It's high time I got back on the saddle here with a summary of sorts of my recent journey to South Dakota. It was a good trip, but I'm glad to be home in St. Louis, as I missed Megan and the girls something terrible. Though I didn't take a camera, I'll have plenty of pics to post when the students send me theirs (along with their writing assignments) at the end of the week. In the meantime, here are some excerpts from my journal, along with a few elaborated highlights - hope they suffice for now.
We started off in the Badlands National Park, which felt like a giant playground to all of us. Camping out for two nights, we spent the days hiking around and running up and down the area's protruding round rock hills, which the kids loved. We saw a lot of wildlife up close - prairie dogs, deer, buffalo, and even two rattlesnakes - so that was new and different.
"My first trip to a reservation was an ironic combination of beauty and poverty. From my understanding, though the land is 'reserved' for the Indians, they can do nothing on it without government permission. So much wrong with all that - not even sure where to begin.
Saw Wounded Knee yesterday - very different from what I thought it would be, as it has not been turned into a sanitized memorial, but instead is a rugged, simple place of remembrance that cries out to be felt and not just acknowledged. Read the last chapter of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee while there. Hard to imagine the ugliness of it all in such a pretty valley of waving grass."
The next day on our way to our campsite at Custer State Park, we made a weather-shortened trip to Mount Rushmore. The experience was anti-climactic for me, so much so that I didn't even write about it. There's something incredibly disturbing about the faces of four presidents carved into the side of a mountain overlooking stolen land, and yet despite my discomfort, I bought a Mount Rushmore puzzle and snowglobe to bring home to the girls. Feeling the tension between injustice and patriotism was one of the defining themes of the trip.
Biking was another part of the trip in which I felt tension:
"Biked 54 miles yesterday on the Mickelson Trail from Custer to Edgemont - the longest distance I've ever ridden. One of the staff gave me the Indian name 'Head Between Knees' after I had to stop four times in the first six miles because I was dizzy from the altitude and the inclines between our campsite and Custer. Once I got past this, I did fine, but it was hard - strong headwind the whole way, and a very sore behind. Still glad I did it, but not sure how I'll fair on the next two rides (shorter but sorer, I'm sure)."
The scenery on this first trip was beautiful - lots of serene valleys and see-for-miles vistas - and despite my exhaustion (note to self: one 6-mile training ride does not a biker make), I found myself thinking several times how glad I was someone had the Rails-to-Trails idea of converting old railroad lines into a network of public-use paths. The kids seemed to enjoy it as well, and that night was the first one that everybody went to bed earlier than the night before.
One of the major highlights for me on the trip was meeting author/rancher Dan O'Brien:
"Just got back from Dan O'Brien's Broken Heart Ranch - a highlight of the trip for reasons all too familiar. It's funny how city kids are so entranced by things so non-urban; for me, it's just a different kind of farming. O'Brien owns 2,000 acres and runs around 200 head of buffalo (instead of cattle) on his ranch halfway between the Black Hills and the Badlands. He's 45 minutes from anywhere and lives with his 'life partner,' Jill. Other occupants include a 73-year-old hired hand named Erney, and an intern from France."
O'Brien himself was a fascinating guy, one with whom I would have loved to have spent more time than our 4-hour visit allowed. We did get to talk a little about writing, and I had him sign my copy of his book, so that was cool. After a tour of the ranch (complete with feeding cake from the back of a pick-up to his herds), he and Jill fed us some pulled barbecue bison right out of their kitchen. While I was hoping for burgers, the meat was tasty and the kids really enjoyed sitting out on his deck, asking questions and listening to him speak about what he's trying to do.
"In many ways, O'Brien is living an ultimate existence - owning land, writing about it, succeeding - but I don't want to even think about all the work that has, does, and must go into it all. His focus is intense, and his understanding of the land impressive. I wonder if he gets lonely or bored...or frustrated or angry...or just tired or worn out by the scope of his vision of restoring the High Plains through the grazing of buffalo (rather than cattle) on 1 million acres of public land."
More to come.