“My hat is off to South Dakota Treasures … Go to South Dakota, but drive there. It is so near to us all and yet I never knew, nor had ever heard much about its southwestern treasure house ….” — Frank Lloyd Wright
Motoring west across the Great Plains, we see the dark jagged silhouette of our journey’s end in the distance. Abundant ponderosa pines make the up-thrusting hills (actually mountains) appear black.
A Devilish Destination
Having picked up our V-twin mounts the previous day at Black Hills Harley-Davidson, we’re anxious to get riding on this crisp and brilliantly sunlit spring morning. Bruce brings the Heritage Softail Classic to life with a thunderous roar. My wife, Karen, and I are riding the Electra Glide Ultra Limited, which matches the staccato rumble of the Softail. First gear engages with an authoritative thump; I ease the clutch lever out and simultaneously roll on the throttle. Engine torque immediately translates into commanding forward motion. We’re off for a day of close encounters with the Black Hills and beyond.
Motorcycles & Gear
2013 Harley-Davidson Electra Glide Ultra Limited
2013 Harley-Davidson Heritage Softail Classic
Helmet: Schuberth C3 Pro Modular Helmet
Jacket: British Motorcycle Gear Montana, Harley-Davidson Illumination
Pants: Vanson Sport Rider, Harley-Davidson Illumination
Boots: H-D Constrictor Pull-On Harness
We leave the mountainous central core of the Black Hills and ride on to an expansive limestone plateau that stretches to the horizon in all directions. After crossing into Wyoming, we dive into the Red Valley, which encircles the entire Black Hills region. The road is like a giant serpent draped lazily across the lush grasslands. We feel swallowed up in this vast landscape. Near the far side of the valley, we pass through Sundance, WY. And, yes, the real Sundance Kid was named after this small burg, which in turn derived its name from a Native American ceremony.
Rising to almost a mile above sea level, Devils Tower dominates the prairie surrounding it. Scientists have competing theories on how the tower was formed, but the essential fact is clear: columns of very hard igneous (volcanic) rock were deposited here eons ago. Over millions of years the sedimentary rock eroded away and left a visually arresting geological structure. Besides being a spiritual icon for Native Americans, Devils Tower also was the alien landing spot in Steven Spielberg’s 1977 movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind. A T-shirt in the visitor center pictures an extraterrestrial asking that we “Please send more tourists, the last ones were delicious.”
Near day’s end, we arrive in scenic Spearfish Canyon where the creek has carved a dramatic high-walled gorge into the Black Hills. The canyon is home to a surprisingly diverse collection of flora, including plant life from the Rockies and deciduous trees from the east.
Instead of drinking in the splendor, though, I’m more captivated by the smooth-as-glass road surface squirming its way along Spearfish Creek. Consequently, that beautiful vista is mostly just a blur in my peripheral vision.
Crazy Horse and Custer
Our second day of touring begins with cooler temperatures and a partially cloudy sky. Predictable sweeping curves and lush vegetation adorn our up-tempo trajectory south on U.S. 385. Picturesque Pactola Reservoir, however, demands that we pull off for a closer look. Crystalline waters are encircled by olive green conifers that grow up and above surrounding ridgelines along the shore.
Condensation is rising over rooftops in Hill City, SD, as we glide to a stop in front of the Black Hills Central Railroad. A steam powered excursion train is about to chug out of the depot for a two-hour and 15 minute round trip to Keystone, SD. Inside the South Dakota State Railroad Museum, I spot a humorous quote by America’s most famous investor. When his company acquired the Dakota Southern Railroad as part of the billion purchase of BNSF in 2009, Warren Buffett said, “This is all happening because father didn’t buy me a train set as a kid.”
A little farther south on U.S. 16 is a monument that seems to rival the scale used by ancient Egyptian builders, but this one is still in progress. Korczak Ziolkowski was already a well known artist and sculptor when he was invited to the Black Hills in a letter from Henry Standing Bear. The letter intoned, “My fellow chiefs and I would like the white man to know the red man has great heroes, also.” Work began on the massive memorial to 19th century Lakota leader Crazy Horse in 1948. Ziolkowski died in 1982, but his wife and children have carried on the work.
Although the exact completion date is uncertain, the structure ultimately will be 641 feet long and tower 563 feet above the surrounding topography. The head alone, which has been completed, is more than 87 feet high. Crazy Horse was chosen by the Lakota Sioux for the tribute because of his skill in battle, modest lifestyle, devotion to his people, and tragic death.