Black Hills wanderings

Farm Forum

Wild Bill sat on a wooden bench, the merciless summer sun beating down on his black broad-brimmed hat.

“Next show is in ten minutes!” Bill called out to nobody in particular. His voice echoed throughout the gulch as he invited passersby to come inside the saloon and witness his murder.

It wasn’t the real W.B. Hickok, of course. Were Wild Bill still alive, he would be a pitchman in a reverse mortgage TV commercial.

And this Bill wasn’t sitting in front of the actual saloon where the original Hickok had been shot. The authentic spot, as a nearby sign noted, is across the street, although that particular building burned down many years ago and was replaced by a clothing store. A clothing store that now houses a bar and gambling parlor, so maybe there’s something in the site’s geological DNA.

As lifelong flatlanders, my wife and I are infinitely fascinated by geological wonders of the Black Hills. The Hills rise up abruptly from the endless prairies like a pine-studded broad-brimmed hat that’s been tossed carelessly onto the planet’s surface.

My wife enjoys gaming. For me, visiting a gambling hall is like putting a frog behind the wheel of a Hummer. I appreciate the principle of the thing, but it doesn’t float my boat. Best leave the gaming to those who take pleasure in it.

During our recent sojourn in the Hills, my wife shook hands with one-armed bandits while I roamed the streets of Deadwood. I bet the original Wild Bill wouldn’t recognize today’s Deadwood, mainly because large portions of the town have been replaced since 1876. Gone are the ramshackle wooden shacks and mud streets; in their place are staid brick buildings and modern thoroughfares.

My meanderings took me to the Gold Nugget Trading Post, which had a sign that boasted of an underground tour of Chinatown. Intrigued, I went inside.

There was indeed a tour offered for a nominal fee. I ponied up and was soon in the basement of Gold Nugget.

I was the only one taking the tour. A nice tour guide lady explained some things about Deadwood’s Chinatown.

For instance, the Gold Nugget was once home to one of Deadwood’s licensed opium dens. I guess “just say no!” didn’t hold much sway with denizens of the Wild West.

The tour guide also informed me that the citizens of Chinatown had their own system of justice. It wasn’t made clear what the penalty might be for cheating at Chinese checkers.

Tourists are guided through the underground museum via a sound system. The disembodied voice explained that Deadwood suffered a severe flood in 1883 and that new buildings were constructed atop of the fresh silt and old footings. This resulted in a tunnel system that enabled the Chinese to move about town, which was important because it was literally against the law in Deadwood to be Chinese after nightfall.

Excavations had uncovered some of Deadwood’s original boardwalk. No one was looking, so I stepped on the rough plank just so I could say that I walked in the actual footsteps of such frontier heroes as Dudley Do-Right .

After leaving Deadwood, we cruised randomly around the Hills. The craggy landscape never ceases to amaze us. What’s even more amazing is how some folks choose to navigate those heart-in-your-throat mountain curves in motor homes that are large enough to have their own ZIP codes.

One motor home, which was bigger than a 747, was pulling a full-sized pickup that had a full-sized motorcycle in its bed. I suppose the logic is that if the motor home breaks down, you can seek assistance with the pickup; if the pickup dies, you can get back to civilization on the motorcycle. Perhaps this is the contemporary version of “Lassie! Go get help!”

But I saw firsthand that owning a battleship-sized motor home can have its downsides.

One evening, as I pulled into our hotel’s parking lot, what appeared to be an oversized Greyhound bus blocked the driveway. The behemoth camper nudged its way back and forth, attempting to perform an 80-point turn in the cramped space. No doubt the driver pulled in by mistake; by the time he perceived his error, he was committed.

An opening finally formed so that I could scoot past. As I did, I caught a glimpse of the tableau inside the motor home. Its driver, a middle-aged man, was wrestling mightily with the wheel. In the copilot’s seat sat a woman who appeared to be berating him with enormous gusto. A pair of teenagers skulked sullenly behind them.

“Guess who I just saw in the parking lot!” I exclaimed to my wife. “Wild Bill and Calamity Jane!”

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