Hiking | The Meeker Ranch

Once again we spent a Sunday afternoon haunting beautiful ruins in beautiful country. The Meeker Ranch is an historic site now owned by the Forest Service, east and north of Custer, SD. It dates back to the 1880s, and was built by Frank Cunningham Meeker, who, according to the Black Hills and Badlands website, was a member of the Pony Express, which ran for a couple of years along the Cheyenne-Deadwood Stage line. Frank Meeker named his idyllic 278-acre spread “Willow Creek.” The ranch passed through several ownerships over the years, finally coming into Forest Service possession in 2004. They undertook restoration and preservation of the ranch when acclaimed watercolor artist Jon Crane helped lobby against the slated demolition of the structures. This breathtaking historic site has been the target of some vandalism in the past, but overall is beautifully preserved.IMG_6640e Inside the main ranch house, there are still shreds of curtains, canisters of coffee (these people were obviously coffee-drinkers!), hangers in the closet, old newspapers and magazines, and wallpaper on the walls.  Glass sparkles in shards on the floor, whole jars littered among the wreckage. It must have been a lovely, fashionable home in its prime, and now just wisps of the memories cling here and there around the walls.IMG_6655eIMG_6844eIMG_6696eIMG_6733eIMG_6685eIMG_6693eIMG_6721eIMG_6740eIMG_6759eAround the homestead, perched on the hillside in among massive boulders and rock outcroppings, other structures cling tenaciously. The barn fittingly presides over the other structures, towering above them in wonderful condition, while the others have fallen into some level of decay. Buildings out here, scattered through the Hills, are so old and rugged that they seem to have sprung from the ground, rather than to have been built upon it. They belong where they are.
IMG_6794eIMG_6781eIMG_6855eFrogs were singing in the little marsh below the house, singing and trilling so loudly it was almost uncomfortable – What a beautiful summery sound! The scent of pine resin was heavy in places, another sign of summer-to-come. Every time I get a breath of resin in the warm sunlight, a wave of nostalgia breaks over my soul, wrapped up in the beautiful memories I’ve treasured since childhood, of this place I now get to call home. Wildflowers were blooming along the short trail, little goldenpeas and pussy toes and even a few long spur violets. Springtime is truly here! IMG_6873eTo get there, head north out of Custer on Sylvan Lake Road. Take a right on Willow Creek Road. After a couple of miles, the road will become considerably rougher and narrower, so don’t take a vehicle with low clearance. After about a half a mile on this stretch, there is a Forest Service gate and some parking space. The Forest Service access road continues beyond the gate, and is about a half mile hike to the ranch.

A stunning piece of history.

 

Ghost towns

After our short trek to the unnamed ghost town or homestead site on Sunday, and having our visit shortened by rain, we knew we wanted to spend some more time looking around there. We picked Tuesday as the day of choice, little knowing that we would end up enjoying all the variety of Black Hills weather in one day! Not that that would have deterred us, of course! Living in the Hills, one really does get used to very rapid changes in weather, sometimes rapid changes in one area, other times rapid changes due to, for instance, driving over the mountains. IMG_5178Sarah and I took Playhouse Road into Custer, partly for the scenery, partly because it actually is quicker than going over Mt. Rushmore, and the higher the elevation, the snowier it got. Boy, were the trees lovely to see! We met up with a friend in Custer, and drove down towards Pringle, seemingly leaving the snow behind. We poked around in the ruins for an hour or so, turning up pieces of a child’s skate, the top deal of a hand-cranked ice cream maker, the lid of a pressure canner, and lots of blue glass insulators. As much as I would have loved to “collect” them, we dutifully left them behind. I love blue insulators. But a $20,000 fine is a pretty good deterrent. However, it is too bad that cows and elk and weather don’t leave the artifacts alone, evidenced by the shards of glass everywhere. In another ten years of cows, elk, and weather, the artifacts will be all but gone.IMG_5261eWe examined the root cellar more closely, and realized that glass jars and bottles were built into the walls. Some of the bottles were identical to ones I found in our junk piles. Not sure the purpose of building bottles into the walls, but that is something we want to learn about. IMG_5239eWhen rummaging in the remnants of long-gone ghost towns and homes, it can be easy to compartmentalize those locations as being purely “historical.” As if the historical artifacts just planted themselves there, and weren’t put there by a living person. It is so easy to forget that these were places that were bubbling with life. These were homes, busy homes, built by people who knew the meaning of the word “work.” Whether dating to the first gold rush or the homestead and mining years of the early to mid 1900s, these people were true pioneers and adventurers, in ways we can’t even comprehend now.
IMG_5213eWe stayed for about an hour, findings other odds and ends, guessing what the structures might have been, marveling at a giant spreading aspen, so wizened that the bark on the lower trunk looked like an oak or cottonwood. I wonder how much smaller that tree was, when the homestead was being lived on.  The trees down the valley turned grey with approaching snow, and the squall blew in. Rain on Sunday, snow on Tuesday.
IMG_5280eIMG_5282eAs we drove down to our family property south of Pringle, near Argyle, it was still snowing in quite a winterly fashion, but cleared up when we headed west to the property. How variable the weather can be, from place to place and hour to hour! The following two pictures were taken the same afternoon, the first on our hike in to the Box Canyon, and the second on the hike back out, just a couple hours apart.
IMG_5313eIMG_5552eWe enjoyed the scenery, the history, the warm sun, the pasque flowers (well, I did, anyway), and Jake flew his drone over the Box Canyon and Spring-on-Hills Stage Stop. The stage stop dates back to the gold rush days, and was only in use for 2-3 years. IMG_5434eIMG_5336eThis stop would have fallen out of use as a regular stage stop when the entire route was re-routed west of Custer, due to dangerous conditions in this area. It probably continued to be used by immigrants and adventurers who chose to pass this way, but the stage itself was routed further west. All that is left are some foundations and a caving-in dugout. I remember the dugout being intact when I was a kid, but the heavy rain we had a couple of summers ago in particular brought the roof down. There are still old jars inside – Perhaps someone at sometime lived in the dugout, or maybe it was only ever used as a cellar. Who knows.
IMG_5334eThe clouds cleared off and the wind picked up a bit as well, making the drone flying some tricky business. On our hike back out, we saw a herd of antelope in the distance, which for me is always fun, since we don’t have antelope in the Hills. There was also a crazy coyote running around, and lots of bluebirds. I was also fortunate enough to find a patch of Easter daisies, one of the flowers I was hoping to see, since now is their time of year!
IMG_5518eIMG_5573eWe made one last stop on our way back to Custer, to explore some old cabins near the side of the road. We hit the valley right as the sun was getting low in the sky. Furniture and shoes still mouldered in the houses, and swallows had taken up residence. The pump still pumped water. Coat hooks still hung on the walls. A bedframe gleamed in the light from a window. How the past lingers, even as time marches on.
IMG_5595eIMG_5619eIt is rare that we are able to slate a whole day for hiking and exploration. Time marches on. But sometimes you just have to take a whole day to enjoy it.

Slow Rain and Relics

The sun and blue sky of Sunday morning had turned into lowering clouds. The sound of raindrops began to hush around us as we followed an old forest service road towards our destination. Before long at all, everyone else was far ahead and out of sight, while I was hunkered down in the wet grass and pine needles taking pictures of spring’s first flowers. What sweetness! We had temperatures in the 40s, and those of us who had properly layered were plenty warm, even with the gentle rain.IMG_5097eWe were hiking in an area of past burn, south and east of Pringle a couple of miles. Before the trail wove down into a valley, distant hilltops could be seen glowing gently under the grey sky, and even scattered blue sky could be seen off to the south east. We saw ample evidence of elk, but not a glimpse of the majestic creatures themselves. No deer, few birds – It was quiet out in the woods. But in amongst the fallen trees and blackened stumps, the purple of pasque flowers could be seen. Life from death. Beauty from ashes. In areas of previous devastating fire, new life springs up with determination.IMG_5059eThe trail took us to the historical remains we had hoped to find. Old foundations, remnants of walls and chimneys, a water pump, a tumbled-in root cellar, sparkling pieces of colored glass, shards of rusted metal, miscellaneous kitchen items, ancient stoves, door knobs, coffee cans – All relics of the homestead or town site that once stood there and the lives that had previously been lived there. We don’t know its name, or who lived there, or whom they knew, or what they did, or where they came from, but someone had a life in that beautiful little valley. What will I leave behind when I’m gone? It is an interesting thought.IMG_5113eIMG_5105eThe raindrops plinked and pattered on a heap of twisted metal, sounding like the rush of a distant, faraway stream. We poked around in the ruins, and could have spent a lot longer there. We only left reluctantly when we figured we should catch up with the rest of the group, who had already gone back to the truck to keep from getting wetter. IMG_5132eIMG_5129The rain picked up, but that hardly mattered. It is spring, and rain is expected! Sarah pointed out how vivid the colors are in the rain, and she is right. It’s as if the rain washes away a layer of dust, leaving everything clean and fresh with the color plainly seen.IMG_5146eIMG_5173eTime and again we extend our Sunday fellowship through the afternoon with hiking. And time and again, I think how perfect a way that is to end a Sunday. Spending time in God’s glorious creation is refreshing any day of the week, but there is something fitting about it on a Sunday – it seems to me that we are in a way extending the sanctuary of worship into the broader realm of His created handiwork. His handiwork and His attributes are proclaimed in the beauty of the landscape, the intricacies of flowers and plant and animal life, the perfect way this earth holds together and flourishes year after year and century after century. When we marvel at and revel in the natural world, we are marveling at and reveling in the works of God’s hands. What a privilege. IMG_5174eWe headed home in a slow drizzle and stopped at Three Forks to get coffee. Beautiful weather. A beautiful day.

 

Findings | Here and There

The play of light.

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Simplicity. A scrap of 100-year-old wallpaper and a broken blue Mason jar. Out at the ghost town Spokane.

Laura Elizabeth

 

Blooming June

DSCN0262.1The Black Hills are dressed in their best and most glorious finery. Wildflowers are sprinkled, sometimes lavishly, on hillsides and in valleys, the creeks are full to overflowing, and everything is green and lush and fragrant. It is always fun to see the Black Hills through the eyes of a visitor. Even though I’ve only lived here for four months, this has always been our home away from home, and consequently seeing it sometimes becomes, well, daily life. There is nothing like a new pair of eyes to renew my own love of this region.DSCN0310.1

Mom’s cousin Russel, his wife, and their three daughters have been staying with us since Sunday. I’d never met any of them, so it was fun to get to know my second-cousins from Texas! We all went down to the Mountain Lion Cave last night (or as close as we could get without crossing Battle Creek), and this morning my second cousin Julie and I headed out on an excursion. The rest of her family and Anna were going to Reptile Gardens and, as fascinating as I am sure it is, neither of us was particularly interested in spending hours there.

DSCN0324.1So out we went to Spokane and haunted the ghost town for a few hours, drove Iron Mountain Road, and visited Little Falls. The flowers were beautiful, and any little hollows or depressions were full of water, frogs, and mosquitoes. The thistles were becoming the prize-winning sort, and mushrooms were in abundance.

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Violet and creeping wood sorrels flashed little glints of color in the shorter grass, their heart-shaped leaves green and moist and plentiful. Wild roses and geranium, blue-eyed grass and purple clover, asters and dandelions, all were tucked under trees and nestled into hillsides, along paths, thriving. The flowers and berries were peeking daintily from the Solomon’s Seal, and the lichen was thick on fallen branches and damp wood.

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DSCN0258.1While on first glance not much had changed (it is a ghost town, after all…), when I looked closer there were dozens of new forms of botanical life, flowers that hadn’t been in bloom on our first visit, overgrown and flooded paths, and new clusters of mushrooms growing in the rich layer of decaying leaves and pine needles.

DSCN0187.1The house looked pretty much the same as before–the broken windows, rusted hinges, rotted floorboards, and the swallow’s nest in the stovepipe–but when on the hunt for details, I suddenly noticed many things that had escaped my eye before, such as the remnants of wallpaper in the house, or the lichen-encrusted nails on the windowsill, or the broken blue Mason jar and the scrap of blue and white wallpaper. DSCN0191.1The nest had a swallow in it this time, and little plants were growing in the moist earth where floorboards were missing. I noticed “love notices”, where boys and girls had written their names together on the walls. What an old-fashioned and romantic little spot. DSCN0220.1

Outside one of the windows, there was a layer of shattered glass. My camera is a bit finicky, and after taking one properly-focused picture, it suddenly stopped focusing on the glass. Instead, it was focusing on the reflections of the trees in the glass. The effect was enchanting! DSCN0232.1

DSCN0266.1Beauty may be subtle and well-hidden, even when in plain sight. It is hard to see beauty in the mundane when one is only looking for the mundane, or when one is overburdened with the world.  A certain optimism is required for seeing exquisite beauty in the drabness of rotting wood or broken glass. Optimism is not my natural state, but I find it exceedingly difficult to be pessimistic when I am surrounded by God’s beauty, and his little gifts. I passionately think we should nourish the vision to see those beautiful details. The world is a bleak place, but there are so many tiny joys and gifts given to us each day by a loving Creator, if we have the eyes to see them.

Laura Elizabeth

New Haunts

When we pDSCN0048.1lanned on Sunday to have an excursion Wednesday, we just assumed the weather would cooperate. When it started snowing yesterday, and then snowed and rained all afternoon, I started having my doubts. But today, the sunshine broke through the clouds, turned the snow into puddles, and the air warmed with springtime. A perfect day for an exploration!

DSCN0024.1My sisters and I and some friends from church ventured forth to enjoy a day off in the beauty of God’s creation. We visited their building site (they’ll be our close neighbors, it turns out!), had a picnic lunch, and then decided to haunt a local ghost town, Spokane.

DSCN0043.1It is hard to imagine people once living here, attending school, inhabiting what are now mere shells of homes, piles of wood and rubbish and old rusted nails. But once, people had lives here in this beautiful little meadow, and the big, two-story house wasn’t overgrown with birch, and it didn’t drip water through the roof. DSCN0032.2The chimney once gave smoke, and the upstairs bedroom was lived in by people, not a family of bluebirds. The apple tree was young and fruitful, the house was whole, and people had lives within its walls. How fast we fade and are forgotten! Who were they?

DSCN0085.1The little ghost town sprawls in an open meadow, and remnants of later days, forgotten later days, are scattered farther into the overgrowth of trees. An old crumbling stove. Ancient automobiles with rust-eaten bodies, rotted cushions, shattered glass, and polished chrome.

DSCN0107.1The recent rain and snow has turned parts of the Hills into thick woods reminiscent of rainforests. Trees were dark with wet, and the ground seeped with it.

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Moss dripped from branches bejeweled with gleaming lichens. Old rotted stumps crumbled softly underfoot, and tiny mushrooms flourished in the fertile moist earth.

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We haunted the town for more than an hour, enjoying the quiet, the creeping life of things living close to the soil, the smell of wet trees and fresh grass. I have a feeling we’ll be back.

Laura Elizabeth