Fast times in Rapid City, South Dakota

Prez ReaganI’ve previously recounted my highly rewarding visit to Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Memorial in the U.S. state of South Dakota. This post is about the town where I stayed during my long weekend in South Dakota: Rapid City. The second largest city in the state, Rapid City has a population of about 73,000. (Sioux Falls, with some 165,000 inhabitants as of 2013, ranks as the most populous South Dakotan city.) Rapid City made an ideal base of operations for my visit to the monuments, as Rushmore is only about a half hour’s drive from its downtown. In addition Rapid City proved an enjoyable place to spend time in its own right.

Hanging with the Prezzes in Rapid City’s downtown

City of Presidents: the basic concept

Part of the reason that Rapid City appealed to me is that it boasts a compact, walkable downtown. The centerpiece of that downtown is a series of life-sized bronze statues of all 42 former Presidents of the United States, in various poses, placed on street corners over a 10 square block area. (They were installed between 2000 and 2010.) The project is called the “City of Presidents.” At an information center on Main Street, you can pick up a free map that shows where each Presidential statue can be found, enabling you to take a self-guided walking tour of the City of Presidents. (This is helpful because the Presidents aren’t arranged in the order in which they served.)

Here are a couple of examples of the statues of the POTUSes:

The statue of Andrew Jackson, the 7th President of the United States, in downtown Rapid City.

The statue of Andrew Jackson, the 7th President of the United States, in downtown Rapid City.

The statue of William Howard Taft, the 27th President of the United States, in downtown Rapid City.

The statue of William Howard Taft, the 27th President of the United States, in downtown Rapid City.

You may have noticed that I mentioned that only former occupants of the Presidency have been depicted in the City of Presidents. There’s not yet a statue of current President Barack Obama. Under the long-standing policy of the nonprofit foundation that oversees the City of Presidents, a Presidential statue cannot be erected while the subject is still in office, but must await his return to civilian life. (As explained to me by a co-founder of the foundation, the rationale behind this policy is twofold: First, this waiting period allows for the design of the statue to be informed by a fuller picture of who the President was. Second, it’s hoped that once the subject has left the White House, public passions regarding his presidency will have subsided, thus reducing the risk of vandalism against the sculpture.) The same policy was applied to Bill Clinton (who was the sitting President when the project began in 2000) and George W. Bush. So Obama will get his statue eventually — just not while his address is still 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. πŸ™‚

My selfie project: a plan gone slightly awry

As mentioned, the City of Presidents covers a modest portion of Rapid City’s downtown. Thus, you can make your way through all of the statues within a relatively short timespan. Combined with the fact that I was travelling for the first time with my new selfie stick, this gave me an idea. I conceived a goal to take selfies with each of the 42 Presidential statues! It was an inspired plan. And it worked very well. Except for one thing.

After returning home to New York City, upon carefully reviewing the selfies that I’d taken in the City of Presidents, I noticed that I’d accidentally forgotten to photograph myself with one of the Presidents; I’d inadvertently neglected to capture an image of myself with Chester Arthur. So I came home with selfies with only 41 out of the 42 Presidents! Granted, Arthur is among the more obscure U.S. Presidents; but to come so close to achieving my mission while narrowly failing to complete it was disappointing. What’s frustrating is that my error was easily preventable: all I had to do was keep a checklist as I was going along. But did I think of doing that? No.

Well, here are some of my favourites from among the 41 Presidential selfies that I did manage to come away with:

George Washington, the 1st President.

George Washington (the 1st President)

Grover Cleveland (the 22nd and 24th President)

Grover Cleveland (the 22nd and 24th President)

Harry Truman (the 33rd President)

Harry Truman (the 33rd President)

John F. Kennedy (the 35th President)

John F. Kennedy (the 35th President)

Richard Nixon (the 37th President)

Richard Nixon (the 37th President)

Another of my Presidential selfies, showing me with Ronald Reagan (the 40th President), appears at the top of this blog post. Note that my inclusion of a particular selfie here doesn’t imply an endorsement of the President depicted. πŸ™‚ To see an album containing the complete set of all 41 of my Presidential selfies from downtown Rapid City, go here.

And what of poor, overlooked Chester Arthur? Well, it turns out that there’s a statue of him in Madison Square Park, right in my home city of New York! So, as a placeholder, I’ve taken a selfie with that statue:

My selfie with Chester Arthur (the 21st President), taken in NYC.

My selfie with Chester Arthur (the 21st President), taken in NYC.

It’s not a perfect substitute, but it will have to do, at least until I can get back to South Dakota. πŸ™‚ In the meantime, I can accurately state that I have photos of myself with statues of all 42 erstwhile U.S. Presidents.

Karaoke: a great time at the Clock Tower

Naturally, my first-ever visit to the Rushmore State necessitated my making my South Dakota karaoke debut, as I brought my World Karaoke Tour to America’s heartland. πŸ™‚ My chosen venue for the occasion was the Clock Tower Lounge in Rapid City. I couldn’t have chosen better.

On the Friday evening when I went, the karaoke show at the Clock Tower was hosted by the wife-and-husband team of Jenn and Colin, who call their entertainment company “Party with Jenn and Colin.” Show them some love on their official Facebook page! Jenn and Colin treated me well; and they ran a quality show, which contributed to a memorable evening.

Me with Jenn and Colin, the amazing co-hosts of the karaoke show I attended at the Clock Tower Lounge in Rapid City

Me with Jenn and Colin, the amazing co-hosts of the karaoke show I attended at the Clock Tower Lounge in Rapid City

First song: “What is Love”

For my initial song at Clock Tower, I chose “What Is Love” by Haddaway, one of the great one-hit wonders of the 1990s. That tune is best known for its use in the 1998 film A Night at the Roxbury, which starred Will Ferrell and Chris Kattan. (The song was released in 1993.) Here you can watch me singing it in Rapid City, South Dakota!

Jenn was nice enough to serve as videographer for the evening, and I think she did a great job filming this video.

Second song: “At This Moment”

My encore song at Clock Tower was another one-hit wonder, this one hailing from the 1980s: “At This Moment” by Billy Vera & the Beaters, first released in 1981. “At This Moment” catapulted to popularity when it was featured as a love theme in several episodes of the sitcom Family Ties (which starred a young Michael J. Fox) during the 1985-86 season. It’s long been a part of my karaoke repertoire, and here’s my performance of it at the Clock Tower:

One slight regret about this second video: unfortunately, this time Jenn held my phone (the device with which the video footage was shot) vertically. As seen here, doing that results in a lot of letterboxing — i.e., black spaces on the sides — when a video is uploaded to YouTube. You’ve probably noticed that there are no vertical videos on YouTube; that’s because the site doesn’t allow for uploading in that format. And since my karaoke videos are always destined for YouTube (from where I can them embed them on my Facebook page and this blog), they need to be optimized for that platform. Normally, when someone is recording one of my performances for me and I see the filming device being held vertically, I immediately ask the person to flip the device to horizontal; but this time I was so focused on the song that I didn’t even notice my phone! (I do want to make clear that I don’t blame Jenn for what happened with this video, since I never asked her to hold my phone horizontally. When I ask a person to photograph or record me, it’s on me to specify what I want.)

The World Karaoke Tour rolls on!

With my appearance at the Clock Tower Lounge, South Dakota became the 20th U.S. state in which I’ve done karaoke — to go along with 38 different countries on my World Karaoke Tour. My next out-of-town karaoke singing will take place in early August in my favourite city in the world for karaoke: Las Vegas! It’ll be my eighth visit to Sin City, and I’ve done karaoke on the Las Vegas Strip during all seven of my previous trips there. πŸ™‚

As for Rapid City, if I ever find myself back in that area, I would love to sing again at the Clock Tower — or at any karaoke night hosted by Jenn and Colin.

Deep time meets deep kitsch: the Dinosaur Museum

Sometimes when you’re on vacation, you just have to hit up a kitschy roadside attraction. During my sojourn in Rapid City, the Dinosaur Museum filled that need. (It’s outside of the city’s downtown, so I took a taxi to get there.) When you see the campy replica of a tyrannosaurus rex lurking outside the building, you just know that you’re in for a good time.

This replica of a t-rex stands outside the Dinosaur Museum, beckoning visitors to pull off Highway 16.

This kitschy replica of a t-rex stands outside the Dinosaur Museum, beckoning visitors to pull off Highway 16.

Incidentally, the “Cosmos Mystery Area,” advertised on the billboard behind the t-rex, is unrelated to the Dinosaur Museum but is equally emblematic of roadside Americana. The Cosmos is a group of cottages that purportedly possess strange properties that alter the laws of physics — thereby, for example, causing water to flow uphill and allowing visitors to sit on a wall. Based on what I read in some TripAdvisor reviews, the whole thing seems to be an elaborate series of optical illusions attributable to the fact that the houses are built on slopes. But I digress. Back to the dinosaurs!

This simple, barn-like structure houses the Dinosaur Museum in Rapid City.

This simple, barn-like structure houses the Dinosaur Museum in Rapid City.

The dinosaurs themselves

Inside the Dinosaur Museum, you won’t find any actual dinosaur bones or fossils. Instead, the proprietor, who runs the museum with his wife, has painstakingly hand-crafted replicas of several dozen dinosaurs and populated his museum with them. It’s like an inanimate version of Jurassic Park. πŸ™‚ Here are glimpses of some of those faux dinosaurs:

Some of the additional giant lizards on display.

Some of the additional giant lizards on display.

Still more dinosaurs.

Still more dinosaurs.

A dimetrodon grandis.

A dimetrodon grandis.

I didn't catch the name of this guy.

I didn’t catch the name of this guy.

As you’ll note from these photos, the ersatz dinosaurs are accompanied by informational plaques. So there’s some educational value to be gleaned from the exhibits. Further learning is possible in the museum’s theater, which contains a charmingly retro rear-projection TV screen on which a five-hour documentary about dinosaurs that originally aired on the Discovery Channel is continuously played.

Other museum holdings

While the focus of the Dinosaur Museum is the giant reptiles that were once kings of the world, the jewels of its collection aren’t limited to the dinos. You can also peruse lifelike replicas, similarly created by the proprietor, of objects that relate somehow to reptiles or evolution. For example, one display case contains simulated snakes. Like the dinosaurs, the serpents are quite realistic in appearance.

Snakes. Why'd it have to be snakes?

Snakes. Why’d it have to be snakes?

Inside another cabinet are arrayed reproduction of the skulls of various species of hominids in the line of human evolution, such as homo habilis and homo erectus.

Replicas of the skulls of hominid species that preceded homo sapiens.

Replicas of the skulls of hominid species that preceded homo sapiens.

And then there’s one element of the museum’s collection that I’m not quite sure know how to introduce: death masks of several currently-living celebrities. A death mask is a plaster or wax cast of the visage of a recently-deceased person, which can be used as a model for portraits. Well, one of the cabinets in the Dinosaur Museum is a respository of death masks of such luminaries as Patrick Stewart; Johnny Depp; Brad Pitt; and Muhammad Ali — all of whom are still very much alive. Those A-listers didn’t sit for the sculptor and are probably unaware that these facsimiles of their faces even exist. In fashioning the macabre masks, the proprietor of the Dinosaur Museum used photographs from magazines to guide him. (By the way, if you want to get technical about it, a face mask cast while the subject is still alive is referred to as a “life mask.” But the museum employee who pointed out this particular display case to me referred to its contents as “death masks”; I’m not sure what term the museum’s proprietor uses for them. Regardless of terminology, they struck me as more than a little creepy.)

These death masks of living celebrities like Brad Pitt and Patrick Stewart are just a little creepy. :)

These death masks of living celebrities like Brad Pitt and Patrick Stewart are just a little creepy. πŸ™‚

Inside a glass labyrinth

As if the death masks weren’t weird enough: bizarrely, the museum also contains a mirror maze. Because why wouldn’t you expect to find a mirror maze in a dinosaur museum? πŸ™‚

The entrance to the mirror maze.

The entrance to the mirror maze.

Naturally, I felt compelled to enter the mirror maze and see if I could successfully navigate it. I have to admit, it didn’t turn out to be very challenging. One of the glass panels was cracked, making it difficult to mistake that particular pane for a pathway in the maze. πŸ™‚ Many of the other panels were fogged up or dirty. So it didn’t take me long to make it to the exit. Still, it was fun to enter a mirror maze for the first time since I was 11 years old.

Overall, there are worse ways to spend an hour than to meander through the Dinosaur Museum. Dinosaurs are inherently cool, and the eclectic mix of other objects in this quirky museum (to say nothing of the mirror maze) only add to the entertainment value.

Searching for the paranormal: a ghost tour in my hotel

The hotel in which I stayed in Rapid City is the historic Alex Johnson. Opened in 1928, it’s the eponymous hostelry of a railroad executive who sought to take advantage of the boom in tourism that Mount Rushmore, on which construction had begun in 1927, would bring to the area. And it’s reputedly haunted.

Valets of the hotel conduct ghost tours, during which they take you to parts of the hotel that have witnessed grisly and/or tragic deaths, as well as sections where guests and staff have reported encountering paranormal phenomena. The existence of these tours first came to my attention on my final evening in Rapid City, when I noticed a curious-looking volume sitting on the front desk in the Alex Johnson’s lobby:

This book, entitled “THE HAUNTING @ AJ’s,” contains handwritten accounts by guests of hauntings they’ve experienced at the hotel. Peer inside its musty pages — if you dare!

Immediately upon learning of the hotel’s documented nexus with the spirit world, I arranged to go ghost-hunting later that evening. Below are a few photographic highlights of my ghost tour:

These mummies being stored in the basement are props for the hotel's annual Halloween celebration. OR ARE THEY???

These mummies being stored in the basement are props for the hotel’s annual Halloween celebration. OR ARE THEY??? πŸ™‚

This ballroom was the scene of one of the ghostly events that I learned about during the tour.

This ballroom was the scene of one of the spooky events that I learned about during the tour.

Here I'm on one of the hotel's most haunted floors, holding some electromagnetism sensor to detect paranormal activity.

Here I’m on one of the hotel’s most haunted floors, holding some electromagnetism sensor to detect paranormal activity.

The ghost tour was great fun, even though I didn’t personally encounter any of the Alex Johnson’s resident apparitions. And it was a bonus that the tour took place in the very hotel that I was staying at. By the way, among the fellow hotel guests who were along for my tour were an airline pilot and flight attendant who’d flown in to Rapid City earlier that day. I asked the pilot if he’d ever spotted gremlins on the wing of his plane. He replied, quite sensibly, that as he sits in the cockpit, he can’t see the wings of the aircraft while it’s in flight. πŸ™‚

Some of the members of my ghost tour. From l to r: Jill, the valet who led the tour; me; a flight attendant; and an airline pilot.

Some of the members of my ghost tour, hanging out in the lobby of the Alex Johnson Hotel. From l to r: Jill, the valet who led the tour; me; a flight attendant; and an airline pilot.

During the over eight decades of its existence, the Alex Johnson has hosted six U.S. Presidents in its Presidential Suite. I wonder if any of them was ever visited by the hotel’s ghosts?

A plaque on the door to the Alex Johnson hotel's Presidential Suite identifies the six American Presidents who've stayed in that suite.

A plaque on the door to the Alex Johnson hotel’s Presidential Suite identifies the six American Presidents who’ve stayed in that suite.

One more note on the Alex Johnson: hauntings aside, the hotel is known for its rooftop bar and restaurant, the Vertex Sky Bar, which is worth a visit even if you’re lodging in a different hotel. Occupying the 10th and 11th floors of the Alex Johnson and boasting an art deco style, Vertex offers sweeping views of the surrounding area. Be warned that access to Vertex is officially restricted to people who either (i) are registered guests of the hotel downstairs or (ii) have purchased a one year club membership; but at least one TripAdvisor reviewer who did not fall into either category claims to have successfully gained entry.

Conclusion and other day-trip possibilities

Whether as a place to spend your nights while you explore Mount Rushmore and other area attractions, or whether simply to experience the City of Presidents and a haunted hotel, Rapid City is a great place to stay. Rapid City is also a fine destination for karaoke, particularly if you attend a show run by local residents Jenn and Colin. πŸ™‚

In addition to Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Memorial, sites within day-trip range of Rapid City, which I didn’t have time to get to, include:

Custer State Park: Sprawling over some 71,000 acres, this state park and wildlife preserve — a mere 28 miles or so from Rapid City — is known for its herd of 1,500 free-roaming bison. Also among its wildlife denizens are elk, bighorn sheep, and mountain lions. In addition, some scenic drives wind their way through the park.

Badlands National Park: This vast expanse, roughly 75 miles from Rapid City, contains some remarkable natural formations within its nearly 243,000 acres. Inside its confines you’ll find a mixture of buttes, pinnacles, and spires, along with an enormous grass prairie. And despite its name, it’s not a lifeless wasteland; visitors can observe native wildlife such as bison, bighorn sheep, and prairie dogs. In addition to its current fauna, Badlands abounds with fossil beds where paleontologists have unearthed remains of ancient mammals dating back over 30 million years.

Jewel Cave National Monument: For all you spelunkers out there, Jewel Cave is the third longest cave in the world; it contains 175 miles of mapped passageways. It’s about 54 miles from Rapid City. Among the tours of Jewel Cave that the National Park Service offers are a candelight tour of the first section of the cave to have been discovered.

Wind Cave National Park: Some 64 miles from Rapid City, Wind Cave is itself the sixth-longest cave in the world, with over 140 miles of charted passageways at last count. It’s known for two unique types of mineral formations: (i) “boxwork,” in which blades of calcite combine into honeycomb patterns on the cave’s walls and ceilings; and (ii) “frostwork,” which consists of growths of calcite or aragonite that resemble needles of ice. Like Jewel Cave, Wind Cave offers candelit tours of an otherwise pitch-dark portion of the cavern.

The town of Deadwood: Harking back to the days of the Wild West in the late 19th century, Deadwood — a mere 42 miles from Rapid City — is the town where lawman James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok was gunned down in a saloon while playing poker. (The hand of cards that Hickok was reportedly holding at the time of his 1876 murder — one pair each of black aces and black eights, and a fifth card that was face-down — is known to this day as the “Dead Man’s Hand.”) In Deadwood’s Mount Moriah Cemetery, you can visit Hickok’s gravesite, along with that of another legendary figure from that era: Martha Jane Canary, better known as Calamity Jane. Also in Deadwood, you can try your luck in one of the town’s 29 casinos. In the event that you do hit the gambling halls, hopefully you’ll meet a better fate than Hickok did.

Devils Tower National Monument: Although located in the neighboring state of Wyoming, Devils Tower is only a 107-mile drive from Rapid City, and can be reached in under two hours. The distinctively shaped, flat-topped peak of Devils Tower features prominently in the Steven Spielberg film Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), and in fact is integral to the plot of that movie. If you go to Devils Tower, I can’t promise that you’ll be accosted by extraterrestrials; but it can’t hurt to try. πŸ™‚

Stock photo of Devils Tower National Monument in Wyoming, 107 miles from Rapid City.

Stock photo of Devils Tower National Monument in Wyoming, 107 miles from Rapid City.

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Categories: North America, travel, World Karaoke Tour | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 19 Comments

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19 thoughts on “Fast times in Rapid City, South Dakota

  1. Michael

    “federal law prohibits the making of a statue of a U.S. President until he’s been out of office for at least one year”

    This has to be an urban myth.


    • @Michael: You may be right: I was derelict in not fact-checking this statement, which was merely told to me by a person in the City of Presidents information center, before putting up this blog post. I’m in the process of verifying the exact reason why the presiding foundation waits until a President is out of office before installing his statue. I’ve already established that they went through the same waiting issue with Presidents Clinton (who was still in office when the project began in 2000) and Bush 43. Once I’ve gathered the necessary information, I will revise the article as appropriate to make it more accurate on this point.


  2. Michael

    Thanks, I spent a very brief amount of time conducting very basic research and couldn’t verify the federal requirement mandating a one-year delay. I would think a one-year bar on Presidential statues would raise all sorts of First Amendment issues, in addition to just being a silly rule.

    It could simply be the case where it takes a while to mold and cast the statue, which they elect not to commence until the President is out of office (so they capture the Presidential image on his final day in office). Of course, they could begin on the first day in office, but Presidents appear to age quickly, so perhaps they delay to capture the final image and allow themselves sufficient time to prepare a proper unveiling.


    • @Michael: After speaking with a co-founder of the foundation in charge of the project, I have the answer: it’s an internal policy of the foundation. I have edited the article to reflect this, and my revision includes an explanation of the reasons behind the policy.

      But when the person in the information center cited a federal requirement as the reason for the waiting period, she was in error.


  3. Michael

    Thanks for following up with the foundation and updating your post.


  4. Lol love the Truman statue, specially.


    • @Jorome: The artists are given a lot of discretion in how to represent each President, although the foundation that oversees the project sometimes makes tweaks to the initial proposal. But I would have to say that the pose chosen for Truman (having him hold up the edition of the Chicago Tribune with the epic-fail “Dewey Defeats Truman” headline) was a no-brainer. πŸ™‚


  5. This place would be great!!! But I couldn’t do the ghost tour lol


    • @Mariana: No one on a ghost tour at the Alex Johnson has ever been harmed by any of the hotel’s ghosts. πŸ™‚


  6. Hahaha, those selfies are so cool πŸ˜‰ And the second picture (in total) – that man looks so real! He made me jump dude! πŸ˜‰


    • @travelgretl: I assume you’re referring to William Howard Taft as the statue that looks especially real. I’m sure the artist would be flattered that you found his creation so convincing. πŸ™‚


  7. Bummer you missed one of the statues!! Maybe you can grab a selfie next time? Looks like you had fun nonetheless!


    • @One Girl: One World: The problem is, I don’t know when there will be a next time. Rapid City isn’t easy to get to — no direct flights even from New York. And if I return, there’s an opportunity cost because that means there are a few days that I’m using that I would have otherwise used to visit someplace that I haven’t been to at all yet. With that said, of course I would like to see some of the other South Dakota attractions mentioned in the last section of my article ( as well as Devils Tower which is nearby in Wyoming). And I was thinking maybe I’d go back to see the City of Presidents when the Obama statue is unveiled (which I’m told will happen sometime in 2017) — and then I could also finally introduce myself to Chester Arthur. πŸ™‚


  8. Seems like a fun trip. I especially like the dinosaur exhibit.


    • @Ben: The dinosaur exhibit was totally campy, and not what I would have chosen as the highlight of the trip, but to each their own. πŸ™‚ It was absolutely a fun trip.


  9. Wow, there’s an awful lot to do in and around Rapid City! I would totally have signed up for that Ghost Tour, but it’s a shame no surreal happenings occurred for you!


    • @Andrew: The ghost tour was fun despite the lack of paranormal activity. I was cracking jokes the whole time. πŸ™‚


  10. even though the dinosaur museum was a side trip of you i bet my boys would have loved it! we hope to road trip the USA at some point. this looks like a great stopping point while visiting the big name attractions nearby!


    • @Lindsay: Well, the dinosaur museum is quite small so it doesn’t take much time to go through it. I think the City of Presidents is a much better reason to stop at (or stay in) Rapid City. πŸ™‚ Even for a visitor from outside the United States, I would think it would be fascinating to see the statues of all the U.S. Presidents, many of whom (like George Washington and Franklin Delano Roosevelt) you’ve probably heard of. More importantly, there are a slew of really interesting things to see that are relatively nearby to Rapid City, such as the sites that I mention in the bottom section of this post (as well as, of course, Mount Rushmore). πŸ™‚


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