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Carter Davis

A week before he died in 2016, Carter Davis traveled to Poet’s Table with his mother, aunt and cousin. During that visit, the family left a wish box with Carter’s hope written down on a scrap of paper. “Add love to the world,” he wrote. Authorities say they believe all objects, including the wish box, stolen on Saturday from the Custer State Park hiking spot have been returned to the park. They hope to reinstate the objects soon.

So much depended on the old green table and mementos vandals stole from Poet's Table on Saturday. For some, they marked a popular hike. For others, they offered a quiet spot for reflection.

But for one Black Hills family, a box taken was a cherished tie to a slain, teenage cousin.

"That object was our last, living memory to Carter," said his cousin, Skye Hurley.

A spokesman for Custer State Park on Tuesday announced the objects absconded with over the weekend by two women — including journals, memorials, cabinets and the green table and chairs — from the popular hiking destination were back in the park's possession. The identities of the women are not yet public, pending possible police charges.

But on Monday, they turned themselves in following outrage stemming from social media photographs and a video showing the women taking a hacksaw to the table and, like something a state park Grinch would do, running down the trail with the gathered objects.

The ransacking of Poet's Table dismayed many, where generations of hikers had ascended. But the act felt especially hurtful for the family of Carter Davis, who in summer 2016, at the age of 17, climbed to Poet's Table with his mom, cousin, and his aunt to stash his own message among the letters, verse, and scraps of inspiration offered up at the little nook in the mountain.

"When we got to the top, my mom had brought this cute, little wish box, and we recorded our hopes," Hurley said. "I was curious about what my 17-year-old cousin would say, so I ran over, looked behind his shoulder and saw him write it."

"Add more love to the world," Hurley said. "That's what Carter wrote."

It'd be a week later when Davis, back home in suburban Atlanta and on the eve of his senior year in high school, was murdered along with a friend in a car behind a gas station. The family, who had moved from Rapid City, and his classmates were devastated. But they tried to honor the last request of the talented lacrosse player and onetime Rapid City Central High School student.

In his obituary in The Rapid City Journal, referencing his trip to Poet's Table, the family wrote, "Carter is with us in the places we go, in the things we do, always in our heart."

On Saturday, as news broke about the theft at Poet's Table, a family friend raced to the top of the long, winding trail — roughly a strenuous 45-minute hike up — to find the box was gone.

"I can't believe someone would be so hateful," said Hurley by phone on Tuesday, saying she hoped authorities would press charges. "That wasn't just a table. That's a sacred place."

On Tuesday, after the holiday weekend, when many state officials at the park were off-duty, more information about Saturday's vandalism was revealed.

Kobee Stalder, Visitor Services Program Manager at Custer State Park, said charges may be coming against the two women in the photograph circulating online. While the table was initially placed by a vagabond poet without park approval in the 1960s, objects left for a number of years in a park, such as the table, chairs, cabinets and journals, can be considered abandoned (and eventually, state) property. 

"We're a bit in limbo as Game, Fish & Parks in Pierre decides what to do," he said.

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The Custer County Sheriff's Department referred all questions to Custer State Park.

Stalder said right now it's the park's intention to return everything to its place on the mountain. Although he can't verify until the Hurleys see for sure, he believes the park has the wish box. As for the sliced-up original table, Stalder said if the park can't repair it, a local man has offered to recreate the table down to the forest green paint (though it's unclear if he'll recreate the litany of verse left by past traveling poets).

"It's hard when something has that much historic value (to replace)," he said. 

As far as the motivations of the two young women who were photographed scampering down the trail?

"Basically they viewed Poet's Table as a desecration and destruction of the Black Hills with the graffiti on the rocks and people leaving behind things that are naturally not meant to be there," he said.

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If Poet's Table was a blight to the park, many locals would need a new definition of the word.

"This is a place that has inspired literature and art forever," said Paul Higbee, historian and writer from Spearfish. "That place was such a reminder of the spirit of the Hills."

In running a writer's camp for youth in the park, Higbee said some children (without directions) delighted in coming upon the green chairs and tables up in the rock outcropping, covered in the words of past voices.

"They instantly recognized they'd stepped into a community," Higbee said.

While he acknowledged that GPS and Instagram have increasingly led travelers up the road less traveled to Poet's Table, serendipitous hikers still found their way onto the site.

"It don't know anyplace quite like it," Higbee said. "It's unregulated, it's taken care of by all of us."

It's still unclear if that promise has been broken. On social media, many woodworkers offered to help rebuild the table. Stalder, with the park, requested that the public not take any new furniture up to the spot, perhaps knowing the strong pull the site offers to many. And in an email, Davis' aunt, Melanie Hurley, asked that no harm be done to the people who took the items down.

"Because of Carter’s wish" (to add more love to the world), she said. 

It also feels that the sense of a place can't go away with the removal of physical objects, no matter how dear. Skye Hurley said she felt about Poet's Table what many hikers feel about many of the shared spaces across the Hills, "It's a place for dreamers."

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Contact Christopher Vondracek at Christopher.Vondracek@rapidcityjournal.com.

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