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Where the West Was Wild

Originally Published in MotorHome Magazine

The deafening explosion, within inches of my head, sounded more like a cannon than the Colt
six-shooter that Jack McCall had fired into the head of the seated gambler. “Wild Bill”
Hickok slumped forward onto the poker table – dead. The cards he held fluttered to the
floor- pairs of aces and eights, which forever would be known as the “dead man’s hand.” I
wondered whether a time machine had transported me back to Deadwood, South Dakota, and
Saloon No. 10 on that fateful second day of August 1876, when I found myself seated across
the sawdust-covered floor from Wild Bill and some cronies playing poker. McCall’s sudden
and unexplained assassination of the legendary gambler and gunfighter is recreated daily,
an event that would permanently define Deadwood’s shoot-’em-up reputation. I discovered
this, after picking myself up off the floor and dusting the sawdust from my jeans. Deadwood
still thrives on the rowdy character of the gold rush town when legends like “Potato Creek”
Johnny, Preacher Smith and “Calamity Jane” walked its muddy streets, gambling and drinking
in the boisterous saloons. In fact, on any given day you can still hear all 4-foot 3-inches
of Potato Creek Johnny boasting about the gold nugget he had found, the largest in the
area. Impersonators, so historically realistic they seem cloned from the originals, roam
the streets, shooting each other as they did in 1876. Calamity Jane, as tough-looking now
as then, frequently can be found hooting it up, cracking her whip at some hapless Eastern
dude and downing whiskey with the aplomb of any gun-totin’ mule skinner. “She claimed to be
Wild Bill’s sweetheart,” says local historian Mary Kopco, director of the 1892 Adams Museum
and House, “but it was pure fabrication on her part. It is true, however, that she asked to
be buried by ‘her Bill’ when she died, and she was.” You can see their tombstones on Boot
Hill, more formally known as Mount Moriah Cemetery. The discovery of gold in 1874 by a
soldier from General Custer’s expedition put Deadwood on the map and ignited the Black
Hills gold rush. Prospectors, entrepreneurs, ladies of the evening, swindlers, gamblers,
gunfighters, as well as U.S. Marshall Hickok, flooded in, hoping to extract their fortunes
from Deadwood Gulch and the miners. Some historians contend that gold was first discovered
as early as 1834. If true, why didn’t the gold rush explode across the grassy plains until
40 years later? In 1887, Louis Thoen found an unusual piece of sandstone at the base of
Lookout Mountain in Spearfish, 19 miles northwest of where the later gold strike actually
occurred. Cleaning up the stone, Thoen was able to decipher several words carved into the
stone: “Got all the gold we could carry. Our ponies all got by Indians. Have lost my gun
and nothing to eat and Indians hunting me.” It was signed by Ezra Kind and dated 1834.
Authentication efforts have verified that Kind and six others set out looking for gold in
1833 and disappeared. The indigenous tribes at the time had mixed feelings about the white
man encroaching on their territory and knew what the discovery of the white man’s passion
could mean to their lifestyle. It would not be unreasonable to assume that they had
dispatched the gold-hunting party and buried the evidence somewhere in the vicinity of
Lookout Mountain. It is absolutely untrue that just because we spent the next couple of
days at the Spearfish City Campground and hiked extensively around Lookout Mountain we
expected to find a hidden cache of gold. However, the centrally located campground proved
to be an ideal starting point for a Spearfish-to-Rapid City tour through the scenic Black
Hills National Forest. Spearfish is a big town for the region, population nearly 8,500, and
large enough for a Wal-Mart, a Super Kmart and a Safeway. A family of mallard ducks greeted
us at the tree-shaded Spearfish City Campground, which remained remarkably cool, despite
the 90 F temperature. Its namesake creek, we were told, is one of only two creeks in the
world that freeze from the bottom up. It flowed the length of the campground, providing
cool wading for tired feet, gentle rapids for tubing and a paved bike-and-hike path.
Adjacent to the campground, the D.C. Booth Historic Fish Hatchery’s underwater viewing
windows provide entertainment, as well as pleasant strolling on the grassy lawns separating
the fish ponds and historical displays, including a railroad car being refurbished to
replicate the fish-hauling cars of the past. Nearby, the 200-member cast of the
long-running Black Hills Passion Play (in its 64th year) performs Tuesday,
Thursday and Sunday evenings every summer. This world-famous production includes many local
townspeople and animals. Curator J.D. Henderson says of the High Plains Heritage Center’s
extensive collection of cowboy, ranch, farm and Native American artifacts: “We try to show
how people survived.” They’ve done a good job, including presenting weekly programs,
lectures and demonstrations of early pioneer life. The Dr. Dolittle of Spearfish, Michael
Welchynski, established his Spirit of the Hills Wildlife Sanctuary in 1999 when he
relocated from Canada. His mission is to provide a safe haven for injured and orphaned
wildlife and a permanent home for unwanted, abused or neglected animals. His current
menagerie of about 150 residents includes Tara, a 350-pound Siberian tiger, and her coyote
friend; Hercules, a 600-pound male African Barbay lion; and Elroy, a camel who stars in the
passion play. Spearfish Canyon/U.S. Highway 14A, which follows Spearfish Creek, is a
designated scenic byway. A selfguided brochure is available from the Spearfish Visitor
Center. The forces of nature created the canyon when a huge inland sea drained, eroding
softer rock from the brown shale and red, gray and buff-colored limestone that today
dominates the jagged cliff tops. Four distinct vegetative regions merge in the canyon, a
unique combination supporting more than 1,200 plant species. The wildflowers, grasses and
water-loving sycamores, willows and reeds create a habitat to the liking of wild birds.
More than 130 species use the canyon, along with wildlife such as white-tail and mule deer,
raccoons and mountain goats. Until the train pushed through in 1893, sightseers could
access the canyon only on foot. A devastating flood claimed most of the railroad in 1933,
and the present road replaced the tracks. As the road winds up the canyon, ponderosa pines
become more dominant, their dark green needles appearing almost black on the distant hills.
Native Americans called them paha sapa, meaning “black hills.” Just before
reaching the town of Savoy, Little Spearfish Canyon joins from the right, at one of the
canyon’s most spectacular viewpoints, and one of the first places to see the leaves turn in
the fall. A couple miles west of Savoy, Little Spearfish Creek looks like a movie setting
(in fact, many scenes in Dances With Wolves were shot here). Soft green grassy banks follow
the tree-shaded creek along a flat shelf, over tiny waterfalls, rapids and miniature
swimming holes, until dropping off into Roughlock Falls. The creek, only 3 to 4 feet
across, is full of splashing, laughing little bodies, the banks covered with blankets
spread with picnics and people under the warm sun. The scenic byway officially ends at
Cheyenne Crossing, 19 miles south of Spearfish and eight miles from the town of Lead
(pronounced “Leed”), which is home to the Homestake Gold Mine. Three miles farther, and
you’re back in Deadwood, but halfway in between, U.S. 385 turns southeast, continuing
through the Black Hills toward Rapid City, 42 miles away. About a third of the way down,
Roubaix Lake, a national forest campground, is a nice choice for a picnic, a swim, or
camping under the ponderosas. (No hookups are available, but several full-service RV
resorts are located throughout the Black Hills; check the 2003 Trailer Life
Directory). From the lake, we recommend loop trip to explore Rochford and the George S.
Mickelson Trail. From the entrance to the lake, turn back north a mile to FS 256, a good
crushed-limestone road to paved FS 17. Turn south and follow to Rochford, a community of
10, mostly Bert Mason’s family. The town consists of Mason’s general store, the gas
station, the post office and the Moonshine Gulch Saloon and Restaurant. Mason’s
grandfather, a concert violinist and watchmaker, came to the area on vacation in the early
1900s. He became afflicted with gold fever and stayed. Finding little placer gold in the
streams, but ruining his hands for the delicate requirements of violining and watchmaking,
he turned to the bottle and died an unhappy man. But Bert Mason, except for college and a
stint as an air-traffic controller, stayed in Rochford. He bought the store in 1989 and,
with his wife, is raising a family of five children. “I won’t get rich,” he says, “but I’m
living where I want to, doing what I want to. How many people can say that?” Following the
old Deadwood-to-Edgemont Burlington Northern rail line, the 114-mile-long Mickelson Trail
passes through four hard-rock tunnels and over more than 100 converted railroad bridges in
some of the most scenic parts of the Black Hills. This section of the trail takes mountain
bikers, hikers and equestrians through wildflower meadows and wild berry patches along
Rapid and Castle creeks between Rochford and Mystic. With few places to purchase food or
find potable water along this trail, it is wise to carry your own and wear appropriate
clothing and sunscreen. You can access the trail from 14 trail heads, all with adequate
parking for motorhomes. A trail pass and a map can be obtained at several self-service
stations for a nominal daily-use fee. To complete the loop, continue south from Rochford to
FS 237, turn left (northeast) back to U.S. 385 at Trout Haven, catch your dinner and cook
it in the grassy meadow campground, or turn left to return to Roubaix Lake. A few miles to
the south, State Route 44 heads east to Rapid City, where you can rejoin I-90, cash in your
gold dust and gaze across the Great Plains where the buffalo still roam.

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