Archive for category South Dakota

Can Larry Pressler Win?

Former GOP Senator Larry Pressler is running as an independent in South Dakota, claiming to be a "passionate centrist."  Could his candidacy make a difference?

South Dakota’s three way race for the Senate looks like it should be an easy victory for the GOP.   Republican Mike Rounds had 45% in the latest poll, well ahead of Democrat Rick Weiland at 31% and independent Larry Pressler at 21%.

Yet three way races can be tricky, and if any state could produce a stunner Tuesday, independent minded South Dakota would be it.  It’s a small state (population 840,000), much less dependent on advertising than the rest of the country.   Larry Pressler has been dramatically outspent, 58 to 1 against Rounds, and 19 to 1 against Weiland.   Yet that doesn’t matter.

The two largest state newspapers, the Sioux Falls Argus Leader and Rapid City Journal endorsed Pressler this weekend.   South Dakota’s “Walter Cronkite” – 30 year news anchor Steve Hemmingsen did something he never did before – endorse a candidate: Pressler.  All this happened since the last poll came out.   Beyond that, Rounds is in trouble due to an on going FBI investigation on improper work visas while Pressler is touted for being the only Senator to refuse a bribe during the infamous ABSCAM sting in the late seventies.  While many politicians were arrested and convicted, Pressler refused and reported the incident to the FBI.

Pressler made a brief run for the GOP nomination for the Presidency in 1980, highlighting the good press from his honesty after Abscam

Pressler made a brief run for the GOP nomination for the Presidency in 1980, highlighting the good press from his honesty after Abscam

Former FBI investigator John Good came to South Dakota to endorse Pressler, highlighting Round’s FBI troubles.   Pressler has always focused on his relationship with the Lakota Sioux and when in office did better than most Republicans in winning the Indian vote.  He has the largest native American newspaper endorsement as well, the Native Sun News.   Tim Giago, long a leading spokesman for the Sioux, wrote warmly in endorsing Pressler.

My point:  in a small state like South Dakota, full of independent minded voters, willing to change their minds and take a chance, it is not outside the realm of possibility that Pressler could either win, or become a spoiler.

32 year old Vietnam Vet Pressler was first elected to the House in 1974, as a “new broom that would sweep clean” in a capital burdened by the Watergate affair – a year otherwise difficult for Republicans.   In 1978 he successfully won the Senate seat he would keep until 1996.   That year he lost to Democrat Tim Johnson, whose retirement makes his former seat open.

Joining the Senate at age 36, Pressler was a rising start early in his career

Joining the Senate at age 36, Pressler was a rising start early in his career


I worked for Pressler as a Senate aide from 1983 to 85 in Washington.   He was a moderate Republican, more along the lines of Olympia Snowe than the conservative wing of the party.   Working briefly on Indian Affairs, I remember talking a few times to Tim Giago, who informed me that while it’s best to use the nation name (Lakota Sioux, for example), ‘native American’ was no better than ‘Indian.”  More importantly, I grew up in South Dakota, and most of my family lives there.

The state’s political culture defies easy labels.  On the one hand, it is one of the most Republican states in the union.   Yet it gave us Senator George McGovern, Senator Tom Daschle and Senator Tim Johnson.   The reason?   South Dakotans vote first for the man (or woman) than party.  To have any interest in politics in South Dakota is to have not only shaken hands with most politicians, but to have chatted with them.

Pressler defies easy labels as well, putting him in sync with his state.  A life long Republican, he endorsed Obama twice and supports Obamacare.  He certainly isn’t liberal, however, and supports the idea of working to build compromise and fix the tone in Washington.

Candidates visit even the smallest towns; the personal touch is of paramount importance.   Again, if there is any state in the country where the polls could be proven so wrong, South Dakota is it.

If you've never been to South Dakota - plan a visit.  Between the surreal beauty of the Badlands, Mt. Rushmore, buffalo herds, the black hills, prairies and Laura Ingalls Wilder sites, the state is an amazing tourist destination!

If you’ve never been to South Dakota – plan a visit. Between the surreal beauty of the Badlands, Mt. Rushmore, buffalo herds, the black hills, prairies and Laura Ingalls Wilder sites, the state is an amazing tourist destination!

Does this mean I think Pressler will win?   No.  But I wouldn’t rule it out.   The nature of South Dakota politics and the volatility of any three way races means large shifts can happen near the end of a campaign.

So don’t expect, but don’t be surprised, if the big story Tuesday night is of the shocking late surge and victory of independent Larry Pressler to reclaim the seat he lost 18 years ago.

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The Reagan Legacy

Ronald Reagan’s true legacy is in opening the door for high US debt

In 1980 I voted in my first Presidential election and like many people, voted for Ronald Reagan because of his optimism and vision of better times for America.    The late seventies had been traumatic.    After first bringing a sense of relief to a country torn apart by Vietnam and Watergate, Jimmy Carter seemed helpless as the US slipped into another oil crisis, a recession, and renewed tensions with the USSR.  In retrospect Carter handled the situation about as deftly as one could, but to a country used to being on top, it felt like we were in decline.

I had been a fan of Reagan’s back in 1976 when he challenged Gerald Ford for the Republican Presidential nomination.  His optimism was contagious, he was likable and seemed to offer a clear answer to our problems:  freedom and confidence.

Reagan, Bush and Ford on the podium at the GOP convention in Detroit in 1980 – I was there and took this picture – the theme was “Together a New Beginning”

Alas, the reality turned out to be much different.    When President Reagan took office the US debt was 30% of GDP, considerably lower than that of most European countries.    However, the deficits climbed in the 80s:

In 1977 the deficit was $53.7 billion.   That was low enough to help pay down the US debt, as the economy was growing faster.   It was down to $40 billion in 1979, though the recession caused a sky rocket to $73 billion in 1980.  Then the debt started to pile up:

1981 – $79 billion (mostly Carter’s budet), 1982 $128 billion, 1983 $207 billion, 1984 $185 billion, 1985 $212 billion, 1986 $221 billion, 1987 $150 billion, 1988 $155 billion.    Things would improve after that, and for four years (1998 – 2001) there would be supluses before debt would skyrocket again.

During the Reagan years debt went from 30% of GDP to nearly 60% of GDP.   Private debt grew just as fast, and credit card debt began to grow (it was very low before 1980).    Reagan’s rejection of the “malaise” of the 70s was straight from Michelob’s marketing department —  we can have it all!   Low taxes, less regulation, and more spending!

Due to borrow and spend, the 80s felt opulent and instead of being hippies, people like me became “yuppies” – young uppwardly mobile professionals

That was, unfortunately, the wrong direction to go.   Working in DC for a Republican Senator in the early/mid 80s I recall hearing constantly how the deficit was not a problem.    When told that during an economic boom one should keep surpluses in order to have money to stimulate the economy when the next bust comes, the response was predictable – counter cyclical funding was Keynesian demand-side economics.    Laffer curve supply side economics was now the rage.

Others had a more Machiavellian view — increasing debt would “starve the beast,” making it impossible to continue liberal big government programs.   Even as David Stockman, Reagan’s budget director, resigned out of anger over the economic illogic of the increasing debt, the growing economy with low inflation caused most people to close their eyes and enjoy.   It was the 80s, after all!

This decision is now haunts us.   The ‘we can have it all’ response to the recession of the early eighties was really simply a refusal to accept reality — that the US had to structurally adjust to the changing global economy and the fact that the rest of the world was catching up.   The post-war superiority that the US enjoyed after WWII was over, and the US needed to find ways to live within its means and make sure that commitments didn’t overwhelm capabilities.    We didn’t necessarily need to pay off the debt we had, but keeping a 30% debt to GDP ratio would have been smart.

Instead the so called “conservative” economists of the Reagan-Bush administrations (and later the George W. Bush administration — in which Vice President Cheney boisterously proclaimed budget deficits to be irrelevant) opened the spigots and borrowed and spent even during a boom.   As long as inflation didn’t rear its ugly head, they figured it was safe.   Add to that the deregulatory fervor that even the Clinton Administration joined in, and the cheap credit to the public coming from the fed, and it was party time for thirty years!   Borrow spend, carpe diem, living high, living fine on borrowed time!

Add to that the end of the Cold War and all was grand — we won the Cold War, the Soviets and communism lost, it was going to be an American led free market world… what could go wrong?

Perot warned of the unsustainable debt, and shaped the 1992 debate. By the end of the decade the US was running surpluses and it appeared on the right track

Ross Perot, a successful businessman and political gadfly, saw the problem and brought it front and center in the 1992 election.   It appeared to push the parties towards fiscal responsibility.   Unfortunately the US was beginning an advanced stage of economic decline, perpetrated by two sequential bubbles, the “” stock bubble and then the real estate bubble.   The latter was driven by both a renewed bout of debt from 2002 onward, plus very cheap and easy credit thanks to a misguided federal reserve policy.   The result is that when the bubbles burst and dust settled we see that de-regulation, tax cuts, and deficit spending gave us about a total debt of over 100% of GDP, an economy that relied on consumption more than production, and imbalances requiring a deep and long recession to repair.

Both parties share blame.   Both mouthed a desire to balance the budget but neither made the hard choices it would take.  Instead they reached the Great Republican and Democratic compromise – lower taxes and more spending, financed by debt.

I’m in the yellow shirt kneeling lower left in the South Dakota “College Republican” youth for Reagan delegation to the GOP Convention in Detroit.

Reagan can’t be blamed for all this – it took a long term bi-partisan effort to do so.   However, if we had heeded Jimmy Carter’s prophetic warning and avoided the Michelob “you can have it all” mentality, we might instead have built a sustainable economy in the 80s, immune to oil shocks and banking crises.   We took a wrong turn thirty years ago, and it’ll take at least another ten to get on the right path — assuming we start making better choices now!

Looking back at being part of the large “youth for Reagan” group in Detroit in 1980, being on the floor when Reagan accepted the nomination (they let a lot of us in despite lack of credentials in order to give television the image of lots of young people supporting Reagan), I don’t regret going.   Reagan did inspire hope, and it was an amazing experience.  I even traded a big “South Dakotans for Reagan” pin for a Maine lobster decal I’d carry all over on my photo case for over ten years, never dreaming I’d actually live in Maine (I’d never even been there).   But unfortunately the hope was misplaced.  Reagan’s borrow and spend approach bought short term prosperity at a long term cost.   But to be fair, he couldn’t have done it if it wasn’t a bi-partisan effort.

We stayed with youth from around the country at EMU in Ypsilanti — these two Maine girls (no idea who they are) traded me the decal I’d proudly carry on my photocase for over a decade, an omen perhaps that I would end up in Maine!

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What is Independence?

Independence Day.  The 4th of July.  A day of parades, fireworks, picnics, games and celebrations.  I remember growing up in Sioux Falls, SD, spending a day at “Westward Ho” playing games, enjoying a greased watermelon in the pool contest, swimming and at night going out in the country to shoot fireworks.

Fireworks in South Dakota was fun.   We’d drive out into the country, find a gravel road and locate a spot to shoot off a bunch of fireworks we’d bought at the big firework store on the edge of town.   South Dakota had (and I believe still has) very lax fireworks laws.  I recall as a kid lighting cones, roman candles, firecrackers, and a bunch of other things.   My dad would give me the punk (a slow burning small stick used to light fireworks), my mom worried that I’d burn myself, and I felt proud to be old enough to light the fuses.  By the time I was 12 I had taken over virtually all the lighting duties!

Later in high school and college July 4th meant 18 hour shifts at Village Inn Pizza.   I didn’t have to work so long, but I liked the idea of getting so many hours in one day so I volunteered to run the store all day.    Being in charge I’d try to make the day fun for the workers, though it was often pretty busy.   The Assistant Manager was always grateful – he was supposed to run the day shift!

That’s me with the pizza pan in hand (turning it so sauce spreads across the whole pie), back in 1981 running a shift at VIPP! Those were the days…

This year in Maine we went to Jay for fireworks last night, and today in Farmington there was a typical small New England town parade.  Some antique tractors, people representing companies and churches driving through town on makeshift floats, and local political candidates/parties dressing up, shaking hands, and of course, handing out candy.   Tootsie rolls, suckers, taffy and other candy thrown to the kids on the curb who rush out to grab it.

From the Daily Bulldog (an online Farminton newspaper), the 2012 Independence Day parade in Farmington Maine

The parade included calves for the kids to pet, a couple small bands, youth organizations, and at the end a line of eight firetracks from local communities, blazing their sirens in turn to the delight of the kids.   The firetrucks signify the end of the parade.  It was rainy, but the parade went on undaunted – and most of the time the rain was so light people put away their umbrellas.    The community is out, people chatting with each other…you can buy some strawberry shortcake or hot dogs (only $1), and it seems timeless.   One doubts the parade was much different thirty years ago or will be thirty years from now.

So what does this day mean?   Everyone knows what it signifies – the day the United States declared its independence from Great Britain.   But while the Declaration of Independence states vague ideals – all people are created equal, we have inalienable rights, and we should not be governed without the consent of the governed – what those ideals mean and how they are to be implemented are unclear.     When the Constitution was ratified 13 years later it still allowed slavery, women couldn’t vote and since then independence – freedom – has been an on going project.

Another photo from the Daily Bulldog:

To me independence day is a recognition not of a past event or ideal, but of the on going process of building true freedom.   All may be created equal, but some are born in poverty and others in plenty.    We fought to end slavery, to give the vote to women, to create civil rights for blacks, and now to provide full rights to homosexuals.   We worked to create public education so all could have opportunity.   We’re trying now to figure out how to make health care something all Americans enjoy, how to expand economic opportunity, and how to handle an economic crisis thirty years in the making.

There is something this day does not represent: selfish individualism.    Kurt Anderson may have a point in the New York Times today that the problems we face come from the triumph of radical individualism over our sense of community and shared duties.   Freedom was once an ideal that had a context – we are free in a community, our freedom is connected with duties and obligations to those around us.

Now it seems that many people see freedom simply as a desire to be able to do whatever they want regardless of the consequences to the rest of the community.   If a CEO at a financial firm can earn $25 million bonuses thanks to bogus mortgage backed CDOs, hey, that’s fine.  So what if it brings down the economy, the market decides they get a bonus and who are they to question the market (especially when they can manipulate it!)

But it’s not just the bigwigs, it’s all of us.   I know that my thinking is quite often very selfish.   Yes, that’s human nature, but it’s also human nature to be connected with others.   Freedom is the proper balance of ones’ own individual desires and interests and the sense of duty to the community.    Ignore the community and things start to fall apart and the capacity to achieve ones desires and goals becomes more difficult.

Farmington has been a community since the late 1700s…I’m not sure what year this picture dates from.

That’s our challenge now – independence means rediscovering the balance between selfish pursuit of whatever we want and the recognition that we need to care about our environment, community and neighbors.   We’re all hurt when any American goes hungry, lacks adequate health care, is denied equal opportunity, is unfairly put in jail or in any way mistreated.

In that sense the parade today in Farmington – a community coming together – reflects what we need more of.   And it’s already beginning.   People are starting to focus on eating local food, buying from area merchants, and working together to maintain that sense of community that has traditionally defined American life.    Strong communities will yield a strong country.   Crass individualism and selfishness will tear us apart.


Time Passages (in Sioux Falls, SD)

“Well, I’m not the kind to live in the past
The years run too short and the days too fast
The things you lean on are the things that don’t last
Well, it’s just now and then my line gets cast into these
Time passages
There’s something back here that you left behind
Oh, time passages
Buy me a ticket on the last train home tonight”

– Al Stewart, “Time Passages,” title track from his 1978 LP

One time in the 80s when I visited Sioux Falls while living in Washington DC, I listened to Al Stewart’s “Time Passages” as the plane took off from the airport at 7:00 AM, with the sunrise in all its beautiful glory showing over the horizon.  I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed a song more, as it mixed perfectly with the atmosphere.  On this trip to South Dakota, the song took on even more significance as I pondered how profoundly different Sioux Falls is in 2010 than when I was growing up.  The Sioux Falls of thirty years ago is still be there, but also far away  (another line from the song — “I know you’re in there, you’re just out of sight), bits and pieces surfaced, but at times the city seemed strange.

Downtown Friday I looked around at the various stores.  In a two block section of Phillips Avenue I spotted only one remaining from my era — Raymond’s Jeweler’s.   In all of Downtown there were few businesses which survived since the seventies.   The Ming Wah cafe is still there, and I was delighted to see the Hamburger Inn still in existence, but Fantles, Shrivers, Michaels, Burkes, Woolworths, the Nickel Plate, and all the standards from the past were gone.  Skelly’s pub still stood, but Sid’s liquor store had vanished.

Simply, Sioux Falls has a new down town.  The State Theater is there, but not showing films.  The K-Cinema (not down town, to be sure) and Hollywood theaters are long gone.  We went to a candy shoppe (I wish I recalled the name), and there we found old favorites.  Candy cigarettes!  Zotz!  Small jaw breakers in the green 25 cent box!  Bubble gum cigars!  The kids got a kick out of asking for “another pack of cigarettes” and even got to the point where they were “pretending to be Michael Jackson,” smoking and drinking as they gobbled up MY candy cigarettes.  But yet, even that candy store’s blast from the past showed how different the present is.

Then there is Falls Park.  Sioux Falls has that name because the Sioux River has falls there, and they are beautiful.  In 1968 I remember the road there being closed because of post-winter flooding (I was eight).  At 16 I had my first kiss in Falls Park, at that time a neglected part of town.  I always wondered why such majestic falls were not taken advantage of, and the answer was always “it’s too close to the stock yards and the penitentiary (state prison).”  Finally the city has awaken to this beautiful gift and turned the park into  a glorious large spectacle, with an evening light show, a tower to climb, and new roads and parking.  Yet, even as it achieved what I imagined it should thirty years ago, I yearned to be there back in 1976 when I had my first kiss.  Kathy Bingen, I don’t know where you are now, but I thought of you as I looked at this modern complex!

When I was five my mom told me I couldn’t go to Dairy Queen if I didn’t ride my bike without training wheels.  I lived at 305 W. 29th in Sioux Falls, a block and a half from a DQ.  I learned to ride that day, and still remember the cones (7 cents for tiny, 10 cents for normal, 15, 20 and 25 cent cones going up the ladder) and the sign for 15 cent hamburgers.  Across the street was “Courtney’s Books and Things” where I went to buy the Laura Ingalls Wilder series of books, saving my allowance every week.  And, when I didn’t get a new book, I went to Lewis Drugs on Minnesota Avenue and 36th to get a 45 RPM record.  My first purchase was “Wedding Bell Blues” by the Fifth Dimension, and then “Sweet Caroline” by Neil Diamond.  My barber shop was across the street.  All of that is gone.

Lewis Drugs still exists — my mom works at one, but that old store is now their corporate headquarters.  The Village Inn Pizza Parlor I used to work at is now a casino, across from the Western Mall, which has morphed into a furniture sales center.   Back in 1978 I was riding along the Sioux River and came across a new bridge in the middle of nowhere.  I rode across it, fancying myself the first bicyclist across this bridge in the middle of nowhere.  Now it is a well traveled old 49th street bridge between Kiwanis and Louise avenues, with a huge playground and shops beside it.

I used to jog out from 49th to Bahnson in the Tuthill park region, going on a gravel road in the  country.  Dan Taranik and I would drive at high speeds over a rail road track that was elevated, making our cars airborne.  Now it’s a totally built up residential area, no longer outside of town, but snugged in the middle, as Sioux Falls now stretches way out past 69th street.  Grocery stores and residential areas now lay on places we would go out in the country to maybe “park” or shoot fireworks.   When I left Sioux Falls was a city of about 80,000.  I worked my last summer on an assembly line at Starmark Kitchen cabinets.  We started work at 7:00 AM, I sanded or painted, and the day ended at 3:00 (no air conditioning).  It was on the edge of town on Benson Avenue.  Now that street has its own exit.

Sioux Falls is now over 160,000.  In 11th grade I took a course called “A Week with the Mayor” as Lincoln High had a program getting students out in the community (I also did a week with the Argus Leader advertising  sales folk — the paper is still there too).  Rick Knobe was mayor, but one day a young city planner named Steve Metli took a few of us out in a convertible and explained his plan for the town — to help gray areas avoid becoming slums, and vast plans of growth.  As he drove  out on a gravel road he described future neighborhoods.   Now, I see what could only have been imagined in the late seventies.

I heard that Steve Metli retired just a few years ago, and I guess he was successful.  The town has no real slums, it’s grown in a way that still feels comfortable and where traffic flows well and neighborhoods are safe.  At one point in the 90s it was Money magazines number one place to live.   I look back at that convertible ride now and realize it was an honor to have a chat with the visionary who worked with others to bring about such a dramatic change to the city I grew up in.   Malls and shops on the west side spread over what was once empty land — a massive 41st street expands out where we used to drive on a two lane highway to Wall Lake.   As I contemplate the city I realize that this is what it’s like to grow old — to see the world change in ways one would have hardly imagined.   But I am glad I lived in the Sioux Falls of my youth.  As great as the city is now, it was a wonderful place to grow up.    I wouldn’t trade that experience even for youth!


A Busy Day in the Black Hills

Our trip continued Wednesday in the Black Hills, as we did as much as we could in the short one day time frame we squeezed in.   The kids made us promise we’d spend a week here sometime in the future to see and do all the stuff we had to skip (such as Bear Country, Reptile Gardens, and the northern Hills — Lead, Deadwood, Spearfish Canyon, etc.).   Still, we fit a lot into one day.

We started at Rushmore Cave, not one of the deepest or most impressive caves, but still fun for the kids, and cool to go underground and see what once was a local cave explored by the kids of Hayward, SD — a cool excursion.  From there it was on to Mt. Rushmore, or “the four faces,” a monument known by all.    I first visited Mt. Rushmore at age 1, and growing up we saw it about every year,  as my Grandparents lived in Rapid City.   It’s amazing how the monument has changed in 40 years — from one visitor’s center with a viewing deck to a series of trails and buildings offering tourists a load of information about how those famous carvings came into being.

Ryan and Dana in Rushmore cave

Heading to Mt. Rushmore

After lunch in Keystone we went on the Iron Mountain road, with its famous “pig tails” (the road loops under and over a bridge in pig’s tail like curl) and tunnels.   The boys loved the drive, and then on the Custer State Park nature loop we encountered buffalo and burros.   The burros are extremely tame donkeys who will come stick their head into your car hoping to be fed.   We got out of the car and fed them, as a whole group of burros enticed cars to stop.

Ryan with the burros on the road at Custer Park

Later buffalo actually caused a traffic jam.   There were dozens located on each side of the road, with one blocking a line of traffic.   When the car tried to go around it, the buffalo actually moved to block it!

Dana was a bit scared and demanded I keep his window rolled up, but that was when the buffalo was literally six inches from our car (I even rolled mine up at that point).    One poor member of the herd got on the wrong side of the fence, and couldn’t get back.   The highway has steel buffalo guards at the entrance of the reserve, and the poor buffalo touched it gingerly with its hoof, standing there five minutes before turning back.   It tried to get under a fence that was loose, but failed.   As we left it was walking along the fence, looking for a way back in (it may have escaped through the loose fence, but it was bent in a way it couldn’t get back).   Deer and Mountain Lion also roam there; we saw deer, but no mountain lions.

Buffalo stuck on the outside of the reserve

From there it was up the Needles highway, with some short hikes at various points.  Finally it was back into Rapid City, with dinner at Perkins Restaurant.  At 8:00 MDT we departed for the five hour trip back to Sioux Falls.   Saturday it’s back to Maine.

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Across South Dakota

Endless skies on the South Dakota prairie

Tuesday we started on the Missouri River, near Pickstown and the Ft. Randall dam, and treked across the state, heading first to Platte.   There we took Highway 44 across the Platte-Winner bridge, through Winner, and stopped for snacks in White River.   From there we crossed through the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation to the Badlands.  We explored  and hiked there awhile, ending up in Rapid City.   Tomorrow will be a full day exploring the Black Hills before heading once again across the state, this time probably on Highway 14 (which goes through the De Smet, home town of Laura Ingalls Wilder.   On Independence Day last year I posted about her and her family.

Driving across South Dakota, on the highway rather than the interstate, it is amazing how few cars travel those roads.   The speed limit is 65 MPH (on the interstate it’s 75), but often I was going 80, with no other cars in sight.  In 200 miles of driving before hitting the interstate I think I passed only four or five cars.   Not only that, but you could see miles ahead, behind and beside you.  It was truly flat prairie (and farms east of the Missouri river) with endless skies.   West of the Missouri now and then there was a hilly area, but really until the badlands the flatness, lack of trees, and lack of people made it the antithesis of New England.   Towns are often twenty miles apart, sometime with populations under 100.

A straight road, no traffic

An exception was Winner.   Winner has 3200 people, and it’s  main street is about eight lanes wide.   It’s normal to have wide main streets out here where land is cheap and plentiful.  The run up to and after the town was a four lane road.   To be sure, Winner is the “big city” serving the vast countryside around it, and had a Subway, McDonalds, Pizza Hut, a grocery store and places to shop (to be sure, no Walmart).  After Winner the next decent size town was White River, where we got a snack.

After White River we entered the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, the poorest county in America.   In many ways it was no different than the rest of the ride — vast prairies and flatlands — but in the town of Wanblee, where over 70% of the population is below the poverty line, the harsh life style of the remaining Oglala Lakota Sioux was on display.   The houses were run down, we drove by the food bank, and outside of town we saw people walking along the highway — one woman had her baby out on the highway apparently far from anyone building.   Being here, driving on the land of the Lakota, imagining what their life was like 200 years ago, it was sad to witness what their existence now entails.   Such injustice!   But there are no easy solutions.   We can’t undo history, and cultures get caught in cycles which are hard to break.

From there it was into the Badlands.   It used to be free to drive through there, now it’s $15 a car.  We entered via Interior, SD, going through a “recovery dollars” project to renovate some of the roads.   Once in, we had fun.  The boys loved climbing up some of the hills, though it was scary sometimes getting down.  An 8 year old girl and I think her sister gave us lots of advice, and warned us about the rattlesnakes.   After numerous small hikes and scenic overlooks, we got to Wall, SD (a big town of 818).  The Badlands are one of my favorite places to visit, the scenery is amazing.   We ate in Wall, but avoided Wall Drug.  I’ve been there often enough, and wasn’t thirsty for free ice water.

Ryan urging Dana and I to climb higher

Ryan and Dana - Kings of the hill!

From there it was on I-90 to Rapid City.   A treat for me tonight was Taco John’s.   I love tacos, but hate Taco Bell.   We have only Taco Bell in Farmington, and Maine has a dearth of taco places anyway.   Taco John’s has always been my favorite, and so I get as many tacos as I can when I visit South Dakota.   They put the cheese next to the meat, with the lettuce on the cheese, a more logical order than Taco Bell’s weird cheese on top with the lettuce on the meat.   They also make the tacos bigger with more meat and cheese, and put sauce inside on the meat (not making me squirting it from a little package like Taco Bell does).

The kids got a treat too — Dinosaur park.   There are four or five huge dinosaurs the kids can  climb upon on top of a hill overlooking Rapid City (with parts of the city on each side of the hill).  The view is amazing too.   It was twilight when we got there, and the kids had a super time.

Still, what sticks with me about the day was the grandness of the farms and prairies, and being able to see to the horizon lines on all sides, unobstructed by trees or hills.    Totally straight highways with no traffic, one feels a sense of freedom and awe.   It’s certainly clear why South Dakotans tend to be rather libertarian — out here it doesn’t seem there is much need for government, especially if one stays off the reservation.   However, the farmers still like their subsidies, and with a very high miles to people ratio, the state gets a lot of road money.

There’s a sense of history, an ability to feel a bit of what the landscape was like, without the vast build up much of the rest of the country has experienced.  Listening to radio (one advertising “the middle of nowhere dance”), watching the cloud formations (we dropped 12 degrees between Winner and the reservation — and 10 more by Rapid City — as we went through a Cold Front with no rain but plenty of clouds), it was a feeling I don’t get driving through New England.   Maine is beautiful too, but in a very different way.

There’s also a sense of the planet’s history — thinking of dinosaurs roaming here between 245 million and 65 million years ago, while humans have been around only about 60,000 years.   As a species we’re in our infancy, yet seeing the rock formations of the badlands (those about 34 million years old) and reflecting on the prehistoric life that used to live here, one gains a sense of perspective.

Tomorrow we’ll start with Mt. Rushmore and then head into the black hills.  I love it out here!