The Rocky Mountains of Colorado
Heavy snow was forecast in the next 24hours. Time to pick up sticks.
Motorhome News from North America 42 23rd April - 6th May 2007
From the Rockies to Nebraska and South Dakota - and the sad demise of Suzie, our friend and bear.
Rocky Mountain National Park
There seemed little point in waiting for the snow to come to Rocky Mountain National Park, leaving us with the prospect of sitting out the days awaiting the thaw. Two feet of snow was forecast and that was enough to convince us to move on rather more rapidly than previously intended. We had enjoyed our short stay; the awesome sight of magnificent mountains of the Continental Divide sawing a sharp line through the state: 58 jagged white peaks over 14,000ft stretching their heads into the sky, herds of elk and deer on the hills, fleeting flocks of bluebirds on the meadows, crossbills in the pines and fishermen casting the fast-flowing streams alive with trout.
Perhaps we escaped the worst, we’ll never know now, but snow and sleet made for tough driving, out through Estes Park and Loveland, down the seemingly never-ending Big Thompson River Gorge and along the state highway into Wyoming, traversing the great grassy prairies to Cheyenne. A well deserved
coffee stop after two hours of driving allowed us also to catch up on haircuts: two walk-ins; no appointment necessary, for a total of $18 (£9) with ‘senior’s’ discount!
Mile after mile of shallow hills lay before us through Wyoming, bypassing Laramie (I'm old enough to remember a man from there with notches on his gun - are you?) across open unfenced grassland, past scattered houses, nodding donkeys, snow-blinds beside the road teasing winter to return, on and on into the agricultural rolling hills of Nebraska. Our stay in that little western corner of Nebraska was delightful, a feeling of home in Norfolk, England: cultivated fields on gently sloping hills, black cows on tree-bordered pastures and a few lonely pines on hilltops. But Artesian wells, grain silos and long straight rail tracks denied us dreams of our homeland - along with sightings of prairie falcons and melodious meadowlarks.
Few people live here in Nebraska; and towns are few and far between, but they brim with local culture; so friendly and welcoming with a strong feeling of community. The rain and sleet finally stopped by late evening when our camp host stopped by. He was pleased to have someone
The Oregon Trail
Wagons Ho! At Scott's Bluff
to talk to; they don’t often get to meet strangers. It was a day for talking weather. “We have a saying hereabouts,” he said. “If you don’t like the weather in Nebraska, just wait an hour, or walk a mile. Where are you guys from, anyway?” he asked. “You have a funny accent.”
“England,” I replied, watching his face to measure his reaction.
“England! Whatever are you doing here, miles from nowhere?”
I gave him our standard answer. “Where are we?”
Wagon trains and the Pony Express passed through Nebraska on the Oregon Trail back in the early 1800’s on their way from St Louis to Astoria, Oregon, loaded to the buckboard with dreams of a fresh start and a new life in the west. By the time they reached the landmark of Scott’s Bluff standing 800ft above the plains they had travelled just a third of the way to Oregon. They knew they were leaving the plains behind, facing the daunting prospect of clearing the Rocky Mountains with heavy hearts. A little later, the Mormons followed the same route into Utah, many pulling handcarts loaded with their family belongings fifteen arduous miles each day across the prairie. Many
died before reaching the Promised Land. We know nothing of hardship do we?
Those covered wagons were an early form of motorhome of course; though we travel today without the daily fear of cholera, Indian attacks, broken wagon wheels, lost horseshoes, exhausted oxen, starvation and the likely prospect of an early death.
Nobody travels by wagon train or railroad in the US anymore, except perhaps commuters in areas of dense population, but freight trains continue to play their part in the economy. BNSF trains roll the rails through Nebraska, yellow giants ferrying coal from Northeast Wyoming to industrial Chicago, three engines pounding away, 120 wagons, nose-to-tail like marching army ants, 1.3miles from end to end; rattling, rolling, hooting, clanging. If you’re caught at a railroad crossing as happened to us, there could be time to nip home for a cup of tea before the train’s gone through.
During the 1870’s you might have been excused for bypassing the Pine Ridge area of Nebraska. The White River flows languidly now, carrying its grey clay deposits southwards from the Badlands through an area alive with legends of The Indian Wars. A fort was established there in 1874 to protect the
The Guard House at Fort Robinson where Crazy Horse died
Precisely how he died remains a mystery, but his legend lives on.
Red Cloud Indian Agency and provide food, education and clothing to the Native Sioux Indians in return for their agreement to stay cooped up on their allotted land and learn the art of farming. The true tragedy of Fort Robinson was the death of Crazy Horse, the notorious Oglala Sioux warrior, who came to the Fort in May of 1877 with 900 of his braves under a white flag. How he died still remains a mystery, but in various reports he may have been stabbed by another Brave or stabbed in the back by a soldier. The Miliatary report differs somewhat from that of the Sioux of course. Whatever his reasons for surrender and the manner of his death, the legends of Crazy Horse will remain with the Sioux forever. He is credited with the defeat of General George Cook’s superior forces at Rosebud River and the annihilation of General Custer and his entire company at the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876.
After another exhausting but exciting day we stopped at Chadron ‘The City of no Strangers’ near the border with South Dakota, (Pop 5,600). One might agree with the slogan were it not for the 14 motels
listed in the Chamber of Commerce handout. We visited the Chamber searching for local points of interest and a dentist for Janice who recently lost a filling to a chewy biscuit. A friendly practitioner was selected at random, willing and eager to undertake the job and take our money, threatening Janice with serious sounding things like ‘root canals’ and $900! The temporary filling will hold until the NHS kicks in back home.
We crossed into South Dakota climbing gently into the tree-capped hills of Pine Ridge, a long string of lonely rocky outcrops stretching across the plains through the Pine Ridge Reservation. Groups of diligent men and women were collecting trash from the roadside, trash blown into town by the incessant wind from the landfill site on the border, a signpost points to the local correctional facility and rusting cars and trucks litter the yards around ramshackle homes. These are indeed the sad lands.
Black Friday will be long remembered, as much for the humour as for the sorrow. The day arrived full of promise with broad blue skies and the prospect of our first sighting of the Badlands of South Dakota. By midday however, matters
started to turn for the worse. A fire broke out in my pocket as we sat having lunch in the motorhome! Something was burning my leg, emitting a strong smell of singed flesh and scorched material. “I’m on fire,” I shouted to Janice, frantically turning my pocket inside out, throwing coins, hankerchief and keys - and rechargeable batteries for the camera, out of the door! The coins and keys had shorted both batteries rendering them red hot! No lasting damage done, pride a little hurt and a leg a little singed perhaps, but a lesson learned.
Others have come off less well here in the past. Record books tell of the Battle of Wounded Knee, where, as recently as 1890, 146 Indians, men, women and children died at the hands of Custer’s Seventh Cavalry, US Army. At the site of the carnage on the Pine Ridge Reservation, the word, ‘Battle’, has been obliterated from the tourist information sign by the local Oglala Lakata people and in its place ‘Massacre’ has been inscribed. Like I said, it depends on whose side you're on. 36 soldiers also died that day, mostly from ‘friendly fire’ according to reports. Blame culture prevails here
again - believe what you will.
We spoke to members of the Oglala Tribe at their rather basic and somewhat biased Visitor Centre. With one or two exceptions, the women there were retiring and sad, weariness in their eyes reflecting all hope lost. It is very difficult not to feel for these people; drafted like a rocket into a strange world five hundred years before their time, still unable to come to terms with the future as the United States of America would wish it to be - or the past as they would still have it. But reality is not built on dreams. Poverty for many Oglala will continue for generations despite considerable efforts and energy to close the gap by those who care. Change will only come with time; more time, a time when they are strong enough to believe in themselves once again as did Crazy Horse, and have new blood in their veins to inherit the will. In the meantime people here will continue to live on the Reservation in dilapidated mobile homes, scratching around for work beside their rusting cars.
The Badlands will be known to most of us. And somewhere tucked up in
the brain cells there will be an image of grey rocky outcrops rising up from the plains, I’ll bet. It is indeed much of that and more. We were truly mesmerised by the strange sense of mystery and foreboding, a magnetism as immense as the sight of an alien craft from outer space: distant mounds, hills and mountains the colour and texture of clay in a dozen shades of cream and grey, pink and yellow - a 25 mile ridge of layered sedimentary clay and volcanic ash. A fringe of green prairie spread before us, treeless, table-top flat to the edge of the off-white distant hills and jagged peaks, witch's teeth modelled in mud, stark in the contrast of afternoon sunlight. Welcome to the Badlands of South Dakota and broad skies streaked with beadlike strands of fluffy cumulous.
‘TRAGEDY AT WHITE RIVER OVERLOOK’
Now and again we remember to photograph the two bears in our party, Todd Hamilton (named after the winner of the British Open Golf Championship!) and Oatman Sue (Suzie); originally with the intention of sending pictures back to Janice’s school. We stopped at an overlook in the Badlands for Janice to sit the terrible twins before
the camera. Within two minutes she was back. “David, help! Suzie has blown over the edge!" She tossed Todd ungraciously into the cab and raced off back to the ravine, closely followed by yours truly, smiling, and imagining Suzie a little way down. Not so, we discovered. Suzie was well and truly down the gully, fifty feet below us, and forty feet beyond, wedged in a cleft with her legs waving in the air. We contemplated rescue, but the canyon surface was crazed like eggshell, crumbling, slippery and steep, perhaps as much as 60 degrees. Thoughts of masters dying whilst trying to save their drowning dogs flashed before us, and sadly we finally resolved to leave her there, forlorn but not forgotten, a few tears shed, a member of our ‘family’ lost, visible but beyond reach, so near yet so far away. We’re kids at heart and we lay in bed that night remembering her happy moments with sad eyes. We talk to our bears, (sorry, bear) don’t you?
Oatman Sue, Aged 15 months. RIP. 27.04.2007
That night we camped outside the park at a little town called Wall, another one of those small western towns of
flat-topped timbered shops on a straight main street with trucks parked down the middle and cowboy character facades. Wall is famed for its main store, Wall Drug, heralded by massive hoardings from way back on the highway, taking up half the town’s shopping and all the car parking spaces. It’s an institution, attracting busloads of tourists from far and wide en route to somewhere else.
It’s hard for me to stand back and watch a grown woman cry. More for Janice than Suzie or her best friend Todd, I lay awake and forged a cunning plan overnight. The thought occurred to me she might be retrieved with the help of a fishing lure; one of those colourful plastic fish with triple barbed hooks - such as the one left in my tackle box. Up before the meadow lark, we traipsed back the 24 miles into the park, stopping at Ace Hardware in town for a reel of 6lb line and a 2ft ice-hole fishing rod for a mere handful of bucks, ready to do the business.
Suzie was still there when we arrived, a sad sight, head down in the gully. The first three casts fell short
The saga of Oatman Sue
Reunited. Suzie and Todd
on the breeze, the line annoyingly snagging on rocky outcrops below us, the task beginning to look impossible. At the fourth attempt, the lure fell close, tantalisingly close, touching but not hooking, Janice belaying the line as I went. A group of Korean gentlemen stopped their car and came over to take a look at the view. The blank expressions on their faces further exacerbated our already embarassed feelings - how many people do you know who go fishing for teddy-bears? We could almost hear them saying it, "They must be English."
Our patience and determination were finally rewarded. After an hour or so of jiggling, the hooks finally caught - and slowly, step by step, the white bedraggled form rose above the ridge, dangling at the end of the line, a green barbed fish stuck firmly in her ear! We still can’t believe it - and neither can Todd. He’s all smiles again now, reunited at last.
It’s approaching the end on April and the time has arrived to raise the stakes on selling Winnie, our motorhome, if we are to be home in the UK in the next month or two. In a push
Waiting for the stage
to gain exposure we agreed to stay in Rapid City at the heart of the Black Hills for a week and splash the local papers with advertisements before resorting to dealers and the costly option of ‘consignment sales’. We’ll see how it goes over the next few days. Meanwhile, we will be camping high above the town on an all-but empty campsite, watching the town's twinkling lights as darkness falls.
There is a certain magnificence in the long range of hills rising above the prairies of South Dakota. The Black Hills are blessed with great stands of dark ponderosa pine from which the hills derive their name, deeply carved canyons and gorges, and a few ghosts of the ‘wild west’ you might recognise. The Stage doesn’t come to Deadwood any more, though the song moves on, painting pictures of gold, guns, gambling, Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok. Both these characters lay buried overlooking the town in Mount Moriah Cemetery: James Butler aka ‘Wild Bill’ Hickok, a seasoned gambler, frontier scout, sheriff (notoriously fast with a gun), and stagecoach driver, died in 1876 - shot whilst playing cards in the Number 10 Saloon - followed in 1903 by Martha
Jane Burke (Calamity Jane) aged 53, stage performer, prostitute, sharpshooter, bullwhacker, drunk and accomplished liar we’re led to believe! Where the romantic notions of the silver screen started we can only guess, but Jane Russell, Yvonne de Carlo and Doris Day at least gave it their best shot over the years. It’s still a frontier town: Victorian facades dress the Main Street lined with casinos, bars and restaurants. The gold rush of 1876 established the town as a lively gambling place, and gambling is what keeps it alive today; every other establishment brimming with blackjack, poker, roulette wheels and pokies. Kevin Costner has invested some of his income from Dances with Wolves, filmed locally, in his own gaming saloon in town.
Nearby, the town of Sturgis stands at the northern end of the Black Hills. It was a Sunday. Sturgis was dead; its broad streets empty as Tombstone at gunfight time. Its fame is proudly built on its love affair with the motorbike, but there were no bikes that day. We had thought we might find the Ace Cafe and a hundred bikers, but still the echo of roaring bikes hangs over from one August to the next when
Four heads are better than one
half a million bike fans blast into town for the annual rally, thundering through the hills in stately fashion as only the true Harley biker can, gentlemanly, patient - even the ladies; don’t forget the ladies; great in leather.
Away to the south stands Mount Rushmore, set amongst spectacular bold rocky hills, rugged yet open, with tree-lined granite heights and open grassland. Rushmore is the ultimate American symbol of loyalty to the nation carved in stone, saluting four past Presidents: Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Washington and Jefferson, their heads standing proudly atop the mountain, each some sixty feet high. Three million visitors come here to pay homage each year and though we arrived early, this was our first encounter with numbers of foreign tourists for many months, collecting photographs of themselves with important figures from another world.
The Native American Indians also seek some recognition for their part in American history and they’re going about it in a big way. A mammoth statue is being carved into the mountainside seventeen miles along the road - and by mammoth, I mean big! The face of Crazy Horse is now in evidence after sixty years of blasting and carving, but several
The Crazy Horse Memorial
'My lands are where my dead lie burried'
generations will pass before the world’s largest sculpture is completed. The figure of Crazy Horse will rise above the skyline, 641ft long and 563ft high. The mountain can be seen a mile away in the photograph, beyond a 1/34th scale model of the finished statue in the visitor centre. In answer to the white man’s question, “Where are your lands now?” he is said to have pointed and replied, “My lands are where my dead lie buried.”
Please, join me in a song. Ready? Go, ‘….. Give me a home where the buffalo roam and the deer and the antelope play.’ How many of you recognise those few words, I wonder? Our trip to the southern Black Hills brought us on the Iron Mountain Road, coiled like a spring on corkscrew turns, squeezing through tiny tunnels and over wooden bridges to Custer State Park where we were led to believe we should see wildlife in abundance. To our delight the words of that song rang true, the buffalo roamed the wide rolling plains in huge herds, small groups of pronghorn antelope stood like ballerinas on delicate legs and skittish white tailed deer raised their ears in salute as we
drove past, the first catkins of spring hung on kerbside birches and bright green leaves finally emerged on quaking aspen. What more could one want for in life?
Our sojourn through Nebraska and South Dakota has touched our hearts. The people are seemingly content with their lot; wages are low they tell us, but the pace is placid and they thrive on trust. Wild West towns still linger where the gold and the railroad came and went, canopied boardwalks and fancy facades line the main drag and every town has spotless streets, tidy and smart, tended with care and community spirit. Space is a big player here too, there’s room for everyone. Rapid City is home to around 150,000 these days, but its nearest metropolitan city is Denver, 400miles away - and the miles are long on the prairies.
David and Janice. The grey-haired-nomads
PS. Sign seen on the back of a car: 'Save an Elk. Shoot a land Developer!'
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