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2015 Black Hills Trip

"Great Faces, Great Places" Mount Rushmore in the morning sun.

Just another Lindsay and Baolu vacation trip report -- only this time there actually IS
something Great Northern Railway-related! You'll have to read through to the end, though.  Enjoy!

Monday, June 22

It's a beautiful day as we set out by taxi to Sea-Tac. Lindsay and Baolu are splurging and flying United First Class to Denver with a connecting puddle jumper to Rapid City, South Dakota.

The plane is full as we climb past 10,000 feet when the flight attendants finally come around. Bloody Mary's (three of them.... or was it four?) for me and wine for Baolu. Lunch is a chicken sandwich with some sort of gouda cheese. It's pretty good! (Anything is pretty good washed down with 3+ B.M.'s....)

At Denver, our connecting flight is at the opposite end of the 100-gate B Concourse. Those moving sidewalks come in handy. We arrive at our gate just as boarding is starting. It is a short flight to Rapid City where we pick up the rental car (a white Mazda 3) and our checked bag. Dinner tonight is Qdoba, a fresh-Mexi chain neither of us had tried before. Not bad! Might have to sample them again at home.

20mph in a deserted downtown Rapid City -- that's slow, baby!; Our rustic hotel, the Howard err... Alex Johnson.

We are "camping" tonight at the Hotel Alex Johnson in downtown Rapid City. Parking is complementary at a nearby parking garage -- a fact not mentioned on their website, which is a nice surprise. Very rustic/informal in the lobby with lots of wooden beams, almost Tudor style. The not-so-nice surprise is our room which contains one tiiiny little single bed (I had ordered two doubles). Hmpf. Back to the lobby we go. The clerk asks which room we're in. "419", I say. Light bulb goes off over clerk's head..."Ohhh, THAT IS a double.". "No it's not.", I say. "It is one small bed that dead ends into either a closet or the bathroom."

The clerk explains that you have to go THROUGH the bathroom to get to the next room. Sure enough. We open a door and find the next bed. We have two small rooms which share a shower and toilet. Wash basins are in each room. And the entire deal is wrapped completely around a bank of elevators. We will listen to the "Bong!" of the lift all night long, as people visit our floor. It is extremely boonie in here. There are pigeons roosting outside each of our windows. There is practically no water pressure in the shower or sinks and the closets are very musty. Neither air conditioner does much more than rattle and dispense lukewarm air. We are indeed roughing it.

Tuesday, June 23

There is actually a Starbucks right in our hotel, so breakfast and Baolu's last decent cup of coffee takes place here, the next morning. After checking out (with great reluctance, of course), we stop off at a local grocery store for sandwiches and "some nice, fresh fruit" for our journey to Wall, South Dakota.

Posted speed on I-90 thru South Dakota is 80 per. I'm envious; Does this rental car really do 160 mph?

All along I-90 are these signs advertising Wall Drug; The promised land. Tourist schlock heaven!

At the Wall Drug gift shop, we buy lots of trinkets and baubles. There is also a gold store across the street where Baolu does some serious bling acquisition.

#1: Entrance to Badlands National Park; #2: Orange contrasts very nicely with the Badlands; #3 You can see the various levels of sediment of the ancient seabed; #4: Baolu, Badlands and a Mazda 3.

We take a leisurely drive westward through the Badlands, stopping at their Visitor Center for more trinkets and to munch our lunch with a great view of the eroded formations. We are struck by how GREEN everything is in South Dakota. It turns out they have been having one of the wettest Junes on record -- in fact we are dodging rain showers during the whole trip.

In late afternoon, we find ourselves back in Rapid City and have a late lunch/early dinner at the local Chili's. Their sizzling fajitas are just as good as ever.

The next stop is the Black Hills Gold factory tour, just south of Rapid City. The tour explained how something can be called "Black Hills Gold". The gold is not necessarily from South Dakota, but the gold must be made into something (a necklace, a ring, earrings, etc.) in the Black Hills area. Wiki has a good explanation:

Also Black Hills gold is known for mixing silver and copper with gold to get 3 distinct colors and patterns of their gold jewelry. The Legend of Henry Lebeau explains how this came to be:

The tour was pretty interesting as we saw how the workers created the various jewelry and worked with the gold using something called "lost wax castings" -- something model railroaders are familiar with in their kits.

The most impressive bit of the tour was when they told us the new factory building we were standing in, was completely paid for by -- gold dust vacuumed up from the carpet of the OLD factory! Unfortunately --- no free samples on this tour --- gold dust or otherwise.

Done with the gold hype, we set off the short distance to the Best Western Iron Horse in Hill City, SD. Ahhh this is more like it. A/C that works. Gutty complementary breakfast. Nice big beds. No pigeons.

After check in, we drive over to the nearby Black Hills Central (BHC) "1880's Train" depot and purchase tickets for the 10am train this coming Thursday. I get some GOOD (sunny, low light) shots of the evening train coming into the depot from Keystone, SD.

#1: BHC #63 (EMD GP9 blt for C&O in 1956);
#2: BHC #110 (Baldwin 2-6-6-2T built 1928);
#3: BHC #112 "Oreville" (American Car Company blt 1913 for Oregon Electric - used on Pacific Great Eastern Ry. in British Columbia. All pictures taken in Hill City, South Dakota.

#4: BHC #144 "Redfern" open-air car;
#5: BHC "Blue Bird" arch-window car;
#6: BHC "Edward Gillette" arch-window car.
All pictures taken in Hill City, South Dakota

Wednesday, June 24

At the airport Monday, we discovered our rental car has a pass to the Mount Rushmore parking garage ($11) good until December! Nice. Passing the good karma forward, we leave this in the car for the next person.

After a hearty breakfast with the elderly crowd, we are off, first thing to Mount Rushmore. We arrive about 8:30am and get our pictures taken. Beautiful blue sky. In the cool, shaded pine forest, we take the little half-mile long trail for a different view of Mount Rushmore.

#1: Presenting...Mount Rushmore!; #2: Looking faaaabulous in the morning light; #3: Baolu meets four Presidents at once; #4: Christmas card picture!

#5: Baolu heads down the "President's trail"; #6: Just a peek at Washington; #7: The four big guys from down below.

We are finished about 10am just as the clouds roll in along with all the old ladies on bus tours. Morning is definitely the time to get the best, well-lit pictures! Driving off, you get the profile picture of George Washington along Hwy 244.

#8: close up of George and Thomas; #9: close up of Theodore and Abe; #10: Washington's profile from the highway.

Next, we enter Custer State Park ($15 for 7 days). We stop at Sylvan Lake for a nice walk along the shoreline. There is this oochie rock opening you walk thru with big boulders above.

#1: One lane Hood Tunnel in Custer State Park; #2: Sylvan Lake; #3: Baolu and; #4 Yours truly.

#5: Rocks and lake shore; #6: just room enough for one person; #7: Saw this in the parking lot -- a Great Northern fan who likes the eastbound Fast Mail, perhaps?

It is getting towards lunch time, so we leave Custer S.P. behind and head for Custer, SD!. The "Bavarian Inn" restaurant we intended to chow at is only open from 4pm to 10pm. This seems to be the case with every steakhouse we try to visit. Must be a law -- no steak-eating for lunch in South Dakota.

We wind up having a buffalo burger at the "Dakota Cowboy". It seems like there are lots of local's cars parked outside, so this must be a good place.

Our waitress comes over and appears to have just woken up from a long winter's nap. When we order items off the menu, she seems confused and troubled. Like she had never HEARD of those entrees before. I turn the menu around facing her and point to the items we want.

I order ice tea with a slice of lemon. Apparently this is NOT standard operating procedure. "Oh, we usually serve our ice tea with an orange slice....". I manage to convince her gently that lemon is a good thing too.

Sure enough, she brings round the iced tea with lemon and some water. There is a long pause. She seems to have disappeared. Just when we're about to give up hope, she appears with our deep-fried mushrooms. "I've just put your order in", she explains.

Time passes.

The burgers finally come out and after the gal leaves I realize there is no ketchup or mustard. I pull a "Dad" and head over to where she is sitting in a booth and ask for those condiments. Much better. The burger is adequate for both of us and quickly masticated.

#1: Flintstones, meet the Flintstones...; #2: That's my Wilma and the Bedrock City Gift Shop!

Lunch taken care of, we saunter over to the nearby "Flintstone's Bedrock City and Campground". Lots of sign pictures and the gift shop even has a shirt in my size! I love old cartoons (pre-1970, that is).

Next stop is just outside town to Jewel Cave National Monument. The parking lot is rather empty. As we reach the ticket line we discover there are no tours available until 2 1/2 hours later. I attempt to purchase tickets for tomorrow. No can do. You have to purchase them on the DAY of your visit. So much for this hole in the ground.

#1: What buffalo?; #2: You mean this little critter here?; #3 & #4: "If I had four legs and went 'hee-haw', what would I be? Why uh, you'd be a jackass!".


We set out for the highly-touted "Wildlife Loop Road" back over in Custer S.P. Not much wildlife unless you count the prairie dog town and various donkeys blocking the road. Miles and miles of beautiful green rolling hills -- with not an annimule to be seen. It's a fake! We've been suckered in!

Thoroughly underwhelmed, we turn onto the main highway and sitting before us (on the future site of the Custer State Park Visitor's Center) is a heard of buffalo! I would like to be around when they start construction and have to convince these oversized creatures to vamoose.

#1 Future Visitor Center site - bison not included; #2: extended families of buffalo; #3 photographic proof that Baolu has seen a buffalo; #4: Close up of the shedding beasts.

Of course, there's always one clod (from Missouri, this time), who has to ruin everyone's pictures by walking right down to the buffalo herd for a closer look. Unfortunately, it is too warm for the beasts to get up and attack the guy, but he eventually saunters back to his mobile home and we photograph bison to our heart's content.

Famous Presidents may have stayed here, but Lindsay and Baolu used the crapper here.

#1: Aptly-named tunnel, bolted on for your protection; #2: Will my rental car really make it thru there?; #3 the light at the end of the tunnel; #4: An SUV squeezes through.

Leaving the smelly, cow-pied pasture, we set out again on the "Needle's Highway". It is very cool. Boonie, one lane tunnels and mobile homes are banned on this road (they wouldn't fit thru the tunnels anyway).

Sun shines through the Needles Eye

The highlight is the "Eye of the Needle" where we luck out and get the sun shining through the gap in the rock. Kick shot. If THAT isn't a good omen, I don't know what is.

As we stand underneath the granite spires, someone actually comes up to me and asks, "Where is it?". I told him he was standing right in front of it (there's a big sign at the bottom explaining what you're seeing).  These people find me.

Sitting in the amphitheatre waiting for darkness and the show to begin; George, Thomas, Teddy, Abe lit up at night. Pretty scary, huh?

After an early supper back at the hotel, we set out for the evening's program at Mount Rushmore. As we're sitting waiting for the movie to begin, nature provides a fantastic lightning show - right over the monument - as we sit there in the drizzling rain. After the presentation, they light up the heads on the mountain. I had read they do a laser show as well, but I guess I was wrong. Nature (which is trying to kill us) did a pretty good job with its own "thunderbolt and lightning, very very frightening me (Galileo!). We were actually lucky they didn't cancel the show. Back at the hotel, we have a late-night pizza (room's got a microwave) and a very nice bottle of "Three Rednecks" wine from the local winery.

Thursday, June 25th.

#1: Nicely-restored CNW caboose 10800; #2: Cab of CB&Q # 620 (2-8-0) adorned with Pennsy 1880 keystones and a Pennsy "Hill City" keystone sign; #3: BHC Whitcomb switcher #1 built 1940; #4 Engine 110, the 2-6-6-2T letting off steam.

A leisurely breakfast at the hotel, then check out, and off to the Black Hills Central Railroad (also known as the 1880 Train). We are riding on the first steam train of the day leaving from Hill City to Keystone. I wander around a bit for a few photos, then back in line with Baolu.

#5: #110 backs down the lead; #6: #110 moves up the siding to replace the diesel; #7: crowd shot (our train was FULL) at the Hill City depot waiting to board; #8: Roundtrip tickets to Keystone, South Dakota.

We have a full train but we are towards the front of the line and nab some choice seats in the last car. We depart more or less on time, but just outside Hill City our engine 110 slips on the wet rail and stalls on a steep hill. Carefully, he backed down laying sand, then gingerly walked up the hill with the 7 cars in tow (7 cars is the limit the engine can pull, even on dry rail). It is a beautiful ride through the piney woods. We see deer and beaver along the way.

#9: Engine 63 (the EMD GP9) pulls the train in from Keystone; #10: Baolu and Lindsay selfie onboard; #11 & #12: Riding along in the last car.

Arriving at Keystone about 45 minutes later, the locomotive swaps ends and I watch them couple 110 onto our car. We are now in the first car behind the engine and we'll get some fantastic and LOUD stack talk on the way back to Hill City. (I grabbed a pair of ear plugs for Baolu from the overhead Safety Kit.)

#13: Engine #110 running around our train; #14: Bending the iron (throwing the switch); #15: Coming back onto the train; #16: Coupled up and ready to pull back to Hill City.

It is another scenic ride back to Hill City listening to the throaty steam whistle of 110 blasting for each crossing. Baolu points out a little 3 year old boy with his engineer's hat and red bandana across the aisle just totally engrossed in the whole experience.

#17: Crossing Battle Creek on the climb out of Keystone; #18: Whistling (LOUDLY) for the crossing; #19: Past a little rock formation; #20: The rest of our train heads upstream.

Back in Hill City, we take our lunch at a nearby eating place (wonderful, HUGE, country fried steak for me). Next we head to Lead/Deadwood for the evening. Up to this point we had been dodging rain storms all trip very nicely, but out on US 385, the heavens open up and we trundle along at reduced speed through a downpour all the way to the Marriott (posing as a SpringHill Suites) in Deadwood.

#1: Welcome to Deadwood!; #2: Eat some mud!

Deadwood is a sea of mud. They are rebuilding the only road through town and traffic is one way through the sticky goo. Attempts to drive thru the "tourist part" of town are thwarted as we arrived just as they've closed the street for the 4 o'clock "Shootout" (Wild Bill Hickok re-creation and all that jazz). Hell with that. We head back to the bar for a very nice "Black Box" cabernet wine tasting and get comfortably numb.

Dinner is early (just us and the Geritol set -- you've never seen so much white hair) and delicious in the adjacent casino's restaurant. We watch a CANADIAN FOOTBALL game (Ottawa vs. Montreal, I think) on the bar TV and revisit  Thoroughly soused, we stagger back to the room for some TV and shuteye.

Friday, June 26

After a decent breakfast, we leave The-construction-zone-known-as-Deadwood and set off for Sturgis. No, neither of us are motorcycle crazy. ( Today, we are visiting Loren Charnholm's Great Northern caboose, the X-26!. This style of caboose is my favorite. GN's first all-steel caboose series X1-X30 with a "slanted" cupola, it was built in 1959 in GN's Saint Cloud, MN shops.

#1: Loren Charnholm and his X-26 caboose; #2: Interior of caboose - note side steps to be attached later along with a genuine caboose stove!; #3: View of cupola area; #4: Watch for slack action!

#5, Another view of X-26; #6: side view of X-26; #7: conductor's table & spotlight.

We have a nice visit with Loren and his wife Aida before we have to leave to catch our flight home.
As we come into Rapid City, we see this billboard along I-90 for the Hotel Alex Johnson that says, "Experience rustic charm with modern conveniences". I'm sure. The only modern convenience is that they take credit cards. The rest of their ambiance is strictly 1930's Skid Road.

Lunch is a quick stop at "Popeyes" (Yum - Yum!), then it's off to Rapid City Regional for the flight home. Out of Denver, my dinner comes with four Bloody Mary's (I turn down #5 from the attendant...bless his heart). Home by taxi aaaaaand we're done!

Another Christmas card picture?

Baolu and I had a great time playing tourist in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Also...a big shout out to Loren and Aida Charnholm for sharing their caboose and being such good hosts. Thanks guys! See you in Minnesota....(for the GNRHS convention)...but THAT'S another story.