Side trip to South Dakota

In our van, we have a map of the USA from Leon’s kids atlas. It has plenty of background on the country but also has some nice drawings of the major attractions. We use it to help the kids track our trip. But of course they also look at other places beyond the route we had in mind. And one evening they announced that they wanted to go to “the faces in the mountain”. Of course we had also looked at Mount Rushmore when we were reading up for this trip. But it was quite a detour (about 400 km) on the route we had in mind…AND we were a bit afraid that it would be one of these “that’s it?” tourist traps. But since the kids really wanted to see it (and we were a bit curious too), we decided to make the detour. And we soon discovered that there were quite some other interesting things in this area.

We did not only drive back to Montana to drive the Beartooth highway but also because I really wanted to visit the ‘Little Bighorn Historical Site’. It is the site of probably the most famous battle in the ‘Indian Wars’ (US Army vs Indian tribes) of the late 19th century. At Little Bighorn the (in)famous General Custer was killed and the US Army suffered it greatest defeat until that day.

The battle erupted after the General tried to attack a coalition of so called ‘hostile’ Indians. These ‘hostiles’ where tribes or fractions of tribes that refused to live on the ever-shrinking reservations and that wanted to continue to roam the plains as they had done for centuries. Famous Indian leaders like Sitting Bull and Crazy horse were leading the forces at this battle. And even though there must have been some joy about this unexpected victory, they knew very well that they and their people were doomed to lose the war for the preservation of their traditional lifestyles…

We really liked how the National Park Service has developed this site, showing a story (the Indian point of view) about this battle that was not even history books until a couple of decades ago…

Next stop was at Devils Mountain, an interesting and impressive geologic feature (‘lava plug’) in the middle of the fields in Wyoming. A nice little detour on our way to South Dakota. And with that first detour on the Mt Rushmore detour had happened. And it would not be the last…

Mount Rushmore was not a disappointment (that we were preparing for) at all. It is an impressive work and when you get close you realize there is much more detail (especially in president Washington) than the famous pictures suggest. The on-site museum taught us all about the construction but also about the pictured presidents. And even though, American culture has an enormous impact on us, it became clear once more, how little we Europeans know about American history.

So the ‘onemoremile’ verdict on Mt Rushmore was: “worth the detour”. And it got even better because when we drove away we almost bumped into a mountain goat and its young, grazing by the side of the road.

After Mount Rushmore, we found ourselves back on that ‘slippery slope’ of “now that we are here, we might as well…”. Because just 150 km beyond Mt Rushmore there is Badlands National Park… which we could not resist. So far for making choices and taking it slower. But Badlands was really beautiful and incredibly hot. From the near winter in Yellowstone it seemed like we were back in the hottest summer. The moon-like landscapes were impressive enough but the colours in the rocks are what makes this place really beautiful, especially during sunrise and sunset. It really whetted our appetite for the canyons and deserts that were waiting for us in Utah and Arizona.

And while we were researching about Badlands, we came across another historic site in the area: The Minutemen missile sites. And since we were in the neighbourhood…

During the cold war, the Minutemen sites were secret missile sites of which there were hundreds in the fields and prairies all across South Dakota, Wyoming and Montana. They were aimed at strategical targets all over Russia. They were called ‘minute men’ since they could reach their targets across the globe within 20 minutes. We visited one of the sites where a (disabled) missile is still visible in its underground silo. The former missile site itself was already sobering, but that was only the beginning. Next, we visited the Minutemen ‘visitor center’ and we learned that it is not a ‘thing of the past at all’. These particular sites might have been disabled but there are still so many nuclear weapons around. And they didn’t make a secret of it that there are still many of these silos active & ready to go all over the USA. More over in the visitor center, we also learned about a couple of ‘incidents’ that had happened in the 70’s and 80’s where (on both sides) false alarms (caused by human & machine errors) had almost triggered a counter attack that would eventually have destroyed the whole world.

This all gave us a lot to think about for the upcoming long drive South towards Colorado, Utah & Arizona.

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