North of Nebraska
I think that I have driven through Nebraska before. I seem to recall that I have seen Des Moines, so I must have been by Omaha. But it has never been my purpose to get into Nebraska. Today, I did so more or less by accident, relying on my mother's memory rather than Apple Maps. It never occurred to me to use Google instead. My aim was to dip my toe in the big river, but that didn't happen either.
This is a shaggy dog story about a funny thing that happened to me along the way to reconsidering my urban life. Long time readers know that I have had my Martial Education and that I'm mostly done with it, depending on whether or not I feel froggy enough to get my blue stripe from the Gracies. I'm not particularly afraid of a SHTF situation even though I do have my roof Korean rifle. I think it is more likely that my 70s ideas of freedom, born by the likes of Evel Kneivel will not survive the paranoid lockdowns to come in the 2030s. Whether or not that recession of liberty takes place, already it is clear that the people of South Dakota are distrustful of what has happened in California and so are expatriates here. Like my brother and two of his kids. So I'm still writing about Dakota, but it doesn't make sense to post a 'More Dakota' as a title. Still, funny things are happening.
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Unlike Wyoming and northern Colorado, the high plains out this way, which I am told mark the very last scrapings of the giant ice sheet in the age of the mastodons, this land has interesting features. South Dakota has an east and a west and the Black Hills are the west, as in west of the Missouri, the longest river in the US. I can say I've never been quite so moved by the Mississippi although I did fall in love with the idea of big rivers having seen the Cumberland one quiet evening on the backside of Tennessee State University. The Ohio at Cincinnati has always been impressive, but I have to give it now to the Missouri. I have not known rivers and therefore I reckon my soul is not so deep as it might have been. South Dakota's west is wild and rocky and the high plains are higher, mostly around 3600 feet above sea level in a town like Spearfish. Down here in Wakonda, it's only 1400. We're in the southeast where you can find Tudor style houses that would not survive the winters at higher elevations. Up there they build metal frame houses for the newbies.
The night after I wrote up my last dispatch from the Town Hall Inn, I was preparing my hard shoes for a night of smoking and boozing. It turned out that I had more than enough booze and not quite enough smoke. Although the bus girl found herself on the spot at the Maitre D's podium and exhibited the kind of doe eyed confusion a Negro might mistake for an unwillingness to seat a brother, I found my actual waitress to be smartly efficient and appropriately respectful. I ordered the 7 oz filet medium rare of course, served Oscar style. She offered me the carby potato option, I decided for extra green beans instead. But she got that Old Fashioned lickety split, she said Buellit and I said cool. They didn't have creamed spinach but I can tell she would have changed my order - as it stood, the doe hadn't even gotten me a napkin, but the pro remedied that at my suggestion. By the time I was halfway through the hollandaise and crab, I was ready for a second cocktail. This time she poured on the Woodford and made it a double. Maybe I needed more spuds to soak that up. Thank god for my flexibility and sense of balance.
I made it up the block to the cigar bar and realized that although I had my new pipe and a couple of pinches of Peter's Blend in my zippered leather pouch, that I had left my torch up at the Inn. I still had an Ashton Cabinet in my pocket, and I'm sure there would be a torch or two in the Deadwood Tobacco Company as I looked for other greybeards. It has to be said that carousing in this town is a dry hole, (ew, sorry for that bad metaphor). There wasn't the slightest whiff of eligible women. In fact, across this entire trip I haven't seen one. I am so very spoiled. California beach town spoiled. Aside from the fact that the whole of the Black Hills cannot possibly liven up until the Sturgis thing happens and this looks like the maiden voyage for new retirees trying out their first vacation, I am indeed spoiled. What you are not seeing is the oversupply of tacky t-shirts shops. Still, I found a trio of gents at the bar and I insinuated myself into their conversation as the proprietor got me torched up. A couple of them were musicians, one guitar the other bass guitar. The guy in the middle was the lively one who wanted me to stay over the weekend for the real live bands who were coming into town, but I made a promise to my mother.
Ambling out into the drizzled streets, I walked with deliberate purpose towards what I presumed was the south end of town. The Number 10 Saloon was my destination. I knew it had people who were under 40, and I could use a bit of that energy. I didn't even get a chance to head indoors as two young men recognized my tan. Larping on Twyman's Wednesday night meeting meme, I gave a pound to the young man 'who looked like me'. Actually he looked more like Arsenio Hall without the cartoon facial features. He was in a large jacket ready for any kind of weather. His partner was a large guy with a round head and vaguely unidentifiable features, but I was quickly informed that he was Oglala Lakota. I don't know how long it took for me to start into my interpretations of history, but I had actually been listening to **Ambrose**. What I think convinced them I was something of a PhD was my ability to inform them, as I am convinced on the answer to the questions posed. Why did the Negro survive America where the Lakota did not?
The gist of that answer has to do with *levee en masse*, mass national conscription invented by the French, and an excellent military strategy if you find yourself playing a civilization sim with 18th century tech. The Amerindians, living as they did in a harmonious death grip with the land found themselves on this impenetrable, unnavigable sea of grass, the Great Plains. As hunter gatherers, and as followers of great unchanging traditions, and as speakers of unwritten languages, they were not by and large great traders. European cultures evolved from river trade and the learning of foreign languages. So they had many incentives to seek common law and communicate near and far. Many have written that the entire Enlightenment would not have gone anywhere if it weren't for coffee and the social ferment of coffees shops. There was no such idea of confederation that worked for the Amerindians of the Great Plains. Fehrenbach says the Comanche in particular had no sense of cause and effect and thus no scientific curiosity whatsoever. The very idea of trying to second-guess the spirits that led the *Nermernuh* was unthinkable - so they survived the harshest of conditions with every expectation that nature was luck, and so did not question their own luck. But they fought like hell and the nature of battle and soldiering is universal, and such was the pride these two young men held for those who kicked Custer's monkey ass.
Still. *Levee en masse* is a bitch. The Negro as a non-African invention was in fact a new world creation. He, unlike his red-skinned neighbors did very much indeed covet American citizenship and equality under the law. If there were any tribal affiliations that survived slavery, I am only aware of the Gullah and 'we' are not the Gullah. All of our native skillsets went into the collected national economy from rice farming to peanut butter to Christian liturgy to the Purdy Shuffle. The Negro was a new world demi-citizen, emergent. Go back to Africa was an insult. Go back to the reservation was a treaty - a series of treaties with a series of nations with the same amount of diplomacy and duplicity as between any nations in the history of this fractious world. Amerindians by and large did not want to integrate, assimilate or by any means necessary git in where they might fit in. So a few of them fought to the death. A few of them collapsed with their ancient economies. A few of them survived to make new alliances. Most disappeared, like the Visigoths, Assyrians or Carthaginians. Few have been more romanticized by 50 page books and cheap TV shows and chatty housewives. But here stood my new Oglala Lakota friend standing tall with the unseen weight of a vague history upon his shoulders, reified in a short moment about George Custer's crushed bones. *Levee en masse*, when mobs go viral in search of national attention and glory. That still works. So the Negro assimilated to the well-understood stereotype and created, for better and for slightly worse, the Negro Race as moderated by proxies like the Urban League, Booker T Washington, WEB DuBois, the NAACP and finally MLK and Angela Davis, all of whom were more politick than Geronimo, Sitting Bull or Crazy Horse, if I may be so blunt. The Negro Race survived, more or less intact, although a good fraction are prepared to renege on their bets with America. You know them all by name, and slogan. The neo-tribalists who think they will destroy capitalism and the covenants of Civil Rights. Geronimo indeed.
We fist bumped our departures in the increasing rain and did some other kind of physical and digital exchange. I was pleased to answer questions. I'm always motivated to do so, otherwise I am observing, stoically. So it was time to retire to Lead and plan for the next day. The Lakota instructed me to find a particular pond in Spearfish and having related his own personal spiritual experience there, altered my vague plans. The keyword was Roughlock. So in the morning of the third day, I packed my Altima and headed to Spearfish Canyon in search of a mystic river and waterfall.
I had two choices of trails. The first was towards Savoy Pools and the second towards Roughlock. I was a bit weary from the previous night and still could not, despite the best efforts of the chemical engineers at Crest and the mechanical engineers at Sonicare, electric toothbrush the tobacco taste out of my mouth. The grey overcast continued, as did the periodic drizzle as I sluiced my automobile up the twisting canyon. At the trailhead, Savoy was 5 miles each way, a non-trivial task at 9 in the morning at 5200 feet of elevation. Fortunately, Roughlock was one mile each way so I grabbed my camera and phone and started scampering downhill. The trail was ridiculously well-maintained and headed back down towards the road which was never out of earshot. I passed a beardy hike-bro with hiking sticks, probably made of carbon fiber who asked if I was making it OK. Please.
I arrived at the sacred pool and was underwhelmed. It was nowhere near as secluded as would be inviting for a skinny dip, much less a spiritual encounter. A short train of ATVs were unloading their tourist cargo at the short bridge a mere 5 meters from the highway. And there in (ahem) majesty were the falls. I can only suggest that 'falls' are used metaphorically. They were more like slow rapids that any skateboarder could paddleboard down without a pole, if the water were even deep enough to float anything weighing more that 98 pounds. The place was not even interesting enough to fish. So much for revelation. I was rather glad I didn't bother to wear my huaraches. No toe baptism today.
The denouement continued as I swung back around to Deadwood to maybe get a lunch and definitely do the last of my touristy shopping. I found an excellent short sleeve olive drab t-shirt among the 'Lets Go Brandon' section of the shop. I had a very cool skull pressed on the back and picked up a shotglass in the shape of a shotgun shell. It took all of 45 minutes and I was ready to hit the road, deciding not to get yet another authentic burger. I wanted to get to Wall Drug.
Wall Drug has the dubious distinction of having every sort of roadside tchotchke joint merged into a Costco sized superstore. I thought I had seen the most grotesque of these industrial strength tourist traps in Temecula wine country, but this joint outdid them all. I at least found the bookstore concession and priced Undaunted Courage. It was $22. Seven more than my Kindle version. All honor and glory to the almighty Amazon. Consumerism levee en masse. I still couldn't bear to wait to be seated in the grease pit across the parking lot. But the nearby grain elevators looked interesting.
It wasn't until about 4pm that I finally arrived at Al's Oasis in Chamberlain that my blood sugar took a nosedive and kicked in the lane keeping features of my rented Nissan. Well, I did get to see the Missouri again so that was refreshing. Might as well go for a cheeseburger. With bacon. And apple pie. And cinnamon ice cream. And coffee. I don't know. There's something about that combination that never gets old. Jack & Coke too, but not this time.
I saw the double fence lines at Murdo. Nephew was right. He later told me that he works for a private firm that subcontracts for the South Dakota DOT. Ah. Now that makes sense. It turns out that his boss is a relic whose family tree is a cactus. Full of pricks. Nephew will be working a second job soon that teaches him welding, as he restores the first of three piles that is the family compound in Wakonda. Industrious kid. Well, he is 31.
By the time I did reach Wakonda, I came through a storm and finally got through to the town off Highway 19. Big hugs. Moms is still moms. She gave me her room and I slept on the quilt we gave her several Christmases ago. The next day began with a three hour conversation, some of which is recorded for posterity.
Excuse me. She's on a laughing jag as we sit in our granny chairs banging our laptops. She's remembering all of the things that went wrong with my father's Porsche 356. She says it did everything but stop. She cannot believe that so many things could break on a car at once. Thanks mom. One more myth about my glorious childhood destroyed. But I did learn how to gap spark plugs.
On the afternoon of the fifth day we headed to the Missouri River at Yankton. Moms has decided that Apple Car Play is superfluous, so she is giving miraculous directions across what seem to me to be featureless straight roads that crisscross the rolling farmlands. We stop at a Sinclair for gasoline, Red Bull and a Slim Jim. I don't have my knife with me, so she gnaws through the plastic in the middle of it. Somehow in doing so, she has missed a turn instruction and Siri is drawing a blank when I ask for Lewis & Clark Lake. Seriously? We end up crossing the river over to the Nebraska side barely in front of a semi who is chasing me down like I'm Dennis Hopper in Duel. I blast it up to 75 and then dodge right heading over to Crofton. As between Indiana and Ohio it is clear that the two states use different paving materials and methods. I must confess that the Nebraska houses are a cut or two above what I have seen in SD.
We finally arrive at the visitor center and jawbone with the ranger / attendant. The view is spectacular and once again I am taken in breathlessly at the massive river works, hydro plant and recreation area that is Gavin's Point. I am glad to have stumbled onto the Nebraska side. We take in a 17 minute documentary in their 30 seat theatre entitled River of Change. It's PC. PC in the same way the pop culture of the 70s were markedly that set of things they were. Young people don't know what they're swimming in. The squishy sentences alluding to spirits and conservation uttered with confidence by three representatives of three tribes tell us in so many ways that the river is life. That's obvious to me. I'm from Los Angeles. Our river is a supersized concrete culvert and scene of car chases for Hollywood action. I don't need to chant in a dead language to know that. Or maybe I would if I was a fresh scrubbed grad student with no shoulder strength paddling a kayak in a placid backwater with only three fingers gripping the oar. Everybody has to make their filmic statements. I’m still at the part of the book where Lewis is procuring mercury and chlorine pills from Benjamin Rush. Jeez.
Speaking of filmic statements, the last time I was in the airport at LAX, there was some story about a new gun ban in New Mexico. It was absolutely amazing how the cameras never once showed the faces of the people handling them in gun stores. Only their [clumsy] hands and the guns themselves. And so we saw the hunters in River of Change highlighted in silhouette against the sunset walking slowly away from the camera. But the eager smiling upturned faces of the birdwatchers in their blind deafened by the massive murmuration of snow geese, those we see in close-up. I've never eaten a goose. I've heard that a swan can break a man's arm with its wing strength. I've never hunted, so I am vulnerable to the myths, but not so vulnerable that I don't recognize I'm being sold something. I don't need to be sold, I want to buy riverfront property. Doesn't everyone?
We drive away back to Dakota, passing a clutch of paunchy dad golfers, but not without enduring a overlong conversation in the parking lot by the man and his wife who expected to ride their bikes across the dam, but discovered that there was construction going on. This is the same construction that evidently flummoxed Siri. I am somewhat embarrassed to say that I would have rather Siri given me the one sentence instead to the chummy conversation homeboy tried to seduce me into about the lovely bikepath. It was past lunchtime and I was getting hungry.
When I first started readjusting my life to working from home, I settled into a pattern which is anti-socially evident to this day. Every expedition away from home is weighted with specific purpose. I change my clothes, I plan my route and I get it done, NYC style. I don't have time for idle conversation or introductions to small town friends, neighbors and acquaintances. Still I ran the gauntlet of my mother's retirement home and met a variety of geezers one of whom gave Moms a teary 2 minute hug. It wasn't an embarrassment, it was a delay. I wanted to see the river, dammit. I realized this change in myself too late to make up for my big city attitude, but tomorrow is my last day here and I've got less that 36 hours to be out in these parts. I've already Zillowed the possibilities. I've already seen the three houses and yards on our block of Montana Avenue. I'm running out of aimless time.
I love the idea of the free and open spaces, but I lack the experience of being out in it. I don't have the gear to make something happen out there. Neither pick, shovel, mudbox, shotgun, fishing pole or gutting knife. Nephew is cleaning out the mold on the north house, preparing it for new drywall. I'm taking donations in the form of new paid subscriptions from essays of this sort. Some good I am. I still want it. I still want my own special proximity to woods and waters. I still expect the Spousal Unit will give me a massive eye roll and we'll settle back into our routine. The difference now is that I have this new vocabulary of a place that is not Texas or Georgia. It's rural, but it's not backcountry. It's modern and balanced and rightsized. It's not overflowing with subdivision and new mall towns. It's not overrun.
My mother says that we should all live to be 120 years old if the rapture doesn't come first. She just showed me, at the age of 88 that she can raise herself to standing from sitting on the floor without using her hands. In her leopard pajamas. What a life. One more episode to come. I will be able to download the photos from my real camera soon.
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