There was a time when the idea of moving to a place like South Dakota would have made me quake in all 400 years of my New York DNA. My ancestors have been in the New York area since they arrived from various points around the Celtic-Anglo-Saxon regions. Very few of those ancestors ventured far from the coasts. California, maybe. Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Washington, DC, maybe. But South Dakota? I imagine I am probably the first in the ancestral line.
I was drawn here through an obsession with Native American history about 12 years ago that ultimately became a career. But once I got to SD, something inside me shifted. Yes, there is a lack of trees, but instead of the vast sea horizons of coastal Connecticut, there are endless rolling plains, the dunes of an extinct ocean that somehow dried up millions of years ago. The sky is a landscape in itself and is changing the way I view the world. I love it here.
This morning was one of those lucky days when I had to be in my car, heading south towards Hot Springs, just as the sun was breaking over the massive cliffs. It occurred to me that I have never loved getting up and driving early as I do here, now. Sunbeams break across layers of rippled hillsides, steam swirls from the nostrils of horses, silhouetted against an orange, good morning, sky. Buffalo roam against a swooping backdrop of rangy plants up a soaring, steep, sandy slope. Across the street, the small flat peak I call Baby Butte is approached by a swath of wispy pink clouds, and as I proceed, the black cattle move like shadows in single file, well on their way to wherever they are going. Everything is beautiful.
But the best part is that if I am driving at 8 a.m on the highway with a 70 mph speed limit, and the roads, even at this rush hour, are so empty I can stop in the middle of the road, or back up even, to get the shot I am hoping for.
This was how I started my day today, which only got better as it went along. I was home in NY and CT last week, and I returned with an ache in my heart to be so far from family. But it has only taken a few days for me to be once again seduced by the peace, the lonesome without loneliness, living in a gigantic state with a circumference of about 1,400 miles that at population under 800,000 has less people than the combined population of seven of CT’s busiest cities. (Bridgeport, Hartford, New Haven, Stamford, Waterbury, Danbury and Norwalk). Astonishing.
I went for a walk downtown today, with the strip malls and busy downtown streets to my left, and the winding rushing Rapid Creek to my right. This little jewel of a city amazes me constantly. Today I realized there is a golf course built right into downtown. Tennis courts. Bike riders can go from city streets straight up to the tall peak of M Mountain (named for the South Dakota School of Mines) in no time flat, where I decided to try to visit again today.
The path serpentines all the way up the mountain, never becoming too treacherous, though steep enough to stop your breath at certain parts. The quintessential New Yorker that I used to be, the one lesson learned long ago still rings in my core: Don’t go into unknown places alone. People here say get over it, but the winding pathways that head for the hills and the deeply pine forested areas are known to be havens of mountain lions, and I have never been able to bring myself to go very far up the hills by myself. Today, though, I was in luck!
Two women dressed for hiking entered the path several yards before me, and another one came in behind me. I was flanked front and rear by experienced hikers, and felt it would be impossible for me to get lost or suffer an attack by man or beast in so much company.
Not too far into the densely wooded area, the women in front of me disappeared. I found myself in a rocky place that did not reveal a dusty path and I waited for the woman behind me to catch up. I asked her if she would mind if I tagged along and she cheerfully said she love the company.
We walked hither and yon, along a narrow pathway that just might have been beaten by the local mountain goats, up rocky hills and places where tree roots passed for stairways. The enormous craggy rocks, split by time and weather, were adorned in mossy greens and yellows, and shaded by various types of pines. The weather was a crisp 55 degrees and the elevation caused me more than once to stop to catch my breath.
By the time we arrived at the top of M Mountain, almost an hour of hiking had passed. The view was incredible and the air was clear enough to be able to see the famous, sacred, Bear Butte more than 30 miles away. Harney Peak was straight ahead, and the city sprawled in all directions below us. I could see the end of my own street about five miles away.
As much as I was enjoying the view, I knew I might not dare to do it again if I had to do it alone. I told my new friend that I missed having a dog for protection. Smiling, she said, “That’s why I have this,” and she pulled a pistol from her pocket. Wow!
Never a dull moment in Rapid City. Tomorrow afternoon I may stop by the Stock Show, which is the area’s ranchers rodeo over at the Civic Center in town. Pick-up trucks driven by bowlegged men in cowboy hats and tight jeans are everywhere. They look good until you hear them talk smack about the less fortunate. Conversation I heard today, “Well, looks like we will be paying out another 2 percent we’ll never see. Paying the doctor bills of people who don’t work. That’s right, let them drive the fancy cars and talk on their smart phones.”
As Taylor Swift said, “What?”
Are they seeing a lot of that over on the Indian Reservations? Because I know I don’t. Ah well, so while it isn’t perfect, SD comes pretty darn close. Locals say that people would be amazed at how great it is to live here. And then they say they hope no one ever finds out.