CUSTER, S.D. — I suppressed the urge to hum “Home on the Range” as my friend Patti and I spotted deer and antelope in the roadside brush on our way to Custer State Park. On any other day I would have been thrilled by the sight of the beautiful creatures. But we were on the trail of a much bigger beast. We had journeyed to the Black Hills for the annual Buffalo Roundup at Custer State Park. (The 54th annual Buffalo Roundup takes place this year on Sept. 27.)
In a practical sense, the roundup helps manage the size and health of the herd. For the bison, it’s an annual checkup, complete with a weigh-in and vaccinations for the new calves. For the rest of us, the roundup is a glimpse of a real ritual of the west.
Patti and I arrived a day ahead to get the lay of the land in South Dakota’s first and largest state park. Thirty-six bison were introduced to the area in 1914 (five years before it was designated a park) and today more than 1,300 bison roam 71,000 acres of rolling plains.
In late September, the ripe prairie grasses gleamed gold and rust. Bulls, mothers, and calves grazed contentedly, oblivious to jeep tours bouncing along the hills. But our guide warned us not to be fooled by appearances. “Bison are bigger than a cow,” he told us, “and faster than a horse.” They also must have some kind of sixth sense. “They know the roundup is coming,” he said. “They know what to expect.”
The next morning, park gates opened at 6:15 a.m. for the 9:30 a.m. roundup start. This is no historic reenactment. The 20 volunteer riders selected each year bring their own horses and wear everyday jeans and jackets instead of old-timey costumes. It takes a crew on horseback and in pickup trucks to get 1,300 bison to cooperate. We could sense the eager excitement as the riders double-checked their gear and prepared to take to the hills.
Ray Lang of Marco Island, Fla., had returned for his second roundup. “I rode four years ago,” he said. “It was wild and woolly. The buffalo can get crazy. They don’t want to go where you want them to go.”
Veteran rider Mark Lantis of Underwood, S.D., agreed. “It’s a rush, it really is. It’s a large animal that you’re moving that doesn’t like to be moved. It’s very fast paced, a real adrenaline rush.”
The pace is slower for the horseless viewers waiting on two hillside overlooks. Everyone stamped their feet and rubbed their hands to stay warm in the cold morning after an overnight dusting of snow. Anticipation rose — and then the ground began rumbling a little before 11 a.m. The herd soon crested the hill and funneled down the valley toward the corrals. With their massive heads and linebacker shoulders, the beasts can seem ungainly. But the pack moved with a majestic grace, almost like a rippling school of fish. If I had ignored the trucks, I could have been on the set of of an epic Hollywood western.
This corner of the American West, where the Black Hills meet the High Plains, invites that kind of imagination. In such a heroic landscape, all things seem possible. That’s certainly true at the Crazy Horse Memorial, a short drive from the park named for Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer. The monument to the Oglala Lakota warrior who led his band in the 1876 Battle of Little Bighorn (popularly known as “Custer’s Last Stand”) is emerging, chink by chink, from the stone of Thunderhead Mountain.
Chief Henry Standing Bear first proposed the bold project in 1933. In 1948, Boston-born sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski made the first blast on the 6,532-foot-high mountain. Carving at this scale is as much engineering as art and Ziolkowski worked with determination until his death in 1982. His family has kept the dream alive and modern technology has made the work somewhat easier. Crazy Horse’s face — 87 feet tall — was finally completed in 1998.
“Our 110- to 12-year plan is to finish the hand and palm and hairline of Crazy Horse and then the horse’s mane,” daughter Jadwiga Ziolkowski told us at the Welcome Center. The project is entirely supported by private funds. “My father thought the American people should build this to keep the culture alive.”
When complete, the monument will measure 641 feet long and 563 feet high. In the meantime, it’s a privilege to see a masterpiece in the making and to gauge the progress of the work against the 1/34 scale model. A museum in the complex also displays art and artifacts from more than 300 Native Nations and a Mountain Carving Gallery details the process of turning stone into monument.
South Dakota’s mountains seem to demand monuments. Less than 20 miles from the Crazy Horse Memorial, the federally supported Mount Rushmore National Memorial was completed in just 14 years. Carving began in 1927 and eventually a half million tons of rock were blasted away with dynamite before the profiles of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt could take form. Each head, by the way, is about 60 feet tall. That’s plenty big enough to pull at patriotic heartstrings as visitors walk toward the presidents through the Avenue of Flags.
The Old West has been larger than life ever since the first dime novelists made legends out of lawmen, outlaws, and assorted frontier scalawags. Even in the wide open spaces of southwest South Dakota, a modest road trip can hit the touchstones of a near mythic time. From Mount Rushmore, it’s only 50 miles to Deadwood, a town that constantly burnishes its Old West image — and its association with two of the more colorful Old West characters.
As fans of the TV series “Deadwood” probably recall, gold was discovered in the Black Hills in 1874 and an unruly mining camp grew into an only somewhat less unruly town. It’s fair enough that Deadwood claims Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane as its own. Both found their ways here by 1876 and both are buried in Mount Moriah Cemetery on a hillside above town. It’s something of an inside joke that Calamity Jane is buried next to Hickok. Locals claim that the “dandy” gunslinger and gambler didn’t much care for the freewheeling frontierswoman.
Unfortunately for Hickok, he provided Deadwood with its signal historical moment. On Aug. 2, 1876, he was playing poker in a saloon, seated with his back to the door. Drifter Jack McCall walked in, drew his revolver, and shot Hickok in the back of the head, killing him instantly. The event is reenacted four times a day at Saloon No. 10, which proudly proclaims itself the only museum with a bar in it.
That’s definitely the spirit of the Old West.
If you go . . .
WHAT TO DO
The 54th Annual Buffalo Roundup in Custer State Park is scheduled for Sept. 27.
For details see: gfp.sd.gov/parks/
Free admission on Roundup day, otherwise $20 for seven-day vehicle license
Buffalo Safari Jeep Tour
Departs from State Game Lodge, Route 16A, Custer State Park, S.D.
Hourly tours daily from 8 a.m.-6 p.m.; reservations recommended. Adults $55, under age 12 $50
Crazy Horse Memorial
12151 Avenue of the Chiefs, Crazy Horse, S.D.
Welcome Center and museums open through Sept. 29, daily 7 a.m.-late evening after Laser Light Show. $24 per car (2 people), $30 per car (3 or more people)
Mount Rushmore National Monument
13000 SR 244, Keystone, S.D.
Through September, grounds open daily 5 a.m.-11 p.m.; information center open daily 8 a.m.-9 p.m. Admission free, parking $10, seniors $5
Saloon No. 10
657 Main St., Deadwood, S.D.
Reenactments 1, 3, 5, and 7 p.m., free
WHERE TO STAY
Sylvan Lake Lodge
24572 SD 87, Custer, S.D.
Lodge rooms $165-$250. Rustic chic 1937 lodge (with 1991 addition) sits among pine and spruce trees overlooking Sylvan Lake in Custer State Park.