Sunday, September 03, 2006

Jackalopes, Hells Half Acre and the Big Head Scams

Saturday September 3rd

The center of the US, as empty as it may be, is home to a lot of pure americanism, things that seem stupid and ridiculous, but for some reason have implanted themselves in our national pysche and are dear to us for one reason or another. At least, I think that is the case because I cannot explain the parade of bizarre things that we saw here in any other way ...

So we awoke Monday morning in the Tetons to the sounds of Neals startled yelp, as a squirrel jumped on his head to wake him up. As I said, we packed up and about 40 miles outside the Tetons, after essentially running the gas tank dry, we encountered some fantastic, colored moutains in the middle of nowhere, wyoming. These hills looked like the painted desert, but larger and more striking, with intense deep sea blue and rusty iron red layers sandwiched between dusty white and brown layers, making a kind of patriotic rainbow mountain range that stretched along the highway for miles. It was beautiful, all the more so because of our surprise in find it in the middle of nowhere, unmarked on any map. I fervently believe that had these hills been anywhere with any population, they would have been a national monument or park unto themselves. But, they are in Wyoming.

Wyoming, you must understand, is the ninth largest state with the 50th largest population, thats less than half a million people dispersed over almost 100,000 square miles. There are more prarie dogs than people, I mean a lot more. The entire state is just one area code ...

But I digress. Moving along, we stopped at a cafe in Dubois, a pleasant to eat lunch. Neal and I had beef something, I can't remember what but I am sure it was beef, and Ryan had jalapeno bottle caps and grilled cheese, the only vegetarian main course in middle america. Our waitress was pleasant and confided in us that she had just returned to town after several years away, she had been living about 200 miles down the road in the town of casper, which we passed through later that day and found to be a slightly larger clone of Dubois. After lunch, we had our first encounter with the little known american icon, the Jackalope. We were told by the sign it was the worlds largest Jackalope, something we would learn was not true Wall, South Dakota. But at the time it was impressive, a good 10 feet tall from paw to antler, and rather imposing stuffed in between the T-shirts and jellies at the jackalope gift shop.

For those who don't know, the Jackalope is the product of early genetic engineering experiments by the Lakota Souix, who were able to cross jack rabbits and antelopes, generating a truly formidable grassland dweller. They are very rare these days but some can still be seen at sunset on the praries of the big empty. __The rest of the day was rather dull as we spent most of it driving across endless golden hilly prarie towards a distant lightining storm that we never reached. We killed a bird that unfortuantely ran into the windshield, saw a lot of prognhorn and even more wheat, but not much else happened. The highlight of the day was to have been a stop at Hells Half Acre, satans ranch off wyoming 26, but the half acre had been closed down. Presumably, wyoming was too remote for even for Satan. Around 830 at night we coasted into Gilette, in the northeast corner of the state, having almost run the tank dry again (Wyoming has no 'Last Gas for X miles' signs). We had chinese in Gilette and moved on to the Devils Tower (where the devil came to settle after the half acre was found not to his liking) chose a campground and crashed out around 1130 at night.

We woke up early, and as we moved around the huge oak trees shading our camprground, we got our first view of the tower. Its indescribable. Its massive. Its spectacular and unlike anything I have ever seen. Imagine taking all the linkin logs or blocks you had as a kid, going up to the top of a pile of sand and stacking them vertically to create a tower, like a flat topped teepee. Now imagine that the sand is actually a pile of grante boulders 1,000 feet tall and that the linkin logs are massive, hexagonal basalt pylons making up a huge tower which ascends 900 feet up from the top of the hill.

After gawking for a while, we drove past the prarie dog town near the entrance, cute little buggers who squeak at each other, make little gestures and lookout from a huge field of holes and piles of dirt. We read about the history of the monolith (it has been sacred to native americans for centuries and was the first national monument), how it was formed (several theories but none are more definitive than it formed as hardened lava underground and then the ground eroded down past the pillar, leaving it visible) and the indian legends describing it, most of them having to do with bears chasing small groups of indians. It is odd actually, every one of their names for the place has to do with bears, but we simply renamed it Devils Tower despite their protests ... A walk around the tower, taking it in from all directions, has Neal simply salivating to climb it, but we press on and despite not finding the right trail, get some good looks at it and the red rock hills nearby and then head off to Newcastle for lunch.

Newcastle, Wyoming unfortunately does not have any newcastle to drink, but it does have a large oil refinery that give the town an interesting, grimy feel as well as a number of named super markets, like dubs foods, oscars foods and zups foods, all within blocks of each other. It was at one of these grocers that we purchased the hedgeball, which is still with me today. A hedgeball is a small, green, inedible fruit, looks kind of like a small brain with little black hairs sticking off. Although only about half the people I have asked have ever heard of the hedgeball, those who do know of it (calling it the little brain or ugly fruit) are sure that it is used to repel spiders. Although the effectiveness of this use of the hedgeball is still under debate ( it has provided me with a number of fascinating conversations to this point.

We ate lunch at the Hop, a small burger joint beneath the oil refinery, where we had excellent fare, good huckleberry shakes and a close encounter with the fly guy. Imagine an old, wizened fellow, with squinty eyes behind his glasses, a dirty button down and overalls, grimy fingernails, a large flyswatter, a nasty disposition, and an intense hatred of flies. Now put him at a counter with lots of flys and watch, entertained, as he almost takes Ryans head off with the fly swatter in a futile effort to reduce the fly population of his section of the counter. Rather humorous.

After the hop, we sped over to the Black Hills, set up camp in Custer State Park, near Sylvan Lake despite the protestations of a very snotty ranger who questioned our ability to call the right people about the campsite, and took a 2 hour tour of Jewel Cave, the second longest cave system in the world (at 137 explored miles in just 3 square miles of area). Although we could not do the wild cave spelunking tour, our trip into the cave was great. Jewel cave, named for its massive collection of dog-tooth and nail-head spar, glittering, jewel like formations that line the walls of the passages, is truly beautiful.
It did not have many of the typical stalagtites and stalagmites you associate with wetter caves, but the massive passages, multicolored stone, glittering spar and interesting formations, like cave bacon, made it a wonderful experience.

It also helped that the ranger was cute and spent most of her time answering all of our numerous questions about the cave, the exploration and countless other aspects of Jewel cave life, including our inquiries into a study she referenced speculating that Jewel Cave might be as much as 7000 miles long, so they were really into mapping it. Turns out that most mapping of the cave is free, done by volunteers who go on 4 day underground backpacking trips up to 18 hours away from the entrance, carrying everything, and I mean everything, in and out. The most interesting part of her description was a portion of the route known as the miseries, an 1,800 foot knee and elbow crawl through a tunnel that at one point is only 7.5 inches high. This point, the calorie counter, was simulated outside the ranger station with an extra inch of space, and Ryan, Neal and myself could only barely get through it.

Following the cave, we headed a bit north to see Crazy Horse, a huge (560 feet tall) sculpture of the native american leader of the Ogalala Lakota, carved into a massive granite cliff, just miles from Mount Rushmore. But, as we learned, the location and type of monument had nothing to do with the presence of Rushmore, it was not an attempt to show up the white men ... it was simply an attempt to show native americans they have heroes as well.

I might have bought that had the whole thing not been a ridiculous scam. Although the project was authorized by Lakota chiefs, I was basically an omage to a nutty polish sculptor, whose had been working on the project from 1930 until his death in 1982, and now his family carried on his legacy. We paid 25$ to get into the monument, then would have had to pay another 12$ to get to the base of the statue, because only their old, dilapidated school buses were safe enough to take us through the blasting zone with no blasting. Instead we walked through the sculptors workshop and watched a 30 minute movie about the polish sculptor and his family about how much of a sacrifice it was to build the thing, interrupted by short, non-sensical statements from a native american gold medalist, saying things like, "It could only have been Crazy Horse and only here in the Black Hills. He was a spiritual man experiencing a real life." In short, we went to a native american remembrance site and learned about the polish scupltor, his family and how hard it is to build a 600 foot statue when you will not accept financial assistance from the government and have only one jackhammer.

We left before the laser light show on crazy horses face to see Mount Rushmore, only to find out that despite its status as a national monument, the only way to see it was to pay 8$ to park, because the road and indeed the mountainside we set-up so that you could not stop and simply witness the glory of the sculpture, you had to pay. In response to this we drove backwards through several do not enter signs, blocked up a section of the drive way, drove back and forth past the front of the monument several times to get some pictures out the sunroof and then, after pausing to observe the collared mountain goats in front of the concession stand, fled the area when the golf cart driving security came out. We were later to discover several spots, much farther away and scattered around the black hills, where you could actually stop and look at the monument.

Returning, disillusioned, to our campsite, we built a fire and made fajitas for dinner, a meal that was enhanced by the presence of two young Minnesotans, who happened to be pyromaniacs (proudly self-diagnosed) who were obsessed with increasing the size of our fire despite our weak protestations. They returned the next night, with the same modus operandi, except that the following evening I spoke to their father, asking him a number of questions about the Boundary Waters, which he was kind enough to answer. We also asked if all Minnesotans drive the speed limit, as we were plagued throughout our time in the Black Hills by incredibly slow Minnesota drivers. He told me that they did not all drive the speed limit, and that if the limit was 55 many Minnesotans would drive as fast as 60. We smiled, our difficulties explained.

The next two days in the Black Hills were busy but fun. We woke up the morning after Rushmore, neal ran down to the needles (massive spires of rock along the road up to the camp) to do some morning climbing and then we headed out to the Badlands, by way of Wall Drug. Wall drug, a place that anyone who has ever driven across the country on I-90 has been to, is the apex of american kitsch. Signs advertising everything from waffle irons to dinosaurs to free coffee for veterans and honeymooners can be seen for miles along the highway, and apparently there were far more of them before the highway beautifacation act of 1965. The store itself, born of a drug store that offered free ice water to its patrons, takes up a full city block in the town of Wall, employs a 1/3 of the towns population, and is likely responsible for 5-10% of all landfill in the country. It looks like a old-style general store on the outside, but entry through any one of its entrances leads to a series of hokey gifts shops, restaurants and other ridiculous touristic filth. It is full of useless items, from coke bottle clocks to plastic spears to bizarre paddle boards to multi-colored plastic googles (of which Neal bought 2 sets) with a gigantic Jackalope and animatronic Tyrannosaurus Rex among the objects in the bizarre faux zoo backyard. It also contains a restaurant where we ate breakfast, a soda fountain, where we returned later for over sugared shakes, and far too many gift shops.

Escaping from Wall (although we would later return) we made it out to the Badlands, where we spend 5 superheated hours (the temp was 103 outside and I have never been more thankful for AC in my life, and many of you know how much I love AC) exploring the multi-hued crags, hills and rockpiles that make up this interesting but barren park. Numerous fossils have been found here, but our attempts to see them mostly failed as the pig-dig was empty and the fossil trail was full of replicates. We wandered out in the desert for a while, appreciated its bizarre landscape, with pink dirt pile mounds, sudden short cactus coved plateaus, yellowing hills and white/gray flats. Ryan almost bit it off a large dirt pile, Neal carefully balance to avoid falling onto cactus and I, in my flip-flops, did none of those things. We did learn a lot about the history of the area, how the inland sea that once covered our country shaped the formations, and how, in the spring when all the pictures of the Badlands are taken, there is a ton of wildlife in the area.

Returning to Custer State Park after the second stop at Wall Drug, we tried to take what we thought was a shortcut but higway 79 simply vanished and we ended up driving three long scenic drives to get back to camp. These provided the aforementioned non-pay views of Mt. Rushmore, the interesting bridge/underpass highway construction, and views of an amazing amount of wildlife on the Custer State Park wildlife trail. We saw a whole herd of bison, along with numerous white-tailed and black-tailed deer and large numbers of pronghorn, as well rabbits and grouse. There were also some donkeys, which we saw some people stop and take pictures of, but they were almost certainly domesticated as they were hanging out by a gated fence.

On our final day in the Black Hills, we spent the morning at Sylvan lake, Neal climbing and Ryan and I walking and reading. Sylvan Lake is a beautiful lake at the north end of custer, surrounded by a pleasant trail weaving through pine and oak, with a group of massive granite columns and boulders projecting up out of the lake on the northside. After regrouping and eating lunch, we headed down to Wind Cave, observing some massive, fat prarie dogs along the way, and took another cave tour. Wind Cave is the fourth longest cave in the world (America has a virtual monopoly on longest caves, having 8 of the top 10) and is different from most because of a unique formation called boxwork, which looks a little like a glittery, delicate crystal latticework carved into many walls of the cave. Apparently, Wind Cave contains 95% of the worlds boxwork, along with huge passages, a massive flat-roofed room and some very impressive coloration. This tour was also highlighted by a cute ranger, and an annoying kid who was obsessed with the idea that the cave was carved out by giant pre-historic prarie dogs. Wind Cave was also a subject of the same studies as Jewel Cave, using an anometer to determine the potential size of the cave, and we actually got the rangers to give us a copy of the original study (Wind Cave, alas, is potentially only 1200 miles long).

After the cave tour we headed up to Rapid City by way of the invisible highway 79, picked up my new air mattress at the main post office (if you will recall I left it in Seattle the day after I bought it) and settled into a bizarrely empty motel that was indicated by a 45 foot sign (actually a 45 foot pole with a 5 foot sign on top, this is something that led to much confusion finding the hotel as the desk clerk Ryan spoke to specifically mentioned the 45 foot size of the sign). Since Ryan was leaving the next day, we went out for pizza and beer and then went to Talladega Nights, which is Will Ferrell funny, particularly the cougar section, and about as bad as you would expect.

The next morning we dropped Ryan off at the Rapid City airport (which, I have subsequently been told has no planes with jet engines and just one with 4 propellers) and took off for North Dakota, the second most uninteresting state in the Union (I am told Nebraska is worse but I will most likely never get there after the North Dakota experience) ....

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