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February 2, 2005

Great Plains Odyssey

Sorry about the relatively protracted silence, but Dr. Dregs and I just spent a few days in fabulous Rapid City, SD, our hometown, where we traveled to visit the Dregs ancestral home and play in a wind ensemble concert sponsored by the Black Hills Symphony Orchestra.

We make the 600-mile pilgrimage to Rapid City several times a year, usually traveling there and returning in the space of three days. As a result, we are bored, bored, bored with our usual route (I-90 from Rapid City to Worthington, MN, then MN 60 to Mankato, and finally US 169 into the Twin Cities). So on Monday, about 180 miles into our trip, with the whole day to get home and new roadmaps in hand, we decided to venture off the beaten path and see some new sights.

We exited I-90 at the tiny town of Reliance, about twelve miles west of the Missouri River. From there, we took SD 47 a bit north and across the Missouri at the Big Bend Dam. After passing through Fort Thompson, we picked up SD 34 to about 20 miles south of Huron, SD where we turned north on SD 37 toward Huron. At Huron, we headed east on US 14, which took us to St. Peter, MN, where we joined US 169, our usual final leg.

Over the course of our drive (which ended up taking not much longer than our normal route), we passed through many small farm towns in both states. The experience of travel on a deserted two-lane highway across the prairie always makes me feel especially desolate and alone, and this trip was no different. The combination of the sparse population with the vastness of the land brings home how alien rural life is to me. Even though I lived my early years in a small Nebraska farm town (pop. 5,600), I have no sense for what it is like to live in a town of just a few hundred souls, miles (perhaps even hours) from the nearest town of any real size. It's nearly unimaginable to me, and while I'm not likely to leave my comfortable urban existence behind to find out what it's like living out there on the plains, I am curious enough to wish I could get closer to the experience than simply reading about it.

Another thing we noticed with wonder as we passed from South Dakota into Minnesota on US 14 was how suddenly different the towns and the land are once you have crossed the border. The flat, open prairie is mostly left behind, replaced with gentle hills, small lakes, and many more trees. The towns are also different: in Minnesota, they are just as small, but there are more of them, and they are closer together. The Minnesota towns also seem somehow prouder: cleaner, better maintained, and generally just more attractive. Many of the South Dakota towns have a sad, half-abandoned, ramshackle quality, as if the inhabitants are simply too few and too tired to do more than they must. I suspect the reality is that these differences demonstrate the two states' divergent approaches to government services and taxation over the decades: South Dakotans have one of the lowest tax burdens in the nation, and their towns and highways show the neglect that comes of necessity from smaller state revenues.

Traveling on the billboard-littered interstate, it's just about impossible to get a sense for what the original white settlers of the Great Plains must have felt upon first encountering this vast, open space. An inkling of that can be had once you leave the well-traveled routes. Yes, even away from the main roads, you are surrounded by modern infrastructure: the paved highway, the endless power lines, the satellite dishes on every farmhouse. But it's easier to imagine how terrifying yet exciting the prairie must have been for the pioneers. To me, this is proof that as exhilirating as travel to distant, foreign places can be, it's hardly necessary to venture so far to realize how much I don't know and haven't experienced.

Posted by at February 2, 2005 7:31 PM