The wind always blows in South Dakota. Back in the day, when I first traveled west from my home in Cleveland, I was full of enthusiasm for the adventure that lay ahead. I camped on a hill above the Missouri River, which I had just crossed. “I’m finally out west,” I said to myself as the wind did its best to blow out my campfire and collapse my tent. It was an exciting evening. A million stars hung in the sky as the owls and coyotes roaming near my tent began their serenade.
Upon awakening, I saw the rancher whose property I had appropriated for my night’s home. He was nice enough, in a rough, cowboy sort of way, proudly explaining to me the scope of his ranch and how many cattle he was worth. “Is it always this windy?” I asked. “Yep. And sometimes it rains,” he replied. I had received my first insult from a real cowboy. He suggested I visit the Black Hills, and I was on my way, my heart full of more adventure than my pockets held money.
The wind was still making dust devils in the sand as Michael and I stopped to get gas at a little South Dakota gas station. We were on tour with our good friends, Howard and David — the Bellamy Brothers. As usual, we had a few days off in the middle of nowhere with nothing to do but count bug splats on the windshield. We were headed to Bismarck. “I’ve been here before,” I said to Michael. “It’s a little out of our way, but let’s check out the Badlands and the Black Hills while we’re here.” So off we went in our little red rental into a part of the world that had once been the homeland of the Lakota Sioux.
To see the Black Hills, we first had to cross the Badlands. Why they were called Badlands has always been a mystery to me. I would have called it The Beautiful Place, but no one ever asked me. Spires of gray stood before us evoking images one might have of the moon. Our breath was taken away as we walked the trails and stood on the overlooks, each presenting a vision of unearthly beauty. I knew to the Lakota it was part of their world. To Michael and I, it was the most mysterious place music had ever taken us.
Even with the passage of time, the Black Hills were as beautiful as I remembered. It felt holy. The spirit of the Lakota washing over us like a distant dream that will forever hold this land in its gentle hands. We have both held a lifelong affinity for Native Americans and a sadness for their treatment by our ancestors, but now we were here and could feel how much America’s spirit had changed.
And there they were. The presidents. Carved in stone to last forever. Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt. Teddy was my favorite because he did what he could to make sure America’s natural wonders were preserved. Once, at the Roosevelt National Monument, I got trapped inside a roadside men’s room by a giant male bison but that’s a story for another time.
The presidents carved into rock on Mt. Rushmore. An impressive sight, but it was nothing new. Like so many things, the monument is way more impressive in photographs than it is in real life. But down the road was a monument, under construction, that both of us had been dying to see — Crazy Horse.
The Crazy Horse Memorial. An entire mountain being carved in the image of the man on his horse. The Oglala Chief who was the Lakota’s head of homeland security so to speak. In 1939, after meeting with the elders, Crazy Horse’s maternal cousin Chief Standing Bear talked with renowned sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski and asked him to create a monument to Chief Crazy Horse. The location, Thunderhead Mountain. Ziolkowski, one of the last men to work on Mount Rushmore, agreed, and in 1943 work was begun on the largest stone carving in the world. Chief Crazy Horse pointing to the land where his people are buried. To The Black Hills. For more on this story, click here. Michael and I spent hours there until it was time to head west toward Montana.
I had made this trip before and countless times with Brewer and Shipley. Somehow the distances seem greater every time, but that is the blessing. There is so much to see traveling through some of the most beautiful places in the world. We were headed to Bismarck… again. We had taken a long detour, but we were back on the main highway, and there is a place along the way where we always stop.
Little Big Horn. Every time I’ve been there I am amazed. The first thing I always notice is that it looks exactly like Little Big Horn should look. The image that has been in my mind’s eye since I was a child. The way the land lays. The shape of the hills, the large mounds, and hidden valleys covered in sage and grass. Groups of juniper dotting the scene so as to make it feel just like in the movies.
“How could such a horrific battle have taken place in such an open and beautiful place?” I always wonder. And strewn here and there, in singles or doubles and often in groups you see the white crosses. In the cuts and valleys, the gentle slopes, and the hills. Markers to show where the 269 soldiers fell. 33 Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho died that day as well.
So there we were, back in front of the hill where Custer made his last stand. There is a fence around the spot where he fell. I’m not sure why, but I have my suspicions. Traveling through the monument is much more than a visit to a famous battlefield. It is a lesson in one of the sadder chapters in American History. Where the Northern Cheyenne, Arapaho, and various tribes of the Lakota, led by Sitting Bull, and the Oglala Lakota, led by Crazy Horse, fought Civil War hero General George Armstrong Custer to his death. The battle was won, but the war was lost, and the west is now a land of Indian reservations.
The wind had picked up and flakes of snow began falling as we made our way north to Bismarck. The windshield wipers were now dealing with snow instead of splattered grasshoppers. We counted that as a blessing, noting that snow doesn’t smear like splats making it easier to see out the window. It was time for a rest stop. Name all of the unholy things one can purchase and eat at a fast food service station and I have consumed every one of them. Michael, on the other hand, takes the opportunity for a cigarette. Cigarettes are forbidden in rental cars so one takes what one can get.
Bismarck. We could hear the screech of a sound check coming from the auditorium as we walked up the stairs of the loading dock. We entered the stage door as we had so many times before. “How long have we been doing this tour?” I asked myself as I looked at the stage and said “hi” to faces that had become friends over the years. We didn’t have to ask directions to the dressing room or the merchandise table where we would sign autographs after the show. A giant of a man with broad shoulders and long braids approached us and held out his enormous hand. “Welcome to Crow Country,” he said. With Bozeman being our next stop, we smiled knowing that at least for a time, we were still on tour in Native America.
Seth Watterson here. I love the way you connected the parts of you life. You have had a real humanity connecting the parts of your life.