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Why I love the Black Hills

Article by Bonnie Parmenter
Photos by Fred Baines

Since friends have watched us return to the Black Hills three summers in a row---or maybe just "because"---they ask me what I like so much about the Black Hills. And the other question, too: why do they call them "Black"? I don't think anyone who has been here has asked me that, but it is a question that has hovered in my mind while I am here.

Monument Model of Crazy Horse with monument in background

In a map of the Black Hills, you see an egg-shaped area in the middle of the High Plains. Within that "egg" is Deadwood, Rushmore, Crazy Horse and any number of other interesting and picturesque places to visit. The approach to the Black Hills is across rolling grasslands, no matter which direction you are coming from. In the distance you begin to see hills that are higher and black. The evergreen trees are dark, dark green and thick, and although when you are close they are clearly green, from a distance, they are black. The granite of both Rushmore and Crazy Horse is a weathered grey on the surface, lighter where it has been carved. Rushmore is white, but Crazy Horse is pinkish. Velvet green meadows, weathered rock and deep green trees under baby blue skies filled with cotton clouds…..some kind of magic happens in the combination. People will tell you that there is an energy vortex here, and of course, these hills were sacred to Native Americans before we "stole" it from them. As we drive through them, I feel a deep purr inside my chest of the magic here.

Crazy Horse's decedents arrive for the 130 anniversery of Little Big Horn Battle

The rock of the Black Hills is old, ancient really. It is older rock that any other mountains in the U.S.---older than the Rockies. The idea of "old" rock amuses me, a little like the phrase "older than dirt", but when you think seriously about geology, you realize that it is possible to trace the age of layers of rock. The Black Hills was an ancient volcanic extrusion that was covered with later sea bed sedimentary rock that has since worn away along with more upheaval and volcanic action. Everywhere we drive we see veins of quartz and shiny mica. Even the gravel on the road we walk in the morning gleams and glistens in the early sunlight. I smile at the thought of early gold seekers being faced with so much glitter that is not actually gold. Under the surface of the dirt here and there are "puddles" of black licorice-taffy looking rock, appearing simultaneously ancient and liquid at the same time. Now this rock IS black. Maybe this also is the source of the name. I don't know.

Black Hills Central Railroad

Besides the sense of magic and age in these Hills, there is a gentleness about them that I soak in as we drive around. They are big and steep enough to seem like mountains to me (as opposed to the low hills back East that people call mountains), but the roads through them are smooth, easy to drive and well-maintained. This is probably the reason that thousands of motorcycles descend on Sturgis each August, as well as 34 years of the Corvette rallies. On one hand, the mileages are not very great and one could drive all around within a couple of easy days. On the other hand, there are multitudes of dirt roads, and rail beds where the frantic mining activity veined the hills and if we had an ATV or jeep, we could explore for months. One rail bed which runs the entire hundred mile length north and south has been turned into a well maintained walking and bicycle trail. Named for a beloved politician, the Michelson trail is a visible act of love for nature and a pathway to make it available.

Mount Rushmore

The Black Hills are both wild and available and the history here is also both Old West and yet just a moment ago. Calamity Jane is buried next to Wild Bill Hickcock, and the trees next to Custer's camp are still visible. Everyone here is interested in the history of the Black Hills because almost everyone has a grandpa who knew someone, or can tell a story of their own. The "history" seems very famous and yet it is not so very long ago. Deadwood on TV may or may not capture the idea of what life was really like. When we later visit the Little Bighorn we are reminded that the gold rush into the Black Hills was a pressure point leading to the final clashes between Euro-Americans and Native Americans. I feel sad to think that these hills were as sacred to Native Americans as churches are to us, and that we have built roads and towns throughout them….and carved our heroes into the rocks. Being one of the wave of humanity that comes here, my sadness is divided, though. I wonder if people would visit for the beauty only, without Rushmore. On the 4th of July thirty thousand people descend upon that monument.

Crazy Horse Memorial Museum

The "nature trail" through the National Park is a tour of prairie dog cities, clever very tame donkeys, red cliffs and rolling prairie hills draped with bison herds. The bison have a different look from the bison we see in Yellowstone but we have never been able to find out why. The red cliffs are part of the "racetrack" of Spearfish shale that encircles the Black Hills like a pie crust broken open by a flight of black birds. The Native Americans believed that the two-leggeds and four-leggeds used this race track to establish prowess….I think the four-leggeds probably won. Also within this area is the tunnel cleverly placed to frame Rushmore in the distance.

Snowfall in Spearfish

Spearfish is on the northern border of the mountains and Spearfish Canyon leads through a scenic tour of the cliffs, trees and waterfalls to a road that leads on to Lead and Deadwood. One fall we experience the unpredictable weather here and we are sandwiched in the glory of the autumn leaf colors and a deep, fluffy early snowfall. Knowing that the snow will melt very quickly, we drive up Spearfish Canyon with our eyes popping at the sight of so much beauty. Indian Summer meets the Snow Princess. Fir trees are wrapped in ermine snow capes, evergreen needles are flocked with pillows of snow and droplets of melted flakes, and the brilliant sun twinkles the droplets into rainbow prisms of tiny, pinprick Christmas lights. The sun melts the snow quickly and it showers down in fine second snowfalls and slumping clumps as twigs throw off the weight. Occasionally a large pillow of snow plops fatly to the ground. The clear air carries the sound of dripping water from every tree. The yellow and rust and chartreuse leaves of the cottonwoods, birch and aspen are intensified against the Currier and Ives snow-covered pine trees and tumbling, clear water of Spearfish Creek. The sky is a clear azure with several small clouds veined against its palette. Stones marking the edge of the parking area stand stoically in identical white snow top hats and an orange aspen and snowflocked aspen cling married together as an unlikely couple. A snow-encrusted cabin at the foot of golden aspen hillside gives out the fresh scent of a wood fire in the crisp, fresh air. The icicles still cling in dragon's teeth to the cold side of the roof as steam rises in misty clouds from the sunny side of the roof. We walk around with our cameras, gasping and wishing we could actually capture this enchanted day.

Yeh, we do love the Black Hills.

Bonnie Parmenter, author Fred Baines, photographer and navigator Bonnie and Fred travel in a Dolphin RV during the summer months each year throughout the Western states with their three cats. Bonnie is a retired teacher, Fred is retired Air Force.

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