Ode to Keystone

A small stone bridge near Keystone, South Dakota, spanning a creek and snow-covered banks with ponderosa pine trees on either side. A faint rainbow is visible.

I am the person that will drive an hour out of my way to see a quirky roadside attraction. The world’s largest ball of twine is on my bucket list. 

I don’t know for sure where the obsession started; both of my parents detest touristy stuff so we never went when I was growing up. My only guess is it comes from driving past Carhenge in Nebraska on the way to visit my uncle, and I always begged my parents to stop without success. It may have planted a seed — otherwise I guess it’s just that I’m weird. Which is a perfectly fine explanation, too.

Welcome to Keystone

Since I started my first post-Air Force job, one of my weekly tasks was to write a short blog entry for a Keystone Chamber of Commerce member. It was a lot of reading their websites, reviews, and social media to get an idea of what they offer, and then writing a short post about them and how awesome they are. Some days it was a bit (or a lot) of a grind, but if nothing else I challenged myself to do them faster every week. 

The first one I did was the very first thing I wrote at my new job, and I remember mentally expecting it to be a more involved process. I did my research, wrote my piece, and then had my coworker look it over for me. He was pleasantly surprised that I knew how to write (his first question was what my experience was, and I don’t think my answer instilled any confidence) and then started explaining how to post my entry online. I remember thinking wait… shouldn’t this be approved by the boss? Shouldn’t I go do an interview? It can’t be that simple right?

Turns out, yes, it was. Up to that point everything I had written was for academic purposes, with the familiar process of writing a draft, reviewing it, submitting it for comments, reviewing it, and finally submitting it for a final grade. And yes, I am that student that takes my teachers up on the extra instruction offer — at least in writing. I almost always turn in a draft early for revisions. 

Anyway, this new routine of typing out a few hundred words, running a spell check, and putting it online felt rushed but exhilarating to me. Safe to say that feeling has become much more routine, but I still keep that first piece around for smiles. You can still read all about the Black Hills Glass Blowers and every other place in town too.

Are we there yet?

Another early project was an inspiration guide on Keystone with the backstory of mining, Mount Rushmore, and some of the notable residents. It was a last minute thing we had to put together before COVID relief money ran out at the end of the year. Just over 30 pages later and I essentially became a Keystone expert in a week; I regale my husband with useless facts every time we drive through town to this day.

After this had successfully gone to print, I had a pretty rosy ideal of Keystone in my head. With so much cool history and interesting people, how could it not be just a little hidden gem of a town? That weekend I drove down to Keystone to check it out while my son took a nap in his carseat. 

To give Keystone the benefit of the doubt, it was winter, and no tourist town in the off season looks particularly glamorous.

But this was… different. 

It felt like that awkward moment when you leave your all-inclusive beach resort and end up in a back alley you know you shouldn’t be in. Everything was a shade of gray or brown and muddy. The occasional home looked brand new off of the truck, but for the most part, Keystone’s buildings live up to the spirit of this mining town turned tourist trap. One of the old mine buildings still lurches off one of the hills near town, expectantly waiting for a heavy snow to bring the entire thing down. 

After crafting an idea of a quaint little resort town in my head, the reality was a rough awakening. This is the town of entrepreneurs! Of visionaries that created Mount Rushmore! Pioneers that crafted a living out of the unforgiving wild of the Black Hills! 

And yet their legacy has turned into a long boardwalk of bars, restaurants, and cheesy t-shirt stands all pawning the same tired cheesy sayings in neon screen print. 

Minutes from Rushmore

One of my favorite things I’ve come across in travel and tourism writing are the slogans people use. Some make me cringe every time I hear them, and some make me chuckle. The best one? 

“We’re just minutes from Mount Rushmore!” 

There are variations, such as in the shadow of Rushmore, next to the faces, just miles from the mountain — you get the idea. What makes me smile about it, is everything in the Black Hills is really just minutes from Mount Rushmore. It’s in a fairly central spot; Keystone is no further than an hour and a half from anywhere else in the hills. It’s only 20 minutes from Keystone to Rapid City, Hill City, or Custer State Park. It’s all just minutes from Rushmore!

I share my work amusements with my husband, and now the phrase has become a bit of an inside joke. If we see a new restaurant or kitschy spot, one of us will undoubtedly joke, “and it’s only minutes from Rushmore!” 

To be fair, something like 90% of tourists go to the Black Hills specifically to see Mount Rushmore and have no understanding of the surrounding area. Especially if people aren’t Midwesterners who don’t bat an eye at driving to the next town over for dinner, the idea that they can stay in Hill City and still easily see the memorial is a bit foreign. When local businesses tout their proximity to the faces, they probably do actually get more business simply because most tourists are lazy and just want the most convenient place to stay. 

As much grief as I give them, someday when I get serious about being a travel blogger, I might take the phrase with me. Who doesn’t want a snarky travel guide called “Minutes to Rushmore”?

One response to “Ode to Keystone”

  1. Haha…well, to be fair, you’re right. I was very skeptical of your abilities. But I have since learned better and am happy to issue a formal apology after the fact for ever doubting your skills!

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