June 4th, 2021. The Black Hills, South Dakota.
After an interesting, if somewhat disappointing, stop at Wall Drug, we’re headed to our cabin located somewhere between Hill City and Custer.
Our route has taken us through relatively large, Rapid City, slowing us down on a sweltering afternoon when all we want to do is get to our destination and relax.
From Rapid City to Hill City, it’s 27 long, very long, miles. At least it seems that way. Cora and I joke that South Dakota miles are longer than regular miles.
At the end of the 27 South Dakota miles we arrive in Hill City. Driving through town I’m looking for a grocery store because if we want to eat we’re going to need something to cook. This is our first VRBO stop of the trip. My plan is to drop Cora off and then go out foraging.
We take Highway 385 south out of Hill City and watch for the road listed in the VRBO directions. There it is. And it’s a dirt road. Ugh. I know what Cora’s thinking,
“This American has booked us into a faraway cabin in the woods that we have to get to by driving down a long dirt road.”
Cora is not a dirt road fan and has been known to take a dim view of faraway cabins in the woods. The one, years ago outside of Gardiner, Montana, had Wi-Fi that was so spotty she spent the first half hour walking around the cabin and the property, looking for reception on her phone. All to no avail. I’m expecting an ass chewing from the wife.
The cabin is about five miles down the dirt road and we’re tired, dog tired, so we’re measuring this initial trip through the dust, in South Dakota miles, because it seems so damned long. During subsequent trips down the dirt road when we aren’t so exhausted we’re comfortable enough to measure the distance in regular miles.
The cabin is small – very small. Tiny to some maybe, perfect for me. It has a nice porch with a couple of chairs. You walk immediately into a kitchen area with a counter for eating. There’s a seating area with a chair, a couch, a side table and a small TV, and in the far back (not too far, the place is small) is the bed. It’s one long, not too long, not too short, room. It’s perfectly fine. We’re not here to do gymnastics, we’re here to eat, sleep, relax and be cozy.
After getting Cora settled I go to town. Custer is closer than Hill City and it’s in Custer that I find a good sized supermarket, Lynn’s Dakotamart, that has everything we need including the grapefruit which Cora has asked for. At $2.49 each, Lynn should be offering a Black Hills Gold bracelet with the purchase of every grapefruit.
A drive through South Dakota’s Black Hills is a multi-faceted journey. It’s a tourist’s journey to be sure. It’s also a cultural journey, a historical journey and a journey through conflict.
Before the arrival of the white man, the Black Hills were sacred Native American land (in fact the Sioux still consider it to be their sacred land).
Native American author, Luther Standing Bear, wrote, “Of all our domain we loved, perhaps, the Black Hills the most. The Lakota had named these Hills He Sapa, or Black Hills, on account of their color. The slopes and peaks were so heavily wooded with dark pines that from a distance the mountains actually looked black…. It was a favorite winter haunt of the buffalo and the Lakota as well. According to a tribal legend
these hills were a reclining female figure from whose breasts flowed life-giving forces, and to them the Lakota went as a child to its mother’s arms.”
Before the white man came to the Black Hills this region was known as Paha Sapa – “The heart of everything that is.”
Following years of skirmishes and wars between Native American tribes and whites, Congress, in 1867, established an Indian Peace Commission that was tasked with putting an end to the wars.
In November, 1868, at Fort Laramie in present day Wyoming, a peace conference resulted in the Sioux Treaty of 1868, agreed to by Sioux Chief, Red Cloud. The treaty established what became known as the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, a tract that included the all important Paha Sapa.
Article two of the treaty stipulated that the land described in the treaty would be set aside for the “absolute and undisturbed use and occupation of the Indians”. It further stipulated that “ …no persons except those designated herein…shall be permitted to pass over, settle upon, or reside in the territory described in this article.”
What seemed like a great victory for Red Cloud would be short lived.
June 5th, 2021. The Black Hills, South Dakota.
It’s our first full day in the Black Hills area and before visiting the frontier, mining town of Deadwood, I’m starting out by cooking my first real breakfast of the trip, bacon and eggs and biscuits.
Throughout the trip, COVID has dictated motel policies and that includes breakfast, which has run the gamut.
When I checked into the La Quinta in Springdale, Arkansas, the desk clerk apologized, while letting me know that there would be no amenities, which meant no complimentary breakfast.
He added, “However I can offer you…”
A discount? I thought.
“…this,” as he placed a personal bottle of sanitizer on the counter.
Ah, something I could add to my collection of personal bottles of sanitizer and packets of alcohol swabs that we’ve accumulated since our first stop in Porterville, California.
The Best Western, in Amarillo, Texas, provided the full blown, self-serve, complimentary breakfast of cereals, yogurt, fruit, coffee, sausage and corporate scrambled eggs; you know, the eggs that look like they came from plastic chickens. The breakfast area was open to sans mask dining. No restrictions in Tedcruzland.
Most of the other places offered some middle ground version between the apology and personal sanitizer at Springdale and the, “COVID is a Chinese hoax” spread at Amarillo. It was usually some variation of a “grab and go” breakfast; a brown bag with a piece of fruit, a cello wrapped muffin, a cup of yogurt and, of course, a (one) alcohol swab.
Deadwood, South Dakota is a little over an hour’s drive from our cabin. Although I knew of Deadwood from reading about the history of the American West, most of our familiarity has come from the HBO series, appropriately titled, Deadwood. Because isn’t TV where you get your knowledge of history from?
The drive to Deadwood is a scenic one that winds through the Black Hills countryside. It seems longer than it should be…those South Dakota miles again.
The closer and closer we get to Deadwood the more we see billboards that pitch the town’s various attractions. Most of the signs advertise casinos and the bundles of money to be won.
The outskirts of town are quiet and there’s something of a small town feel, but that feel quickly disappears once we round a bend and enter the town itself. Deadwood, packed with tourists and complete with a traffic jam, is anything but dead.
The immediate goal is to find a parking place in the middle of downtown to avoid a lot of walking, because it’s broiling hot today. Unless you arrive early save yourself the trouble of trying to park in town. Just go straight to the parking lots.
Deadwood has cashed in; struck gold, at least three times over.
The town was established in 1876 after gold was discovered in the area. Deadwood followed the typical lifeline of frontier mining towns. The discovery of gold brought the initial rush of miners, followed by the settlers who set up businesses to service the miners. It was the shopkeepers who usually fared better financially than the miners.
As with most 19th century mining towns, the bulk of the population was male. Their practical needs leaned towards food, shelter and mining implements, while their wants were served by the town’s many saloons, gambling dens and brothels.
The saloons and gaming halls went through ups and downs due to prohibition and anti-gambling ordinances, while the brothels remained in business until 1980, when four holdouts were shut down.
In 1989, Deadwood once again struck gold, in a manner of speaking, with the legalization of gambling. If the town was on the verge of sinking, the establishment of legal casinos was just the lifeline it needed.
The third gold strike came in 2004 with the airing of the HBO series. The series featured some of Deadwood’s real life denizens including, brothel owner Al Swearengen, Sheriff Seth Bullock, trapper/prospector Charlie Utter, Calamity Jane, and Wild Bill Hickock who was famously murdered in Deadwood, shot in the back of the head, while playing cards in the #10 saloon. Legend has it that Wild Bill was holding a pair of eights, a pair of aces (all clubs and spades), and the jack of diamonds, a hand that became known as “the dead man’s hand.”
How much has the town cashed in on the TV series?
As we walk towards town from the parking lot the first business we see is Mr. Wu’s, a restaurant/casino on Main Street. Mr. Wu is a fictional character from the TV series, a sometimes rival, sometimes ally of the real life, Al Swerengen. Parked next to the casino is Mr. Wu’s Food Truck, an appliance that I’m confident wasn’t around in 1876. All about town we see posters, pictures and advertisements that feature actor Ian McShane who portrayed the foul mouthed Swearengen.
While at the visitor’s center I pick up a brochure that advertises bordello tours and show it to Cora.
“Fine,” she says. “Lexi and I will wait for you.”
I don’t imagine that free samples are offered on the tour, so I pass. In truth I’d pass even if samples were offered. There’s still a long way to go in our trip and I’d prefer not to pass the rest of it enduring the silent treatment.
We walk up one side of the street and down the other, occasionally taking turns going into shops to browse while the other sits outside with Lexi. I can’t resist going into a casino to try my luck at the slot machines. Twenty dollars lasts less than five minutes.
Deadwood is like many of the other frontier towns that have turned into tourist attractions. It has all of the shops and store fronts that have become de rigueur in touristy frontier towns; souvenir shops, ice cream parlors, candy stores with barrels of bulk candy, glass jars filled with candy sticks, and packs of old timey hard candy in flavors that nobody born after 1955 would recognize; flavors like horehound and sassafras.
There’s a photo shop where you can get a monochrome photo of yourself wearing period garb. There are saloons; the real, which exclude minors and the faux which are family friendly.
Restaurants like The Gem offer, in Disneylandesque fashion, entrees named after the town characters; offerings such as Calamity Jane’s Half Chicken or Wild Bill’s Walleye.
All over town you find nods to real history as well as unadulterated bullshit.
Of course there are staged gunfights.
Lexi and I are sitting on a bench waiting for Cora to get some ice cream. Across the street, a barker stands in front of the #10 Saloon inviting adults and children of all ages to come in and see a reenactment of the shooting of Wild Bill.
A number of shops advertise “the lowest price on Black Hills Gold,” which is the same offer we saw at Wall Drug just the day before.
Deadwood the town is much like Deadwood the TV series in that you find yourself weeding fiction from fact. Or maybe you just don’t care. It’s your choice; be persnickety over facts or just lose yourself in the atmosphere.
Before we leave Deadwood, we drive up to the cemetery where I hope to take some monochrome images. That plan is dashed when I find that you have to pay admission to get into the cemetery.
I’ve seen historic cemeteries from Gettysburg to Old Boston to Quebec City, all of them with more historical significance than Deadwood’s and this is the first time that I’ve run into an entrance fee. I pass on it and we drive back towards our cabin.
Would I return to Deadwood? Probably not unless I suddenly feel the urge to lose a hundred dollars at the gaming tables in an out of the ordinary town. I used to love these places, particularly the ones that go all out, requiring workers, shopkeepers and even residents to dress in period garb. I see the attraction of it all, but by now I’ve more or less had my fill. Maybe I’ve just become an old “get off my lawn,” curmudgeon.
Our drive back to the cabin takes us through Hill City and we stop for an early dinner. In Hill City a shop named Gold Diggers offers the best prices on Black Hills Gold. Somewhere in South Dakota you can find the best price for Black Hills Gold. Just not sure where.
One man who paid a dear price over Black Hills Gold was Lakota Chief Red Cloud. If he had any confidence that the 1868 Laramie Treaty would be honored by the U.S Government, that confidence was broken six years later, along with the treaty, when Colonel George Armstrong Custer led an expedition of over 1000 men of the Seventh Cavalry into the Black Hills. His primary mission was to find a suitable site for a fort. A secondary mission, maybe official or maybe not, was to explore for gold. Custer’s company included a band, two miners, two newspapermen and the infamous Calamity Jane who was described as being smelly, covered with lice and constantly asking for liquor.
The very expedition itself was a violation of the treaty, an agreement which the press denounced as “an abominable compact.” The Yankton Press and Dakotaian termed the treaty a “barrier to the improvement and development of one of the richest and most fertile sections of America,” while calling the Sioux the “Indian dogs in our manger.”
Eventually gold was discovered in the Black Hills, an event which essentially tore up the Sioux Treaty. Gold only hastened the inevitable as it would only have been a matter of time before Manifest Destiny would render the treaty as so much trash.
It’s this historical background that leaves me with mixed feelings over a visit to Mount Rushmore.
It’s a short drive from our cabin to Mount Rushmore. As it turns out we’re visiting at probably the worst time of the day, early evening, when the sun is starting to set behind the mountain, making photography something of a challenge.
The cost to get into the monument is a ten dollar parking fee. Our visit is by necessity a short one. Dogs are not allowed at the overlook and so we decide to leave Lexi in the van. It’s a cool evening and parking is in a covered structure. It’s the only time during the trip that we leave her and, while she’ll be fine in the van, we don’t feel at all good about it.
It’s a short and anticipatory walk to what’s called the Grand View Terrace. We pass under a stone arch and immediately catch a view of the gigantic sculpture.
Regardless of how you feel about Mount Rushmore, the first impression is one of amazement. It is truly a magnificent, if questionable and controversial, feat. George Washington’s head is sixty feet tall and his eyes eleven feet wide. The likenesses of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt are amazingly true to the images we’ve become accustomed to seeing in paintings.
And yet, regardless of the magnitude of the work of sculptor Gutzon Borglum, the monument has been a subject of controversy since before the first chip of stone fell to the valley floor below.
Before Borglum, and long before it was known as Rushmore, the Lakota Sioux called the mountain Tunkasila Sakpe Paha (Six Grandfathers Mountain).
Maybe the most controversial of the figures on Mount Rushmore is Thomas Jefferson, who Borglum chose because the third President represented the growth of America. The growth of America. Isn’t that the crux of the controversy? That celebrated growth was largely achieved through the taking of Native land – including that very mountain and the land surrounding it. It was Jefferson who was a primary architect of Native relocation and it was Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase that opened up the west to expansion.
I try to think of a personal comparison to the insult of Mount Rushmore but I come up empty.
Setting aside all of the controversy of Mount Rushmore I still ask, why? Whether it’s four presidents, the twelve apostles or John, Paul, George and Ringo, why deface nature’s own artwork by carving heads into a mountain?
A journey through the Black Hills region of South Dakota is a journey through conflict and irony. It’s a journey through a sacred land, a promised and subsequently stolen land, a land that in a twist of cruel irony, is pocked with places named after the transgressors, the officers who were the instruments of the theft; Sturgis, Crook, Harney, Sheridan and the most famous, Custer. Custer’s name is omnipresent; a county, a city, a state park, a national forest, streets and a high school all bear the name of the self absorbed commander who once led an attack on a Cheyenne village, that killed several women and children, before he blundered into the trap that cost him his life and those of 267 cavalrymen.
And so, at the end of it all, the fair question is, was our stay in South Dakota a bust?
Certainly not. While Deadwood wasn’t necessarily my cup of tea, it was an interesting visit and Cora particularly enjoyed it.
And our visit to Mount Rushmore? I saw Mount Rushmore over forty years ago when I took a trip with my aunt and uncle, so I didn’t need to see it again. But much of what I had in mind for this road trip, much of my planning, revolved around taking my wife to see her adopted country, America.
Whether you see Mount Rushmore as a work of art or as a slap in the face of the Lakota it is a quintessentially American thing, maybe made more quintessential because of the controversy. My goal was to show my wife America as it is, and not a censored version. From the time of our visit we’ve been discussing the controversy surrounding Mount Rushmore.
We travel to relax. We travel to experience new things, interesting sights and to sample the cultures and foods that our wide world offers.
We, many of us anyway, also travel to learn, to be open to having our beliefs and what we’ve been taught and we’ve accepted as truth, challenged. This is, or can be, the essence of a journey through the controversy and the history of conflict in the Black Hills of South Dakota.
In 1980, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the United States Government illegally appropriated the Black Hills land from the Sioux. The Court concluded that “A more ripe and rank case of dishonorable dealings will never, in all probability, be found in our history.”
The Court ruled that the Sioux Nation was owed compensation in the amount of $105 million dollars. For its part, the Sioux Nation has made it clear that it does not want compensation, it wants the land returned. The claim is now valued at over a billion dollars, money that the Sioux Nation has consistently refused, stating that the land was never for sale.
Banner photo taken on the Needles Highway in the Black Hills.