Deadwood Is Not So Dead
Deadwood, South Dakota is a city that’s historically known for its history. Soon after an 1874 expedition discovered gold in the Black Hills, Deadwood became renowned for hard rock mining, hard drinking and an atmosphere of hard living.
During the recent South Dakota Festival of Books, Deadwood also became known for hard covers. Books, that is.
My wife and I attended the latest Festival, hoping to take in the mountain air and enjoy the Wild West atmosphere of Deadwood. However wild as a bunch of authors and their readers might be.
We attended an author’s reception that was held at the Historic Homestake Opera House in Lead (it seems that Deadwood failed to corner the market on history). As we noshed on hors d’oeuvres (which, I was assured, contained no horse), we chatted with other regional authors. It was agreed that we Dakotans can instantly recognize outsiders by their failure to pronounce Pierre as “peer” and Lead as “lead.”
We bumped into our friends Carroll and Chris Browne. Chris draws the “Hagar the Horrible” comic strip and has recently written and illustrated a children’s book titled “The Monster Who Ate the State.” It appears that Chris has a penchant for mischievous characters.
During our chat, we learned some new things about Chris. For instance, many years ago he was an artist model (he assured us that those days are well behind him) and that he’s had several of his cartoons published in The New Yorker. When I asked how he attained the latter feat, he said, “You just keep on writing and submitting your stuff until they finally give you a chance.”
In other words, persistence pays. I can empathize; this is how I eventually managed to find and win over the lady who would become my wife.
A guy named Mike Artell and his wife, Susan, joined our discussion. Mike is an energetic and outgoing Cajun who hails from New Orleans. He writes and illustrates children’s books, plays numerous musical instruments, conducts workshops for schoolchildren, gives speeches to large corporate gatherings and Lord knows what else. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he also holds a patent for a cold fusion device.
When Mike learned that my wife and I are recovering dairy farmers, he said that Susan’s father had also been a dairy farmer. It truly is a small world.
“Shortly after I started going with Suzy, I visited her parents’ farm,” Mike said. “At suppertime, we heard some bellowing down in the barn. Her father put on his cap and said, ‘I bet I’m going to have to pull that calf,’ and headed out the door. I followed him. I thought he was trying to pull my leg with that calf pulling nonsense, but he wasn’t. He really did pull a calf out of a cow! It was quite an education for this city boy.”
My wife and I have never been to New Orleans, so we asked Mike if he could recommend one thing we should absolutely do if we visited NOLA.
“Ride the streetcar, or take the ferry across the river and back,” he said. “Both of those things cost very little and let you see the city in ways that you otherwise wouldn’t. And visit the cemeteries. New Orleans lies below sea level, so the dead have to be buried aboveground. There are some astoundingly beautiful crypts and mausoleums in our cemeteries.”
Since Mike was a musician, we quizzed him about the music scene in the Big Easy. Could he introduce us to Wynton Marsalis or Harry Connick Jr.?
“I’m sorry, but I don’t know those folks,” Mike replied.
Finally! We’d found something that Mike can’t do.
During a break in the Festival, I strolled Deadwood’s historic streets. I have no scientific proof, but suspect that at least half of Deadwood is situated uphill. The city is so steep that you can glance to the right and look out over rooftops while to the left you can see the bottom of someone’s basement. This is disconcerting for a flatlander.
On the last day of the Festival, an icy rain began to fall in Deadwood Gulch. Outside our hotel window was Mount Moriah, where Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane are buried. Tendrils of rainclouds swirled through the pine forest in a creepy, monster movie-like fashion. One could imagine the craggy hillsides dotted with smudgy campfires, gold rush miners huddling close to their flames, the bluish smoke intermingling with the gray mist. The feeling of history was palpable.
In conclusion, we had a historically pleasant time in Deadwood. Although I wish I had asked Mike to pronounce Belle Fourche. I bet he would have nailed it.
Jerry’s book, Dear County Agent Guy, is available at Workman.com and in bookstores nationwide.