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  • Vita Eruhimovitz

Geology, Art, Wild West, and National Monuments

Early in the morning I pulled my tent out of the mud, said goodbye to the bison and left Badlands. The weather was still rainy but I was determined to hike in the Black Hills before leaving South Dakota. In Rapid City I stopped in Roamin’ Around: a local outdoor gear store, where Aaron, one of the staff members, was very nice to take the time and give me detailed advice on hiking and camping in the area. I was going to stop at a couple museums, camp, and hike next morning. Discovery Museum was disappointing, in its amateurish layout, information organization, and overall design, however the geology museum on the SDSMT campus was worth the while. I was glad to expand my limited petrology knowledge and learn about different rock categories, and some of the ways in which local geology determined local politics and history. At this point I regretted cheating my way out of the college chemistry exam. But even putting education aside, the rock and mineral exhibits were just stunningly beautiful.

From an artist’s perspective, especially with a background in sculpture, petrology is always humbling and awe-inspiring. Looking at a single mineral sample I think about how much work and resources it takes to create an abstract sculpture that shares some of the same principles of rhythm, repetition, and geometric harmony. And then, there is another major difference: zooming in on a sculpture the eye meets a plain artificial surface of the material that it is made of. Zooming in on a rock, or a mineral, the complexity reveals itself endlessly down to the molecular structure. This is of course not to disregard human efforts: it took thousands, sometimes millions of years for these rocks to form under pressure that would take an energy plant to produce.

Later that day on my way to Wrinkled Rock campground (a place favored by rock climbers on sunnier days) it started snowing, and by the time I arrived there (and it indeed is a beautiful spot among rocks and trees) it was piling fast. I was alone in snow covered woods and suddenly the weather radar was showing 6-12 inches of snow. I imagined being stuck in the woods with my non-four-wheel drive and decided to turn around, return to Rapid City, and look for a hotel. In the city it was raining rather than snowing and for a moment I felt that maybe I’ve just chickened out. However the weather channel in the hotel lobby was warning of overnight flash floods, and it put me at ease. While the TV kept talking about the storm, floods in Oklahoma, and tornadoes in Missouri, I got under a blanket and read a book.

Don't drive in a blizzard and take photos

In his book, The Eternal Frontier, a fascinating overview of ecological history of North America, Tim Flannery mentions the uniqueness of North American climate that results from its geology. Due to the unique positioning of the Rockies and Appalachian mountain ridges: North-South, rather than East-West like most mountain ranges on other continents, a “weather funnel” is created that intensifies both weather extremes, creating hot summers in the north, cold winters in the south, and rapid temperature changes. Apparently South Dakota is especially notorious for such rapid weather changes, Spearfish, a town in the Black Hills holds the record, going from -2 F to 38 F in just 2 minutes.

So my hiking plans are canceled, but before I flee the Black Hills and their rain I’m stopping in Deadwood, one of the latest and the East-most towns of the late 1800 gold rush. Coincidence or not, but right before leaving Brooklyn, my partner Cody and I finished watching the third and unfortunately last season of the Deadwood TV series. Deadwood (2004-06) earned critical acclaim for its profanity-laced, yet Shakespearean dialogue, rich performances, and sharp attention to historical detail. But it was, as often happens to good things not popular enough, discontinued and forgotten by most. However both Cody and I absolutely loved the series and I was hoping to find in Deadwood - the town, something that will remind me of the series, even though I knew it has become a standard tourist trap.

Just found out that Deadwood – the movie – has aired this year, and I’m looking forward to see it.

A short historical recap from Wikipedia:

The settlement of Deadwood began illegally in the 1870's on land which had been granted to the Lakota people in the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie. The treaty had guaranteed ownership of the Black Hills to the Lakota people, who considered this area to be sacred. The squatting led to numerous land disputes, several of which reached the United States Supreme Court.

Everything changed after Colonel George Armstrong Custer led an expedition into the Black Hills and announced the discovery of gold in 1874 on French Creek near present-day Custer, South Dakota. This announcement was a catalyst for the Black Hills Gold Rush, and miners and entrepreneurs swept into the area. They created the new and lawless town of Deadwood, which quickly reached a population of around 5,000.

In 1876, General George Crook pursued the Sioux Indians from the Battle of Little Big Horn on an expedition that ended in Deadwood in early September and is known as the Horsemeat March. As the economy changed from gold panning to deep mining, the individual miners went elsewhere or began to work in other fields. Deadwood lost some of its rough and rowdy character, and began to develop into a prosperous town. The Homestake Mine in nearby Lead was established in October 1877. It operated for more than a century, becoming the longest continuously operating gold mine in the United States. On September 26, 1879, a fire devastated Deadwood, destroying more than three hundred buildings and consuming the belongings of many inhabitants. Many of the newly impoverished left town to start again elsewhere.

The official funeral notice. Bill Hickok: one on the Wild West celebs, was shot and buried in Deadwood

Deadwood – the town- was snowy, empty and quiet. The hills raising almost from the main street were strikingly beautiful, but as expected not much of a frontier settlement character was to be found. Although the buildings from the time depicted by the series were burned to ground in the 1879 fire, the Bullock Hotel that was built above Seth Bullock’s recovered hardware store, is still there today. Apparently apart from being a sheriff, politician, and marshal Bullock was a successful entrepreneur who expanded his business from a hardware store to a hotel and into ranching, which made most of his fortune. Interestingly, it seems that Seth Bullock’s name and face are much less familiar to the public than Calamity Jane’s. Judging by the abundance of her photos and texts about her, her memory overshadows that of her contemporaries, some of whom have possibly done much more in their lifetime.

A short stop in Deadwood was enough for me and I continue to the Devil’s Tower National Monument in Wyoming. The landscape turns into softer hills, and Ponderosa pine forests. I see much more animals (mostly cows and horses) than people and start to feel my mind releasing the city tension that I’m carrying from New York. Through light drizzle and mist Devil’s Tower appears on the horizon, its presence domineering the landscape. As I get nearer it grows bigger and I’m feeling strangely excited by its presence; Probably because it is looming in the fog majestic and mysterious, giving me a sense of a sentient being, and not because it looks like a base of a giant phallus with trees covering its bottom like pubic hair.

I seem to be one of the only visitors here today. I park and run on a trail around the tower among ponderosas, junipers, and the wild flowers. Everything smells delightfully. It is great to finally be moving freely. The mud is red and it’s a normal mud that doesn’t stick to me, juniper berries are blue, and the rocks are yellow and wet. My heartbeat rises, the rain doesn’t bother me at all, and I’m feeling revived. Strangely I hear no birds around, just a lone eagle wind-sliding above. I’m suddenly thinking about my parents and how I’d like to share this place with them.

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