Black Hills, South Dakota
When a buffalo raises its tail, it means one of two things: either the giant bovine is preparing to relieve himself or he’s getting ready to charge. Not wishing to find out which, Backpacker Editor Tom Shealey and I dropped our packs, drank some water, and waited for the buffalo and calf to cross the trail we were all sharing. It was May in South Dakota’s Black Hills and the lush, green grassland was teeming with wildlife. In just one day of hiking through Wind Cave National Park, we’d seen rabbits, prairie dogs, deer, elk, pronghorn, and plenty of buffalo. In such a wildlife-thick environment-it’s often called America’s Serengeti-jackalopes could go virtually unnoticed by the casual observer.
But we were anything but casual in our observations. Having been to these
Dakota High Plains before, Tom was well aware of the jackalope’s prominent standing in this chunk of the country. Although he hadn’t sought out the fabled animal on his prior trip, he’d long pondered the origin of a souvenir he had carried home: a mounted jackalope head that now hangs in his kitchen.
After witnessing the tight-lipped denial in the Southwest, I was amazed by how enthusiastically the people of eastern Wyoming and western South Dakota embraced my questions. Not only is the jackalope deeply embedded in the legend and lore of this part of the West, but the critter seems to be an important source of economic development, too. Roadside attractions devoted to the jackalope abound, and in the town of Wall-home of Wall Drug, second only to Mt. Rushmore as the state’s most popular tourist attraction-store window displays are brimming with horned rabbits, all stuffed and mounted in various lifelike poses. There’s even a 15-foot-tall model out back, complete with saddle so the kids can ride and whoop it up while proud parents snap photos.
I visited one of these shops in Wall before our Wind Cave hike and chatted with a lady behind the counter who insisted that the jacks on the wall-there must have been 100 or more-were indeed the real deal. She proudly told me that jackalopes are “all over the place” in South Dakota. I nodded in feigned agreement, but I knew the only land suitable for a jackalope would be found deep in the wilderness, far from farm tractors and interstate highways and pavement…somewhere way off the beaten path, like Wind Cave.
Tom and I gave wide berth to a few more buffalo and eventually set up camp atop a hill, where we watched bison and elk gather in the valley below while the sun set. Prairie dogs squeaked relentlessly and poked their heads from their burrows while cottontails darted for cover. With so many different animal species sharing the same prairie, it was easy to see why some believe this is where the jackalope originated. It was just as easy to imagine that a jackalope was out there somewhere, probably watching us watching for him.
After a few days in pastoral Wind Cave, we drove east to the foreboding and ever-mysterious Badlands National Park. All the qualities that prompted frontier settlers and Native Americans to call this country “bad land” are what make it a spectacular backpacking destination for people who appreciate solitude and rugged scenery. Here, the rocky high desert clashes with grass-filled prairies to create a landscape that defies reason, befuddles first-time visitors, and, we hoped, hides jackalopes.
Tom and I sat on an outcrop and looked out on a wide gulf of sage-choked canyon where erosion-carved rock, striped and twisted by time and weather, was topped with lawnlike swaths of green grass. Swirling, gray-black thunderclouds, quite common during the “monsoon season” of May, were busily claiming the sky. The hardships of all the frontier settlers who attempted to tame this country, but failed, weighed heavy in my thoughts. Nature will always have the upper hand here.
“You know,” said Tom after a long, deep silence, “all the regions where the jackalope is said to live are places that still have a sense of mystery to them.” Then he fell silent again, as if giving the wind time to carry his thought out among the buttes and canyons and weathered spires, to see if there would be a reply.
The only response was the sound of raindrops pelting the red clay, and then the sudden smell of rich, damp earth. Perhaps out of habit, I pulled the postcard from my pocket and looked at it one last time. “I guess I should finally mail this postcard to somebody,” I said to Tom. He smiled then we both leaned back and let the land work its magic.