Archive for Wednesday, August 27, 2008

They don’t call them Badlands for nothing

August 27, 2008

Editor's note: Columnist John Beal is on vacation. The next few columns will trace his route.

— The words "hell" and "devil" crop up often in the place names of western South Dakota.

You can tell what was on people's minds when they named them.

They don't call them the Badlands for nothing. Some might call them godforsaken. I don't know if God did forsake them, but He sure didn't go out of His way to make them attractive.

The Dakota Indians called the area of violent erosion "mako sica," which translates roughly to "land bad."

French trappers who moved through the area in the early 1800s, with typical Gallic understatement, said it was "a bad land to cross."

Badlands National Park is composed of 381 square miles in western South Dakota. According to the National Park Service, the term badlands refers to an area that is difficult to traverse because of its rough terrain and lack of water.

That pretty well sums it up. The park, which receives an average annual rainfall of 16 inches a year, is a testament to the power of erosion. In fact, according to the park service, the landscape within the park continues to erode at a rate of about one inch per year.

An early visitor summed it up: "This whole country is moving to the Missouri River as fast as the rain and melting snow can carry it away."

* * *

The Hustead family of Wall, S.D., are nothing if not entrepreneurs.

In December 1931 Dorothy and Ted Hustead purchased the town apothecary in Wall, a village on Route 16, a two-lane track from Mitchell to Rapid City.

Not much happened. Most people in the village were hard-put. Then, after several years, in the summer of 1936, Dorothy tried to take a nap on a hot summer day. She wasn't able to sleep because of the traffic that filed beneath her window. The problem was, no one was stopping.

So Dorothy got the idea: offer free ice water. Ted and his son put up a few signs along the highway touting free ice water. The next summer, they had to hire eight local girls to help with the crowds. Today, according to the Husteads, up to 20,000 people stop on a busy summer day.

The crowds are testament not so much to the attraction of ice water, as to the power of advertising. A string of garish billboards along Interstate 90 as far east as Sioux Falls, S.D., 285 miles away, constantly drums home the idea to stop at Wall Drug. Some continue to advertise the free ice water, but others brag on the family's collection of western art or any of dozens of other attractions added to the store through the years.

And people stop. We did. The store has grown. Now it covers most of a square block, a rabbit warren of jewelry and art shops, fudge and ice cream shops.

* * *

Mount Rushmore is one of those sites that you have to see to believe. The memorial is largely the work of sculptor Gutzon Borglum, who envisioned a mountain-sized work to memorialize the men who made America great.

That sounds reasonable enough, until you look at it, and begin to understand the Herculean nature of the task. Borglum created a model for the sculpture, then sent forth squads of dynamiters, powdermen, drillers and so on to wrest from the mountain the visages that matched his vision. Working over several years in conditions that ranged from blistering hot to frigid cold, they lowered themselves over the face of the mountain in bosun's chairs to complete their task.

Of course, the way such things often work, their task was never finished. Borglund died, the funds ran out and, when the United States entered World War II in 1941, other projects claimed priority.

But the faces of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln remain, testament to Borglund's vision.

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