Did we mention that the room we stayed in last night was more like a hunting cabin? That included a funky old stove, which enabled us to make our own coffee this morning. Soon we found ourselves racing across the prairie with a coal train highballing down the track alongside us.
We made a quick stop in Newcastle, Wyoming, to restock on cash and transmission fluid. We gave the truck a once-over and all was good. As we crossed the South Dakota state line, we left the prairie and entered the pine-covered mountains of the Black Hills. There had been some serious fires a few weeks ago, so most of the back roads in the national forest are now closed. Most of the fire damage we saw was from the past 2-3 years.
Our first big stop of the day was Jewel Cave National Monument. There are two entrances to Jewel Cave. One has walkways, lights, gift shops, big parking lots, and all the other amenities demanded by the crowds.
We went to the other entrance for the “strenuous” tour that lasts an hour and a half. During this time, our only source of light was from candles mounted in paint cans, so the cave looked a lot like it would have to the first people to discover it.
Our guide described how this system of caves is still being explored, and of the conditions endured by the spelunkers mapping out the hundreds of miles of passageways. She said that to get to the main staging area they must pass through “The Miseries,” a two-hour crawl through a half-mile passage with a minimum clearance of 7 inches and a maximum clearance of 11 inches. One must hold their head sideways to slither through that thing. The “strenuous tour” of this little half-mile of cave – with its crouching and ducking and stairways and ladders – is enough spelunking for us, thank you.
The rest of the afternoon was spent at the Crazy Horse Monument about 20 miles away. When completed, this monument will be over 600 feet high, dwarfing the nearby Mt. Rushmore. The visitor center complex includes a Native American museum (we saw some of the beads that the Dutch traded to the Natives for Manhattan Island), a craft market for local artists, and the workshop of the Polish-American sculptor who designed and started this memorial. Even though the sculpture is decades – if not generations – from being finished, miniature representations of the completed monument in a variety of sizes were everywhere we looked.
Passing thunderstorms discouraged us from leaving as we got hungry, so we ate at the on-site restaurant. We shared a buffalo Polish sausage sandwich (an appropriate culinary marriage of the two cultures that made this place happen), buffalo stew and fry bread while enjoying a view of the monument bathed in the light of the setting sun peeking beneath the storm clouds.
As we left the Crazy Horse Visitor Center, crowds of bikers huddled under the canopies waiting for the rain to let up. It was dusk and too wet to camp, so it was time again to look for a room. The nearest town was Custer, which was packed to the gills with bikers. The name of that town was enough to make us not want to stay there. 30 miles south was the town of Hot Springs, where we found one vacancy sign, on a slightly upscale B&B type of place. We got to the desk just as the last room had been sold to – you guessed it – a biker couple.
On the way to Hot Springs we passed through Wind Cave National Monument, where we saw a very large buffalo standing on the shoulder facing the road. He was smart enough not to step in front of our truck, or he could have messed it up badly. A group of bikers was following us, and we’d hoped that they would not startle that creature, whose mass was probably triple that of each of their Harleys.
We went south another 40 miles to Chadron, Nebraska. Bikers were still everywhere, and the motels on the leading edge of town were all full. On the far side of town there was one little place, but they had vacancies. The room we had that night turned out to be one of the best rooms for the price that we had on this oddyzee.