Sunday, 18 September 2011

Day 168: Hiatus

Mike has gone back east on another business trip and taken Antonia with him, so it looks like my Thanksgiving  holiday has come early this year.  I'm going to be very busy doing research, writing and other seriously grown up things, so I probably won't update the blog for a couple of weeks.  See you in Santa Fe in late September!

Friday, 16 September 2011

Day 166: Black Hills Hike

There's so much to do in the Black Hills area that this is the first hike we went on just for the sake of hiking.  We did about 10 km but to get to the trailhead we had to drive along this strange road that was constructed purely for fun.  It has pigtail bridges that make you drive around over the road you just came on for no good reason, tunnels that were created specially to frame distant Mount Rushmore and places where the road winds through the trees in two separate narrow lanes of tarmac.

Antonia found a rattlesnake in the car park.  It's always Antonia who finds the interesting stuff around here.  This is just like the rattlesnake they showed us at the snake show at Reptile Gardens the other day and that one was pretty aggressive acting.  That's why Mike left this one alone, and didn't try to steal the litter out from under its nose.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Day 164: Jewel Cave

This is the first miserable, cold, wet day I've seen in months and we planned to spend it in a cave.  Jewel cave gets its name from being covered in a several inch thick layer of calcite crystals.  The tours are very interesting, but there are limited numbers, so it's very advisable to book them in advance.  Apparently, thousands of people are disappointed each year!  There are so many National Parks, Monuments and Memorials in this area that Antonia has been earning several Junior Ranger badges per week.  Paradoxically, we have found ourselves in the strange position of sitting around doing very little while she works on crosswords and word searches.  The program definitely has its ups and downs, though one of the ups is that she is enjoying it very much.  Some of the sites have programs that are much more educational than others....

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Day 163: Mammals and Reptiles

The Rapid City area is full of paying attractions, and Antonia loves animals so I thought we wouldn't leave until she had been to the 'zoo'.  Bear Country USA offers a safari style drive through large enclosures filled with several of North America's large mammals - not just bears. It also has a walk around section with smaller mammals like skunks and porcupines, as well as lots of multi-coloured baby black bears. I now know the difference between an elk and a moose - an elk is disappointingly small.  I also know the difference between a black bear and a grizzly.  A grizzly can grow to be unacceptably large.  I can almost handle the idea of facing off a black bear by looking small and unobtrusive!

A snake with its mouth full of mouse and its skin still peeling.

The Reptile Gardens is also a lot of fun.  The highlights are the alligator show and the snake show, where you watch a staff member feed himself to the alligators and boas respectively (just kidding, it was actually fun and educational!) and the indoor reptile garden.  This is rather like an indoor butterfly habitat, in that you go in to this greenhouse and various lizards and things are there loose. It's very cool.  Around the greenhouse on two levels are the usual glass-fronted cages for the more dangerous animals: cobras, komodos, giant saltwater crocodiles, etc.

They have dragons too!  Wanted, for various misdemeanors.  One day when I get free access to Photoshop, I will turn the sign lettering back the right way up:

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Day 161: Devil's Tower National Monument

Devil's Tower or Bear's Tipi or a magma intrusion!

Devil's Tower is another interesting geological feature, this time a much harder one.  It was formed by an intrusion of magma into softer layers of rock millions of years ago.  The softer layers have been washed away leaving the hardened rock exposed.  Most Native American legends are a variation on the theme that the rock pushed out of the soil to protect a group of children from a bear attack.  Since this left the children trapped on top of the rock, they usually turned into a star group.  In 1941, a fool of a parachutist got himself trapped on top of the rock too.  Apparently, he was aiming for the top of Devil's Tower on purpose, just to prove his aim was good, but he hadn't formulated a plan for getting down.  He spent six days stranded on the rock until he was rescued by climbers.  Lots of people climb the tower these days, which is not too popular with the Native Americans.  The tower is a sacred monument for them, and their notion of the sacred doesn't include jamming spikes into the thing and scaling it.  So the National Park Service instituted a voluntary shutdown on climbing in June when religious ceremonies take place.  I think 'voluntary' means that you can climb if you insist, but you're discouraged from doing so.  Somebody took the National Parks to court because the 1st amendment doesn't allow federal services to support or promote a particular religion.  The courts threw it out, though. America is such fun!!

Friday, 9 September 2011

Day 159: South Dakota Badlands

Badlands of South Dakota

The Badlands are a strip of heavily eroded rock between higher prairie and a lower section along the White River.We took lots of photographs, found frogs crowding in puddles in a drying up creek bed, and saw the smoke from prairie fires which are probably being set deliberately.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Day 157: Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse

Finally, the long-awaited trip to Mount Rushmore!  We had a great time, the National Park Service has done an excellent job on the site (except for the privatised parking scenario outside).  It was a good job we arrived in the morning because the heads of the presidents were in full sunlight, which is better for photography.  We stayed for quite a while, because Antonia had to finish her Junior Ranger book.  She now has badges from at least 8 parks and a fancy Junior Ranger jacket to put them on. I passed the time with the list of States in the park newspaper, seeing how many each of us has been to.  It turns out Mike has been to all but 8 states, whereas Antonia and I are only about half-way through.

Next we went to the Crazy Horse Memorial, which is part of a far bigger mountain carving project than Rushmore, but not as far advanced.  Still, one guy told us although it has taken so long to get this far, with the new technology available, it might be done in 50 years.  The memorial is run and carved under the management of the Ziolkowski family, the wife and descendants of the original sculpture who was invited by Chief Standing Bear to carve Crazy Horse.  Since they believe in 'free enterprise' and building it entirely from donations by interested individuals, so it's a much more commercialised and expensive experience than Rushmore.  I can't honestly say I approve, and since the plan is to create a big campus for study and research on the culture and history of North American Indians, I wonder who is going to run that, how, and when and how the transfer is going to happen.  It all seems like a very important project to fund by selling overpriced junk to the passing trade from Mount Rushmore.  The carving itself is extremely impressive though, and it seems like it may go to completion, unlike Rushmore.

Monday, 5 September 2011

Day 156: Failed park day

Today, Antonia thought she would go on a fishing expedition in the park, and I thought I would bring a flask of coffee and the next vampire novel and sit around in the shade.  It was not to be and in a way I think this is typical of trying to hang out in public in America.  No sooner had I taken my things out of my bag than some random guy wandered up to join me.  He was carrying a change of clothes and a crisp packet containing something and although he was quite young, he appeared to have suffered a stroke.  He had no money, no food, no way to get back to his home, and a tenuous grip on what was going around him.  He spoke in fits and starts and began each new chunk of conversation by telling me his name.  He wasn't able to remember that I was from Europe or that I had no money with me, even after the fifth telling.  As for the things he told me, I have no idea how likely all of them were, but it did seem to be true that everyone knew him around here, because before long, a lady he called his cousin strolled up and said 'hi' to him.  I thought she might bail him out, but no, she had just ridden into town with empty pockets to look for a job.  Anyway, this was all very well as far as it goes, though it wasn't exactly a conversation, except that it seemed like the guy also had a set of mood swings that he cycled through: sad, hopeful, ashamed, but also, eventually, hostile.  At which point I decided that since he wasn't leaving, I would.  And the moral of this story is: that's what you get when you don't want social security.  People not getting the help and support they need, and other people unable to use the public spaces as they would like. 

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Day 155: Dinosaur Park

Antonia with Richard Nixon... oh wait... that was yesterday.
 The nice thing about Rapid City is that it's nearly all historic district.  The houses on our side of town centre are old, then there is another neighborhood on the other side that is a bit fancier but also old.  What's really interesting about both these areas is how very small some of the houses are, though they're mixed in with larger ones.   The neighbourhoods have a lived-in look, with trees and bushes overgrowing the paving stones and pushing them up with their roots and bits of grass escaping between the cracks.  We walked to the dinosaur park at the top of a hill overlooking the city.  Walking, of course, is not the popular choice, even in such a small place as this, but we managed it. The dinosaur park turns out to be more of a historic monument than an insight into what we think dinosaurs look like today. I think they do not take dinosaurs nearly as seriously as they take presidents around here.  The park has five very old concrete dinosaurs with foolish expressions on their faces and frozen tails.  Antonia had a great time climbing all over them, which is what they are for.  One of the funniest things was watching our fellow visitors at the park.  So many of the adults were radically out of breath, just making the short walk from the car park up the stairs to the first dinosaur!  Even if they were young and did not look particularly fat.  Well, actually it's not funny... that is a really sorry, pathetic level of average fitness.  That makes me look like an Olympic athlete on my worst day.

Antonia with... er... Triceratops.  Triceratops for President!  Yay!

Saturday, 3 September 2011

Day 154: Presidents Walk

Antonia feeding birds with Benjamin Harrison.  He was a recluse so it's anyone's guess why he wanted to be president.
We walked from our little house to the center of Rapid City to see what it was like.  The first thing we discovered is that a lot of things are shut for labor day weekend.  Then we came across the Sioux trading shop which is a huge building filled with Native American art, crafts, and books.  In fact, it has so many books, it is probably the intellectual center of Rapid City.  The girl in the supermarket yesterday told me that now Borders is closed, there are no real bookstores here any more.  What there are instead are a gun shop, a military surplus shop, several shops selling Christian paraphernalia, some clothes shops that look like they last did their window display in 1950 and several nice looking restaurants, cafes and bars.  It is in fact America just as we imagine it!  Also, the people have a bit of an attitude.  Lot's of them are very nice (I'm sure), but I encountered one drunk who decided that my personal space extended 2mm from my nose.  He ended our conversation with "I canunnerstan a wor yer sy" before staggering off.  So: having a British accent is good for something!  Next, some guy started yelling something at me out of his tank as he drove by.  To which my response is "I cannunerstan a wor yer sy"...  maybe it's all just because it's labor day weekend, and everyone is racing around trying to get through their six packs early.

Eisenhower straddling Europe in proprietorial manner.
After looking at Native American art and books for a while, we started walking up and down the main street looking at presidents.  Rapid City has this special thing where they have filled their street corners with life size sculptures of every president America has ever had.  They also have an office where they issue you with a free guide and the promise of a free 'Presidential Soda' per family if you complete the activity on the back.  We had a blast, walking up and down, looking at presidents and looking for the little details we were supposed to spot for the activity.  They've obviously tried to focus on making the whole thing not too political, so the statues reflect the president's personal lives, tastes or aspects of their career that people here consider to be uncontroversial.  I like the fact that the town created something that encourages people to walk around, although they do have the typical American grid system and are very car centered.  Crossing the street enough to see all the presidents is quite challenging.  And when I say 'the town created something', that is probably a misrepresentation.  I get the impression that the people here are taking the dislike of acting socially or publically to an extreme, and they are very proud to let us know that their whole president sculpture thing was financed by private donations.  After we had finished the activity book, Antonia got a free Presidential Root Beer with a picture of Ronald Reagan on the label, and I left them a donation that should just about cover the cost of a root beer.  It turned out to be an amazingly good one.

Well-earned Ronald Reagan Root Beer

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Day 152: Rapid City

We finally arrived in Rapid City and I couldn't quite believe the drive was over.  The last part of I-90 around the north of the Black Hills was really beautiful, like driving through open parkland.  It's actually one of the few American landscapes I have really fallen in love with at first sight.  For some reason, I really wanted to be in Rapid City, and now that I am, I'm very pleased about it.  We are staying in what was probably once a typical American suburban house - that is, one that's pretty much within walking distance of the town centre.  The houses are small and close together, but they all have their little yards at the front and back.  Inside the house is all done in a retro style, with some of the furniture being the sort my grandmother used to have, small rooms and no real air conditioning.  It's lovely.  I'm hoping to find it really inspiring here, and finally get to the bottom of some pieces of work I have on the go.  I expect we will spend tomorrow cleaning the van, shopping for food and catching up on lessons.