Pit Stop in Rapid City, South Dakota

Alex Johnson Hotel, Rapid City, SD
Warm, welcoming lobby of the Alex Johnson Hotel in Rapid City, SD

Mid-day we make a pit stop in Rapid City looking for wireless service, lunch, a natural foods store… and architecturally interesting buildings.

Right downtown and an easy drive from the Crazy Horse Memorial and Mount Rushmore, The Hotel Alex Johnson is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The structural design is a blend of two spirits: the heritage of the Plains Indians and the Germanic Tudor architecture representing German immigration to the Dakotas. Construction began on the hotel in 1927, the day before work began on Mount Rushmore. Alex Johnson, Vice President of the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad, was founder of this grand hotel that bears his name. An admirer of Native Americans, he spoke of a shrine and tribute to the Sioux Indian Nation.

After admiring the lobby and buying a few postcards in the gift shop, we walk into Seattle’s Best Cafe, which is conveniently connected to the hotel. Good coffee, hot tea, comfy leather chairs for postcard writing, and complimentary high speed wireless take care of all our needs.

Tally's Silver Spoon, Rapid City, SD
Tally's Silver Spoon fine diner is just across the street from the hotel.

Tally’s Silver Spoon, dubbed the Fine Diner by Chef Benjamin Klinkel, and located across the street from the hotel, is what drew us to the town after an internet search. The diner is abuzz with happy eaters and we are pleased to land a booth by the window. The menu reflects the chef’s philosophy of seeking out the best ingredients available, local whenever possible and specialty imports from small producers all over the world.

Healthy choices are created daily in the form of the Silver Spoon Lunch Special made with lettuces and produce grown specifically for Tally’s Silver Spoon by a local farm. Jay orders today’s lunch special – a Tuscan Bread salad with seared Ahi Tuna on top. I order a Wild Idea Buffalo burger a plate they happily modify to be gluten-free – omitting the bun and coated fries and adding a delicious green salad. Both are delicious. Wild Idea, a Rapid City company, lets their bison mature on native grass pastures which are are loaded with Omegs-3’s and are found in abundance in grass-fed buffalo.

Fully fed and satisfied we locate a natural foods store. I find it interesting to go into natural food markets in different places. Often we will be restocking on nuts and fruit and I like to see what gluten-free brands they carry that are new to me. Today we check out Staple and Spice Market at 601 Mount Rushmore Road. My discovery is a new line of gluten-free baking mixes from Stonewall KitchenGF Chocolate Chunk Cookie Mix, GF Chocolate Cupcake Mix, GF Vanilla Cupcake Mix, GF Pancake & Waffle Mix, and a GF Chocolate Brownie Mix. I purchased one of the brownie mixes and look forward to baking it soon. If anyone has tried the Stonewall gluten-free mixes, please let us know what you think.

Bear Butte in the Black Hills of South Dakota

Bear Butte sunrise, South Dakota
The day dawns on Bear Butte.

Planning on a sunrise hike up the Butte, we car camp in the Bear Butte State Park campground, located on Butte Butte Lake – the perfect spot – with an unobstructed view of Bear Butte and a lake loop trail for walking.

A gorgeous sunrise greets us this morning and we dress in its’ soft light. Ours is the first and only car in the parking lot. It is a 1.85-mile hike up the Summit Trail to the top of the butte. The dirt-covered narrow trail begins at the parking lot near the Education Center and zigzags up the rocky butte, gaining 1,000 feet elevation along the way.

During our ascent, a dark storm cloud approaches, and is split in half by the butte. We experience all the elements in their full glory – the fire of lighting, rain, and wind, as we trod the earthen path, ever upward. The golden light of the morning sun illuminating the prairie below us.

Bear Butte, South Dakota, view to the north
As we walk under a cloudy sky the northern view is illuminated by the sun.

Mato Paha or Bear Mountain is the Lakota name given to this unique formation called Bear Butte. The mountain earned its nickname because of its resemblance to a bear sleeping on its side. Turns out this formation is a lone mountain, rather than a flat-topped butte as the name implies. It is one of several intrusions of igneous rock that formed millions of years ago along the northern edge of the Black Hills.

Bear Butte, South Dakota, view to the east
View to the east as we continue to climb.
View from the summit of Bear Butte
Bear Butte summit where a thunderstorm passes to the east.

The mountain is sacred ground for as many as 17 American Indian tribes, and the ceremonial area is visited by many each summer. Year round the mountain is used for prayer and is believed to be the spot where the creator communicates with his people through vision and prayer. For thousands of years, American Indian tribes, including the Lakota, Dakota, Nakota, Cheyenne, Arapahoe, Kiowa, Arikara, Hidatsa and Mandan have traveled to Bear Butte to perform annual prayer ceremonies. They, along with visitors from around the world, make annual pilgrimages to this sacred site for spiritual renewal and sustenance.

summit of Bear Butte, SD
The wind blows and the world opens up at the summit.
Path on Bear Butte, SD
Trail to Bear Butte summit.

As we climb the mountain we see colorful pieces of cloth and small bundles or pouches hanging from the trees. These prayer cloths and tobacco ties represent prayers offered by individuals during their worship. For the native peoples, the Creator gave them the sanctity of Bear Butte and other gifts to use in their sacred ways – sage, sweetgrass, tobacco, cedar, and water.

We learn that the colors used in prayer cloths and prayer ties vary with the different tribes, but are often similar to the colors associated with the four cardinal directions.

  • Black is for the West, and is the color of the Thunder and Lightning People who clean the Earth.
  • Red is for the North. The Buffalo come from the north and sacrifice themselves for the people so that the people may live.
  • Yellow is for the East. Hope and a new day come from the east.
  • White is for the South, which is the direction that we go when we leave this physical world and go on to the next world.

Despite its cultural and religious significance, this National Historic Landmark is threatened by proposed energy development. Last November, the South Dakota Board of Minerals and Environment approved a plan to establish a 960-acre oil field adjacent to Bear Butte. Based on tribal opposition and recommendations made by the National Trust and the South Dakota State Historic Preservation Office, the board agreed that no wells would be located within the NHL boundary, and adopted other restrictions to reduce the project’s impact. However, in addition to the well proposal, a wind power installation, to be placed roughly five miles away from the mountain, is currently under consideration.

Lakota Prayer

Wakan Tanka, Great Mystery,
teach me how to trust
my heart
my mind,
my intuition,
my inner knowing,
the senses of my body,
the blessings of my spirit.
Teach me to trust these things
so that I may enter my Sacred Space
and love beyond my fear,
and thus Walk in Balance
with the passing of each glorious Sun.

According to the Native People, the Sacred Space is the space between exhalation and inhalation. To Walk in Balance is to have Heaven (spirituality) and Earth (physicality) in Harmony.


Crazy Horse Memorial in Custer, South Dakota

Allen's Rocket Motel, Custer, SD
Allen's Rocket Motel in Custer, SD (photo by Brian Butko)

Arriving late in Custer, SD we happen upon the Rocket Motel. Located in downtown Custer within walking distance of restaurants & shops, and with the coolest lobby we have seen so far, we take a room. The decor is black and white with a pristine white cotton bedspread and very fun black & white check curtains in the bathroom. It is as the LA Times says “immaculately maintained 1950’s motel.” Rates start at $70 in summer and $50 in winter, and the Crazy Horse Memorial is just a five minute drive north in the Black Hills.

Crazy Horse Memorial, Custer, SD
Crazy Horse sculpture with Memorial in background

As I sit here writing and researching, I learn that the second “night blast” of the year at the Crazy Horse Memorial will be tonight – Sept. 6 – in observance of dual anniversaries; the 1877 death of Lakota leader Crazy Horse and the commemoration of the 104th birth date of sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski born in 1908… an auspicious day.

Sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski and Lakota Chief Henry Standing Bear officially started Crazy Horse Memorial June 3, 1948. The Memorial’s mission is to honor the culture, tradition and living heritage of North American Indians. Outside on the deck of the Welcome Center is the sculpture that Ziolkowski created depicting the Lakota warrior, Crazy Horse, seated on his horse and pointing over the horse’s head saying “My lands are where my dead lie buried”. The mountain carving is a very large duplicate of Ziolkowski’s sculpture and is breathtaking to see in person. The size and scale of the mountain sculpture is hard to grasp. Just the head is as big as all of Mount Rushmore. The opening under Crazy Horse’s arm is the height of a 10-story building.

Crazy Horse Memorial
Crazy Horse Memorial on a glorious sunny day

Numerous accounts of Crazy Horse exist. Manataka American Indian Council has a brief biography online and Jay has read two books he recommends:

In the Spirit of Crazy Horse by Peter Matthiessen, the author tells the story of the treatment of North American Indians since European settlers arrived. Through interviews, attendance at Indian ceremonies and extensive research, he shares details of life for many tribes, both then and now.

Black Elk Speaks: Being the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux by John G. Neihardt is widely hailed as a religious classic. Jay read from it as we traveled, and the story told by Black Elk is gripping, powerful, and full of fascinating first person history – growing from young boy to Lakota elder, the narrative includes “you are there” accounts of Lakota life, Black Elk’s visions, his travels to England where Black Elk met the queen, and much more. From the back cover:

This inspirational and unfailingly powerful story reveals the life and visions of the Lakota healer Nicholas Black Elk (1863-1950) and the tragic history of his Sioux people during the epic closing decades of the Old West. In 1930, the aging Black Elk met a kindred spirit, the famed poet, writer, and critic John G. Neihardt (1881-1973) on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. The Lakota elder chose Neihardt to share his visions and life with the world. Black Elk’s remarkable great vision came to him during a time of decimation and loss, when outsiders were stealing the Lakotas’ land, slaughtering buffalo, and threatening their age-old way of life. As Black Elk remembers all too well, the Lakotas, led by such legendary men as Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull, fought unceasingly for their freedom, winning a world-renowned victory at the Little Bighorn and suffering unspeakable losses at Wounded Knee.

As we leave the Custer area headed for Bear Butte, our next stop is the Sugar Shack just south of Deadwood, SD, located on US Highway 385. Our host at the Rocket Motel spoke very highly of this burger joint and was envious that we would be eating there today.

Sugar Shack in Deadwood, SD
Sugar Shack on highway 385, just south of Deadwood, SD

I go for it and order the “Bubba Burger” – the 1/2 pound homemade burger comes with pepper cheese, grilled onions, thick smokey bacon, jalapenos, and BBQ sauce (they happily serve it without a bun so it is gluten-free). Jay chooses a swiss cheese burger with grilled onions. The patties are juicy and delicious. The story is that the current owner – Kerri “Bubba” Johnston – has changed the recipe slightly since it first opened — all of the employees agree that the current recipe is the best it has ever been – works for us, we are two happy campers!