There's snow on the ground when I wake up in my cabin on Sylvan Lake on the morning of the Buffalo Roundup. It’s not even autumn but the weather, like everything else in South Dakota’s Black Hills, is unpredictable and just a little bit wild.

The Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup, a decades-old South Dakota tradition, is like nothing I’ve ever seen. A herd of 1,300 bison thunders through the valley, spurred on by whooping cowboys on horseback. The air is thick with the smell of prairie sage and the sound of cracking whips; it’s easy to feel like I’ve stepped into another era.

A visit to South Dakota is a bit like travelling via time machine. It’s not just that the landscape feels untamed – rolling prairie dipping into the Badlands and rising into the granite spires and pine forests of the Black Hills – it’s the people, too, and their connection to generations of pioneers, artists and trailblazers.

Photo by Stephen Walker on UnsplashStephen Walker

Later, after I’ve watched the Custer State Park wildlife managers separate, vaccinate and tag the corralled bison herd, I don a hardhat and walk out onto the half-carved, extended arm of the Crazy Horse Memorial. In South Dakota, family and legacy matter, and this re- markable project is no exception.

In the late 1930s, Lakota Chief Henry Standing Bear began writing to Korczak Ziolkowski, a young assistant carver at Mount Rushmore. Henry Standing Bear wanted Ziolkowski to carve a memorial to legendary Lakota warrior Crazy Horse in the sacred Paha Sapa; the Black Hills. Ziolkowski worked on the massive carving for nearly 36 years, until his death in 1982.

Crazy Horse Memorial | Black Hills & Badlands TourismCrazy Horse Memorial | Black Hills & Badlands Tourism

Today, the as-yet-unfinished memorial is the largest mountain carving in the world. I’m staggered to learn that the four colossal presidential portraits at nearby Mount Rushmore could fit inside the head of Crazy Horse. Its progress is overseen by Ziolkowski’s children and grandchildren.

Jeff Hermanson first showed up to work alongside Ziolkowski in 1979. He calls this a spiritual place, and, gazing up through the September mist at the warrior’s faraway eyes, I’m inclined to agree.

“I’m a part of something here, and it’s pretty amazing,” Jeff tells me. He knows he may not be here on the mountain when the memorial is finished. There’s an estimated 50 years of blasting and chiseling left before Ziolkowski’s vision is realized. “There’s nothing wrong with passing your work onto someone else,” Jeff adds. “I’ve left my mark.”

Badlands National Park | Jason PogacnikBadlands National Park | Jason Pogacnik

The next morning, as I hike out into Badlands National Park just in time to watch the sunrise splash the stone with pinks and purples, I’m still thinking about what it means to leave something behind. Over millennia, this place has transformed from prehistoric sea to lush rainforest to wooded river basin. All that time has made its mark, in the form of otherworldly buttes and spires.

Here, too, there are people with an abiding devotion to legacy. In 1931, on the wall of the Badlands in a town called Wall, Ted and Dorothy Hustead bought a small pharmacy. They turned that tiny store into one of the most famous attractions in America by offering weary travellers five-cent coffee and free ice water. Today, their affable grandson Rick is dedicated to preserving and expanding Wall Drug: he maintains the now-sprawling store and its restaurant, an old-fashioned soda fountain, and one of the largest collections of Western art in the world. And he still sells the coffee for a nickel.

Wall Drug | Black Hills & Badlands TourismWall Drug | Black Hills & Badlands Tourism

In so many ways, South Dakota is a place suspended in time; you half-expect to see covered wagons come rumbling over the prairie. But it’s full of people who’ve found the sweet spot between preserving the frontier past and evolving into the future.

Tony DeMaro grew up poor in Rapid City. Before he moved east for school, he says he’d never had tuna that didn’t come from a can. He mastered the restaurant business, then moved back to revamp his hometown by buying up dilapidated historic buildings and transforming them into hot spots, including a high-end wine bar, a sports pub and an authentic basement speakeasy. At Press Start, his 80s-themed arcade, I carry around two red Solo cups – one full of beer, the other loaded with quarters – and have the time of my life mashing buttons, flicking joysticks and recalling a bygone adolescence.

Wes Eisenhaur PhotographyRapid City | Wes Eisenhaur Photography

A bit too early the next morning (considering how much fun I had at the arcade the night before), I head to the airport. The wheels leave the ground and I’m thinking about South Dakota’s tourism tagline: “Great Places, Great Faces.” It’s apt, but it doesn’t just refer to the four presidents carved in Black Hills granite. It’s about the people who keep us connected to an American legacy, a pioneering spirit and all that’s still a little wild in the West.


When you go

Black Hills & Badlands TourismBH Scenics 
WHAT TO DO: The Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup happens annually, in early September. Take a drive on Needles Highway and plan time to visit both the Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse Memorials. Head to nearby historic Deadwood to get a taste of the Wild West and experience the place where Wild Bill Hickok met his maker. The best time to visit Badlands National Park is at sunrise or sunset, when the rocks glow and the temperatures drop.

WHERE TO DINE: Rapid City’s Firehouse Brewing Co. serves up a great meal and an even better flight of brews. Wall Drug serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, but don’t leave without trying their homemade donuts. Drop by Mount Rushmore’s Carver’s Café for ice cream that comes with a history lesson: it’s Thomas Jefferson’s recipe!

WHERE TO STAY: Frontier Cabins Motel near Wall offers comfortable, rustic digs a stone’s throw from Badlands National Park. The cabins at Sylvan Lake Lodge offer cozy replaces and all the amenities with one heck of a view. If you’re looking for something a bit closer to the airport, check into Rapid City’s Grand Gateway Hotel (and don’t miss the hotel bar’s open mic on Sunday nights!)



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