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Brook and Cooper Gassman retrace a favorite family Badlands hike. Photo by Stephen Gassman. Click to enlarge photo.
Brook and Cooper Gassman retrace a favorite family Badlands hike. Photo by Stephen Gassman. Click to enlarge photo.

A Black Hills Search for Solace

Apr 1, 2020

Editor’s Note: South Dakota has become a second home for the Gassman family of Platteville, Wisconsin. Stephen Gassman is an acclaimed photographer who has worked extensively in South Dakota and contributed many images to South Dakota Magazine. When his wife, Suzanne, died in June 2019, the family headed west, hoping to find healing at some of their favorite Black Hills places. The Gassmans’ daughter, Brook, wrote this upon their return. Another essay and photographs by Stephen appear in the May/June 2020 issue of
South Dakota Magazine.

Ninety-eight signs. That’s how many roadside advertisements there are for Wall Drug between our hometown of Platteville, Wisconsin, and Wall. One year, while my brother, Mom and I were traveling there to visit my dad, I counted them all. For hundreds of miles, I watched out the window, passing hills, grassland, prairie and the Badlands, just to count the signs. At the time, I thought it was a fun activity to enjoy and laugh about with my mom and brother. Ninety-eight is such a ridiculous number of signs to advertise for a place that’s claims to fame are free ice water and 5-cent coffee. That number held memories of how beautiful nature could be when you experience it with your family. With that number, I associated the splendor of Sylvan Lake, the awe of the Badlands, and the powerful feeling of finishing the hike to Black Elk Peak. Now, that number reminds me of better times before my mom passed away.

My mom was an incredible woman who, even when she couldn’t walk on her own, wanted to experience every bit of nature she could. We pushed her in a wheelchair during her final weeks so she could feel the wind on her face and experience the changing of the seasons. She would often wear a shirt she got in South Dakota that said, “Hiked It, Liked It.” This was one of her favorite shirts along with a plethora of many other outdoorsy-inspired graphic T-shirts. They reminded her and us of how important nature was, inspiring us to go on hikes and live life past its limits. My mom often encouraged us to do everything in our ability to experience the world, and, in South Dakota, this consisted of the Badlands, Sylvan Lake, Black Elk Peak, Reptile Gardens, Sunday Gulch, and, her favorite, The Purple Pie Place. Now that she’s gone, these places are little snow globes, memories caught in time that will always remind us of her.

We planned a trip to South Dakota immediately after the funeral. My family and I needed to get away, reminisce of better times while simultaneously making beautiful new memories. Our biggest goal was the climb Black Elk Peak with some of her ashes. So, on a Wednesday in June, my aunt, uncle, dad, brother, cousin and I set out on a 3-mile climb to the highest peak in South Dakota, letting my mom take one last hike. On the way, we shared a few laughs, met some other kind tourists from Wisconsin, and reveled in the beauty of the West. When we reached the top, we breathed in the cool air and let our mother see for thousands of miles, because I know that even though she can no longer experience the beauty of this earth, if I see it, she will too. After we finished, we hiked back down, releasing some of the pain and giving us the ability to move forward a little easier. While the path up the mountain might have seemed difficult, it was the hike down that made it all worth it.

So, I guess those 98 signs pointed us in the right direction — a path of healing, caring and family. South Dakota showed me that no matter what, there is something new to look at, something beautiful to experience, and someone new to cherish. I feel blessed to have such a wonderful state by which to forever remember my mother. I feel honored to say thank you to the West. I urge it to be wild, free and full of memories.


04:26 pm - Tue, April 21 2020
Brendan Weber said:
What a beautiful story!
01:45 pm - Thu, April 23 2020
Janice GrenobleM said:
So loved both yours and your dad's 'Healing Journey' articles. My bros, sisters and I lost our mom many years ago when she was just 59, and now I'm almost 75! Your mom's memory will ALWAYS be with you. Make the most of the life God grants you, because some day when you have children, they will continue to keep those memories alive!
06:27 am - Sat, April 25 2020
JonLarson said:
A good friend of mine once said a trip to the Hills is “good for the soul”!! This story just reaffirms this. Excellent !!!
07:32 pm - Mon, April 27 2020
Hanna Langmeier said:
This is a really great article Brook!
05:22 am - Tue, April 28 2020
GaryLuhman said:
Beautiful Brook. I know how your hearts ache. I wish I'd had the chance to know your mom better.
12:17 pm - Tue, April 28 2020
Sue Kies said:
When I was young, my family visited South Dakota on many occasions. It was my dad who loved the west, its history and its stories. You told this with such love, Brook. I enjoyed how you wove your story in and around the 98 Wall Drug signs. Very effective tribute to your mom!

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