I bypassed the centre of town, drove past a small strip of eateries and car services, and came round the north side to where the entrance to a small park was marked by a modest paved road. Although this time I was in a national monument, the approach was manicured to the nth degree like in the State parks. I drove up to a generous sweep of car park (made no doubt to keep the RV drivers happy). I emerged from my car in the sunshine, then dived back in again to get my fleece. The wind was still a bitingly cold northerly. I’d noticed on my journey north from the Interstate some road side infrastructure. There were several huge red and white barriers next to the road which could be brought down when the snow got too deep to venture out. I’m used to closed roads to be part of the mountainous terrain of Europe; I am less used to seeing where transport routes on flat lands can become impassable.
I headed over to the modest visitor centre and spent a few minutes learning of the story of this location and its significance not just for the US today but for all native Americans. The location is one of only a handful where Indians would excavate a special form of dense but pliable stone that could be cut and carved into pipes, including the iconic peace pipes so beloved of Western films. The stone here is something called Catlinite and the only other place it is easily quarried is in Canada. Another form of pipestone can be found way west in Utah, but for the tribes of the plains, Pipestone was the only practical source of this valuable stone.
The importance of this site for such a culturally vital raw material meant that it had become neutral ground for some of the older tribes, including the Dakota and Lakota. The Sioux, maybe with a reputation for not being the most peaceful of Indians, had taken control of the site a few hundred years before white settlers reach the location. But it was still a sacred place, and was managed carefully by the native Americans and National parks board alike.
The little museum in the visitor centre was informative but a bit dusty, and what I wanted to do was look at the quarry itself, so I zipped up the fleece and put on the gloves and woolly hat and headed out into the sunlight.