All we did was drive from the Black Hills of South Dakota to the Black Hills of Wyoming, but Point A and Point B were places that evoked so much more. And they were far more welcoming than their menacing names would suggest.
Deadwood evokes images of gambling, gold and gunfights; swinging doors at brawling saloons. The frenzy of the Gold Rush lured thousands of fortune seekers to this city in western South Dakota, an overnight metropolis spawned by prospectors’ prospects. The residents had named like Potato Creek Jonny and Madam Dora DuFran and (most famously) Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickock, who are buried in the area. Hickock was shot dead in a saloon here while playing poker. Aces and eights, the so-called Dead Man’s Hand? That was his last one.
Deadwood is now very much a tourist town. Several blocks of historic Main Street are preserved from its heyday—antique hotels, vintage street lights, 19th-century storefronts, brick paving. And casinos. Lots and lots of little casinos. The whole town is a National Historic District. It is like strolling into the 1880s (if 1880s South Dakota was brimming with tourists and contemporary means of separating visitors from their money).
In the Deadwood area, you can follow ore car rails into the Broken Boot Gold Mine, tour the Adams Mansion, and enjoy a bite at the Buffalo Steakhouse, where they offer a drink called the Royal Flush. Turns out it’s only prune juice. You can also observe a reenactment of Hickock’s murder (which took place on August 2, 1876) at the Old Style Saloon #10. You can follow that up by watching an Old West shootout every night in which his killer (“Crooked Nose” Jack McCall) is captured. Finally, you can watch as the unconventional murder trial of McCall unfolds.
We opted for the murder reenactment in which a Hickock impersonator began by welcoming us to Old Saloon #10, “the only museum in the world with a bar in it.” He then narrated his life story, sat down for a game of cards with some volunteers from the audience, and wound up face down on the table, courtesy of McCall. I even got an action shot of Hickock’s final moments.
Having had our fill of Old West conflict resolution, we filled up on lunch—at The Deadwood Social Club on the saloon’s rooftop. Afterward, we ran into Hickock and McCall again. Turns out they’re friendly sorts after all.
But for us, this visit to Deadwood was more of a stop-and-stroll. I figured gambling has revitalized the city, so I might as well add my two cents amid the various hole-in-the-wall casinos. That didn’t go so well, but at least I came out of it better than Wild Bill.
A mile north of Deadwood, there is an attraction called Tatanka: Story of the Bison. The brainchild of Kevin Costner (and Dances With Wolves happens to be my favorite film), Tatanka offers an interpretive center and a Native American gift shop. But the centerpiece is a dramatic sculpture of 14 bison pursued by three Native Americans on horseback. I mean, it feels like you’re in the middle of a hunt. Pretty cool stuff.
And here are some fascinating facts: As many as 60 million bison may have once roamed the Great Plains of North America. By the 20th century, there were maybe one thousand left. Today, there are some 400,000.
And then we had a close encounter with Devils Tower.
If you remember the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind, various UFO sightings around the world culminate in a first contact scene in which an alien mothership lands at Devils Tower in northeastern Wyoming. Throughout the movie, a couple of characters who had experienced the UFO encounters find themselves gravitating to a certain shape, which turns out to be that distinctive shape of Devils Tower.
What a perfect image for the concept. How many natural American locales would have been so recognizable? Delicate Arch, probably. Maybe Half Dome in Yosemite. But Devils Tower has the shape, the dangerous name, the far-out location. It was well cast.
And two of my favorite things about visiting Devils Tower are the access and the ease. It’s a laid-back experience, up close and personal, not particularly crowded. In fact, the most activity seems to occur at a prairie dog town along the three-mile drive up to the monument.
Our easy mile-and-a-quarter hike around Devils Tower’s circumference allowed us to view it from all angles as the sun outlined its remarkable columns and the boulders at its base that once clung to the side of the formation.
We also saw climbers, tiny dots of humanity who were spending four or five hours in an attempt to reach the summit. Frankly, that would be a bit too much of a close encounter for my taste. But this was an encounter we relished—America’s very first national monument (in 1906). Technically, according to geologists, it is an 867-foot-tall monolithic igneous intrusion, a 60-million-year-old fountain of magma that cooled and fractured into long columns. That’s the scientific summary.
But exploration like this sparks the imagination, so I prefer the fantastic explanations, like the local Native American legend that claims the tower was the stump of a great tree clawed by an enormous bear. Yeah, I can see it.
In fact, we could see it until darkness arrived because we spent the night at a KOA Kampground in the shadow of the great tower, an RV park offering everything from a petting zoo to a burger joint to a nightly outdoor showing of (what else?) Close Encounters.