Sunday, March 1

my lands are where my dead lie buried

In the summer of 1876, Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane sauntered into Deadwood, South Dakota. Among the first characters immortalized in frontier dime novels, Hickok and Jane both served stints as scouts for Custer and met while on a wagon train to Deadwood as the leader of the 7th Cavalry rode off into infamy. A few weeks later Wild Bill was shot playing poker in Saloon No. 10, the same saloon I now played blackjack in.

The Wild West conjures images of dusty one street towns in the Arizona desert, the Utah and eastern California settings of many John Wayne movies, and the gunfight at the O.K. Corral (If I remember correctly, Doc Holliday looked a lot like Val Kilmer). However, there are no tumbleweeds in Deadwood; no buildings and faces sculpted by years of the sun's abuse. The city rests in a gulch lost among the Black Hills, distinguished only by the dead Ponderosa Pines lining the surrounding hills. Yet Deadwood is the quintessential Wild West town, inspiring even the creation of a HBO miniseries.

Deadwood was originally an illegal camp on Lakota Indian territory during the Black Hills Gold Rush of 1874. And while gambling is still the number one recreational activity, the city now caters to a less delinquent crowd: tourists and local retired folk looking to make some easy cash. I arrived the day after the yearly Mardi Gras party so the streets were mostly quiet and the bar staff greatly outnumbered the patrons.

Despite its reputation as a tourist trap, the restored 19th century Main Street, the swinging saloon doors, and the sawdust covered floors all found themselves quite to my liking. In my mind, sitting at the blackjack table with a drink in hand and chatting with some of the locals is as close as I'll get to an authentic Wild West experience. Then again I was a little drunk, which certainly is conducive to unwarranted nostalgia in places contrived to arose such feelings.

The next day I left Deadwood and drove deeper into the Black Hills. My first destination was the Crazy Horse Memorial, a literally mountain-sized monument being built in honor of the Lakota warrior Crazy Horse. Sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski began working on the monument in 1948 and, if completed, the sculpture will be the world's largest at 563 feet. To put things into perspective, all four heads of Mount Rushmore could fit into Crazy Horse's head.

Even with countless decades of work remaining, the sculpture is remarkable if not a bit absurd and has generated an enormous amount of controversy. The Lakota Indians view the Black Hills as sacred and many believe the creation of this monument is akin to carving up Mount Zion in the shape of a biblical character. What's more, Crazy Horse refused to be photographed and was buried where his body could never be found; surely he would not have supported the construction of such an enormity.

I headed next to Mount Rushmore in the hopes of seeing Nicholas Cage fall out of George Washington's nose. Alas, no such luck. Even Mount Rushmore lies incomplete, but it did give me a scale with which to measure how the Crazy Horse Memorial will look if finished. To be honest, Mount Rushmore is an absurdity itself and was created merely in an effort to increase tourism in the Black Hills. Don't get me wrong, the monument is impressive and sculptor Gutzon Borglum did a remarkable job with the likenesses of the four presidents, even giving the impression that Teddy Roosevelt is wearing glasses. However, it's saddening to think Lakota Chief Henry Standing Bear, despite having good intentions, probably commissioned the Crazy Horse Monument in retaliation to the U.S. Government's own disregard for the purity of natural resources. The Black Hills are an oasis of rolling hills and Ponderosa Pines among the flat nothingness of the Great Plains, blemished by our desire to make money and to make statement.


  1. Wild Bill Hickok is now famous for that last hand of poker that he was supposedly playing...two aces and two famously known as "Dead Man's Hand!" Hope you didn't have that...better sit in a corner and watch all the doors next time you play!

  2. I've always wondered, "Why teddy roosevelt???"

  3. The monument was intended to represent America's "Manifest Destiny" and Teddy, as war hero, builder of the Panama Canal, and conservationist seemed to fit the bill I suppose. The sculptor Borglum was also a big fan of Roosevelt.