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Every traveler has his Eldorado, a place he's never been but which imagination has turned into a wonderland. For me, over the past couple of years, that place has been the Dakotas. This has sparked some funny dinner party conversations. "Good god, why?" asked one man, whose wife had grown up near Bismarck. "There's nothing there."

But maybe that's why. Having lived on or around the island of Manhattan most of my life, I've always had an innate longing for big, empty places. Siberia gives me the same thrill eight-year-olds get from Disney World. The middle of the ocean, with nothing in sight for 360 degrees around, makes me feel all giddy inside.

So the Dakotas are a natural fit.

That's why, when my wife and I decided to move from New York City to Portland, Oregon, last fall, I began plotting out a route that would take us through the entire length of South Dakota -- 415 miles through what Dakotans call "miles and miles of miles and miles." Our destination: The Black Hills, that mystical section of far western South Dakota that the Lakota Sioux called the Paha Sapa, "the heart of everything that is."

In the Beginning . . .

According to the Lakota creation story, the gods once lived in the sky and humans lived underground. After the sun god, Takushkanshkan ("Something That Moves"), sent some of the other gods to live on earth, the trickster Inktomi ("The Spider") went beneath the surface, found Tokahe ("The First Man"), and convinced him to return with him. They emerged onto earth through Wind Cave -- now the heart of a national park in the Black Hills -- and Tokahe saw green grass, blue sky and endless herds of buffalo. Excited, he returned to his underground home and convinced six other families to return with him to the surface. But when they did, they learned that Inktomi had tricked them: The sky had darkened, the buffalo were scarce, and all around the Black Hills were endless miles of rolling nothingness. They were, they learned, in the Dakotas.

From that time forward, the Black Hills were sacred to the Arikara, Cheyenne, Crow, Kiowa, Pawnee, and Lakota peoples, a place rich in animal and plant life where men could live in balance with nature.

Then the white people showed up. In 1868, the U.S. government signed a treaty with the Sioux deeding them the Black Hills in perpetuity, but the discovery of gold six years later made the treaty null and void. General George Custer was sent to investigate, then confiscated the land when its riches were verified. In 1876, the government ordered all Lakota bands into reservations, but the Indians fought back. On June 25, the great chiefs Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, and Gall led a battle that by the next day had destroyed Custer's 7th Cavalry at the Little Big Horn. Their resistance was short-lived, though, and in less than two years Crazy Horse was dead and thousands of miners poured in, establishing towns and extracting millions in gold.

The official line was that the U.S. had "purchased" the region from the Lakota, though no official sale was ever negotiated. A century later, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Black Hills had been taken illegally and ordered that the Lakota Nation be offered a $100 million settlement -- which the tribe refused. They demand to this day that the Black Hills be returned to them.

Men in the Mountains, Buffalo in the Valleys

Every American has an image of the Black Hills, whether they know it or not. This is, after all, the site of Mount Rushmore, the great mountain monument to Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt. This was also where Kevin Costner filmed his Academy Award-winning Dances with Wolves in the late 1980s. Those two knowledge points -- a symbol of American nationhood and a story about the destruction of the Indian way of life -- neatly symbolize the duality of the Black Hills today.

We arrived late, after an all-day, 500-mile drive from Albert Lea, Minnesota -- me bleary-eyed behind the wheel, Rebecca goofy from hunger in the passenger seat, and our two unflappable cats in the back. The next day was our big day off, the only day in our solid cross-country week where we didn't need to keep the compass pointed west. We'd see what we could see, starting with Custer State Park (tel 605/255-4515; www.custerstatepark.info).

Named for the Indian-fighting general, the 71,000-acre park is now dedicated to preserving one of the mainstays of Indian life: the buffalo. Called tatanka by the Lakota, more than 60 million of the great beasts once roamed the American plains, but by 1893 overhunting and a government policy of extermination had reduced the entire country's population to less than 1,000. Today, Custer State Park holds a herd of 1,500, maintained through a carefully calibrated management plan that includes an annual round-up each October. After their numbers are counted and new calves branded and vaccinated, a percentage are set aside for auction, which serves both to balance the herd's numbers with the park's ability to sustain them and also provides animals for the creation of new herds around the country -- a trend that's built the current U.S. buffalo population up to approximately a quarter million.

Unless you've lived with them your whole life, nothing really prepares you for the sight of your first live buffalo -- especially if, like Rebecca and me, you grew up on Hollywood Westerns. But there he was, almost as soon as we began driving the park's 18-mile Wildlife Loop Road, lounging in the grass twenty yards from the pavement. Exciting! Or so we thought until we drove over the next hill and found ourselves staring eye-to-eye with 1,500 pounds of shaggy male bison, one of a dozen blocking the road ahead. We opted to keep the windows closed as they crowded around, just feet from our car. The urge to pet baby bison was strong, but we resisted.

In addition to bison, the Wildlife Loop is also a good route from which to spot elk, coyote, eagles, hawks, and hundreds of pronghorn deer and prairie dogs, plus burros who are only too happy to poke their heads in your window if you let them -- though they'll try to eat the door-lock buttons right off your car. Another route, the 14-mile Needles Highway, is named for the needle-like granite spires that jut up from the roadside, among the pine and spruce forests.

From Custer, we made our way to the Crazy Horse Memorial (tel. 605/673-4681; www.crazyhorsememorial.org), the largest artistic work-in-progress on the planet. Historically, our visit was backward, as the memorial was explicitly begun in reaction to the creation of the Mount Rushmore sculpture.

Crazy Horse was conceived in 1939 by Lakota Chief Henry Standing Bear, even as Danish-American sculptor Gutzon Borglum was carving Rushmore's granite 17 miles to the northeast. One of Borglum's assistants was a young man named Korczak Ziolkowski, a Boston-born sculptor who had recently received first prize at the 1939 World's Fair for his stone portrait of Polish pianist and politician Ignacy Paderewski. After serving in World War II, Ziolkowski accepted Standing Bear's offer to design and carve the Crazy Horse memorial, an effort that would consume the rest of his life.

Still nowhere near finished, the work is already unbelievably massive, the great chief's head standing 563 feet above the trees of Black Hills National Forest. When complete, the great chief will be depicted in 3D, on horseback, his arm pointing beyond the horse's head to the horizon. Today, though, after a half century of work, only the head, the pointing arm, and the beginnings of the horse's head have been completed -- which seems paltry until you consider that Crazy rse's outstretched arm alone is longer than a football field, and the entirety of Mount Rushmore would fit within the great carved head.

Ziolkowski himself died in 1982, but his sons and daughters continue to carry the project forward, supported solely by donations and ticket sales. At the base of the mountain, a visitors center offers both a celebration of the carving effort and a large museum of Native American culture. In the future, beyond the sculpture's unknowable completion date, the center site will be expanded to encompass a Native American university and medical training center, an avenue lined with sculptures of Native American heroes, and a reflecting pond. In this, Crazy Horse's pointing finger would seem to indicate the future, though according to Ziolkowski the posture was modeled after an incident that occurred just before the chief's death. A white trader asked, "Where are your lands now? Your people are on reservations. Where are the lands you fought for?" Crazy Horse pointed out over his horse's head to the east, and said, "My lands are where my dead lie buried."

Powerful stuff. Which is why, if I were to plan our visit again, I would have driven first to Mount Rushmore (tel. 605-574-2523; www.nps.gov/moru), which should be pretty impressive but pales in comparison. Conceived in 1924 by Gutzon Borglum after a suggestion by South Dakota state historian Doane Robinson, the sculptures on Rushmore were to be a "Shrine of Democracy" that traced the country's history through images of its most notable presidents -- from birth (Washington) through growth (Jefferson, who presided over the Louisiana Purchase) and Civil War (Lincoln), into the birth of the American century (Teddy Roosevelt). The sculpting took fourteen years, beginning in October 1927 and ending in October 1941.

We arrived as the sun was getting dangerously low on the horizon, passing a baby mountain goat at the entrance before walking up the ceremonial avenue that leads to the mountain, lined with the flags of all fifty states. The heads themselves are carved into just one face of the hill, surmounting a fan of granite tailings -- the debris left from the work of transforming mountains into men. Around these tailings, a trail leads through the forest to the best vantage points from which to view each president's face, from Washington in the foreground to T.R., peeking out from behind Jefferson's left ear.

They Died for Their Countries

The Black Hills actually extend beyond South Dakota western border to encompass parts of Wyoming and southern Montana, our destination the next day. About forty miles east of Billings, just off I-90, the Little Big Horn Battlefield National Monument (tel. 406/638-3204; www.nps.gov/libi) preserves the site of Custer's Last Stand, and proved to be the most powerful stop of all in our short Black Hills tour.

Located among rolling, grassy hills and suffused with a glowing, unearthly light, the Little Big Horn is the spot at which Custer's 7th cavalry began an attack on what they believe to be a small village of Indians who had slipped away from their reservations. In fact, the village held a force nearly three times the size of Custer's own, commanded by the Lakota chief Tasunka Witko (Crazy Horse), the Sioux chiefs Tatanka Iyotaka (Sitting Bull) and Pizi (Gall), and the Southern Cheyenne chief Ve'ho'enohnenehe (Lame White Man). The battle was short, and by its end Custer and all the men in his immediate command had been killed. It was the greatest victory of the Indian resistance, but within five years, vengeful U.S. forces had expelled all the Sioux and Cheyenne from the Black Hills and confined them to reservations, and their way of life was over.

Today, monuments on the battle site honor both the cavalry and Indian dead. A stone obelisk erected in 1881 stands over the mass grave of the 7th Cavalry, while nearby an Indian memorial erected in 2003 depicts Spirit Warriors on horseback, their forms sculpted only in outline so that the surrounding land shines through. In the fields, small white markers denote the sites where individual cavalrymen are thought to have fallen, while red markets memorialize the dead Indian warriors. On one wall of the Indian memorial, the words of Chief Sitting Bull express a determination that resonates to this day: "They attacked our village and we killed them all. What would you do if your home was attacked? You would stand up like a brave man and defend it."

Never Enough Time

You can't rush the West. We did, and only got a glimpse of the richness of the Black Hills, their deep history and wealth of natural and cultural beauty. We're already working up plans for a return, and this time we'll stay awhile. Maybe we'll go in June for the annual Crazy Horse Volksmarch, the one day when people can hike up Crazy Horse mountain. Or maybe we'll go in October for the Buffalo Roundup in Custer State Park, then dip south a bit to Wind Cave and see where it all began.

And after that? North Dakota for sure.

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