Sunday, July 5, 2009

Our Black Hills Magical Mystery Tour

July 4, 2009

We have been waiting for two rainy days, hoping the weather would clear up enough for us to take our bikes out on the Mickelson Trail without fear of getting caught miles from anywhere in a downpour . . . or a hail storm. This is our last day in the Black Hills, our last chance to ride, so we decided to go for it, even though the sky was heavy with grey clouds when we suited up and headed out.

The Mickelson Trail stretches through the Black Hills for over 100 scenic miles.
Because it is built on a converted railroad bed, it has a maximum grade of just 4%, so riders like us who are used to riding in the flatlands can enjoy the rugged scenery without actually having to climb it.

On the advice of a local bike shop owner, we rode an 8 ½ mile segment of the trail between the now defunct mining town of Mystic and another abandoned mining town of Rochford. He advised us to go north first, so we would be traveling uphill to start and downhill on our return trip. We followed his excellent advice, the weather just got better and better as the morning wore on, and the result was a ride that far exceeded our expectations, which were pretty high.

We both agreed that this 17 mile ride was one of the best and most beautiful we have ever done anywhere. The trail was lined with a rainbow of wildflowers. We rode on trestles over deep valleys and swiftly flowing streams, we passed through a stone tunnel cut through a mountain. The sunny slopes to one side of us were thick with pines, and spruces towered tall in the shady gulches on the opposite side of the trail. There were narrow passes between high walls of rock layered like shingles, colorful with many minerals—rusty and russet and golden and black—that opened to broad views of mountains upon mountains, rolling into the distance. A waterfall rushing over rocks below, a hawk soaring overhead—everywhere we looked there were sights to savor.

We passed several groups of people in streams panning for gold. And, we passed the mostly overgrown ruins of gold mines built during the gold rush, only to be abandoned five years later.

We stopped at the shelter in Rochford to have a granola bar and refill our water bottles, then we hopped back on our bikes for the return trip.

What a wonderful surprise! We hardly had to pedal at all. It felt as if we were on a raft lazily floating downstream—we could paddle, but we didn't have to. We were impressed with how easily we had managed to gain so much altitude without realizing it on our ride to Rochford, and we were happy to enjoy the reward of coasting down. A long downhill coast is a pleasure we don't have the opportunity to enjoy much in our Coastal Georgia biking.

At the end of our ride, Dick said, "You will have to put in the blog that we may not find the Black Hills sacred, like the Lakota people, but we do find them magical."

We were intrigued by a rustic sacred space by the Mystic trailhead. This is the McCahan Memorial Chapel, named for the woman who donated the money to build it so that the gold miners would have a church nearby. It was unlocked, so we walked inside. It is a very simple, and strangely moving space, and must have some special spiritual force about it, since it has not been vandalized, despite being left unlocked in a remote area.

We changed out of our biking clothes and drove north to Lead, home of the largest underground gold mine in the western hemisphere. A massive gaping open pit mine lies right next to the main street through town. Half the business district slid into the hole in the 1930s as a result of the mine not shoring up its tunnels well enough. Although the hole is huge, the mine is like an ice berg—far more of it lies beneath the surface than above it. By the 1970s the underground portion was 8,000 feet deep.

We watched a video about "the greatest gold mine in the world" in the Visitor's Center. It was full of lots of interesting information about the mine—we learned it yielded 41 million ounces of gold over its lifetime, saw how they separated the gold from the ore using cyanide, and heard how now that the mine has closed operations, the company is doing a thorough job of "remediation." (By that, they probably mean detoxifying the area of its operations.) The film was very big on safety.

Which is why we found the Miners' Memorial by the big pit mine so interesting. Placed by the United Mine Workers, it honored the memory of the workers who lost their lives at the mine, and listed them by name. We counted 420 dead miners, and half of them died in the past 100 years. There was not a hint of any deadly accidents in the video or any of the exhibit panels scattered throughout the mine viewing area. We wonder how did all those miners die? It is a mystery.

But the biggest mysteries of the day were to come at our next stop, Cosmos, which bills itself as "the strangest location in the entire Black Hills. . . The laws of nature seem to have gone completely beserk, especially in the old mystery cabin. To feel the pressure of the area against you is the most unusual feature of all, a physical experience you will never forget."

That's a tall order, especially for a couple of old skeptics. We were, as far as we could tell, the only adults there who did not come with children. And, we loved the experience—it was like being immersed in an M.C. Escher print, where it is impossible to figure out the planes or to define up and down, and all the steps just keep going up.

Two people stood on either end of a platform that was flat, as demonstrated by a carpenter's level, and when they changed places their relative sizes changed. A tennis ball rolled uphill, as did water. Walking around in the old cabin in the mountainside, we lost our sense of balance and perspective.
It was a combination fun house, science lesson, and magic show.

This is our first real tourist trap indulgence of the trip, and we are glad we liked it so much, because we paid a lot of money ($9.50 apiece) and had to wait a long time (48 minutes) to do it.

Finally, it wouldn't be Independence Day without fireworks, and the Custer Volunteer Fire Department puts on a great show. We were able to avoid the crowds and watch from the comfort of our hotel room balcony. The firemen didn't shoot them off one at a time—they came in rapid succession, a three ring circus of sound and light, in an incredible array of shapes and colors.
Magical. And a mystery, too. How do they come up with the money for such an elaborate display of fireworks in a town this size?

We end our time in the Black Hills remembering the words of Peter Norbeck, the South Dakota Governor and U.S. Senator who was influential in the creation of Custer State Park and other Black Hills natural recreation areas:

"You're not supposed to drive here at 60 miles per hour. To do the scenery half justice, people should drive at 20 or under; to do it full justice, they should get out and walk."


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