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Although I’ve been a big fan of poetry for most of my life, I’ve never been overly enamored with cowboy poetry. But anyone who writes a poem that Bob Dylan deems worth adapting into a song can’t be all bad, so Charles “Badger” Clark Jr. gets a pass on that point.

Clark (1883-1957) was South Dakota’s first poet laureate. He lived in Custer State Park for the final 30 years of his life. The cabin he built and lived in near Legion Lake is known as the Badger Hole. It was there that he wrote poetry and letters and read from his impressive personal library. He lived there until he died at age 74.

The stories of Clark’s life of independence are the stuff of cowboy poetry legend. His most well-known poem is “A Cowboy’s Prayer,” and his love of the West — the Black Hills in particular — is apparent in most of his writings. Dylan adapted Clark’s poem “Spanish is the Loving Tongue” and included it on his 1973 album “Dylan.”

Clark lived what we now call a simple life in the cabin, without lights and running water. When he took ill shortly before his death, he was taken from the cabin for the last time. Today, the Badger Hole has been preserved as it was when Clark died. The Badger Clark Memorial Society formed in 1984 to make sure the cabin and Clark’s memory endure.

When you arrive at the Badger Hole, a Custer State Park interpretive guide greets you with tales and facts about Clark’s life, poetry and cabin. You’ll hear about which president stopped by to meet Clark, the woman’s heart he broke and the deer he fed pancakes to through his open window.

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It’s not your usual state park kind of stop, but it truly leaves an impression on visitors. It’s hard to imagine Clark building the cabin — two bedrooms, living room and kitchen — on his own during the time period that he did. And it’s easy to imagine him writing poem after poem, undisturbed in the heart of the Black Hills.

After touring the cabin and learning about Clark, the one-mile Badger Clark Historic Trail gives you an even better sense of the poet’s lifestyle, both through interpretive signs and by taking you out into the woods Clark walked for so many years.

As I said, the Badger Hole is a different kind of park experience — it’s not gold panning, wildlife watching or fly fishing. But for my family, it has become a frequent stop when we visit the park. It’s a combination of the cowboy fable of rugged individualism and the distinctly solitary literary impulse. Clark was kind of a Henry David Thoreau of the West, and he lived right in our Black Hills backyard.

 

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Contact Eric Lochridge at 394-8321 or eric.lochridge@rapidcityjournal.com.

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