by Akim Reinhardt
Part I of this essay appeared last month.
Thus continues my grand voyage, in which a rusty ‘98 Honda Accord shuttles me from one end of North America to the other and back again . . .
After stumbling half-way across the continent, I settled into the northern Great Plains for a spell. Determined to visit a variety of archives, I cris-crossed South Dakota to the tune of a thousand miles. It's a big state.
First I spent some time in the East River college towns of Vermillion and Brookings. A hop, skip, and a jump from the Minnesota border, this here is Prairie Home Companion country. It's a land of hot dishes (casseroles) and Lutheran churches. Of sprawling horizons and “Oh, ya know.”
There's lots of tall people. Lots of blond people. Lots of tall, blond people. I like it.
But after a week of researching and visiting old friends, I left behind the Scandinavian heritage and Minnesota-style niceties of eastern South Dakota. I made my way west across the Missouri River and then headed north. Actually, I crossed the line into North Dakota; Sitting Bull College on the Standing Rock Reservation is actually in the NoDak town of Fort Yates.
I'm happy to give the tribe some money, so I spent a night at the tribally owned Prairie Knights hotel and casino. I had a mind to play some poker, but when I went downstairs to investigate, I found the card room was already in the thick of a Texas Hold ‘Em tournament. So I bought a sandwich, returned to my room, and watch Derek Jeter's last game at Yankee Stadium.
After Standing Rock, the plan was to go straight down the gut of central South Dakota to Rosebud Reservation, which sits near the Nebraska border, and then westward to Pine Ridge Reservation in the state's southwestern corner.
If you were to plot my herky-jerky route across South Dakota, I suspect it would create an exciting new shape that mathematicians would get wide-eyed about. And then they'd come up with a cool name for this strange but essential new shape. Maybe something like an “akimus.” The akimus will shed new light on our understanding of trapezoids. And of course it will have some mysterious relationship to Pi.
I can imagine this because I haven't passed a math class since the 10th grade.
On the way to Rosebud I stopped off at the town of the town of Murdo and spend the night at the Anchor Inn in. The name, of course, is brilliant. The place is,500 miles from either ocean.
The Anchor Inn is a cheap motel with some surprisingly stylish touches. My room included a maroon, pillowed headboard and a brass chain lamp strung along the ceiling above the bed. The bathroom featured 1960s pink ceramic tile. The towels were actual colors, tan and red, instead of the generic motel-white.
Too bad I'm traveling alone. This place would be a perfect spot for some kitschy sex.
The room key was old timey. An actual key attached to a plastic key chain that had the hotel's name, address, and my room's number printed on it. The kind of thing you really need to not lose.
Next to the motel office was a small bar and grill called the Lost Souls Tavern. It featured a Grim Reaper logo that looks like it was inspired by the Sons of Anarchy television drama about a California biker gang. But then again, we're not very far from Sturgis, site of the worlds largest annual motorcycle rally, so the inspiration could just easily flow the other way.
After settling into my room, I walked down the Lost Souls. On my way there, I noticed a sign on the back window of a pickup truck outside the motel office that read:
I walked into The Lost Souls, sat down, and ordered a Shiner Bock beer. Dollar bills with various messages scrawled across them were taped all over the ceiling and the walls. The room was adorned with a melange of rural tchotchkes. A couple of middle aged men sat at the bar, drinking beer and chatting with the female bartender while a show about Alaska State Troopers hunting down various petty criminals played on the TV behind her.
After glancing over the menu, I decided to go with the fried sampler platter. Bad move. It wasn't actually fried. The breaded, frozen nuggets were simply microwaved. Without the hot grease to provide flavor, it was just a pile dry, tasteless, and mush. The jalapeno ketchup and cold beer were the only things that made it edible.
When I was done, I returned to my room. There was an exceptionally aggressive fly waiting for me.
The next morning, as I walked to the office to return my room key, I crossed paths with a middle aged woman. She looked like she might've been a biker's Old Lady at some point. Or maybe she was just going for biker chic, with the sparkly belt. We chatted briefly. She seemed very nice. Then she got into the big pickup with the 2nd Amendment sign.
It was a reminder of how fear based stereotypes often frame so much of the gun debates in this country. Many Conservative gun rights supporters often fixate on defending themselves from the specter of violence by imaginary criminals, probably dark skinned ones. Meanwhile, many Liberal gun rights opponents fret about the specter of violence by imaginary gun nuts, probably a rural white ones.
I'm not going to use this essay to delve into the complexities of the gun debate. But my interaction with this woman was a pleasant reminder that most folks on either side of the debate are actually perfectly normal and reasonable people. At least when they're not screaming about guns, that is.
Prairie Dogs. If you've never seen one, take my word for it: they're just the cutest goddamn thing on the face of the planet. They can easily hold their own against penguins, puppies, and kittens.
Prairie dogs used to be ubiquitous on the Great Plains. Incredibly social animals, they tunnel enormous subterranean villages for their clans to live in. Down there they're safe from most predators. They come back up to graze and take in the wider world, sprouting up through the rings of dark earth surrounding their access spouts. These dirt doughnuts, spread across the prairie grass, are sign posts of a prairie dog village.
Now domesticated cattle, that's not a particularly cute animal. And certainly not a smart one. Dumb motherfuckers. They're apt to occasionally step into a prairie dog hole and break a leg. Consequently, many ranchers are keen on prairie dog genocide, poisoning entire villages and filling in their access holes.
It seems there are always more and more reasons not to eat meat that have nothing to do with why I don't eat meat. This is yet another one of those ancillaries that make me feel happy about not consuming beef.
At one of the campuses of Sinte Gleska University in the town of Mission on the Rosebud Reservation, there's a prairie dog village. Pispiza is the Lakota word for prairie dog.
I like it when the little fellas come out of their villages, stand up, and look around. It's a big world and they're making the effort.
I entered Badlands National Park in South Dakota with the idea of camping for the night. Murdo was nice, but I was ready for something other than a motel.
There are two campsites in the park. The first, near the eastern entrance, has amenities. The second, on the west side of the park, is a so-called “primitive” camp site (Seriously. Are we still using this word in the 21st century? Ugh. Don't get me started.). It has nothing but a couple of outhouses and about a dozen park benches to mark campsites.
When I camp, I prefer fewer amenities. If I wanted amenities, I'd stay home, or in a motel. Plus, the real allure of camping, so far as I'm concerned, is getting the fuck away from people. I love living in a dense, eastern city, but sometimes I've just had my fill of people and their endless capacity to disappoint and be uninteresting.
The more rural campsites, with their rancid, solar powered outhouses and their absence of vending machines or power outlets for firing up RV living rooms and kitchens, draw far fewer people. I quickly passed the more suburban campsite, already overrun with campers in mid-afternoon, and kept rolling west.
For more than 25 miles along the winding park road, I let loose a volley of gasps and contented sighs. The badlands are indescribably beautiful, so I won't attempt to describe them.
After about forty-five minutes, the pavement ended. The rusted chariot continued grinding along the gravel, and eventually I reached the turnoff to the rural campsite.
A pair of wild bison grazed a couple of hundred yards away, which was unsurprising since I've previously come across wild buffalo in the North Dakota badlands.
Bison are like redwood trees: if you haven't seen one with your own eyes, it's difficult to explain just how big they really are. Plus those horns. Merely noting that they weigh upwards of a ton and can run 40 miles per hour doesn't do them justice. Seeing one in person is enough to redeem the word “awesome.”
The weather was gorgeous, the sun slowly drifting across the massive sky and warming the ground below. Perhaps that's why there were more people at the campsite than I would have hoped for on a Wednesday in late September. A baker's dozen vehicles, some like me with a car and a tent, some with trailers. My eyebrows arched when a 16' U-Haul truck pulled up to the campsite next to mine.
A woman got out of the truck along with a dog and a cat in a box. Other than the animals, she was alone. She quickly pitched a tent. Her competence and gumption were impressive, and not because she was a woman. But because, holy shit, that's a 16' truck at the rural campsite in the South Dakota badlands.
After setting up her camp, she took the dog for a walk around the campgrounds, about a quarter mile. She stared at her phone the whole time. Of course there's not any reception. But beyond that, did you really come all the way out here, in a moving truck no less, to stare at your fuckin' phone?
Looking around at my fellow campers, there seemed to be several sorts, ranging from suburban passers by to old hippies and bohemians. It's probably an expression of my own cynicism and discontent more than anything else, but I sensed/imagined a desire among many of them to be somewhere far away while still being fashionable; to do something “daring” but to also fit-in by doing what others have done; to do something one is supposed to do.
It annoyed me. I annoyed myself.
I hadn't set out to camp in the Badlands. I don't have a Travel Channel-approved bucket list of shit to get done or places to visit before I get cancer or have a stroke or become frail with age. All the world's a wonder when human beings aren't mucking it up.
I just wanted a quiet place to camp. The first place I'd investigated earlier that afternoon was near a town in rural South Dakota. But it turned out to be not all that remote, so I'd moved on. I ended up at the Badlands because it was the next spot down the line, hopefully peaceful, and relatively close to where I was headed the next morning.
I turned in early. A couple of mosquitos followed me into my tent. I killed them against the luminous screen of my laptop as I wrote some of these words.
I awoke to a strange noise. It was a quiet but piercing, staccato shriek. It sounded like someone slowly rubbing their fingers across the surface of a taut balloon.
Why the fuck is someone playing with a balloon, I thought to myself in my partially unconscious daze.
I don't wake up well. Not against my will anyway. I've been known to curse into the phone when someone calls at an unsuspecting hour.
As I began approaching a fuller consciousness, my anger rose. Why was one of these late arrivals to the campsite, one of these goddamned people, making noise in the middle of the night?
Then I heard the other sound. Breathing.
It was the deepest, heaviest breath I've ever heard. It certainly wasn't human. It was just on the other side of my nylon tent.
Holy shit. The bison.
Adrenaline coursed through my body. I shot up into a sitting position. And then I froze. Don't startle them, I thought. If they trample the tent, I'd have no chance.
I sat there. I waited. I listened to the breathing, so big, so close. I didn't move a muscle. My heart raced. Inside the tent the nighttime air was cold and brisk.
Slowly the sound got a little further away. And a little further. I reached for my flashlight. I slowly, quietly unzipped the tent flap and cautiously stuck my head out. I couldn't see them, but I could still hear them now on the other side of my car. Bit by bit I emerged.
I could still hear the breathing. Fearing that something could startle them into charging, I crouched behind my car and peered into the distance. From where the noise was coming, I espied a pair of massive silhouettes. Wow. Then I looked around the campsite. No sign of any campers being awake. No sounds, no lights.
I climbed into my car. Through the windshield I watched the two black forms slowly drift.
Eventually they got far enough away that I found the courage to leave my car. When I finally turned my cheap flashlight on them, they were beyond the range of its tepid beam.
I began to wonder whether it had actually happened. Were my eyes playing tricks on me in the dark? Was I imagining it? It was all too surreal to believe.
It was half past midnight. As I returned to my tent, I looked up. The Milky Way spilled across the nighttime sky.
I awoke the next morning an hour after sunrise. I stepped out of my tent and saw a pair of bison calmly grazing between two campsites. Most people were out of their tents by now, but no one else seemed to notice. It was as if they were invisible. As if I were the only one who could see them.
Then a man and a woman, late arrivals from the night before, with a car sporting Virginia license plates, walked up to the bison to take pictures. These buffalo were obviously used to being around people; not domesticated by any means (bison have never been domesticated like dogs or cattle), but not so wild that they were unfamiliar with humans. I wondered if the two Virginians understood that. They were close enough for a good mauling.
I packed up and headed out. As my car rambled along the dirt path that led back to the gravel road, I saw pairs and trios of bison on either side. Some of them were no more than twenty yards from the path.
There are no words.
Akim Reinhardt's website is ThePublicProfessor.com