Tuesday, February 5, 2013

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.

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