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24 August 2002 @ 06:30 pm
The Biker Babes’ South Dakota G’Journey, Part Two  
 The Biker Babes’ South Dakota G’Journey, Part Two

Wednesday, 21 August 2002: Deadwood

When we arrived in Rapid, the news was full of the Battle Creek wildfire between Keystone – where Mount Rushmore is – and Rockerville. We could see the smoke on the horizon, and could never be sure how much of the morning fog was moisture and how much was smoke. With the wildfire closing highways south, we decided to head west and north instead for a while to give time for the fire to be brought under control. The fire actually jumped across Highway 16.

We spent the day in Deadwood, a part of the wild, wild West. This was the home of Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok, a mining town turned tourist site. The entire town is designated as a national historic landmark. There are only a couple of streets that fit on the level ground of the gulch; the rest of the town is built hanging on the sides of the hills. We saw the evidence of a major wildfire – the Grizzly Gulch fire – that had menaced Deadwood at the end of June: from the upper town, you could see the burned hillsides covered in tall, naked black trunks. The Deadwood campground is just at the very edge of the burn line. And the fires were followed by flood, since rain down the burned slopes sent a flash flood through the town, miring everything in mud. The flood damage was all gone, but the skeletons of the trees remained on the hills.

We rode the trolley all around town to get our bearings. It costs only fifty cents, and while the driver doesn’t narrate the way the tour bus guides do, and it doesn’t go up to Mount Moriah, the cemetery also known as Boot Hill, the ride is definitely worth the price.

We lunched at the Franklin Hotel, whose dining room – 1903’s Dining – is the oldest eating establishment in South Dakota. Their shepherd’s pie was yummy. After lunch, we walked uphill to the Adams House and then back down to the Adams Museum. The house is a magnificent Victorian, brilliantly restored. The Museum covers not only the history of the town, which is definitely colorful enough for anyone, but reaches out to the surrounding area, including a section on the Lakota Sioux.

 

Everywhere you look in Deadwood is gambling: there are 80 gambling halls in this tiny town, and the tourists definitely outnumber the residents. You should understand that there are “casinos” – by which they mostly mean places with slot machines and video poker – everywhere in the state, even in some of the gas stations. With the exception of the tribal casinos, gambling joints are small, because state law limits each license to something like 15 machines and limits each building to holding two licenses. So, gambling joints are everywhere, but they are by and large dinky, smoky places with a handful of machines and a coin vendor. Even so, Deadwood felt like a tiny version of Las Vegas, because to get anywhere inside a building – say, from a lobby to a restaurant – you had to walk through the gaming floor. Still, I did better in Deadwood than in Vegas: I made all of $2.75 on a slot machine, and that was my gambling for the trip.

 

It started to rain around 15:00, when we were getting ready to leave, so we changed into our rain gear and drove through the drizzle. But our timing was good once again; the deluge didn’t hit until after we were back home in our motel room!

 

Thursday, 22 August 2002: Sturgis and Spearfish

We headed off this morning for the Fort Meade Cavalry Museum in Sturgis. Another good little museum! Custer had noted that the grasslands near Bear Butte would provide a good base for a cavalry troop, but the discovery of gold by his expedition – which one strongly suspects was really looking mostly for that in the first place – officially changed the priorities of his scouting mission. No fort was sited or built until after Custer’s defeat at the Little Big Horn. Fort Meade was built by the survivors of Custer’s command on the site of a temporary camp named for one of Custer’s officers, a Lieutenant Sturgis. A “scooptown” – so named because the purveyors of goods and oftentimes dubious services to the soldiers were so good at scooping away the troopers’ cash – grew up on the outskirts of the fort, and was later replaced by a town called Sturgis.

 

The fort is no longer a military installation, but it does house the VA hospital and provides some services to the SD National Guard. Some of the original buildings still remain and are actively used, although not for their original purposes. Three of the nine stables still stand, and they are massive: each barn – built of stone with a second story! – could stable 86 horses. They’ve been converted from stables, of course, but they still stand.

 

The museum is very nice, and covers the complete history of the fort. A curious footnote is that this Fort Meade was the first Army post to adopt the “Star Spangled Banner” as the de facto anthem for the United States, and to use it as the closing music for every ceremony and as the theme of retreat, played at day’s end. The commander adopted the music at the suggestion of his wife, and took up her cause of spreading the idea that the country needed a “national air.” When other dignitaries visited the base, the custom of using the music was explained to them, and it spread across Army posts everywhere. Finally, in 1931, Congress adopted it as the national anthem. See what you can learn on vacation?

 

We stopped at the Sturgis Harley dealership, but picked up no souvenirs; Terry just wanted to check the feasibility of the northern route she had planned to follow on our way home. We’d run into a lot of places where the highest octane available was only 91, or even 89 – and it takes 92 at least to make Baby really happy. The lady at Sturgis warned Terry that she likely wouldn’t find high octane on 212, a rural highway, so she started refiguring our course back east to still hit the places we wanted to see but to maximize the octane at the same time.

 

From Sturgis, we rode further west to Spearfish and our second wonderful museum of the day: the High Plains Heritage Museum. The museum is a striking building on a hill with a spectacular view. Gazing out from the front of the museum, you can see Lookout Mountain in South Dakota. If you look to the left of the mountain, you can see on the horizon a distant mountain range in Wyoming, and if you look to the right, you can see a line of mountains in Montana.

 

The High Plains Heritage Museum has a lot of gorgeous western artifacts, including paintings by Charles Russell (I loved the funny and magnificently alive In Without Knocking, depicting overeager cowpokes storming into a saloon without bothering to dismount from their horses!), saddles from everywhen, wagons and stages and even a sleigh, a monster collection of barbed wire, and tributes to cattle ranching, sheep farming, logging, mining, and the Indian nations. It is beautifully done and well worth a visit for both the history and the art. Some of the saddles qualify as works of art, including one made for a Tom Selleck movie, which was magnificent. The museum grounds harbored live animals, among them several sheep and ducks, a couple of goats, and two longhorn cattle and two bison. Those bison are huge!

 

We closed off the day with a scenic drive through Spearfish Canyon, carved ages ago by Spearfish Creek. The scenery was breathtaking, similar to the Wisconsin Dells – limestone cliffs rising from sheer slopes dressed in pine trees – but bigger. Bridal Veil Falls was barely more than a trickle, however, stripped of its postcard beauty by the long drought. The drive was still gorgeous. We came down through Lead (pronounced “leed,” a mining town named for the discovery of ores that indicated that gold was present – a “lead” to the gold) and Deadwood to home.

 

Friday, 23 August 2002: Hot Springs, Wind Cave National Park, Custer State Park

 

Another tremendously scenic day in South Dakota! We chose to forego our morning swim in order to get an early start on the drive down to Hot Springs to take the 10:00 tour at the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary. The drive down showed off the rolling high plains grassland. We never actually got close to the Battle Creek fire, but even miles away, we could smell it.

 

We reached the sanctuary a bit over an hour early, but we were glad of it: it was breakfast time for the horses that stay close to the administration buildings, mostly registered paint horses but also some mustangs. Since they were all occupied with lipping up their oats, we were able to get very close to say hello.

 

The tour was great. It was a two hour ride in an ancient school bus over very bumpy dirt trails through the sanctuary, with stops for picture-taking and history. Back in 1995, for example, a TBS film crew making Crazy Horse used areas in the sanctuary for filming, and the few buildings they threw up to stand in for the fort where Crazy Horse was killed are still standing, down in a valley. The old man who owns and runs the place even wound up with a short role in the film: he hitched his team to the film’s covered wagon and was filmed driving out of Hell’s Canyon near the close of the movie.

 

The sanctuary has about 300 head of horses on 11,000 acres of land. Most are mares that were acquired from BLM as “unadoptable” mustangs – they were caught as older animals, not the younger ones folks like to adopt, and many of them had flaws or scars. Now they run free, with one stallion to service them, and many drop foals every year. Most years, the colts are sold while the fillies are turned back out to continue the herd, but because the area has been in drought for over four years now and hay is ruinously expensive, they are selling all the foals in order to keep the numbers on the range manageable. They figure it takes 50 acres to graze each horse.

 

Anyway, the bus stopped by one group of horses, and we were all allowed off to take pictures, with the caution not to get between a mare and foal or to get behind a horse. The horses watched us, particularly wary of the dog in our group (a well-behaved Husky named Bojo, who arrived riding behind his master on the man’s Honda Gold Wing motorcycle!), but they weren’t afraid of us. Some of the more curious came very close to the people and the bus, although most kept their distance. A few of the most aggressive mares came close with the evident intent of taking on the dog and serving him the way they do coyotes, so Bojo got sent back into the bus. A lot of the mares had foals at side, and a lot of the foals showed the mark of their sire: glass-blue eyes. The stallion was a small off-white speckled with molasses-colored flecks, who looked as if his face had been dipped in blackstrap – which would have been appropriate, since the way that the staff keep herds in tour-bus-accessible areas is to leave tubs with molasses in them out in the grasslands along the bus trail! One mouse-gray grulla mare stayed stubbornly by her sweet spot the whole time we were there, ready to defend her place at the tub against all comers.

 

These horses were demonstrably wild, and being that close to them was exhilarating!

 

The tour continued to caves with petroglyphs from 10,000 years ago, in cliffs lined with cliff-swallow nests made of mud. In that same cliffside was the cave where the man who originally homesteaded this land in the 1880’s spent his first winter – a narrow run about 25 feet straight back into the rock.

 

Our guide pointed out flora – including sage, juniper, cactus poppy, and stinkweed – and fauna, including prairie dogs and wild turkeys. It was a harsh but beautiful land, and the horses were glorious. We saw a mare and foal off on their own down by the caves, who were heading back up toward the main herd we’d seen.

 

The tour also stopped at a sacred circle built by the local Sioux on sanctuary land for their sun dance ceremony in June, at the solstice. The ring was deserted now, but our guide explained that each year, tribes gather here for young men and a few young women to endure piercings and dance around the split-fork tree planted in the center, which was adorned with beads and flags representing prayers. Each year, a new center tree pole is selected, and the old one is burned to fuel the sacred fire. It was a fascinating and unexpected add-on to the horse part of the tour.

 

We stopped for lunch just inside Hot Springs, at the Elk Horn Café. The food was good (beef liver and onions, yum!), and the decor was eclecticly amusing, a mix of taxidermy and quaint signs. Fun!

 

We went on from there to the Mammoth Site. Talk about a neat museum! The building encloses the entire top of a hill, which built itself up from a sinkhole that over time trapped at least 52 mammoths some 26,000 years ago. Inside, there’s a huge open room with a walkway all around it that lets you look down into the excavated pit, and beyond that room is a whole area of museum exhibits relating to what’s been found. Each July, archaeologists and volunteer assistants excavate a bit more of the site, leaving most of the bones in situ to be observed as history left them. Amazing! Only two of the skeletons uncovered so far are wooly mammoths; all of the others are the bigger (much bigger!!) and not hairy Columbian mammoths native to the Americas. Other creatures were trapped in the sinkhole too, including a short-faced bear (bigger than a polar bear!), a wolf, a coyote, a variant of a camel and another of a llama, and lots of smaller critters, like rabbits and early prairie dogs. What a fantastic place! If Ruth and Mike haven’t been here yet, they must come to see this! One chuckle was that the mammoth skeletons found at the site were almost all of young male mammoths – we all laughed that the females were too smart to go swimming in a ditch they couldn’t get out of!

 

In the grand Harley tradition, we took the long way home, driving the scenic highways through Wind Cave National Park and Custer State Park. In addition to providing dramatic mountainous scenery, these were great places for checking off your mandatory Western wildlife sightings. Right beside the road, we saw three bison – two on a lower plain on one side of the road, the other placidly chewing his cud just off the shoulder on the other side a ways on – a group of four or five bighorn sheep, two groups of pronghorn antelope to either side of the road, and prairie dogs by the hundreds. A pair of mule deer – a doe with a fawn young enough to still have spots! – flitted across the road just ahead of the bike. It really is too bad that I can’t ride with a camera ready to hand ...

 

Oh, and we saw another wild turkey, also bolting across the road, but that was after we’d left the parklands behind! Seems they don’t pay much attention to boundaries!

 

Saturday, 24 August 2002: Rapid City

 

After the picturesque and scenic drive yesterday (translation: lots of twisty up and down to really tire Terry out!), we stayed close to home today for two museums, the Journey Museum and the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology Geology Museum. We rounded things off by visiting the Berlin Wall display and the rose garden in Memorial Park in the Civic Center, and by going to church at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Perpetual Help.

 

The Journey Museum was beautiful, and splendidly done. The gardens around the museum serve many functions: one is an Indian medicine garden, while others speak in native flowers and plants that take you all around the state.

 

Inside, the museum starts with the Big Bang and the Lakota creation myth to walk you through the journey of life, seen as the song of the universe to which we all add our individual notes. Through most of the museum, the artifacts and written displays are augmented by audio recordings broadcast to soundsticks that you carry and hold to your ear when the white lines on the floor tell you that you’re within a transmission range. There are touch screens you can play with, artifacts you are invited to touch (the displays don’t even light up unless you stick your hand inside the case), a holographic Indian storyteller, drawers you pull out to see more exhibits, and even a place on the floor that triggers the shot that killed Wild Bill Hickok if you step on it. (Did you know that aces and eights are called the “dead man’s hand” because that’s what Hickok was holding when he was shot?) The different approaches to life that marked the whites and the Indians and contributed to the American shame are detailed and explored through both white and Lakota voices – and you can hear everything in the museum spoken in both English and Lakota, if you choose. Sometimes, I read the English while listening in Lakota.

 

The museum provided an incredible experience to carry away. You know, for all occasions, the Aussies say “g’day” – after visiting this place, I’m tempted to replace that salutation with “g’journey.”  After all – it’s the journey that matters, not the destination.

 

The geology museum included some great fossils, including a long-necked plesiosaur, a T-rex, and a mausosaur. The gem collection was pretty cool, too, especially the local samples from mines like Homestake and Holy Terror.

 

The Civic Center includes a lovely park with rose gardens and a couple of sections of the Berlin Wall. It was a good place to relax after our adventures and to wait until time for Mass.


Read Part Three