Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Strange Days

Among the tourists at Mount Rushmore

            My wife Leslie and I take the strangest vacations. Three weeks ago we were in Vermont foraging mushrooms, then I went to Pennsylvania for more of the same. In late August we’ll be swimming and BBQ-ing at a NJ lake club and right now we’re in South Dakota.
Sylvan Lake by Leslie Bryan

            I’ve been loathe to mention SD to my sophisticated friends, but I now realize it’s time to put away fear. Where we are – Custer State Park in the Black Hills – holds its own. As Leslie said when we drove in past towering spires of white granite and cool, lush groves of ponderosa pine, “Wow. Who knew?”

            Of course The Black Hills are home to Mount Rushmore, tourism center for the middle west (where you cannot get close without forking over 11 bucks for parking, $50 for motorhomes) but the state park is the real gem. It’s sited to capture the greatest number of rugged granite spires in the Black Hills, which makes for awesome hiking, excellent climbing (probably – that sport is off our radar for now), and challenging car-touring (think tunnels at the apex of switchbacks). Most surprising it also has a line-up of first-class lodging.

            We’re staying at Sylvan Lake Lodge, a small but classy hotel overlooking the eponymous body of water and Harney Peak, South Dakota’s high point (7124 feet.) The lodge itself is at 6,400 feet, which means the air is clean and cool and the night sky, spectacular. There’s an excellent dining room too: last night we had Dakota Walleye pan fried to perfection, and our waiter “got it right” in the celiac department, skipping bread and croutons and answering our questions about preparation.
On the wildlife loop. Yes, mules here are wild. No, they are not smart. 
            We’re here for the out-of-doors, however, so today we visited the granite presidential portraits, drove a road called the wildlife loop and hiked the prairie at Wind Cave National Park.

Photo by Leslie Bryan. No telephoto lens involved.
            The park seems especially proud of its bison herd, members of which are  dully impervious to automobiles. It’s no wonder they were easy targets for the white settlers. Archaeology tells us they were pretty easy for indigenous peoples too. Today it’s speculated that the herd was rather small by 1400 – going the way wooly mammoth and hairy aurochs had gone – but grew very rapidly after the Europeans landed on Atlantic shores. You see, our infectious diseases raced westward before we did, decimating those humans who had no immunity. With fewer hunters decimating them, the bison grew to 60 million strong by the 1880’s. We then set out after them – by 1920 there were only about 600 alive.

            Today there are enough bison for guys like me to eat a “buffalo burger” (hold the bun, please) every now and then, a treat I appreciate. (The meat is rather tasty). I’ve not had one this trip though – at least not yet. Our big score on food was of the vegetarian variety: at the rather skimpy Rapid City Farmer’s Market there was one guy selling heirloom tomatoes. Sliced and served with Basque cheese they made a wondrous lunch.

No comments: