Main Street
Stagecoach
The 1833 lounge at the Alex Johnson Hotel
Mangy Moose Saloon – A popular water hole
Mount Rushmore National Memorial
Crazy Horse Memorial
Grand Teton National Park
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Filming Our Own Western

The Black Hills of South Dakota to Montana’s Little Big Horn, across the Plains to Yellowstone and the Awesome Snow-Capped Grand Tetons.

I’ve driven across the United States from New York to California (and back) four times. But while I had steak in Kansas City and deep-dish pizza in Chicago and played roulette in Las Vegas, I never saw Mount Rushmore. And so, a visit to South Dakota’s famed mountainside sculpture of four revered presidents of the United States (Washington, Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt and Lincoln) became an enduring obsession. It took twenty years of begging, but it finally paid off last month, and we went to Rapid City, South Dakota, the closest city to Mount Rushmore.

Since we were going all that distance, we decided to make a week of it and visit a few additional regional attractions, stretching from the Black Hills and across the plains to the Grand Tetons, the towering, snow-capped mountains of Wyoming.

We would drive through the stunningly landscaped land formerly home to Native Americans. Hundreds of tribes thrived here for a thousand years before the “white man” came and nearly obliterated them from the land they loved. (The government guiltily returned some land and re-housed them on reservations across the country, where they remain today.)

Since I was a young child, I’ve admired the people we referred to as “Indians”, with strong, handsome faces, incredible ingenuity and artistic talents displayed in elaborate feather head-dresses, clothes fashioned from animal skins, exquisitely beaded moccasins, vividly patterned, woven rugs and cleverly portable tepees made simply from bison hides and slender, trimmed tree-trunk poles. In fact, I admired them so much that I had my mother part my dark brown hair down the middle and plait it into two long braids. I wore moccasins and beaded necklaces to complete my wanna-be pretence. Even though I sensed they were a bit concerned, my family humoured me, as this homage lasted until my tenth birthday.

That’s when I found out the people I so admired were called “Indians” only because Christopher Columbus bid Isabella farewell and sailed off in the wrong direction. He thought he had found a trade route to India… not the land of the Sioux, Ute, Crow, Pawnee, Apache, Arapahoe, Comanche, Lakota, Navajo, Hopi, Zuni, and many more.

This depressed me so much that I no longer wished to add to these beautiful people’s misrepresentation.

So this road trip through the hills, mountains and plains of the northwest, steeped in Native American culture, was a nostalgic dream come true.

Mount Rushmore is located east of Rapid City in the Black Hills, which got its name from the Sioux because of the dense forests of dark brown-barked ponderosa pine that blanket the area. Visiting Mount Rushmore was a terrific experience, especially getting up close to the sixty-foot-high sculpture’s faces. (Fun fact: Washington’s nose alone is twenty-one feet long.)

We sat nearby on the sunny outdoor terrace of the Rushmore Cafe, digging into our delicious thick-with-bison chilli, enjoying both the view… and the excellent chilli.

(Filmophiles take note: Hitchcock’s Oscar-winning movie, North by Northwest, was filmed nearby.)

We then drove back west to discover, to my amazement, an even more impressive mountainside sculpture. This was the monolithic Crazy Horse, a National Monument and work-in-progress for the past seventy-plus years in honour of the brilliant Sioux-Lakota leader, Crazy Horse (an unfortunate moniker for the man, as I discovered it was really his horse that was crazy, not him).

This extraordinary undertaking of sculpting Chief Crazy Horse astride his steed, his long hair blowing in the wind behind him (so huge that all of Mount Rushmore could fit within it) is daunting. And when you factor in the dizzying 6,000-plus-foot altitude and winters of twenty- and thirty-foot snowfalls, you can understand why it’s taken over six decades to get to this point.

This extraordinary memorial to Crazy Horse was begun by Polish sculptor Korczak Zlotkowski. He lived at the mountain with his wife and had ten children who followed in their father’s footsteps, dedicating themselves to completing the massive task. Now, their kids (Korczak’s grandchildren) are devoted to the task, working alongside their parents, blasting the granite and carving away daily for as long as it takes – incredible.

We spent a long time wandering around the grounds. The sculptor’s actual home was fascinating, still decked out in its original early twentieth-century furnishings. But it was the vast collection of authentic tools, clothes, photographs, jewellery, artefacts, and so much more in the Native American Museum that held our interest the longest. We were told that a large percentage of the money collected in the gift shop and from entrance tickets goes to fund the memorial work and keep the project going. I wish them well.

Back in Rapid City, we strolled through the lovely town’s caught-in-time streets, peeking into the wee Firehouse Winery and having a very drinkable glass or two, checking out the elegant nineteenth-century Alex Johnson Hotel, passing by a number of the thirty-five impressive statues of past presidents, each bronze life-size likeness commanding its own street corner throughout the town.

The next day, at sun-up, we headed west, stopping for breakfast at the historic Sheridan Inn. This was one of dozens of fancy hotels built by the railroads at train stops around the country to house rail travellers.

The Sheridan’s most famous and long-stay guest was none other than the world-renowned Colonel William “Buffalo Bill” Cody. He arrived in 1892 with his entourage and stayed until 1904. He seemed to take over the place and even held his legendary Wild West Show on the hotel’s front lawn. (I know all this after reading the many framed clippings in the hotel’s lobby.) Was it his ladies man’s way with the opposite sex that charmed Queen Victoria into shipping him the stunning hand-carved mahogany twenty-five-foot-long bar, still in pride of place in the dining room at the Sheridan?

We will never know.

After bidding the fascinating hotel and South Dakota a fond farewell, we headed further west to the “Big Sky” state of Montana (the film location of Jeremiah Johnson and The Horse Whisperer).

I had mixed feelings about going to visit the Little Big Horn Memorial, the site of the bloody battle of 1879 and the crushing defeat of the US 7th Cavalry and its disgraced general, known thereafter as Custer’s Last Stand.

(Film fact: Dustin Hoffman starred in Little Big Man, a 1970 film about the battle held here).

The sombre but tasteful memorial to the men of Sioux Lakota Chief Sitting Bull, northern Cheyenne Chief Crazy Horse and Custer’s small army who fought and died here left us flooded with emotions. Not only was it a heart-breaking clash of cultures, it was one of the Native American’s last chances to save their sacred land and home.

They won the battle, but their overwhelming victory only served to enrage the US Army, putting Native Americans well on the path to losing the war, their sacred land, and their home. So sad.

On we drove further west into Wyoming, still deep in thought about all that happened at Little Big Horn.

We passed typical Old West landscapes and seemingly limitless vistas on either side of the road, so familiar from all those “Cowboy and Indian” films from our childhood. And towns and rivers with evocative names like Deadwood, Sundance, Spearfish and Snake and Moose painted pictures in our heads of John Wayne movies, the bank-robber Butch Cassidy and the Once-Wild-West, as we watched hawks and bald eagles making lazy circles in the sky.

Then suddenly, there it was, off in the distance on the right. Although it was a foggy day, there was no doubt about it; it was the unmistakable silhouette of Devil’s Tower, a lone butte, a towering landmark, and a memorable presence in so many Westerns (it also starred along with Richard Dreyfuss in the more recent Close Encounters of the Third Kind).

Driving across the plains, past familiar-looking terrain, we expected to find bands of Native Americans, their bows and arrows poised, behind every rock formation, at every turn in the road. No doubt about it, we were motoring across a living, breathing movie set!

And we couldn’t have been more thrilled.

A couple of hours later, after following Yellowstone, the river that gave the park its name, we excitedly drove through the East Gate and were now inside the very first, largest and most famous national park in the entire world.

(We devoted three jam-packed days to this incredible park and saw and did so much that it will take up a complete chapter in our lives… and one in CULTURE Magazine as well.

En route to the Salt Lake City airport in Utah for our flight home, we stopped in Jackson and finally saw some cowboys. They weren’t “roping little doggies” these boot-wearing “buckaroos” but rather sat astride the saddle-topped bar stools at the famous Million Dollar Cowboy Bar. After downing our Negronis, we ambled across the street and sashayed beneath the extraordinary antler arch like typical tourists (not to worry, deer shed their antlers painlessly every year), then headed off to spend the night at the ski resort of Jackson Hole, a past favourite of Cliff’s. Our very last typically western menu item (a bison burger with sautéed onions and melted Jack cheese for me and grilled homemade elk and fennel sausages for Cliff) was consumed at the very noisy Mangy Moose, a long-time popular hangout near the Jackson Hole chair lift.

We slept like babies that night, the unmistakable call of a coyote lulling us off to dreamland.

Text Sandi Butchkiss / Photos Cliff Shaffran