Thursday, January 13, 2005

You might live in South Dakota

I remember one day in June, Rapid City, South Dakota. All week, the heat had been fierce, with temperatures passing 100 degrees. We planned to go out to hear a talk at Crazy Horse Monument, in the Black Hills, and take a picnic with us. But when we awoke, the streets were thick with snow and the temperature had plummeted. No one batted an eyelid, even though we sat huddled in quilted coats on cold metal chairs outside in the snow, watching the speaker's breath curl away from the podium towards Crazy Horse's rock nostril. A couple of days later, the heatwave returned and still no one thought it extraordinary. They commented on it for a few minutes, then resumed their work.

Although I was in South Dakota for just one year, I recognise each and every line of this satire on the Plains state by comedian Jeff Foxworthy - sent to me by my wonderful friend Beth, a Dakotan. He writes:

If you consider it a sport to gather your food by drilling through 18 inches of ice and sitting there all day hoping that the food will swim by, you might live in South Dakota.

If you're proud that your region makes the national news 96 nights each year because Milbank is the coldest spot in the nation, you might live in South Dakota.

If your local Dairy Queen is closed from November through March, you might live in South Dakota.

If you instinctively walk like a penguin for five months out of the year, you might live in South Dakota.

If someone in a store offers you assistance, and they don't work there, you might live in South Dakota.

If your dad's suntan stops at a line curving around the middle of his forehead, you might live in South Dakota.

If you have worn shorts and a parka at the same time, you might live in South Dakota.

If your town has an equal number of bars and churches, you might live in South Dakota.

If you have had a lengthy telephone conversation with someone who dialed a wrong number, you might live in South Dakota.

You know you are a true South Dakotan when:

  • 'Vacation' means going east or west on I-90 for the weekend.
  • You measure distance in hours.
  • You know several people who have hit a deer more than once.
  • You often switch from 'heat' to 'A/C' in the same day and back again.
  • You can drive 65 mph through 2 feet of snow during a raging blizzard, without flinching.
  • You see people wearing camouflage at social events (including weddings).
  • You install security lights on your house and garage and leave both unlocked.
  • You carry jumper cables in your car and your girlfriend knows how to use them.
  • You design your kid's Halloween costume to fit over a snowsuit.
  • Driving is better in the winter because the potholes are filled with snow.
  • You know all 4 seasons: almost winter, winter, still winter and road construction.
  • Your idea of creative landscaping is a statue of a deer next to your blue spruce.
  • You were unaware that there is a legal drinking age.
  • Down South to you means Nebraska.
  • A brat is something you eat.
  • Your neighbor throws a party to celebrate his new pole shed.
  • You go out to a tail gate party every Friday.
  • Your 4th of July picnic was moved indoors due to frost.
  • You have more miles on your snow blower than your car.
  • You find 0 degrees 'a little chilly'.

Photos: I took the first photo in the South Dakota Badlands, on the cusp of the Black Hills. The second is of a road on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where I did much of my research on Lakota Sioux environmentalism.

I fell in love with western South Dakota for many reasons. One of them is the landscape that varies so dramatically within just a few miles: the pine-scented forests and granite mountains of the Black Hills; the solemn austerity of the Badlands, which, with the sun, pass through every colour from rose pink through blazing orange; and the undulating prairies that truly are oceanic.

I must admit, I was a little wary of going to the Dakotas. When I was in line at the American Embassy in London getting my visa several Americans in the queue were completely baffled as to why I would go to that "godforsaken" state, making me anxious about going to the "back of beyond". And yet once there, besides the generic "cowboys and Indians" population (many tribal elders used to joke that in meeting me they had finally met a "real Indian" at last) I found a sizeable artistic community of painters, poets and healers. Western South Dakota was also filled with city migrants from Chicago, New York City, Denver and San Francisco.

By the way, I met my first real cowboys in South Dakota - another reason I fell in love with the place. Beth, I change my mind - let's go back to South Dakota this year!

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