Sunday, October 12, 2008

Bright Days in the Black Hills

After jumping off the Oregon Trail, Diane and I moseyed south-bound to Colorado for a stop at my mother's home. This was our second visit to Mom & Linda's place on this trip, and our stay was just as wonderful this time as it was the last. But before the week was out, we were again on the road, racing northward to the Black Hills of South Dakota. Thanks, Linda! Thanks, Mom!

The term "Black Hills" is a translation from the Lakota. The term refers to the appearance of these tree-covered hills from a distance. But looks from a distance are deceiving. The Black Hills have a long and storied history. It is a story of long-evaporated seas, long-receded glaciers, long-extinct beasts, long-exhaused gold veins, and long-retired weapons of war.

For where else but here can you visit a small town's municipal park, play some volleyball, take a dip in the city pool, and throw down a picnic blanket under the shadow of a mothballed ICBM?

But the Black Hills is more than a museum. It is also a place of monuments to a not-so distant past. Take the monument to Crazy Horse, a work-in-progress where visitors are emplored to, "Never Forget Your Dreams."

And there are seemingly-completed Memorials where it is possible to meet some of the greatest leaders of generations' past, both close-up...

... and personal.

Diane thinks I have a certain sort of, how shall I say this?... Presidential demeanor. Not to look up at Jefferon's nose, but I can't say that I disagree. Diane says, however, that I need a mustache, pince-nez, and a few rough rides to seal the deal. It's her kind way of saying that I have a lot of work to do before making a run in '12.

Political aspirations aside, the Black Hills are home to monuments where Man's Hand is nowhere in evidence, other than that of Protector and Ticket-Taker. I speak, of course, about Devil's Tower.

Unlike the monuments of Crazy Horse and Mt. Rushmore, the creation of Devil's Tower is a debatable subject.

Geologists say that about 50 million years ago, molten magma was forced into sedimentary rocks above it and as it cooled underground it contracted and fractured into columns. Then, over millions of years, erosion of the sedimentary rock exposed Devil's Tower.


Or Maybe, as the Kiowa people theorize, "Eight children were there at play, seven sisters and their brother. Suddenly the boy was struck dumb; he trembled and began to run upon his hands and feet. His fingers became claws, and his body was covered with fur. Directly there was a bear where the boy had been. The sisters were terrified; they ran and the bear chased after them. They came to the stump of a great tree, and the tree spoke to them. It bade the sisters to climb upon it, and as they did so it began to rise into the air. The bear came to kill them, but they were just beyond its reach. The bear reared against the tree and scored the bark all around with its claws. The seven sisters were borne into the sky, and they became the stars of the Big Dipper."

The Kiowa's theory is no crazier a creation-myth than, say, the one about the man who saw some divine visions and then led a rag-tag band of Chosen People to a promised land of otherworldly salvation.

Thus, the debate rages on.

But that's the thing about the Black Hills. Anything is possible. Anything can happen. Why, a threadbare pauper could even strike it rich--because there's gold in them thar hills! Black Hills Gold!

And where there's gold, there are gold miners. And where there are gold miners there are towns...

... rough and tumble towns. Sportin' towns, where the stakes are as high as the hills. These are towns that know how so show a fella a-rootin and a-tootin' good old time. In the 1870s, Deadwood, SD was a classic gold rush town, where a man could get rich in the mines or at the poker tables.

Today, about 130 years later, the dirty streets of Deadwood have been paved with brick and the rough-cut wooden buildings have been replaced with stone...

... though beneath this glitter still beats a heart of gold fever, albeit one of a more refined nature.

But a man's still got to watch hisself in these parts. Why, a feller might just find hisself at an olde tyme dance hall where the prettiest girl in town might even say "yes" to a neighborly polka dance. All you got to do is ask...

But before you start a-askin', you'd better make sure that another feller ain't already gone sweet on this pretty fillie. If so, you better be fixed to fight. This place ain't called Deadwood for nothin'.

Of course, and as you've seen, the Black Bills is more than grub stakin', gamblin', and gunslingin'. All you have to do is giddyup onto the open road and ask yourself these three simple questions:

Where is?...
Why is?...
What is?...
... and you'll soon find yerself tied off at America's most shameless tourist trap!

Once inside, you'll be find incredible curios. You'll wonder how you ever got through life without them in your possession.

I tried to convince Diane to go out with me at night with a flashlight and gunny sack to bag our own jackalope, but she would have none of it. Hence, the only jackalopes we saw were already stuffed and mounted. But we did see many other Black Hills beasts in broad daylight. We encountered:

Lone bull bison, as big as a truck...

...tame herds of fenced-in Wyld Stallyns...

...and a thriving town of barking prairie dogs. Only two-percent of North America's prairie dog habitat remains, mostly on protected sites below the likes of Devil's Tower.

Which means these dogs see people all the time, and they were not in the least intimidated by the likes of me. Not that I could catch them. Not that I wanted to. But this familiarity did allow the dogs and I to have a grand time playing, "peek-a-boo-I-see-you."

But in the Black Hills we saw more than squeaking dogs, stuffed bunnies, and cloven-hoofed beasts. We walked the edges of an ancient sinkhole where Ice Age mammoths, bears, and wolves have been trapped for over 25,000 years!

It's a sad tale of suffering and woe for the beasts that slid into this 60-foot deep sinkhole and perished. But it makes for great paleontology. And even greater gawking.

I can personally attest that these beasts are just as impressive since before the Dawn of Time... they are delicious today.

We covered a lot of ground in order to visit these Black Hills attractions--monuments (man-made and otherwise), tourist traps (definitely man-made), and animal habitats (man-preserved). But separating these attractions, sustaining the wild beasts, and supporting the sold-rock monuments to the greatest mortals among us, is the land itself. Everywhere you look in the Black Hills you see scenery.

I could commence a scientific discourse in regard to the natural forces that shaped these lands. I could spin terrifying tales about desperate mammoths and raging short-faced bears. Or I could gracefully cede the stage. For, as N. Scott Momaday wrote:

"A dark mist lay over the Black Hills, and the land was like iron...

At the top of the ridge I caught sight of Devil's Tower upthrust against the gray sky as if in the birth of time the core of the earth had broken through its crust and the motion of the world was begun..."

"There are things in nature that engender an awful quiet in the heart of man..."

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