The gold is mostly gone and “Wild Bill” Hickok no longer strides the streets of Deadwood, but the Black Hills of Western South Dakota still sparkle with unexpected finds.
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In fact, the morning’s scenic splendor is surpassed only by the unparalleled delight of driving the park’s Wildlife Loop that afternoon. A parade of animals presents itself: prairie dogs, pronghorns, bighorn sheep, wild burros. Burros? Turns out they’re the remnant of a failed commercial enterprise: When a tour operator offering rides to the top of Harney Peak went bust, he simply set the animals loose. Several generations later, the animals are fully integrated into the Custer State Park landscape, waylaying camper vans in the hopes of winning a snack from some pitying tourist. Indigenous, they’re not. But irresistible? Completely.
Bryan and I are about to give up on the bison when we spot a small blot on a far-off knoll. Cameras are unpacked, and the blot is preserved for posterity. Such moments are not to be taken lightly: The American buffalo was once on the brink of extinction, saved only through careful cultivation and legislation. Minutes later, however, we round a corner and come across a mother and calf. Then, another quarter mile on, we descend into a grassy bowl and find our vehicle swimming in a sea of bison. The enormous beasts lumber slowly across the road, unfazed by our honking. It’s a scene that would have been unthinkable a century ago—when both bison and automobiles were a rare sight. But now, it seems astonishingly natural, as authentic a scene as the Hills could ever offer.
“Awesome,” Bryan says, stopping to marvel for a second before snapping another photo. This time I have to agree.
That night we dine and sleep at the State Game Lodge, a historic inn built on the ruins of an old mill near the eastern entrance to Custer State Park. Our room is small by modern standards, but the fire in the lobby is warm, the keg in the bar is freshly tapped and cold, and the sunrise, seen from the porch the next morning, is unbeatable. The lodge is most famous for having served as “the summer White House” in 1927, when President Coolidge and his wife came to stay. Mrs. Coolidge worked her embroidery hoop on the porch while locals lined up on the road, training their binoculars on this rarest of birds, a First Lady. Meanwhile, Silent Cal spent his days pulling speckled trout from area streams, blissfully unaware as he filled his creel that the pools upstream were being stocked by park officials. Mother Nature has never seemed as generous as she did that summer.
A FRIEND WHO KNOWS about such things once told me that the easiest way to find a natural hot spring is to follow the parade of naked hippies heading into the woods. (His authority derived, I suppose, from having lived near Eugene, Oregon, for several years.) He was joking, of course, but as Bryan and I embark on the last leg of our trip—visiting a town in the southern Hills known for its thermal waters and named, without guile, Hot Springs—I’m parsing my friend’s remark for potential morsels of truth. I’m also keeping an eye out for VW buses parked along the side of the road.
What began as a slight drizzle has turned into a steady downpour by the time we reach Hot Springs. Abandoning our plans to camp somewhere on the outskirts of town, Bryan and I stop in at a local B&B that doubles as a bar and coffee shop and rent a room. We eat at a local café and have a surprisingly good meal, as well as a glass of wine. It seems like a promising end to our trip, and the chilly weather makes the prospect of a super-heated bath in the city’s waters sound all the more appealing: I envision a series of steaming outdoor pools, like Stone Age versions of a former neighbor’s hot tub, each bowl pouring into the next, redolent of mineral smells, though hopefully not too much sulfur….
But when Bryan and I ask our waiter where we can find someplace to soak outdoors under the stars, we’re met with a puzzled look. In fact, we soon discover that nobody knows of any outdoor hot springs. The waters have been mostly channeled for commercial use, the largest facility being an indoor water park, Evan’s Plunge. There’s a local spa, but it’s closed at this late hour. Why would we want to be outdoors anyway?
Eventually, Bryan and I give up. We return to the coffeehouse-bar-B&B, order a round of strong drinks, and settle in to listen to the evening’s entertainment: a middle-aged woman with barrettes in her hair, wearing sandals and a flowy dress, playing Joni Mitchell covers.
As the songs wash over me, my mind retraces our route back to Rushmore. Perhaps it’s the recollection of Washington’s stern gaze (“I cannot tell a lie”) or just the alcohol warming my brain, but I have to admit that my view of the Hills as a timeless place was completely wrongheaded. The splendor and history of the place have always been in flux: Wind has shaped the Needles over time much as Borglum sculpted Rushmore. The bison have reappeared and the Chinese have vanished. Plate tectonics, snow and ice, Indian hunters, road-tripping tourists, mining, and even wild burros have built, rebuilt, and unbuilt the Hills over and over again. And if you can’t look at that landscape without reveling in the beauty unfurled before you in that particular moment, well, you might as well not bother coming.
Her voice keening a bit, the singer begins to sway. (Is there a chorus of “Blowin’ in the Wind” coming on?) I’m beginning to nod off, dreaming of steaks on pitchforks and the comfort of a warm shower before bed. We may not have found the hot springs, but at least we found a hippie.
* Please pick up a copy of our May issue for listings featuring select lodging, attractions, and restaurants in the Black Hills.
Joel Hoekstra is the managing editor of Minnesota Monthly.