Get out of the house: Enjoy beauty, safety of life in West River

What memories this abandoned ranch house east of Union Center must hold!

 

By Ed Martley

© 2020 Top Dog Publishing

RAPID CITY — There is no cure for Covid-19, but there is a safe relief from the stifling boredom we suffer while hiding out at home to escape the approaching disease.

One of our favorite boredom busters is to driving backroads of the mighty western South Dakota prairies. You can see forever across the endless landscape; if you encounter more than one other vehicle an hour as you crunch over the dusty gravel, it’s getting crowded. The vivid blue of springtime skies provides an intense background for hulking clouds. Animals, wild and domestic, turn their heads to watch as we roll slowly by. Always, always, bright meadowlark song worth a stop to listen, but that you can hear even with the car windows closed.

We have several areas we explore, and a big favorite is Highway 34 from Sturgis to Union Center to Enning, then south to Wasta and home on Interstate 90.

South of Enning

The closer you come to Union Center, the more you feel the freedom of wide-open spaces. When you turn south at Enning, getting into Belle Fourche River country, the topography begins to change. There are numerous cattle with new babies; a turtle; always deer, looking tatty as they shed ropes of winter hair to let their slick summer selves shine; hawks, falcons, kestrels, and, of course, the singing meadowlarks.

Several times we encountered small clutches of antelope. Twice we topped a hill to find some grazing in the roadside ditch. They quickly wriggled through the fence — not jumping it as would a deer. Both species are superb athletes, but you might say the rocket-powered antelope are “horizontal” athletes, while the spring-loaded deer are “vertical” athletes.

An antelope mom poses with her babies in Custer State Park. (Rowan Crooks photo)

Speed (approaching 60 mph) is not the antelope’s only remarkable attribute. They are renowned for their eyesight, said to be equivalent to 8-power binoculars. (I recall a time we were cruising along Interstate 90 not far from Gillette, Wyo., and saw several antelope in the ditch a half-mile ahead. A big buck jumped onto the highway and headed straight at us, the combined speed of beast and car more than 100 miles an hour. As he came closer, all we could see were those huge eyes, eyes the size of tennis balls, bearing down on us. With less than a second to spare, the buck swerved back into the ditch.) But I digress.

Along Highway 34, you get occasional views of the Belle Fourche River as it flows through ever-steepening breaks toward its confluence with the Cheyenne River. Buckle up, because the road drops like a roller coaster: down and down, round and round.

So that’s the story of just our most recent spring drive. There are many other possibilities in our beautiful West River country.

Suzanne’s quick-draw camera work caught this meadowlark a split second before it sprang into the air.

One of our first spring tours was on Spring Creek Road, the portion east of Highway 79 near Rapid City. Green, beautiful and sparkling with the music of meadowlarks. We had it in mind to get a photo of one of the little songsters, which turned out to be a whole lot harder than we anticipated. The creatures flitted from fence wire to fence post, never staying for more than a second. Shot after shot we tried, always missing by a feather’s width. Finally, Suzanne scored. She drew and fired without aiming and got lucky — catching a bird before it launched.

The most popular spring expedition hereabouts is almost certainly Custer State Park, especially the Wildlife Loop. It goes without saying the land itself is beautiful — hey, it’s the Black Hills — but also the park is populated with all sorts of highly visible wild animals. These include prairie dogs, antelope, deer, elk, bison and Bighorn sheep, some of which can be found standing on the road, blocking traffic for a half-mile.

Our COVID-19 social-distancing practice most certainly is helpful in protecting us from the virus. It is also a good plan when dealing with bison. Accounts of their attacks on annoying people and vehicles are the stuff of legends.

King of the Badlands

A big favorite, and we visit there often, is Badlands National Park. We drive Highway 44 east about 40 miles from Rapid City to the semi-ghost town of Scenic, then continue until we can turn onto Sage Creek Road. Heaven only knows what you’ll find there on any given day, but the chance of finding yourself in a herd of bison, or buffalo as I usually call them, is pretty good.

We stop at Sage Creek Campground to use the outhouse before continuing into the heart of the Badlands. Buffalo often frequent the area, and from time to time we collect wads of hair they have scraped off. We give it to a friend who incorporates it into her fiber art.

One late spring day, we pulled in to find the campground full of campers with buffalo grazing close among them. That was nerve-racking but what the hell — we didn’t know them so let the (buffalo) chips fall where they may. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.) The disturbing thing was that a big bull was grazing five feet from the outhouse door. Our situation was dire enough that we had to wait for the creature to wander off.

Anyplace in the Black Hills area can be your favorite place, and you can have more than one if you like! The time to plunge into the mountains is now — spring — when the grass is its greenest, the creeks are full, the highways are empty, and power boats have yet to begin tearing up the lakes.

The scenery possibilities in the Black Hills are endless, and here is one you won’t forget.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Should you like to learn more about special Black Hills places, see Take a Drive on My Adventure Road on this website.

Take a Drive on my Adventure Road

Flag Mountain, once location of a fire lookout, is on the edge of Reynolds Prairie.

Story and photos by Ed Martley

As I turn off Highway 385 toward Rochford, I get a little ill at the possibility of a gold company ripping out the heart and poisoning the water of my favorite area of the Black Hills.

At present, the Canadian company, Mineral Mountain, is drilling test holes near the village of Rochford and surrounding area to see if there is sufficient gold to warrant full-on mining. Should that occur, a spokesman for the company assured it would be a neat and tidy operation. But then, someone happily speculated, “this could be another Homestake.”

Picture this: As the crow flies, or as veins of gold might meander, the Homestake Mine at Lead is only 16 miles due north of Rochford. By road, it would take a half hour to get there.

I would imagine many who have been in this area since the beginning of time have strong personal feelings about this proposed mining and other incidences of environmental degradation. I certainly do, and I’ll tell you why.

Rochford Road is “my” adventure road and has been for seven decades. It more or less forms a horseshoe from Highway 385 to Rochford and the Moonshine Gulch Saloon. The road continues on across spectacular Reynolds Prairie and sacred Pe’ Sla, past Deerfield Lake, and down to Hill City.

Share my adventures

From Rapid City, Rimrock (Hwy 44) to 385, the adventure loop (in BLUE) takes off, and meanders for about two hours, depending on your tendency to stop and feel the wind, ending in Hill City.

Let me take you on a personal tour, away from highways and tourist haunts.

Not long after leaving Highway 385, the turnoff to Mystic leads to areas of historic mining, and personal recollection. Back in the late 1940s, a woman and her toddler son, who were part of our group, were using an outhouse at a cabin near Mystic. The facility was precariously suspended over an abandoned mine shaft. We heard screaming and the adults ran to see the biffy slipping into the bottomless hole. They didn’t get there in time and … but that’s another story, perhaps to be revisited when we contemplate the potential residual effects of gold mining. Back to Rochford Road.

‘The best day of my life’

“This is the best day of my life,” said Samantha as she and her little sister Sarah cut their Christmas tree near Rochford Road about 35 years ago.

One snow-covered day about 35 years ago, my two little daughters, Samantha, 9, and Sarah, 6, joined me in the forest to cut our own Christmas tree. We found the “most beautiful tree in the world,” not far from the Mystic turnoff. Rapid Creek runs through the area, so the trees we found were water-loving Black Hills Spruce and indeed beautiful. We took turns with the bow saw, and then all three of us grabbed the rope and pulled the tree through deep snow to the pickup. Once our prize was loaded, we broke out the hot chocolate. Sammie, with the sincerity only a child can project, said, “This is the best day of my life.”

Will the spruce and the clean water on which they thrive be there for the next generation?

A few more miles along the road reveal the occasional pond or marsh or other artwork of Rapid Creek, the source of water not only for trees, but pond and marsh critters and the citizens of Rapid City. Nearby, we come to the Standby Mine, which is one of several areas slated for gold exploration.

Stand by for the Standby

This photo of the mill at Standby gold mine near Rochford was probably taken in the 1960s, before visible collapse of the roof began.

The iron “hammers” inside the Standby mill presumably were used to crush the gold ore taken from the adjacent hillside.

In decades past, there was a huge mill building at the foot of a mountain — everybody who has been around here a while has either seen the building itself or photos and paintings of it. Over the years, I watched the structure decay. First was a sagging of the massive roof, then a little hole that grew steadily, and then the entire roof nearly went. It was a deadly, dangerous structure, and the only people I knew dumb enough to go in it were me and my sidekick Wayne. We poked around the old machinery until the creaking and groaning of the rickety building scared us out.

Eventually the Standby was torn down and today, if you know where to look, you can see traces of it.

The Moonshine Gulch Saloon is in the “heart of downtown Rochford.”

Less than two miles along, at a junction that will take you either to Deadwood or further along the Rochford Road, sits the village of Rochford, the most notable feature of which is the Moonshine Gulch Saloon of hamburger fame. One of their burgers is worth the 40-mile drive from Rapid City,

I have never figured out why the hamburgers there are so good. For years, a gentleman with a cigarette dangling from his lip crouched over the grill. We thought maybe the tobacco ash gave the burgers that extra little something. He died a few years ago, and we feared the secret of the burgers might have gone with him. These days, there is no evidence of ashes on the grill but happily, the burgers are as good as ever. And the beer is still icy cold.

I scoff at ATV riders

The saloon has been discovered by ATV and snow machine riders, and sometimes on weekends you could barely get to the door. I scoff at these people who let machinery carry them around. When I was young, and Wayne was young, it was just the opposite. We carried our machines. We had little trail bikes — motorcycles — and several times attempted to ride those high, sharp ridges that parallel the road. The rocks were so bad that we had to carry the trail bikes to the top. Then, the top was so rough and rocky, we had to carry the bikes until we could find a place where it looked safe enough to descend, and carried the bikes to the bottom, where we fell in an exhausted heap. Try that, ATV guy!

The saloon is a fine place, but the best thing I ever learned in Rochford was at the large white building kitty-corner across the street.

There’s a killer in the basement

George Sitts

On April 8, 1947, triple murderer George Sitts’s days ended when four bolts of electricity ripped through his body in the electric chair at South Dakota State Penitentiary. He had led lawmen a grueling chase from Minnesota to South Dakota’s northern Black Hills and into northeast Wyoming before he was caught. At one time during the manhunt, Sitts disappeared. There wasn’t a trace of him for about a week, but he eventually resurfaced and was captured a short time later.

In the late 1950s or early 1960s as I remember, the white building was a grocery store that offered the best longhorn cheese ever. Wayne and I stopped there whenever we had any money to buy a chunk of the longhorn and chat with the amiable proprietor, Mrs. Dunn, widow of well-known area lawman Ross Dunn. Among many other law enforcement duties, Ross had served as police chief in Deadwood and Spearfish, according to news articles.

On one of our cheese missions, Mrs. Dunn told us a story about George Sitts. Wayne and I were plenty old enough then to remember the outlaw, so she had our attention immediately. She talked about that week Sitts had disappeared: He had sneaked into ­­­the basement of her Deadwood home, living on canned goods until he sneaked out again a week later. They learned only later that he was down there, although she recalled the basement smelled a little funny.

Sacred ground

This is one of several entrances to Pe Sla

A few miles past the saloon, the road breaks out of the forest onto a huge meadow, known as Reynolds Prairie, more than 2,000 acres of which was purchased from the homesteading Reynolds family­­­­­ by the Great Sioux Nation and is sacred to Native American tribes.

Decades before the purchase, Wayne and I roamed this vast expanse frequently. One day, we noticed a tiny, weatherworn house, obviously abandoned. We had to look, so we peeked in the windows. The place housed many Aladdin kerosene lamps and was bristling with their tall glass chimneys. We never learned any more.

Standing above the end of Reynolds Prairie is Flag Mountain. Today, there is a good road up the mountain that provides spectacular views of the prairie and its surroundings.

The first time Wayne and I drove in there on what was a narrow trail to the fire lookout above, we surprised a big herd of whitetail deer. There were dozens and dozens, and they were leaping all around us; it was like being in a popcorn popper.

Now, not only Flag Mountain, but flags of the Oceti Sakowin, or Seven Council Fires, fly in the wind over Pe’ Sla, their name for the site. Variously translated, it means “the bald area” or “the center of our world.” Some members of those tribes have challenged gold exploration plans in court.

A-tenting we will go

Grandchild Rowan goofing off at Custer Trail picnic ground

Custer Trail Campground and boat launch on Deerfield Lake is such a place, also rich in memories. The campground is often used by Boy Scout troops, no-wake boaters, and many others. Closer to the lake is parking for RVs, and close to them is an outhouse. Here is one of life’s irritating mysteries, and it is ever thus in many campgrounds: Self-contained RVs get to park close to the outhouse or shower facility while tent dwellers often must walk a considerable distance. (I speak as a disgruntled tent dweller.)

Here’s an added treat. As you drive down the narrow gravel road to the campground you see little birdhouses attached to fence posts. And flitting back and forth in front of you like electric sparks are mountain bluebirds.

From Deerfield it’s all downhill, literally, if you want to get to Hill City, the end of my adventure road.

Time marches on, nothing stays the same. I get upset at the prospect of gold mining near Rochford because it would be another part of the nationwide federal theft and destruction of the people’s land occurring today.

Whether the Forest Service OKs exploration on federal public lands also remains in the future. Gold exploration and mining has long been a part of the Black Hills National Forest. But that 100-mile-long, 70-mile-wide source of economic activity is also a treasure trove of recreational and ecological wealth, so officials will weigh the trade-offs, including those in places along Rochford Road.

Many of us have adventure roads and secret places we cherish. If we can keep the lid on development, maybe we can leave some of the wonders of our lives to our descendants. Such a fine thing if they, too, can enjoy those Moonshine Gulch burgers, and if not a beer, perhaps a glass of clean water.

From partway up Flag Mountain, one can see most of Reynolds Prairie and the Pe Sla sacred ground.

 

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The Dog Boy

Joey, Gracie and Bonnie

By Ed Martley

Copyright 2019

Dog Boy. That’s the sobriquet townspeople hung on me when I was about 10 years old, living in a little farm town in eastern South Dakota, roaming the streets and rural section lines with a two-dog assault force running ahead. My Mick was a tough little cocker mix, and the neighbor’s dog, Blackie, looked just like him and was every bit as tough.

Those two thugs and I had many adventures, all but one fading from my mind after the passage of some 70 years. And that is one of those ghastly occurrences which will never fade, no matter how I wish it.

We were about a mile out of town, me on my bike and the dogs running far ahead. I picked up a scent of skunk on the sultry air, and the further I rode, the stronger it got. Soon, I heard a muffled barking and growling beneath me. The dogs were in a culvert under the road — they had entered from both ends and had an enormous skunk trapped between them. The dogs were attacking from both sides and the luckless skunk, spraying for all it was worth, could not stop them. By now, as numb-nosed as the dogs, I crawled in to watch the battle. When the poor skunk gave up the ghost, the dogs lost interest and exited the culvert. I crawled in to retrieve their trophy.

The Dog Boy

It was a big skunk, heavy, magnificently marked. I had to show it to my folks. It took me a few minutes to figure out how to haul it home and finally used my belt to tie it to the handlebars. Off I went, wobbling back to town. About a block from home I began to feel dizzy, a half-block from home I felt sick, and a quarter-block from home tipped over and threw up on somebody’s lawn. I left the carcass right there, feeling somewhat better, and we made it the rest of the way. The three of us burst into the house and burst out just as quickly, propelled by the screams of my mother and an explosion of profanity from my ordinarily non-cussing father.

I had a number of dogs in succeeding years but then there was a long dry spell. I went off to college (they wouldn’t allow dogs in the dorms) and after a stint in the army, began a fifty-year career in the news business. I had some lovely Samoyeds but after their passage, my life became a dog desert. No dogs allowed in my rented lodgings. More years passed until I bought a house. It was a large house. I built myself a tiny apartment in the basement and rented out the upper level. Now I was the landlord, and I gave myself permission to get a dog. Much thought went into an acquisition, including seeking advice from my veterinarian friend, Charlie. “What kind of dog should I get?” I asked.

“Well,” Charlie advised, “you know a lot about dogs, why don’t you consider a Doberman.”

Until then, I had only seen one Doberman and that was years before. He was running, fast, across residential yards, floating over hedges separating the properties — it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. “But aren’t they kind of dangerous?” I asked Charlie.

“Don’t believe what you’ve heard,” Charlie said. “You’ll never love a dog like you’ll love a Dobie.”

By this time, I was living in western South Dakota, a land of rough, rolling prairie sullied only by a few scattered ranches. And, on one of these ranches, advised an ad in the local newspaper, was a litter of Dobie puppies. My little daughters and I jumped into the pickup, raced 20 miles across the prairie and pulled into a ranch yard where a big, black Doberman in full uniform stood, giving us “that look.” (Doberman people will know what I mean.)

I lived around farm dogs all my life and learned they are a surly lot. We were understandably hesitant to leave the safety of the truck — until a chicken strutted over to the dog and chased him away. Humph.

The owner escorted us into the immaculate basement where mother Angel lay with her litter of six-week-old puppies. Angel was a red — a big dog as slick and shiny as a seal. She was even bigger than dad Sid (the chicken dog.) Some of the pups ignored us, others were scrapping. We sat a long time, watching the fun, when one bright little fellow left the group and came over to inspect us. Not at all shy, he was delighted to meet us, giving each a sniff test. Thirty minutes later, the owners were richer by $90 and we were on the way home — the puppy crawling up my chest as I drove.

The moment we walked into the apartment, the puppy, whom we’d named Joey, began to grow. And grow. When I had to work, I left Joey alone in the apartment. I didn’t care if he wrecked the place — it was already a dump — so he was able to amuse himself by destroying a couch. And I mean destroying it. He ripped off all the fabric, leaving nothing but the some springs and the frame, which I cut up with a chain saw and threw out the window. Hey, it was my house.

Officer Joe

Although we lived on the prairie, we were right on the edge of the Black Hills, where Joey and I ran in those mountains for years. He had a joke he loved to play when he was a puppy. He would run straight at you, full-tilt boogie at about 80 miles an hour, veering away at the last second. One time he misjudged, and 60 pounds of adolescent Doberman hit my eldest daughter, flattening her and knocking out her wind. She lay gasping for breath, flopping around like a beached carp.

He kept growing, slim at 90 pounds and tall enough that I could rest my knuckles on his back without bending my knees — and I am not short. Under his fur, he was a mass of tiny scars accumulated while running in the mountains, disregarding bushes and small trees in his path.

Force of nature that he was, there was another side to Joey. When the situation called for it, he could effect a rock-like calm, unshakeable no matter what mayhem was going on around him. This made him a welcome volunteer at the memory care unit of a local old-folks home. We would enter a room where about a dozen clients sat in wheelchairs. Most were very quiet, the outside world not piercing the veil of their disease. Except for that big dog standing patiently next to them. Invariably, they would rest a hand on his hairy back, and even though maintaining a blank stare, you knew something was getting through. Some clients who were slightly agitated became calm when touching Joey.

One of the workers at the facility told us that it is well known dogs can be a calming influence for people suffering any variety of maladies.

Joey lived out his allotted lifespan, crossing over the Rainbow Bridge at nearly 13 years of age.

By now I had remarried, claimed the whole house for ourselves, and decided that if one Dobie was so wonderful, we should have two.

Gracie

We rescued a young Dobie girl, Gracie, who was an amazing athlete. Of all the Dobies we were to own in the coming years, she was by far the fastest — and none of the others was slow. We had one of those tennis-ball chuckers that could throw a ball a great distance. Gracie was on it at first bounce, leaping high to snatch it out of the air.

By now, we were getting active with Doberman Rescue of Nebraska. We ferried some orphan dogs to Omaha, brought back some for ourselves and others, did home interviews for prospective adopters and enjoyed our lives and our Dobies, of which we had accumulated several as years passed.

Our penultimate pooch was Johnny, another big, black male in full uniform whom we acquired from DRON. Johnny was a piece of work, a pain in the butt yet still being a great representative of the breed. He was a born politician, never meeting a person he didn’t like, although scaring the stuffing out of a few who were definitely in the wrong place. For “legitimate” visitors, he would back up and plant his rear on their knee, never failing to flatter them — “Oh, look. He really likes me!” Truth to tell, what the dog really wanted was to get his butt scratched.

Johnny

Johnny was another athlete and it didn’t take him long to discover he could jump our 4-foot chain link fence with little more effort than just stepping over it. He would leap the fence and then run around the entire block to come blasting back, terribly pleased with himself and expecting to get a treat. His little game ended when we put in a 6-foot fence. He tried once, bounced off, and never did it again. Like Joey, Johnny lived a long life, leaving us about two years ago.

Arya

As I write this on a dreary December afternoon, I look across the room at a dainty red girl by the name of Arya, snoozing on the couch, keeping an occasional eye on me. She came to us from DRON about six years ago, and after trying to decapitate Johnny, fell madly in love with him. She ignored us, doing what we told her only if Johnny did it first. When he passed, she was lost for months. Eventually she came our way and has become closer to us than any dog we have ever owned.

The decision to get a dog is a big one, and difficult for those of us who love them. We know they will bring us great joy, and sometime in the future, we will mourn their passing. It’s hard. But over the decades we will submit ourselves to these cycles again and again, until we ourselves cross over the Rainbow Bridge and rejoin all our old friends.