When in the Wild, Wild West

Deadwood, South Dakota

by Cassia Reynolds

The Wild, Wild West still thrives, albeit commercialized, in the teeny towns sprinkled along Interstate 90, which runs between the border of Wyoming and South Dakota. There are several almost-famous stops here: Rapid City (the gateway to Mount Rushmore), Sturgis (home of one of the largest motorcycle rallies in the world), and Sundance (the namesake of the Sundance Kid and the film festival). It’s a strange place, both because of the rolling, open landscapes of next-to-nothing and the surprisingly abundant, random tourist attractions. (Including: Dinosaur Park, Bear Country USA, and The World Famous Corn Palace.)

And then there’s Deadwood, South Dakota: population < 1300. I’d never heard of it until I was actually on I-90, driving past it.

My friend (a North Dakota local) and I were searching for a good fishing spot when we saw a billboard for one of its gaming resorts.

“What’s a gaming resort? It sound so snazzy.” I asked, oh-so-naive.

“It’s a kind of all-inclusive casino with bars and food and stuff. It’s awesome.” She told me.

“Oh. You know, I’ve never been to a casino.”

“What?” Her voice pinged sharp with a hint of incredulity. It was then that I began to understand how integrated the gambling culture was in this part of the country.

“Not a real one. Never even gambled before.” I shrugged it off.

“Then let’s go.”  She said. It wasn’t a question.

When we pulled up to Deadwood, all thoughts of fishing long forgotten, we found ourselves in an unexpected wonderland of outlaw debauchery. I kid you not, downtown is ½ gaming resorts, ¼ Harley Davidson accessory stores, ⅛ specialty cigar shops, and ⅛ cowboy outfitters. It’s as niche American as it gets. Everything’s packed together on the winding main street, which is so outlandishly decorated that if someone had told me I had actually taken a wrong turn and ended up in Disney World’s Frontierland I would have been less surprised. All that was missing was Big Thunder Mountain and a sweaty man stuffed into a rodeo-style Mickey Mouse costume.

I wasn’t really sure where all the people had come from, seeing as we were in one of the least populated states in the USA, but Deadwood was bursting with tourists. Tattooed biker gangs in matching leather outfits, booted-and-hatted cowboys with legitimate bolo ties, families with crying children, and groups of elderly poker-aficionados swarmed the sidewalks. We were the ones out of place; two twenty-somethings wandering slack-jawed down the street, unable to comprehend this hedonistic paradise we’d stumbled upon. The question on our minds wasn’t what to do - it was what to do first.

We climbed down a metal staircase and through a dank stone hallway to the basement cigar and bar (really - there was a set of beer taps and everything) of Deadwood Tobacco Co.

Intricate etchings of Day-of-the-Dead-style skulls decorated the walls and the boxes that lined them. It was quiet down there, dark, cold, and the air was heavy with the smell of tobacco. A woman behind the counter watched in amusement as we perused the wide selection of Sweet Jane, Crazy Alice, and Fat Bottom Betty cigars, Deadwood Tobacco’s specialty. She gave us a you-total-newbies onceover before helping us pick out two mild, hand-rolled stogies.

Our next stop was a biker shop, where we browsed through piles of clearance-deal Harley Davidson paraphernalia. The 2015 Sturgis Rally had ended earlier in the month and the sales were glorious. They had everything a motorcycle enthusiast with a Harley fetish could desire: branded shot glasses, bandanas, corsets, belt buckles, gun vests, and assless leather chaps.

I couldn’t help myself and ended up snagging a particularly kitschy (or badass, depending on your taste) men’s 2015 Sturgis Rally cut-off vest with frayed sleeves with an image of a half-Native American half-wolf face superimposed on a dreamcatcher. I’m not a big souvenir person but this addition to my wardrobe felt particularly triumphant.

When in Rome, right? I thought to myself.

We finally made it to the gaming resort, smashing a couple of beers in the connected Irish pub before heading to the Blackjack tables. The casino was teeming with older folk, flashy machines, and waitresses wearing shiny dresses and balancing trays of free cocktails above their heads.

When I traded in my $20 for chips, I mentally prepared myself to lose it. I had no idea how to play Blackjack. But it turned out that I didn’t need to know how to play Blackjack to play Blackjack because everybody wanted everybody to win. It was a no-competition gambling experience, just me versus the odds. The whole table gave me sympathetic looks every time I lost (which was more often than not). I still walked away $20 poorer, but with a pleasant smile on my face.

On our way back to the parking garage, my friend and I waded through a crowd of people watching a dramatic duel reenactment. Men in old-timey Western outfits shouted at each other on the street and fired off fake guns that made very realistic noises. Children watched with wide eyes and parents clapped. I briefly wondered where all those kids went while the adults gambled in the casinos.

In conclusion, Deadwood is a funny little place paying homage to the great pioneers of old, the lawless gunslingers, and the badass Western stereotypes that we all want to channel a bit sometimes.