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January 12, 2023

Do you want to see the real west, the one with bison, rodeo, and breathtaking landscapes? Well, get in the car and come along with  Majsan and Robin, our fearless team that went on a 14-day, five-state tour through the Great American West. Here’s part 1. 

In the 1870’s some men traveling through the Black Hills in the southwestern corner of South Dakota and came upon a gulch full of dead trees and a creek full of gold. A boomtown was born. Today, Deadwood is less lawless, but saloons are busy and there is plenty of lore to indulge in. It was here that Wild Bill Hickock was shot during a poker game, holding dead man’s hand, the black eights and aces and an unknown card. And it’s here where he is spending his eternal sleep in a grave next to Calamity Jane. As the story has it, the locals buried her next to him as a prank. 

The Needles in South Dakota is beautiful and mysterious.
An old gas station in South Dakota.

We are in Deadwood to check out The Graves – legends are legends – and randomly find that this particular weekend the Professional Bull Riders are in town for some preseason promo competitions. Until now I always thought PBR referred to beer.Down at the rodeo grounds, young men strut around in ten-gallon straw hats and high-waisted Wranglers. For a moment I think we’ve been beamed back to 1983. 

The PBR is a league where young men compete for style points and to see who can stay on a bucking bull for more than eight seconds. It’s a big business with championships, teams and hundreds of thousands in prize money.  There’s a draft and more than 500 cowboys compete from all over the world including Australia, Brazil and Canada. There’s even a clown, offering comic relief and is there to distract the bull once a rider is down.

The PBR media person says he’ll get us a couple of bull riders to talk to while he locates the famous rodeo clown, Flint Rasmussen. “But,” he says, “I can’t make any guarantees, he usually does not like talking to the press before a rodeo.”We respect that but are hoping to at least get his number. Because, who becomes a rodeo clown?

Theodore Roosevelt National Park outside Medora, North Dakota.. To the right: Dakota Louis from Montana and Cody Casper from Washington State, two rodeo cowboys in Deadwood, South Dakota.

A few moments later Dakota Louis from Montana and Cody Casper from Washington State, both 29 and both with ironed creases on their jeans, step out of the arena and give us an interview. They have a couple of minutes before it’s time to change from button down oxfords to a protective west, and trade in hats for helmets. 

Dakota says there’s 30k on the table. That, or a quick death. There is no telling where the bull will steer his fury in his violent efforts to get rid of the cowboy on his back. “They step on you and that could be your last breath,” he says. How many bones have you broken?“I’d rather talk about how many championships, I’ve won,”  he says with equal parts cowboy cockiness and -polite—-ness and adds that he has won three.You can tell he’s a star. 

While some of the bull riders have made hundreds of thousands, millions even, most of them still have regular jobs too. Dakota works long and hard days on the family ranch up in Browning, Montana, when he’s not on the rodeo road. While the world of professional bull riding is unfolding like a red carpet before us, everyone polite and helpful, the clown, shines in his absence and we have to leave.

Rapid city

Driving down the beautiful mountains, we miss all the highlights of the Black Hills, Crazy Horse, Mount Rushmore and The Needles, because it’s dark. But we find Rapid City a small and charming town and have dinner at a fire station turned brewery. In all empty spaces on the walls, firefighter patches are stapled, gifts from visitors from around the world. Over craft beers we take stock of the day. We have 14 days on the road through South and North Dakota, Montana, Wyoming and Idaho, during which my biggest desires are watching the full moon over the Badlands and seeing bison in the wild. We have already seen and experienced some pretty amazing things. We also almost ran out of gas. The Great American West is vast, and we, both seasoned world travelers and logisticians, are embarrassed that we didn’t take into account the distances between fueling stations. 

The sacred sage

As we sit arrive at Gus Yellowhair’s art studio he picks up a bowl of smoldering sage and invites us to smudge ourselves. We do. Then he and his daughter, Tianna, welcome us in Lakota Oglala, before they transfer back to English. We are at the Pine Ridge Reservation, meeting the father-daughter artist duo and tourist guides. Sage is one of the four Native American sacred medicines. Harvesting it requires certain rituals. “When you harvest, as a woman you cannot be on your moon,” they explain. “You need to clip it, so you don’t pull up the roots. Never harvest the same place.”

Gus Yellowhair in his art studio.

Gus shows us a buffalo hide soaking in water so that he can shape it around the frame of a drum. He also explains ledger art, which we have seen everywhere, and is exactly what it sounds like, paintings on recycled documents. “To the Native Americans, who didn’t have paper to draw on, ledgers were a novelty.  They obtained the ledgers by raid or trade.”There is still a big dispute over who owns the Black Hills of South Dakota, 9 tribal bands refuse to take money for land they say was never for sale in the first place. Gus makes it a point to represent the sacred place in all his pieces. “It’s a political statement that it has not been settled,”. 

South Dakota, home to several bloody battles and the birthplace of legendary Chiefs like Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull and Red Cloud, is a great place to learn more about Native American history. The Massacre at Wounded Knee (1890), for example, where 300 Lakota were killed and buried in a mass grave, happened right here, on the Pine Ridge Reservation.“Each year riders and their horses brave the cold as they retrace the path that their family members took to Wounded Knee,” Gus says. “They carry a white flag, symbolizing their hope for world peace and honoring and remembering the victims.” 

Gus and Tianna are trying to shift their income on the reservation from “stop and shop” to actual tourism. With Tatanka Rez Tourz, they want to offer eco tourism, tipi camping, classes in history and traditional medicine, and guided tours in the Badlands. Gus cautions us when he hears we are going to the park later that night to catch the full moon. “Bring enough breadcrumbs to find your way back.”

Cowboy corner

Driving out of the Reservation, bad weather alerts come across our phones, possible severe hailstorms, marble-sized. We look at each other. Thinking about that extra insurance that we blew off as an up-sale at the rental car place in -Denver. We decide to look for a carport, maybe a bank or gas station, in case we need to take cover. I find a place called Cowboy Corner and it’s a done deal. The gas station, camping supply store and diner, is located on the edge of Badlands National Park. Sue, the owner, a tall woman with big glasses, lives on the property and serves lunch every day. 

Sue is the owner of Cowboy Corner.

Interior listed a population of 65 people in 2020, but Cowboy Corner has a lot of business thanks to two nearby campgrounds and all the Badlands tourists. A young man with Wisconsin plates pulls in and Sue goes out to greet him, a yellow screwdriver in hand. “The handle broke off on number three,” she hollers and helps him fill up.

Later she explains that the pumps are so old, she can’t find parts. I look out the window and the empty street. My mind goes to movies with desperados sticking up convenience stores with sawed-off shotguns during erratic cross-country road trips. “Ever been robbed?” Sue shakes her head. Just then a towering young man walks up behind her. “Everybody knows that my son lives with me,” she says and nods over her shoulder. “Would you wanna mess with him?”

The Badlands

The sun is starting to dip as we speed up the mountainside and into the South Unit of Badlands National Park. If we are going to catch the moon up over the legendary South Dakota Badlands, we have to find a good lookout – quickly. The barren landscape is eerily beautiful. The striped pattern in the almost white canyons is, if possible, even more gorgeous in the golden hour. The bad weather alert goes off again, and we beg the weather gods to let the moon come up while the sky is still clear. 
It does. 

The magical landscape of the Bandlands, South Dakota.

Big and pink, the Strawberry Moon materializes behind the jagged limestone-colored peaks and in front of a dark and stormy sky. No stars. We get almost 30 minutes with the prettiest moon I have ever seen, before the wind starts whipping in our hair and big drops fall out of the sky. We wake up to piercing blue skies, the following morning at Circle View Ranch, a place just like the name suggests, has an amazing view in all directions. The Bed & Breakfast owners serve a hearty breakfast, we watch their kids feed their chicken and white peacock, and are off toward North Dakota. 

Barely a few miles up the road our iPhones go off with severe weather alerts. Again. This time it’s baseball-sized hail? The sky looks violet and violent. 

No hail, but the rain, so heavy the windshield wipers can’t keep up, forces us to pass up Lemmon, and a place made internationally famous thanks to the 2016 film, “The Revenant” with Leonardo di Caprio. He plays Hugh Glass, a trapper who was mauled by a bear and left for dead by his friends. The storm is over as suddenly as it started, and a blinding sun guides us west on US Highway 12. The hillsides glimmer silver-like as the abundance of sage bushes are drying up. And just like that, we are in North Dakota. 

Hiking in North Dakota

It’s a crisp, cashmere cold evening as we pull into Medora, a five-block town with a population of 129 people and 150 deer. Over the course of two days we discover that the person who made your morning coffee may very well also be the bartender that pours your beer that evening, a volunteer firefighter and a town councilman. Medora is so picturesque and well manicured that it feels a little like the twilight zone, for all of the above.

Joe Wiegand, Theodore Roosevelt impersonator takes people on hikes in the park. North Dakota.
Horseback riding outside Medora, North Dakota.

An open air-theater with topnotch actors performing a musical every night, a pitchfork steak fondue, a zip line, horseback riding and a live Theodore Roosevelt impersonator giving both tours and performances about the conservation president, and the national park.“It’s a small town with a lot to offer,” says Jim Bridger who used to be a medical examiner in Minneapolis and accidentally became a saloon owner in Medora. We go on a hillside walk with Joe Wiegand, the Roosevelt impersonator. He starts off by kneeling down, rubbing his hands into a big silvery bush of sage and takes a great big inhale. “This is how we wash our hands,” he says.We do the same. It smells so wonderfully, that I keep doing it during the whole hike. 

Switchback trails take us high above Medora, offering a spectacular view of the town and in a distance, the -Theodore Roosevelt National Park. This is where I see my very first Bison, a childhood dream. It’s just standing there, eating grass on the side of the road, chewing and observing us with suspicious eyes. His coat is a little patchy because of shedding season, I assume.  It’s June after all. Bison are dangerous and despite their size, much faster than humans, so we follow orders and take pictures from inside the car. 

That night, the musical is rained out to everyone’s great disappointment, including the show greeter, Marshall Pinkerton, who’s practicing his pistol-spinning skills at the entrance. Instead we get a show at the Little Missouri Saloon, which is where the musical talent throw down that night, getting the whole saloon to line dance underneath a ceiling of stapled dollar-bills and a forest of retired cowboy hats.  

Pitch fork foundue anyone? Medora, North Dakota.

Follow Majsan and Robin’s road trip in the next American Trails magazine issue.

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