Kurt Vonnegut wrote in his novel Cat's Cradle: “Americans are forever searching for love in forms it never takes, in places it can never be. It must have something to do with the vanished frontier.”
Since reading this passage I’ve come back to the idea several times and meditated upon it. The romantic notion of the American Frontier has surely inspired dozens of western-themed novels and films, and though it has undoubtedly shrunken in size, has the frontier really vanished?
We could get technical about the dictionary definition of frontier, but when I think of a frontier, I think of the unexplored, the outer limits and the undeveloped. The Black Hills then comprise a plethora of frontiers. Despite the advent of maps and Google Earth, there are still a few peaks and dells in the region waiting to be traversed by human feet.
As long as we’re getting philosophical, let’s speak of frontiers in a spiritual, intellectual context. The old maxim “you learn something new everyday” comes to mind. Every time we learn something new about the world or about ourselves, we expand the intangible frontier that exists within us.
Bearing that in mind, I decided to expand my horizons by checking out the Rockerville Flume Trail near Rockerville, South Dakota. Rockerville was once a booming mining camp, then later thrived by catering to tourists on their way to Mount Rushmore. The town was dealt a blow with the construction of Highway 16, and except for the Gaslight Saloon and a few other stragglers, is now all but deserted.
The Flume Trail follows the path of the Rockerville Flume, a wooden aqueduct that carried water nearly 18 miles from Spring Creek into Rockerville. The Flume only lasted about a decade, but “ruins” can still be seen on the trail in the form of hand-dug ditches, discarded planks and rock retaining walls. Were there “Seven Wonders of the Black Hills,” the flume would certainly be one of them alongside Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse Memorials.
With my personal photographer in tow, we set out for the Coon Hollow trail head, just west of Highway 16 and south of Rockerville. At the trail head you can see the very spot where the flume had once ended. The incline is slow and gradual. Most of the trail follows the hand dug ditches, now filled with quartz and pine needles.
There are occasionally informative signs along the trail, and the path is well marked. It had rained a few days previous. In the mud along the trail we could see footprints from hiking boots, dogs and interestingly, mountain lions. There were other signs of cougars along the trail, most notably in the form of deer bones. Some even still had bits of meat and fur attached. I wasn’t too worried; lions generally avoid people.
As we got further into the trail we began to notice odd pieces of lumber that resembled driftwood along the path. Upon further inspection, we noticed many were adorned with square-sided nails, obviously cut by hand. It was an amazing feeling to hold a piece of history in my hand. To take such a souvenir home is always tempting, but the thought of future hikers not being able to experience such a feeling is more than enough to respect the artifacts along the route. I kept my eyes peeled as we moved along for pieces of the flume; it was my understanding that they have been mostly looted by less conscientious visitors.
About half an hour into the hike this proved to be an incorrect assumption. At one point the trail seemed to open up, one side walled in by the slope of the hill and the other, a very long retaining wall. Large, long pieces of the flume littered the hillside, giving the impression that it might have been standing only a decade ago instead of a century. This filled me with childlike wonder and I giddily started grabbing pieces and imagining how they might have fit together.
Truth be told we didn’t start our adventure until late afternoon, so we turned around hoping to get back to the car before the sun made it to the horizon. As we walked I noted that the incline is so gradual in some places it feels like we’re walking uphill. As we made our way into Rapid City, my curiosity about the Flume Trail had not been satiated. I’m determined to start earlier next time. It is rumored that further up the trail there are one or two trestles that are still standing and I’m eager to examine them for myself.
When I later relayed the story to my friends, one of them informed me that there is another, albeit much shorter flume in Spearfish Canyon out past Cheyenne Crossing. It’s knowledge like this that frustrates me to no end: there are far more things to see in the Black Hills than there are weekends to see them in.