Legends, history, scenery and great hospitality,
Tessa Gates found them all in South Dakota.
Photographs: Jonathan Page
THE collection of weathered clapboard buildings look like they are waiting for Clint Eastwood to blow in from the Badlands. This is Scenic, a dot on the South Dakota map just a dusty few minutes off Highway 44.
We spot it because of an old wooden church and lone paint pony that look too romantically photogenic for the posse of photographers in our vehicle to miss. What we found when we got nearer caused a camera clicking frenzy.
The Longhorn Saloon – Indians allowed – is adorned with dozens of cattle skulls bleached white by the sun. On the porch a somewhat inebriated native American mutters bad temperedly as the snappers swarm. "Youd think theyd buy a guy a drink," he says over and over. Inside its dark after the bright sunlight. Locals are drinking but as the chat stops we dont linger despite its old world appeal and sawdust floor. We feel like gawping intruders – perhaps without so many cameras we would have had more of a welcome, and a beer.
The Longhorn Store was shut and shuttered. This too was decorated with skulls and I longed to find out what was sold inside. Would it be sacks of coffee, tin mugs, saddle blankets and spurs – or frozen food and magazines? Such flights of fancy occur all the time when you visit places familiar from books and films you grew up on. I didnt really expect to find a stage coach in Deadwood, but I did. It wasnt "comin on over the hill" like the song – it was in a quirky museum called The Days of 76. Its old but sprightly owner Don Clowser once ran a trading post and has a wonderful collection of beautifully beaded Indian clothing, feathered war bonnets and other artifacts and dozens of Winchester rifles. Here historians Dean and Jeannie Guern, in costume, bring the old days of Deadwood and the Gold Rush alive and tell tales of Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane who are buried in the local boot hill.
Fantasy and fact mix easily in Deadwood – where else can you stay and find the manager of First Gold Hotel is a fast draw champion – and never more so than during one weekend in June when 80 costumed characters from the bad old days roam the streets and tourists can sit on the jury of a re-enactment of the trial of Jack McCall, the man who shot Wild Bill as he was playing cards.
Men were tough in those times, just how tough is to be imagined when you see the Badlands. How anyone traversed this barren lunar landscape is a mystery but modern roads make it easier to view today. We got there just before dawn and watched the sun come up and paint its eerie surface with changing colours from dusky purples and mauves through the whole spectrum of the rainbow as the sun got higher in the sky. Take plenty of film – this place is addictive.
We met more cowboys than Indians on our trip but we saw some fabulous paintings of them in Hill City – which is full of arts and crafts studios – and got to watch the Lakota War Dancers of the Blackhills perform. This family trio is dad Sidney Whitesell the 1971 War Dance Champion, his daughter Ashley and son Frank.
Frank, now 16, was a national champion dancer at the age of six and is a current fancy dance champion. In his elaborate outfit with beads and bells, eagle feather, deer tail and porcupine quills, he steps some fancy footwork while executing the hoop dance. This was purely ceremonial in the 1800s using four hoops to signify the four winds. Todays competitive dancers have added more hoops and Frank uses eight to become an insect, bird, butterfly and eagle.
The Indians today are finding their traditions again, despite their biggest incomes coming from gambling concessions. Crazy Horse, the chief who engineered General Custers defeat and met an ignominious end, stabbed in the back by a soldier while under a flag of truce, is commemorated in a moving memorial that has already been more than 53 years in the making. It is the largest sculpture in the world and incredibly, is a private venture.
The Lakota tribe picked Crazy Horse for the memorial and insisted that it be built in their sacred Black Hills. Sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski started work in 1948 on a 600ft mountain working with just a jack hammer and dynamite. He died in 1982 but his wife Ruth and seven of their 10 children continue to work on the memorial which is as long as a cruise ship and as high as a 60-storey sky-scraper. The face is now finished and work has begun on the horses head. There is no finish date, work here is measured in tonnes, decades and generations. It is a dream, a vision and the artists family are committed to fulfilling it.
Our trip was a wonderful mix of modern hospitality and old time myth and history. Here legends come alive again thank goodness, for as the wise old Indian Standing Bear said When the legends die the dreams end, and when the dreams end there is no more greatness.
In South Dakota no-one is allowing the legends to die.
• For complete travel information contact: South Dakota Dept of Tourism,
711 E.Wells Ave,
Pierre, SD 57501-
3369 USA orwww.travelsd.com
Past and present blur in Scenic where the Longhorn saloon is still open for business, and in Deadwood where Dean Guern brings history to life.
Work in progress: Ruth Ziolkowski is dwarfed by the head of Crazy Horse. The monument was started by her husband in 1948 and now their children are continuing the work to his detailed plans.
Frank Whitesell of the Lakota War Dancers of the Blackhills, is the national fancy dance champion.
The Badlands – a hard but strangely beautiful landscape. Inset: Wild Bill Hickok is buried in Deadwood.