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Custer Expedition

The historic view made during the 1874 Black Hills Expedition looks across a group of tents to mountains beyond, three miles east of present-day Custer. This area can be explored during a commemoration of the 140th anniversary of the Expedition, a fundraiser hosted by the Custer County Historical Society on Saturday, Sept. 6. Call the 1881 Courthouse Museum in Custer at 605-673-2443 for ticket information.

DEADWOOD | As the Black Hills fade in the rearview mirrors of thousands of motorcyclists this weekend, signaling the end of the 78th Sturgis Rally, more than 100 historical enthusiasts are preparing to embark on a journey straight out of the Wild West.

As the sun peaks above the ponderosa pines at the Hook Ranch in extreme eastern Wyoming early Monday morning, as many as 40 wagons and 150 horseback riders will set out on the Cheyenne to Deadwood Wagon Train and Trail Ride, retracing the route of the fabled stagecoach line and some of the trails the 1874 Custer Expedition established in its long-ago survey of the Black Hills.

Unlike their two-wheeled counterparts roaring down concrete ribbons at 85 mph, this sojourn into the past will be decidedly slower with a pace of travel marked by feeling every rut in the road and hearing every horse and mule whinny as they carry their cargo through the highest reaches of this ancient mountain range.

“When you’re going along at 3 mph, there isn’t too much you miss,” said Jon Mattson, one of the wagon train’s organizers. “You experience the countryside, pretty mountain meadows, deer, elk and wild turkeys, quiet forests, mountain streams, wildflowers and all the beauty of this region. And we always make new friends.”

In large measure, the wagon train will leave civilization behind for six days as it makes its way from Buckhorn, Wyo., 85 miles east to its final rendezvous Aug. 18 at the Days of ’76 Museum in Deadwood.

“Especially on this trip, we’re in some of the most remote regions of the Black Hills,” Mattson said. “There aren’t highways or roads or people. It’s very sparsely settled and remote, still retaining its natural beauty. The mountain streams, the fresh air, the chilly nights, most spent above 6,000 feet, where it’s cool and quiet and invigorating.”

Mattson, a 77-year-old Lead native and former attorney, served on the Days of ’76 Rodeo Committee for 38 years and currently serves as board president of the Days of ’76 Museum. He was joined on the wagon train organizing committee by Alan Loken, who lives north of Whitewood, Pete and Kathy Gradineru of Spearfish, and Jeremiah Deaton, who resides north of Belle Fourche. Mattson noted that proceeds from the wagon train, expected to exceed $20,000, will benefit the western museum in Deadwood.

Supporters of the western ride spent several days last week cutting trees and clearing the trail along the intended route.

“There are a lot of logistical challenges,” Mattson said. “We’ve hired two buses and a van to bring people to the start each morning after they move their horse trailers and vehicles to the spot where we’ll camp that night, and each evening participants will be treated to a meal and either an historical speaker or entertainment.”

While Mattson said he and his cohorts savor the slow pace of travel, they also relish the opportunity to show some of their favorite spots in the Hills to newcomers and even greenhorns.

“We enjoy sharing the history and beauty of the Black Hills with people from all over the country,” he said. “On this wagon train, we’ll be sharing all of that with folks from 22 states and Canada. We even have one woman from Missouri bringing four covered wagons.”

RFD-TV, an American digital cable channel that prides itself in coverage of rural interests, is sending a crew to film portions of the ride to share with viewers from all across the country, Mattson said.

For Mattson and fellow organizer Alan Loken, both veterans of long-distance wagon trains and trail rides, such adventures fulfill their longing for a West that, in many regards, has long since vanished. But, they say they’ve never tired of loping through the high country and turning strangers into fast friends.

“It’s all about people, for sure,” Loken said last week. “You make new relationships. It’s probably an undiscovered best vacation a person can have, whether you’re a horseman, a cowboy or not. There is nothing that can compare with a week in the saddle, the evening stops, the scenery and people who are willing to open up. It’s what makes life special — sharing who you are, some of your struggles. Wagon trains have a way of putting a different complexion on life.”

Anyone interested in joining the wagon train is encouraged to show up Sunday at the Hook Ranch near Buckhorn. For more information, contact Jon Mattson at 920-1447 or Alan Loken at 645-4444.

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