There weren’t a lot of people on the Northern Plains and their settlements appeared only sporadically. Out there amongst the expansive void a place of a thousand residents would be called a city and drivers might not see another one for an hour. I wondered, where did people even buy their groceries? That didn’t mean the space was lacking in interests. The terrain, so alien from my normal experiences became the prime attraction.
I treated Mt. Rushmore (map) as a do-over. Me and some friends rented a recreational vehicle and drove around the United States visiting many of its famous national parks long ago in 1992. I recounted a small portion of that journey in Crossing of South Dakota on Interstate 90 on my travel pages. It included a stop at Mt. Rushmore where I recalled feeling underwhelmed. The massive sculpture seemed so small and distant, a disappointment. And couldn’t they have cleared the debris pile? Would I still feel this way, an older and hopefully slightly wiser version of myself almost a quarter century later?
At least I brought a better camera. This was the best we could manage with a cheap Kodak Instamatic point-and-shoot film camera during the pre-digital days of my previous effort:
My Earlier Visit to Mt. Rushmore in 1992
I’d downplayed the experience so much that I created low expectations for my wife who’d never seen the sculpture. She felt we had to go there despite my minimal enthusiasm because she couldn’t conceive of driving directly through the Black Hills without stopping at Mt. Rushmore. It was one of those sites, she noted, that all Americans needed to experience at least once in their lifetimes. I grumbled a bit and muttered that she might be disappointed although I didn’t disagree with her logic. We drove up to the park, still mobbed with tourists even after Labor Day, and walked towards the viewing deck as we pushed past disgorging busloads. I didn’t have anything better to do I figured, while I tried to clear away my earlier impressions. Yes, it was better than my past experience although the entire notion of defacing a mountain in the middle of nowhere still seemed weird. My wife thought it was incredible, I’m guessing because the genuine version eclipsed the negative vibe I’d so carefully crafted ahead of time.
Several loyal Twelve Mile Circle readers suggested that I should visit the Crazy Horse Memorial (map), just a short hop from Rushmore. Sure, why not. People seemed to enjoy carving outcrops with giant sculptures in the Black Hills. I might as well take a peek at their handiwork.
Crazy Horse’s emerging presence on Thunderhead Mountain served as a fitting counterweight to the image of US presidents appearing on Mt. Rushmore. It represented the point of view of the original inhabitants, the Oglala Lakota of the Great Sioux Nation. Many of them resented everything Mt. Rushmore presented, the defiling of a sacred mountain with gigantic sculptures of their oppressors. The insult couldn’t be removed although they could commission an even bigger and better sculpture of their war leader Crazy Horse (~1840-1877) who resisted territorial encroachment and died battling US troops. It was more sensible than carving an oversized middle finger although I wouldn’t blamed them if they’d done that instead.
Work began in 1948. Much remains undone. The current sculptors dedicated Crazy Horse’s face in 1998 and moved on to the horse. When finished, Crazy Horse will sit atop his steed with arm pointed forward. The sculpture will stand 563 feet (172 m) high and 641 feet (195 m) wide, possibly the largest in the world. They have not accepted any Federal funding in order to maintain independence. The project continues to move slowly as money allows. Crazy Horse won’t emerge completely during our lifetimes and maybe not even in the lifetimes of our children at the current pace.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park
I mentioned earlier that I took a detour to Theodore Roosevelt National Park (map) mostly as a pretext to capture a couple of extra counties I’d never visited before. What a lucky decision. The park was practically empty, an otherworldly corner of North Dakota’s badlands. We hit the southern unit based in the town of Medora. I didn’t have much to say about Medora because it seemed like they rolled-up the sidewalks after Labor Day. I had a tough time even finding a sandwich for lunch. The place looked nice enough in a faux old-timey "western" kind of way although it resembled a ghost town in mid-September.
We drove into the park and took the 36-mile (58km) Scenic Loop Drive. A word of caution, when signs posted a 25 mph speed limit they meant every word of it even along the completely empty back section. Thank you Mr. Park Ranger for, ahem, letting me off with a verbal warning when I truly deserved a ticket. Much obliged.
The loop offered several scenic overlooks, some right by the road and others needing short simple hikes. My favorite was called the Wild Canyon Trail and it led to a bluff high above the Little Missouri River. The park was noted for its wildlife although we didn’t experience much of that other than a few prairie dogs and a small herd of wild horses. We didn’t see the famed bison although several hundred roamed freely there. It became a running joke for much of the rest of the trip until days later when our luck improved in the Black Hills. Instead we were left with the incredible scenery which more than held its own ground.
See! Pixilated Bison!
Ironically, as I leafed through photographs upon our return, I noticed a few black dots and zoomed way in. They were bison. The bison were always present during our visit to Theodore Roosevelt National Park and ready to be discovered if we’d only looked a little harder.
This was my second trip to Devils Tower (map), seen previously on that same epic journey as my original visit to Mt. Rushmore. In contrast I recalled being awed by Devils Tower, a thousand foot (300 m) remnant of an ancient volcanic plug. Once again I walked around its base, neck craned skyward in appreciation of the spectacle and searching for climbers working their way to the top. We didn’t stay overnight so I couldn’t confirm if the campground still screened "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" every evening or not. I bet they did.
Most of the terrain lacked the dramatic flair of badlands, mountains and extinct volcanoes. There was a vast emptiness all the way to the horizon, hour after hour. I never got bored. The loneliness fascinated me. Once I drove a hundred miles (160 km) from the Montana border (map) to the town of Baker mid-afternoon with perfect weather. I never saw another car in my lane ahead of me or behind me the entire time. Maybe a half dozen cars drove past in the opposite direction. That was some serious Big Sky.
See Also: The Complete Photo Album on Flickr
Transporting a participant through a grueling six day, six state race series created a huge benefit for a geo-geek such as myself, the inherent need to cover a lot of territory. I’d driven through parts of the target area previously on a cross-country trip many years ago. I’d completed the typical tourist trek through Badlands, Mount Rushmore and Devils Tower on an Interstate 90 flyby in 1992. I didn’t have much of a chance to stop and linger during that long ago road trip. This time it would be different. I’d poke into completely obscure corners as dictated by race sites.
The series embodied two underlying premises, running and geography. The race director had to align six distinct events as close as possible to the confluence of multiple state borders to minimize travel distances, generating unusual selections removed from tourist trails. It served the needs of a very small and elite target audience; marathoners (and half-marathoners) who wished to complete a race in each of 50 US states. I held only one goal in common — the geographic portion — and that was enough. I was going to grab some rare spots on the map and leave the extreme athletic achievements to others.
We crossed a lot of state borders. Our efforts focused on passing between various small towns near state boundaries where each race would take place the following morning. Routes generally strayed away from Interstate highways although I did enjoy driving a completely legal 80 miles per hour (130 km/hr) briefly on I-90 as we left Wyoming.
I began to notice something peculiar on the lightly-traveled back country byways of the High Plains. There always seemed to be a pull-out by the side of the road at each state border where one could safely park a vehicle and walk to the boundary sign to snap a photograph. It seemed that highway officials recognized the precious few tourist attractions and went out of their way to turn anything noteworthy into a photo op. The next thing I knew, and without really trying, I’d compiled a collection of state border signs for Nebraska (above), Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota and South Dakota. The Nebraska sign (map) showed Chimney Rock which I will talk about in a future installment. I didn’t stop for Colorado. I’m not sure why, I think I was getting tired of the game by then.
I completed a personally memorable state milestone during the trip that I’d been chasing for awhile. I’d long since visited all 50 US states, completing that journey more than a dozen years ago. However a handful of those crossings involved lackluster efforts, barely placing a toe on the other side of the border. My Montana "visit" had been particularly egregious, a thirty second effort when I visited Yellowstone National Park on the aforementioned cross-country trip so many years ago. One of the races took place in Baker, Montana so I spent the night there. I also spent a night in South Dakota two days later, whereas previously I’d only driven across the state without stopping. With those two events, I could now say I’d stayed at least one full night in every state.
Amidon, North Dakota (map)
Notwithstanding, counties were the real stars of the trip as I colored a slew of hard-to-reach spaces on my county counting map. Our route zigged and zagged in counterintuitive directions as I steered across as many county borders as possible while eliminating doughnut holes. I realized I might not travel this way again anytime soon. This might be my only chance. I drew a nice, solid rectangle of captured counties on the eastern side of Wyoming and Montana, and the western side of North Dakota, South Dakota and Nebraska, tallying 28 new counties in the process. My total stood at 1,301 at the end of the journey, 41.1% of counties in the United States.
As an example, the first race was held in Baker, Montana and the second race in Bowman, North Dakota. Here was the path I blazed between them.
Logic would have dictated an easy 45 minute straight-line drive to the east. Instead I drove three sides of a square for two and a half hours, capturing four new counties I would have missed otherwise: Wibaux, MT; Golden Valley, ND; Billings, ND and Stark, ND. Plus I got to visit the scenic badlands of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. See how it worked?
That wasn’t even the most ridiculously contrived route, either. I think that honor went to day five when I drove between Chadron, Nebraska and the final race in Sterling, Colorado.
That little exercise converted a trip that should have lasted less than three hours into something extending nearly four and a half hours. However, I added four Nebraska counties that would have created a large doughnut hole otherwise: Sioux; Scotts Bluff; Banner and Kimball. The out-and-back portion also allowed me to visit Chimney Rock National Historic Site before returning to Scotts Bluff National Monument where I could cross additional county lines.
I also recorded several minor county milestone in the process.
- Counties, Plural. I have now been to counties — plural — in each of the 50 states. The fewest was Hawaii with two of five counties visited. I’m in the double digits for most states.
- Smallest of the Smallest: Wyoming had the fewest residents of any state during the 2010 Census, with a population of 563 thousand. Niobrara County had the fewest residents in Wyoming, with 2,484 people. Not only did I visit Niobrara, I stayed overnight in its county seat, Lusk. Granted there were counties in other states with smaller populations (e.g., Loving County, Texas with 82 residents). Still, I thought it was a memorable triviality to be in the least populated county in the least populated state.
- A Very Small Seat: We passed a curious sign as we drove south from the North Dakota badlands to the next race in Bowman, ND. Diminutive Amidon (map) perched along US Route 85 proclaimed itself to be the "Nation’s Smallest County Seat." Oh, and also North Dakota’s "Longest Running County Fair." I had to stop for a photo. Later I checked the claim. Wikipedia said Amidon was the smallest seat until 2010 when it was passed by Brewster, Nebraska population 17. Being the 2nd smallest seat didn’t bring the same glory, I guess, although the sign remained. At least Amidon still had the fair
Some 12MC readers recommended a visit to Carhenge since it would have fallen on the most direct route. I didn’t make it. Quite simply, county counting provided an explanation. Something had to give. I couldn’t leave any doughnut holes behind so Carhenge fell off the schedule.
See Also: The Complete Photo Album on Flickr
I returned from my much-anticipated Center of the Nation journey about a week ago. Those readers who followed the 12MC Twitter account already received a steady dose of foreshadowing about this event, a final installment of my 2015 Twelve Mile Circle "season of travel." I took a lot of great trips over the last several months. It will be nice to stay at home for awhile before as I plan the next set of adventures.
Early Morning Race in Bowman, North Dakota (map)
I faced a bit of a quandary. The entire premise of this adventure focused on my efforts to chauffeur a participant in Mainly Marathon’s Center of the Nation race series from site to site. There would be six running races (Marathon, Half-Marathon or 5K options; my participant chose Half-Marathon) in each of six states in six days; September 14-19. I’d spent very little time in the selected remote corners of Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska and Colorado so I was on-board with the concept immediately. I could pad my County Counting score while hopefully scrounging a handful of fascinating sites scattered amongst the desolate, empty terrain.
Traveling wasn’t the issue. Rather, I’d promised to avoid any further Center of Anything articles after I posted Centre of Australia way back in 2009. At that time I noted at least five major calculations plus several minor variations that could be used to determine the center, all producing different values. I threw my hands in the air and said, "any claims to being the centre of anything on a landmass would be somewhat bogus, more entertainment than science." I continue to stand by that statement. The United States could have a huge number of centers, one for each of the myriad mathematical models for the Lower 48 States and then again for the 48 States plus Alaska and Hawaii. Yikes!
Yet the whole inspiration for the races focused on their proximity to one of several supposed Centers. I had no choice but to revisit that topic.
You thought six races in six states in six days was crazy? Check out this climber I photographed scaling Devils Tower in Wyoming (map). We spotted several climbers, tiny little dots slowly working their way up the massive cylinder. The complete audacity of their extreme physical efforts could only be fully appreciated at the other end of a telephoto lens. I couldn’t even imagine how something so steep could be scaled.
Now back to the rest of the article…
The Fake Center
South Dakota’s race in Belle Fourche (pronounced FOOSH as I quickly learned) incorporated the Center of the Nation marker within its course, a nice touch I thought (map). The course began uphill at the Visitor Center, ran past the Center of the Nation marker amid flags from every state, and finally continued onward towards a path along the town’s Riverwalk.
It was clear that the central marker in Belle Fourche had been based upon the inclusion of all 50 US States — the center for the 48 contiguous states fell farther south and east in Kansas — and I understood the method of calculation thanks to the Center for Land Use Interpretation.
This was determined as the point at which an arc connecting the geographic center of the 49 states and the geographic center of Hawaii would balance. This point was established on the admittance of Hawaii into the Union, in 1959…
The spot had been determined and recognized by the U.S. National Geodetic Survey so it was as good as any Center of the Nation, and maybe better than most. However I’ve also engaged in a bit of deception. The actual spot wasn’t located in that attractive park along the gentle river flowing through Belle Fourche. As someone quoted in a 2008 New York Times article, "In the Middle of Nowhere, a Nation’s Center" explained, "We’re not pretending to be the actual center… We’re providing a convenience."
I’d agree, it was convenient.
The Real Center
I felt a natural compulsion to visit the real center, or at least the real center as defined by one of several possible calculations that also happened to included Alaska and Hawaii. It could be found about 20 miles north of Belle Fourche in a farmer’s field, with the last several miles down a dusty gravel road (map). I noticed a pickup truck parked at a pullout as I approached. I hadn’t seen another vehicle since I’d left the highway, and amazingly someone else happened to be visiting that obscure marker at the same time. I think we both displayed the same dumbstruck look, of awed fascination that somehow we weren’t alone in our pursuit of geo-oddities.
See Also: The Complete Photo Album on Flickr