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Bel Mooney in South Dakota


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South Dakota

Mail on Sunday, 2004


'Take me back to the Black Hills,
The Black Hills of Dakota,
To the beautiful Indian country that I lo-ove......'

When I was a child that lyric would float from the big old radio - the soft, nostalgic tones of Doris Day, who would also pop up on 'Family Favourites with the much perkier 'Deadwood Stage.' How was I to know these were songs from the hit musical 'Calamity Jane' - or that so many years later I would see the actual Deadwood Stage, cruise through those same Black Hills, and stand by Calamity Jane's grave on Boot Hill? So life catches up with culture, and my life has been immeasurably enhanced by discovering one of America's most beautiful and unsung States: the land of pioneers and Native American wisdom, not to mention bikers, bison and prairie dogs.

You have only to conjure up a picture of magnificent Mount Rushmore to approach the spirit of South Dakota. This world- famous mountain, carved with the giant heads of Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln is one of those tourist sights which is actually more thrilling than you imagined. Approaching it through an avenue of all fifty State flags, looking up at the great noses and blank all-seeing eyes, you wonder at the vision which led the sculptor Gutzon Borglum to begin (in 1927) such a seemingly impossible project - and at the age of 60 too. But that's the point. Out here in wild South Dakota, anything is possible. One of the many things I love about the USA is that spirit of 'Can do, will do' which permeates the whole culture. And how appropriate that it led the Lakota tribe to say 'The white man needs to know the red man has great heroes too' - and commission Korczak Ziolkowski to carve an even bigger effigy of the legendary leader Crazy Horse on another mountain. The Crazy Horse monument is an ongoing project, as the sculptor's family continue his ambitious work.
We were in South Dakota for two reasons. Each year the sleepy little town of Sturgis hosts the biggest motor cycle rally in the world, when around 500,000 bikers descend on the Black Hills of Dakota to ride and to rock. Main Street is a riot of mean machines - and for someone like me, with an endless fascination for life on two wheels (though I never passed my test, so happily ride pillion) that was a enough good excuse to visit the State. But the deeper lure was the legendary scenery of those Black Hills, and the even wilder Badlands further south. After a terrific week of rolling around on a Electra Glide (kindly lent by Harley-Davidson) deafened by the rumble of V-twin engines, and all bikered-out (well, until next time....) we set off an a civilised tour by car, which would take in everything from some of the largest cave complexes in the world, to historic towns, a variety of inter-active museums and wildlife-spotting.
Bel at Sturgis
A visit to S.Dakota would make the most perfect family holiday - though I'm talking about a relatively small part of the whole state, just East of the Wyoming and Nebraska borders. We planned to do a loop, taking us north to Spearfish, and down to Wounded Knee south of the Badlands. In one week you can see the best of what this area of National Parks has to offer, and feel you could one day go back for more. We began the tour in pleasant Rapid City, where it is vital to visit the state-of-the art Journey Museum, for a brilliant and inspiring trip through a 2.5 billion years of the Black Hills. We stayed at the historic Alex Johnson Hotel, built in the 1920s as tribute to the Great Sioux Nation. Each night in the foyer there is a demonstration of Native American Dance, and nearby is the famous Prairie Edge emporium/gallery, which will tell you all you need to know about this fascinating culture. North of Rapid City, Spearfish Canyon follows Spearfish Creek through breathtaking scenery of giant spruce, tumbling waterfalls, and awesome limestone canyon walls. When you reach Spearfish itself, the High Plains Western Heritage Centre is a must, since it is a museum-memorial to the cowboys who drove cattle over the plains. You can see authentic displays of pioneer, American Indian, ranch and rodeo history, making this a perfect introduction to the whole State. This is where the original Deadwood stage is housed - and so many of the exhibits reminded me of the cowboy comic strips of the fifties. For that matter, when you reach nearby Deadwood it is just like walking into one giant film set - and of course the popularity of the satellite TV series 'Deadwood' has made this frontier town even more of a tourist draw.

If you fancy donning a cowboy hat and sauntering down streets where Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane and Potato Creek Johnny played cards, fought and died, then Deadwood is a poser's paradise. If you want to join the town's modern gamblers, (not my thing) Miss Kitty's Casino has the right sort of atmosphere and there are some eighty others, whose profits have largely funded the conservation work. Each afternoon th shooting of Buffalo Bill is reenacted at the end of Main Street, by actors who look and sound so authentic you could fancy a time-jump had taken you back to those lawless days. Why, they even drawled 'Sure, Ma'am' when I asked for a photograph with them. Yet all this fun whitewashes history; the Deadwood of the bad old days was a rough, squalid place, where women in particular had a very hard life, and violence was endemic.

The town sprang up during the Gold Rush of 1876, and since it was founded on Indian territory, American law did not apply - hence the wild reputation. It was a melting pot of cultures, with gambling and whorehouses the main recreations of the tough miners. Needless to say, such activities invariably led to Boot Hill, the legendary cemetery where you can see the graves of Wild Bill and Calamity Jane - united in death as they were not in life, despite her claims to being his ladyfriend.
south dakota
On the way to Mount Moriah Cemetery (the real name) you pass the Adams House Museum - the magnificent, perfectly preserved Victorian home of one of the town's grand families. This is a valuable corrective to casinos, showing the more genteel side of Deadwood life as the twentieth century got under way - and the staff who show you round are as proud as if they owned it themselves.

Heading south through the Black Hills National Park we should remember that this ancient landscape was sacred to Native Americans - who called the mountains 'paha sapa', meaning 'hills that are black', as indeed they look, when the sun disappears and the pine trees loom darkly. The wooded hills unfold each side, the terrain switching from soft green curves to towering crags and then (along the Needles Highway, in the area of the Black Hills called Custer State Park) hairpin curves and narrow granite tunnels, with the pinnacles called 'Cathedral Spires' making you feel very small indeed - and very humble. South Dakota offers many experiences of that kind - where you come face to face with the immensity of time, in miracles of geology and prehistory. Going underground to visit Wind Cave or Jewel Cave - both amongst the longest in the world - you shiver with the subterranean cold, but also at the beauty of the rare crystal formations created over 50 million years. Words like 'fantastic' - so overused in daily speech - become appropriate for once.

Incidentally, if you're interested in pre-history, there's a truly fascinating site to visit down at Hot Springs. About 26,000 years ago woolly mammoths came to a sinkhole to drink, but became trapped by the slippery middy sides, and drowned. In 1974 a bulldozer unearthed a 10 foot tusk, and work on the building site stopped, the site was excavated - and to date the bones of 52 mammoths have been unearthed and left there where they fell. The whole site has been covered over, and you take the guided tour to learn the history of this, the world's largest concentration of such relics. The whole thing is brilliantly organised and I saw quite young children and rough old bikers alike, staring into the broad, shallow pit in wonder not unmixed with pity. For it is oddly moving to imagine the enormous creatures slipping, and struggling, then slowing sinking into their fate. Heading south towards Hot Springs, along a part of Custer State Park called the Wildlife Loop, I called out, 'Hey, what's that funny little creaturs?' To the right was a wide expanse of tussocky ground, and standing on its hind legs, was a rodent (rather like a squirrel without the bushy tail) looking around with a strange, high-pitched, cheeping squeak. We stopped - and there was another! And another! This was our first meeting with the prairie dogs, who became one of the highlights of this trip. The little creatures inhabit 'prairie dog towns' - huge, complex underground burrows which come to the surface in look-out ad exit holes. You can creep u on these and hope to surprise one; I couldn't stop laughing because no matter how quick I was they always popped down before I could get too close. But the prairie dogs can become quite tame too, and some children make pets of them. As always, though, there is another side of the coin, and farmers try to exterminate them because of the destruction they cause. I hated the thought.

The other deep thrill was to see buffalo (or bison) roaming freely, clearly observable from the roadside, bending their great heads and humped backs to crop the grass. They say that in the seventeenth century sixty million of them roamed the grasslands of the Great Plains, essential to Plains Indians for food and clothing, with the bones used for weapons and utensils and the droppings for fuel. It was almost a sacred transaction, for the tribes revered their quarry. But then fur parties, hunters and settlers arrived, and the plains were settled and the great herds began to be hunted to extinction. By 1900 there were almost none left, but now- thanks to the efforts of conservationists - herds now roam freely in protected areas. There are nearly 1,500 in Custer State Park. It was so peaceful to pull over and watch them for a long time, mesmerised by their power and dignity - but not getting out of the car as the beasts weigh in at around 2,000 pounds and can run at 30 mph...
Horse Sanctuary
My urge to get up close and personal with wild creatures was satisfied at last at the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary, not far from the Mammoth Site at Hot Springs. I can't imagine anyone who wouldn't enjoy this. In 1987 the 11,000 acre sanctuary was founded by a man called Dayton O.Hyde, to protect the wild horses nobody wants. Now over 400 mustang run free in the most beautiful surrounding looked after by volunteers, the whole enterprise supported by tourists who take the two hour four-wheel drive tour to see them. Because of this some of the animals are used to visitors and let you creep up and stroke them as they cluster under a tree for shelter from the punishing sun. I was also pleased when our jolly volunteer guide (who called out 'There's Frosty' every time a white horse came into sight!) whispered that, despite complaints by neighbouring farmers, on this land the prairie dogs were not threatened either - and so it was a sanctuary indeed.

Driving Eastwards we headed for the famous Badlands National Park, the very name of which is calculated to make you shiver. The rolling grassland gives way to the strangest area in the whole state, so stark it has been described as 'hell with the fires burnt out'. Indeed, this bleak landscape must have been terrifying to travellers in an earlier age, who might find themselves trapped without food or water.Harley and Bel in South Dakota The Lakota Sioux named the area 'mako sica' - 'land bad.' The early French-Canadian trappers called it 'les mauvaises terres a traverser' - 'bad lands to travel across.' Wind and rain have sculpted the fossil-laden soil - thrown up by the movement of land and sea eons ago - into spires, canyons, ridges, gullies, weird knobs, and jagged crags, all banded with soft colours: ochre, rose, lilac, grey and cream. It is both spectacular and chaotic - a geological wonder. In the summer the temperatures may top 38, and in winter the wind chill regularly drops below zero, whilst the whole park is host to an astonishing range of wildlife, from golden eagles, through jackrabbits and antelope, to venomous prairie rattlesnakes. You could stand for ages, just gazing out over the scenery and listening to the wind singing through the wild grasses. In fact, we drove through this area twice - the first time on the Harley-Davidson (the wind drying your mouth and flicking your hair like a whip), and then in the air-conditioned car - because I simply couldn't get enough of it. If anybody asked me to give one reason to visit South Dakota I would think of all the things I have mentioned and so many more I have no space for (mad places like Wall and Scenic, the touching Prairie Homestead, Bear Butte, and so on....) and then I would just sigh my nostalgia for - the Badlands.

Bel Mooney travels in South Dakota




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