Monday, September 26, 2016

Deadwood, South Dakota!

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     Deadwood, South Dakota!
     Several western destinations that are outside of the immediate Desert Southwest region have been featured in this travel website this summer.  One reason why is because these scenic destinations fit in with the "beat the extreme summer heat" travel destination theme.  These places interest readers in the Southwest that are looking for someplace interesting to go that offers a cool summer breeze.  
     The other reason why destinations outside of the Desert Southwest are featured is historical significance.  Many western destinations greatly influenced events that occurred in the Desert Southwest during the era of pioneers and the gold rush.  For example, when reading stories about lawmen, outlaws and natives of the old Southwest, one would be surprised at how many times that places like Dodge City, Kansas or Deadwood, South Dakota are mentioned.  In modern times, these destinations are simply east of the Rockies, but back in the day these places were truly gateways to the west where the fate of many legendary men crossed paths.
     In a previous article, Dodge City was mentioned as a starting point on the Santa Fe Trail and it was a place where many cattle drives from the Southwest came to an end.  Dodge City was not quite the romantic little town that Hollywood portrayed in the Gunsmoke television series.  In fact, Gunsmoke was never even filmed anywhere close to Dodge City.  The real Dodge City was so rough and rowdy that this place actually had the reputation of being "The Most Wicked Little Town In The West!"
     In the days of the old west, Deadwood, South Dakota actually was so lawless, that it made Dodge City look kind of tame.  Right from the start in the 1870's, the Deadwood settlement was illegally established on Lakota land that was just created by peace treaty.  A local gold rush was all it took to light the proverbial fuse.  Some of the hardest toughest characters in the old west were drawn to Deadwood, because this was a place where there was no law that stood in the way of illicit prosperity.  
     Gambling, booze, prostitution, opium dens, white slavery and every crime in the book was just normal business back in the early days of Deadwood.  Deadwood was a place where the six gun was mightier than pen and paper justice, because U.S. Government law could not be enforced on tribal sovereign territory.  The outlaws knew the arm of justice was tied up in red tape, so lawlessness became a way of life.
     Places where lawlessness and corruption prevailed attracted hardened gunslingers, like Wyatt Earp and Wild Bill Hickok.  It seems like the name Wyatt Earp is connected with the corrupt heyday of every town in the west and Deadwood was one of his prime haunts.  Wild Bill Hickok led a tough life of mythical proportions and in his later years he was a lawman that had a reputation for restoring law and order by force.  Needless to say, Wild Bill Hickok made plenty of enemies over the years and he was shot in the back while playing cards at a saloon in Deadwood.  The cards he was holding were Black Aces & Eights, which became known as the Dead Man's Hand.  
     After the local gold rush turned into a gold industry, Deadwood started to become civilized.  The illicit industries that capitalized on Deadwood made so much money, that no expense was spared to attract more visitors, which in turn would create more action.  The railroad ensured that the newest inventions and latest styles were made available to the free spending characters that settled this town.  The law abiding community within Deadwood also wanted to become part of the future, so more emphasis was placed upon luring legitimate big businesses and constructing prime accommodations.  Deadwood was one of the first cities in America to get electric power and this put Deadwood in the forefront of the new age of prosperity.
    Deadwood endured several fires that nearly burnt the entire city down.  The last big fire occurred in the late 1950's.  It is said that the original Deadwood that was destroyed by fire actually lies 2 to 6 feet underground beneath the present street level.  Most of the old Deadwood that can be seen in the modern age are remnants of the old buildings from the turn of the 20th century that were reconstructed.  Most of the old original wooden buildings are long gone.  Great lengths were taken to preserve the architectural style of Deadwood in its heyday and this city is now a National Landmark.
    Because the last fire curbed tourism and business revenue, Deadwood was a prime candidate for turning back to its old ways.  Because Deadwood is on tribal land, many vices were allowed to continue through the years.  There were still plenty of saloons in Deadwood where the whisky flowed freely.  The last brothels were finally shut down in the late 1900's, mostly due to a sharp decline in business.  Because of the recent National Landmark status, gambling was taboo, but this would soon change.  Legalized casino gambling became part of the Deadwood civic revitalization process.  Now Deadwood is once again a wild west mecca!
     Deadwood is close to Interstate 90 near the Wyoming border.  This town is just a short hop away from Sturgis, where the world famous motorcycle rally takes place each year.  Deadwood is a wild place to be while Sturgis is going on.  I visited Deadwood a few weeks after Sturgis was over and the biker welcome signs can be seen in many of the slideshow photos.
     The slideshow photos definitely show the old west architectural style of Deadwood and it is easy to see that this was once a prosperous town.  By comparison, the buildings in Deadwood look much fancier than most old buildings in other historic western cities.  One might say that Deadwood was the precursor to modern Las Vegas.
     Deadwood is a great place to park the car and do some walking.  Touring by foot is the best way to experiences this old historic city.  There are so many historic markers and plaques in this town, that a visitor will constantly be reminded that the famous stories and characters of the old west were in fact real.  Most of the historic markers in the downtown area add credence to Wild Bill Hickok being a western hero that was larger than life.  This man was a Union Spy, gunslinger, U.S. Marshal, card shark and an accomplished actor.  
     Walking in the footsteps of Wild Bill Hickok is easy to do in Deadwood, but this means getting primed for an all day long bar crawl, because Wild Bill left his mark in nearly every saloon and gambling hall in this town.  I started my crawl at the Saloon No. 10, with a glass full of Wyoming Whisky.  Needless to say, the atmosphere of this old west saloon combined with harsh frontier style whisky is enough get anybody in a mood to explore more of Deadwood.
     After spending a few hours of touring the gambling halls, shops and saloons, it was easy to see that the old wild Deadwood from the late 1800's has been rekindled in modern times.  After walking for hours, I was thirsty enough for another drink, but it had to be non-alcoholic because I would be hitting the road soon.  Then I saw a sign in a store window for old fashioned hand crafted root beer.  Root Beer and Sarsaparilla actually were popular saloon drinks in the old west, because these soft drinks were revitalizing medicinal tonics.  So, I sat at the counter of a bar in a gift shop and ordered an old west style root beer.  While taking the first sip, I noticed a historical sign that said that this gift shop building actually was the saloon where Wild Bill Hickok was shot in the back while playing cards. 
     I looked out the windows and imagined what the day must have been like, way back when Wild Bill Hickok was killed.  Bright light shined into the room, yet there was still plenty of darkness.  By the time I got to the last sip of root beer, the atmosphere of that old building started to get a bit eerie.  All I can say is that the ghosts of the past sure do come to life in historic Deadwood. 
     This has been a temperate start to autumn this year and the daytime temperatures have been comfortable even as far north as the Dakotas.  This means that there is still time to tour historic Deadwood by foot before the winter weather arrives in the Badlands.  If not now, then the lifetime bucket list of travel destinations is where Deadwood belongs, especially if you just happen to be an old west history buff!                                              

Monday, September 12, 2016

Medicine Wheel National Historic Landmark ~ Bighorn National Forest, Wyoming!

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     Medicine Wheel / Medicine Mountain National Historic Landmark!
     It is a bit late for summer travelers to head off to western mountain destinations, but there still is time for a few outdoor ventures before the first heavy snow of winter is expected.  Predicting the weather in the Bighorn National Forest is not easy, because the mountains rise nearly two miles above sea level.  Mountain peaks in the High Plains region of Wyoming are notorious for early winter weather, which usually arrives during the autumn season.  Then again, after enduring a long hot summer, taking a short hike in the brisk cool mountains certainly does sound appealing.  
     Giving some fair warning about what to expect weather-wise in the Bighorn is necessary for today's travel destination, because there is some high altitude hiking involved.  Autumn daytime temperatures in the Bighorn Mountains can be comfortable when the sun is shining or it can be clammy cold if the clouds bring misty overcast.  The weather can change on short notice at high altitudes, so it is best to always prepare for the unexpected.  This is especially true when planning a day hike in the Bighorn Mountains.  Stuffing some warm clothes in the backpack will keep the hike comfortable if the temperature suddenly drops 30ยบ, which it has been known to do this time of year.
     The Medicine Wheel National Historic Landmark is a great day trip destination, both from a cultural and astrological standpoint.  The Medicine Wheel is a sacred Native American site that was preserved as a National Landmark in 1970.  This landmark has been called several names in the past, such as the "Crow Medicine Wheel or Bighorn Medicine Wheel."  Out of respect for the local tribes, the official name was changed to the Medicine Wheel / Medicine Mountain National Historic Landmark.  In Wyoming, the locals simply refer to this place as the Medicine Wheel.         
     For many years and many centuries, native people have made pilgrimages to the Medicine Wheel, to give thanks to Mother Earth for creation and sustenance in the world which they live.  The Medicine Wheel historically is a place for spiritual fasting, reverence and visionary quests.  Even in modern times, this sacred site is a place of prayers, divination and spiritual journeys.  This is a place where people can learn a little something from the great spirit, that helps them to be more in tune with the world around them.    
     The Medicine Wheel also is a place of astrological significance, because the spokes of the wheel point to specific stars at certain times of year.  Apparently the Summer Solstice is a time when the astrological mystery is unveiled.  The lunar cycle is also represented.  The Medicine Wheel surely played a part in tribal agricultural, hunting or migratory planning for many years.  
     So, who made the ancient Medicine Wheel on Medicine Mountain?  The truth is, nobody really knows.  For many years, lots of people assumed that the Crow made the Medicine Wheel a long time ago.  While chatting with a Native Alaskan, who had been working on the Bighorn Mountains for several years, I came to find out that even the local Crow admit that the Medicine Wheel was built long before they came around.  The Native Alaskan said that the local wisdom keepers can only guess about who originally put together the Medicine Wheel, which evidently was built long before the Europeans arrived on American shores. 
     There is ample parking and facilities at the Medicine Wheel Trailhead.  Just by taking a few steps away from the visitors center, it is easy to be reminded that this is a wilderness area.  Little chipmunks and marmots start poking their heads out of the rocks to greet visitors.  
     By the time a hiker goes a few hundred yards down the trail, one will likely see just how wild this area really is.  This is a remote wilderness area, so it pays to constantly be aware of the surroundings.  Where there are lots of little wild animals, there are predators that hunt them down.  I spotted a big coyote perched on a rock about 150 yards downhill and mountain lions have been known to haunt this area.  These predators usually keep their distance, so they pose no problems.  There are relatively few bear sightings too.  During autumn the elk rutting season is in full tilt, so the bull elk can be territorially aggressive.  Moose are the most dangerous animal on the mountain and it is best to walk the other direction if they are around.  Understanding the local wildlife is necessary for avoiding unexpected danger in this neck of the woods.  
     Other than seeing a distant coyote, there were no large wild animals along the Medicine Wheel Trail.  However, there was a raven that followed me every step of the way.  The taunting calls of the raven were entertaining, yet haunting, especially when pondering over the spiritual significance of the journey.  Hiking while in deep thought has a way of making one blind to the surroundings and this is when surprises occur.  A Gray Partridge actually walked right up to my feet, while I was thinking about what I was told about the Medicine Wheel.  My first thought was that this bird sure is friendly for some reason and I just laughed.  
     It was late afternoon when I started the hike and the sun was starting to go down.  When I first made it to the 10,000 foot tall crest of Medicine Mountain, the Medicine Wheel came into view.  At that same time, rays of bright sunlight burst through the clouds.  The view was dramatic as could be and it was then that I realized just how important the Medicine Wheel experience truly is.    
     If ever there was a place on earth that one would expect to see an ancient Medicine Wheel, then Medicine Mountain is it.  This mountain somehow causes onlookers to view this area with respect and reverence.  Looking to the west, there is a vast valley that stretches out to the horizon.  Toward the south, there are grassy meadows that meet steep cliffs and rocky outcrops along the edge of the mountains.  To the east, there are lush alpine forests and plenty of wildlife.  Looking north, one faces the trail that meets the sky on top of Medicine Mountain.  This is a place where the earth touches the clouds in the sky and rays of sunlight beam down in all directions, like spokes on a wheel.   
     The Medicine Wheel is protected by a fence, so the rocks that compose the wheel are not disturbed.  All along this fence are prayer offerings that are tied to the wooden rails.  Most of the prayer offerings were scarves, handkerchiefs and dream catchers of every color imaginable.  The bright colors and streams of sunlight brought life to this ancient site.  Overlooking the stone spokes of the wheel and the directions they point to, inspired thoughts of the wisdom and guidance that this place has taught visitors for so many centuries.  The Medicine Wheel is a remarkable place!
     The round trip hike to and from the Medicine Wheel only adds up to about 3 miles.  The trip uphill does get a little tiring, because there is less oxygen in the air at this high altitude.  Drinking plenty of water is the best cure for altitude sickness, so be sure to carry plenty in the backpack.  The trip back from the Medicine Wheel is fairly easy, because it is almost all downhill.  
     The Medicine Wheel National Historic Landmark is located just off of U.S. Highway 14A in the Bighorn National Forest.  The road that leads to the Medicine Wheel visitors center is well marked.  Because the Medicine Wheel is a sacred Native American place, concessions are made for handicapped visitors.  The trail to the Medicine Wheel actually is a dirt road and special arrangements can be made in cooperation with the park service for handicap vehicle access.  
      The Medicine Wheel is a timeless place of spiritual significance that has always been there and will always be there.  The Medicine Wheel is a unique ancient site that offers peace of mind and cultural understanding.  This is a very special place that should be visited at least once in a lifetime!         

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Cathedral Gorge State Park, Nevada!

     Cathedral Gorge!
     One of the most picturesque landscapes that could possibly be dreamed of is located in the Great Basin Desert.  Describing Cathedral Gorge is difficult to do, because this place is so strange and unlike what one sees in a day to day existence.  Cathedral Gorge Cathedral Gorge is often described as being other worldly or like being on another planet.  This heavily eroded clay gorge certainly is weird enough to leave visitors spellbound long after the sun goes down.
     Cathedral Gorge State Park is located in a little place called Panaca on U.S. Highway 93, just about 160 miles north of Las Vegas.  There are many interesting destinations along this road, which include The Desert National Wildlife Range, Alamo, Pahranagat, The Extraterrestrial Highway, Caliente and Pioche.  Pioche is only a few miles away from Cathedral Gorge and all amenities can be found in this old historic town.
     Cathedral Gorge is a great destination for a day trip.  The access road within the State Park is dirt, but it is well maintained.  There are facilities and shaded picnic areas near the parking zones.  A ranger station is located on site and plenty of information is posted about the hiking trails.  Cathedral Gorge State Park is camper friendly too.  RV enthusiasts will be happy to know that there are electric hookups on site.  
     As mentioned before, Cathedral Gorge is difficult to describe.  This is one place where a photo says far more than words can express.  The eroded clay rock formations are so intricate that they are mesmerizing.  There are so many holes, crevasses, ruts and ravines on the walls of this gorge, that the mind actually starts to play tricks.  From one angle, the view of columns of eroded rock starts to look like gothic castles in a fairy tale.  From another angle, the columns of eroded rock start to look like eery animated creatures.  Soon one wonders if this is an ancient sacred site or whether this place is cursed.  The word "ominous" certainly is a good description of Cathedral Gorge.
     The clay rock strata of the entire region is the result of an ancient gigantic lake bed.  Cathedral Gorge is where part of this ancient dry lake has eroded away.  The different colors of clay rock are exposed in a layered effect and each layer has a different hardness.  Rain caused the clay rock strata to erode unevenly, which resulted in why Cathedral Gorge looks so strange.
     I visited Cathedral Gorge during the peak of the desert monsoon season.  This region is known for severe thunderstorms and one doozy of a storm just ended when I arrived.  Rain brings all the colors of the desert to life and even more so at Cathedral Gorge.  The photos of Cathedral Gorge with the storm on the background definitely show what a spectacular site this place is.
     Rain may bring out the color of the desert, but rain also brings flash floods.  Fortunately there are no high mountains surrounding Cathedral Gorge.  Even so, the low elevation of the high ground can still catch enough water to turn a hiking trail into a deep stream, so it is best to use caution when hiking if storms are near.
     Rain and clay rock strata also means slick and slippery hiking conditions.  I was wearing non-slip shoes and I still lost my footing on the slick clay rock.  The experience was literally like walking on oil coated polished marble.  
     At the end of a trail that leads through a steep rock wall canyon, is where the Miller Point Overlook can be found.  I followed this trail along what would normally be a dry creek bed and the going was pretty easy.  Toward the end of the trail things got to be a bit more difficult, because the path went straight uphill.  Several staircases and rock steps made the climb easier, but the paths between the stairs were like walking on ice.  I actually got about halfway up the steep path and could go no further.  The clay rock ground was so slick, that I was able to take two steps forward, before sliding backwards well beyond the starting point.  After a few attempts, it was easy to see that any uphill effort would end in futility, so I decided to save the Miller Point climb for another day.  
     More time was spent trying to climb up the slippery trail to Miller Point than I thought and darkness was setting in.  The drizzling rain returned too.  As the sun was setting, the blueish haze of the lingering storm clouds cast an eery light on Cathedral Gorge.  The effect of the dark bluish light was so dramatic, that I really hoped to capture this sight with my camera.  Later in the evening after settling in at a hotel in Ely, Nevada, I was amazed to see just how good the photos looked.  The photos of Cathedral Gorge during an after dusk storm truly represented just how otherworldly this place really is!   
     Cathedral Gorge certainly is a captivating place.  This Southwestern travel destination truly is one of the most unique landscapes in Nevada and it is well worth checking out.  By all means, bring a good camera and do a little rain dance, because the photos of Cathedral Gorge after a storm will leave an audience awestruck!