The Wild West in Eight Chapters
Needles Highway and the Badlands. Bison and cowboys. Wild Bill Hickok & Deadwood. Sound like a Wild West adventure? That's exactly what South Dakota is.
Alliance Magazine - December 2018/January 2019
Words by: Michelle Hespe
Chapter 1 - Badlands Needles Highway
We all have those bucket list travel experiences we want to tick off, and being a fan of the great Wild West, one of mine was seeing the Buffalo Roundup in South Dakota. My week in this stunningly scenic part of the US was filled with things I’d only ever seen in old Western flicks, cartoons like Road Runner and shows like Little House on the Prairie. And by the time I was surrounded by a thousand bison and hundreds of cowboys, I was feeling as though I’d inadvertently become an extra on an action-packed movie set.
Needles Highway through Custer State Park in The Black Hills is enough to make anyone pinch themselves. The road was finished in 1922 (after it being deemed an impossible task), and it slices through monumental tons of towering needle-like granite sculptures. It includes more twists than a Stephen King thriller and culminates at the Needle’s Eye, where, at first, it looks as though a car can’t fit through the cavernous, one-way rock tunnel that’s 2.5 metres wide and 3.5 metres high.
But they do, one at a time, below endless rock spires that look like other-worldly churches, sprouting from thick fir tree forests.
The mountains seem to move if you stare too closely, as they are alive with deer and tiny bouncing dots that I soon come to recognise as chipmunks. Yep, they are as cute and
as hyperactive as Alvin.
I cruise and trek through Badlands National Park, where bighorn sheep amble and prairie dogs stick their heads up into the world, hilariously yipping at one another like one big game of Whack-a-Mole.
The ancient layered rock formations in hues of orange, grey, yellow and purple are flecked with lime green scrubs and desert grasses that are as hard as nails, iridescent under the hot Dakota sun.
Startling steep mesas and rugged gorges fan out every which way across the land. Forget a movie set – by then it wouldn’t have surprised me at all if someone in the next town told me that I had somehow landed on another planet.
Chapter 2 - Buffalo Roundup
The day of my meeting with bison finally arrived.
These great, lolloping, strangely sweet-looking bovines are loosely called buffalo despite only distantly being related to the true buffalo (which have bigger horns and rhino-type skin).
In the 16th century about 25-30 million bison roamed North America, yet by the late 1880s fewer than 100 buffalo remained in the wild. Even more shocking is the fact that they were hunted for their skins and tongues and the rest of the animal was left behind to decay.
Today, all parts of bison are used after they are slaughtered, much like cows, and they're flourishing to the point where a typical South Dakotan café or pub has bison burger on the menu. Around 20,000 buffalo are slaughtered each year, compared to approximately 125,000 cattle per day, and they roam freely most of their lives.
Bison skulls and horns are commonly used for wall hangings and they're big-ticket souvenir items that support many local artists. It’s worth noting, especially if you’re a vegetarian, that South Dakotans love animal heads and hides in their homes and businesses. You’d be hard-pressed to find a pub in these parts without a collection of every animal that ever roamed the region.
The buffalo roundup occurs every September in the 71,000-acre Custer State Park, which is home to one of the world's largest publicly owned bison herds – being nearly 1,300 strong. The aim is to monitor the population’s health, and it’s an incredible spectacle – cowboys and cowgirls in their best western gear rounding them up on horseback as car ‘chasers’ get in on the action.
And that’s where I found myself – standing in the back of a ute clinging to a roof rack, bouncing through Custer Park surrounded by a thousand buffalo that gradually merged into one gigantic thundering herd that made the world shudder. With the white mountain peaks behind us and endless golden fields spread before us, alongside 15,000 other spectactors I was spellbound by that awesome western show that captures the lively spirit of South Dakota.
Chapter 3 - Mount Rushmore
The 18-metre high faces of former US presidents Theodore Roosevelt, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln loom far above me. “Who chose them?” a kid asks his mother as they walk past me, mouths agape.
It’s a very common question at Mount Rushmore National Memorial. What made these presidents stand out from the others that came before or after them? So much so that they were sculpted into a 60-foot-high section of the granite in the Black Hills?
The lead sculptor behind the monumental work of art, Gutzon Borglum, selected these presidents because from his perspective they represented the most important events in the history of the United States. Ultimately, they stood for freedom, democracy and independence.
Washington was the first president of the US and he was considered the father of the new country – he laid the foundation of American democracy. Jefferson was the country’s third president and he was the main author of the Declaration of Independence. Roosevelt was the 26th president of the US – he was renowned for championing the rights of the common working man. Lincoln was America's 16th leader and he was a staunch believer that
all slavery should be abolished.
Looking up at the men, who were human like us all, it’s not the patriotism that grips me, nor the grandeur of the thing, or the fact that it took more than 400 people 14 years to complete, with the project beginning in 1927 and wrapping up in 1941.
No, it’s the fact that someone had a dream that big and they pulled it off. It’s not complete, mind you. There’s actually a partly finished hall carved out at the top of the mountain behind their heads that was supposed to be the 'Hall of Records', and due to lack of funding this capsule of storytelling was never completed.
I’m also impressed by Mount Rushmore because of how lifelike the presidents are. It looks as though, while they were contemplating their next move in life, they were frozen in time. They look as though they could simply step out of the monument and walk off through the Black Hills. I have to shake myself out of a trance. It's not a movie set, and those once-powerful men are definitely staying put.
Chapter 4 - Deadwood
Being in the heart of the Wild West, in the former Gold Rush city of Deadwood, I'm longing for some saloon-style double doors to throw open so that I can mosey on up to the bar like Calamity Jane once did, and ask for a whiskey. Straight up. I'd place my bowler hat on the counter, take a drag of my cigar and thrust my gun back into its holster.
I'm not the bruiser that Calamity Jane was, raising hell wherever she went. I also don't drink whiskey and I don't like guns or cigars, but that doesn't stop me from pushing in the doors of Wild Bill Bar in downtown Deadwood with a bit of attitude, pulling up a bar stool and ordering a glass of Pinot Gris. I'm wearing my Akubra, and the cowboy bartender says he likes my hat, so I'm off to a pretty good start.
I'm also just in time for the Wild Bill Hickok tour so I descend into the belly of the bar and am delighted to find the real thing – an old stone and wooden panelled Western-style bar with low-slung saloon style doors and a set-up replicating the poker table where Hickok was famously murdered. The 'Dead Man's Hand' is splayed out next to a half-drunk bottle of whiskey and a scattering of poker chips sit in the spilt drink covering most of Wild Bill's photo. There's a jail cell in one corner of the room, where Bill's killer, Jack McCall, was holed up in dismal conditions after they tracked him down.
With a group of other fascinated people, I listen to our storyteller 'Bill' recount details about Wild Bill's life and death with "absolute historical accuracy" and marvel at the room. It's as good as it gets if you want to step back into the Wild West, and it doesn't feel tourist-tacky. There are other places in town that claim to be the spot where Bill was killed, but I'm putting my chips on this one.
Chapter 5 - Crazy Horse
And you thought Rushmore was enormous? Well, get yourself over to the world's largest mountain carving – Crazy Horse Memorial in the Black Hills.
In 1939, Lakota (Sioux) Chief Henry Standing Bear wrote a letter to sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski (who briefly worked on Mount Rushmore) inviting him to the Black Hills to carve a mountain memorial honouring 19th-century Native Indian war leader, Crazy Horse. Interestingly, a photograph or accurate depiction of Crazy Horse has never been found.
"My fellow chiefs and I would like the white man to know the red man has great heroes too," Chief Henry Standing Bear wrote.
Ziolkowski was becoming globally recognised for his art and he wasn't sure if he wanted the job. Seven years later in 1947 however, he accepted the offer and arrived in the Black Hills with barely $200 in his pocket. He then lived in a tent in the harsh wilderness for seven months while he built a home and a road to reach it.
When Ziolkowski was 39 years old he commemorated the sculpture's beginning with the first blast on the mountain, and he was 40 when he began work on it in 1949.
It could have 'just' been a sculpture of incredible proportions, but it quickly became much more than that, as Ziolkowski was determined that it would also be an education facility for Native Americans. His dream came true and today the Indian University of North America is thriving.
Crazy Horse's face is almost 27 metres high and his extended arm will be 80 metres long. The work will eventually be 195 metres long and 172 metres high, and it could take hundreds of years to complete. The project will also be kept within the family, relying on hard work and donations, rather than government funding.
Chapter 6 - Wall Drug
It’s one of the most legendary stories of a family’s success in South Dakota, and perhaps even in all of America. In 1931, Dorothy and Ted Hustead bought a small drugstore in a tiny town called Wall, situated in rugged country on the edge
of The Badlands National Park.
The couple agreed they’d give their new venture five years to succeed, but in 1936 business was slow, the Depression was in full force, and they knew that they had to take action.
Dorothy would often watch the streams of cars passing by Wall on the way down Route 16A across the wide and dusty prairie, without stopping. Don’t forget, it was damn hot in those parts, and back then, there was no air-conditioning. The people in those cars must have been ready to die of heat and thirst.
Then one day, a lightbulb moment came that led to the Wall Drug legend: Dorothy proposed that she and Ted stick signs along the highway offering people free iced water if they stopped at Wall Drug. That’s when the couple’s fortune took a turn that they could never have predicted. Within hours of the ‘FREE Ice Water’ signs being placed along the highway, people began turning off and making a stop to cool down at Wall Drug. And when the Husteads added friendly service and some other products that people needed to the mix, they had a winning formula.
Today Wall Drug is no longer one small drugstore– it’s a bona fide tourist destination attracting around 20,000 customers a day during summer. The original pharmacy is now a mammoth general store, and what has morphed up around it is an entire town with everything from a Traveller’s Chapel and Pharmacy Museum, to a waterpark and video arcade for the kids (including a life-size T-Rex that roars every 20 minutes), and a dining room with a bar that sits over 500 people. That's huge for a town with a population of around 800.
For those after an authentic souvenir from South Dakota, there’s Sioux pottery, Black Hills gold, Western wear and gear, thousands of cowboy and cowgirl boots, modern and Western books, Western art, camping supplies, and the list goes on and on. And on. The wares are presented in halls, alleys and roads replicating a Wild West town, so these days it’s as much about a fun day out as it is about getting those things you need. Or perhaps just really, really want.
Chapter 7 - Rapid City
Putting gigantic monuments, bison, gangsters, adventure and nature aside, there's something else that South Dakota does exceptionally well: beer. The state is experiencing a craft beer boom and there are cool brewery venues popping up all over the place.
In downtown Rapid City, the state's second most populous city, you'll find the state’s oldest operating brewery: Firehouse Brewing Company. The venue is housed within the city's original fire station, and it has a cool outdoor beer garden, a huge two-storey restaurant serving delicious, hearty meals (try the awesome tuna tacos and gumbo) and a winery next door with a tasting room.
Another place for great food is Murphy's Pub and Grill. They do a mean pizza, and here's your place to try out buffalo meatloaf. It's been voted the best pub in the Black Hills, and it's really lively.
If you want to hit the town at night, South Dakota also has some really cool bars. And just quietly, if you make friends with the staff at Murphy's, they might slip you a mobile number to text, which will get you into the Blind Lion – a kick-ass speakeasy hiding downstairs. If you manage to make the cut, the mixologist whips up some of the best cocktails in the land. But you didn't hear it here.
Chapter 8 - Sylvan Lake
Sylvan Lake is considered the crown jewel of Custer State Park – it's one of the most stunning waterholes you could possibly find. Canoe or kayak, go fishing for trout, swim, rent paddleboats or simply head off on one of the many walks around its perimetre that weave in and out of beautiful natural rock sculptures. You'll be joined by many a chipmunk and squirrel.
In the forest next to the lake is Sylvan Lake Lodge, in a prime position that was suggested by architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Built of stone and wood in typical Rocky Mountain ski lodge style in 1937, it has a main lodge with lovely rooms and a great restaurant, bar and area for relaxing in couches around an open fire.
There are also 31 wooden cabins (Daniel Boone style) scattered about the property. They're tucked into the pine and spruce forest and have awe-inspiring views of the surrounding mountains. The lodge is 1,870 metres above sea level, so you really do feel on top of the world up there.
The cabins are large yet cosy, and all have their own bathrooms and open fireplaces with a little wooden table and chairs if you feel like a night in. The main lodge sells bundles of firewood, so make sure you prepare.
On my last night in a cabin at Slyvan Lodge (just before Autumn arrived) I made sure the fire was cranking, cracked open a bottle of Firehouse Cabernet Reserve, and settled in with some local beef jerky called Sturgis. The Gapp family have been making this super tasty jerky since 1964, so it's no surprise that they seriously have the art down pat.
I sat by my cabin window, gazing out over the Needles Highway, feeling just like a homesteading pioneer woman in the South Dakotan wilderness. Some white-tailed deer gathered to nibble on the trees below my cabin, looking every bit like reindeer. Then the snow began to fall, turning the land into a place as magical as Narnia. And with that, my buffalo-seeking adventure seemed utterly complete.
Photos courtesy of South Dakota Department of Tourism
WILD WEST FACT FILE
Mount Rushmore National Memorial
Crazy Horse Memorial
Firehouse Brewing Co.
Murphy’s Pub and Grill
Sylvan Lake Lodge
For more information on Needles Highway, Black Hills, The Badlands National Park, Custer State Park, the Buffalo Roundup and all other things South Dakota, please visit: travelsouthdakota.com and greatamericanwest.com.au
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