Travel west along U.S. Route 14, beyond the Minnesota River Valley and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s prairie hamlet of Walnut Grove — out where wind-whipped grasslands roll away, mostly treeless, toward far horizons in every direction — and about the time you pass through Custer Township in Lyon County you may begin to suspect that you are entering a different America, in more ways than one.
I made a 2,150-mile loop through the near West earlier this month. And if it’s not corny to say so — or rather, even though it is corny to say so — it reminded me that America still embodies a land, a people and a story of spectacular complexity. It’s still a place where dreams come true, or anyhow stubbornly keep trying to come true.
And for all the nation’s traumatic divisions just now, it still is a place where very different sorts, even enemies, can eventually find common ground, or at least a common picnic table.
Custer Township was the first thing I noticed heading west that was named in honor of the fierce and flamboyant cavalry legend George Armstrong Custer, who met his famous fate on a Montana hillside in 1876, the year the township was organized. But as one wanders beyond the Minnesota-South Dakota border, towns and parks and tourist traps invoking the Custer mystique multiply as fast as prairie dogs.
Folks at home on the range don’t yet seem to have gotten the thoroughly up-to-date message that the names and images and myths surrounding traditional heroes of yesteryear — especially figures as justifiably controversial as Custer, an ardent warrior who never flinched from the knowledge that war was about killing — are to be systematically erased from modern memories.
And of course it’s not only Custer who’s remembered in a big way out West, even in this era of toppled statues and renamed landmarks elsewhere. Not far from the town of Custer, S.D., high amid the pines and crags of the Black Hills (the setting for a jewel called Custer State Park), soars Mount Rushmore, an iconic and irreducibly outlandish monument to other flawed paragons of the past that is rather unlikely to be pulled down from its perch any time soon.
Yet in the decades since I last visited, officialdom has seen fit to remodel much about Rushmore. Where once the visitor center seemed a sprawling, low-slung ranch-style affair, all redwood and glass, today ponderous structures and pillars of stone abound, evoking a kind of immense statist grandeur that seems suitable enough in Washington, D.C., London, and other great capitals, but is trying too hard here. The overweening greatness of it all merely obscures the improbable juxtaposition of oversized nature and oversized patriotism that has always given Mount Rushmore its oddball charm.
That’s just one reason that the even more improbable Crazy Horse Memorial — just down the road from George Washington and friends — now seems the more quintessentially American eccentricity. Like the nation, it is a work that seems endlessly in progress, some 70 years after its carving was begun, partly because it remains a private project that declines government funding and control. It is a mountain-sized sculpture of the great Lakota Chief Crazy Horse, another ardent warrior of the west, and the one who happened to destroy Custer and his command at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
If ever fully completed, Crazy Horse’s likeness will become the world’s largest sculpture, an American-sized ambition that fittingly is the vision of the son of immigrants. Polish-American sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski worked on Mount Rushmore and soon after its completion was inspired to accept a commission from tribal leaders to create a comparable tribute to their people, their heroes and their way of life. Ziolkowski began single-handed drilling and blasting work in 1948. He died in 1982, leaving behind a kind of battle cry — “Never forget your dreams” — that is emblazoned in many places around the “visitor complex.” Children and grandchildren are among those working to fulfill the dream to this day.
Sited as it is in the heart of Custer County, Crazy Horse is a strange and gigantic case of ferocious former foes ultimately finding a weird kind of “common ground.”
And the fact is, the whole presentation at the Crazy Horse Memorial is notably lacking in the sort of harsh moral indictment of former generations that has become such standard fare in enlightened America’s discussions of its past. The tragedies and injustices of the region’s history are acknowledged, and the whole memorial is nothing if not an eloquent statement about the need to remember and make amends.
But the emphasis is on respect, not recrimination.
The emphasis soon seemed to turn toward unforgotten dreams for my traveling companion, John, and me. We spent an afternoon on horseback guided by a wrangler named Kristen, a young woman who had escaped a difficult youth in California to fulfill a lifelong yearning that teachers and friends had thought ridiculous — to become a “cowgirl.” Yet there she was, tall and sure in the saddle. And high in the Bighorn Mountains of Wyoming we met a spry but aged campground supervisor born in Yugoslavia. Lena’s family escaped the Balkans during World War II, dreaming of America. Their immigrant hopes were fulfilled in 1952.
Foreign-born immigrants made up 40 percent of the 200-plus Seventh Cavalry troopers who died with Custer at the Little Bighorn, 100 miles or so farther north in Montana. One receives that timely reminder at the national monument at the battlefield, another shrine of Western history where latter-day moralizing is minimized in favor of a respectful telling of a riveting tale.
It’s made clear that relentless white encroachment on lands promised to the Indians brought about the climactic clash, along with Custer’s trademark rashness, perhaps fueled by political aspirations. But the focus is on honoring dutiful men on both sides who laid down their lives that long-ago June day. There’s even a tribute to the horses who died there.
Steeped in all this history, John and I were roped back into 2018 when, en route home, we lunched at a picnic table beside the Little Missouri River in North Dakota’s Theodore Roosevelt National Park. We were joined by a retired solo traveler from Connecticut, who was headed west to roughly reverse the pilgrimage we had made.
But after scolding us gently for our brandishing of plastic water bottles, “Connie” revealed that she had come west seeking to better understand current conflicts as well as historic ones. She said she had come to the heart of the “other America” to discover how people there could possibly support President Donald Trump — and to try to change their minds.
I smiled, delighted by the reminder of America’s inexhaustible and ever-present variety, and wished Connie well as she pursued the fine frontier tradition of braving long odds.
D.J. Tice is at Doug.Tice@startribune.com.