Sunday, October 29, 2006


Uncharacteristically, I wanted to stay home this weekend. Maybe it was the arrival of the satellite TV; I also just wanted to sleep in in my own bed for once. So Luke and I invited some of the fellas out to Pine Ridge for the evening. The original plan involved camping--this could be the last good camping weekend--but I was feeling like sitting around the house, so I managed to convince everyone to enjoy an evening in out of the cold. We took the scenic route out to Interior, where we bought some overpriced meat, then came back to feast on steak, onion rings, pumpkin pie, and beer while watching the Tigers blow it.

On the ride out to Interior we scouteed out some of the local Badlands. In the morning, after a pancake breakfast, we decided to head back out that way to do some exploration. I was nervous about leaving my car lying around; apparently at one point, on a field trip out that way, a school vehicle had its tires slashed, and I've heard stories of car windows being smashed in while people have been out for twenty minute walks. But we figured we could stick in sight of the car.

The mesa in the background here is what we first decided to check out. I drove as far as this picture, but the road got a little too rough here, so I decidd to leave the car. It would have made the perfect Suburu commercial, with the car parked on the perfect outcropping in a rugged landscape.

The mesa wasn't actually all that exciting, but there was a nice view down into some of the Badlands.

"The Pyramid":

"The Lost Valley." There is a big drop off down the rocks into the big valley with more Badlands off on the other side. It's the kind of place that feels totally undiscovered, the kind o place where in a movie we might discover dinosaurs still roaming. Of course, later on a found a Budweiser can that someone had tossed down the rocks.

Eventually we decided that the mesa wasn't exciting enough. I was nervous about my car, but I did want to check out the valley. We found a shallow spot in the cliff face where we could make our way down, which brought us into a patch of woods, and then we made our way down another set of rocks. Here are Ryan, Luke, and Russ making the final climb down. According to Russ's GPS thingie, it was a 200 foot elevation change from top to bottom. So not very much, but it felt big.

From the top the valley looked entirely open and expensive. Down at the bottom, with formations on all sides, it feels much more enclosed. We just tracked our progress with the GPS tracker and wandered around, feeling very remote.

There were a few signs of wildlife. Here was a monster spider we found. Apparently the Lakota trickster can take the form of this spider. Was this a sign that my tires would be smashed? Luckily, no.

We spotted a set of vertebrae at one point, and then found lots more bones scattered about, which indicated that the scavengers had taken care of the body. We were wondering what kind of animal it was. Then Luke spotted this skull, which allowed some of the more skilled members of our crew to identify the bones as belonging to a coyote. This skull is now sitting on my bedroom floor, waiting to be bleached for display. Later Luke spotted some antlers, which he also kept.

As we made our way around this big formation, I spotted a decent size buck up on the rocks. It's in the picture but it's pretty hard to spot. It's sort of right in the middle of the picture, just up off the grass. I tried to chase after it, but apparently deer are faster than me.

We had seen something that looked like a cave from the top of the mesa, so we decided to walk all the way around the formation to check it out. It was just a spot where a hole had been eroded a few feet deep. Here are the guys checking out the Badlands.

At this point we looked at the GPS tracker and realized that our starting point was right on the other side of these rocks. We decided that, rather than walking all the way back around, we would see if it was possible to climb up and over to the other side. The only significant problem was Ryan's shoes, whose tread had worn too smooth to really scramble up very well.

Making it down the other side.

We decided to revive our camping plans for this weekend. Damn the cold; we're going to backpack down Saturday morning with gear, set up a base camp, and then spend Saturday exploring the valley.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Broken Bow, NE

After returning from Nebraska yesterday, I tuned in to NPR's Sunday Weekend Edition and heard a report on the political climate in Broken Bow, NE. Broken Bow seems to be a little more central than Alliance, but from the description on the show, it doesn't sound a whole lot different from Valentine, and gives a decen depiction of the way of life off the reservation here. We were actually talking about heading in that general direction next weekend. There is also an interview with a few of the residents on their current views, and, finally, a memory of Lawrence Welk's performance in Broken Bow. Somehow I've heard more about Lawrence Welk in the past two weeks than I had for the whole rest of my life.

Sunday, October 22, 2006


This picture is not actually from this weekend. I took this on Tuesday or Wednesday morning, when I woke up to find snow on the ground for the second time this fall (winter?). Both times it disappeared by the time school was over. But this weekend was the most winter-y weekend yet, with snow blowing in and out as the wather hovered around freezing.

On Thursday night, I talked to Ryan and Matt, and we all three decided we wanted to head out for the weekend early--as soon as school was out on Friday. Unfortunately we weren't able to recruit anyone else to join us, so after school I talked to them again, and decided to head down their way, hang out in Valentine, Nebraska, and hope to get some more people pulled into some kind of trip. We got some good steaks at the Peppermill and then I went to the Bunkhouse for the first time since July. And Bobby (the bartender) still remembered me. Now there's a good bar.

After last call, we headed into the snow, back to St. Francis for the evening. On the way in, though, we cut through a little jog in the time zone boundary that puts little old Kilgore, Nebraska (po. 98), in the Mountain Time Zone. So the Kilgore Bar is open an extra hour.

Why, you might ask, does a town of 98 have its own bar? (Actually, it has two.) The answer, of course, is that this is a border town: just off the edge of Rosebud where, though it is legal to drink, there are no liscensed drinking establishments. In general, I disapprove of these kinds of towns, which prey upon the alcoholism that is so rampant on the reservations. But the Kilgore Bar was also a damn good time.

The place is perhaps the least polished bar I have been in: plywood walls, pipes exposed in the ceiling, and folding chairs for seating. It was sort of uncomfortable when we first arrived; Ryan I were hassled when we first walked in, but then Ryan found his way to one of the aides from his school, and once we had an established connection we were welcomed with open arms. The standard entertainment seems to be darts--the dart machines are by far the most high tech things in the place--but on this Friday night, there was a benefit going for an Indian who had a brain tumor. Star Rider, which I'm guessing is a rez band, worked its way through a setlist including "Louie, Louie," "Tears in My Bear," and "Wipe Out," while we all got up shook our groove thangs. Ryan was an especially popular dance partner. Lee--Ryan's friend from St. Francis--bought us all around, and, for the second time of the night, we stuck it out till closing time.

By the time we leaving Kilgore, the snow was coming down fierce. This was a bit of a harrowing situation: we were about to join what can only be called, political correctness be damned, a caravan of drunken Indians as we made our way up the one pretty rough county road between Kilgore and St. Francis--in a driving, blinding snowstorm. The question of the night was, what would your Mom think if she knew you were doing this. Well, Mom, I'm sorry: I know it was stupid, it was scary, and I'll be avoiding that one from here on out. Luckily we beat the rush, and Ryan drove slowly and carefully in the storm. After we let one car around us, we didn't see another car for the whole 18 miles.

On Saturday morning we woke up and settled on our destination for the day: the glory of Carhenge, in Alliance, Nebraska. After this decision, though, it took us a significant amount of time to muster up the co-travellers we had managed to recruit. Finally, at 3 PM--nearly 24 hours after we had hoped to get out of town--we hit the road. (But as Ryan said, "Getting out of town at 3 PM is better than not getting out of town at all.) There was some debate about whether or not we could make it to Carhenge with light remaining but in the spirit of relentlessness we decided to stick to our guns. It was an uneventful trip through the clouds and the Sand Hills, but the snow did start to build up slowly, and by the time we pulled into Gordon for gas and snacks it was swirling around us, making the prairie beautiful in a new and homey way. I was looking forward to a cozy motel room on a snowy night, but alas, soon after we left Gordon the clouds cleared up--and it had been above freezing the whole time anyway.

At 4:30 MT we finally arrived at Carhenge. We happened upon it pretty suddenly; if Carhenge were in South Dakota, the signs for it would start hundreds of miles prior, breaking you down until you had no choice to stop. And then it would be surrounded by a village of restaurants and tacky gift shops. But the first sign we saw for Carhenge was at the site itself, and, as I'll relate in a minute, it took us a bit of effort to find souvenirs at all.

For those of you who don't know, Carhenge is a replica of Stonehenge, built with junked cars. It is also on the cover of the AAA Nebraska/Iowa map, which apparently makes it the most photographable site in both of those states. Our initial reaction upon arriving was, we drove two and a half hours for this? And then very quickly our reaction was, damn right we drove two and a half hours for this, this is ridiculous. And awesome.

Arriving at Carhenge.

Inside the ring.

Strangely, the only information at Carhenge is a description of Stonehenge. There is no explanation of why, how, or when this replica was built. It is actually one of the least in-your-face bizarre tourist attractions I've ever seen.

Carhenge in the Nebraska landscape.

Carhenge also has a "reserve" of automobile sculptures. Here is a dinosaur.

"Spawning Salmon"

A covered wagon, a favorite symbol of Nebraska.

A time capsule of some sort. I guess.

"The Four Seasons," representing the four seasons of wheat growing. Question: why is autumn pink?


Wind chimes. It was windy.

Some sort of face, only the eyes are missing.

"The Autograph." Get it? Participational art at its best. Too bad we had no spray paint.

We didn't spent too long at Carhenge. The wind was biting, and since there was no admission fee we didn't really feel compelled to linger. We filled up on the ridiculousness of the spectacle and then headed on into town in an attempt to find the Carhenge souvenirs promised to us by a small sign. We were surprised to find that Alliance, Nebraksa was a bustling town of 9,000, complete with an old, Midwestern downtwon of cobbled streets and prosperous looking stretch of hundred-year-old suburbia. It was pretty dead on a Saturday afternoon, though, and the Chamber of Commerce--our souvenir shop--was closed down. We made our way to gift shop a few blocks away, and, though they did not carry Carhenge souvenirs, we all bought jelly beans and talked to the woman working there for a while. Turns out souvenirs are hard to come by; some former government official had embezzlement lots of money that was supposed to go to Carhenge's upkeep. She directed us to go to the "Outpost," a gas station back towards Carhenge. There were found ugly t-shirts in too-large sizes and an array of postcards (and a bizarre selection of groceries, some of which looked at least twenty years old). After browsing the selection, we headed back into town, secured ourselves a motel room and then got ourselves some decent Mexican food. We took in a movie at the Alliance theater and generally marvelled at how we had coming to Alliance, Nebraska is now, for us, coming to the big city. Kids our age no doubt want to escape Alliance and get to somewhere more glorious, but for us it was just fine: we don't need anything more than a movie theater, cobblestone streets, and a bar to feel like we are in the big city. I mean, we even had to parallel park!

Again at the recommendation of the friendly gift shop lady, we checked out the Gathering Spot, where a cover band perhaps more technically talented than Star Rider, but much less interesting, played an assortment of classic rock and early 90s alternative. It wasn't a particularly interesting bar; not much character, just the kind of place that could be found anywhere, East, West, or Mid-. The big, burly Nebraska boys glared me down as I ordered us a pitcher, and I actually felt less comfortable at the Gathering Spot than I did at the Kilgore bar. So after driking our round we retired back to the motel room.

Cozy in Alliance.

Jen wanted us all to bring 2-minutes of text to read aloud (We are teachers). Here is Ryan reading from "Trout Fishing in America."

Mr. Douglas reads from "Collapse" while Mr. Cox drowses in the background.

More pictures coming as soon as I can get them uploaded.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Folks, Pt. 2

I've always had a pretty romantic notion of place. When I first decided to come to South Dakota, I believed there was some kind of magic in the dirt out here, and by breathing it in I thought I would somehow earn cowboy boots not just for my feet, but for my soul, too; I thought I might tap into some earnest, rugged vein buried deep inside me. When your only knowledge of a place is built through images--whether the idealized images of the western TV shows I used to watch, or the carefully tailored images of poverty meant to summarize life on the rez--it's easy to think of a place not as real but--to use a ridiculous word for at least the second time on this blog--hyperreal.

Of course, despite everything I read in my postmodernism classes, the rez is still a real place, more solid and less magic than anything contained in those images. In short, real life here is the same as real life anywhere: an accumulation of bills to pay and dinners to cook and tests to grade (okay, that last one only applies to teachers). I'm no more of a cowboy than I was back in suburbia, and, nose to the grindstone, I hardly have a chance to look up and catch a glimpse of anything more spectacular.

My parents' visit gave me a chance to step back and look at this place with the kind of tourist eyes I had when I first arrived this summer. It was a reminder that for some people, being on the reservation is a "cultural experience," a chance to steep oneself in that imagery. One of my goals, I guess, in coming out here, was to have this kind of experience. But now being on the rez is not an experience at all; it's just life. My parents have done an admirable job educating themselves on life on the reservation and the issues it entails. I borrowed a book from my dad called Lakota Culture, World Economy, a published PhD thesis that examines the economies of Pine Ridge and Rosebud. Interesting as that is, though, it was also a strange experience to see what is now my home being abstracted into statistics and academic conclusions. When the author discusses a "Wanbli businesswoman," my only thought is, damn, this is a town of 650 people: if I don't know her, she's got to be related to someone I do know. How did she become a piece of data? The problem with a "cultural experience" is that you are squeezing something real and substantial into the two-dimensional world of information: a reduction that is slightly insulting at best, and destructive at worst. I'm not indicting anyone's attempt to inform themselves about the issues of the world; at best that's all I'll be able to do, because even living next door to the problems on the reservation, I'm still not living them. (Besides, here I am, reducing South Dakota into my own words and images, all for the sake of informing the folks back home.) I guess I've just become more aware than I was before that beneath every image, lying under every fact, is something real and sacred that can't be contained in information alone.

Seeing the reservation through outside eyes showed me that my eyes are at least slightly less outside at this point. This place has gotten under my skin: it's home, for the moment. The weekend gave me a chance to step back and brush up against what's real--not hyperreal--, what I've been too busy to stop and touch so far. Even if it's not as romantic as western sound stage, there is something magic there, the simple magic of solid, irreducible reality.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Folks, Pt. 1

My folks came to visit this weekend. Some people's families are shocked by their childrens' decisions to teach out here, and reluctant to venture out the rez. Not my parents. They were a lot more excited than I was when I was first placed in South Dakota, and they have done a very good job of informing themselves about the issues out here since my arrival. My mom teaches in the School of Ed at Central Connecticut State University, and she decided to talk about the schools out here in her class on Wednesday, so she visited school and took lots of pictures. It's hard to maintain my hard-won professionalism when my mom is in my classroom, though. It was very nice to see them, though. This is going to be a two-parter: first, I'm going to show off lots and lots of photos, and then in a second post, at some future date when I have more time, I am going to get all reflective.

After school on Friday we drove over to Mission to watch Little Wound play Todd County. A good way to introduce my parents to small-town life and to the bitter cold of South Dakota (sitting outside for 4 hours in 30 degree weather = great). It was a good game until the end, when the tides turned against the Mustangs.

Friday night lights.
Jeff was workng the camera on top of the press box, so Russ, Wes, Luke and I joined him up there. Pretty much the only place you can actually see the game.

Friday and Saturday nights I stayed with my parents out near Interior at the Badlands Ranch and Resort. This is the closest lodging to Wanblee, and is actually out Craven Road--although, as you can tell, that rental car could not have made it through all the potholes. The place was clearly built for summer. The cabin was essentially not insulated but it did have an A/C. Good thing I had a stack of 7 blankets on my bed.

Horses at the Ranch. The owners were out in Montana hunting, though, so there was no one available to give us the advertised trail rides.

Pitchfork: the real deal. Okay, that's a bad joke. That there gazebo holds the Resort's pool table, which is not only bit dirty from being exposed to the elements, but also tilts horribly. And the tight walls really impede your ability to take any kind of shot.

Most of Saturday we spent exploring Badlands National Park. Despite the fact that I live only half an hour away from the park, this is the first time I've really explored it. I took tons of pictures, none of which can really capture the granduer of it all; you have to see it in three-dimensions and unframed by any edges. I tried to pick only the best photos, but I couldn't really decide, so here are a bunch, which sort of give you a sense of the variety even within the Badlands itself.

Just after arriving in the park, on a short, half-mile nature walk.

A view down back towards the Ranch and Wanblee.

Black-billed Magpie, or something like that.

Beginning the Notch Trail hike--the longest one we did, clocking in at a mile and a half.

Nice sky.

Dad climbing the ladder on the hike.

Prairie and Badlands.

Looks like it goes on forever. You really need to see this one without the boundaries of a picture frame.


A sense of scale.

The Wall.

This is huge, you need to see it in person. Feel free to come visit and do so.

End of the trail.

Cracked earth.

Yellow mounds.

Me and Dad in the Badlands. I gave myself that buzz; it's a lot easier than finding a barber out on the reservation.

On our way back from the Badlands, we stopped over in Conata, a ghost town that remains on the map despite its current lack of existence. It's basically a patch of debris along a dirt road, marked by the rut where the railroad used to run.

The largest of the debris.

The folks exploring Conata.

This used to the rail station, I think.

Old fridge.

The frame of a building.

One of Conata's remaining inhabitants.

On Sunday morning we headed down to Pine Ridge. My dad had found out about a buffalo release sponsored by Village Earth (see also the "Pine Ridge Project" link to the right. The program donates buffalo to Indians who have reclaimed their lands so that they can live self-sufficiently off the meat. This is about as close to a buffalo as I want to be, really.

The release.

Buffalo idling before heading off over the hills.