The Black Hills appear dark because of their piney covering. But now, the dark masses of pines are broken by wide swaths of brown, dead trees -- the victims of pine beetle infestation. On the Harney trail, we could see the devastation up close and witnessed the National Park Service's action plan -- a process called "chunking." The dead trees are cut into 2-foot chunks, which disrupt the beetle larvae. It looks like a daunting task, though, and we were left to wonder, in light of the devastating wildfires further west, when it will be the Hills' turn.
An old fire tower, built from pieces of the mountain itself, stands sentry at the top of Harney. I climbed to the top floor and looked out, and "round about beneath me," as Black Elk famously described, "was the whole hoop of the world."
I've been intrigued with the legendary gold-mining town of Deadwood, S.D., ever since I became hooked on the HBO series of the same name a few years ago. I knew that Deadwood had parted ways with its history a long time ago, instead turning to slot machines and souvenir shops, but there's still history to be seen. That's why I booked a room in the 118-year-old Bullock Hotel, built by the town's celebrated sheriff of the time -- Seth Bullock. The hotel underwent a major restoration in the 1990s, but still offers some of the original features, including the wooden staircase and skylights.
The Bullock is said to be haunted by the former sheriff. At 3 a.m., my brother and I were awoken by a strange tapping that sounded like it was coming from inside the solid wood headboard behind my bed. After listening to about a dozen taps, I gave the headboard a shake and apparently sent old Seth packing for another room because we were able to sleep in peace after that.
Earlier in the evening, we had drinks at Saloon #10, named for the bar where Wild Bill Hickok was gunned down in Deadwood in 1876. It's full of odd Deadwood memorabilia, has sawdust on the floor, is a haven for tourists and the biker crowd and features a re-enactment of Wild Bill's death each evening.
While Deadwood is not known for its cuisine, upstairs from Saloon #10 is the Deadwood Social Club, and it offered us the finest meal we had for the week. Sitting outside on the roof of the building, with steep, West Virginia-like hills rising above us, we noshed on cherry peppers filled with wild boar and wrapped in bacon, potato gnocchi with wild boar sauce, and osso buco concocted with a pork shank that towered over the plate like Devils Tower (that's foreshadowing).
The next morning, we were huffing and puffing up the hill at Mount Moriah Cemetery, heading for Seth Bullock's grave, which sits outside of the cemetery gates, further on up the hill. When he's not haunting his namesake hotel, Seth's resting place is beneath a huge headstone that serves as a marker for both him and his wife, Martha. Down the hill, in the main part of the hillside cemetery, a bust of Wild Bill marks his final resting place. The grave of Calamity Jane (she requested to be buried next to Bill) sits nearby. Their headstones are littered with tributes, mostly in the form of tiny whiskey bottles, single cigarettes, coins and flowers.
It's only about an hour's drive from Deadwood to Devils Tower, Wyo., the monolithic remnant of an ancient volcano. While the visitor's center and the area immediately in front of the tower were pretty crowded, the Red Beds Trail -- a 2.8-mile loop that rings the tower -- was largely secluded. It gave us unique vantage points of the tower and the Belle Fourche River cutting through the meadow below. And then there is the bizarre section of the trail -- blood-red tread and cliffs dotted with bright green pines - that gives it its name.
Around the backside of the tower, we heard a "whoop" and looked up to see the ant-like form of a climber who had just topped out on the tower. We finished up our hike and headed for the boulder field that piles up at the base of the tower. It's created by the massive chunks of rock fall from the tower's ribbed surface. We scaled to the top of the boulders and with the tower at our back, took in yet another amazing view of the eastern Wyoming countryside. It costs $10 per car to get into the Devils Tower area, but the view was, as they say, priceless.
Teddy Roosevelt National Park
We headed back toward Belle Fourche, S.D., and picked up U.S 85 north. As we exited the Black Hills, the rolling farmland began again and the highway before us could be seen trailing nearly straight for 10 miles in the distance. Lone mountains and buttes punctuated the land, and shortly before nightfall we were headed down Interstate 94 in North Dakota, toward our hotel in Dickinson.
Dickinson is part of the oil and gas boomtown area of North Dakota. Billboards scream for workers and advertise housing. Extended-stay hotels and apartment buildings are going up everywhere. By the next morning, we were heading back the way we came on I-94, then turned north again on U.S. 85. The well traffic was thick and never-ending for 50 miles until the turnoff for the north unit of the Teddy Roosevelt National Park. It costs $10 per car to enter the park, but once inside, the traffic is a world away. Deep into the badlands of the park and the surrounding wilderness area, we ventured out on the 5-mile Caprock-Coulee Trail. We topped out on a ridge and looked out over the dry, striped hills before us -- a picture both beautiful and foreboding, as the land showed the effects of eons of battling the Dakota climate.
Following our hike, we hopped into the car for the drive to the park's end -- the Oxbow Overlook -- but we were promptly stopped by a herd of wild bison that had swarmed over the road. We pulled off and, poking from the sunroof, I was able to get some up-close photos and video of these amazing, loud, smelly creatures. When they got a little too close to the rental car for comfort, we continued on and took a short hike that takes you to the overlook, which affords wonderful views of the Little Missouri River valley below.
After another night in Dickinson, we again headed west on I-94 and crossed into Montana. We turned south on Mont. 7 at Wibaux and began a long trek under the big sky toward a bizarre cluster of huge rocks in the middle of nowhere. Native Americans visited the rocks to have their vision quests, hence the name Medicine Rocks. After being there for a few hours, I could understand why.
Medicine Rocks is a state park. It's unattended and, on that day, was largely devoid of people. One cluster of the odd, hole-filled rocks resembled Stonehenge. Another sat as a monolith in a golden field. Birds made their nests in some of the holes in the rocks and rode the currents overhead. Some of the rocks, made of soft sandstone, bore tons of carvings. There are petroglyphs there, but they are lost in a multitude of much newer carvings, some of which were fascinating in their own right: a Naval anchor and the date 1903; a woman's face; countless proclamations of love from the mid-20th century.
We could have stayed for hours more. The peacefulness was astounding, but it was time to move on. We spent the night in Spearfish, S.D., -- back in the Black Hills -- and squeezed in a morning drive through the Spearfish Canyon, a hike to the top of the canyon on the calf-burning '76 Trail, which gains about 700 feet in elevation in a half-mile, and a visit to cool, clear Roughlock Falls, ensconced in an area that once teemed with gold miners.
But it was soon time for the last long haul of our trip. Denver waited, and as we made our way back over that stretch of I-25 north of Denver, thunderheads -- full of lightning -- loomed in the distance. This time, though, the Rockies to the west opened up to us, reveling in the odd light from the storms ahead and giving us one final spectacular view. Their blue peaks were backlit by the setting sun and topped with a cap of angry clouds.
That evening, at Ted Turner's Montana Grill near the airport, the waiter put thick slabs of bison ribeye before us, and we drank red wine and marveled at the numbers: six states, 1,753 miles on the Chevy, 22 miles on our boots.
Not bad for a week.
Byers is the Gazette's executive editor.