I spent the night in the sleepy town of Bridgeport, Nebraska. The Oklahoma State vs. Texas basketball game from two nights before was playing on ESPN Classic as an Instant ClassicTM, but neither of the two hotels in town carried the channel. I checked. And the one TV in the town’s one bar was set to a different channel, and I decided not to ask the few gruff-looking locals there if I could change it. The game wasn’t that important to me.
With just a little bit of daylight left and no game on TV, I followed a sign on the south end of town that pointed toward the “Courthouse and Jail Rocks”. I wasn’t sure what that meant. Shouldn’t it be “Court” and “Jailhouse Rock”? Perhaps they were some cave-filled rocks that early settlers had turned into the county justice buildings. Maybe it was just a historical marker for the time that Elvis played a concert in the town square. Regardless, I wasn’t expecting anything very big—maybe a couple of boulders 10 feet tall, or whatever.
When the two actual rocks came into view over the top of a large hill, I realized that my estimate had been off by, oh, about 390 feet or so.
A historical marker along the road noted that the two monoliths were important landmarks for the Oregon Trail and several other ancient video games. Every 20-something in America today has fond memories of the Oregon Trail from grade school—not from learning about it in class, but from the game that seemed to be the only reason for the existence of Apple IIe computers in every classroom. The goal in the game was to make it to Oregon with your family before everyone died. This was a difficult task, at least for a 3rd-grader with no wilderness survival skills and no real clue of where Oregon was located, let alone why anyone would want to go there. The consolation prize was that you could type whatever cute epitaph you wanted on your digital tombstone—like “Pepperoni and Sausage”, or many other things that are funny when you are 8.
I drove up the short road to the base of the rocks, and parked in the gravel lot that was empty of cars but half-filled with snow drifts. As I looked up at the larger, and more accessible, Courthouse Rock, I had the sudden urge to climb it. With the sun rapidly setting, there was no time to think about it too much—either do it quickly, or not at all. So, I grabbed my coat and gloves and ran across the snow-covered slope to the base of the rock.
I wasn’t sure if the Nebraska Historical Society intended for people to climb their rocks, but I imagined people did so fairly regularly, regardless. The only difference between myself and those people, I figured, was that most of those people probably knew what they were doing. Like many of my friends in Dallas, they probably did “rock climbing” as a hobby, and had whatever equipment that you used for such a sport. I had tennis shoes and the black leather gloves I had received as a birthday present, and the unfailing belief that I could handle wilderness-type stuff simply because I grew up 40 miles from the nearest Wal-Mart.
Though apparently one big rock, the Courthouse had four distinct layers, which aided in giving it the appearance of a huge court building. The first level, which would be the steps on the building, was the dirt slope that covered the base of the rock. The second level, which would be the walls of the building, was exposed rock that sloped somewhat steeply toward the top. This level was half-covered by the snow that had fallen earlier in the week. Surprisingly, this snow was a huge help in climbing the walls. The top of the snow had melted and frozen back into a hard layer, and I could jab my feet and hands into the snow to create holds and steps in a way that would have been impossible with exposed rock.
At the top of that layer, I was faced with a much shorter but steeper layer that represented the roof of the courthouse. I could easily walk almost all the way around the base of the roof, but it didn’t look like something I could easily climb up.
At the very end of my circuit around the roof’s edge, I came upon a crack in the rock wall that was hard to see until I was right upon it. The crack was maybe 12 feet tall, and 12 feet deep—just guessing, since I didn’t bring a ruler with me. But it was only about a foot wide. Maybe 18 inches, but there were certainly parts of it that were no more than a foot wide. It was narrow enough that I would have to take off my coat to fit comfortably inside.
Well, this was obviously the way you get to the top, if the top is where you are going. And since I had already made it that far…
I laid my coat and gloves on the sun-stained rock and sidled my way into the crack. I often have a soundtrack playing in my head, with songs that sometimes get stuck there against my will. At this particular point, the song was Billy Joel’s “You May Be Right (I May Be Crazy)”. Surely this climb was not all that crazy, but I did wonder how long it would take for someone else to climb up there and find me if something went wrong. Probably a long time.
Though some of the soft sandstone rubbed off on my knees and back, I made it to the top of the roof without much trouble. This left only one more layer to climb: the bell tower. It posed the same problem as the roof, but it had no broken spot to make it easier to climb up. I found one corner that I thought I could partially climb up—and I did—but the sandstone was so soft that I ripped off a few chunks in the process. I didn’t want to tear down this historic monument with my bare hands (though that would be a cool thing to list on a superhero resume), and I didn’t want to get caught up on the rock after the rapidly-approaching sunset. But, mostly, I didn’t see any way up the final wall of rock. So, I was forced to retreat without truly reaching the summit.
I did get a good view of the surrounding countryside, though, including a very distant Chimney Rock, 15 miles to the northwest. I made the drive out to the more famous cousin of Courthouse and Jail Rocks the next morning. Somehow, I did not find Chimney Rock nearly as impressive as the other Oregon Trail landmarks.
There was a historic cemetery near Chimney Rock, though, for all those players who failed to make it to Oregon. There were no funny tombstones.
While deciding what route to take into South Dakota, I asked one native Nebraskan if he had ever been to the Badlands. “Yes,” he said. I asked him what he thought of them, and if they were worth seeing. “That land,” he said, “well…it’s pretty bad.”
I wasn’t sure what to make of his recommendation. But, I knew I was going to the Rapid City area to see Mount Rushmore, and the Badlands were close enough to Rapid City that I figured I should at least swing by there.
Along the way, I stopped at a convenience store in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, right across the line from Nebraska. The signs for the bathrooms inside had some Indian* words for “men” and “women” posted along with the English. Someone is trying to be a bit too cute, I thought—until I looked around me and realized that most of the people in the store were Indians. Full-blood, it appeared.
The town of Pine Ridge is part of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. It is what I would call a real Indian reservation. According to most maps, I grew up on an Indian reservation in Oklahoma. It is not a fact that you would likely notice without a map. Sure, there is a tribal headquarters somewhere in the county seat, and a lot of people have a bit of Indian blood—but everyone in Oklahoma has a little Indian blood in them. I am part Cherokee, and the reservation I lived on wasn’t even a Cherokee reservation. The traditional Indian culture just wasn’t very prevalent there.
On the Pine Ridge reservation, it was much more obvious that I was on a reservation. The roads on the way to Badlands National Park weren’t even state or county roads; they were numbered as BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) roads. One of the small reservation towns along those roads had a name you might have heard of: Wounded Knee.
I didn’t even feel entirely comfortable on the reservation. Not that I thought it was at all dangerous, or that anything would happen to me, but I just felt out of place. I am not sure whether I felt more out of place because I was not an Indian, or because I was—but a member of the wrong tribe. I was Cherokee, and this was Oglala Sioux territory.
Along the BIA road, I saw a tribal historical marker for Crazy Horse, or Tasunke Witko. The sign was noticeable partly because of the unflattering graffiti that covered its lower half. But the marker was also interesting because of the way it was written. “Ben Black Elk says…his mother was living with Felix Bald Eagle…his two boyhood warrior friends…” Unlike the usual textbook-style history lesson, it read more like gossip about your neighbor’s eccentric great uncle. It was good to get some background information on the man—the “light-haired, fair-skinned, grey-eyed” leader who was “modest, courteous, generous, of great physique and known for his self-denial”—since I planned to check out the Black Hills monument dedicated to him the next day.
*Yes, I’m still using this term for the people who were native to this country. And guess what: in every place where the government or the tribes themselves had a chance to use either term, they chose to refer to themselves as Indians. For whatever reason, the PC crowd is concerned with not offending people who really are not offended at all.