05/02/2012 07:16 am ET Updated Jul 02, 2012

High Plains Drifting

There aren't many people in South Dakota. At just under eleven inhabitants per square mile, it ranks 46th out of the fifty states in population density, about 1/10th the US average. The relative lack of people becomes evident when visiting the state's attractions and finding little to no company--at least on a holiday weekend in early spring. If you are looking for a drawback to this, you won't find it here. What's more, given how big everything is out West there is a surprising amount to do within a short drive of Rapid City. Leave your urban sense of irony in its holster.

Consider the Crazy Horse Memorial. Like Mt Rushmore, its neighbor fifteen miles to the east, it's a statue carved in to the Black Hills twenty miles south of Rapid City. But to say they are similar would be akin to calling Dick Butkus and Dick Buttons similar because both are athletes. Rushmore has four European-American faces, each approximately sixty feet high, took fifteen years to carve and was paid for by taxpayers. The Crazy Horse Memorial when completed will be one Native-American (Crazy Horse) and one European- American (his horse), 563 feet tall and 640 feet long, is privately funded and has been under construction for sixty-five years with no completion date ventured.

When I was at the Crazy Horse site on a sunny afternoon, I met a couple from Erie, PA. The husband had been to see the memorial ten years ago and said flatly 'It looks exactly the same'. Then as now the only recognizable part is Crazy Horse's head, which was finished in 1998. Crews have been working five days a week, fifty-two weeks a year for several decades now but most of the work is using TNT to blast away mountaintop to knock it down to the desired dimensions. The sculpting comes after the blasting, like desert comes after dinner. There will not be another recognizable change to the memorial for ten years or so when the horse's head is scheduled to be completed.

The work was started by a lone sculptor, Korczak Ziolkowski at the request of Henry Standing Bear, who wanted a monument erected to North American Indians. In an excellent informational film shown at the site's visitor's center it is tragi-comedic to see black and white video of Ziolkowski on the job in the 1940s and 50s. Watching him work alone using hand tools and a balky compressor I couldn't help but think of Fitzcarraldo, the title character in the Werner Herzog movie who attempts to pull a steamship over a steep hill in the Amazon. Except that Fitzcarraldo had the help of hundreds of natives and eventually gets the ship up and over (though it does still end in tears, which is why most Herzog films allow for spacious seating). Ziolkowski chipping away at the mountain is getting nowhere--it's like he is mowing Augusta National with tweezers. Of the two of them up on the mountain, the man and his (still formless) subject, there is little doubt who is crazier. Ziolkowski died in 1982 and stewardship of the effort has been taken over by his wife and seven of his ten children.

If you are inclined to get some exercise on your travels, this site is easily accessed by biking up the Mickelson Trail--a hard packed dirt track that was formerly a Burlington Northern rail line from the Hill City trail head. The trail head is a 30 minute drive south of Rapid City, and the bike ride is 20 miles round trip.

If giant statues aren't your thing, sixty miles east of Rapid City is the Badlands National Park. It's an unusual combination of open prairie and sandcastle rock formations created by ancient inland seas that are more associated with the national parks in Utah. Driving just inside the northern entrance I turned off the paved road that winds through the park on to a dirt track. About a mile in I parked the car and switched to bicycle. It was a crisp high plains morning, the bright sun had not yet raised the temperature above forty degrees. The trail took me west by southwest in to the teeth of a steady 35 mph headwind. Thoughts of Ziolkowski's doggedness sustained me as I huffed and puffed my way deeper in to the prairie. I had a head cold which necessitated a steady stream of farmer's blows . Turning my head to execute the blows served as the only breaks from the howl of the wind whistling past my ears. Even for the experienced hand, in that sort of a headwind ninety percent of the expectorant is going to end up on your clothes. Dust kicked up from the trail and caked on the moistened parts of my black long-sleeved shirt like bread crumbs on an egg batter. It was when turning my head during one such blow that I was fortunate to spot a field of prairie dogs peeping up from their holes. Any fuzzy feelings at the sight of them were tempered by the biting wind, my snail's pace, and the memory of a sign back on the main road that read "Prairie Dogs Have Plague".

The trail wound on for many more miles, but after forty minutes or so I turned to head back to the car. The massive tailwind allowed me to sail along daydreaming of improbable biking glory. I came out of the reverie just in time to notice that three bison had wandered in to my path. I stopped abruptly so that I was maybe fifteen to twenty feet from them. Two were eating grass on the side of the path and one was standing on the trail looking at me. Are bison's dangerous? I had no idea. They look a lot like cape buffalo, which I knew to be dangerous, but these were standing there eating grass like dairy cows. Do wild animals back down or attack when looked in the eye? Will they chase you if you flee? Not knowing the proper reaction, I did a mix of gazing coyly in their direction while shuffling side to side. I hadn't seen another person since entering the park and I knew no one was going to come down this path any time soon -a curse and a blessing given how much I needed advice and how silly I must have looked trying not to upset the animals.

The bison could conceivably stand there eating all day, so waiting for them to move wasn't viable. The options were to try to ease past them like Fred Flinstone trying not to wake Wilma, or attempt to breeze by them on the bike, or go around them by hiking off the trail though the grasslands. I didn't know if that last option was kosher since I had the vague notion that off-roading in parks is often frowned upon lest one impact the flora. In considering what to do I thought of another Herzog movie, the documentary Grizzly Man. If you haven't seen it in the end the title character, Timothy Treadwell, is eaten by bears. Despite this it is hard to have sympathy for Treadwell. He childishly decided that the bears were his friends, and paid a high price for acting like a fool and approaching them as if they saw him as a pal too. Herzog's voiceovers indicated the director had little sympathy for his protagonist--less even than Errol Morris had for Robert Mcnamara . With that in mind, and not willing to risk the ridicule that a mortal bison goring would engender, I hiked off trail and around, giving the animals a wide berth. I later read that there are rattlesnakes in the grasslands, so I may have been closer than I thought to an embarrassing demise.

After passing the buffaloes, I made it back to the car without incident and drove to the Minute Man Missile National Historic Site, just twenty miles further east. The site is a museum dedicated to the tens of quick-launch nuclear missile silos built in the area. As I pulled in to the visitor's center at noon-time on a Saturday the parking lot was empty. I was still in my clothes from the bike ride--gym shorts and a snot and dirt encrusted shirt, shuffling across the parking lot bowlegged and limping on sore feet. Once inside, the only other person there was a park service ranger. She smiled at me, happy to have a visitor.

What she made of my appearance I can't say since we both acted as if I was the normal-looking visitor to the attraction, which I possibly was. We chatted a bit and she played an instructional video on the history of the missile program narrated by a Yosemite Sam-type who was reminiscent, no, not of a Herzog character, but of Slim Pickens' cowboy bomber pilot from Dr. Strangelove .

What the video lacked the ranger more than made up for with her knowledge of all things Minuteman. From her I learned that the sparse population and the fact that the shortest route from the US to the Kremlin is over the North Pole explains why all 1000 of the Minuteman missile silos were built in South Dakota and its neighboring High Plains states. That and the fact that Russian nuclear subs were patrolling the oceans and not the Great Lakes meant they were more than thirty minutes out of range, enough time to still get our missiles off should the subs launch first. I learned that SALT, START I and START II have left only half the silos still operational. Did you know that the 20,000 ton silo roofs were that heavy so that only a dead center nuclear hit could take out a launch site?

The ranger left me with directions to a decommissioned silo, ten miles west, just off the highway to Rapid City. Once back on the road I took the exit she suggested and drove a mile or so to the site, again completely alone on the open plain. I peered through the roof of the silo, in to the abandoned tube, a model missile filling in for the real thing.

I wondered: How many more stories could there be hidden in the wide open plains?