Day 47 – Playing in Place

Today was a designated “play day” and we set out to see the Black Hills and poke around the area. It was crispy cold this morning and required my new down jacket . . . for the first time on the trip. Only yesterday it was 86. But this morning it was 39. That’s like summer to winter overnight.

But no matter, we would have fun anyway. The tiny town of Keystone was our first stop. Main street is about two blocks long with tourist shopping on both sides of the street. Because of the time of year, most businesses were closed or “going out of business.” The most interesting vendor was the chainsaw artist who had a whole corner lot full of figures of every size, shape and description. Most notably were bear and buffalo. It was just fun to see the work he could accomplish with a chainsaw.

A return trip to Mount Rushmore required the use of our valuable parking ticket (that’s good for a YEAR!) because we wanted to see the sculptures in the morning light. They seemed so different from yesterday at the end of the day. Still inspiring; still stunning; still magnificent; only today they were mostly in full sun and very cold. The wind ripped through the mountains and felt like it cut right through us. Trees that still had leaves yesterday at 7 p.m. were almost bare this morning; the wind taking them away with every gust.

We were glad we returned as we were able to go into the museum that was closed last night when we were there. We learned more about why these four presidents were chosen by the artist and how he managed to make the pupils of their eyes look so life-like. It was astounding. A small display in the museum showed how he carved different depths of stone to reflect the light differently so each eye would have a look of reality.

Our next stop was Wind Cave where we visited the museum and watched the film because all the tickets to go on cave tours had already been distributed for today. It is a very interesting National Park because it is located at the point where East meets West; where prairie meets mountains. As we drove through the park we could see this was so clearly the case. The mountains of the Black Hills suddenly bowed down to spread out to the prairie. We saw buffalo and hundreds and hundreds of prairie dogs. The prairie dogs are just about the cutest thing around. They beat the buffalo on my charts. As we watched them they skirted around and barked at each other, putting on a show for us.

While talking with several sales people today they all recommended we should go to the Alpine Inn for dinner. So, we drove back to Hill City to check it out. The Alpine Inn opened at 5:00 and everyone said we should get there by 4:30 if we wanted to get in on the first seating. We learned they are a very unique establishment. They take no reservations, so one must wait in the lounge for up to an hour if one wants to get a seat when they open. Only two items are on the menu: a filet steak with baked potato and salad wedge with ranch dressing, or spaetzle with veggies – as a vegetarian option. The only decision a customer is allowed is how they like their steak cooked. It sounded good to us.

We arrived in Hill City at 3:00 and walked the tiny Main Street, looking in some of the art shops filled with Native crafts. At one, my driver found a family of beavers to add to my collection, and at another I could not pass up a pair of boots going for a deeply slashed price. As 4:15 arrived, we walked over to the Alpine Inn and found the lounge almost full. We took one of the last tables. Over the next 45 minutes what seemed like hundreds of people packed into the lounge. Those who were not sitting at the six available tables were standing shoulder to shoulder. It got very hot and loud. I couldn’t believe this could possibly be the most efficient way to manage the guests at a restaurant. We almost got up and left . . . but after waiting for 35 minutes, what was 10 more?

The magic hour arrived and the entire lounge moved toward the one door into the dinning room. No one was rude, but it definitely felt like being swept into a cattle chute. We were escorted to our table and immediately someone came to bring water and ask us if we wanted steak or veggies; and if steak, how we wanted that cooked. She was gone in a flash and the wedge of iceberg lettuce arrived, smothered with their signature Ranch dressing. The steaks followed not long after.

They may not have had the greatest design for reservations, but they did know how to do steak. It was wonderful. We thoroughly enjoyed every bite.

As we left, the lounge was completely packed again with patrons waiting for their seating. We were amazed at the number of folks willing to wait for such a limited menu. But, it was absolutely worth it. And, given the options in town there may not have been a lot of choice in that matter, either.

We stopped along the way back to our room to run the car through a car wash; fill up with gas; and stop at a grocery for some more sparkling water and Pepsi. I spent some time repacking the car and making preparations for the next two days of freeway driving. It was a fun, fun day of playing in place. Tomorrow we make our way in a Bee line to Seattle.