Friday, January 7, 2011

I LIKE IKE: Travels 2010, South Dakota

Just put a tire in each corner of my parents' lives and they knew bliss. My father received two weeks vacation every summer and in one of those weeks my parents would motor my sister and me through New England and the Mid-Atlantic states. As soon as we hit the road, their demeanor would lighten and take on the joy of expectation, even though as kids we were, well, bored. For them it wasn't about seeing, it was about movement. Jack Kerouac, the author of On the Road, could write about, "What is that feeling when you're driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing?...But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies." My parents would second that, right after they stopped at a Stuckey's or HoJo for lunch and gas; then go.

Dwight Eisenhower, when he was Supreme Allied Commander during WWII, was impressed with the autobahn system in Germany which allowed them rapid movement of interior lines of defense those highways afforded them. When elected President in the 50s, Ike replaced our patchwork of roads with a federal interstate highway system. Thinking about it, this act was the his most lasting legacy and the last time a a President did something that affected everyday people. (Jimmy Carter you say? You could be right, the first of 24 military satellites were launched in the Carter Administration hereby ensuring everyone's security from nuclear attack in the latter 20th Century...and more importantly technology that led to the GPS. Men never, ever had to ask for directions again.)

So it was inevitable that when my father retired from the shipyard in the late 60s, he and my mother drove from sea to shining sea, way past the mileage allotment of a summers' week. They took two months. When they returned I asked my father what part of the country he liked best: Rocky Mountains, Pacific Northwest, high deserts of the Southwest? He always answered the same, "The Black Hills of South Dakota." The Black Hills of South Dakota? what did I miss? So after 40 years, I decided to find out.

Donna and I took a connecting flight through Chicago then westward to Rapid City. The flight was uneventful. If I had read Flying for Dummies, I would have learned not to accidentally pack the book and newspaper in the checked bag. But I didn't so I did. The time was spent perusing the latest Skymall magazine from the plane's front pocket ("X5 Hair Laser - the Next Generation! It's all over the news media! Only $299.95....Temple and eye Massager. An air bag massager that expands and contract around the eye socket! All for only $149.95!) Whoever said it was the journey and not the destination was never stuck in a plane for 3 hours with Skymall.

Upon flight approach we saw strings of hills in deep shadow fronted by vast, green open spaces and a sense of infinity and space you only feel west of the Mississippi. It was as if when God created our country's topography, East to West, He reached half-way, stopped, then remembered to give us a sense of wonder and the never ending...God must be getting older just like the rest of us.

But give us a sense of wonder He did. East of the Mississippi, dirt has definition. Every meadow has an end. Even if we cannot see it over the rise, we sense the far side of it. In the East, a stand of trees is a complete stand of trees that is to be admired within its space, but not much is left to the imagination. The West gives a sense we are one grain of sand on an endless beach, a small part of God's creation, and somehow that knowledge gives comfort and humility because we know we are part of something large. In South Dakota there are gentle sloping folds of pastures dotted with an occasional Jericho tree and meandering cattle - all garnishments on nature's entree; just miles of space between between the Badlands to the South and Black Hills to the North. We only get that sense of vastness in the East when we are close to an ocean.

Donna and I admired the honesty of the place. No town had more than two syllables in its name; Lead, Custer, Deadwood, and Spearfish, etc. Most people we ran into knew only friendly persuasion and not argument. Isn't it always interesting that people are the nicest and friendliest in areas where they are least in number? Why is that? We've always found North Carolina folks friendly, but even the Tar Hells don't strike up conversations with strangers in restaurants who are a table away. They do in South Dakota. And speaking of restaurants, we were expecting that fine dining would involve the distribution of paper napkins instead of instruction to use your sleeve, but we found some great eats thanks to our friends jack and Anita Marshall who went a month before and dutifully took great notes for us.

Yes, we saw Mount Rushmore. A very impressive work of art, but what most impressed us was the area the "Presidents" were located. This area of the Black Hills is (and was) considered sacred ground to the Lakota Sioux Indians; a spiritual place they used for burial grounds. Life is not fair. If the Indian Wars in the late 18th Century had a different result, the Lakota may have gone in and paved over Arlington Cemetery and put up some grand totem poles, so Donna and I admired the sculptures, but not the chosen location.

On the last day we were on a road that cut through gulches and ascending spurs from Deadwood to Rapid City and came upon a most delightful sight. Above the road, the Hills were covered with clouds that skirted the hilly apexes and afforded the meadows a birthing room for rainbows - a lot of rainbows. We stopped counting at 8. Some spanned miles and some spanned no more than 100 yards. Goodness we even saw a double rainbow! Never have seen anything like it, even in Hawaii.

So why did my father like the Black Hills so much? They don't have the majesty of the Rockies or the artistic epiphany realized when sunlight plays against the complicated shadows of the Grand Canyon. They looked no different that the White Mountains of New Hampshire or the Green Mountains of Vermont - just shorter. What gives? My guess is that my father liked the Black Hills because it was really the first inkling of what was to come as my parents drove further West. The ride from New England to the lower Mid-West provides some scenery of interest, but not great interest. The Dakotas invite change and a glimpse of the wonders to come. Kind of like focusing only on a small finger of Mount Rainier outside Seattle, then looking up and realizing the whole magnificent Mountain.

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