by Marcia Simon
An experience or a thing? This girl bets her money on an experience, especially when it involves a "child" who just finished school abroad after two years of COVID-induced travel restrictions.
It was time for one proud mama and her academically-fatigued son to reunite and embark on a month-long cross-country adventure. The packed car included two suitcases, two guitars, hiking shoes, flip flops, big beach towels and a cooler filled with seltzers, beer, yogurt, cheese, crackers and whatever fruit and miscellaneous snacks fit atop the ice chips.
It's a joy and a blessing to fall back into step with someone you haven't seen in ages. Sometimes it's months, sometimes years, decades even. One thing's for sure though – compatibility for travel can make or break any trip, not to mention the relationship.
Being in total sync about heading west from Connecticut with absolutely no itinerary or plan, the road trip to explore America's Native roots began. When it was all done, this duo logged 27 days, 8,686 miles, passed through 25 states and visited 14 national parks, not to mention national monuments such as Mount Rushmore, Bandelier Native American cave dwellings, the striated Painted Desert, and oddities including the Spam Museum that houses the world's first motorcycle fueled by bacon, The Corn Palace with gigantic murals made exclusively from ears of corn, and the Jolly Green Giant statue that salutes the company that made canned and frozen vegetables a staple of the American diet.
Once out west, it became evident that, contrary to the politically correct language of a middle class upbringing, the term "American Indian" was preferred over "Native American," which supposedly is now falling out of favor with some Native people who use "indigenous" as their personal preference.
Badlands and Bison
The journey continued toward Badlands National Park, aptly named by both Indigenous people and white settlers because of its rugged terrain and dry weather that make this an absolutely terrible place for hunting bison (American Buffalo), the lifeblood of the nomadic American Indian culture. As indigenous hunters followed herds of bison, every part of the animal had a role in Indian survival – the meat for food, the fat for cooking, the skin made durable clothing, tipis (teepees) and drums; the bones were turned into tools.
But when new settlers came in from the east, they decimated the bison population, trading the hides for lucrative amounts of money, and using the meat to feed a growing number of railroad workers in the 1800s. This took the bison population from 60 million to the threat of extinction, and forced a drastic change in Native American life. Conservation efforts in the National Park System have since helped to protect the bison population.
Destination – Crazy Horse
Onward to the Black Hills, made up of more than a million acres of forested hills and mountains in western South Dakota and northeastern Wyoming. We sang Rocky Racoon much of that day.
"Somewhere in the black mining hills of Dakota there lived a young boy named Rocky Ra-coo-oon. And one day his woman ran off with another guy, hit young Rocky in the eye-eye. Rocky didn't like that..."
Wind Cave National Park, Mount Rushmore Monument and the Crazy Horse Memorial are just three of the "must see" wonders of this Black Hills area on the way to Deadwood, a historic town known for its Wild West lawlessness. Today, Deadwood is filled with casinos, tourist hotels and lots of restaurants.
Crazy Horse – Who Was He?
Crazy Horse was a Lakota Indian chief who successfully led the combined Lakota, Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes to defend their Native Indian territory against the US Army's 7th Cavalry led by General Armstrong Custer in the 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn, commonly known as Custer's Last Stand because five of the 7th Cavalry's twelve companies were annihilated and Custer was killed. Indigenous life was saved – at least for a while.
The World's Largest Sculpture – The Crazy Horse Memorial – A Work in Progress
The Crazy Horse Memorial, commissioned by the Lakota Indian tribe and not affiliated with the National Park System or federally funded land, is based just outside the town of Custer, about 38 miles from Mount Rushmore National Monument.
The mission to carve a mountain-size monument to Native Americans began when Lakota Chief Henry Standing Bear pursued Boston-born sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski to head the project to carve Crazy Horse. In addition to his commissioned works internationally, Korczak worked briefly on carving Mount Rushmore National Memorial in the Black Hills.
In 1948, at age 38, Korczak began work, with a plan to use the entire 563-foot mountain rather than just the top100 feet as first imagined. Korczak knew this project wouldn't be completed in his lifetime. He and his equally-dedicated wife Ruth had 10 children, knowing they'd be raising the next generation of carvers. Today, Korczak's grandchildren also carry on the mission, working with the mountain crew year-round.
Crazy Horse's head is 87 feet tall; his hand is more than 30 feet from top to bottom. When's it's finished, it is expected to be the largest sculpture in the world, visible to all who travel these winding roads of the Black Hills. As described by the Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation, Crazy Horse is being carved, not so much as a lineal likeness, but more as a memorial to the spirit of Crazy Horse.
With his left hand gesturing in response to the question, "Where are your lands now?", Crazy Horse replied, "My lands are where my dead lie buried."
Before he died in 1984, Korczak promised that Crazy Horse will forever be a nonprofit educational and cultural humanitarian project. Twice he was offered $10 million by the U.S. government to take over and expedite the process. Twice he refused, keeping total control in the hands of the Lakota people. He pledged to never take a salary for his work on Crazy Horse and to never accept government tax money to finance the project. Instead, the project is funded by philanthropic donations and admission to the monument. The foundation has also developed The Indian Museum of North America, the Native American Educational and Cultural Center, and The Indian University of North America that helps Native American students dream big and set goals worthy of their highest potential. Students are invited to earn their first semester's credits working on the Crazy Horse Monument.
As humongous as the sculpture project is, the mission of the Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation is less tangible, and as important – to protect and preserve the culture, tradition and living heritage of all North American Indians.
Then, Now and Forever
How long is forever?
Is it 200 million years, the age of the wood that has turned to stone in the Petrified Forest National Park?
it is 2,000 years, the age of some of the most cherished trees in Redwood National Park?
Is it a lifetime, which is as long as any one person will be able to remember?
Life changes, sometimes more slowly that any human can detect. Sometimes new beginnings become rapidly imminent. Cherish the past. Live in the present. Embrace the people you love the most.
Marcia Simon is a Connecticut-based health, wellness and travel writer. Connect on Twitter www.twitter.com/friendsgotravel@friendsgotravel, Instagram @marcia_mse and @friendlygrouptravel, Facebook @friendlygrouptravel or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Marcia Simon, CTA, APR, has been exploring new places since she was 17 years old and traveled around Europe on a Eurailpass with her best friend. Decades later, she still considers travel the best investment of time and money she's ever made for herself and her family.