South Dakota…Joining a Tour Group?…The Deadly But Gorgeous Black Hills…Fancy Hotel…Part 1

South Dakota

I am soooo excited. We are so close to the border of South Dakota and I cannot wait. I didn’t know much about the state at that time, but I knew there were buffalo, and badlands and magnificent forests so that was more than enough for me.

South Dakota is one of my favorite places that I have visited. I wanted to move there immediately. But first… lets get there.

We finish up the drive through Nebraska, going through many small villages with populations of any where from 100 to 200 people. Crookston, Kilgore, Cody and Merriman to name a few. Each of these villages are named after railroad officials as the railroad wound its way through Nebraska to the North and these little settlements were created.

After about an hour, we cross the state line into…Martin, South Dakota.

Welcome to South Dakota

South Dakota is the 39th or 40th State in the USA…..think I am unsure?….nope. President Huffington signed the papers for both North Dakota and South Dakota, declaring them states in 1889 on the same day, at the same time. But first he shuffled the papers, so no one knows which one he actually signed first….not even him. Way to keep things exciting Mr. President. In 1743, the area now known as South Dakota was claimed by France. In 1803 the United States purchased the area back….from Napoleon Bonaparte. Wow..

South Dakota is home to the absolutely lush and gorgeous Black Hills. It also has grassy plains, The Badlands, buttes and the James River, a tributary of the Missouri river and it runs for 710 miles between North and South Dakota.

The James River

Some people you may know came from South Dakota: Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of Little House on the Prairie…Catherine Bach, Daisy on the Dukes of Hazard…Cheryl Ladd, of Charlies Angels…Bob Barker, who lived on the Rosebud Reserve, and news anchor Tom Brokaw.

Some historical folk that made Deadwood, South Dakota their home were Seth Bullock, Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane. More on them later when we get to Deadwood.

We travel through the South West part of this state, heading towards the Black Hills. We go through Martin, Balesland and Ogalala all small towns and all located within the parameters of the Pine Ridge Reservation.

Pine Ridge Reservation

The Pine Ridge Reservation is the land of the Ogalala Lakota peoples. It is 2.1 million acres (8500 square kilometers) and contains the Badlands throughout the reservation. The actual population is approximately 26,000 with 46,000 registered Band Members. There is a lot of history associated with this area: the Battle of Wounded Knee and Stronghold Table-site of the last Ghost Dance in honor of Crazy Horse days before his death to name a few. This is the 8th largest reservation in the USA and the poorest: many people have no electricity, running water or sewage and those who have wood stoves have little resources to burn given the lack of forests on the land. In spite of this, the Ogalala Lakota have built a college and an elder care facility and do operate ecotourism and cultural tourism businesses as well as a casino.

As we are passing through the Reservation, I am struck by the spirit of the place. It is haunting….you can almost see the warriors heading home from a successful buffalo hunt and the dancing around the fires…it is beyond description.

We do pass children on horseback….small children on beautiful horses…riding bareback and loosely holding the horses mane. As a horsewoman, I am amazed at the bond you can feel between horse and rider….its palpable. We did also see many signs that let us know that this was the territory of the Ogalala Lakota, and that there was no trespassing or hunting in the area. Although we didn’t stop at any of the tourist attractions, I have heard that the guides are so friendly and wanting to share their stories and history. On another visit I will definitely stop to see some of these sites.

Horseback in Pine Ridge Reservation

I also see my first buffalo….ever…on the Reservation….oh my….I didn’t know how big they were…..they are huge. The herd of 300 on the Reservation is actually owned by the Federal Government, but is managed by the Ogalala Lakota. There are no fences here….so lets just say the buffalo are able at any time to get up close and personal. Thankfully they stayed at a respectful distance as we slowly went passed. The buffalo is revered by the Ogalala Lakota, and I can certainly see why.

Buffalo Herd at Pine Ridge Reservation

We continue heading west towards the Black Hills. I have never seen such a sight. The Black Hills, sacred to many of the Indian tribes, are not that tall, with the tallest peak being Black Elk Peak rising to only 7200 ft…high enough right? The hills have many, many deep valleys, covered in pine trees and from a distance the area looks black or dark, even in the sunlight, thus the name Black Hills.

Driving in the Black Hills is a bikers dream. Winding roads are endless and you swerve constantly from left to right, under the massive pines of the forests and sometimes through the coolest tunnels cut into the rock. It is advisable that you follow the speed limit. There are many hairpin turns and unfortunately, closer to Deadwood and Sturgis, you see many crosses on the side of the road where someone has died taking that corner too fast. It is not a route for the faint of heart, but is certainly the route of the adventurer.

The Spectacular Black Hills
Taking a Turn on the Black Hills Winding Road

The first place we get to is Hot Springs. This is an old resort town with numerous hot springs with water temperatures at 31 degrees….seems perfect for the aching body of a biker. This is also the site of Mammoth Site of Hot Springs, home to the worlds largest archeological find of mammoth fossils. We didn’t stop in but I am sure it is worth the stop another time.

Hot Springs, South Dakota

The next town is Custer, named of course, after General George Custer. This is the oldest town in the Black Hills inhabited by Europeans. In 1874, while on an expedition, General Custer discovered gold in the Black Hills, and as you can imagine, once word got out, a gold rush began. This caused numerous issues with the Indians who found the hills sacred and considered them not to be harmed or lived on. Close to Custer is Mount Rushmore, and the Crazy Horse Memorial. I will tell you more about the memorial soon.

Custer, South Dakota

Next is Hill City. Known as the Heart of the Hills due to its location right in the center of the hills, it is a tiny town but is the home of the arts of the Black Hills. Numerous events including festivals and art shows as well as art galleries are in this lovely little town. Here is an interesting piece of relatively recent history of Hill City. An archeologist named Sue Hendrickson was working for the Black Hills Institute and in August of 1990 she made a discovery near the edge of Hill City…the worlds most complete fossilized body of a t-rex. It was promptly named Sue…perfect. The discovery quickly led to a court battle over who owned Sue…the land owner (Maurice Williams), the Indian tribes, the Federal Government or the Black Hills Institute. In 1992, mid way through the court case, the FBI seized Sue and it took them 3 days to move her to a mining and technology institute. Years later, a verdict was finally reached in this case and Sue was sold by Sothebys Auction House. The President of the Black Hills Institute was sentenced to 2 years in Federal Prison for having Sue hidden away. Who purchased Sue you wonder? Well the land owner, Mr. Maurice Williams did and he promptly sold her to a museum in Chicago….for 8.6 million dollars. Why couldn’t they just let poor Sue rest!

We are now heading into Deadwood…..Yippee! We look for an affordable place to stay as we had decided to stay here and explore the area for 3 days. We couldn’t find anything reasonable so we booked the cheapest thing we could find which was a resort outside of town about 30 minutes. This wasn’t ideal because it meant early nights for us since we didn’t ride in the dark if we didn’t have to. We were standing on the sidewalk, none to happy with our choice when along came a good sized group of fellow bikers. They were in town for a conference. They stopped and chatted for a bit and we ended up talking to the guy that was running the conference. When he heard where we were staying he said….”Cancel your reservation and follow me”. So of course we of blind faith did just that. And we followed him into the Hickock Hotel.

He told us that a couple of bikers had cancelled last minute but their rooms were still being held for the convention… the convention rate. Significantly cheaper than the regular rate for a great hotel. So we walked up to the check in desk, said we were with the convention, he vouched for us and presto…..we were in. We thanked him and we all got busy settling in to our rooms. I don’t recall ever seeing that group again.

Let me describe this hotel. Its older but it, like most all of Deadwood, is decorated in period pieces. My room had a massive fireplace, a claw foot bathtub and get this….two tvs…one I faced if I was laying on my back in bed and the other if I was laying on my left side on the bed….not exactly period pieces but convenient….although I didn’t ever turn them on.

The hotel had the old school elevators with the protruding buttons for service and the iron grating that you pulled down before the door closed…I took the stairs often.

Downstairs was a casino and bar and a restaurant, although I didn’t ever eat there. This was such an amazing place to stay and I felt like the queen of this little town. I loved it.

Deadwood itself is a real mix…wild west… meets carnival …meets scenic vistas… meets history. To understand it is to visit it. It suited me just fine in every way.

Deadwood is in the Deadwood Gulch, a deep gulley between the hills. It was a gold rush town that went from a population of 5000 in 1874 to 25,000 in 1876. It was a wild place. Miners, criminals and quick money makers all hit this place up. Along with that came the Madams and their illegal prostitution houses. And the saloons to provide whiskey and take your money with their card games and gambling. And of course, with all of this came lawlessness….numerous murders and beatings and theft and a lot of unfair justice you might say. It was a wild place that attracted many famous names: Calamity Jane-frontierswoman/dancer/prostitute/medic… Seth Bullock-entrepreneur/sheriff… Wyatt Earp-investor and Wild Bill Hickok-gambler/gunslinger.

I will share more of the story of Deadwood as you journey with me over the next two days. But on this night, its a quick bit to eat, a walk down main street and early to bed. Tomorrow is another day…and have I got a treat for you…a visit to a work of art commissioned by…Kevin Costner…after he filmed Dances With Wolves in this area.

My head is swimming because there is so much to see and learn here…3 days…forget that…I want to move here.

See you for Part 2 of my South Dakota adventures.

Live Your Life…Jan

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