What an interesting getaway we had this weekend.
Tara and I decided to check out the annual Burning Beetle festival in Custer. Back in the 1980s and 90s, there was a mountain pine beetle infestation in the Black Hills that wiped out a lot of ponderosa pines. These epidemics occur about every 20 years and pose a serious threat to our forests. The city of Custer decided to turn adversity into something positive and created a community-wide celebration focusing on the human connection with the environment in the Black Hills. The goal was to raise awareness and support the arts, so they cooked up (no pun intended) this festival idea in 2013 that includes a variety show, torch parade, and burning of a giant wooden beetle, followed by a pub crawl.
Cool, right? Think Burning Man but a thousand times smaller and 70 degrees colder.
Because we are responsible adults and wanted to take advantage of the pub crawl, we booked a room at the Super 8 in town. Custer’s pretty small; the motel is about a 90-second drive from the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it downtown. But it’s quaint and charming; I could actually see myself living there someday. We arrived early in the afternoon and settled into the Buglin’ Bull (a very typical restaurant name in South Dakota) for some cocktails and appetizers. We killed a couple of hours that way before checking into our room, then it was off to the festival.
We got there about 4:30 and man, was it cold. The actual temperature wasn’t bad—mid-20s or so—but the winds were whipping up something fierce, turning any exposed flesh raw and numb. There aren’t any naked people at Burning Beetle, that’s for sure! Despite the cold, this turned out to be a totally unique experience unlike anything I’ve ever witnessed. The beetle effigy is mounted atop a pile of discarded Christmas trees, so Custer gets bonus points for their recycling efforts.
We gathered around the beetle, bundled up to ward off the chill, and waited. We heard the approaching mob before we saw them, drumbeats echoing in the distance as they crested a hill before descending upon the field crowded with spectators. There were maybe 100 torch-carrying marchers, led by the aforementioned drummers. Tara and I had debated participating in the march—you could buy a torch for $10—but it was simply too cold.
The self-proclaimed “Torch Mob” formed a circle around the sacrificial bug and the crowd started chanting “Burn, beetle, burn!” Over and over again, the chorus growing progressively louder as the excitement built. Then, on cue, the Christmas trees were lit and the whole thing was quickly engulfed in flames as fireworks exploded overhead and the crowd continued their frenzied chant. Before long, flames were shooting 50 feet into the air and the heat was so intense we forgot we were even cold.
The whole thing was really cool and kind of crazy. It reminded me of what it must have been like during the Salem witch trials, when angry mobs embraced ritualized murder. It’s so easy to get caught up in the excitement; I found myself chanting “Burn, beetle, burn!” just as loudly as the rest of the crowd, and relished with glee when that sucker lit up the night sky. Mob mentality is real, yo.
It took about 20 minutes to burn away to embers (and by the way, what looked to be the entire Custer fire department was there in case anything went awry). Afterward, we made our way downtown for the pub crawl, affectionately called a “bug crawl.” Custer was hoppin’, at least by Custer standards. We managed to snag the last table available at the Gold Pan Saloon (a very typical bar name in South Dakota) and ordered drinks while a classic rock cover band played some good music. One of Tara’s coworkers and her posse were in town for the celebration and joined us. We grabbed a pizza to go from another place and headed back to our motel with a six-pack of Mike’s Hard Lemonade so we could take advantage of the pool and hot tub. Both were great, although on the way to the hot tub I slipped on the concrete and fell. What am I, 80?? Banged up the ankle joint on my left foot and I’ve got a pretty nice bruise as a souvenir. I have no idea how this happened. I swear I wasn’t drunk.
After a restless night thanks to my bruised foot and the noisy guests who apparently decided to run laps around their room at 5 a.m., we grabbed the free so-so motel breakfast and hit the road. We were home by 10:30 after stopping at Safeway for groceries.
I wish I had MLK Jr. Day off tomorrow like Tara does, especially since she’s having a bunch of coworkers over for brunch, but alas some of us have to work. Gah. I’ll try not to think about how they’re going to be drinking Bloody Marys while I’m toiling for the man, and if you’re thinking I’m bitter about this, I don’t know what you’re talking about.
It’s okay though; this is going to be a busy week at work. I’ve got about a million interviews scheduled and stories to write as we are deep into preparing our spring parenting magazine. I told my supervisor not to expect me around the office much as I’ll be traveling to Hill City and Deadwood and Custer this week.
At least the weather should cooperate. Knock on wood and all that jazz.