Christina Rusnak | 50@50 – The Black Hills, SD
Christina Rusnak is a multifaceted composer whose work reflects a diversity of styles. Actively seeking to integrate geographic and artistic elements into her work, her goal is to compose music that engages the performers as well as the audience.
Christina Rusnak, Composer, Explorer, Music, Outdoors, Exploring with music
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50@50 – The Black Hills, SD

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The Black Hills first registered in my mind as a special place when someone other than my mother gave me one of my very first pieces of jewelry – a tricolored gold ring that I cherished until I lost it about 10 years ago. My imagination conjured up a place that crossed Colorado, the Ozarks of Missouri and the mines of the seven dwarfs. The tallest mountains east of the Rockies, this small isolated range is reputed to be America’s oldest uplifted by volcanic activity and formed over four geological periods.   The first town we encountered on the forest’s western flank of the Black Hills was Hot Springs. Apparently, there are a few. An early 20th century resort town, nearly all of its buildings are constructed out of red sandstone.

We arrived in Wind Cave[1] just after noon. Do we do the cave or not? Wind Cave is one of the most unique and geologically prolific caves in the world. No openings today. Hmmm. After a picnic, we headed out to hike the Lookout Point trail on the prairie – positioned on top of the caves. The summer day was hot, but lots of wildlife, including pronghorn, deer, a marmot, a snake and prairie dogs didn’t seem to notice. About ½ mile into our hike we observed a lone buffalo. The trail seemed to disintegrate, and I was trying to find it, when, three – four, more? bison started heading my way. Time to backtrack.

Custer State Park is wholly within the Black Hills National Forest. The “Needles” are comprised of clumps of vertical monoliths. The stone appears gray in morning light, but when the evening sun shines on them, they take on a diffused glistening color that’s hard to describe, but no longer just gray. Anyway, Needles Highway winds down hairpin turns on Hwy 87; engineers cut through the mountains creating two tunnels on this highway – the smallest being only 8 ½ feet wide and 12 feet high!  WAY COOL! The park has a presidential air about it. Originally set up as a game preserve, the Game State Lodge was originally constructed as a hunting lodge in the 1920s; it served as the summer white house for President Coolidge in 1927 and President Eisenhower in 1953.

The Sunday Gulch Trail coils adjacent to Sylvan Lake. Rated “difficult” the hike is 2.8 miles, not all of which is difficult. We visited the Journey Museum in Rapid City which exhibits the geological and human history of the Black Hills. The geology here is fascinating. The short version is that much of the rock here has calcifications. Even the pebbles and rocks on the hiking trails glitter. I picked up one piece of quartzite so paper thin, I could see through it as well as wax paper!

Custer's 1874 Expedition

Native American history is shorter here – only about 7,000 years. The Arikara came to these hills about 1500 CE followed by other tribes. The Lakota Sioux, so synonymous with the Black Hills, did not arrive until the late 18th century when they conquered and drove out the Cheyenne. In 1868, the U.S. government signed the Fort Laramie Treaty, barring the Black Hills from all white settlement permanently. However, in 1874, George Custer was assigned by the U.S. Army to find a suitable place for a fort and determine if there was gold in them Black Hills.  As a result of his expedition, miners swept in. After attempts to break the treaty and numerous battles over the next few years, the government, in violation of the treaty, relocated the Sioux elsewhere in South Dakota.



Flume Trail

The next day we decided to hike a unique trail created out of an old flume. The mines needed a way to move the gold efficiently so they built an 11 mile flume to carry the gold down from the mines to Rockport. Not sure what happened at Rockport. We hiked about three miles of the old flume. The trail included two tunnels!  Even though the six-foot wide flume is now just a narrow trail in most places, the constructed walls to support the flumes are still visible.

The spirit of outlaws and hideouts, sheriffs and guns still linger in the Black Hills.  The rocky cliffs of Spearfish Canyon differ dramatically from those in the southern sector of the forest – almost like an amalgamation of different types of rocks. Driving down a forest road to hike the Lower Rimrock Trail, we passed a sign stating this area as a key location in the movie “Dances with Wolves”. Just as we parked are began changing our shoes, the sheriff drove in. I walked over to ask him about the camping fee.  We chatted and he said don’t worry about it. Back at the car, John told me that the Sheriff’s hand hovered by his gun as he approached me. I was happy he didn’t shoot first!

That night we bunked in Deadwood where Wild Bill Hickok was gunned down. Reputedly the wildest town in South Dakota in the late 19th century, the town declined in the 1920’s. The citizens appealed to the state in the 1980s to allow gambling to pay for the town’s revitalization. It worked. I find the barrage of ringing wall-to-wall slot machines a detraction but really, the gambling is a significant part of the ambiance. A hundred years ago, people were thrown out of dank, smelly saloons over a card game. Today the risk of getting shot by a stray bullet is much lower.

How could I explore the landscape and culture of the Black Hills and NOT visit Mount Rushmore. Easy. Three million people visit Mount Rushmore – most of them in summer. We hiked Iron Mountain, south of the memorial and viewed the faces from the overlook. The memorial started out to draw sightseers. In 1923 a state historian envisioned the hills parading Indian leaders and American explorers instrumental in shaping the west. This wasn’t very popular, so sculptor Gutzon Borglum suggested the four presidents we see today. Started in 1927, it was completed in 1941. Somehow, the images of Native American leaders got scuffled, so Lakota Chief Henry Standing Bear asked sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski to carve a memorial to Crazy Horse. Work officially started June 3, 1948 and is ongoing. Its mission has expanded to include honoring the culture and heritage of all North American Indians. The site is nearly as busy as Mount Rushmore, but I learned a lot.

On July 23, 1980, the US Supreme Court ruled that the Black Hills were seized illegally in 1876 and that the Sioux Nation must be remunerated for the offer price plus interest – nearly $106 million. The Lakota rejected the financial settlement; they wanted the land returned to them. The money now amounts to over $757 million, but the Lakota still refuse to take the money, they want the Black Hills back. Spring 2012: a special UN rapporteur conducted a 12 day tour visiting tribes in seven states and meeting with government officials to see how the US is doing on the UN’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. President Barack Obama endorsed the declaration in 2010, reversing a previous US vote against it. His initial report stated that the US “must do more to heal the wounds of” Native Americans.[2]  While his full report will be out in the Fall of 2012, he initially suggested that some land be returned to indigenous peoples.[3]

The landscape has meaning.  It shapes how we live in response to it, and shapes our perspective and our culture.

[1]           I’m making an exception to my “no national parks” rule for this blog.  The park is adjacent to Custer State Park, and how many people have even heard of it?




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