If a map of the USA, including Alaska and Hawaii, was laid flat on a table, Belle Fourche, South Dakota, would be the "closest city to middle." The exact middle is north of Belle Fourche at what country folks like to call 20th and Plum. That means it's 20 miles from nothing and plum out in the sticks.
Lone Writer was using the map from the Belle Fourche visitor's center. Since the map did not say what the starting point should be, he left the visitor center headed north and drove the noted 13 miles. Old Highway 85 was not there but he found it branching off the paved road another mile farther. Calling that graded gravel road a highway does not fit the modern-day definition.
Lone Writer then went 7.8 miles north as noted on the visitor center map. Thattook him slightly past a barn that was mentioned as a landmark on the map. He had pastures on the right, pastures on the left, and nothing but gravel road ahead. Shouldn't there be a sign, he thought.
Thinking he missed something obvious, he turned around and went past the barn again. Still nothing. At that point, it became a mission. There was no way he was going back to town without finding the Center of the Nation. He took the laptop out of its bag, connected the GPS receiver and loaded Delorme TopoUSA mapping software. DeLorme showed a Center of the Nation Roadside Park directly outside his driver's side window. "Really," he said. He put the window down. That didn't help. "Ain't no park where I'm at." He got out of the car and stepped into the roadside park as designated by the GPS on the DeLorme Map. No park bench. No signs. Not even a wide spot in the road. "Must be in another dimension," he said.
He keyed in the Lat/Lon position for Center of the Nation and pressed enter. The flag showed it on the east side of the road directly in line with the car door. It was time to stop thinking like a tourist. "I am not looking for anything prominent," he said. "I am looking for an Easter Egg."
And, there it was ... a short distance out into a pasture; just a pole sticking up out of the ground. He crawled under a barbed-wire fence to get to it. There were no signs saying not to do that. Sure enough, the USGS marker was permanently sealed into a concrete base. Obviously, the Center of the Nation's exact location is not a tourist attraction. He snapped a couple photos and headed back to town.
Belle Fourche was established as an end-of-the tracks town during the 1800s. The name is a French word for "Beautiful Fork," which referred to a fork in the river. In 1890, the railroad laid a track from the east that ended at that fork in the river. It served as a cattle shipping point for ranches in a territory that eventually became South Dakota, Wyoming, and Montana. By 1895, Belle Fourche had attained the rank of largest shipping point in the world with 2,500 car loads a month going east.
A local rancher whose family had been there for generations told how cattle herds were often moved through the country by following the canyons of the Belle Fourche River. Lone Writer was raised on a farm around animals and they make quite a mess. The 2,500 car loads of cattle a month would make a bigger mess than anyone on his family farm in Illinois could ever imagine. Belle Fourche is downriver from the trail and there probably was not much water purification going on in the 1890s. Wells were an important drinking water source for residents of the city.
Lone Writer's reason for being in Belle Fourche had nothing to do with the center of the nation or with shipping cattle. He was tracking outlaws. The Museum and Visitor's Center provided a copy of a newspaper story written in 1897 when Kid Curry, Sundance Kid, and two other outlaws held up the Butte County Bank. The paper at that time was called the Belle Fourche Times. The story ran on July 1, 1897. The title was "Daring attempt at robbery."
Lone Writer began with a visit to the scene of the crime. A Wells Fargo Bank on the corner of Sixth and State streets has replaced the Butte County Bank. Some older buildings are still standing along the original downtown area but probably nothing dating back to the time of the robbery.
The newspaper story from 1897 said the outlaws left town going due west. Lone Writer left town going west on National Street crossing Windy Flats and then Sourdough Flats. Most likely, the outlaws took more of a northwesterly route but they still would have crossed both flats. They would have avoided the main route since their rapid pace would have attracted too much attention from anyone they passed. They needed to reach a forested area as soon as possible to hide the dust and provide cover. They probably stayed more in line with the Belle Fourche River.
Crossing the flats at a slow pace allowed time for admiring the country. Herds of cattle filled the grassy pastures on both sides. A few horses of varying colors and sizes could also be seen near the roadway. The terrain is better described as gently rolling rather than flat; however, the effect is the same. Visibility is wide open for miles and miles of more miles and miles.
The first eight miles go in a relatively straight line almost due west. The road turns north for a while, then back west again. At this point, the gently rolling description transforms into hilly and begins crossing creeks and streams coming out of the Black Hills National Forest.
After heading west a short distance, Lone Writer crossed into Wyoming. There weren't any welcome signs or any not-welcome signs for that matter. He was in open country where the only boundaries that count are those that designate private property.
He crossed Oak Creek twice. The only reason it's worth noting is that Kid Curry claimed they used it as a meeting place. The point where the road crosses the creek is probably a long way south of the actual place where the gang crossed. They probably crossed somewhere near the point where it flows into the Belle Fourche River.
The current road does not cross the river. It travels through the Black Hills National Forest. There was an abundance of deer and hawks as well as many other of nature's critters to watch. At one point a fawn and its mother crossed directly in front of the car but they were gone before the lens cap could be removed from the camera. The terrain was heavily forested. There were dozens of roads leading off the main road but they all went to private ranches. The route more or less follows the Belle Fourche without ever crossing it and without getting close enough to see it. After continuing southwest for a while, the road turned south and connected to Highway 24.
For those of us who remember a movie called "Close Encounters of the Third Kind", a familiar landmark can be seen in the distance. I could not resist a side trip to Devil's Tower.
The story about the Belle Fourche Bank Robbery is interesting and somewhat comical. Next month, we'll tell that story and begin a backcountry getaway route that crossed three states but ended up right back in Belle Fourche.
Center of the Nation
Trip Meter - Latitude North - Longitude West - Comments
0.0 - N44 40.432 - W103 51.166 - North side of town at Museum Visitor center. Turn north on Hwy 85.
14.0 - N44 51.777 - W103 48.188 - Left on Old Hwy 85. Just after mile post 70.
7.6 - N44 58.046 - W103 46.368 - Center of the Nation. Across the road from a huge barn. Just a post in the ground.
Belle Fourche to the Black Hills National Forest
Trip Meter - Latitude North - Longitude West - Comments
0.0 - N44 39.739 - W103 51.296 - South side of town. Corner of Highway 85 and National St. in Belle Fourche. Turn west on National Street.
16.2 - N44 42.286 - W104 7.752 - Oak Creek was mentioned in Kid Curry's story as a point where he caught up to the rest of the outlaws in a timbered area. This road follows Oak Creek for a short distance.
17.4 - N44 42.508 - W104 9.121 - This is the last time the road crosses Oak Creek. The creek originates in the hills to the left.
20.0 - N44 43.621 - W104 11.838 - Take the right fork. You will be on Mona Road which is also County Road 34.
47.8 - N44 42.387 - W104 28.130 - Pavement. Hwy 24. Hulett is right. Alva is left.