Off The Beaten Path

Posted: Wednesday, October 1, 2008 at 12:00 am
By: Doug Lund
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Okay, Wild Bill, I’ll get out of DeadwoodThe vote was unanimous; on our annual excursion to the Black Hills this autumn, Linda and me along with our traveling companions, Denny and Joanie Graves, were going to get off the beaten path and go places and do things we hadn’t done in years or never at all.
It began with the road West. Rather than stay on Interstate 90 all the way, we decided to hang a right on highway 73 and head toward Philip where none of us remembered ever being before. We stopped at a local honky tonk for a light lunch of chicken strips, onion rings and mozzarella sticks..all fresh from the deep fat fryer.
We continued North to highway 34 then turned left in the direction of Sturgis through antelope-filled countryside that is amazingly beautiful simply by its barrenness.The beauty of solemnity somewhere between Philip and Sturgis
 
Coming into Sturgis from the East, we passed by the infamous Buffalo Chip Campground where hundreds of thousands of bikers call home and where big name entertainers perform on stage during the August motorcycle rally.    
“We should check out one of the biker bars,” I suggested.
 The Broken Spoke Saloon probably serves a thousand or more rowdy customers at a time during rally week so it felt pretty big and pretty tame when we went inside early on a Friday afternoon in late September; just us and a few thirsty cowboys sitting at the bar.
Denny and I jokingly suggested that our wives carry-out a Sturgis bar tradition but they just rolled their eyes…said something like “yeah, right” and left their sweatshirts firmly in place.
 
It had been many years since we’d been to Mount Rushmore so that was our destination Saturday. After shelling out ten bucks to park the car, we trudged up a cold grey granite incline to the viewing terrace. In spite of the federal government’s efforts to sterilize the place, the sculpture, itself, never fails to impress.
What the government did get right during the remodeling several years ago, was to create the President’s Trail which allows people to walk directly under the faces. Denny and Joanie  had never seen Rushmore from that perspective..so close if Washington sneezed we’d get a shower. They loved it.Rushmore from The President’s TrailThe trail continues down to sculptor Gutzon Borglum’s studio which none of us had seen. The sign warns that the trip is strenuous…but how strenuous can going down a bunch of steps be?
The sculptor’s studio contains the model Borglum designed and built for use as a guide to carve the mountain.  His model for the unfinished hall of records behind the monument is also there.
“Okay..how do we get back to the car?” 
Oh..so that’s where the strenuous part comes in.Linda and Joanie’s smiles mask their concern over the long climb ahead back to the  top.
 
After we caught our breath, Joanie said she hadn’t been on the Needles Highway since their kids were little.
“Well, we might as well take Iron Mountain Road to get there,” I said.
It turns out that the Graves had never traveled that winding highway and were blown away by the site of pigtail bridges and all the tunnels that were designed and carved out to perfectly frame Mount Rushmore at the entrance or exit. 
 
Just when we were thinking that the 12 dollar daily fee to enter Custer State Park was a bit excessive, we came upon dozens of donkeys that had traffic stopped on the road begging for food..willing to stick their head in your car to get it.
“No wonder the democrats have an ass for a mascot,” I heard one delayed traveler say. “They’re always looking for a handout.” 
The donkeys aren’t indigenous to the hills. Back in the twenties, an enterprising gentleman brought several burros in to carry tourists to the top of Harney Peak. Within a few short years, the guy gave up on the idea and turned the animals loose in the hills where they have since been fruitful and multiplied.
 
I’d about given up on seeing a buffalo as we inched along the switchbacks toward the needles when suddenly we came around a corner and met this majestic fellow dining on grass along the narrow roadway.
 
Traveling the Needles Highway is no quick journey and when we finally emerged onto 385 after what seemed like hours of twisting and turning we agreed that it may be another 30 years before doing it again.
 
It was time for rest and refreshment so, in keeping with our commitment to get off the beaten path, we looked for an out-of-the-way spot for a picnic. We found it on the other side of Sheridan Lake; a quiet little empty campground in the woods..perfect.Good friends and good wine.
 
In our many trips to the Black Hills, we’ve spent a lot of time in Deadwood; even taken the tour of Mount Moriah to see Wild Bill and Calamity Jane’s graves. But we’ve always been curious about the houses that cling precariously to the slopes of Deadwood gulch. So, at breakfast Monday morning, I suggested we take a drive up there. That’s how we discovered Mt. Roosevelt Road..a bumpy gravel path that turned out to reveal the most stupendously beautiful and colorful Black Hills vistas we’d ever seen. Driving it is a challenge and poor Linda, who literally gets nauseous peering out the window over a thousand foot dropoff, covered her eyes until we stopped the car.  Upon our return to town, we all agreed that we didn’t have to drive Spearfish Canyon again this year. It’s lovely but doesn’t hold a candle to Mt. Roosevelt Road.
To get there turn west on the first street North of the Franklin Hotel and hang on!
I can’t wait until next year to try other new adventures the Hills have to offer; adventures that don’t involve stubborn slot machines or unsympathetic dealers when you go bust after taking a hit on 16.
Any ideas?
Share them in the comments below.

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