THE odds of securing a holiday of a lifetime are stacked in your favour when you go for the beautiful Black Hills of South Dakota.
It’s heads you win, tails you win.
And there is no better place to get a head start than the astonishing Mount Rushmore National Memorial.
Here the 60ft high heads and faces of four US presidents, Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson, and Roosevelt, have stared out of a granite mountainside for 70 years.
Movie buffs will remember it from Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller, North by Northwest, as Cary Grant and co-star Eva Marie Saint were chased across the presidents’ heads by bad guys.
It was pure Hollywood hokum. But there’s nothing phoney about the sculpture. I was awestruck as I stood in its huge shadow. I’ve never heard a crowd fall silent so quickly.
The carving is the USA’s equivalent of the Taj Mahal or the Great Wall of China.
Rushmore isn’t the only sky-high wonder. Work on a similar tribute, to Lakota Sioux chief Crazy Horse, is slowly taking shape 17 miles away.
Sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski launched the project in 1948 at the request of native Americans and he hardly stopped work until his death at 82.
The warrior’s 87ft high head is finished and it’s an impressive sight, yet the job is nowhere near completion.
Ziolkowski’s indomitable widow Ruth, helped by most of the couple’s ten children, vowed to finish it. “The dream will come true,” she told me.
Crazy Horse will be seen in all his glory, astride his horse, pointing one arm into the distance.
The sculpture will be enormous – longer than a cruise ship and taller than a 60-storey skyscraper. It will dwarf the Mount Rushmore heads.
And from heads to South Dakota’s most famous tails, 1,500 of them, give or take a few. They belong to a magnificent herd of bison that share top billing with cowboys and cowgirls at the annual buffalo round-up in Custer State Park.
It’s a noisy, colourful, pulse-racing spectacular, as much a tribute to riding skills as it is to preserving the buffalo. I didn’t want it to end.
Although the Black Hills cover a massive area, they generate a feeling of being snug and compact.
Places you really want to see are not too much hassle to reach. It’s a huge ‘goody bag’, from craggy peaks and prairies, to ponderosa pine forests and shimmering lakes. All crammed with wildlife.
In nine days, I rode an old Wild West steam train, walked 300 steps down into Wind Cave, toured the fabulous Black Hills wild horse sanctuary and enjoyed every mile of the Needles Highway.
I saw cute little towns such as Hot Springs and Hill City, and relished the best steak I’ve ever tasted at the State Game Lodge in Custer State Park. You’ll never taste better pizzas than those at Linz Bros restaurant in Hermosa.
Two places of outstanding natural beauty remain in my memory. Spearfish Canyon, an inspired choice for the final scenes of Kevin Costner’s Oscar-winning Dances with Wolves, was breathtaking, as was the spookily eerie, Mars-like terrain of Badlands National Park. At dawn, the jagged peaks, buttes and rock spires glimmered.
Native Americans have long regarded the Black Hills as sacred land, but that counted for nothing after gold was found in the 1870s.
Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane were among thousands who trampled across the prairies, most making tracks for Deadwood, centre of the big strike.
It was a frenetic era that changed lives and history and, ultimately, led to tragedy at Wounded Knee where the US Cavalry massacred almost 300 Indian men, women and children.
From being a boom town, Deadwood fell upon bad times. Its future was secured in 1989 when it won the right to operate legalised gambling.
Tourists pour in to enjoy the scenery and try to hit the jackpot. Win or lose on the tables or machines, few people leave the Black Hills without feeling that their lives have been enriched in many ways.