Monday, September 7, 2009

4th of July Weekend,
North & South Dakota

This entry is, as usual, late. However, I started writing it as I was sitting on a plane returning back to the USA from a fortnight’s holiday in Central America. And, as I am now resolved to put down notes of my travels on a much more regular basis, I want to catch up. Even though most of this blog was written whilst I was still on a Middle Americas high, I really wanted to capture a marvelous long weekend I enjoyed two months ago in North & South Dakota and have now just got around to finishing it.
So, July 4th (Independence Day) fell on a Saturday and I had the day off from my job in the EHP Cadre of FEMA. I had at this point been in North Dakota for five weeks and was enjoying the deployment. Saturday is a normal working day for us, but because of the larger holiday weekend we were given the option of taking the day off on Friday and having a long weekend. Many of my colleagues at the Joint Field Office in Bismarck decided to leave and to fly home. However, from my perspective there was so much going on locally that I decided to make this a holiday weekend to remember! 

The kickoff occurred Thursday evening when colleagues and I attended the opening night of the Bismarck-Mandan Rodeo – a wonderful celebration of all things cowboy and a real rodeo. The event was held across the mighty Missouri River from Bismarck in Dakotah Centennial Park, Mandan. The ticket price included hot dogs, soda (or pop as the locals say), chips, and cookies – the beer was extra. The grounds were packed with spectators who came from miles around to watch some very talented cowboys and cowgals in action. Especially notable were the competitions in bareback and saddleback bronc riding, tie-down calf roping and steer wrangling, bull riding, team roping, barrel racing, and the ever popular and dangerous mutton busting. I had not been to a rodeo since my tenure in Montana back in the 1970s. My how things have changed – rock music blasting (Springsteen, B-52s,Rolling Stones) orchestrated by the ring announcer who obviously was a veteran rodeo man and who really pumped up the crowd. My favorite musical interlude occurred when the Steve Miller Band’s song “Space Cowboy” came on loudly during the bull riding set – a real crowd pleaser!  I also very much loved the macho names of the broncs and bulls.  The audience was great and the event was truly old west Americana. The festivities ended with a fireworks display whilst Roy Rogers and Dale Evans “Happy Trails to You” blasted from the PA system. 

Friday morning (July 3) – having mostly digested the many hot dogs I ate the night before and washed the rodeo dust from my eyes, I arose early and took a long drive down to the Badlands National Park (South Dakota) by way of the very northern tip of the Black Hills and through Sturgis. The trip down the west side of the Dakotas was scenic and interesting. I have a variety of photographs posted on my Flickr blog site (see below for address). Although I only skirted a small portion of the Black Hills, they were remarkably beautiful and deserving of a special trip of exploration soon.  Sturgis, South Dakota, a fairly old town for this region and named for Brevet Major General and Colonel Samuel Davis Sturgis (United States Army, 7th Cavalry), was a magnet that pulled me in. There are many nice older houses, but many more rough-tough hombres that compliment the overarching theme of the annual motorcycle rally. Although I like the Harley Davidson brand of iron horses and Dennis Hopper and Marlin Brando, the bars and t-shirt shops reminded me too much of the downside of the Jersey shore and did not impress me. However, the draw is clearly the beautiful scenery of the Black Hills.

A short distance outside (east) of town on Interstate 90 is the Black Hills National Cemetery – a beautifully sited 100+-acre burying ground established in 1948 and containing over 21,000 interments. Farther on down the Interstate (ca. 160 kilometers) is the entrance to the Badlands National Park. I took the ca. 50-kilometer-long scenic loop and was bowled-over by the beauty of the rugged landscape. Again, my Flickr blog has many photographs.


I exited the National Park and traveled south and east through the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation along State Highways 44 and 73. My route then took me due north on Interstate 14 and State Highway 63 through the beautiful and interesting Cheyenne River and Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservations. The Standing Rock Reservation is large and straddles both North and South Dakota. I regularly work with the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer in Fort Yates, N.D. and have gotten to know the locale pretty well over the past 3½ months. Whilst driving through the reservation lands I found a tremendous Tribal radio station – KLND – 89.5 that had me rocking all the way back to Bismarck.

Up early on Saturday, July 4th in total anticipation of the gala Independence Day parade in Mandan. I arrived and got a great spot on Main Street on the east side of town. This was the 128th anniversary of the parade and what an event it was – I may have never, ever felt as patriotic and proud to be an American! I gleefully watched and clapped through the many hour-long home-spun spectacle. Some of the highlights included:

  • The Mayor of Mandan leading the parade – out in front by herself and proudly representing this terrific small town.
  • The crowd’s very vocal appreciation of the life-sized cardboard cutout of John Wayne (displayed by itself on a tractor-pulled hay wagon).

  • Being thrown candy and waved at by the North Dakota Dairy Princess and her retinue.

  • Regular folks sitting in folding chairs on tractor-pulled hay wagons, waving to the crowd.

  • Spectators clapping and yelling at the convoy of huge super-tractors and other massive farm machines (especially the ones driven by pretty ladies).

  • The applause, appreciation, and salutes given to the North Dakota National Guard and older Vets on parade.

  • The applause and appreciation given to the Congressman and Aides on parade (now how often do you see that).

  • Families riding horses on parade and interspersed behind and in front of classic cars.

  • The local grocery chain’s float (tractor pulling a hay wagon) – giving out bottled water.

  • The local dentist’s consortium float (tractor pulling a hay wagon) handing out toothbrushes.

  • The float of a local antique automobile restorer that consisted on an old ford truck (placed on the bed of a hay wagon pulled by a tractor - get the theme) surrounded by weeds and bushes – like the way he found his treasure!

  • The crowd’s applause and appreciation given to the Bismarck animal rescue team and vet hospital – the hay wagon crowed with friends, colleagues and family holding adorable animals.

  • The gang of teen-aged skateboarders on parade.

  • The float of the Space Aliens restaurant.

After the parade I cruised back to Bismarck and went for a long walk along the left bank of the mighty Missouri River. I then rested a bit and got ready to attend the Independence Day concert and fireworks display at the State Capitol.  It was a lovely night with a large crowd. The “mall” in front of the unique capitol building is a wonderful place that hosts all sorts of events. The musical fiesta was preceded by speeches given by the mayor, the General of the North Dakota National Guard, and even by the current and past Governors and their wives! The Bismarck Symphony was in great form, but I could not wait until the finale of John Philip Sousa patriotism and fireworks – I was not disappointed!  I have witnessed fireworks displays and symphonies in places like New York City and Washington, D.C, and the one in Bismarck was certainly on par with them! What a terrific night!  I walked the many blocks home and was once again filled with good old-fashioned Western American pride.

Sunday, July 5 was the last day of the great holiday weekend and I was resolved to end it well. I heard good things about Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park - the infantry and cavalry post from whence Geo. Armstrong Custer led the men of the 7th Cavalry to fight at the Battle of the Little Big Horn in June 1876. The park is only ca. 12 kilometers south of Bismarck along scenic State Highway 1806, but I arose early and headed down to explore as much of the 1,000-acre park as I could. Located at the confluence of the Heart and Missouri Rivers, the state government has done a really nice job of restoring and interpreting the various 16th- to 18th-century Mandan Indian earth lodges and elements of the 19th-century military post (especially Custer's Victorian house). The interpretive center and other parts of the park were in the 1930s by the Civillian Conservation Corps. The landscape is serene and the views northeast and southeast from the bluffs above the rivers are outstanding. The associated campground is also top-notch - KUDOS and PLAUDITS to the State of North Dakota!


My day (and long weekend) ended with a trip up and down the mighty Missouri aboard the Lewis and Clark Riverboat. Sausage pizza and ice-cold Corona beer were on the menu and what a great way this was to spend a couple of hours in the early evening and to close out a most memorable 4th of July weekend.

For additional photos see my Flickr blog:

Ciao and God Bless America and the Dakotas,  Chinese-Buffalo (at large)

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