Ever since returning from our short “vacation from our vacation” in L.A. to see Garrison Keillor’s last show, we have been turning it up on national park and park unit visits. We are taking advantage of the nice summer weather by spending the better part of July in the north central part of the U.S., a.k.a. the Great Plains grasslands area which, incidentally, we just learned is the largest ecosystem in the U.S. — who knew?! Anyway, we are having a busy three weeks in Nebraska and the Dakotas before we make our way over to Billings, Montana, from which we will fly back up to Alaska to visit the final two [of the eight up in Alaska] national parks we missed during our trip up there last year. But I’m getting ahead of myself — Nebraska and South Dakota first.
I’ve decided to do something a little different with this post. Instead of uploading photos from this Nebraska/Dakotas leg of our trip, I’ve decided to share drawings from my sketchbook. For those of you who don’t know, the National Park Service Visitor Centers sell passport books and then each NP Visitor Center has passport stamps for inking into your passport book. Instead of the traditional NPS passport book, I have created my own; I’m actually on my third book of sketches and stamps now — I figure I’ve drawn over 200 pages for all of the national park units that we’ve visited.
Here are my renditions of what we have seen in Nebraska and South Dakota:
Scotts Bluff National Monument – Gering, NE — The Oregon Trail represented promises of a new life out west. The California Trail promised gold. The Mormon Trail lead many seeking religious freedom to the Promised Land out in Salt Lake City. All three trails brought early pioneers through Nebraska where, after weeks of travel across prairie grasslands, they met up with 800′ bluffs. Thousands of wagon trains passed by the daunting bluff known as Scotts Bluff which was accompanied by a tricky climb through Mitchell Pass. Also passing by here, in the short-lived era of the Pony Express [1860-1861], riders changed horses at the Scottsbluff station.
Chimney Rock National Historic Site – Bayard, NE — Before they got to Scotts Bluff, settlers saw this iconic rock monolith. Visible for miles around in the flat Nebraska landscape, this eroded remnant of a butte reaches 325′ into the sky and was certainly a prominent landmark for the westward-bound settlers.
During our two-day stay in this area I couldn’t help but imagine what it must have been like to travel across the country in a bumpy wagon train — the dust from the dry tracks of the wagon trains that came before… the foul smells of the oxen… the unpredictable weather that no doubt included rain, sleet and snow… terrible terrible sickness and frequent death that beset travelers not up for such a strenuous trip… the list of unpleasantries goes on. And yet in the name of “Manifest Destiny,” travel across the country these pioneers did, in search of a better life. I guess I shouldn’t complain about my small closets in Charley, now should I…?
Agate Bluffs Fossil Beds National Monument – Harrison, NE — Rich deposits of fossils have been found in this area by paleontologists suggesting that ancient but now distinct creatures once roamed in this area. Given the volume of fossils here, it is believed that during a period of drought animals concentrated around the scarce watering holes that were available. Over time they ate up all the vegetation around these few water spots, and then in the heat and drought grew too weak to walk farther out for food, thus they died by the watering holes, became covered in mud, and were then preserved as fossils. Among the skeletons found here are strange looking creatures including a small rhinoceros, a carnivorous bear-dog, a land-dwelling beaver, a bad-ass hog, a tiny gazelle-camel, and other Miocene-epoch animals. For over 100 years now paleontologists have been studying these fossils which has helped answer questions about the past.
A second part of this national monument is an incredibly impressive collection of American Indian artifacts given to one James H. Cook, a frontiersman in this area, by people of the Lakota (Sioux) tribe. In 1874 Cook met Chief Red Cloud and the two developed a steadfast friendship over decades, during which time Cook received many gifts from the Indians. Today the family’s collection belongs to the park and many priceless items are on display that tell of the Native ways of life.
Jewel Cave National Monument – Custer, SD — There are several cave systems in this area, including the nearby Wind Cave National Park — another Jolly Out There destination, of course — and each is known for something specific. Jewel Cave is named for its gem-like calcite crystals that sparkle when illuminated. These are just one of the many speleothems, or cave formations, that can be seen when touring the caves. While Frostwork is the signature formation, others include Draperies, Dogtooth spar, Gypsum flowers, and even Popcorn and Bacon.
The only way to see the caves is through ranger-guided tours. Jewel Cave offers a couple of touring options, but visitors only see a small portion of the 180 miles of mapped passageways; the rest of the cave has been set aside for research and is not open to the public. Jewel Cave is the third longest cave in the world but it is still being explored and new passageways discovered by volunteer cave explorers.
Mount Rushmore National Memorial – Keystone, SD — What started as a preposterous idea to draw sightseers to the state of South Dakota became a work of art for the ages. This is Mount Rushmore, the magnificent American symbol that honors our past presidents who were dedicated to the birth, growth, development, and preservation of our nation.
Initially conceived to be a parade of Indian leaders and American explorers who shaped the frontier, the idea for a huge granite sculpture as a gateway to the West was met with skepticism and even hostility. Undaunted by public opinion, champions of the idea called upon master sculptor Gutzon Borglum, a Danish (yay!) immigrant who was just beginning to achieve fame for his “big” work. Borglum changed the location and even the subject of the initial idea, and in doing so elevated the memorial to a national cause.
Calvin Coolidge dedicated the memorial in 1927 and work commenced. It took 14 years to complete the four heads carved high into the granite outcroppings where the Black Hills rise from the plains [and incidentally, the original name of the rock Borglum chose was Mount Rushmore so the name stuck], but only six of those years involved actual carving on the rock face. Borglum died in March of 1941 but his son supervised the final work which stopped in October 1941 on the eve of the U.S. entry into World War II. Mount Rushmore overwhelmed its critics and continues to dazzle the world with over two million visitors each year.
Minuteman Missile National Historic Site – the grassy plains of SD — “At the end of World War II — the first and only wartime use of atomic bombs — the United States possessed only six nuclear weapons. After the Soviet Union tested its first atomic bomb four years later, the arms race took off. Within four decades, the global arsenal had multiplied to a peak of around 65,000 weapons.” The display inside the Visitor Center at the Minuteman Missile NHS charts the world’s nuclear stockpile and illustrates how the United States , its allies, and its enemies went to the brink and back during the Cold War.
Fortunately for mankind most of the missile silos have been deactivated and destroyed, but a couple of these 1960s missile sites were preserved and turned into a museum where visitors can explore the significance of the arms race, learn about Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), and understand their role as a nuclear deterrent that maintained peace and prevented war. Delta-01 is the launch control facility and a couple of miles away, Delta-09 is the old launch facility, both preserved in time.