by Kathy Stedwill
Dates: June 17, 1980 – July 6, 1980
Leader: Bill Stewart
Participants: Peg Delange, Bev Pyne, Sandy Miller, Virginia Hatch Stewart, Darin Stewart, ?Darin’s Friend?, Bob Spicer, Kathy and Hilary Stedwill
In June/July 1986 Bill Stewart led a “loaded” Freewheeler bicycle tour to the Black Hills, South Dakota. The tour was based on a bicycle camping trip he and his son had made there a few years earlier. Darin joined the tour, returning to do the trip again with his father. Some of the other tour participants had visited the Black Hills before. For the rest of us, this was our first visit to this area. It was also the first extended “loaded” bicycle tour that I undertook with my son Hilary (he was eight at the time). He and I cycled on a tandem bicycle.
Travelling to the Black Hills
Early on a Friday morning in late June, ten people in several vehicles, loaded with bicycles and camping gear headed south from Regina on Highway 6, destination Spearfish, South Dakota and the start of a ten day adventure through the Black Hills. We drove all day through a rolling land that stretched, on both sides of the road, to broad horizons. The few small, dusty towns we passed clung to the edge of the road as if to keep from being swallowed up by the immense land that surrounded them. As we drove, I thought that the countryside must look much as it did when my grandparents had traveled north from Nebraska through this region in the early twentieth century to settle in west central Saskatchewan. I wondered if they had doubts about their venture to settle in a new country, start a new business and raise their family far from “kith and kin”. Even grand dreams could blow away in this vast empty land.
However, my grandparents were obviously made of tougher stuff because they did complete the journey, settle, establish their business and raise a family. This trip shed new light for me on their accomplishments.
Late in the afternoon we enjoyed our first view of the Black Hills (from the Lakota words, Paha Sapa, meaning hills that are black). Living up to their name, they rose abruptly from the prairies, dark hills backed by even darker clouds and flashing lightening! We still had to drive sometime before we reached this “oasis” in the midst of the prairies. It was dark when we arrived at the campground in Spearfish, on the northern edge of the Black Hills. We set up camp quickly and were under cover before the rain came.
Spearfish – Deadwood
The next day was warm and sunny. After we had made arrangements to leave our vehicles at the campground, we loaded our bicycles and headed off to our first destination of the tour, the town of Deadwood. Our route followed Spearfish creek south, climbing steadily, turning west and climbing steeply, then looping back slightly and descending to Lead and on into Deadwood. Good weather, pleasant scenery and little traffic, combined to make a great start to the tour. We had a wonderful time exploring Deadwood. Gold was discovered in the Black Hills in 1874 and the ensuing gold rush gave birth to Deadwood. Modern day Deadwood has build on, and exaggerated its flamboyant past, providing tourists like us with a “big gulp” of the wild, wild west. Instead of horses, shiny lines of Harley-Davidson motorcycles rest by the hitching rails outside the Deadwood saloons. We watched a re-enactment of the shooting of “Wild Bill” Hickok. Story has it that he was shot when he unwisely sat with his back to the door, during a game of poker. We then explored the stores on the main street which displayed the most amazing array of items, all designed to attract the tourists and induce them to open their wallets. It was apparent that the many casinos in Deadwood also serve as a modern-day source of gold for the town.
The next day we headed back towards Lead, then turned south on Highway 385. We reached the Pactola Reservoir and Centre just as the storm that had been ahead of us, moved in over the reservoir and the rain came down in torrents! We were happy to explore the Black Hills National Forest visitor centre and wait out the storm. When the rain had stopped we continued south, stopping for the night at a quiet campground located in a meadow just off the road. We ate supper under a pastel sky of yellows, peaches and mauves, as if the rain had washed some of the colour out of the Technicolor sunset.
Crazy Horse Memorial
We reached the Crazy Horse Memorial late the next morning. Access to the site was a side road that started with a sharp dip, followed by a very steep ride up to the gates – some of us rode up, some had to walk part of the way! Whatever way we arrived, it was well worth the trip. We passed through the Nature Gates containing more than 270 hand cut and etched brass silhouettes of the animals, birds, plants, fish and reptiles that live or did live in the Black Hills. We entered a combination museum and observation platform. It was clear, as we looked at the mountain sculpture from the observation deck and compared it to the model on the observation platform, there remained a lot of work to complete the sculpture.In 1940, Korczak Ziolkowski (1908-1982), a recognized sculptor, who had been an assistant of Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor at Mt. Rushmore, was approached by the Lakota Indian Chiefs to create a mountain carving memorial to the great Sioux leader, Crazy Horse. After the Second World War, Ziolkowski returned to the Black Hills to begin the memorial. He dedicated the rest of his life to this project, taking no salary for his work. Today his family carries on creating what will, if completed, be the world’s largest sculpture.
We continued south to Custer (Deadwood on a smaller scale) where we turned east on to the Needles Highway and what was for me the highlight of the trip. Part of Custer State Park, the Needles Highway curves and winds for about 22.5 kilometers up past dramatic granite formations (the Needles). The route passed through pine forests, interspersed with panoramic views of the Black Hills. There was little traffic. We listened to the sound of birds in the trees, drank in the smell of pine forest, and stopped at every lookout point to enjoy the view (and to catch our breath). We cycled past Harney Peak, at 2,207 meters it is the highest point between the Rockies and the Alps. We rode through a narrow tunnel cut into the granite, just before reaching the summit of the pass. We stayed that evening in the state campground by Sylvan Lake, finishing the day with a refreshing swim in the lake, followed by a revitalizing cup of Bill’s camp java before being lulled to sleep by the winds in the pines.
Four Guys in a Rock and Keystone
The next day we headed on to Mount Rushmore with the famous mountain sculpture of four American presidents1. My memory of the trip to Mount Rushmore is of trying to ride a tandem bicycle with a very sick passenger, making frequent stops and thanking the patron saints of cycling that our route that day was downhill. By the time we reached Keystone, where the group was stopping for the night, he was starting to feel better and, with the resilience of youth, had bounced back entirely by the next morning. Most members of the tour were to succumb to this particularly vicious intestinal “bug” over the next few days.
We explored the incredible collection of tourist stores before leaving Keystone. The women on the tour all invested in bright florescent T-shirts with matching, dangling earrings and gaudy sunglasses. The male members of the group took to distancing themselves from us – we could not imagine why!
The heat (it was 40C+) and intestinal flu were taking their toll on the group. We bypassed the many roadside attractions that beckoned tourists travelling Highway 16 into Rapid City (including incredible collections of lawn ornaments and local rock collections), stopping early at a RV campground at the edge of Rapid City, to stock up on supplies, enjoy a shower, do some laundry, and recuperate. One of my favourite pictures from the trip, taken by a passerby, was of our group on the main street of Rapid City, with the women decked out in our “tacky Keystone treasures”.
We started back, taking Highway 44, a quiet, rolling road, to Highway 385 where we would turn north and head back to Spearfish. We had another short day because of the intestinal flu and heat. Bill made a huge hearty batch of his famous pancakes for supper and that, with a good night’s rest, restored the group. We returned to Deadwood the next night and were back in Spearfish early the following afternoon. After a shower and a fine feast at a local Chinese restaurant, we went to see the Black Hills Passion Play which recreates Christ’s life from Palm Sunday to the Crucifixion. Held in an open amphitheater in the hills just outside Spearfish, it is a spectacular event, featuring a large cast, including animals! The play was a striking end to a memorable tour.
The last picture I have of the Black Hills Tour is of my car pulled over to side of Highway 6, just coming into Regina, the tandem perched on top, a rainbow arched overhead. It symbolizes the end of the tour, and of all journeys – the bittersweet celebration of a safe return home that marks the adventure’s end, a moment in life’s endless circle of endings and new beginnings.
The Black Hills tour was a typical tour of the Wascana Freewheeler Bicycle Touring Club in the mid 1980’s – the emphasis on self-reliant touring, family participation, the distinct leadership of Bill Stewart, strong identity and support among the members. Most of the bicycles on the Black Hills Tour had 15-18 gears. The tandem Hilary and I rode had ten gears, something we noticed especially when climbing hills. Then we longed for the lower gear options enjoyed by other members of the tour! Three-four years earlier it would have been unusual to see a bicycle with more than ten gears on a Freewheeler tour. Hybrid mountain bikes were just starting to replace “touring” bikes. This was the first extended Freewheeler tour that I remember including the hybrid mountain touring bikes, although Freewheeler members had been using mountain bikes on local tours for the previous couple of years.
-Kathy Stedwill, July 1 1999 (Article for Riding with the Wind: The history of cycling in Saskatchewan; by Pat Rediger)
1 George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln