Spearfish, South Dakota. Even the name sounds too good to be true. Nestled on the northern tip of the South Dakota Black Hills, this little town has fulfilled all of our expectations for beauty, adventure, warmth, and hospitality, and just like that we have a front-runner on the “we could see ourselves living here” list.
Like many people, we hit the Black Hills at Rapid City and then headed right for Mt. Rushmore. It’s the big-name attraction, and not for no reason. Even with the ever-present horde of tourists and RVs and the all but mandatory $10 parking, it’s a sight to see and we found it to be strangely peaceful. Even to a pair of east-coast liberal cynics, the place has a sense of reverence to it that is irresistible. The simple elegant stone pillared entrance with its back-drop of granite hills and rich green conifer trees invites you to forget about the family at the entrance with a pair of small yappy dogs in strollers arguing with the attendant that they should be allowed to bring their dogs in despite the obvious signage to the contrary, and the scores of people taking selfies with the presidents, and lose yourself for just a few minutes in the beauty and the simple grandeur of the place. We made it there on a cloudy afternoon after driving from the blazingly sunny badlands which helped the mood even more: a small sanctuary from the hot sun, a space of rest filled with the cool gray of granite, the rich brown of moist earth, and the deep green of pine in contrast to the yellows, oranges, and tans of the prairies and badlands. I felt the whisper of the hills calling to us: the waters here run deep.
From Rushmore we headed south through the hills and spent the night deep in the forest outside of Custer. The black hills have hundreds of miles of forest roads that allow dispersed camping. Despite the calls for rain, thunderstorms, and possibly hail, we found a nice spot on a rocky outcropping to set up camp for the night. The rain came on and we spent a cozy night nestled in the van with the top down for the rain. The van is tight quarters for the two of us and K2 even with the top up, and with it down, “cozy” is a kind way to term the situation inside. But the air outside had gotten cold enough that we welcomed the closeness of the van, and while thunder crashed around us we stayed warm and dry all night and woke to a foggy morning that beckoned us out to see the wonders held in these hills. The Black Hills have been considered sacred by Native American cultures for centuries and it’s not hard to see why if you get away from the bustle of the tourists and casino towns. The hills are old, dark, and deep and hold their secrets close.
Following a day in Custer State Park, rubbing shoulders with bison and antelope, we discussed what to do next. The plan was to keep moving south and head toward Colorado. But we had been moving a lot lately and Casey wanted to find a place to hunker down for a while and slow up the place. We pulled out the map and started looking at forest roads nearby to make an early night of things and take a down day tomorrow, but as we were looking, the town of Spearfish caught our eye. Isn’t there a Spearfish Canyon up there? It was about an hour and a half drive away, and in the wrong direction, north, but the Google image results of the Canyon were tantalizing and the name held so much promise that we decided to head that way anyway.
We opted to take the quickest route up there and headed for highway 79 and then 90. We typically prefer to avoid the highways if possible in favor of more scenic and local routes, but we were feeling tired and cranky and ready for some rest. From the town of Spearfish we cruised south through the canyon and immediately knew that we had made the right call. The rocky cliff walls shoot straight up on either side of the road changing from yellow to black with scrubby ponderosa pine growth at the top. A river meanders through the canyon bubbling cheerfully and peacefully, belying the fact that it was these waters that cut this canyon out of the earth thousands of years ago.
At the southern end of the canyon we took forest roads up the west side of the canyon wall and found a small trailhead in national forest land to set up. The group of mountain bikers heading off down the Old Baldy trail assured us that this was a great spot to set up and that no one would bother us here. We spent a quiet night with deer stumbling through our new-found backyard and stars winking at us knowingly from the South Dakota skies.
The next day was spent exploring the network of trails running along the top of the canyon walls and by the afternoon we were all ready for a drink. The mountain bikers from the night before had told us that the brewery in Spearfish, the Crow Peak Brewery, was not to be missed, so into town we headed. We clattered noisily down the bumpy gravel roads snaking through the national forest land and found our way into town and to the brewery. Dusty, thirsty, and happily tired, we pulled up and ordered a round of beer from the counter. The brewery had a rustic and cozy feel. Just walking in the door, you get the impression that the bartender not only know most of the customers, but has long running jokes with them and possibly spends his weekends with them.
Most of the way through our second beer a man in a bicycling cap made a bee-line for us and asked if we were the owners of the Westy outside. Our attempts to blend in with the locals were not working.
Perry, as he later introduced himself, owns a beautiful Westy Syncro. He had spotted our van earlier at the Old Baldy trailhead and confessed that he had taken several laps around it before heading down the trail and examined every inch of the exterior. Within about 2 minutes, Perry had invited us to stay at his house for the night and we were busy swapping van stories and learning about the mountain biking club he runs out of Spearfish. When his wife, Kristi, came over, the introduction was “Kristi, this is Ransom and Casey, they’re staying at our house tonight!”
We later came to learn that this was not that unusual for Perry and Kristi. Their generosity runs as deep as the canyon winding south out of Spearfish. Kristi told us stories later that night about coming home to find a pair of strangers seated on her living room couch with the explanation “Perry gave us the address and told us we could stay the night”.
We spent the entire evening and most of the next morning with them swapping stories and learning local folklore. Like the landscape of the black hills, the landscape of relationships seems different here than back in the cold New England that we love. New Englanders are generous but often the generosity is hidden deep, a precious stone reserved for those near and dear, or those deemed worthy. We don’t flaunt the treasures of our landscapes or the treasures in our hearts. But here the land is open. The treasures here are laid out for all to see; made more ordinary, but no less precious.
Rested, well fed, and with a map marked out with local landmarks and hidden camping spots, we left Spearfish knowing that we were leaving friends. There is so much more to see in this country, but this town and the treasures of the black hills have left a lasting mark on our hearts: the waters here run deep.