“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.


Ozymandiasby Percy Bysshe Shelley, has always had a huge influence in my world view. It sums up, for me, the futility of expecting our works and deeds to forever ring down the halls of history. Even Ozymandias, the most powerful man of his time (Ozymandias is thought to represent  Ramses II) has been reduced to a few carved stones and tablets of diplomatic correspondence that have lost much of their context and meaning. We have a residue of information about Ramses II, quite a lot actually, but primarily the “official” view. Back then, history—the history that has survived the longest—really was written in stone (or dried clay).

Mount Rushmore may last longer unless it’s obliterated by a fusion bomb or meteor strike, but eventually it will suffer the same fate. I can picture people wearing untanned skins at some point in the distant (or not-so-distant) future, gazing in awe at the gigantic faces. After humanity has passed on or evolved beyond recognition, perhaps alien tourists or archaeologists will wander by and wonder if the sculptures represent the dominant species or their pets. After we fade away or have gotten off the rock permanently, only the baleful red Sun will look down upon an area of molten surface that used to contain the images of people.


I first saw Mount Rushmore in the sixties when my parents brought me to the Black Hills. On the current visit, I learned Gutzon Borglum had planned for future confused visitors. He proposed building a Hall of Records for the Monument.

From an archived NPS website:

In the canyon, located behind the carved faces, he decided to create a grand entrance way with doors 20 feet high by 12 feet wide. Above these doors and inscribed on a bronze eagle words would proclaim, “America’s Onwards March” and “The Hall of Records.” The chamber measured 80 by 100 feet and according to Borglum, this was the perfect place to store historical documents such as the Constitution of the United States and the Declaration of Independence. He also thought the hall should include busts of Americans who had made great accomplishments and lists of contributions that Americans made in the sciences, arts, and in industry. Borglum’s plan also called for a grand staircase of 800 granite steps beginning by his studio and gradually climbing up into the canyon behind Lincoln’s face leading to the Hall’s entrance.

Finally in 1998, the National Park System along with the Borglum family put the finishing touches on the Hall of Records. The room was not carved, but a titanium vault, housing a teakwood box was installed in the granite floor in the entrance way. The box contains sixteen porcelain enamel panels. On these panels are written the words of the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, a history of how and why Mount Rushmore was carved, a history of the four presidents with quotes from each, a biography on Gutzon Borglum, and the history of the United States. The capsule is sealed with a granite capstone.

RushmoreHallOfRecords_sPhoto Credit: Paul Horsted – Dakota Photographic LLC

I just eat this kind of stuff up! As a lover of post-apocalyptic fiction, I revel in the trope of the neo-savage puzzling over messages left in the time capsules of collapsed civilizations.

There’s some controversy around the monument. It really galls the Sioux that anyone would dare carve up their sacred mountains, mountains which are theirs because the Sioux said they were when the Europeans finally showed up. Their legal justification derives from the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie, a treaty signed by presumably well-meaning boobs in the US government with the Sioux people in 1868, and which became unenforceable when prospectors swarmed into the Black Hills after gold was discovered in 1874.

Something that isn’t ever mentioned by the Indians I’ve heard speaking recently is that the US Government made a good-faith effort to honor the Fort Laramie treaty and keep European settlers and prospectors out of the Black Hills. When that effort failed miserably, the US was faced with either shooting thousands of (voting) trespassers or standing back and watching the Sioux slaughter them. Then the US tried to buy the land from the Sioux, who responded with the equivalent of “What, are you guys kidding?” At that point the US began to maneuver the Sioux and their allies into the conflict that became the Great Sioux War.

We all know how that ended: the greatest good for the greatest number. The least number is still understandably pissed off.


The loser’s view (for those who still think only winners write the history) is provided a few miles away by the Crazy Horse Memorial. This project has not accepted any federal or state money.  Korczak Ziolkowski, the man who took on the challenge from members of the Sioux nation to build the monument, didn’t want to receive any government funding that might come with attached strings. He and his family support the project by receipt of private donations and the proceeds from what people pay to visit the site. The current focus of the project is the carving of the horse’s head. I doubt the Monument will ever approach Ziolkowski’s vision, if for no other reason that the planned final form seems too fragile to support itself.

Ironically but not surprisingly, the people who are most upset by the Crazy Horse Monument are the people it was meant to honor. See above: It really galls the Sioux that anyone would dare carve up their sacred mountains. At least they’re consistent.


A model of the planed Crazy Horse statue with the real thing in the background.

Crazy Horse reportedly said, “My lands are where my dead lie buried.” It’s interesting to consider that the US has now been in possession of the Black Hills longer than the Sioux, that more US than Sioux dead are buried there, and that the Black Hills are now arguably (though not legally) US “ancestral lands.” But the Sioux peoples are sitting back with their arms crossed, secure in the knowledge that their 18th century conquest of the Black Hills was legitimized by the US in a 19th century treaty. The fact that the treaty was unrealistic and unenforceable doesn’t mean it isn’t legal. Even though the Sioux have had a hell of a time getting the law enforced, the rule of law is on their side.

I realize I’ve been obsessing over the topic of Who Owns the Black Hills (and by extension, who owns the United States) since I visited the Little Bighorn Battlefield in August. But even though I was only at the battlefield for one evening and one day, we marinated in a series of places named “Custer” and wandered the Black Hills for an entire month. I had a lot of time for contemplation. In traditional (pre-European Contact) conflict over land and resources, Native Americans had three methods to resolve conflict: 1). kill the enemy, 2). assimilate the enemy, 3.) drive the enemy away. Typically all three methods were used. When the Europeans entered the mix, they initially had the same three options. But by the end of the 19th century, option 3, drive the enemy away, was no longer a choice. The US had run out of places to drive the indigenous population except into increasingly smaller parcels of land already guaranteed to them. Option 2, assimilation, was attempted but misfired badly when “Kill the Indian and save the man” efforts to forcibly assimilate children weren’t well received by the people who were members of the cultures about to be “killed.” And option 1, kill the enemy, is now frowned upon, at least within our own borders.

The US Government and the surviving indigenous peoples in the continental United States have been trying to work out a practical fourth option for over a hundred years now. The results to date have not been good; descendants of the so-called First Nations have continued to be marginalized by the dominant culture. Weird compromises have emerged in the spectacle of Indian Casinos, a phenomenon that doesn’t seem like a good idea for anyone in the long run. At least we’re doing better than other places where option 1, kill the enemy, is still being practiced off and on, places like Chechnya, the Balkans, most of the Middle East. . .

I’m not inclined to think a workable fourth option will ever be found, though I’m willing to be proved wrong. And, no, I don’t think “give it back” is a workable option, the logical extension of which would require everyone now living to head for Africa and cram themselves into the Olduvai Gorge.

I think the only realistic option is assimilation into the dominant culture. Refusal to do so has left us with festering pest-holes where people are caught up in gaining revenge for things that happened hundreds of years ago, places like Chechnya, the Balkans, most of the Middle East. . .

Speaking as a fully assimilated Northern Barbarian, I say, come on in, the assimilation is fine a few generations down the road. The sooner we’re all related to each other, the sooner we can start arguing with each other over the important stuff, like Dancing with the Stars.

And now, I’m done with that topic for a while.


We now move on to a time-scale guaranteed to diminish humanity’s puny contributions to geology. Millions of years ago in an area we now call South Dakota, an escarpment  formed as sediment was deposited between two different relatively stable land surfaces. More recently, a few pebbles were disrupted by a sightly larger pebble which rolled over because of wind or water pressure. Or perhaps a mammoth kicked it over. At any rate, after 500,000 years of erosion, this is what we get: The South Dakota Badlands.


The erosion is still spreading across the landscape at a pace to be measured in geological units, perhaps at, approximately, a glacial pace.


Next to the Badlands is the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site. In 1994, the remaining facilities of the 44th Missile Wing consisting of  a Launch Control Facility and a Missile Silo/Launch Facility were transferred to the National Park Service. This is the Delta One launch control center operated by the 66th Strategic Missile Squadron. This location has never been secret, but it is low profile. From the highway the facility looks like some sort of agricultural station. . .


. . .until you get up close enough to read the fine print. The site is open to the public now, and free tours are available to anyone. “Use of deadly force authorized.” is no longer the Order of the Day, though, without the permission of the Installation Commander as per the Internal Security Act of 1950;50 U.S.C. 797, it might revert.


In 1994 the Launch Control Facility was transferred directly to the National Park Service. Everything in the facility is intact from SAC, so to speak: the seventies era forest mural on the back wall designed to foster the illusion that the missileers stationed here weren’t living on a featureless steppe, the warning notes from the CO on the refrigerator that abandoned food must be thrown away before an unknown form of life mutates from bacterial exposure to radiation (just kidding about the radiation part, not the note on the fridge part), the big bulky cathode ray TV set and peripheral VCR, the rather odd collection of paperbacks in the lounge, the board games that predated Angry Birds.


This is the layout of the Launch Control Facility. The living quarters and guard rooms are constructed above-ground, the Two Keys to World War Three are in the underground Launch Control Center.


To get to the Launch Control Center, you take an elevator down and enter through a blast door. A very thick blast door. It was a kick to hear the young Ranger present the Facility and its history to us. He didn’t grow up with the same Cold War we did, this is mostly academic to him. But he knew his facts and was able to present them entertainingly and articulately.


This is one of the two control panels in the Center. Each is a duplicate of the other. Both must be under human control for the Center to send launch commands.


This is one of the locks that must be released to launch. Both keys in both control panels must be turned at the same time to send a launch authorization. The locks are theoretically too far away for one person to operate, though a lunatic free from the distraction of his or her human partner could possibly have used old-people can-grabbers to start World War Three. Not with these locks though, the missile silos controlled by this center have all been imploded, with one exception. . .


. . .the Delta Nine Silo. Delta Nine was one of ten silos under the command of the Delta One Launch Control Center.  The other nine, along with the remaining 140 silos and other Launch Control Facilities of the 44th Missile Wing, were imploded in 1994 as required by the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I).


The Delta Nine Silo contains a defanged Minuteman II. The armored cover has been rolled open and welded in place. There is a clear cover of hardened glass or plastic over the silo so you and Russian spy satellites can see the inert missile inside. That’s part of the agreement. We get to keep this silo and launch facility as a museum, and the Russians get to monitor the area.


Rapid City is known as the City of Presidents and has its very own “The City of Presidents” downtown where a series of life-sized bronze statues of the past Presidents of the United States stand on the street corners. They’re all there (except Barack Obama who is “coming soon”). We each sought out our favorite former presidents. Nan’s was Jimmy.


Mine was Teddy.

20130901_SouthDakota_003sWhile we were in South Dakota we made a pilgrimage to the town of Deadwood. At first glance this would appear to be a normal-looking city police car.


On closer examination, one questions the official nature of the vehicle. Could it be. . . the Transformer Decepticon Barricade?

20130901_SouthDakota_008sIn 1876 Wild Bill Hickok was shot to death in Deadwood. The story goes that Wild Bill was sitting in a poker game with—uncharacteristically—his back to the door of the saloon. The story further goes that he was holding aces and eights, now known as the Dead Man’s Hand, though this may be apocryphal. And in an even further stretch, this chair is alleged to be the very chair Wild Bill was sitting in when the coward Jack McCall shot him from behind! I wonder if this is the same chair I saw in the sixties?


It’s always a pleasure to visit the local slime plant, now serving light beer.


We’ve taken trains before, but the train from Hill City to Keystone was the first time we’ve ever been pulled by steam. I love steam engines, but if I had to operate a locomotive, give me a diesel.


This impassioned plea for companionship was seen from the train, yet another indication that South Dakota could use more population. The population in Hill City sold us Black Hills Gold, which I didn’t even know was a thing. I thought it was just gold mined in the Black Hills. They also served us a couple of excellent German meals at the Alpine Inn and educated us at the Civilian Conservation Corps and Paleontology museums.


At the Jewel Cave National Monument, outside of Custer SD, you must be able to fit through this opening in order to go on one of the wild cave tours. Now visualize crawling through a tube this big but 50 feet long. Are you feeling claustrophobic yet?

We spent a month in Custer City South Dakota, living at Custer’s Gulch RV Park, right outside of Custer State Park. For the record, this was not due to my Custermainia. Custer City had several RV campgrounds convenient to the sites we were interested in, primarily the Rushmore/Crazy Horse Memorials, the Badlands, and the State Park. The Custer’s Gulch RV park was recommended to us by friends we met in Oregon, though it was interesting to think we were camping in the same area Custer’s force camped during the 1874 Black Hills Expedition.

Here we put the final nail in our South Dakota residency; we replaced our Missouri driver’s licenses with South Dakota licenses.


The Black Hills is a stranger place than I ever knew it to be based on one visit long ago in the sixties. The geology is so unlike any of the surrounding terrain it stands out dramatically from space. We saw pronghorn, deer, and numerous buffalo (bison) in Custer State Park along with these striking granite needles. The core of the Black Hills contains some of the oldest rock on the continent.

Now we start to work our way back east towards Wisconsin.