Esteban Writes from the Black Hills

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Hyperboles and Empty Promises

Signs for “Wall Drug” started appearing in Minnesota, 500 or so miles before reaching it. As we approach the town of Wall, the insistence of these billboards reach the intensity of a hungry toddler. What is Wall Drug? The signs don’t exactly say. They offer “free ice water,” “5 cent coffee,” and “cowboy boots.” It’s a place that seems to be trying to capitalize on the emptiness of South Dakota. In the plains of its highways it feels reassuring to have signs to pass by, and to have some kind of destination.
Wall Drug is the entrance to the Badlands and to the Black Hills. Books, food, gear, clothes, memorabilia… Wall Drug doesn’t just sell these things, it also sells the idea of itself and what it represents. This eclectic shopping mall is an important destination because there are signs that tell you it is. The place is filled with self-congratulatory items and presents itself as a world-famous destination. Without that context, if you find yourself inside it and look around, you’ll see that Wall Drug is just a small shopping mall disguised as a tourist attraction.
Here’s a tip: if you want to be a tourist attraction, just put a sign that says you are a “world famous” tourist attraction. The world is not going to protest, because the world has no idea you exist.
Without context, without its signs, Wall Drug is the most boring place on Earth. All those billboards provide a sense of an empty promise. A falseness that reflects well the story of the region and the story of this country. In the United States, just like in Wall Drug, the idea is greater than the reality.

From a distance the shade of the trees of the Black Hills do look dark, as if the sky was torn down layers of wall paper. It’s easy to see why the natives called them “the heart of everything that is.” Its rolling mountains covered in pines are full of life, and sounds of animals echo all around the area. As the United States started moving west and reached the place, conflict with American Indians arose. However ever-lasting peace was achieved when in 1867 the US and leaders of some tribes of the area signed the Fort Laramie pact, where the US agreed to renounce this territory to Native Americans. In US legal terms, Ever-lasting, of course, is the period between signing an agreement and finding gold in the territory. Give or take a couple of years. The gold rush, the entire history of the West, was, like Wall Drug, a promise of something greater than reality. Just like the Homestead Act, which promised plentiful land for the taking, the possibility of individual wealth was pushed forward by a very calculative government that wanted to get into these territories with no regard of others.

It was here that the myth of the West was born. The sheriffs, the brothels, the duels. Walking through Deadwood South Dakota made me want to go into a saloon to drink and gamble. Sadly no one was playing UNO. The romanticized view of the West was pushed forward by Buffallo Bill, a man who turned these troubled times into entertainment. People like Calamity Jane, Wild Bill, and Buffallo Bill himself became famous not necessarily for what they did, but for how they presented themselves in these shows and what they claimed to have done. The myth of these characters was greater than their reality. 

The hyperbole is the essence, it seems, of Wall Drug, the West, and of course of this country, the greatest country on earth.

Reality, as Told by Kevin Costner
The day after hiking to the top of Black Elk peak we decided to take it easy, so we plan on taking the wildlife loop, several miles of roads where you can drive and see all of the park’s fauna. Before doing so we go into the small movie theater on the park’s welcome center, and we watch the video showing images of the landscape that’s sitting right behind the screen. The movie tells the story of an idyllic white family with empty smiles that goes wherever the father points to. In other circumstances I would laugh at the people who watch these videos. Instead of watching it on this screen, you could just take a couple of steps, go out, and see everything through your own cell phone screen! Idiots. But to be fair, these chairs are the nicest place we’ve sit in weeks. It’s also worth noting that reality, unlike this movie, doesn’t have cheesy orchestral music, transition visual effects, or happy families. Also, real life is not narrated by Kevin Costner. Okay, maybe that’s a good thing?

Kevin Costner has a celebrity monopoly in the area. Dances with Wolves is the only Kevin Costner movie where he didn’t play, watched or talked about baseball, I believe. I guess that’s why he might have felt like he had unfinished business in this region, where it was filmed, as in the 90s he decided to build a Bison park here, and commissioned large sculptures to adorn it. Did we go to Costnerland? No, because our friend KC backed out of the project, and the artist sued him in the early 2000s. Great. Another white man that doesn’t fulfill his side of a contract in the region.

After the movie we took the wildlife loop and saw a bunch of strange, magnificent creatures. A herd of bison, wild burros, prairie dogs, motorcyclists, and pronghorns. By the time we were done it was six in the afternoon and we still didn’t have a place to camp. We had started the day in the Forest Service, where we got a giant map of the area. It looked like it was 1/10th scale. The idea was to find forest roads where dispersed camping is allowed. We had done it before, and it can be a very cool experience. The problem was these particular roads are like this presidency: irregular, filled with cracks, and seems like we’re not going to make it.

We went onto one of these forest roads, but the problem was that we needed to make sure we could back out or turn around on the road, so I went ahead to scout it. We spent an hour or more switching between me walking ahead, finding a spot where we could maybe turn around, Aut driving there, and moving ahead, and we didn’t find a single place fit for boondocking. As we started to turn against each other in frustration we gave up, and took a long, scary time to figure out a way to turn around our 15 ft trailer plus 13 ft car on a tiny, rough road. We managed, but the mood seemed spoiled. However, as we dealt with our defeat in silence, we saw a magnificent elk on the side of a hill, his silhouette shining in front of the sunset. Epic orchestral music started playing. “Despite the difficult times,” we heard Kevin Costner say, “the splendor of the mighty elk stands as a symbol of hope in these hills…” Dramatic pause, “of South Dakota.”
This peaceful resolution to conflict has been a constant in the trip. It seems it would be difficult to be together all the time, and sometimes we do get annoyed with each other, but that only lasts for the minutes it takes until we see something that triggers that epic music and then we’re back to loving each other as much as Kevin Costner loves baseball.

How Cowboys survive Ponderosa Pinecone attacks
Before reaching our next destination, Theodore Roosevelt National Park, we spent 3 nights on a free campground called “Picnic Springs.” It’s in the middle of nowhere. Every campsite has mesas, cliffs, and rock formation, and ponderosa pine roots twisting and turning around rocks, hanging over the ledge. Our trailer and the campground clearance are surrounded by these pines, and behind it we have a small overhang, just for us.

I stand on top of the rocks looking at the other side of the cliffs and pretend it’s the late 19th Century and I’m a tough scout in search of gold. A brave, free-spirited man flirting with survival. Suddenly a pinecone drops behind me making a light sound and I suddenly get scared because what if it’s a dangerous rodent? It’s also not safe, being so close to this ten-foot edge. So I go back to my hammock and my puzzle book. Sure, these tough explorers were able to kill buffalos and survive in the wilderness but I’d like to see them fight through and defeat a crossword puzzle edited by Will Shortz. No cheating. Yeah, not to brag but I’ve done that a couple of times.

I think the term “cowboy” fits me really well. You can herd me like cattle and I cry like a child. Honestly, I can’t think of a least menacing name than “cowboy.” Wow. You are so tough you named yourself after the two most docile, innocent creatures around you? When they invented the term no one jumped in to suggest “bullman”? Did they try other ones first? “Don’t mess with me, kid, I’m a tough sheeptoddler.” Maybe they thought the hat may be enough. Maybe it is. Maybe I need a cowboy hat. 

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