Black Hills Expedition

I was off work last week, so of course my thoughts turned to a road trip. Especially since my wife was able to arrange her work affairs in order to join me, we were a “go”. But where to?

Since Dana joined me in Colorado last summer, after our nest became empty, we decided to take regular advantage of the attractions offered by the American West and Southwest. We skied last winter at several nearby resorts; we went together to Santa Fe for a long weekend in the spring; and I did a solo jaunt near the Four Corners of Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico in late June. Yellowstone National Park is on our list, as is Glacier National Park. Both, however, are a bit too far away for a 3- or 4-day trip, which is all we could spare this time. As well, accomodation convenient to either of those was not available this week, at the tail end of the tourist season. Yellowstone, it seems, books up many months in advance.

We have also had the Badlands/Black Hills of South Dakota on our Western Bucket List. A quick online check showed available hotel rooms in Rapid City, South Dakota, the “Gateway” to the Black Hills. A few clicks, and off we went, trusting the rest to serendipity. We were not disappointed.

I confess to having known next to nothing about South Dakota before this trip. In my mind, South Dakota was a slightly-warmer North Dakota, a land of flat, featureless terrain farmed by people speaking in jarring “Fargo” accents. I was soon disabused of my ignorance – accents notwithstanding – by our trip through some of the loveliest terrain I’ve seen in the United States.

To get to South Dakota from Denver, one travels north through through Wyoming, via Cheyenne, then east to South Dakota. Six hours and you’re there. Wyoming itself is gorgeous; it’s the least-densely-populated US state, and we loved its stately solitude. We drove through farming and ranching country, and at times had no one else in view on the highway. The land is a gently-rolling grassland, the western end of the prairie that comprises the Great Plains, as it segues into the Rocky Mountains.

Traveler tip: we stopped in Lusk, Wyoming, county seat for 2,500 souls, at one person per square mile, who are likely well-outnumbered by coyotes. If you find yourself nearby, be sure to stop for lunch at Rough ‘N Refined. Order any sandwich on their sprouted-wheat bread, and you won’t be sorry. We stopped on both our outbound and our homebound drives!

Wanting to see as much as we could during our short trip, we had managed an uncharacteristically-early start out of Denver. We chose our route to take us through Custer State Park near Custer, SD, en route to our hotel in Rapid City. By this time we’d turned eastward out of Wyoming, and the terrain began to show some uplift, leading into the Black Hills of South Dakota. They are so named because, at a distance, their extensive tree cover made them look black to the Native Americans and French trappers who named them, each in their own language. The Black Hills contain the highest peak east of the Rockies, so they are true mountains. They looked to me like a cross between Rockies and Alleghenies – the extensive vegetation and overall rounded lushness of the latter, but the cragginess and exposed rock of the former.

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Custer State Park has the largest bison herd in North America, enough that an annual cull is required to balance herd numbers and grazing resources. Signs dotted the roadway warning that Bison Are Dangerous. If you’ve seen one up close, the warnings are superfluous. Mature bulls can weigh a ton and a half, cows considerably less. I’d think a lashing hoof could easily cave in a skull; a toss of the head, disembowel an antagonist with a curved horn. We gave them their space, and admired them from a respectful distance. Antelope and mostly-tamed burros rounded out the wildlife contingent. The burros are the descendants of animals that were used to convey tourists into the park’s mountains; they were released into the park when the internal combustion engine supplanted them. Tourists stopped to feed them carrots, and they showed no fear of people.

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Further along our route toward Rapid City was Mount Rushmore National Monument. By this point the terrain was quite mountainous, of course. The crowds were moderate and the weather continued to cooperate; we arrived in late day when the light was in a pretty decent position for picture-taking. The park is clean and well-maintained, and is quieter and more understated than some others I’ve visited. I wonder how many visitors it receives annually? I suspect that it is not top-of-mind for tourists as a sole destination, the way Yellowstone or Glacier is; but for anyone visiting this part of the country, it’s an easy stop. An hour proved plenty of time; onward to Rapid City.

We stayed at the Alex Johnson Hotel, a renovated historical inn in this charming town of 75,000 in southwest South Dakota. It’s named for Rapid Creek, which bisects the city. The weather was spectacular, with warm days and cool nights, and the people were as hospitable as one expects from Midwesterners. We managed to find several nice places to eat, among them Boticelli’s, the Vertex (atop the hotel), and Delmonica’s – all within a block of the hotel. Tally’s Silver Spoon, directly across the street, became our breakfast spot of choice. Rapid City is the Gateway to the Black Hills, perfect for staging day trips to nearby attractions, none of which was more than an hour and a half’s drive away.

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Next day we visited nearby Deadwood, South Dakota. This was a lot of fun for us, because we are both fans of the eponymous HBO TV series that aired in the early aughts. Deadwood nowadays is dedicated to tourist-cash extraction, via music venues, casinos, and bars. The town was downshifting from the previous couple of weeks’ madness around the Sturgis motorcycle rally – Sturgis is maybe ten miles away, and the entire state feels the $800 million impact of a million bikers descending upon it. This weekend there was a classic-car rally and an oldies-music tour getting underway. We had a quick lunch and checked out both bars that claimed to be the site of Wild Bill Hickock’s murder at the hands of “the coward, Jack McCall”.

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Feeling oppressed by the Vegas-hangover gestalt of the place, we headed up into the overlooking hills to visit Mt. Moriah cemetery, where townsfolk both prominent and obscure have found their final rest since Deadwood’s incorporation in the 1870’s. Wild Bill Hickock and Martha “Calamity Jane” Canary are buried there, side-by-side. Seth Bullock and his wife are interred a few hundred yards farther uphill, away from the main cemetery. Bullock was the town’s first marshall, a businessman, investor, and hotelier, and one of its leading citizens and greatest booster throughout his life. He was a lifelong friend of Teddy Roosevelt after meeting him in the 1880’s, and he wanted his gravesite to have a sight-line to the TR Memorial on a nearby peak.

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Our next day was dedicated to Badlands National Park. Again an hour’s drive from Rapid City, the Badlands is the largest “mixed-grass prairie” in North America. Again, both Native Americans and French trappers thus named it in their own languages, the French because it was considered “bad land” to travel through. The terrain seemed to me, as did the Black Hills, an amalgamation of other places I’ve visited – possibly Bryce Canyon, Utah, with its erosion-formed rocky hoodoos, crossed with the rolling grasslands of Wyoming and South Dakota. It was odd to see the lush and the barren so closely interposed with each other. We did a five-mile hike, and headed into nearby Wall, SD for lunch.

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American readers are likely aware that the Great Plains was, quite literally, ground zero during the Cold War from the 1950’s through the 1990’s. The better to lay waste to the Soviet Union by launching missiles over the North Pole, the upper Midwest housed the land-based component of the nuclear-deterrence “triad”, comprising also submarine-launched and bomber-delivered nukes. Spread across Montana, the Dakotas, Missouri, and Nebraska were some 1,000 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM’s) grouped in clusters of perhaps ten underground silos spaced a few miles apart. Each silo was connected, like spokes around a hub, to a control center from which the launch command would come. All but around a hundred missiles have been decommissioned, as we and the Soviets reduced our strategic arsenals starting in the 1970’s.

Control Center Delta-1, and Silo Delta-9, 11 miles apart near Wall, SD, have been converted to displays. We arrived too late in the day to clamber around inside them. It was eerie nonetheless to drive up to a nondescript, fenced rectangle of concrete in a pasture – a proximity which would have gotten us shot during the Cold War – to look upon the instrument of Armageddon for Vladivostok, Moscow, or perhaps St Petersburg.

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By this time we were thoroughly spent, so it was back to Rapid City for another nice dinner, and drinks for me on the rooftop bar while my wife did some work in the room.

Saturday we drove home, via the spectacular Needles Highway through Custer State Park. We stopped at the Crazy Horse Memorial near Custer, which has been in progress for sixty years, in fits and starts as politics and finances have allowed. The massive mountain sculpture, similar in concept to Mt Rushmore, is being hewn from granite on a thousand acres of private land, relying on donations to foot the cost. We stopped for a gander and bought a few raffle tickets – the prize being, fittingly, a brand-new Indian motorcycle – before hitting the road for home, back the way we came, through eastern Wyoming.

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The American West continues to fascinate and amaze us. We can’t wait for our next journey somewhere out here. Montana, perhaps? Western Wyoming, in the mountains? We shall see.

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Michael Sebastian @mikeseb