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Monday, November 9, 2015

A Start Line With Some History and A Personal Connection

When scouting a Start Line for the Black Hills BackBone last winter, Shaun and I drove back and forth on a few county roads in northern Harding County, South Dakota looking for some indication of a border with North Dakota.  In every direction, we see windswept prairie fading to the horizon.  The landscape is striking and the exposure to the elements severe, but we find no border sign of any kind.  There has to be something, even out there.

A Dakota Marker - 342 miles West of the eastern border of both states.  The "SC" means "Section Corner."
We finally just stop at a steel post sporting 3 road signs - "TABLE MOUNTAIN RD," "SPEED LIMIT 45" and a small "0."  The engineer in me appreciates the efficiency of a single post handling all those tasks and it seems to be about the right spot by the maps.  One views the sign looking south to South Dakota, so I interpret the "0" as a Mile Marker Zero and call it the Start Line.  It just seems odd that nothing else marks the state border.

Mile Marker "0" for the Black Hills BackBone.  The wind apparently does not know how to read.
I take a few pictures, then pause to soak in the scene.  The stark remoteness of this land draws me in and takes hold.  This is not merely a Start Line.  This is the beginning of a journey.

Gazing to the east, I spot a short, square-shaped stone stuck by itself about 50 meters off the road into the prairie.  That's odd.  It's not part of a fence or any other structure.  There's nothing around it at all, but clumps of grass.  I hop the barbed wire fence and stumble across the bumpy, cow pie laden earth.  What is it?

It's clearly a sign of some sort, about 10 inches square and extending maybe 3-4 feet above ground.  Engraved on the south face is "S.D." and on the north face is "N.D."  Other markings are engraved on the east and west faces, including a "342" and "S.C."  I take several pictures, now convinced that we're actually at the border.  I don't know what to make of the stone sign, but someone spent some effort to put it there.  We leave to scout possible gravel routes leading south.  Other thoughts soon crowd out the mystery of the odd stone sign.

This side of the quartzite Dakota Marker shows the effects of decades of cattle scratching. 
Months pass.  The BackBone route takes shape, with rides, pictures, cue sheets, digital mapping and blog posts.  Details to the South change, but the Start Line remains at the sign with the zero on Table Mountain Road.  Oh, yeah.  And by the odd stone thing, too.  Whatever that is.

I find out, in a most unlikely way.  Colleen and I are blessed with two daughters, Cara is a senior at South Dakota State University and Chani is a freshman at North Dakota State University.  Both are varsity cheerleaders and their schools are rivals in many respects, but particularly in football, where the teams battle each year for possession of a traveling trophy.  In a pre-game news report, I see a picture of the actual trophy.  It looks just like that stone sign at the border.  And the name of the traveling trophy - The Dakota Marker.

Cara (SDSU) and Chani (NDSU) at a preseason cheer camp.  Dad could do without the bison horns and bunny ears.
Now, I need to know.  Apparently, drawing the border between the two Dakotas was not without some controversy and intrigue.  When the dust finally settled, the border was marked with 720 engraved quartzite posts, positioned at half mile increments along the entire length of both states - the Dakota Markers.  Table Mountain Road just happens to cross the North Dakota border within sight of one of those markers.

Now that's a Start Line for the Black Hills BackBone.  Remote as these parts can be.  Some history.  And a personal connection.  Perfect.


  1. Great story Craig, thanks for the information. Go State.

    1. Thanks, Curt, glad you enjoyed it. We have a few family connections to State. I'm not sure how one ended up at NDSU.