Getting My Griswold On – Day 4: Black Hills

Miles traveled today: 166.8
Total miles traveled: 1547.2

It’s Technically Not “Stealing” Since I Didn’t Pocket Anything

I forgot to mention yesterday the one downside to my motel in Rapid City: a crappy wireless internet connection. For some reason I cannot log on through the Super 8 server, so I have to look for other local networks. Last night there were none to be found. It was late, and I had to get my blog updated, so at 11 PM I threw on a pair of sandals, packed up my laptop, and walked up a small hill, through the wet grass, and past a darkened car wash business to the Hilton next door. I strolled in like I owned the place, marched right through the lobby, said hello to the clerk on duty, and set up my laptop. I got the Hilton signal easily enough, but it needed a password. Undaunted, I walked up to the front desk and asked for the password, which they provided to me on a slip of paper. Heh. I then spent the next 45 minutes working on my blog and uploading pictures to Facebook. At one point the clerk asked if I was cold and offered to get me a blanket. I politely declined. Lesson learned: pretend like you belong somewhere, and nobody will ever be the wiser.

The things I do for you people…

By the way, after yesterday’s severe thunderstorm, I noticed today that I have hail damage to my car. There are several pock marks and indentations on the hood, about the size of golfballs. One of them even chipped the paint. I guess I’ll have to think of that as a souvenir from South Dakota. Fortunately the Santa Fe is well past its prime anyway.

Gutzon Was A Dynamite Master

After waking up shortly before 7:00 and helping myself to the free motel breakfast (they’re the same every day at every place, and starting to get old), I headed up to Mount Rushmore. As far as the monument goes, it hasn’t changed a bit since 1986. As for the visitor’s center, however, it’s completely different. There is now a multi-story parking garage where before there was just a paved lot (hard to believe). The Avenue of Flags is now more elaborately designed, and the whole museum/gift shop/amphitheater complex is radically different. One cool new thing: there’s a Trail of Presidents that winds down to just beneath the mountain, with some great vantage points you weren’t able to see before.

Even though I’ve been to Mount Rushmore many times, it is still amazing to see. I stared at it for a long while, reflecting on the intervening years of my life since I’d last visited, and enjoying the awe-inspiring beauty of the surroundings. The sky was a perfect, deep shade of indigo, with puffy clouds building over the Black Hills. Incredible. I have seen so much beauty on this trip already, it’s really made me appreciate this great land of ours. I spent about two hours at the monument and bought a few souvenirs. Including a windbreaker, Esther. Bring on the rain!

Lord, I Was Born A Gamblin’ Man

After Mount Rushmore, I drove north to the historic town of Deadwood. Here’s a place that is radically different from before for one simple reason: gambling is legal, so there has been a proliferation of casinos. Since I subscribe to the whole “When in Rome” philosophy, I decided to try my hand at the slots. I’m hardly a big spender, though – I put a dollar in a penny slot, worked my way up to $8, then gave it all back to the casino. Oh, well – I was suitably entertained for ten minutes or so. Afterwards, I stopped by Wild Bill’s Saloon & Steakhouse for a buffalo burger and Coke. I was parched – that’s one thing I’m having trouble getting used to on this trip: the heat. I was burning up, beads of sweat were dripping down my neck, and when I passed a bank thermometer, it read 75 degrees. LOL…it’s the humidity. It’s been brutal here, with all the thunderstorm activity every day. Quite frankly, the weather here is insane. When I started writing this post, we had blue skies and sunshine. Within an hour – no exaggeration – a thunderstorm moved in. It was every bit as intense as yesterday’s. Lightning was flashing constantly, thunder rumbling, we had hail and heavy rain and winds. Total deja vu. Naturally, I went outside with my camera to try – once again – to capture that perfect lightning shot, putting my very life at risk.

This time, I think I succeeded. But I digress…

Satisfied with my Deadwood experience, I drove through its twin city, Lead. Much less touristy, and known for its gold mining. Lead is a beautiful town full of rolling hills and amazing scenery.

When Did Rapid City Become So Funky?

My tour of the Black Hills complete, I returned to Rapid (as the locals call it, something that annoyed me in 1983 but I now find charming). I decided to check out Dinosaur Park, not so much for the dinosaur statues but, rather, for the amazing view of Rapid, and the distant prairie. After snapping some pics, I headed downtown to the Historical District. I was quite surprised to find a little slice of Portland in Rapid City: quaint coffee shops, a used bookstore, and this cool alleyway I stumbled upon that was decorated all over with graffiti and murals. I strolled through there, taking plenty of pics. Love it!

I then decided to head for my old high school, right outside Ellsworth AFB. I pulled into the parking lot and stared at it, mesmerized. I’ve always been in a weird position when it comes to high school – I graduated from Milpitas High in California, but only spent my senior year there. The first three years I attended Douglas High School here in South Dakota. On the one hand, I feel like Douglas is my true high school since 75% of my time was spent there, but on the other, my diploma has the name of a different school on it. It’s a strange situation. I parked my car there and wandered around, staring at Patriot Stadium and peeking inside the glass doors at the hallways I once roamed, many years ago. A flood of memories returned, naturally.

I couldn’t get on base – the visitor’s center was closed – so I drove instead to Rushmore Mall in Rapid City. Made a quick beeline through there, only because – again – it was a hangout, back in the day. I remember taking my first girlfriend there to see a movie starring a little-known actor named Jim Carrey. The film was Once Bitten and it was cheesy, but a fun night. My adolescent hormones were in overdrive. I think it was my first “real” date. Good memories.

One random observation about South Dakota: you’ll see people dressed up as cowboys even though Halloween is months away. And there are Indians, too. This town is definitely still very much clinging to its Old West roots. On the way back to my motel, I stopped at a grocery store for booze, since I didn’t bring any on my trip. South Dakota, it turns out, is yet another state that sells liquor in their grocery stores. C’mon already, Oregon and Washington – get a clue!

I Killed Cleveland

Because I left on this trip a day early, my schedule has a little bit of flexibility built in. After a full day on the go, I realized that I hadn’t seen enough of South Dakota yet, and couldn’t imagine leaving tomorrow morning with so much still to explore. So, I made the decision to nix the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. Instead of spending an extra day in Ohio, I’m spending it in South Dakota instead. I am enraptured by this place all over again, and want to enjoy every last drop of it while I can. If Dayton represents my childhood, Rapid City is my adolescence. Even though I’m inevitably disappointing a couple of friends in Ohio, this is my trip, and I have to do what feels right.

And now, some pictures.

The first view of Mount Rushmore from Highway 16.
Gutzon Borglum's famous sculpture, carved out of granite.
One more sign that this is Sioux country.
Pactola Lake Reservoir, Black Hills
Downtown Deadwood.
In Deadwood, you can see history unfolding before your eyes.
Rapid City, SD.
Dinosaur Park has been a Rapid City landmark since 1936. It offers great views!
Welcome to Art Alley.
Art Alley, Rapid City
Art Alley in Rapid City. How cool and funky!
One of the murals in Art Alley.
Patriotic lightning.

Published by Mark Petruska

I'm a professional writer and editor living my best life in south central Wisconsin.

25 thoughts on “Getting My Griswold On – Day 4: Black Hills

  1. Lovely, Mark…
    the last time we ambled through South Dakota was on our move back to Washington from Georgia…we still have the picture our daughter (5 at the time) was lucky enough to get of my husband and I, with MT. Rushmore in the background. It was a cold January…we tried to drive the badlands in our Ford Aerostar, and turned around a mile in…defeated.

    It’s beautiful country out there…it speaks to me deeply, as an American….I don’t know how to explain it.



    1. I get that, Jane. I’ve been feeling unusually patriotic ever since setting out on this journey. South Dakota has reawakened feelings in me that have lain dormant a long time. Tomorrow I’m headed to the Badlands! I’m pretty sure there won’t be snow, but I may have to deal with a thunderstorm or two.


  2. Some of the most awesome lightning I ever saw was one night driving home from work(the swing shift) and the lightning was going sideways!!This was in Rapid City!!


  3. OMG, I had the same 3 years here – 1 year there high school experience. It’s weird, right?

    Thanks for fighting the good fight to find an internet connection. What you endure for us!


  4. Beautiful Mark…love the post and of course the pictures. Sorry to hear about the damage and also about the crappy internet connection. Going to another hotel though? Priceless!!


  5. Dude! Good choice spending an extra day there, it’s beautiful!! Your photos are awesome, keep up the good work! Love the one of Mount Rushmore off the highway, it’s so…”Aaaaahhhhhhhhh!” *angel music*
    And Deadwood, how quaint and historic! I love it when Historic buildings are preserved and maintained, it’s so refreshing to see. The lake, the natural surroundings… I could totally see myself living in a place like that, but the hail and lightning sound really really scawy. :-/

    I’m glad my nagging made you buy a jacket. 🙂


  6. “Lesson learned: pretend like you belong somewhere, and nobody will ever be the wiser.”

    HA! You GO, boy!!!!

    I use to do the same thing; pretending that I was staying at a hotel (but really not) and use their pool facilities. However, eventually they figured it out and EVICTED me. The NERVE of them!

    Mark, once again….your pictures ROCK!

    The one of Mount Rushmore looks like a postcard. And what a cute little town Deadwood is.

    “Even though I’m inevitably disappointing a couple of friends in Ohio, this is my trip, and I have to do what feels right.”

    That’s right! I think it’s great that you’re ‘going with the flow’ and doing what feels right in the moment.

    Continued Happy Trails, bud!


  7. Very cool, mark! I saw this post last night, but didn’t have the energy to read. Yesterday’s funeral, and subsequent emptying of her apartment, was brutal.


  8. Wow, deadwood sounds cool. I think there’s a HBO or Showtime show based on Deadwood. Glad to hear the trip is going well and you’ve enjoyed some nostalgic moments!


    1. Deadwood was awesome. I’ve had a lot of fun experiences already on this trip, but the buffalo burger in the saloon might just top them all.

      OK, fine…maybe the spectacular scenery and majestic monuments rank up there, too.


  9. I loved Mount Rushmore – so much better than I thought it would be. It’s been more than 30 years since I’ve seen it – I’d love to go to the Black Hills with my family for a camping trip. I have an aunt who lives near Rapid City – may be time to arrange a visit.


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