Landscapes and Nature on the Mickelson Trail

This weekend, I road the Mickelson Trail with my buddy and some-time research partner Bret Weber. There was no research agenda for this ride, but like most excursions in a new landscape, I spent a good time thinking about the what I was seeing and trying to understand the trails route. The George Mickelson Trail follows the route of a spur line of the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad which ran through the Black Hills of South Dakota from the late 19th century to the 1980s. 

The route linked the town of Deadwood to Edgemont where he line connected to a route running south from Sheridan, Wyoming and proceeding to points east and eventually Kansas City, Missouri. Presumably the line supplied the mining communities of the Black Hills where American prospectors discovered gold and silver in the 1870s and the US government violated their treaty with the Sioux and seized the Black Hills. Thus, the route through the Black Hills is an expression of American colonialism and the tragic history of settler-Native American relations.

It seems appropriate this still-unresolved chapter in the settler-colonial history of the US also traces the history of how European, white, males understand nature and the environment. On the one hand, the Mickelson Trail offers a fairly unique view of the Black Hills and the rangeland to their south. There were times when if felt like we were encountering nature on its own terms.

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This view is naive, of course. The trail itself is a former rail bed and the amazing vistas that we experienced almost always preserved evidence for human intervention. The most common sign of human investment in creating the landscape (beyond the rail bed itself) were fence posts that stood in even landscapes which to my untrained eye seemed unlikely to have required fencing.

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My biking partner who is both by profession and predisposition a historian of the American West, pointed out that some fencing probably marked grazing ranges, in some cases private property, and in some cases mining claims. Indeed, we never had to look far to see evidence for mining in the region. For example, the Homestake Mine in Lead, which left traces both deep underground and in large open pits, made more obvious the fundamental ways in which the landscape of the Black Hills reflects human intervention. It is simply a lovely coincidence that the current use of the mine as the site for experiments involving the search for “dark matter” occur in deep shafts over a mile beneath the surface. The hidden landscape of sub-atomic particles appears to be a poetic reuse for the hidden landscapes of modern mining. 

The not insignificant investment in connect this seemingly remote region to the main rail lines demonstrated the perceived viability of the region as a mining center. Tunnels, bridges, and carefully graded descents from the Black Hills trace the connections between the mines around Lead and Deadwood and the support services provided by towns at lower elevations which supported the mining centers. 

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In short, the route that we followed linked the topography of the Black Hills to the networks of supply and settlement that supported the mining operations around Lead and Deadwood. Thus the route of the Mickelson Trail not only traced the local topography, but also showed how the region connected to larger national centers and how these two connections combined to create the string of small towns and settlements throughout the Black Hills.

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In short (and to no one’s surprise other than my own, probably), the ride through the Black Hills on the Mickelson Trail pushed me to encounter not only the stunning topography and natural features of the region, but, more importantly, the mechanisms of settler colonialism, settlement, and the integration of this seemingly “remote” region with the wider world.

I sure, of course, there was an easier way than a 100+ mile bike ride to experience and think about this landscape, but nothing like 9 or so hours on a bike over a couple of days to give one time think!!!

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