressed to learn we were shuffling about in the world’s sixth-longest cave. He wasn’t impressed to hear the more than 140 miles of known passageways here represent maybe a 10th of the cave.
He was scared, and therefore had little use for the world’s largest collection of boxwork. He did like the frostwork, just not enough. Nonetheless, he couldn’t wait to get back to the elevators, and wasn’t shy of telling Whitney so.
Back in the visitors center, we saw our first junior ranger assembly line. A sweet and patient ranger named Marybeth Wells handled the madness with aplomb. It was like story time for junior rangers.
And the final tally: 18 bucks for two adult tickets to see a bit of what once was Alvin McDonald’s underground playground. The best story I heard all day is surely apocryphal, but I’ll repeat it, because If I were a cave explorer, I think I might’ve done the same.
The story goes like this: McDonald, who did the first significant exploration here as a teenage spelunker was leading a candlelight tour when he happened upon a previously undiscovered passageway. He suggested it might be a good time for his guests to take a break while he poked about the new opening. Along his way he found a new egress to the outside world. Later that night, while rhapsodizing about his discovery in his journal, he remembered something.
His guests, down there in the cave, in total darkness. Whoops. One of the tourists told that story, and I couldn’t wait to ask Whitney. She couldn’t verify it, and she’s done quite a bit of reading into Alvin’s journals.
Poor Alvin didn’t make it to 21. Typhoid fever, believed to be contracted at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, felled him at age 20.
From Alvin McDonald to Whitney Reary, no one has ever died in Wind Cave. That failed to soothe Max’s anxieties in even a small way.
We dispatched with the junior ranger business, and let me tell you, it has turned into something of a racket at this point. It was all peaceful, though. No booklets punted. No fatherly bullying. Just another badge.
Afterward, we decided to get out and see if we might go toe-to-toe with a buffalo.
We chose the Lookout Point trail, which joins up with South Dakota’s Centennial Trail to make a loop just shy of five miles. We started up a gentle prairie incline full of mixed grasses and lined with circular buffalo pies. By the time we’d made it a half mile along the trail, the sun had been eclipsed by a wall of ominous clouds. Thunder rumbled in the distance.
We pushed on. Max whined. We stumbled through the prairie. We saw some buffalo in the safe distance. We were exposed on the rolling hillside. I hoped we still had an hour or two before the lightning started flashing in earnest.
We forestalled the whining with a new game: racing from trail marker to trail marker. Rusted posts bearing the No 4 designating the Lookout Point trail were spaced every 100 to 200 yards, sometimes closer. Many were blown down by the fierce prairie winds.
Max who thinks he is the next coming of Jesse Owens, took to the spirit of the competition. While engaged in our steeplechase, we startled to stumble upon a desiccated carcass and a pile of bleached bones, just a few yards off the trail.
Buffalo prints and scat, but no more buffalo. Eventually we hooked up with the Centennial Trail, No. 6 in your Wind Cave program. We walked beneath the shelter of standard-issue Ponderosa pines, comforted by their towering presences in the face of the encroaching thunderstorm. We tried to sidestep the ticks and the poison ivy but couldn’t avoid another carcass and jumble of bones. Another natural crime scene. This victim definitely was a buffalo. Or was it a large deer?
I’m no naturalist. You tell me.
Teeth so good it looked like the poor bastard had been to the dentist in the past six months. Got something on me. This had turned into one disturbing nature walk.
As the thunder rumbled nearer and the lightning struck in closer proximity to us, we came out of the forest and into open grassland between rock ridges.
Out in the open, a mile to safety, and we’re going to get blasted.
We didn’t. We hustled and made it back to the Behemoth for the thunderstorm that never really materialized with any sort of venom. Perhaps it did, and we simply missed it. We saw exactly one other person on the entire loop.
So it goes on the summer national park circuit. The visitors center was teeming with people mad to pay $7 or $9 to take an elevator into the earth and shuffle along behind a tour guide.
Out on the trail, solace was attainable. Not that it was an arduous trek or anything.
It was 6:30, a half-hour after closing time. We swung by the visitors center to see if anyone was around. We ran into an amiable ranger named Cathy Zellner. We waved her over, and I asked about the bones.
“I think we had a buffalo with a broken leg,” she said. “Unless the injury is caused by one of us running into them on the road, we let nature take its course.”
In this case, nature’s course included coyotes, cats and turkey vultures. And one dead buffalo.
“I don’t really like it,” Cathy said. “I’m kind of the opposite. I feed deer at my house. It’s hard to sit by and watch.”
She’s worked here for the past four years. After being divorced for 16 years, she now lives outside of Custer on a ranch with her new husband.
Cathy bears a passing resemblance to Blythe Danner. She said Max looks like her son, Neal, did when he was a little boy. Said she saw the back of his head going up the stairs earlier in the day and got a bit wistful.
She spent part of her upbringing in Valentine, Neb. Her dad was a rancher. We had spent a couple hours in Valentine. Later, during our stopover in Cody, we realized Valentine is a big town in western Nebraska. And that with a population of 2,737 as of the 2010 census.
We thanked Cathy for her time, then made it out of Wind Cave retracing our steps past Crazy Horse and Custer and in the direction of Devil’s Tower and what loomed as Max’s fourth badge in four days.
We stopped in Deadwood and poked around. We parked across the street from a chocolate shop. It’s called the Chubby Chipmunk. It was closed, but a package of truffles was going for $11.75 in the outdoor vending machine. There also is a kid’s ride featuring Alvin of Alvin and the Chipmunks fame. Becky woke Max and soon he was loaded in the Chipmunkmobile. She dropped in the 50 cents.
Nothing doing. Becky was not a happy mother. She hates nothing so much as being cheated out of change by malfunctioning machines. Well, that and war.
Nothing’s free in Deadwood. Guess there hasn’t been since Wild Bill drew those Aces backed with eights.
No free parking, no boondocking opportunities. My pal Blind Charlie had suggested we check out Deadwood, and I didn’t want to disappoint him. But I was tired of the tourist highway, and it was late, so we pushed on toward Spearfish.