Posts tagged ‘South Dakota’

South Dakota’s Buffalo Trample Politics

In the flurry up to the November 6th election, most of us missed our country’s first National Bison Day. It was commemorated on November 1, five days before Republicans and Democrats slugged it out at the polls.


While it’s not clear how one celebrates National Bison Day, I do know pending legislation to designate this stupendous beast that once roamed our country in herds as big as Rhode Island as our official national mammal has proven that elected officials on both sides of the political spectrum can still agree on something

In fact, bills (S. 3248, introduced May 24, and H.R. 6304, introduced August 2) were put forth by Congressmen on both sides of the aisle with co-sponsors from both parties. Yes, an “R” and a “D” on the same bills gives me hope that, just like the bison that rebounded from a straggly herd of 15 at the Bronx Zoo, our cantankerous old Congressmen will eventually come together and do something meaningful.

In the meantime, I went to South Dakota for Governor Dennis Daugaard’s annual Buffalo Roundup. Held at Custer State Park for nearly 50 years, this spectacle involves 1,300 snorting, hairy beasts running across the prairie at speeds of up to 50 miles-per-hour, and cowboys on horses with real chaps and spurs trying to corral them into a giant pen. If it’s not on your bucket list, get it on there fast. It’s truly something to see.

Custer State Park is big (71,000 acres), so you can imagine the task of just finding 1,300 bison — roaming free as they do through the granite spires of Needles Highway, along the park’s 18-mile Wildlife Loop and near Sylvan Lake, the mountain lake sitting at the base of Harney Peak, the highest point east of the Rockies — let alone getting the headstrong creatures to cooperate by running into a pen where they will be inoculated, branded (if they’re calves), culled and either chosen for November’s annual auction that raises some $325,000 for the South Dakota Department of Parks and Recreation or released back into the wild beauty of this park, one of many on the west side of South Dakota.


Between state parks, national parks and national monuments, this part of our country is one big protected Kodak moment after another. There’s the Badlands, the Black Hills, Mount Rushmore, Jewel Cave National Monument (with the second longest cave in the world), Wind Cave National Park, Crazy Horse Memorial, Spearfish Canyon, Bear Butte State Park where indigenous Northern Plains tribes go for vision quests and, of course, the magnificent Custer State Park that served as the summer White House for Calvin Coolidge.

For anyone who a) longs to get up close and personal to nature (besides the bison, Custer State Park has elk, bighorn sheep, mountain lions, mountain goats, pronghorn and a herd of 50 feral begging burros who practically climb in your mini-van in search of bread and other treats that they know to expect), b) feels inspired by the possibilities of the human spirit (Gutzon Borglum spent 14 years hanging from ropes while he jackhammered and blasted out Mount Rushmore, and he didn’t even start until he was 60) or c) cheerleads the greatness of our country (American patriotism is the overriding soundtrack in Western South Dakota), should plan a trip here soon.

As for the bison (that once thundered across the plains to the tune of 30 million head), if those bills pass, it will join the Bald Eagle (our official bird since 1782), the rose (our official flower) and the oak (our official tree).

Antonio Ballatore goes green near Mount Rushmore

What do you get when you combine wild child designer Antonio Ballatore with Mount Rushmore, an old Radisson Hotel and a couple long-time hoteliers who want to reduce the footprint of the hospitality industry?


One of the most exciting hotel concepts since Travelocity simultaneously introduced the Green Guarantee and slapped a peace sign on the Roaming Gnome’s pointy hat.

“Most of the cooler materials are green anyway,” says Ballatore, who worked with Rapid City, South Dakota’s, Adoba Eco Hotel to create a brand new concept in green hotels. “Transforming an existing hotel into LEED-certified lends itself to a lot of cool materials, like recycled rugs and wood, and you gotta love all the inspiring artists and craftspeople doing this work.”

Indeed, the oh-so-chic Adoba Eco Hotel makes use of recycled snow fences from Wyoming, recycled soda caps for chandeliers, recycled water bottles for duvets (they’re super warm and comfy), old road sign for trash cans and serving trays and sheets made from eucalyptus. And while all of these design elements contribute to the hotel’s eventual goal of net zero energy, they also make the Adoba concept, like Ballatore himself was once described, “the Lady GaGa of hotel brands.”

Other badass, but more under-the-radar, features of Adoba include solar-thermal water and heating, low flow water fixtures, LED lighting, waste that’s compacted and baled, and the Enigma organic restaurant with Greener Planet wines and dishes such as Buffalo Carpaccio with grass-fed local buffalo, prickly-pear oil, fig balsamic and micro greens.

Even the building itself is recycled, having served 15 years as a Radisson in the South Dakota town that serves the Mount Rushmore set.

As owner, Karim Merali says about his decision to be the first to try this new concept in sustainable hospitality, “If you care, it takes a little more effort. You recycle, you treat your environment with respect.”


But even more convincing, say James Henderson and Adrienne Pumphrey, the husband and wife team rolling out the new eco-friendly hotel brand, is the bottom line.

“The great thing about going green is that very quickly, by the second or third profit and loss statement, owners notice significant savings in energy consumption, water consumption and waste output,” Pumphrey says. “And customer engagement is off the charts.”

Although Adoba is just launching (their second hotel opened in Dearborn, Michigan on November 1), they’re projecting first year savings of 15 percent energy consumption, 8 percent water and 12 percent waste output. Over time, that can make a significant dent in the 40 percent of fossil fuel energy that’s consumed by traditional buildings.

They’re even working on a rewards system that gives guests bonus points for not taking 45-minute showers and remembering to turn off their curling irons.

“It’s part of our Stash Rewards. We have a system that measures and tracks energy use. Guests who don’t leave the water running, who don’t require daily sheet washing, get, say, an extra 250 points for water conservation,” says Pumphrey, who before rolling out this sustainable hotel plan spent 25 years working for such corporate hotel brands as Marriott, Hilton and Sheraton. “Somebody has to become a leader. Because we’re small and nimble, we can make these changes quickly.”

On tap in the next few months are four new Adoba Eco conversions (transforming existing properties such as the former Hyatt in Dearborn) and groundbreaking on a new build in Denver.

“We’re not just hoping just to change the hotel industry, but to save the world.” Pumphrey says.

Nicholas Cage, jonesing for his pet cobras, visits the Black Hills’ Reptile Gardens when filming National Treasure II

A United Nations report made waves last May for suggesting that South Dakota’s Black Hills should be returned to the Sioux. After all, UN fact finder James Anaya argued, an 1868 treaty did promise these sacred lands would forever remain in tribal hands. But then General George Custer found gold and well, in 1887 Congress passed a law that said, “Sorry, just kidding.”

Ironically, the United Nations itself almost took over the Black Hills. Back in 1945, a valley just south of Rapid City made the short list for the headquarters of the newly-formed UN along with Geneva, Brussels, FDR’s family estate in Hyde Park and, of course, Manhattan where it was eventually built. CBS news commentator Edward R. Murrow went so far as to suggest that the fresh air of the Black Hills would aid in clear thinking, definitely a plus for an organization designed to keep international peace.

But then, in a last minute bid, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. ponied up $8.5 million if they’d build it on the 18 acres along Manhattan’s East River. So now the UN’s 16,400 jobs, 400,000 tourists and $1.5 billion in annual revenue reside in New York.**

And that chosen land in the Black Hills? Well, it’s being used for an equally valuable purpose: to teach kids of all ages about reptiles and other animals. More than a thousand snakes, ancient tortoises, 16-foot crocodiles and a fortune-telling chicken entertain the masses on the very land where Kofi Anan, Eleanor Roosevelt, Dag Hammarskjold and other UN delegates would have, in an alternate reality, beat their gavels.

Reptile Gardens, I’m happy to report, is probably making more headway in its mission, not to mention that it’s a lot more entertaining. Of course, it’s had a good 10 years on the United Nations. Back in 1935, a 19-year-old rancher’s kid who loved snakes worked as a guide at another South Dakota tourist attraction. At the end of his tour, Earl Brockelsby would remove his giant Stetson and reveal a live diamond back rattlesnake coiled upon his head.

Guests were so fascinated that it didn’t take the enterprising lad long to figure out that they’d probably also pay to see other reptiles. Heck, he’d even throw in some flowers and birds. He and some buddies built an 18 by 24-foot “zoo” at the top of a hill (they didn’t move to the proposed United Nations site until 1965) where, according to his son, Johnny, who still works at Reptile Gardens along with lots of other family members, cars would overheat.

Admission back then was 10 cents for adults, 5 cents for children and on the first day of operation Reptile Gardens took in a grand total of $3.85. By 1941, the business had 15 employees and was turning a handsome profit. Today, on the very land where the United Nations almost set up shop, Reptile Gardens has a Sky Dome complete with a Safari room where guests can walk among cactus, exotic plants and free-roaming reptiles. Although common at zoos now, Reptile Gardens was the first in the country to try this unique approach.

It also has exotic bird shows, alligator wrestling, an Old West town and, with more than 225 species, more reptiles than any zoo in the world. There’s a giant albino python named Marilyn, a baby alligator named Fluffy, the only venomous Inland Taipan in the United States and a world renowned team of animal conservationists whose goal is to educate and protect the rare, unusual and beautiful reptiles that share our planet.

There’s even a movie star crocodile. Remember Live and Let Die where James Bond makes his escape across the backs of three giant crocs? One of those crocs lives at Reptile Gardens a few exhibits down from an 8-foot endangered Komodo Dragon whose signage lists blood-curdling deaths (leaving nothing but mangled glasses or shoes) inflicted on some 20 victims over the last few years. Not here, thankfully.

And when Nicholas Cage, who was forced to give up his live-in cobras, Moby and Sheba, when neighbors threatened to sue after he made the mistake of mentioning on David Letterman that he shared his home with them, came to the Black Hills to film National Treasure II: Book of Secrets, he and his wife spent a long time touring the gardens. He even commended the wild animal park for having one of the most ferocious crocs (Maniac is 15’8” and weighs 1250 pounds, an estimate since they don’t have a scale big enough to officially weigh him) he’d ever seen. Johnny says they’ve considered changing Maniac’s name to “Oh my Gosh” since that’s what most people say when they first see him.

OMG is also a fit description for this fascinating zoo that knows the best way to educate is to entertain.

So this year, on October 24, official United Nations Day, consider celebrating, not in New York, but at its other location in the Black Hills.Reptile Gardens. U.S. 16 Rapid City, SD 57702, (605) 342-5873

**According to data collected in 1995 by the NYC Commission for the United Nations

Rare, thought-to-be-extinct cacoa beans resurface in Deadwood, South Dakota, will go in CMA swag bags

Deadwood, South Dakota doesn’t typically spring to mind as a mecca for chocolate. But it should. Outside this little town of 1200, the third U.S. destination after Nevada and Atlantic City to legalize gambling, there’s an old 1930’s Sinclair gas station where seriously delicious truffles are hand-dipped daily.

For impatient sorts who just can’t wait for the little store’s 10 a.m. opening, there’s a vending machine out front (it’s next to the 700-pound chainsaw statue of Chubby Chipmunk) that dispenses nine types of the average 1.5-ounce truffles.

“We have to refill it most every morning,” says Mary “Chip” Tautkus, the evil genius behind Chubby Chipmunk Hand-Dipped Chocolates, which were chosen for the swag bags for this year’s Country Music Awards (November 1) and for the Latin Grammys two weeks later.

All totaled, Chip and her staff make more than 50 types of hand-dipped truffles, everything from Moose Toffee, that placed first in Seattle’s Chocolate Show this year, to the Double Dark Dan, a 72 percent ganache named after Dan Dority, casino owner Al Swearengen’s enforcer on the HBO drama, Deadwood.

“We were sure sorry to see that series end,” Tautkus says, “It was pretty amazing.”

Also pretty ironic considering that’s exactly what people say about her small batch truffles and chocolates which, purely by word of mouth, have ignited worldwide fame, sought after by such fans as Rachael Ray and W. Earl Brown, the actor who played Dority in the HBO series that pulled down so many Emmy awards.

“You probably shouldn’t print this,” Tautkus says, “But there was a policeman the other day who was so excited about getting his truffle out of the Chub-O-Matic (her nickname for the sandwich dispenser turned truffle vending machine) that when this beat up car blared down the street without a muffler, sparks flying everywhere, he didn’t even turn around.”

Another fan, a motorcyclist heading home after the big Sturgis rally (Deadwood is a short 14 miles from Sturgis) loaded up a cooler and a seven-pound tin of truffles on the back of his cycle, stopping every couple hours to refill the ice for a 1200-mile journey back to Canada.

Yet another duo, a pair of local poker-playing sisters, make regular midnight runs to the Chub-O-Matic in their pajamas and fuzzy slippers after a successful night at the Deadwood casinos.

“I come just to be inspired by greatness,” claimed one customer, intently unwrapping the brown box holding her Turtle Truffle, a milk chocolate ganache with caramel and pecan.

“It really is true that if you follow your passion, dreams come true,” says the former nurse who started making chocolates when she was a kid. “We just keep growing. People come in and tell me that what we have is magical. They insist on sending boxes to all their friends.”

Just this week, she had to hire three new employees, one a teacher who left behind her special ed class to help accommodate Chubby’s 50 percent yearly growth since the business opened in 2005.

“A marketing guy insisted I get rid of the name. He said, ‘People will never come into a chocolate store with the word chubby in it’,” Chip laughs. “Needless to say, he has since called to apologize, admitting he couldn’t have been more wrong.”

Tautkus says the wheels in her brain never stop churning, always coming up with new flavors and new concoctions including five-pound bowling ball truffles and such seasonal specialties as Easter’s jelly bean, St. Patrick’s green cheddar beer and Thanksgiving’s upcoming pumpkin cheescake. The “Hot Mama,” a dark truffle with jalapeno, habanero, cayenne and chipotle and the “Cerveza con Limon,” a white chocolate infused with dark beer and lime, were conceived through other “light bulb” moments.

Perhaps her biggest coup was becoming one of a handful of worldwide chocolatiers to land a contract with Maranon Chocolate that sells Fortunato No. 4, a rich, rare, mellow couverture made from cacoa beans of the Nacional cacoa tree.

Declared extinct in the early 20th century after succumbing to disease that even cross-breeding couldn’t cure, the Ecuadorian tree (Ecuador was once the world’s largest cacao producer) was rediscovered growing on an isolated farm in Peru’s 6000-foot wall Maranon Canyon in 2007.

“It’s about as decadent as you can get,” Tautkis says.