Badass Badlands: a Surreal Landscape

Pillars and spires, pinnacles and hoodoos, canyons and gorges, ridges and ravines, bands of colors and beds of fossils, mixed-grass prairies and resilient wildlife…the Badlands of South Dakota are a scenic recipe so fantastic that I sometimes wondered if my camera could adequately capture the range of strangeness that surrounded me.

But I was up for the challenge!

What follows is a visual diary of Badlands National Park…told in 3 parts.

Part One–The Yellow Mounds of Dillon Pass

From a distance, this mustard-colored landscape qualifies as the perfect location for a film shoot on an alien planet.

Leah and I were casually driving along the Badlands Loop Road near Dillon Pass,

when the Yellow Mounds popped into view…

and I knew that I had to explore this phenomena more thoroughly.

I climbed atop one of the mounds…

which overlooked a network of foot paths…

to the Pinnacles on one side of the hill,

and offered an outstanding overlook of the Conata Basin to the southwest…

and beyond.

And as I surveyed the scene below,

I realized that the scope of South Dakota’s Badlands defies framing.

The Badlands cannot be contained, and the sheer beauty and colors transcend any exposure.

Biking the Black Hills

During our travels across America, Leah and I have cycled on several amazing rail trails–each one offering a variety of gorgeous scenery, interesting terrain, historical context, and wildlife features. The Black Hills of South Dakota boasts the George S. Mickelson Trail, which checks all the right boxes.

The trail follows 109 miles of Burlington Northern’s historic rail line from Deadwood to Edgemont–

crossing 100 converted railroad bridges…

and pedaling through 4 tunnels.

The result is breathtakingly beautiful.

Named after South Dakota’s governor following his untimely death in 1993, George S. Mickelson’s ardent support was instrumental in creating a non-motorized mixed-use trail,

from his dedication of the first 6 miles in 1991 to the trail’s completion in 1998.

Rather than limiting our linear miles, we rode the trail from Dumont (its highest elevation point at 6240 ft) to Hill City,

and hired a taxi service to transport our bikes back to Dumont.

The trail consisted of crushed limestone and gravel which was perfect for our road bikes clad with all-terrain tires.

While riding the trail was effortless (mostly a slow downhill roll), there were many reasons to stop:

whether to soak up the landscape;

or reflect on South Dakota’s cultural heritage–such as farmers using cyanide lids left over from Deadwood’s Gold Rush days to shingle and side their houses.

All of which made for a glorious outing,

which only adds to the allure of Black Hills lore.

What’s Mine is Mine

Leah and I were prospecting for wedding bands along downtown Deadwood’s famed historic Main Street when we ran into a local miner–a chip off the old block–who told us that touring the abandoned gold mine on the edge of town was a hoot and a value-added experience.

Broken Boot Gold Mine has been running tours and amateur gold panning since reopening as a visitor attraction in 1954–long after the last ounce of gold was discovered.

The 15,000 ounces of gold extracted from Sein’s Mine (1878 -1904) through pickaxe and candlelight was hardly the mother lode the Sein Brothers had hoped for, but a rich vein of iron pyrite (also known as fool’s gold) ran through the mine, and that was just enough to make the mine profitable…for a time.

The mine closed in 1904, but reopened in 1917 to extract iron pyrite for the war effort. After a year, all mining operations stopped and the mine went quiet…

until Olaf Seim’s daughter (and sole heir) was persuaded by promoters to segue Sein’s Mine into Broken Boot Gold Mine–thereby creating a new tourist experience and de facto location for shlock horror movies…

According to the operators of Broken Boot Gold Mine, “[it] has operated longer and more successfully as a visitor attraction than it did as a working mine.”

Leah and I made a $14.00 investment (seniors get a $1 discount), which got us a 40-minute walk-thru and Wild West mining advice. We donned our plastic pastel safety helmets and entered a tunnel that was dim and chilly.

We crept through reinforced passages with 10 other investors,

and imagined a 10-hour shift in relative darkness–about the time it took to burn through one candle–while searching for precious metal,

and valuable mineral deposits.

Our guide reinforced the feeling of claustrophobia by switching off the lights and allowing our eyes to adjust to total darkness before lighting a single candle, a miner’s only light source.

Despite the price of gold hovering near $1,800 per ounce, few amateur miners were willing to spend an extra 10 bucks for gold panning lessons after the tour…

while Leah was completely satisfied with her bogus stock certificate.

Dateline: Deadwood, SD

Leah and I deliberately planned our arrival to Deadwood to coincide with the conclusion of the 81st Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, and for good reason. This year’s 10-day event brought 700,000 bikers to Deadwood’s neighbor town of 7,000 residents amid the highly infectious Delta variant–without vaccination, testing or masking requirements–which from a Covid-19 perspective is equivalent to shoveling 100 pounds of shit into a 1-lb. bag.

Adding perspective to our paranoia, last year’s event qualified as the nation’s #1 super-spreader of the summer when 462,000 gathered for the rally–infecting 649 with Covid, and contributing to soaring hospitalizations throughout the region, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Despite the many Harleys that lingered at our campground beyond the last tequila shots and freshly inked tats, the streets of Deadwood were relatively crowd-free. We weaved around occasional families, and dodged small gatherings of people dressed in leather vests when they were missing masks.

Because we had little interest in repeating the same activities that brought us to the Black Hills 4 years ago–albeit still wanting to be safe in the process–we decided on pursuits that would limit our exposure to the Delta variant, like: cycling on the George Michelson Rail Trail;

touring a gold mine on the edge of town;

and strolling through Mt. Moriah Cemetery…

which I’ll detail now, with the other activity highlights to follow in future posts.

On a clear day, the best view of Deadwood gulch and the surrounding Black Hills comes from Mt. Moriah Cemetery, rising 200 ft. above town. And from the look of early photographs taken from the edge of Deadwood’s Boot Hill, not much has changed.

Thanks to the 23 casinos across town, the revenue taxed from gaming has funded the Deadwood Historic Preservation Commission which provides loans and grants for large-scale restoration projects that manage to keep the 19th century vibe alive.

When strolling down Main Street, it’s easy to imagine the likes of Jack McCall sneaking up on Wild Bill Hickok while he played a hand of poker at Saloon #10,

and shooting him dead in the back of the head on August 2, 1876.

Wild Bill’s final resting place is just beyond the cemetery gates.

Calamity Jane, per her dying wish, keeps him company next door.

However, it was widely known that Wild Bill had no use for her and considered her a nuisance, which makes their graveyard union the cruelest of eternal jokes.

There are many distinct sections of Mt. Moriah Cemetery:

A children’s section of unmarked graves calls attention to a time of heartfelt tragedy;

In Section Six, an alter for offerings to departed spirits denotes the thriving community of 400 Chinese immigrants who followed their dream of striking it rich during Deadwood’s Gold Rush. Thirty-three souls were buried in Section Six, but only three remain, with the majority having been disinterred and returned to China;

There is a Soldiers’ Lot of Civil War veterans administered by the NCA;

But most interesting is the Jewish section, known as Hebrew Hill, honoring many Jewish pioneers who made significant civic, commercial and social contributions to Deadwood society, notably:

Harris Franklin, an immigrant entrepreneur from Prussia who amassed a fortune through banking, ranching, mining, and hospitality, and whose son became the the second mayor of Deadwood;

and Nathan Colman, who became Deadwood’s life-long elected Justice of the Peace, and lay Rabbi for the Jewish community for more than thirty years. His daughter, Blanche was the first woman from Black Hills to be admitted to the South Dakota Bar.

Oddly, Solomon Star is missing from Mt. Zion. He died alone on his Deadwood estate in 1917, and was thrown a lavish funeral fit for a king by the townsfolk…but he was buried in St. Louis.

Sol Star was a dedicated public servant, who served on Deadwood’s first town council before becoming Deadwood’s ten-term Mayor. He was elected to the State House of Representatives, and won a seat in South Dakota’s State Senate shortly after. He finished his civic career as Lawrence County’s Clerk of Courts for twenty years.

But if that wasn’t enough, Sol Star was also a long-time business associate of Seth Bullock, the undisputed king of the hill…

from where he shares unimpeded views of the Black Hills with his wife, Martha beside him.

Seth Bullock’s origin story is an essential part of Black Hills lore. He arrived two days after Wild Bill was murdered and was quickly appointed Deadwood’s first Sheriff. He was an imposing figure who got the job done without ever killing a man or woman.

He celebrated his deeply personal friendship with Teddy Roosevelt by building The Friendship Tower atop a peak in the Black Hills National Forest 2.5 miles from Deadwood…

and declared it Mount Roosevelt.

All the history that’s baked into the bones of Deadwood’s dearly departed, and all of the iconic imagery that’s scattered among them are references and remembrances of a time when people pulled together and persevered.

Together, they tamed the Wild West. Together, they defeated lawlessness with civility, and went on to create a diverse and inclusive community that was determined to improve their condition through mutual cooperation.

And they accomplished this in the midst of Black Hills, South Dakota…

which helps to restore my faith in optimism.

Rock Art

Billings was our final stopover in Montana before continuing east to Deadwood, SD. Upon arrival, Billings health officials issued a local advisory restricting outdoor activity due to a blanket of smoke and ash that had invaded the valley from several regional fires that were burning unabated.

While we would have preferred exploring the winding trails through the Rimrock Bluffs–overlooking the Yellowstone River and town–we lowered our expectations, given the extreme heat and unhealthy air quality index, and opted for a brief walking tour through Pictograph Cave State Park, known for its natural and cultural significance.

Just a 5-mile jaunt south of Billings, we approached a sandstone bluff in the shape of a horseshoe, and turned into an empty parking lot. Surprisingly, the Visitor’s Center was open and filled with a variety of artifacts that WPA workers recovered from the cave floor between 1937 and 1941–considered the first major archeological excavation on the Northern Plains.

In all, over 30,000 artifacts were discovered, with some dating back over 9,000 years.

We cautiously hiked up a narrow, sandy footpath through sprigs of yarrow and juniper shrubs, hoping to avoid an encounter with a prairie rattlesnake or bull snake…

until we reached the mouth of Pictograph Cave, revealing a stone wall that was once part of a ceremonial lodge. The dotted line above the left side of the wall structure was drawn by WPA workers to mark the original floor line before they began digging.

We stood motionless for a beat to allow our eyes to adjust to the shadows, before scanning the cave in search of ancient charcoal and red markings. Even with the help of graphic displays that emphasized these creations,

it was no less a challenge to identify the drawings due to a veil of calcium that had formed over the pigment during a dry period. These figures were carbon dated between 1480 to 1650 A.D.

The red pigment was created from an ancient recipe combining ground up hematite (concentrated iron ore) with assorted binders such as animal fat, berries, blood and adjusted with water or urine while heated to form a paste that was applied by finger or stick.

A rack of flintlock rifles that were painted within the last 200 years is located no more than 15 feet away from the other figures.

While not the easiest to decipher, a nearby graphic makes it more apparent.

Continuing our walk along the cliff, we reached a middle cave with evidence of clams fossils and other sea life embedded in sandstone that likely lived during the late Cretaceous Period when this portion of America was under water.

Then up a rising that followed the curvature of the cliff, we reached the Ghost Cave. While no drawings were discovered here, a series of round boulders known as concretions formed as a result of a clam bed that was exposed when the sea eventually receded.

These cliffs continue to evolve as winter ice cuts through brittle stone; massive rains charge over the cliffs, turning into intermittent waterfalls; and smoke ash eats away at porous surfaces.

While the evolution of our landscape is inevitable, we must look for ways to tap the brakes on what’s creating the intensity and severity of our man-made issues, and allow nature to take its true course.

After all, it’s not supposed to be this hot; it’s not supposed to be this dry; and it’s not supposed to be this smoky during Montana summers.