True West

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.

A CLOUDLESS day—all blue skies and pine-scented breezes—and I’m standing amid the camera-toting tourists on the terrace at Mount Rushmore, trying to remember a line from a famous movie. It’s not North by Northwest, the Alfred Hitchcock film in which Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint attempt to escape a couple of gun-toting pursuers by groping their way across Washington’s chin. It’s not Dances With Wolves either, the 1990 Kevin Costner project shot partly in South Dakota. No, the movie I’m trying to remember—suddenly, it comes to me—is Costner’s Field of Dreams, in which an Iowa corn farmer plows under his crop and builds a baseball diamond in the hopes of attracting the ghost of Shoeless Joe Jackson, the legendary ball player. Early on, the farmer hears a whisper in his ear: “If you build it, he will come.”

It’s a crazy idea, of course, but it works. In fact, it almost always works—and not just with ghosts, not just in the movies, not just in Iowa. Peering up at Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt, and Lincoln, I realize I’ve driven more than 600 miles, burned up nearly two tanks of gas, and survived a full 24 hours without my usual regimen of caffeine stimulants just to see this six-story sculpture carved into the side of a mountain. Somebody built it, and sure enough, I showed up.

Accompanying me is Bryan, my partner in this adventure to the Black Hills. It was my idea: I wanted to take a classic road trip, and western South Dakota seemed the perfect destination. I’d skirted the northern edge of the region a few times, hustling toward Billings or Boise, but I’d never stopped to explore whatever lay beyond that first green ridge rising from the prairie. I imagined craggy vistas, panoramic views, buffalo sightings and streams flashing with trout. Waxing extra poetic in an effort to persuade Bryan to join me, I conjured scenes of a natural paradise, twinkling with gold dust and haunted by cowpunchers and gunslingers. He bought it.

I’m beginning to fear, however, that my pitch oversold the product. This morning, traversing the sleek multilane expressway that links Rapid City, the gateway to the Hills, with Rushmore, the area’s most-visited attraction, Bryan and I passed a wax museum, a reptile gardens, and a half-dozen places where you could pan for gold. We saw billboards touting opportunities to tour caves, ride aerial trams, photograph captive bears, buy fudge, and eat steaks off pitchforks. What about the great outdoors? What about the legends of the Old West? Did anything remain of the beauty and brashness that once drew people here?

It was the abundance of game, fish, and building materials that first attracted Native Americans and European settlers to the Hills. But it didn’t take long for someone to suggest that this verdant island in a sea of rustling grass could use some improving. In the 1920s, a South Dakota historian proposed turning one of the region’s most prominent outcroppings into the world’s largest sculpture. Mount Rushmore would be the perfect destination for a generation of suddenly car-crazy Americans itching to hit the open road. Politicians backed the project, funds were raised, and in 1927 a sculptor named Gutzon Borglum and a team of workers equipped with chisels and pneumatic drills started blasting away. In 1941, when the frieze was finally finished, the tourists poured in as predicted, and they’ve been coming ever since. Mount Rushmore draws more than 3 million visitors annually.

“It’s pretty awesome,” Bryan says, training his digital camera on the four faces.

I don’t disagree. But I find myself wondering what the mountain looked like before Borglum got there.

Leaving rushmore, we set our sights on Deadwood, the Hill’s most notorious town. Fallen, sun-bleached timbers lie along the road leading into the city, like giant toothpicks shaken from the box: It’s this ghostly grove that gave Deadwood its name, of course. Originally just a jumble of buildings at the bottom of a narrow gulch, the hamlet catapulted to fame in 1876 when a local mining claim coughed up a couple of nuggets. Thousands of sourdoughs, sanguine with gold fever and carrying pans and pickaxes, poured into town.

Gold may have put Deadwood on the map, but sin has kept it there for the past century and a quarter. The last placer mine closed long ago, yet the town’s reputation for vice endures. Bad habits are generally met with a laissez-faire attitude (city officials reluctantly shuttered the last whorehouse in the early 1980s), and addictions of every kind are cultivated, rather than quashed. A glass of whiskey is easier to come by than cup of coffee, and the city’s main drag is chockablock with enterprises bent on emptying your wallet: the Mineral Palace Casino, the Four Aces Casino, the Lucky Nugget, Miss Kitty’s.

I’m not much interested in gambling, and I have no use for gold. What most intrigues me about Deadwood is its history—the stuff that has fascinated writers of dime novels and HBO series for decades. I want to understand what drove such legends as “Wild Bill” Hickok and Calamity Jane. And what better place to glory in the stories of the Old West than Deadwood? So after checking into the Martin Mason Hotel (a historic building beautifully restored, in part, with preservation funds generated from a heavy tax on gambling revenues), Bryan and I head across the street to the city’s history museum. Officially known as the Adams Museum, it was built by a local grocer who made his money during the town’s boom days. There are exhibits on colorful characters, prostitutes, the Iron Horse—but it all feels as dull and lifeless as week-old produce. Is there nothing left of the swagger and swearing that once defined Deadwood?

At the suggestion of a museum docent, we decide to visit Mount Moriah Cemetery, located high above the city, on Boot Hill. The climb is nearly vertical, and it’s difficult to imagine a cortège making its way up the switch-backing streets that lead, ultimately, to the graveyard’s gate. Short of breath but invigorated by the exercise and the prospect of catching sight of a ghost, we pay a few dollars for a map and admission, and then make our way along the tombstone-lined lanes. There’s a small crowd gathered around the statue marking Hickok’s grave, and a few wilting bouquets have been placed at the final resting place of Calamity Jane. But I’m most intrigued to discover, in a far corner of the cemetery, a section devoted of Deadwood’s Chinese community: These immigrants—mine workers, laundry operators, dishwashers—now lie in unmarked plots, save one, Hui Ta Mei-Fen, whose headstone bears a string of elegantly wrought Chinese characters. Were it not for this small block of marble, I’d have completely overlooked this facet of Deadwood’s history.

TWENTY-FOUR HOURS LATER, we pull into Custer City, located in the heart of the Hills. It’s been a hub of activity since 1874, when a military expedition led by General George Custer discovered gold in a nearby creek and prospectors overran the place. It has the feel of a frontier town. The roads are wide and wind-whipped. Most of the historic buildings have burned down or fallen down—save the 1881 courthouse, now a museum. Tourists amble through gift shops selling “Black Hills gold,” an art gallery featuring large photographs of wild horses, a candy store specializing in large chocolate lumps called “buffalo chips,” and theme park known as Flintstones Bedrock City.

It’s not what I expected, I admit to Bryan. This famous place, this landmark, this namesake of a fallen leader who met his Waterloo not far away—shouldn’t it be more interesting? More authentic? I’m imagining the sort of street one sees in Apple Dumpling Gang movies, all false fronts and tumbleweeds—that’s the sort of authentic Old West I’m looking for.

Bryan and I stop at a café for some barbecued beef buns and a slice of pie. There’s taxidermy on the wall, and a tow-headed teenager takes our order. But I’m not really noticing any of this: I’m wondering what changed, what happened to Custer. I’ve read somewhere that when gold was discovered in Deadwood, Custer emptied out almost overnight, its population dropping from 5,000 to less than a hundred in just three weeks. Surely, the road to revitalization has been long and hard, but what happened to all the edifices and landmarks that once stood here? That’s the question I’m pondering when I catch sight of a framed poster featuring two large photographs and the caption, “Custer: Then and Now.” Peering at the black-and-white picture of the city a century ago and comparing it with the landscape of today, I see that Custer City was always scattered and ramshackle. The place I long to see never, in fact, existed.

I’M ALMOST GIDDY with excitement as we enter Custer State Park the next morning. The borders of this 73,000-acre park protect many of the natural features that define the Black Hills experience: There are hogback ridges that glow red in the sunset, lodge-pole stands that have grown untouched for centuries, and even several hundred bison. I know all this because I read it in a guidebook, and I have high hopes that Custer State Park will deliver the kind of spiritual communion with nature I’ve been seeking on this trip.

The road winds and climbs. We pass through woody glens, we stop to snap a picture at beautiful Sylvan Lake (a man-made reservoir but pretty nonetheless), and we debate whether we should alter our schedule and take a few hours to scale Harney Peak. With an elevation of 7,244 feet, it’s the highest point between the Alps and the Rockies. Exhausted by the mere thought, we drive on.

Abruptly, we find ourselves in a grove of enormous granite spires known as the Needles. The formations are smooth and shapely, and, in some cases, there’s an “eye” where the wind has widened a slim crack into a gaping hole. Bryan and I lose track of each other repeatedly as we walk among these giants, scrambling down narrow crevasses and marveling at the towers’ tallness.


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.

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Joel Hoekstra writes frequently about design and architecture for Midwest Home and has contributed to a wide range of publications, including This Old House, Metropolis, ASID Icon and Architecture Minnesota. He lives in Minneapolis in a 1906 Dutch Colonial that is overdue for a full remodel—or at least a coat of fresh paint.