Thursday, February 7, 2013


Four days before I arrived, it was forty below. While I was there, it was between freezing and the upper forties, generally sunny and with no precipitation. Tomorrow night, a blizzard is anticipated across much of where I was.

I think I planned that pretty well.


Bless your little heart. Why do you hate me? You are the Mos Eisley of our time. 

This was entertaining to watch for the first hour, then it got kinda old. 
Also, you people with your brobdingnagian rolling suitcases and your smartphones and utter absence of spatial, directional or situational awareness? I hate you all, with the fiery rage of ten-thousand suns.

Plus: Carry-on luggage, and it's consequences, is a classic exercise in the Tragedy of the Commons. 

Heading east...

I turned back east this morning, giving back the little bit of time I eked out on my outbound trip. I had hoped to go my entire stay without any backtracking, seeing new things every day. But today dawned under a low, grey sky. There was some fog, and a mention of the possibility of some freezing precipitation of one kind or another to the north and east, so I decided to avoid tempting fate and cut a more conservative course.

I am glad I did. I retraced some steps, at least for the first hour or so on the road. But this time I was traveling through a fogscape of ghost forests and vanishing hillsides. 

The fog froze onto the trees and grasses, rendering them into pure white sculpture, delicate in every detail. It was the same, but different.

Given the chance, I took a different transect. But the ever-varying rolling hills and fencerows and ruins gradually flattened out into mile after mile of unrelenting sameness, and much to my surprise, when given the chance to make a dash for the interstate, I took it gladly. The vastness of this place has worn me, finally. The weirdness of time playing games with me, the broken sleep and nagging frustration combine to dull my sense of wonder and make me just want to get home again.

I want to embrace this place, but it just escapes me. I am an easterner at heart, a Virginia boy, born and raised.

More about 'starch' et al

I had a conversation with a couple of health-care professionals about the public-health issues they face. Not surprisingly, poverty related "lifestyle" diseases were number one—hypertension, diabetes, obesity, alcoholism, drug abuse and malnutrition among the first that came to mind. " A meal is chips and a soda."

It surprised me a little bit. "Nobody gardens?" It seems to me that when you're poor, but have a little patch of land, a garden is a no-brainer. Yet, when I thought about it, I hadn't seen a single garden at any of the farmhouses or ranch houses I had passed in four days. (Recognizing that the plural of anecdote is not 'data', and this just might be a sampling error on my part, but still...)

"Most people don't garden here. I know a few folks who have a little garden patch out in their cornfield, where it gets irrigated by the center-pivots. But most folks just don't bother."

They laughed. "You order a vegetable plate here? Corn-on-the-cob, mashed potatoes and macaroni and cheese. If you get green beans, they're swimming in Velveeta." 

It made me kinda sad. The Indians of the southwest knew about the 'Three Sisters' —growing corn, beans and squash together to increase both the yield of the earth and the nutritional potential of the food. Now the southwest is not the great grasslands, and maybe the growing season is too short or the rain too sparse or the weather to brutal. But the passivity of a people eating themselves into an early grave—given a simple alternative readily at hand—bespeaks an indescribably sad worldview.

If you want to foster self-reliance and independence, learning to feed yourself is a pretty good place to start.

Home of Big Science? Here?

I was a little surprised to remember that South Dakota is where the first solar neutrinos were detected, in the old Homestake mine in Lead.

The detector was basically a huge container of dry cleaning fluid buried nearly a mile underground in an abandoned gold mine. The thick shield of rock was intended to prevent cosmic rays from producing false positives. But the weakly interactive neutrinos would pass unimpeded through the same mass, and theoretically cleave a chlorine atom from the perchloroethylene into a radioactive argon isotope.

It worked. It produced the first concrete evidence of the existence of the long theorized neutrino, a nearly massless particle that travels at the speed of light with virtually no interaction with the matter is passes through. Pretty cool. Of course, it's easy to overlook something when it's taking place a mile beneath the earth.

Another astronomical observation

The flipside of the extended twilight phenomenon is that the sun seems to rise here about a half an hour later than it does at home, and it takes it's sweet time doing it. It starts getting light at the usual time, but doesn't get bright for a loooong time. That's harder to get used to than dancing across time zones.

Continental Breakfast

= "Anything you want, as long as it's starch."

...Well, what do they eat for breakfast on your Continent, Mr. Wiseguy?? HMMM?


A wintry mix in Chicago this morning...absolutely wonderful.

What are the chances???

I drive an hour to the airport from home, fly about four and a half hours total, drive—all told—about 350 miles to a place that is quite literally an easy hour away from anywhere, to walk in on two people having a conversation about the Target (Tar-ZHAY) and BestBuy in Pentagon City. Yep, no kidding.

When you grow up in the Washington area, it is axiomatic that 'no one is from here' and it is a region made up of transients. When you are asked where you are from, you generally say "DC" instead of Arlington or Falls Church or Bethesda or PG or whatever. But the corollary is that everywhere you go, you find people who have either lived in the DC area or have family in the area.

Mind-blowing way to start a conversation, that's fer sher.

Postscript: I almost forgot...a fan of the Frost Diner, as well. 

Wednesday, February 6, 2013


  • The other High School's team? The Braves.
  • The dogs? Yep.
  • While the deer you see are a different variety than the White-tailed deer of the east, and the birds are distinctly different, dead skunks appear to be universal.
  • This is just funny:
"Will you be needing any cash back today, Mr. Orwell?"
  • Note to tavernkeepers: Washing the filth off the sidewalk in front of your establishment by heaving a bucket of soapy water at it may not be the most effective strategy in, say, February, in say, South Dakota. It simply memorializes the filth like so many flies in frothy amber until the spring thaw.
  • 'Ranch'  'Farm'
  • The view from my motel room: 
Yep. That is a dumptruck. Right there.

    Photos...of stuff

    Those tracks there? The Oregon Trail. 

    Decisions, decisions...oh, wait...*

    Range horses, Lyman County
    Lower Brule, foreground; Fort Thompson beyond the river.
    Hand-painted sign on U.S. 14 west of Pierre
    BIA Highway 5, Lower Brule, looking across the Missouri River/Lake Oahe towards Fort Thompson.
    Approaching Eagle Butte on S.R 63
    The scariest thing about these monstrous hay trucks is seeing all the ejected hay bales along the roadside. A round bale  can weight between 1,000 and 1,400 lbs, so at 65 mph, that's gonna hurt. 
    Bridge across the Missouri River/Lake Oahe above Pierre. Interestingly, the body of water in all these pictures is always the Missouri/Lake Oahe. It's a big dammed river.

    *Sturgis, South Dakota is the site of a world-famous, legendary gathering of bikers every August for a week of loud noise, drunken debauchery, showing off to other like-minded individuals and generally displaying all those behaviors that make people hate motorcyclists, and with good reason. It is an opportunity for accountants, dentists and middle-management to play in a 'Wild-Ones' themed playground. It is like Mardi Gras without the religious overtones, the haj with pork and beer. Some bikers wouldn't miss it, many motorcyclists wouldn't be caught dead within five hundred miles of it. Your correspondent is firmly in the latter category. Also, the distinction between 'bikers' and 'motorcyclists' is not to be taken lightly. 

    Don't worry—the bagels were O-K!

    I drove a little over ninety miles this morning to have this meeting. I arrive carrying a cake box of one dozen freshly-baked assorted bagels in my right hand; on my back is my trusty red daypack, containing among other things my (1) laptop (2) digital SLR camera (3) glasses and (4) mess of other things.

    Entrance #1 appears to be locked. This is not a problem, I will just walk around to Entrance #2. Which also appears to be locked.

    I can see no one inside.

    I continue around the building towards Entrance #3, and it is just about at this point when BOTH OF MY FEET shoot straight out from under me, because apparently what I took for 'water' on the wheelchair apron was in fact not 'water' but 'ice.'

    There are few times in life when one can be genuinely (somewhat) grateful for having a fat ass. This was one of those times. I landed hard, with an audible 'thud' (I heard my impact echo off the concrete wall of the building) but fortunately the daypack helped cushion the fall. (Remember the laptop, camera, et al?)

    I sat there in the muddy melt for a moment, feeling the cold and damp soaking into the seat of my pants, as well as the big stupid pain asserting itself. My right hand was strangely pinned beneath the box of bagels, unwilling to give them up easily. The cakebox was sprung in that way that cakeboxes are wont to spring, yet not a single bagel got so much as a spot of dirt or a drop of water on it.

    Once I caught my breath, gathered my thoughts and determined nothing physical was irreparably damaged, I slowly and deliberately released an unfettered torrent of bilious invective and profanity into the robin's-egg-blue South Dakota sky. Then I gathered myself up, brushed off the seat of my pants, refolded the cakebox of bagels into proper order, and began walking again towards Entrance #3.

    At this point, a petite woman rushes out with great purpose and urgency to see if I am okay. The last syllables of my tirade had mercifully faded as she made her approach, and she very kindly and solicitously escorted me into the facility and looked after me until I convinced her I was not mortally wounded. (turns out Entrance #3 was also locked). I offered her a bagel.

    If one is going to slip on an icy sidewalk, it is wise to do so on the premises of a hospital or health-care facility. It is optional to do it in full view of a conference room full of bored senior staff who are looking for a humorous and entertaining diversion in the middle of a long and tedious presentation. 

    Did you know that the Federal Government has an online, web-based incident reporting form to be used in just such instances? Well, not surprisingly, they do. And I have completed it.

    In the final analysis, no bagels were harmed, the laptop, camera and everything else in the daypack were fine. The folks I went to meet with did not witness my hijinks; those folks who did witness them know a grand entrance when they see one. They will remember my visit long after the @#$%^& pain in my ass (and my humiliation) have faded.

    PS: My Sioux name is now "Ass-Walker Who Brings Goodies"

    PPS: I realize I should have titled this "So Sioux Me."

    PPPS: Maybe file this under "Sioux Falls?" "Ow! My Butte!"

    The Birds

    I mentioned birds. Let me elaborate a bit.

    Today I saw, among other things, several examples of both Golden (juvenile and adult) and Bald eagles. I saw numerous lesser raptors I was unable to identify. 



    I saw numerous flocks of pheasants and grouse, both on the ground and in flight; and a cloud of Canada Geese which behaved exactly as the cloud of starlings we see back east—morphing and shifting and forming and reforming, coalescing and diffusing and moving like a swarm of gnats.

    The simple density of wildfowl in this region is unlike anything I have ever seen in the east, and in particular the flock of geese may have been the largest mass of living things I have ever seen in the air. It was breathtaking.

    The Houses We Build

    In places like this, the houses we build are few and far between. You tend to notice them, and pay great attention to them, as there is precious little else of detail to observe. So there are houses of breathtaking beauty sited amid astonishing landscapes; and for each of these, there are handfuls of squalid homes scattered in landscapes of soul-crushing despair.

    Yet one thing all these houses have in common is that they make no accommodation for this wide open and unconstrained country. They are the exact same style of houses that were built back east a hundred-and-fifty or ten years ago. They are built upon the earth and jut their story or two straight up to the sky, gables and cornices and rooflines just as they were made wherever their builders hailed from. Yet there are no sheltering woods and forests to stall the brutal winds and biting cold here, little to slow the blowing snows and summer storms. These houses, splendid and squalid both, are built fully exposed to the elements on all four sides and offer little to blunt the elemental forces that abound.

    I heat with wood, mostly. I know how much wood it takes to heat my house, and my house was built with the elements and frugality in mind. On a cold day with bright sun, wood will keep it warm; on a mild grey day, wood may fall short. And my house, nestled in the earth and sheltered by trees, never feels the brunt of the elements such as they are in Virginia.

    I can pick up a stone, throw it in any direction, and hit a tree that I need felled. With a day's work, I could cut enough good firewood to heat my house for a month or so, weather depending. Yet in these places, I couldn't find enough standing wood within a day's walk to warm my frugal house; what does a poor man do here to heat their home, standing in the gale like a rude-carved toy on the ocean?

    I see these isolated little places, and cannot imagine what winter must bring...what balance of time spent, money squandered, shivering misery or absolute knife-edged suffering. I noted one shack in passing with a small woodpile which appeared to be old telephone poles, cut and stacked.

    Some of the natives built earth-sheltered lodges to thwart the winters, yet few examples of such design are apparent on the grasslands today, native or otherwise. And the hillocks pose their own issues. Build in the valleys, and accept the cold air pooling about you, the sun rising late and disappearing early, and the risk of floods—or build on the ridges where the warm sun shines and the warm breezes are found, along with the blizzards and the lightning?

    Maybe we haven't occupied this land long enough for the old habits to die and the new lesson to be learned? Or maybe it just doesn't matter as much to those who have chosen to call this place home?

    I don't know.

    Tuesday, February 5, 2013

    At a Great Remove

    It occurred to me at some point that I have never—at any point in my life—been so physically distant from anything remotely familiar to me.

    I have been alone, even isolated, in familiar places. I have traveled to remote places in other countries, but always with those close to me. It is an odd, disconnected feeling to be on my own, so far from home, in a place that is so spare, remote and in its own way removed from the world.

    Flying into this place strips it of a frame of reference that driving would have provided. Fortunately, the GPS crapped out on me midway to nowhere today, and I am having the opportunity to get lost in the analog way. That is helping me to rediscover a sense of place; tomorrow I will rediscover my awesome map reading skills as I venture yet further north, further west, and into yet another timezone.

    Looking forward to it.

    Random Observations

    Tumbleweeds, tumbling.
    • The High School's team is "The Chieftains." They do not, apparently, play Irish music, just football.
    • There are tumbleweeds. Real, live, tumbleweeds, stuck up along barbed-wire fences. They are actually very pretty and not menacing, "The Outer Limits" notwithstanding. 
    • A casino is a great place to get a decent lunch for an unbelievable price. Bowl of home-made soup, sandwich, drink and good salad bar—$5.
    • Casino=Any place with a slot machine/video poker.
    • Is there any place on the Las Vegas strip where you can get live bait, 24/7? And I don't mean sushi...I mean minnows or shiners. 
    • Defying all known laws of man and the universe, the Golden Buffalo manages to serve both Coke and Pepsi products. I was so tempted to order both just to see what would happen, but then I remembered that I hate coke products and I know what would have happened. 
    • There are deer, only they are mule deer (I believe) which are different than the eastern deer—surlier and scruffier looking. 
    • A mule deer. Outstanding in his field
    • The hotels/motels in the area have rules posted about not cleaning fish in rooms, not keeping bait in rooms (minnows, I guess) and offer freezers for your game. Not a mint on a pillow to be found.
    • Where in our neck-of-the-woods you would see quads and ATVs, here you see snowmobiles. Plus quads and ATVs. 
    • Roll up to a four-way at my destination. On each of the four roads, there are multiple stray dogs lolling about in/on/near the roadway. Not a pack; simply a number of individual dogs, each in their own space, doing their own thing. My brain recoils. 
    • There are buffalo. Or bison, I'm not sure which; I took lots of pictures of them while they milled around just on the other side of the fence across the road. 
    • Then I saw a sign that said in big, bold letters " HALF A MILE AHEAD!" Well, that sounded good to me, and was pointed in the direction I was already going, and sure enough, there was something a half a mile ahead. The Buffalo Interpretive Center. So I stopped at the interpretive center because I saw another car there. But then I noticed there was like a foot of unshoveled snow on all the walkways to the center, and then I took a good look at the other car, and noticed how the snow in the parking lot  had been plowed in front of its wheels and there were no tracks through the snow, so who knows how long it had been parked there....bottom line, it was called the "Buffalo Interpretive Center," not the "Bison Interpretive Center," but then calling something a buffalo wing doesn't make it not chicken, right? Maybe by the time I leave I'll know which they are.
    • There is no place I would rather not ride a motorcycle. Too open, too exposed, too many abrupt drop offs, too many hypnotic roads for the few stretches of twisty. 
    • This "timezone" stuff is whack. Tomorrow I'll try another one.
    • Pheasants. I almost ran over a bunch of them, which is hard to do because as I may have pointed out, you have to be deliberately trying to not be paying attention to have a motor vehicle sneak up on you here. Apparently killing birds is a big business out here (the camouflage-and-scatter-gun kind, not the motor-vehicular kind), what with all the lakes and rivers and the Central Flyway for migratory waterfowl and what-not. Anyway, besides all the money to be made helping tourists murder Canada Geese (my goodness, people pay to do that? When you can just walk around any office park or golf course in Northern Virginia with a tennis racket?) apparently pheasants and/or grouses are also all the rage. Besides the ones I nearly squashed, there were another—what's the official term for a large quantity of pheasant/grouse?—metric shit-ton of them working their way through the adjacent cornfield. And periodically, a group of several pheas-ouses would take flight and advance a few-score yards over the corn stubble, then another few would advance past them, and eventually I realized they were simply playing checkers, jumping one another to the finish line. 

    • The distance from Sioux Falls to Pierre is the same as the distance from Reston to Roanoke, plus or minus a mile.
    • I cannot imagine what would make someone decide this was a great place to settle. The Sioux moved into this area only after the Europeans crowded them out of the southeast (first) then the forests of the upper midwest (later). Various waves of migrants moved through looking for/running from various things. But when you stand on a hilltop in the grasslands and realize there is nothing between you and the wrath of an angry, hostile universe except a few stalks of big bluestem and some scrub, you might best think about moving on. 
    • There are no decent places to stay because the Legislature is in session. Lockup your daughters children everything.

    It's not so bad

    Tuesday dawned sunny, clear and warm, with abundant melting. The temperature was about 35 deg., or 75 degrees warmer than it was about a week ago*.
    South Pierre Street, Pierre early on a February morning.
    The mind boggles, because 35 is still not what one would call warm.

    *Nerds: That's about a 42 deg. C delta, with the current temperature being about 2 degrees C. And that low point? It's minus either scale.

    On The Road

    Southeastern South Dakota is very similar in aspect to southeastern Pennsylvania, were you to tour southeastern Pennsylvania as a mouse from a children's book who somehow has a magical mouse-sized car in which it can drive about. The sights are very similar—farms, livestock, croplands, fence rows, barns and silos—but the scale and distances between things are so different as to be hard for an easterner to fathom.

    However, once you begin the abrupt and precipitous descent to the crossing of the Missouri (as though the east half of the state has stored up all its elevation change for just this moment) and climb back up the western side, you are in a different world, a terra incognito to the eastern eye and mind. It is a vast and...lumpy...landscape, undulating off to the far horizons with scant obvious change in net elevation, but comprising a tortured terrane of rolling hills divided by other rolling hills without obvious pattern or plan. It is an ancient, worn landscape, similar to its more tortured and fractal cousins to the west, the Badlands, yet not so extreme in the extent of its abuse at the hands of the elements.

    The hills clearly reveal their origins in thousands upon thousands of long horizontal bands of sediments, stretching from one hillside to another and on and on as far as the eye can trace their exposed sides. The colors of the bands run a rich gamut from light grey to grey and dark grey. For whatever reasons, this rock erodes into enough of a soil for rich grasslands to thrive and prosper. It was the dying glaciers that milled and carved this manic earthscape in their last passing, and the winds and spare rains continue that work unabated today.

    This landscape is reminiscent of others where the places are far and the faces are few. Remote, wind-swept, home to bitter cold and harsh weather, sparsely populated by men, less sparsely populated by those creatures which can eke out a living from the coarse shrubs and tough grasses that will grow in such land. Newfoundland; the Irish islands; the loved and unloving places of the world share a common fearful beauty.

    The spaces are just so vast. You see a landmark a long distance and a long time away; you drive and you drive and you drive, and then you think to yourself, "Is that still the same? Haven't I passed that yet?" And sometimes you're just not sure, because honestly, a lot of it looks very much alike. You pull over time and again, because what is out there is so astonishing to see, and there is never a vehicle behind you. And you see a glint of light off a windshield far away, and it makes you happy to see someone else on the road with you, and you can watch their progress as you close on one another over rolling hills, and you realize that the music on the radio has undergone several iterations since you first noticed this car, so far away, and you are listening to classical music so several iterations really means something, and it is the only music that comes in reliably out in this vast space, and is the only music appropriate for this vast space and in the time it takes you to lift two fingers off the steering wheel in salute they are gone and in the rear view mirror and the momentary sense you have is that you will never see that dear friend again and you feel a pang of sorrow so genuine that it takes your breath away, and now the road ahead and the road behind is completely empty and you can look to the far horizon ahead of you and the far horizon behind you and not see another soul on the face of the earth and suddenly you feel like this road is wrong and there is some reason that no one else is here and what do they know that you don't know, and then you see that far-off glint and realize that you are not alone, people are just spread thin out here. So the road continues to spin beneath you and the hillocks pass by outside the window, and you are just a stationary driver while the world rolls by. The main character in your very own grasslands anime.

    "And you run and you run to catch up with the sun, but it's sinking..." *

    Driving a steady 77 miles an hour, directly west, along approximately 45 degrees north latitude, late in the day, in early February is an interesting experience ( is having your GPS tell you to 'turn left, then continue 183 miles...').

    It takes literally several hours of driving to realize that the sun—while setting—is doing it extremely slowly because you are actually keeping up with it, more or less. You are tangibly experiencing the curvature of the earth, retarding the apparent rate at which the sun approaches the horizon at a very acute angle.

    This long, delicately drawn out process was ethereal and almost hallucinatory. Compounding the strangeness was a complex weather pattern that seemed to balance diminishing daylight with diminishing cloud cover, revealing ever more patches of luminous sky. This weird, constant readjusting of light and dark took place over my entire traverse of I-90.

    By the time I turned north into the Ft. Pierre grasslands, the sun's presence was reduced to a single patch of crimson at the horizon. But like some companion that did not wish to be dismissed so easily after our shared journey together, it stepped up the show to a new level, seemingly for my benefit alone.

    Instead of slipping below the horizon to be dimmed and snuffed for the day, the crimson began slowly expanding and spreading along the sky. The remnants of the sun peeked from beneath the bottom edge of a wide band of snow clouds, igniting the blowing streamers of virga that drifted from the cloud bottoms. Now, from behind the grey and white rolling hills, bands and streamers of fiery reds and crimsons and magenta seemed to leap to the sky, as though the very grasses were ablaze; and as though to compound the illusion, as I stopped to watch, the fiery band spread in both directions along the distant hilltops. I was as much like distant fires as anything I have ever seen, blowing on the frozen winds along the prairies.
    And then it was gone.

    *If ever there was a perfect synchrony of music and event, "Time" was one of the few songs to come in clearly on the radio while this experience of chasing the sun WAS OCCURRING. The universe has a sense of humor, I think.

    Did You Know...

    ...that is snows in February?

    And when it does, the airplanes all get a sad. And very, very many airplanes live in Chicago, so when the airplanes in Chicago get a sad, so do lots of other airplanes in other places that aren't Chicago. So pretty soon, no @#$%^& airplanes anywhere are going anyplace, because they're all sad from the snow in Chicago, which only gets measurable snow six months out of the year, including an average of 10" in January and 8+ inches in February. SO GET IT TOGETHER CHICAGO!!