Saturday, June 27, 2009

South Dakota, Part One - Pine Ridge, Wounded Knee, Rapid City, Chamberlain, Kyle, Red Cloud Indian School

"But Dean’s intelligence was every bit as formal and shining and complete, without the tedious intellectualness. And his ‘criminality’ was not something that sulked and sneered; it was a wild yea-saying overburst of American joy; it was Western, the west wind, and ode from the Plains, something new, long prophesied, long a-coming …” (7).

“… I thought of all my friends from one end of the country to the other and how they were really all in the same vast backyard doing something so frantic and rushing-about. And for the first time in my life, the following afternoon, I went into the West” (11).

“He was out to get back everything he’d lost; there was no end to his loss; this thing would drag on forever” (63).

“The one thing that we yearn for in our living days, that makes us sight and groan and undergo sweet nauseas of all kinds, is the remembrance of some lost bliss that was probably experienced in the womb and can only be reproduced (though we hate to admit it) in death. But who wants to die?” (115).

(The monument directly above is Chief Big Foot's grave, Wounded Knee)

“Whitside told Big Foot that he had orders to take him to a cavalry camp on Wounded Knee Creek. The Minneconjou chief replied that he was going in that direction; he was taking his people to Pine Ridge for safety” (440) Dee Brown, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee

"Twilight was falling when the column crawled over the last rise in the land and began descending the slope toward Chankpe Opi Wakpala, the creek called Wounded Knee. The wintry dusk and the tiny crystals of ice dancing in the dying light added a supernatural quality to the somber landscape. Somewhere along this frozen stream the heart of Crazy Horse lay in a secret place, and the Ghost Dancers believed that his disembodied spirit was waiting impatiently for the new earth that would surely come with the first green grass of spring." (440-41) Dee Brown, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee

“It made me think that everything was about to arrive—the moment when you know all and everything is decided forever” (119).

“But why think about that when all the golden land’s ahead of you and all kinds of unforeseen events wait lurking to surprise you and make you glad you’re alive to see?” (126).

“What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing?—it’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-by. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies” (146).

“It was sad to see his tall figure receding in the dark as we drove away, just like the other figures in New York and New Orleans: they stand uncertainly underneath immense skies, and everything about them is drowned. Where go? what do? what for?—sleep. But this foolish gang was bending onward” (155).

“‘… the point being that we know what IT is and we know TIME and we know that everything is really FINE’” (197).

“I could feel the road some twenty inches beneath me, unfurling and flying and hissing at incredible speeds across the groaning continent with that mad Ahab at the wheel. When I closed my eyes all I could see was the road unwinding into me. When I opened them I saw flashing shadows of trees vibrating on the floor of the car. There was no escaping it. I resigned myself to all.” (222)

(Drove right into this storm, which wasn't as bad as it looks.)

“'What’s your road, man?—holyboy road, madman road, rainbow road, guppy road, any road. It’s an anywhere road for anybody anyhow. Where body how?’” (239)

“Now, Sal, we’re leaving everything behind us and entering a new and unknown phase of things. All the years and troubles and kicks—and now this! So that we can safely think of nothing else and just go on ahead with our faces stuck out like this, you see, and understanding the world as, really and genuinely speaking, other Americans haven’t done before us they were here, weren’t they?” (264).

“The whole mad swirl of everything that was to come began then; it would mix up all my friends and all I had left of my family in the big dust cloud over the American Night.” (5)

It was a long straight road through dry fields as far as a person could see. You’d think the sky didn’t have any air in it, and the earth was made of paper. Rather than moving, we were just getting smaller and smaller. (49) Denis Johnson, “Dundun,” Jesus’ Son

“… under a sky as blue and brainless as the love of God…” (105). Denis Johnson, “The Other Man,” Jesus’ Son

(Crazy Horse Memorial, along with the bluest skies I've ever seen. Somewhere in the Plains and Black Hills, South Dakota)

(She's a wolf. I took this when I visited a Lakota Medicine Man one day, somewhere out in the middle of the Pine Ridge Reservation.)

(Ghost town on the edge of the badlands--the only real ghost town I've been to--it's not some commercialized tourist trap, as you can plainly see. The end building used to be a hostel, but those days are passed).

(It was over a hundred degrees that day. I wish I would have taken this before I did that Pine Ridge charity drive in high school--it's a lot harder to be apathetic when your fellow humans spend their lives like this, then end them in ditches from malnourishment, or die from exposure because the Bureau of Indian Affairs decided to condemn their FEMA shelters.)

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

South Dakota was by far the most interesting and enlightening experience I’ve had so far on this trip. I was coming from the south (up through Nebraska), so fresh from the diverse beauty of sand hills, ranches, and plains dotted with cattle, rolls of hay, and old wooden fences I was struck with the absolute desolation as I crossed a border town that fit the very definition of “ghost town,” yet was populated. There must have been about fifty Native Americans laying around abandoned storefronts, under the shade of trees, and pretty much anywhere out of reach from the oppressive sun of the plains.

I then headed east to Pine Ridge, which was equally depressing and looked exactly as I had seen it five years ago. Then it was Wounded Knee, stained with history and sparsely populated with Native American vendors selling homemade items like necklaces, dream catchers, and drums (drums representing the heartbeat of the Lakota nation). Thankfully this time there was no bus full of Christian missionary kids running around the cemetery, leaving behind candy bar wrappers and other trash. Likewise, I didn’t notice any plastic bottle caps placed disrespectfully on the graves; where things like rocks and flowers were placed on memorials, I personally witnessed some bastards who, last time I was there, paid their “respects” by arranging garbage on the stone of Chief Big Foot.

I spent a few hours on the reservation, and dragged it with me when I left. Not an easy day. I arrived in Rapid City later that night, having more reasons to feel weary than I’ve had since Indiana. Fortunately, when I arrived at the place of my host Chris, there were five other guests that night; a girl and her uncle from Germany, a biker (road bike racing) from Florida, and two guys from Seattle. We spent the evening together wandering around downtown Rapid, checking out the shops, art scene, and concert that was being held that night in a street. This was the first night that I’ve had an actual place to stay since I left Pennsylvania, and I felt energized from the recent release from the slight but steady monotony of driving, as well as from the impending rest I was going to get. I had traveled 2,253 miles in four days, and this was the first night that I had an actual, arranged place to stay. I felt rejuvenated, and I hadn’t even relaxed yet; one good night like this would be enough to get me to the pacific coast.

With my host Chris’s enthusiastic permission, I decided to stay for a few days and experience Rapid, the first city I’ve really come to that I had spent more than six hours in. A day digging the western feel of the place, its people, the awesome climate (described as a “mountain climate” according to an acquaintance I made in a coffee shop), and its close proximity to the ominous, enigmatic Black Hills was the kind of engagement with the land I so sorely needed after passing most of it by at seventy-to-eighty miles an hour (see Wendell Berry’s essay “An Entrance to the Woods” ).

A day of that got me ready to travel again, only this time east, and over the comparatively insignificant distance of two hundred miles. Within two and a half hours I was pulling up to a farmhouse on the edge of the Missouri, under a red blanket of dusk and through the slight invisible fog of river-born humidity. I talked for a few hours with a person who held the extreme opposite of my views on practically every aspect I can imagine, save travel. So we agreed on travel, and two hitchhikers from Minnesota who were also staying there that night agreed upon its sublimity.

The next day I stopped by Chamberlain, a place I wouldn’t have gone had I not been curious about a string of coincidences that have been set in motion months ago. I had been looking for a Medicine Man, asking around the reservations and anyone I thought who might know one. While in Chamberlain, I asked somebody who worked with Saint Joseph’s Indian School if he knew of any, and he said he knows lots of people who call themselves medicine men, but only one true Medicine Man—the only thing is he lives two hundred miles away. I got his number, called him, and he agreed to meet with me later that afternoon at his home tucked away on the Pine Ridge Reservation. He told me to bring some tobacco so that we can sit out by a tree, smoke a pipe, and talk.

So the meeting with the Medicine Man was the only real experience I’ve had thus far on my trip; I’ve found everything to be what I expected it to be, and that is some stylized, commercialized vision of the west as some tourist trap, much like the Wild Bill shows held a century ago. My meeting with him lasted for a few hours, and it wasn’t at all like I anticipated a meeting with a Medicine Man to be for the first hour (save for the fact that he had a wolf for a pet and lived at the foot of a burial mound), but as we kept talking he became more and more enlightening and everything he said grew in importance. I won’t go into the details of our conversation, but by the end of it he gave me his blessing in Lakota and offered for me to come back before the summer’s over so that he can assist me in a vision quest once his sweat lodge is built—the details of which are complicated and personal. He told me what I’m doing now is a vision quest.

That was the most important experience I’ve had thus far, and the only thing that’s proven to be authentic. What’s more, it furthered my growing realization—a realization everyone innately has but maybe doesn’t exceed the rank of ‘suspicion’ in some—that all preconceived notions of people, places, e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g, are absolutely meaningless in the face of genuine experience.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Nebraska - Omaha, Grand Island, Shelton, Kearney, Gothenburg, North Platte, Ogallala

"Then Omaha, and, by God, the first cowboy I saw, walking along the bleak walls of the wholesale meat warehouses in a ten-gallon hat and Texas boots, looked like any beat character of the brickwall dawns of the East except for the getup. We got off the bus and walked clear up the hill, the long hill formed over the millenniums by the mighty Missouri, alongside of which Omaha is built, and got out to the country and stuck our thumbs out.” (16)

“All the men were driving home from work, wearing railroad hats, baseball hats, all kinds of hats, just like after work in any town anywhere. One of them gave me a ride up the hill and left me at a lonely crossroads on the edge of the prairie. It was beautiful there” (12).

“I was in another big high cab, all set to go hundreds of miles across the night, and was I happy! And the new truckdriver was as crazy as the other and yelled just as much, and all I had to do was lean back and roll on. Now I could see Denver looming ahead of me like the Promised Land, way out there beneath the stars, across the prairie of Iowa and the plains of Nebraska, and I could see the greater vision of San Francisco beyond, like jewels in the night.” (13)

(not taken at night, but this does illustrate the plains of Nebraska)

“Cowboy had two cars with him that he was driving back to Montana. His wife was at Grand Island …” (16).

(I kind of cheated on this one and didn't take pictures of the town itself, but I was in a rush to get to Rapid City.)

“So we drove a hundred miles across Nebraska, following the winding Platte with its verdant fields” (16).

“Then an old man who said nothing—and God knows why he picked us up—took us to Shelton. Here Eddie stood forlornly in the road in front of a staring bunch of short, squat Omaha Indians who had nowhere to go and nothing to do. Across the road was the railroad track and the watertank saying SHELTON. ‘Damn me,’ said Eddie with amazement, ‘I’ve been in this town before. It was years ago, during the war, at night, late at night when everybody was sleeping. I went out on the platform to smoke, and there we was in the middle of nowhere and black as hell, and I look up and see that name Shelton written on the watertank. Bound for the stayed a few minuts, stoking up or something, and off we went. Damn me, this Shelton! I hated this place ever since!’ And we were stuck in Shelton.” (18)

(They have a new water tower these days)

“‘You boys going to get somewhere, or just going?’ We didn’t understand his question, and it was a damned good question” (18).

“I had visions of a dark and dusty night on the plains …” (19).

“In no time at all we were back on the main highway and that night I saw the entire state of Nebraska unroll before my eyes. A hundred and ten miles an hour straight through, an arrow road, sleeping towns, no traffic, and the Union Pacific streamliner falling behind us in the moonlight. I wasn’t frightened at all that night; it was perfectly legitimate to go 110 and talk and have all the Nebraska towns—Ogallala, Gothenburg, Kearney, Grand Island, Columbus—unreel with dreamlike rapidity as we roared ahead and talked.” (218)


“And so we talked, and he told me about his life, which wasn’t very interesting, and I started to sleep some and woke up right outside the town of Gothenburg, where he let me off” (19).

“Montana Slim and the two high-school boys wandered the streets of North Platte with me till I found a whisky store. They chipped in some, and Slim some, and I bought a fifth. Tall, sullen men watched us go by from false-front buildings; the main street was lined with square box-houses. There were immense vistas of the plains beyond every sad street. I felt something different in the air in North Platte, I didn’t know what it was. In five minutes I did. We got back on the truck and roared off. It got dark quickly. We all had a shot, and suddenly I looked, and the verdant farmfields of the Platte began to disappear and in their stead, so far you couldn’t see to the end, appeared long flat wastelands of sand and sagebrush. I was astounded. ‘What in the hell is this?’ I cried out to Slim. ‘This is the beginning of the rangelands, boy. Hand me another drink.’” (23)

“… he had no place he could stay in without getting tired of it and because there was nowhere to go but everywhere, keep rolling under the stars, generally the Western stars” (23).

“As in a dream we zoomed through small crossroads towns smack out of the darkness, and passed long lines of lounging harvest hands and cowboys in the night” (25).

“We zoomed through another crossroads town, passed another line of tall lanky men in jeans clustered in the dim light like moths on the desert, and returned to the tremendous darkness, and the stars overhead were pure and bright because of the increasingly thin air as we mounted the high hill of the western plateau, about a foot a mile, so they say, and no trees obstructing any low-leveled stars anywhere. And once I saw a moody whitefaced cow in the sage by the road as we flitted by. It was like riding a railroad train, just as steady and just as straight” (26).”

“We came suddenly into the town of Ogallala….I had to buy more cigarettes” (26).

(Ogallala - not a very appealing town.)

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

I was kind of surprised at how nice Omaha was. Maybe it was the fact that at the time they had an arts festival going on downtown, or maybe it was the lazy monotony of Iowa, but in terms of midwest cities it seemed to be one of the nicer ones. A asked a local about the city (how they like it, blah blah blah), and essentially what they said was that relatively recently Omaha decided to change their image--I wasn't aware of any image, much less one that needs to be changed. His answer was ambiguous, but the city seems nice now.

After Omaha I mentally prepared (i.e. reminded myself not to zone out and miss something that could be worth seeing) for some extended driving in long, flat Nebraska. Scenery-wise, I was impressed. I had imagined green oceans of corn and the occasional nowhere-town, and there were those things (oh God was there ever corn), but there were plains, prairie, and, towards the northern parts of the state, sand hills. When I imagined the midwest before I left, this is what I was hoping it would look like.

I had high hopes for places like North Platte and Ogallala--great names by the way--but I was sorely disappointed in North Platte when I got there; it was one big neon avenue full of giant humming signs for chain restaurants, chain hotels, chain everything. The only unique thing about that town as I drove through was how geared toward the typical touristic traveling american family; it was odd how present the idea of commercial familiarity (and by that I mean "don't be afraid to eat/stay here because you've done it before only in a different town") was in that town. Traveling through North Platte was when I realized how grossly commercial most places I've not yet been to are going to be on this trip. It's interesting to think that if there was one less billboard or neon sign in North Platte, I probably would have observed the obvious insult to regionalism, history, and culture with the typical, passive response "commercialism is everywhere, and that's too bad."

But being offended at gratuitous advertising for ruining the image I had of place I had high hopes for and realizing a place isn't that great even without in-your-face advertising are two different things. Ogallala wasn't too great, partly because I couldn't help but notice how many drunks hang around downtown on weeknights. Maybe that's part of the charm, and I could have just caught Ogallala on a bad night.

As for the northern part of Nebraska, I was impressed; where a lot of parts of the state are flat and the roads straight, the northwest was hilly, diverse in scenery, and the roads winding almost dangerously. What's more, even though I didn't amble slowly through the state, I did meet some pretty friendly people. I say this now after having some damn unfriendly experiences in less hospitable states.

Iowa - Davenport, Iowa City, Des Moines, Adel, Stuart, Council Bluffs

“I was all for it. Iowa!” (12).

“In the afternoon we crossed drowsy old Davenport again and the low-lying Mississippi in her sawdust bed ..." (223).

“… he balled that thing clear to Iowa City and yelled me the funniest stories about how he got around the law in every town that had an unfair speed limit …” (13).

(I'm not positive that I took this picture in Iowa City--I lost track)

“Off we roared, and an hour later the smoke of Des Moines appeared ahead over the green cornfields” (13).

“… I immediately got a ride from a farmer and his son heading out for Adel in Iowa” (14).

“But we stuck together and got a ride from a taciturn man to Stuart, Iowa, a town in which we were really stranded. We stood in front of the railroad-ticket shack in Stuart, waiting for the westbound traffic till the sun went down …” (15).

“We arrived at Council Bluffs at dawn; I looked out. All winter I’d been reading of the great wagon parties that held council there before hitting the Oregon and Santa Fe trails; and of course now it was only cute suburban cottages of one damn kind and another, all laid out in the dismal gray dawn" (16).

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

I didn't spend a bunch of time in Iowa--I pretty much drove straight through this state and Nebraska, as I was trying to make South Dakota that same night. I tried to find something exciting about Iowa, but I didn't have much to work with; I remember lots of fields, lots of small towns indistinguishable from one another, and an almost mindless sojourn through the state. Call it tunnel vision from all that driving, but I genuinely couldn't muster Kerouac's enthusiasm for the state. Granted, he stayed there longer than I had, and he also had company, but I think I would have a hard time keeping myself occupied in Iowa. I felt almost glazed-over once I hit the beginning of Nebraska, but once I crossed sleepy Iowa I felt a slight surge in energy, a surge resulting from a slight (emphasis on slight) change in scenery into Nebraska.

I felt I missed something, so to be sure I had asked someone I met in Colorado (he was from Iowa, visiting the Rockies) if there was something I should have seen or done while I was passing through. After Iowa, I was beginning to suspect the midwest was going to be the least intriguing part of my journey.