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Tuesday, September 05, 2017


 Entering South Dakota’s Custer State Park and beginning the climb into the Black Hills, seeing grazing cattle on isolated ranches and the vast profusion of Ponderosa Pines clinging for all they’re worth to the rocky, sometimes steep cliffs, it is impossible for my mood not to bubble over with excitement.

In the same State Game Lodge where we headed, President Calvin Coolidge once made the Summer White House.  So impressed by his surroundings, so moved by his forays into nature, the fishing he enjoyed, and the hiking that occupied his time, before Coolidge left the sculptor Gutzon Borglum was able to convince him to set aside Mt. Rushmore.  The President was overwhelmed by nature.

The State Game Lodge
in Custer State Park, South Dakota
was used by President Calvin Coolidge as the
Summer White House in 1927.
A summer here convinced him to go ahead with the plans
for Mt. Rushmore.

The State Game Lodge is a dark stained, wooden hotel propped against the side of a hill overlooking the main road.  Clean and welcoming but with small rooms, an absence of television, spotty wifi, and no air-conditioning, it is still a great place to begin our Tauck tour entitled “Legends of the American West.”

In the bar, the stone fireplace is a certified National Treasure.  Above the mantle hangs a portrait of President Dwight D. Eisenhower who also used this lodge.  We walked where giants walked.

Our inaugural meal in South Dakota, bison stew.  Of course! It was delicious!

Despite its rusticity, the State Game Lodge is popular with tourists like me, so if you are interested, book early; it’s in high demand.

At 71,000 acres, Custer State Park is among the largest state parks in the United States, showcasing nature’s unending variety of lakes, fast-moving creeks, plains, mountains, and granite spires known as The Needles  which brave and expert climbers scale to view the majestic scenes below and out across seemingly endless valleys.

For me, above all, is that Custer is home to a herd of bison, the descendants of the barely few left after the wanton slaughter of the millions that once roamed the vast plains of the mid west.  To see them in their natural habitat where we, the interlopers, have the honor to view them, is breathtaking. 

We thought our introduction to bison and the other animals in the park would come the following day on a Buffalo Safari, but on the day we arrived, Rob and I followed Creekside Trail and walked the ¾ mile from the State Game Lodge to the Custer State Park Visitor Center, a lovely curving path over a creek, through the shade of trees, past a campground and children’s playground, through cattle-guard fences, and over some wooden walkways.

Almost to the Center, we stopped short. Lazily ambling toward us was a herd of bison. 

We were dumbstruck!  Delighted!  Exuberant!  The bison?  Totally unabashed by human presence, they stopped to feed on the grass and moseyed their way down to the creek for a drink.

How did we feel????  THIS WAS NOT A TOUR.  Rangers came over to warn people to stay back.  These are animals in the wild.  These 2,000 pound mammals, the largest mammals in North America, brook no disturbance, and they can be dangerous.  Don’t be deceived by their sleepy-eyed demeanor.

We spend nearly half an hour observing and photographing them, and then wistfully tear ourselves away and leave them to other observers.
Seeing them in their natural surroundings made me sad to think
that they were so close to extinction.
The parks brought them back for us and for posterity.

Time for the Visitor Center and some more understanding. Pictures and information abound, and there is a 25 minute film narrated by Kevin Costner about the different faces of Custer State Park and the different ways in which visitors can recreate.

Much, but not all, is dedicated to the bison, the annual roundup where they are counted, tagging some for study, tallying the way they have multiplied and thrived over the years, and continuing the work to learn more about them as well as about other park inhabitants like the pronghorn antelope (that really is more closely related to a giraffe than to an antelope).

It’s a modern Visitor Center welcoming to people with disabilities.  In my case, their device gives me closed caption of the movie’s narration.  This is a first for me, and it works beautifully.

It may have been the first day, but already it is a great vacation. This is just the beginning.

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