CRAZY HORSE, S.D. – It had been nearly 40 years since I'd visited the Black Hills of South Dakota, a 5,000-square-mile mountain range rising in the middle of the Great Plains.
I had grown up on the opposite, mostly flat, side of the state, so I thought the Black Hills exotic. From family vacations, I remembered cool pine forests, pristine granite-ringed lakes and clear, fast-running mountain streams so unlike the brown, muddy rivers snaking through my part of the state.
Last summer, I decided to return to the place that had evoked fond memories of those family trips. I was curious to see how much — or how little — the area had changed in the decades since I had been there.
One evening I struck up a conversation in Rapid City with a woman who had brought her mother from Santa Monica to fulfill a bucket-list wish to see Mt. Rushmore, in the southwestern part of the state.
I asked her whether she was also planning to visit the nearby Crazy Horse Memorial.
Never heard of it, came the reply.
I, of course, had heard of it, but the it wasn't until earlier that day that I had finally visited the colossal monument, decades old but still a work in progress.
Crazy Horse doesn't attract the same attention as Mt. Rushmore National Memorial, just 17 miles away, but the two are inextricably linked.
Had it not been for Gutzon Borglum's enormous sculpture of four exalted white leaders, Crazy Horse never would have happened.
In 1939, determined to make a statement of their own, Lakota elders approached Polish American sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski with a request to carve a mountain for them.
"My fellow chiefs and I would like the white man to know the red man has great heroes too," Chief Henry Standing Bear wrote to Ziolkowski. The hero they chose was Crazy Horse, the Oglala Sioux leader who helped lead his people to victory over Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer's forces at Little Bighorn in 1876, only to be stabbed to death the next year by a guard after surrendering to the U.S. Army.
If and when it's completed, the memorial will lay claim to being the largest sculpture in the world: 641 feet wide and 563 feet high. (For context, all four heads at Mt. Rushmore would fit comfortably inside Crazy Horse's 87-foot-tall head.)
I pulled into a half-full parking lot on a weekday morning. Before heading out to get a better look at the sculpture, I wandered through the large museum at the visitors center, full of artifacts and Native American artwork, as well as Edward Curtis' haunting prints of Plains Indians and Ziolkowski's 1:34 plaster scale of the memorial, in front of expansive windows that look out onto the real thing for comparison.
Outside, I caught the shuttle that would take us to the foot of the mountain so we could hop off for a better view.
As I looked up, I was struck by the enormity of the sculpture, and even more so that after 68 years of blasting and carving, there was so much more left to finish.
Crazy Horse Memorial: It all began with a dream to rival Mt. Rushmore
When Lakota Sioux chief Henry Standing Bear began his campaign in 1931 for a monument to Crazy Horse that would rival the one being built at Mt. Rushmore, Korczak Ziolkowski wasn't his first choice. It was Gutzon Borglum, who was carving Mt. Rushmore.
Borglum never responded to the chief's entreaties, so eight years later, Standing Bear turned to Ziolkowski, who'd been hired by Borglum to help on Mt. Rushmore — then fired 19 days later after Ziolkowski got into a physical altercation with Borglum's son.
Ziolkowski returned to the Black Hills in 1947 to meet with Standing Bear and find a suitable place for the sculpture.
They settled on a mountain 17 miles from where the completed Mt. Rushmore now stood.
On June 3, 1948, as five survivors of the Battle of Little Bighorn looked on, Ziolkowski set the first dynamite charge, blasting 10 tons of rock off Thunder Mountain.
Within a year of coming West, his first wife divorced him; soon after, a former female pupil from back East turned up with friends to volunteer their help on the mountain. On Thanksgiving Day 1950, Ziolkowski, 42, and Ruth, 24, were married.
Korczak Ziolkowski refused to accept money from the federal government because he had seen what insufficient funding had done to Mt. Rushmore. (The presidents were to have been depicted from the waist up.)
He had to come up with his own funds, so he started a dairy operation and logged lumber on his land.
Ruth had her hands full. The couple's family eventually numbered 10 children, and she assumed responsibility for bookkeeping, visitor center management and procuring equipment and materials.
During the 34 years that Ziolkowski worked on the mountain, he focused on sculpting a horse's head; but after his death in 1982, Ruth decided finishing Crazy Horse's face would help draw more attention and money to the project.
The face finally had its big unveiling in 1998, 50 years to the day after the first blast on the mountain. Ruth died in 2014.
After nearly seven decades, only the warrior's face and the barest outline of his outstretched arm are finished.
Five of the couple's children and two grandchildren (along with two engineering companies) continue to work to realize the vision.
When, if ever, will the monument— taller than the Washington Monument, longer than two football fields — be completed?
"We've been asked that question for 68 years, and I still don't have an answer," said daughter Monique Zoilkowski, co-chief executive of the memorial.
If you go
THE BEST WAY TO RAPID CITY, S.D.