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American Road Trip Adventure: Day 5 (Part One)

I've just returned from a long road trip. I was traveling to a conference in Salt Lake City, Utah, and we made it a family vacation, to show our son more of this big, amazing country. I blogged from the road, but I didn't want to advertise to every burglar on the internet that our house was empty, so I've waited until now to start posting the entries.

Sunday, August 18
Rapid City, Keystone, Mount Rushmore, and Crazy Horse,
South Dakota

97 Miles

PART ONE: Striking It Rich in Keystone, SD
For the first time since we left home, tonight we would sleep in the same room we woke up in, at a Hampton Inn in Rapid City. We knew we'd be getting in late Saturday night and had a full day of sightseeing planned in the area, so it made sense to stick around a little longer this time and just drive around to the different attractions from one home base.
Carrie Ingalls
After breakfast at the hotel's complimentary buffet, we headed off in search of giant heads. First on the list were Washington's, Jefferson's, Roosevelt's, and Lincoln's. But we had another stop to make before we reached Mount Rushmore.

I had read something about the historic little mining town of Keystone, which we would pass through on the way to the monument, and I thought it might be fun to stop. OK, I admit it, I was still chasing my Inner Laura Geek. Laura Ingalls Wilder's younger sister Carrie lived here for 36 years as an adult. She was a reporter for the local newspaper In fact, it was Carrie's husband, David N. Swanzey, who gave Mount Rushmore its name. Those Ingalls girls just crop up everywhere! That's a picture of Carrie, to the left.

I'd figured we'd spend maybe twenty minutes in Keystone, and then perhaps stop back in town again for lunch on the way out of Mount Rushmore, after visiting with the presidents' heads. As it turned out, we found so much to do in Keystone (almost all of it non-Ingalls-related) that we stayed until lunchtime, ate pizza at a delightfully retro diner for lunch, and then pressed on to Mount Rushmore, much later than expected. But when you're on a Road Trip Adventure, it's important to go with the flow and be open to unexpected attraction diversions. Especially if they involve the potential for striking it rich.
P1120032 downtown Keystone, sepia
Jon Morgan was reluctant, at first, to see the sights of Keystone. It's a cross between a 1900 mining town and a 2013 tourist trap, and I guess it just didn't look that exciting. I've been trying to convince him that history is not a boring list of dates but a fascinating collection of stories. But it's taking some time. As it turned out, he had an awesome morning in Keystone.

P1110953 Rattlesnake 30%
That's because the Big Thunder Gold Mine allows kids (for a fee) to pan for GOLD. As soon as he heard that, Jon Morgan was hooked.

A miner with the colorful nickname of "Rattlesnake" gave him a pan and a lesson and showed him to a sluice. That's Rattlesnake, to the left. And yes, that is a rattlesnake skull on his hat. Rattlesnake told a colorful story about being bitten by the live snake, which died after the miner bit the snake back. Jon Morgan was wide-eyed, until I explained later that it was a tall tale.

P1110958 panning for gold,cropped 30%He spent a lot of time panning for gold, enough time for me to get bored and go off to explore the gift shop while he and Bob picked through sand and pebbles looking for the shiny bits that were neither mica nor pyrite. It started to rain gently, but that didn't deter my gold-fevered son.

In the end, Jon Morgan left the Big Thunder Gold Mine with a little glass vial of gold flecks in his hand and a big smile on his face. He was convinced he was rich now, until we broke the news to him that it wasn't worth more than a few dollars. He didn't seem to mind.

The rain had stopped. So we walked around the historic part of town for a short while, much to the 11-year-old's consternation.

The town is full of local color and western eccentricity. It also has a museum; an 1890s log school house; a real buffalo, stuffed, on the porch of an antique store; and deer antlers and longhorn skulls galore. I enjoyed wandering around, reading historic markers, and taking photos; here are a few, below. Despite all the Carrie Ingalls hype I kept seeing, I never actually found the site of her home in Keystone, though it was supposed to have a marker out front. It didn't matter; I still enjoyed the old mining town.

P1110976, 984 & 991 - Halleys, Skull, & Schoolhouse 30%
P1120011 Diner 30% crop
Unfortunately, Keystone's non-golden charms seemed mostly lost on Jon Morgan. After his mining adventure, he had eyes only for more gold. But he decided he would happily settle for pizza and fudge. Along the old town boardwalk we found a 50s-style diner that advertised PIZZA in neon, and we settled into a red vinyl booth.
P1120022 Train 30%
While we were eating, we heard a train whistle. I stepped out onto the boardwalk and looked across the street. I had noticed a vintage train station there, but I thought it had been converted to a visitor center or gift shop. Apparently it has, but the town still has an old steam-engine for tourists, the 1880 Black Hills Steam Train, and it was just pulling into the station.

A few years ago, that train would have been the highlight of Jon Morgan's trip. As he's gotten older, his fancy has turned more to thoughts of precious metals. And fudge. He thought the train was mildly cool, but he soon lost interest in favor of discussing a more pressing topic: dessert.

We finished our pizza and hit the nearby fudge shop (which also had an excellent selection of reasonably priced postcards). And our 11-year-old chocoholic was in heaven. About the fudge, not the postcards.

And then it was time to chug on over to Mount Rushmore National Memorial and those really big heads.