The drive to Rapid City was phenomenal. Route 29 from Omaha to Sioux Falls was mesmerizingly sparse. The long fields of withered corn stalks accented the occasional distant silos and tufts of trees. The Loess Hills in the distance were topped with soft rust-red velvet like the furry down on the antlers of young deer. The area was so expansive and flat otherwise that I could see the full length of a train. The Little Sioux river was a picturesque dead stream lined with a bank of heavy dust and flowing under an old metal bridge into the hills.
South Dakota was instantly welcoming. There is so much open sky and land that there is plent of space to spread out your arms and spin. I felt myself metaphorically do that as I crossed the Missouri River where the land began to roll soft like something was bubbling under the surface. The wind was beyond harsh on I90 going west across the state. The tumbleweeds flew by in random packs; one large one threw itself in front of the car, shattering like brittle bones into the windshield.
Near Reliance, SD the land became scattered with small pools of cattails. Two massive flocks of red wing blackbirds bobbed amongst themselves and settled into the occasional swamps. Shortly after, I began to see massive fields of giant sunflowers on both sides of the road. They were no longer bursting with yellow vitality but stood like dry stick figures with hanging heavy heads.
I could feel the rolling land glowing around me; my eyes moistened and swelled alittle. The land has been loved for far more millenia than it has seen hatred, long before “the west was won.” I felt this mystical warmness instantly; the hills were soft with false desolation and ancientness. I wanted to stretch out my hand and run it along the hilltop like it was the back of a baby dinosaur. A large part of me did not want to even consider leaving this place. I had discarded everything else I previously coveted for a new life. I spent the next few hours fantasizing about getting a job on a ranch so I could build a house into the side of a hill and buy a horse to roam the hills with. I wanted to give myself to this land. My dreams of going anywhere else disappeared.
I spent the first evening getting acquainted with Susan and Emerson, my hosts in Rapid City. They were the first stop I had planned when coordinating my trip as I knew they would represent the whole trip. I didn’t know how at the time but it worked out as it did for a reason. My energy therapist suggested I go to the Pine Ridge Reservation to find a specific person to help me with my abilities and in studying that possibility I came to Susan and Emerson on the couchsurfing website. I knew the person I was looking for wouldn’t be at the reservation but this couple sounded perfect and if it worked out, it would be a wonderful experience.
It did work out and it was a wonderful experience. The first day was cold and overcast but we walked around the Pathways Spiritual Sanctuary in the Black Hills. We walked along a beautiful trail of young aspen discarding their shaky yellow leaves and through a huge field to a small oasis of pine trees covering a circle of 13 stones where many gatherings take place. We heard a group of red-breasted nuthatches; Susan called them and they came and sat on the closest branch. Near the edge of the park were seven wild stallions that were taken from the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation. They were kept there to symbolize unity and healing for the seven Lakota nations. Susan was completely enamored with them.
That was the highlight of that particular day. I had started feeling very sick and that kept me down until the next day. I was still fairly fragile when we headed to Pine Ridge Reservation, the home of the Lakota, in the morning. It was a perfect day, warm with the sun beaming against the ridges of the Badlands. We picked up Lothar, a previous couchsurfer of Susan and Emerson, had a quick lunch and stopped at Kili, the local radio station. Lothar had been listening to them in St. Petersburg, Russia and was so excited to meet the dj in person. The station is situated on Porcupine Hill which looked out into the Badlands.
Afterwards, we stopped briefly at the mass grave of Wounded Knee, where the 7th cavalry took revenge on the Sioux in 1890 for defeating Custer. They killed approximately 300 people including women and children; the bodies were so frozen that the soldiers had to jump on the bodies in the pit to make enough room. There are several graves around the pit too of people who were descendants of those murdered or even survivors who wished to be buried there to honor the memory of their ancestors there. The image here was taken during the burial (photo from Wikipedia). The large rectangular pit is separated from the other gravestones with a chain link fence covered in sachets of tobacco and various other offerings. A large stone memorial stands to recognize the event with the names of the identifiable victims. This particular moment was quite heartwrenching knowing that Emerson was a descendant of one that survived this event. Life begins to feel so much more fragile and yet everything happens with purpose whether we understand it or not.
We didn’t have much time as it’s best to avoid driving in the dark with so many deer around, so we hurried over to Thomas’ who had horses he was willing to let Lothar and I ride. It was a little daunting having a group of native boys with incredible horseriding skills watching us slowly riding around the pen in circles. Lothar did amazingly well as it was his first time on a horse. He was timid so the horse took advantage of him but he navigated very well, especially for only having 4% of his eyesight available to him. He was so happy and gracious about the opportunity; the entire time he leaned up to the horse whispering Russian and stroking its hair.
I was so glad to meet Susan and Emerson. They gave me a whole new perceptive and also reconfirmed a lot of thoughts I already had. It was nice to be on a similar wavelength with these two loving and grounded people. They are both so knowledgable that at times I felt overwhelmed with information. Susan has been so involved in various spiritual and nature programs that it seems she has one amazing story after another. She is so entrenched in her Scottish history as well as her adoptive Lakota history that she finds herself very grounded to the land. I definitely envy that aspect of her upbringing. Too many Americans grow up disconnected from nature. Owning the label, “American,” is discarding one’s previous ancestral history. You become automatically disconnected because the land that you are on doesn’t feel like yours and it’s not. Honestly it doesn’t belong to anyone but growing up with reverence for nature and truly connecting with the earth gives you a strongly centered sense of self that you can’t get without that connection. That’s why we, Americans, walk around like drunk bees, attacking anything that we perceive as a threat to our enormously fragile egos.
That evening the most amazing synchronistic experience unfolded. I happened to see Susan’s emergency number list on her fridge when I got a glass of water in the night and noticed that her niece had the same name as my college roommate freshman year at Boston University. It seemed too coincidental to be the same person but when Susan got up to use the bathroom she confirmed they were one in the same and that Susan and I remembered meeting briefly about ten years ago. I love when that happens. I felt very at home with them before this realization but this just solidified that we were meant to reunite. By the end of the second day, we were finishing one another’s sentences and joking like we had known each other for far longer.
The last day in Rapid City was relaxing and quiet. We walked around a couple parks near Rapid Creek. The water was consumed with algae but the ducks and geese loved it. I was pretty amused watching the geese bobbing with their tails in the air reaching for underwater delicacies. The cliffs along the trail were gorgeous, dusty red and ivory striations.
Afterwards, we took a short tour of all the pawn shops. Because there is such poverty in Rapid City, the pawn shops are thriving. They had all sorts of native artwork. I was looking for something with nice quillwork, a technique of dying porcupine quills and weaving them into rawhide or leather. As soon as I saw this technique I was a bit obsessed. I really wish I could learn how to do it and I’m hoping in the future I can figure that out. There wasn’t anything I wanted to buy, at least there wasn’t anything exceptional enough to get past the overwhelming sadness I felt coming from most of the items there.
So this morning, I dragged myself away from my budding new family and headed to Montana with a lot to think about. The last few days have been refreshingly intensive. Rapid City itself is a bit of an armpit. It’s a city trying to cover its red neck with bronze. If it weren’t for the ridiculous politics and extreme racism it would be a beautiful place to live. But the prosperity of white trash culture is really disappointing.
And then I have to face my own ancestry, my own disconnected American upbringing that I wouldn’t return for the world as it’s brought me to where I am now even if where I am is not where I could be. I’ve always been hard on myself and I struggle to give up the reasons I am the way I am. I’ve begun to transcend them though and I’m hoping to gain momentum and let myself out a little more.