We had chosen to stay in Deadwood for our exploration of the Black Hills, both for its place in the history of gold mining and because R remembered that they often did reconstructions of shoot-outs and the trial of Jack McCall.
Unfortunately, when we arrived we learnt that all the reconstructions – and a good many of the museums – had shut down for the season on Labour Day. Still, we knew we had plenty we could see the next day, and the motel and town seemed to meet our immediate needs: there was a hot-tub with a view of wooded hills and plenty of bars/restaurants.
On closer inspection however, the town of Deadwood, especially just out of season, is a strange place. It’s a gambling town, so every bar/restaurant has a casino attached. And I don’t mean a swanky room of roulette and black jack tables – just rows of brightly shining machines. People weren’t as friendly as they had been in the mid-west, and the first bar/restaurant we tried seemed to be out to screw people out of their money. We were told that we really couldn’t get much to eat in the bar – we should go up to their restaurant. Heading up in the elevator we felt somewhat trapped – it’s a lot harder to just leave when you have to take an elevator to get out. Still, one look at the overpriced menu from the terrible seats we’d been given and we were back on that elevator out of there. Instead, we found a really good steak just across the road, served in a strange, barn-like room behind the casino and bar, but at least it was good food and a reasonable price.
The second evening we found a pizza place where we could eat at a quieter bar, next door to the main bar and casino. Here we met some of Deadwood’s stranded inhabitants. The barman introduced himself as a thrill seeker from San Diego. He had worked many jobs, including lumber jacking in the Black Hills. He had also been a climber, until his body began to let him down. Now he got his thrills by gambling all night, living for that feeling he got when it was beginning to get light and he only had a few hours left to recover his losses and break even. He had a degree in psychology, but he said the pay for a counselor straight out of college was too low in South Dakota. I think he had child support to pay. When we got him onto politics, that’s when things really got weird. He doesn’t believe in terrorism. He believes that his own government set up 9/11 to keep Americans in a pliable state of fear. I’m not sure I followed the rest about corporations, but I think he believes that American education declined because the government took it over and wants to keep Americans stupid. I was about to say something, but just in time R kicked me and I remembered that you should never, ever, engage a conspiracy theorist in an argument. We finished our pizza and extricated ourselves from the conversation.
In the bar next door, we were tempted by the music of a one man band to stay for one more beer. And were immediately confronted by a drunk young couple asking us to play darts. Not wanting to be rude, we accepted, but soon realised they were far too drunk to actually play. The young woman was a relatively attractive blonde, who repeatedly spilt whatever was in her martini glass as she swayed towards me and R as she spoke. She seemed to like R’s beard. Her husband was equally drunk, and a lot less attractive. In my memory he wears a look of perpetual surprise that his wife had agreed to marry him. As we played various bar games and assured him that we really were from the UK, we noticed that his wife had gone missing. I recalled seeing her with the conspiracy-theorist barman (also wearing a look of gratified surprise), and I – and I think her husband – suspected the worst. As we left the bar her husband was running up the street calling her name.
The rest of our experiences in the Black Hills were far less dramatic. We panned for gold, which initially sounded like a bit gimmicky, but was actually really addictive and engrossing. We learnt the basics and got started just before the official tour of the Engels gold mine began, and after the tour were keen to get back to our pans of sludge. Just know, our tour guide and panning expert was Marko from Serbia, and he was really excellent. He told us the history of the mine and drew out the lesson that though these two men worked really hard, they only ever broke even; it was only when one of them went all in gambling that he came out on top, as he won the gold mine next door.
And then it was on to one of the main objects of our visit in the Black Hills: Mount Rushmore.
It really is impressive when you see it. But I couldn’t help thinking what a strange idea it was to carve those faces, of those particular presidents into the mountain. Luckily the National Park Service’s exhibition was there to explain it all. Apparently the initial idea had been to carve the faces of local heroes – including a Sioux leader – but it was the artist (the same guy who carved Stone Mountsin in Atlanta) who said that it would bring in more tourists if they carved national figures. On the choice of Presidents (Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Teddy Roosevelt) we had always been somewhat confused by the inclusion of Teddy, but, again, it was the national park service to the rescue as we learnt about his status as a trust-buster and hero of the working man. Talking of the working man, in a rather nice touch the exhibition featured some of the words of the craftsmen and labourers who had worked on the sculptures. Quite a few of them reported becoming very committed to the work, happy to be involved in something so monumental.
We kept seeing the faces on the mountain as we drove around Custer State Park and the Needles range. However, we couldn’t let that distract us as these were some crazy roads up and down mountains – quite a challenge for someone who had only recently passed her test!
And finally we saw the bison – another object of this Western road trip. First we saw a whole herd in a corral, but then we found two on their own right at the edge of the park. It was quite moving to see these beautiful animals, which had been hunted so close to extinction, living their lives peacefully in the beauty of South Dakota.
The next day we were back on the road, heading into Wyoming.