Try bring­ing in the herd for a va­ca­tion in South Dakota

The Sun News (Sunday) - - Coasting - BY PATTI NICK­ELL Lex­ing­ton Her­ald-Leader

It was one of the most thrilling ex­pe­ri­ences of my life. Af­ter what seemed like hours wait­ing pa­tiently for some­thing to hap­pen, the seis­mic shak­ing of the earth sig­naled the main show was about to be­gin.

Rid­ers on horse­back fanned out across the top of the hill, while be­low in the val­ley the rest of us in rack trucks waited for our cue. As if a di­rec­tor had yelled, “Ac­tion,” 1,300 Amer­i­can buf­falo came ca­reen­ing down the hill, with both rid­ers and trucks tak­ing up their po­si­tions to help herd them into cor­rals.

Wel­come to the an­nual Custer State Park Buf­falo Roundup. In this an­nual event, the shaggy bi­son are in­ter­rupted from their usual nosh­ing on the park’s lush grass­lands, and rounded up for sev­eral days of sort­ing, brand­ing, test­ing and tag­ging.

With one of the largest Amer­i­can bi­son herds in the world, park staff use the roundup to keep the pop­u­la­tion in bal­ance with avail­able land and re­sources – check­ing them out thor­oughly be­fore re­turn­ing most of them to their graz­ing a few days later.

Our group’s driver vol­un­teered that some­times the bi­son – an­noyed at the in­ter­rup­tion – get pretty bad-ass and refuse to co­op­er­ate, but this year, with the ex­cep­tion of one fright­ened calf who went AWOL with its mother in hot pur­suit, the herd was down­right docile. In no time at all, they were safely cor­ralled, and both par­tic­i­pants and spec­ta­tors headed off for a chuck­wagon lunch of brisket and beans.

Along with a group of na­tional and in­ter­na­tional jour­nal­ists, I had been in­vited to take part in the roundup, and to say that we were right in the cen­ter of the ac­tion is no ex­ag­ger­a­tion. The herd’s head­long rush to the cor­ral was a sight I won’t soon for­get.

The gen­eral pub­lic is not left out ei­ther. While they are not al­lowed in the thick of things as we were, they can stake out a spot for op­ti­mal view­ing as the herd comes thun­der­ing down the hill. (FYI: About 14,000 peo­ple at­tend ev­ery year; if you want to make plans for next year, the roundup is al­ways held on the last Fri­day in Septem­ber; which in 2019, is the 27th.)

WEALTH OF AT­TRAC­TIONS

The bi­son roundup was my main rea­son for com­ing to South Dakota this time, but a pre­vi­ous visit showed me the state has an em­bar­rass­ment of riches, both nat­u­ral and man­made. In the lat­ter cat­e­gory are, of course, the mas­sive stone heads of pres­i­dents at Mount Rush­more, and of Lakota Sioux war­rior Crazy Horse atop his own moun­tain.

Both never cease to amaze, but it’s the nat­u­ral won­ders of the state that hold a spe­cial ap­peal for me. On the drive to Custer State Park, I went through the Nee­dles of the Black Hills. Aptly named, the Nee­dles are gran­ite pil­lars and spires that reach up to stab the sky. The 14-mile Nee­dles High­way, with its twists, turns and tun­nels, is a scenic sight not soon for­got­ten. Beau­ti­ful any time, in au­tumn the stark­ness of the for­ma­tions is al­le­vi­ated by lush green pines and yel­low quak­ing as­pens.

An­other scenic won­der, the Bad­lands, in the south­west­ern part of the state, were no doubt bad to the un­wary pil­grim trapped within the waste­land with­out wa­ter or means of sur­vival, but for to­day’s visi­tors, the only bad is in the name.

The 243,000-acre na­tional park en­com­passes the largest mixed grass prairie in the United States as well as a lu­narlike land­scape of buttes, spires and pin­na­cles warped and twisted into fan­tas­ti­cal shapes rem­i­nis­cent of a science fic­tion film. If you’re lucky enough to catch a vivid sun­rise or bril­liant sun­set, the in­hos­pitable ter­rain takes on a strik­ing pal­ette of gold, hot pink, red, laven­der, indigo and pur­ple.

TALE OF TWO CITIES

No two cities could be more dif­fer­ent than Dead­wood and Rapid City, but they rep­re­sent the yin and yang of the state – the for­mer a peek into its wild and wooly past, and the lat­ter a sym­bol of its vi­brant present.

The two most fa­mous names as­so­ci­ated with Dead­wood were Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok, whose graves can be seen in the hill­side Mount Mo­riah Ceme­tery, along with those of mur­der­ers, madams and pil­lars of the town’s so­ci­ety – such as it was. Af­ter tour­ing the ceme­tery, a his­toric walk­ing tour of Dead­wood’s 19th cen­tury build­ings will help put their sto­ries in con­text.

Be sure to ar­rive early at Saloon #10 to grab a seat for the Wild Bill re-en­act- ment (be­lieve me, they fill up fast). Al­though the saloon was a fa­vorite wa­ter­ing hole for col­or­ful types such as Wy­att Earp, Doc Hol­l­i­day, Poker Al­ice and Buf­falo Bill Cody, it was Hickok who gave it its last­ing fame.

On the af­ter­noon of Aug. 2, 1876, he sat down for a game of poker with three friends. It was to be his last. Po­si­tion­ing him­self be­hind Wild Bill was a sidewinder named Jack McCall, who with­out warn­ing, drew his gun and shot Hickok in the back of the head.

Af­ter you’ve watched Wild Bill meet his maker, you can ad­journ up­stairs for din­ner at the Dead­wood So­cial Club whose spe­cial­ties are South Dakota buf­falo and beef.

If Dead­wood is a paean to the past, Rapid City is mod­ern and makes a per­fect base for ex­plor­ing the Black Hills and Bad­lands. Dubbed “the city of Pres­i­dents,” there are life-sized bronze stat­ues of all past U.S. pres­i­dents scat­tered through­out the down­town streets.

One of these – Franklin Pierce, the 14th pres­i­dent, stands like a bronze barker out­side the door of Mur­phy’s. He ap­peared to be urg­ing me to en­ter the iconic Rapid City restau­rant lo­cated in a ren­o­vated 1911 city garage build­ing.

Mur­phy’s is known for buf­falo meat loaf, but also try to whee­dle the code from some­one to get into its com­pan­ion speakeasy, the Blind Lion. This place is a find – that is if you can find it, and the Smok­ing Bar­rel (mint gin, rum, scotch and bour­bon with a hint of to­bacco smoke) is a li­ba­tion wor­thy of its name.

South Dakota De­part­ment of Tourism

Each fall, the ground rum­bles and the dust flies as cowboys, cow­girls and park crews sad­dle up to bring in the thun­der­ing herd for the Custer State Park Buf­falo Roundup. The an­nual roundup, held the last Fri­day in Septem­ber, is open to the pub­lic.

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