THE odds of securing a holiday of a lifetime are stacked in your favour when you plump for the beautiful Black Hills of South Dakota says FRANK CORLESS
It’s a case of heads you win, tails you win.
And, excusing the obvious pun, there is no better place to get a head start than the astonishing Mount Rushmore National Memorial.
It’s here that the 60ft high heads and faces of four US presidents, Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson, and Roosevelt, have stared out of a granite mountainside for 70 years.
Movie buffs will best remember the location from the final scenes in Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller, North by Northwest, as Cary Grant, and his co-star Eva Marie Saint, were chased across the top of the presidents’ heads by ‘bad guys’.
It was pure Hollywood hokum. But there’s nothing phoney about the sculpture. I was awe struck as I stood in its huge shadow, and I wasn’t alone. I’ve never heard a crowd fall silent so quickly as they stepped up to the viewing area.
The carving is the USA’s equivalent of the Taj Mahal, or the Great Wall of China.
But Rushmore it isn’t the only sky-high wonder. Work on a similar tribute, this time to Lakota Sioux chief Crazy Horse, is slowly taking shape only 17 miles away.
Sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski launched the project in 1948 at the request of native Americans, and he hardly stopped work until his death at 82.
The warrior’s 87ft high head is finished, and it’s an impressive sight, yet the whole job is still nowhere near completion.
Ziolkowski’s indomitable widow Ruth – helped by most of the couple’s ten children - has vowed to finish the work. “The dream will come true,” she told me.
When that eventually happens (don’t hold your breath), Crazy Horse will be seen in all his glory, sitting astride his horse, and pointing one arm into the distance.
The sculpture will be so enormous – longer than a cruise ship and taller than a 60 storey skyscraper – that it will dwarf the Mount Rushmore heads.
Now for South Dakota’s most famous TAILS, all 1,500 of them, give or take a few. They belong to a magnificent herd of bison that share top billing with cowboys and cowgirls at the annual buffalo round-up in Custer State Park.
The event is a noisy, colourful, pulse-racing spectacular, and is as much a tribute to riding skills as it is to preserving the well-being of the buffalo. I loved it so much I didn’t want it to end.
The great thing about the Black Hills is that, even though they cover a massive area, they generate a feeling of being snug and compact.
Places you really want to see are not too much hassle to reach. And it’s a huge ‘goody bag’, ranging from craggy peaks and prairies, to ponderosa pine forests and shimmering lakes. All of it crammed with wildlife.
In just nine days, I rode an old Wild West steam train, walked 300 steps down into Wind Cave, toured the fabulous Black Hills wild horse sanctuary, and enjoyed every mile of the scenic Needles Highway. Not all at once, of course.
I got to see cute little towns such as Hot Springs and Hill City, and relished the best steak I’ve ever tasted during an overnight stay at the State Game Lodge in Custer State Park. And if you like pizzas, you’ll never taste better than those served up at Linz Bros restaurant in Hermosa.
Two places of outstanding natural beauty will remain in my memory. Spearfish Canyon, an inspired choice for the final scenes in Kevin Costner’s Oscar-winning Dances with Wolves, was breathtaking, as was the spookily eerie, Mars-like terrain of Badlands National Park.
At dawn, the park’s jagged peaks, buttes, and rock spires glimmered in the early light. It was worth getting up early to see them at their best.
Native Americans have long regarded the Black Hills as sacred land, but it counted for nothing after gold was found in the 1870s.
Legendary Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane were among thousands who trampled across the prairies, most of them making tracks for Deadwood, the centre of the big strike.
It was a frenetic era that changed lives and history and, ultimately, led to tragedy at Wounded Knee where the US Cavalry massacred almost 300 Indian men, women and children.
From being a boom town, Deadwood eventually fell upon bad times. Yet, in a strange twist of fate, its future was secured in 1989 when the town won the right to operate legalised gambling.
Tourists now pour in to enjoy the surrounding scenery, as well as trying to hit the jackpot. But, win or lose on the tables or fruit machines, few people leave the Black Hills without feeling that their lives have been enriched in so many different ways.FACT FILE: For an official RMI Real America Guide and further information on travelling to South Dakota please contact: Martin Roberts, Rocky Mountain International, 1G The Chandlery, 50 Westminster Bridge RoadLondon SE1 7QY Tel: +44 (0)20-7953-8790 email@example.com Websites: www.rmi-realamerica.com /www.travelsd.com United Airlines Fly from Heathrow to Rapid City via Chicago or Denver www.unitedairlines.co.uk America As You Like It offers a 7 night fly-drive to South Dakota including flights, car hire and accommodation from £860 per person, based on two people sharing. Tel: 020 8742 8299 or www.americaasyoulikeit.com