Our 2009 Road Trip, Part 13: Warrior in Progress

Crazy Horse!

Y’know what’s cooler than sharing a world-famous monument with three other guys? Having your own.

Some MCC readers may be following this miniseries and thinking, “When did you get to Mount Rushmore? Are you to Mount Rushmore yet? Where’s Mount Rushmore? How much longer to Mount Rushmore? Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet?”

First of all, knock it off. Second of all, as of this chapter we’re seventeen miles away. We had someone else to see first. He’s taller, he’s wider, and he’s been funded with exactly $0.00 of your tax dollars, making one of the most independent art projects in American history. Show some respect and some patience. We’ll get to the white guys soon enough.

Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover:

Every year since 1999 Anne and I have taken a road trip to a different part of the United States and seen attractions, marvels, history, and institutions we didn’t have back home in Indianapolis. From 1999 to 2003 we did so as best friends; from 2004 to the present, as husband and wife. Beginning with 2003’s excursion to Washington DC, we added my son to the roster and tried to accommodate his preferences and childhood accordingly.

2008 was by far our least favorite road trip to date, and still holds the ignominious title as of 2018. Our next vacation had to be better. Step one was plain enough: we looked at Anne’s brainstorming list of future road trips and chose the one that screamed “dream vacation”. That’s what led to our long, long drive out to the farthest reaches of South Dakota and beyond. At nine days it was the longest we’ve ever taken. The farthest point of 1,180 miles made it the longest drive of our lives. It would be the farthest west we’d ever been up to that time. It was also our first vacation using exclusively digital cameras to record the experience, leaving behind the 35mm film of our childhoods forever. They weren’t expensive cameras for their kind, certainly not the most advanced as of 2009, but we did what we could with the resources and the amateur skill sets available to us.

We’re the Goldens. This is who we are and what we do.

Black Hills!

Once again we rove those beautiful Black Hills.

After leaving the Custer State Park wildlife loop and shaking off those clingy burros once and for all, we headed west toward the popular part of South Dakota. Unfortunately, between us and there the restaurant options were slim. Lunch was at the only restaurant I could find within the first several miles, my old nemesis Subway.

First desirable stop after that: the not-yet-completed Crazy Horse Memorial, first dreamed of circa 1931 and officially commenced with the first blasting in 1948. The original driving force was one Henry Standing Bear, an Oglala Lakota chief wishing to honor one of the most well-known leaders from the winning side at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Standing Bear took some flak from the tribe for not consulting with the subject’s family first. Some among the Lakota have also questioned whether Crazy Horse would have approved of demolishing parts of a mountain for self-aggrandizing purposes.

Standing Bear oversaw the project’s earliest days until his death in 1953. He took it upon himself to commission the talents of Polish-American artist Korczak Ziolkowski, one of the sculptors who worked on Mount Rushmore, who would dedicate the rest of his life to the world’s largest ongoing mountain carving. When Ziolkowski died in 1982, his widow Ruth assumed control and kept it going.

Since Crazy Horse himself never posed for any photos, the monument’s design is a visual amalgam of several historical heroes in one, rather than cramming four heroes of equal stature into the same sightseeing space. The project has spent decades in construction because it accepts no federal or state funding and relies only on donations and admission fees like ours. Momentum and interest picked up once they started on the head, figuring that people preferred seeing recognizable humanoid parts rather than hypothetical parts-to-be.

We circled around the area and came toward it from the southwest. Even miles away we were appropriately awestruck by the scale.

Crazy Horse!

Unlike General Custer, we could see him coming from miles away.

The official stats: over 600 feet wide and over 500 feet tall. His head alone is 87 feet tall, compared to the 60-foot Rushmore heads. It’s huge, but farther away from observers than Rushmore is. Presumably that means it’s less of a hazard whenever they call for another round of controlled explosions.

By the time you’re close enough to pay your admission fee (elective donations also always welcome), the view improves somewhat, though we still had to take advantage of our camera functions to span the distance.

Crazy Horse!

The man-mountain as of June 2009.

The Crazy Horse campus — which they hope someday will include a Native American university and other such businesses — includes a museum stocked with artifacts and artwork from several tribes. The ultimate goal of the entire Crazy Horse is to serve as a showcase for all the indigenous peoples, not just the Lakota in particular or the Sioux in general. In addition to the souvenirs and displays, two women from local tribes also had a table set up to sell authentic handicrafts. Or possibly some local kids’ art class results. Honestly, we wouldn’t have known the difference.

Crazy Horse model!

Scale model of the Crazy Horse Memorial if completed as envisioned. down to the plaque at far left that will be dozens of stories tall if they get their way.


Other sculpture and art on display.


Additional fund-raising efforts underway included a raffle for this custom-painted 2008 Harley Davidson Street Glide. Confession: we didn’t enter the drawing.

Also in business was the Laughing Water Restaurant, which served ostensibly Native American cuisine. If we’d known it was there, I would’ve been more than happy to blow off Subway. Most of the menu sounded suspiciously similar to the dishes served at any given white man’s mom-‘n’-pop diner, but I made a point of indulging in the “Native American Taco” (their name for it, not me demeaning it) just so I could say I sampled the local exotica. What I got was a pile of fresh, typical taco ingredients atop a piece of Indian Fry Bread (read: sugar-free elephant ear), which I’m told comes handed down from the Navajo.

The museum also had a convenient viewing deck.

Crazy Horse!

You may notice a complete absence of varying viewing angles. We did what we could with the options presented to us.

For some travelers that long view is just not good enough. To stand right up in Crazy Horse’s face requires a triple-digit donation, which was well beyond our means. I did the next-best, most-cost-effective thing: I maxed out my Canon PowerShot’s digital zoom, fed a quarter into one of the park’s binocular viewers, positioned the viewer just so, had my son hold it steady, jammed my camera lens into the viewer, and snapped the best possible closeup before we left.

Crazy Horse close-up!

For all the art aficionados and/or geologists out there.

To be continued!

[Historical notes:

After the passing of the widow Ruth Ziolkowski in 2014, work has continued under the auspices of the Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation, which counts four of the Ziolkowskis’ ten children among its Board of Directors. One of the ten passed away in 2011, but at least two other Ziolkowski kids have had a direct hand in the sculpting processing, alongside several of the twenty-three grandchildren. This hardy Polish-American lineage intends to see this project through to completion no matter how many generations it takes, and no matter how often the descendants of Crazy Horse keep reiterating their complaints every time the local press asks them about it.

For the curious who want to keep tabs, the official Crazy Horse Memorial site provides live webcam updates every ninety minutes for fifteen hours per day. I’ll be honest: other than a bit of widening at the base on the right side, I see very little difference in nine years’ passage. I know at one point they took a two-year break for deep reevaluation. They’ve also had to spend time and money on reinforcing some parts of the mountain sprouting cracks and sensitive spots that weren’t there seventy years ago.

At least one journalist has also questioned how much of the nonprofit’s income has gone toward paying the staff/family as opposed to funding the actual sculpting itself. Their online tax documents show an average of $6.5 million in expenses per year, but it’s doesn’t confirm at a quick glance that a significant portion went toward sculptors’ paychecks or materials. Maybe the delays and glacial movement are legitimate, and the details are just tough to discern from outside looking in without really digging in for a few extra hours. Federal and state assistance may come with strings attached, but if there’s one thing we learned from five seasons of Leverage, it’s that running a large company or foundation without government oversight doesn’t grant automatic moral purity or guarantee efficiency.]

* * * * *

[Link enclosed here to handy checklist for other chapters and for our complete road trip history to date. Follow us on Facebook or via email signup for new-entry alerts, or over on Twitter if you want to track my TV live-tweeting and other signs of life between entries. Thanks for reading!]

3 responses

    • I tried not to be harsh about it, but I was shocked when I visited their site and found all their recent photos looked pretty much like ours. That’s what inspired me to dig into it a little and see if there might be more to the story. Admission wasn’t cheap, but I’m more curious than incensed.

      In contrast, quite a few tourists have gone on TripAdvisor to rate it one star and scream “SCAM SCAM SCAM” because they see it as a ripoff because they want their Native colossus right now. Or at least part of a horse mane.


      • I think it serves as an apt metaphor for indigenous rights in this country. A slow, painful process held up by bureaucracy, pettiness, and corruption. Or not – that just might be the writer within. I think the story is what makes it interesting and still worth seeing.

        Liked by 1 person

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