THE sparsely-inhabited mid-western US state, South Dakota, may be off the regular tourist map. But if you’re a journey-over-destination traveller, you’ll find there’s sweet reward to be experienced amid the rolling prairies and verdant valleys of this expansive state.
For some of my exploration of South Dakota, I base myself in its second-most-populated area – Rapid City, annotated frequently as gateway to the “Black Hills” and “Mount Rushmore.” A few days spent here is enough to convince me, however, that the city is more than glorified coachstop. With an infinitely-walkable downtown, punctuated with bars, eating joints, quirky stores, and statues of presidents – it sports an altogether creative vibe. You’d do well also to saunter down Art Alley – a back-alley studded with buildings draped in brightly-coloured murals – to get a sense of the energy the place exudes. Meanwhile, Rapid City also works as good base for all the day-trips listed here.
There’s no way you can call Mount Rushmore a hidden gem. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt, carved in 60-foot granite glory – have long been the recipient of traveller attention. Best photographed in the morning light, the 0.6 mile Presidential Trail is worth a wander along. From various perspective points on the trail – through a wee cave or from a platform – you’re offered an array of angles to scrutinise the attention-to-detail that went into this iconic sculpting. There is also a chance to contemplate the ideals that the monument represents – the continuance of the principles of liberty and freedom on which the nation was founded. The fame of the monument catapulted it into various representations in popular culture. You’ll know it, for instance, as the location of the climactic chase-sequence in the Alfred Hitchcock film North by Northwest.
EXPLORE BLACK HILLS
Driving further along, the density of Ponderosa Pines – that gives the Black Hills its illusion of darkness, envelopes us. To truly appreciate the terrain however, you have to develop a kind of bi-focal vision. There are the tiny features to watch out for – squirrels and chipmunks, woodpeckers and nuthatches, feeding on seeds and cones. Further afield – wildflowers rub shoulders with golden pea. Then the larger-than-life features of the area loom to prominence. A set of eroded granite pillars, towers and spires (called The Needles), popular with rock climbers and hikers – are the part of the landscape that we drive through. To have a guide with you to contextualise aspects of life here – for instance, like how the bats that live here here are crucial to controlling the population of insects like moths in the ecosystem – adds heart to this path.
If you have even the remotest interest in the traditions and the living heritage of the North American Indians, the visitor’s center of the Crazy Horse Memorial foundation is definitely worth a look at. Serving as a repository for the artifacts, arts and crafts of the community, there’s plenty of Native American History here – with which to engage. The larger-than-life and still a-work-in-progress Crazy Horse Memorial – with its warrior, strategist and Sioux leader astride his horse, who famously said, “My lands are where my dead lie buried” – can be seen at close quarters, on a guided tour. While you’re here, pop into the Laughing Water Restaurant, so named for the creek at the base of Crazy Horse Mountain. If you are after a piece of edible heritage, you’d do well to sample the Tatanka Stew. Prime cuts of tender Black Hill buffalo, slow-cooked with carrots, sweet potato, and celery -is rather a specialty in these parts.
CLUSTER STATE PARK
The phone network deserts me in the heart of Cluster State Park. I’m grateful. For not only am I instantly deprogrammed from the scramble of urban living, but also it’s a chance to interact with the wildlife in their natural habitat without interruption. Here buffalo rambling across the plane. There elk and big horn sheep. Everywhere bison. And just occasionally a curious donkey will wander up to our vehicle and with eyes that one simply cannot resist, will request a snack. Besides the feeding of these gentle creatures, the other new friends you meet here – from mountain goats to marmots – might appear docile, but are not. It’s best to show your appreciation of their lives and habitat, by admiring them from a reasonable distance.
Air-India flies nonstop between Delhi and Chicago. From Chicago to Rapid City, there are several connecting flights, 2-1/2 hours in duration.
Hotel Alex Johnson: Located in Central Rapid City, this historic hotel with its elegant rooms, period furnishings, atmospheric lobby, and history has much to recommend it. If you’re fond of ghost stories, Alex Johnson – that has long had a reputation as a haunted hotel – is worth staying at. Enquire about staying in a reportedly paranormal room, if you’re so inclined. For more information, visit alexjohnson. com.