This past week I found myself in South Dakota for the first time, for a work trip. As soon as I stepped out of the airport, I understood the phrase “Big Sky Country”. The entire time I was there I was gaping at the vast openness of it all. The sky stretched on seemingly forever, with acres and acres of clouds above and a rolling landscape as far as the eye could see beyond. Pictures in no way do it justice; I was there for a project I am working on that involves the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, so I toured the Rez and had meetings there, and also stayed at a motel/lodge on the Rez, called Lakota Prairie Ranch Resort.
The reservation is huge, about the size of Connecticut, and consists largely of open space and rolling ranchland with clusters of homes in small villages or out on their own. It is a very, very rural place and one of the poorest places in the entire country. I felt like I was in another country much of the time. If you’re interested, do some googling on the history of this place, and the Oglala Lakota tribe (aka Sioux), and the many injustices they have suffered over the past two hundred years. There are many, many challenges to living there, but there are also some inspirational leaders and exciting things happening. The trip was very eye-opening.
I was there for two days of meetings, and toured all over, meeting lots of interesting people, seeing the poor housing conditions, visiting a bead shop, having lunch in a small restaurant that was basically someone’s kitchen, seeing the Wounded Knee massacre site, and more.
On the day I left to fly home, even after just being on the Rez for three days, the difference going off-Rez and into the nearest big city, Rapid City, was palpable. The roads were better, there was more signage, not to mention more people, traffic, development, and so on as we got closer to the city. Fewer coyotes and deer and wild turkeys and more restaurants and shops.
I had just enough time before my flight to check out Mount Rushmore. It’s not the kind of place that has ever been on my list, but I figured I was so close it would be silly not to see it, so a colleague and I made the trip.
To get to Mount Rushmore, we drove through a gateway town full of hotels, restaurants, and tourist traps that was absolutely deserted. It must be bustling in the summer, but at 7:30am on a winter weekday morning, it was desolate and more than a little creepy.
And then we arrived at Mount Rushmore, and had the place to ourselves, save two park rangers.
It was fun to visit. I see major national icons all the time in DC, and it was fun to see a new one for the first time, to actually be standing there. It’s such a goofy thing, to carve four faces into a mountain side (sacred Indian lands, no less); it felt like a very American thing to do. The Black Hills region is gorgeous, and it was incredible to see the views of the entire area.
On the way to the airport, we had a few minutes to drive through downtown Rapid City. I was impressed; it seemed to be a bustling little place, with some nice historic brick structures, a good amount of retail and restaurants, and hardly any vacant storefronts. Glad I got to see it.
This was one of the most unusual trips I have ever taken for work, and I’m really glad I went. This year, I have gone on 12 trips for work, which included over 12 new towns or cities and five new states. Work travel can be exhausting, but I feel like I learn the most when I am out and about, seeing a variety of types of communities and getting to know people all over the country. I am so lucky to be able to do this.