The Black Hills had always been sacred to the Sioux that occupied them, and had been set aside in a treaty, until gold was discovered, and the US government reneged on those promises. The struggle for ownership of this land was the impetus for much of the fighting that went on during the Great Sioux War in 1876.
I don’t know much about gold but have definitely been around some spirits in my time, and could feel their presence that night, camping in the foothills, the wind blowing through the trees, rocking my tent back and forth. It felt like the wind was blowing through channels high above my head, running in different directions, each with its own voice. Then one would suddenly swoop down and lay its hands on me, shaking my consciousness so that nothing else mattered but the wind, the night, and that very moment.
It was my plan to head over to Mount Rushmore that day, but first I planned on driving through Deadwood and Sturgis. I was up before the break of day, as usual, wanting nothing more than to be driving my trusty rental car, the Mountain Bluebird, across not only the face of land, but that of time, seeking out and finding pages from the past that had been scattered along the way.
As I drove towards Deadwood the sun was only beginning to rise. It sat atop a telephone pole like a pink golf ball on a tee. Deadwood had come to life as a boomtown during the Gold Rush. Overnight, the population went from practically zero to over 25,000 fortune-seekers. Prospectors, gamblers, prostitutes. It was a good place to get rich and also a good place to get killed. The most famous assassination was that of Wild Bill Hickock, shot dead during a poker game holding what has become known as the Dead Man’s Hand, two black aces and two black eights.
Wild Bill Hickock is one of those figures out of the Wild West, who largely created his own legend. He is reported to have been a soldier, scout, lawman, and gunslinger, but he was also a showman and actor, who appeared on stage with Buffalo Bill, so it is hard to separate the fact from the fiction. His hair trigger temper may have stemmed from an earlier nickname he was given, Duck Bill, in which he was mocked for his long nose and protruding lips.
Although reported to having killed over a hundred men in his life, the number may be closer to six or seven, under circumstances that may not have always been fair. The man who shot him, Jack McCall, was eventually found guilty of his murder and hung.
As I drove down Historic Main Street Deadwood it was still early. I parked my car and the first thing I happened across was a statue of Wild Bill himself, sitting in a chair with his legs crossed, a plaque in front of him explain the origin of the Dead Man’s Hand.
A mural not far from that showed an earlier version of the town with a bank, saloon, covered wagon, as well as Wild Bill, Calamity Jane, and a few other assorted frontier folks on horseback, facing the future. There were shootouts on Mainstreet, every day except Sunday at two pm, ghost tours, old time photos, black hills gold and jewelry, casinos, the historic Bullock hotel, the Brothel, the Lucky Nugget Saloon. None of these were open yet. If anyone was out it was just a ghost, blowing down the street.
My next stop was in Sturgis, home to the largest motorcycle rally on the face of the planet, every summer for ten days at the end of August. It was late September by now. I’d missed it by a month. Still, I went to have a look around. Most of what I witnessed were just motorcycle shops and bars, not yet open yet either.
From there it was an hour and a half to Mount Rushmore. I took the 90 to Rapid City and then the 16 south from there, passing Bear Country USA and Old McDonald’s Farm. When I got to Cosmos Mystery Area, I turned left on the 16A. In a few miles I could see them, the faces of the four presidents, looking smaller than expected. I’d arrived at one of the greatest tourist attractions in the country, not for the first time, and hopefully not for the last. It was time to get out and see, once again, what all of the fuss was about.