Sunday, November 18, 2007


That's short for bourgeois. It was (is?) my sometime nickname to some of my friends in South Dakota: I'm the sort of person that reads the New Yorker on camping trips, my parents are professors (of a sort; but nicknamers don't make distinctions), and I grew up in Connecticut, in a town that is at least classy enough to have a gourmet dog food bakery, where I once worked. I used to deny the validity of that nickname. I won't deny it any longer.

The Thanksgiving weekend road trip is, somewhat sadly, canceled. School is out tomorrow and Tuesday, meaning the only day of school this week will be a half-day on Wednesday. I was already in Minneapolis for the weekend (cheering on the Goats at the DIII Cross Country National Championships--and man what a jog they did), and, on a whim, I decided to skip said half-day and fly home for the week. Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday and last year I wasn't able to spend it with my family. My ability to make such a decision already reflects my bouge-y-ness.

So here I am, suddenly and unexpectedly back in Connecticut. This morning, I was having breakfast at Luke's house and correcting his mother's assumption that, since I grew up Connecticut, I must have spent all kinds of time in the woods and mountains. But as my plane descended through the clouds, I was surprised, as usual, at how wooded Connecticut seems. Rather than the giant expanse of suburbia I picture in my mind, there were trees and lakes, and even dirt roads, and when the the plane banked, a glimpse of the Berkshires to the north. I was excited to back in New England in autumn.

West Hartford, though, was as suburban as I remembered--more so, really. After dinner, I went out to pick up some toiletries for the week. A couple months ago, my parents' ridiculous old Ford Festiva gave out, and so they bought a new car. A brand new, cherry red Toyota Prius, complete with a "smart key" and a digital display and a rear-mounted video camera that pops up when you put it in reverse. So in this new car I drove to Walgreens--recently remodeled--and tuned into a surprisingly impressive old punk show on the Trinity College station. Driving through quiet, leaf-littered streets, the music--crystalline through the new speakers and accompanied by the near-silent hum of the hybrid engine--sounded less like angst or discontent and more like luxury: a call to the privileged, cultured, adventurous few, or a badge of idiosyncrasy amidst a sea of well-financed sameness.

In the center of town, the long-awaited Blue Back square, an outdoor pedestrian mall, has been unveiled: Crate & Barrel, National Jeans Company, Cheesecake Factory, Barnes & Noble; all crowned with luxury condos, meticulously styled to suit the not-too-urban, not-too-suburban atmosphere. A cobble-stoned stairway, wedged between the remodeled library and a brand-new "artsy" theater, leads up to the old town green and town center, which now might be relegated to just being being the "restaurant district," with a half-dozen or so restaurants that might rank with the best in the state. (I didn't check if the dog food bakery was still there.)

Two days ago I drove out of Wanblee for the weekend. My car, covered in miles of dust, clinked and growled about its hundred-thousand miles as I pulled onto the highway. As I drove out of town, I passed an old abandoned gas station, weeds sprouting from the pavement out front and trash spilling from its empty doorway. Then nothing but prairie.

This evening my parents' new Prius purred quietly as I parallel parked on a brand-new street next to a brand new Sovereign Bank ("now open," the windows confirmed) in a brand-new development. Two years ago this was a parking lot; now, three stories of condominiums loomed above me and well-dressed youth walked by me, discussing what West Hartford "really needs" (to replace an empty, former grocery store with a laser tag and/or paintball facility, apparently). This is a town where even the municipal trash cans have been upgraded since I was last home.

Yesterday I was somewhere in between: when I got to the Minneapolis airport to pick up my friends, I was frazzled, worn down by the four lanes of traffic, the constant barrage of exits and merges and signage and information. "I'm just a country boy," I told my friends, as I clomped tiredly through the airport in my cowboy boots, sporting my rugged, week-old beard. "I could never live in a town like this again," I said, driving by Best Buys and T.G.I.Friday's.

Tonight, though, walking past the closed up store fronts, I realized I was one of these well-dressed youth: wearing cowboy boots still, but topped with $70 jeans, and a down vest from The Gap, and a crisp, white, buttondown L.L. Bean shirt I salvaged from my closet. There was a bite to the air, and I felt enveloped in the soft light of the closed stores--the glow of growth and commerce dimmed for the night, but still dreaming the American Dream. As I stepped from that unfamiliar car onto that unfamiliar street, I couldn't help myself: I felt at home.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Potential Road Trips

Long time. This blog is supposed to be thematically centered around South Dakota, and short of that, is at least supposed to be a travelogue of my adventures West. Lately everything I've done--Halloween parties, Teach For America meetings in Pierre, lounging around in the Black Hills--, while fun, has not been breaking new ground. I did do a "Hash Run" on Sunday, which I might be able to turn into something interesting. We'll see.

But with Thanksgiving break approaching, I have a chance to do something completely new. I'm not heading East to see the family--I didn't really have enough time to fly out in time for the holiday--and so far I haven't managed to insert myself into any of my friends' family dinners. Seems like a good opportunity to explore some of the wider area, which is really quite extensive since I've hardly made it beyond northern Nebraska. Might go solo, might have Noah in tow.

I'm ready to drive fairly far. Within twelve hours all of the following seem feasible: Wyoming, Colorado, some of Utah, a lot of Montana, southeastern Idaho, and northern New Mexico. I'm thinking National Parks, although weather is a consideration.

Leave any ideas in the comments.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Barn Dance

As if my Saturday was not anachronistic enough, in the evening I stopped over at the Long Valley Fire Hall for a little barn dance, a 45-year Anniversary Party for one of the elementary teachers at school. From Indians to cowboys: I was, on a rare occasion, just about the only male in the house not wearing cowboy boots--and that includes a range from about four years old to 80-years-old. There was a supper, and then after supper a full band--complete with slide guitar and fiddle--were on stage with a repertoire of classic country. Here, it seemed to me, was a community you had to be born into: everyone, it seemed, had grown up in cowboy boots, riding the back of a rodeo bronco. And everyone was the next person's neighbor, even if that meant living many miles distant down the dirt road.

Tom, my counterpart in the middle school, was born and raised in Long Valley, and is one of the few volunteer fireman left to man the Fire Hall. It had seen better years, he said, but strung with Christmas lights and packed with ranchers from the nearest hundred miles, music ringing out into a cold and rainy October night, it seemed pretty damn decent--especially for a town that, according to Wikipedia, has a population of eight.
On Assignment

Considering a career in journalism, I emailed a woman at a local newspaper last weekend to set up informational interview. I didn't hear back from her for a few days, and then Friday, while I was working in my room after school, an aide stuck her head in and said that there was a parent on the phone for me--never an exciting prospect. It wasn't a parent, though, but rather some woman who I couldn't hear too clearly over her weak cell phone connection. What I could make out were phrases like, "got your name from Amanda at Lakota Country Times," "I live in town," "writing project," etc. Since she was in town, I suggested she come up to school to talk to me, but she couldn't (no working car, I think), so I said I'd stop by her house in town after school if I had time.

After school I was supposed to stop by the college center to quickly go over factoring quadratics with a guy I know who needs tutoring. But first I drove around town a few times, looking for the right house (we don't have street names here, just numbers). I couldn't find it, so I finally pulled into the driveway of a house where about five of my students were hanging out (and did they ever look pleased to see me pulling up). They suggested I look in the general direction of where I had already been looking. Going back, I finally found it: there was no number on the house, and it was spray painted, instead, on the septic tank.

Inside I met Phillis, who began talking about how she is concerned with the elders in the community, especially one man, Art, who lives 18 miles outside of town in a log cabin who needs his roof repaired. She offered me a few Polaroids of his house. Because I was still confused, I asked if they wanted me to write a newspaper article on this--my email hadn't asked for a writing opportunity--and she said yes. I had to leave quickly, so I couldn't gather more information, but she said if I had time I could stop by the next day and we'd drive out to visit Art.

So the next morning I headed back to town, still curious as to what was going on. I stopped by Phillis's house, and she filled me in a little more on the situation and her involvement with the elders in the community. I was still rather confused about my purpose, but she reiterated that we were working on a newspaper story, so I decided to take the chance to head out and meet the elder. We drove eight miles out of town and then another ten or eleven miles south past Long Valley. Finally we turned off down a dirt road, drove another mile, and then turned off onto a dirt driveway. Halfway up the driveway, a pick-up truck was abandoned--Art's it turned, out; its rear end had given out--so I had to take the rougher road through some puddles and mud. we pulled up to a log cabin surrounded by elaborate wooden fence work. As usual, the rusted out chassis of a few cars rested in yard, and three horses picked at the grass. A dog idled by the front door of the cabin, and as we walked up Phillis shouted at it to stay back. I didn't shout enough, I guess, as I got nipped in the ankle through my jeans.

Art's cabin

I stepped inside the cabin. It was clearly hand-built, and dilapidated, but it was warmer inside than it had been in Phillis's HUD housing in town; a wood-burning stove in the center of the cabin was the source of heat. Pots and pans hung from the wooden beams that supported the sagging rough and separated the main room from a workspace on the right: a few hand-built tables scattered with the necessities of a rustic life. Past the stove, on the left, was an old metal bed frame and mattress; a hand-made shelf held various foodstuffs; and at a table set with a ketchup bottle and a collection of dirty dishes and old food sat Art himself, hand rolling a cigarette and gazing out one of the two remaining windows (the other two had been kicked in by the horses), waiting for someone whose arrival he anticipated. He didn't anticipate ours; he has no phone, so we could not announce our arrival. Of course, he has no electricity or plumbing either.

The pump where Art gets his water.

We sat and talked a bit, for our "interview." It was a slow and quiet conversation, though. I was still far from clear as to what story I was writing, so I had nothing prepared. And Art, though he understood most English, spoke very little of it--only one quick spurt, late in the conversation, when he said that if he ever left his land, other people would come and take it away--so Phillis had to translate his answers from Lakota for me. Often she would have to repeat my questions, as well, though, only speaking English, she would just repeat the same things I asked louder and clearer.

I gathered that the 2.5 acres that Art lived on, along with his son and various other relations, had been in the family since the Allotment Act of 1891. Art had lived there for his full 74-years; he built his current cabin in the 70s, but he didn't remember what he had lived in prior to that. In the 1930s, Art would ride a horse the 20 or so miles up to Wanblee to attend the Day School--although I don't believe he made it past the first grade. In his youth, he had ridden broncs on the rodeo circuit, traveling as far as Flagstaff. I didn't hear word of any other jobs he had held. Today, he spends his time mending fences for ranchers in the area, and lives off his social security check. Once a month, at least when the truck still worked, he would drive into Long Valley for groceries. Now he will have to ride the horses in, as he did in his youth.

The trailer next door.

The cabin is not Art's only option; his son lives next door in a trailer that had been dragged out onto the property, though it too, like every building on their land, lacked electricity, heat, or plumbing (The son was not home when we stopped by. A real cowboy, he breaks horses for a living, and is often out working as a ranch hand. In the winter, he heads to one city or another find some other work). Art's son would try to get him to sleep in the trailer, which has its own wood stove, but Art refuses to live in anything but the cabin he built. He is happy, he says, except that he needs a new roof. And this, I believe, is the crux of whatever story might make the newspaper.

Carpet keeps one side of the roof dry.

Boards on the roof are held down by various metal farming implements.

We stepped outside the cabin to take a few pictures (I didn't get any of the inside; for spiritual reasons, Art will not have his picture taken). When we came back inside, we spoke for a little while longer, and then, abruptly, Art muttered a few words in Lakota. Phillis translated: it was good that we came, but he had to go. And then he asked one more questions: when would she be coming back (she was to bring him more medicine for his asthma and heart problems, as well as a new blade for his chainsaws). When we left, Art joined us in the car and rode with us down to his gate, where we found the guest he had expected, and the reason it was time for us to leave: a relation was driving up the road in a tractor, bearing a new supply of wood to heat the houses.

A view out from Art's land.

Some fence work.

I'm still not entirely clear what I'm supposed to be writing, but I am going to call the editor at the newspaper tomorrow to clarify my role in this whole thing. And then I'll have to dig into some statistics about how many people on the reservation still live in houses like this, with no heat and electricity, hunkering down as best they can as winter comes in.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Photo Essay

I came across this today, and I thought it was pretty cool:

More exciting news coming soon.

Friday, September 21, 2007

French Creek Photos

I don't think these photos really do the canyon justice. It was difficult to photograph everything because the trail was narrow and I could never step back far enough to capture everything.

The first of many crossings of the creek.

French Creek.

Rocks rising out of the canyon.

It's supposed to be a natural area, but there's obviously been some development. Somewhere along French Creek is where gold was first discovered in the Hills, bringing in a rush of prospectors.

The leaves are beginning to turn.

The canyon went up pretty high on both sides.

The creek near where I camped.

My cocoon.

I climbed this in the morning to get warm (not the sheer part, obviously).

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Vision Quest

This weekend I headed out on a camping trip, solo for a change. I also had no tent, no sleeping bag, no map, no compass, and no flashlight, in a wilderness area with no marked trails. Although I had reasonable facsimiles of the most essential of those items, and the rest I was just dumb and forgot. And the trail, though unmarked, was pretty easy to follow. Because I didn't have much to do, I got some writing done, including this entry. So I'm presenting it here with minimal editing, along with some commentary about things I forgot.

Anyone who knows me knows that weekends are my salvation. On Wednesday night, I was playing the TFA Game (created by Jenny and Shannon)--basically I had to chose my favorite TFA concept out of a list. Unsurprisingly, my choice was W-3, the row on our all-important rubric that encourages "work-life balance." Of all the things TFA asks me to do, this is what I'm best at. I enjoy my weekends and my friends.

Which is why it was slightly unusual of me to head off on my own this weekend. Last weekend, I had a mild urge to head off on a miniature vision quest, venturing out into the wild uncharacteristically alone. Over the course of the week, that idea slipped y mind. But I still felt the need to do something new and refreshing: at this point last year I was roadtripping all over mid-America, and I felt as this year was starting out with a rut of the same old bars and Rez towns. So when I was unable to find anyone to adventure with me, I adventured alone.

I decided to head to French Creek Natural Area in Custer State Park. Ryan ha mentioned it last year--he wanted to go in the winter and build all kinds of elaborate snow shelters--and it seemed perfect. The Black Hills are always spiritually refreshing, but Custer often seems to loud and busy--motorcyclists cruise the park roads, families descend on the campgrounds for long weekends, and everyone sits around drinking beer. French Creek, in contrast, is entirely solitary. I hiked for three hours along a single-track trail, winding back and forth across the creek, and saw no one (I crossed the creek about 10 times. You will get wet, the signs warned. And I did once, but barely [I got wet 3 times on the hike back out. Shows me.]). The creek winds through a canyon, with rock cliffs rising up out of the water. I used my new digital camera that I won at a parent-staff restructuring meeting on Friday to take pictures, but I am afraid they're marred by its low quality. [They're not too bad. Hopefully I will get them up soon.]

I was nervous while driving to the park. Being alone doesn't always come easy for me. But while hiking, I was ecstatic. I reflected. I wrote. I settled down in a small clearing and unfurled my gear, and enjoyed a supper of three PB&J sandwiches and one Goose Island Oatmeal Stout beer.

For the purposes of this adventure, I decided to use an old one-man sleep sack that my dad gave me. It's not quite a tent, just a sack that goes around your sleeping bag. He says that he finds it claustrophobic. It's doubtful that it's been used--or washed--since about 1970. To supplement this, I had to, as I often do, borrow from Luke's extensive collection of camping gear. He gave me permission to do this once, and I've done it since then without really asking. I see it as a fair exchange: I've given him dibs on the garage and the big bedroom, so it's only fair I borrow his gear--and, I'll admit, eat his food--once in a while. As a bit of karmic payback, though, it seems that this weekend I grabbed a fleece sleeping bag liner instead of an actual bag. It was only supposed to get down into the 50s, but it was probably a little colder in the canyon. So it was a cold night.

[Around here it was starting to get pretty dark--almost too dark to write. Some owls were coming out and screeching. It sounded pretty close. Then I looked up and saw an owl perched on a stump, staring down on my campsite, screeching at me. Then it flew to another branch. Closer. Then it flew to another branch, even closer, still staring at me and screeching. I'm really a city boy at heart--this summer I was scared off a campsite by raccoons--so this was not a good sign. But when I stood up it flew away. I heard it screech a few more times but it didn't bother me again. Either way, I was pretty spooked by that, and probably a little loopy from being alone all day, so I ended my entry with this stream-of-consciousness list:]

Things I should have brought on this trip but did not:
A pocket knife (to spread my PB&Js)
A compass (I walked the wrong way for a bit at the beginning of the trail, where I hit a fork)
My Black Hills map (see previous)
A sleeping bag (see above)
A flashlight (it is now 7:35 and I have nothing to do but go to sleep, as it is quickly becoming too dark to read, write, or walk. At the very least I should have saved my Oatmeal Stout and savored that in the darkness for awhile before bed.)

At this point I did have to prepare for bed because I couldn't see a thing. I watched the stars come out for probably an hour and a half--something I've never really done before--and then drifted off into a rather restless sleep. I woke along throughout the night and had to curl myself into a ball to keep warm in the fleece liner, but it really wasn't too bad. Also just before drifting off I was freaked out by what sounded like small rodents scurrying their way into my pack to steal my food. At least there are no bears in the Black Hills (that I know of at least). Obviously, I survived. When I got up in the morning I was shivering pretty bad, though, so I climbed to the top of the cliff on the other side of the creek to get my blood pumping a little bit.
Out of Gas, Out of Road

On Friday night I was heading over to Kyle. After going for a run, watching an episode of Newport Harbor, and then calling home to wish my dad a Happy Birthday, I was already a good hour and a half behind the scheduled start of the grilling that was supposed to be going on, and Wes had already called me once to say that my burger was on hold and rapidly cooling off.

A couple miles after I left Wanblee, a white car went whizzing by me in the passing lane. Then about 10 miles outside of Kyle, I see a white car ahead of me again. It slows down, then stops in the middle of the road. I slow down to see what is going on (and not run into the car). The car shifts into reverse, but doesn't go anywhere. I'm now at a complete stop, but since no one is coming, I signal, go around the car, and head on.

As soon as I'm passed the car I start to feel bad. The car was, as they say, pretty "rezzed out": the windshield was shattered, the car was rusty; basically it wouldn't be legal to drive anywhere that those kinds of laws were really enforced. A lot could be wrong with the car. I always feel bad when I drive by hitchhikers out in the middle of nowhere, but not bad enough to actually stop. But helping out a stranded car seemed more reasonable. So I turned around, pulled up to the car (which was still sitting exactly where I had passed it) and asked the driver if everything was okay. He said that they seemed to have run out of gas. I told him I could call the gas station, but unfortunately I didn't have any gas on me. "What about the gas in your car?" he asked.

I didn't have a siphon. He did, though--two, actually. I guess it pays to be prepared. I pulled over and we spent a good 15 minutes trying to siphon the gas out of my tank. Unfortunately (at least in this circumstance), my tank seems pretty siphon-proof.

What was best about the whole situation was that the guy seemed entirely unfazed by anything. He just kind of giggled about the whole thing. When it became apparent that we would not be getting gas out of my car, he just shrugged and said that someone else would drive by before too long. So I went on to Kyle. (I didn't come back the same way, so I guess he could still be stranded out there).

Monday, September 10, 2007

Billy Mills

On Thursday during a staff meeting, our principal said that Billy Mills would be coming to present at school today. I must have reacted somehow, because he asked if that was a good thing. I said it was.

For those of you who don't know, Mills is one of the legends of U.S. distance running. In 1964, he became the first American to win an Olympic gold in the 10,000m--and he remains the only American to do so this day. Entering the race, Mills was an also-ran; his best time was nearly a minute off Australian Ron Clarke's world record, and he hadn't even won the U.S. Olympic trials. Stil, he ran with the leaders through the first 3 miles of the race, running just slower than his best-ever time at the distance--with more than 3 miles yet to run. With a lap left, only Mills, Clarke, and Tunisian Mohammed Gammoudi remained in contention. Clarke pushed Mills, and he fell off the pace, nearly defeated. But then he spied an opening, opened up his kick, and made it by Gammoudi and Clarke in one of the most thrilling last laps in Olympic history.

Mills was also born in Porcupine, South Dakota--about fifty miles from here. He is Oglala Lakota and an orphan--like many of my students. One of the stories he told was of a summer off from high school--he attended Haskell Institute, an Indian school in Kansas--when he was working for 12 hours a day building grain silos in Valentine, Nebraska, living in a junked car, and bathing in a creek--and running for an hour every day. It was already his goal to win the Olympics. I hoped that as someone who shared their background, and has since gone on to not only win the Olympics, but also raise over $5 million for the reservation, he would be someone my students would be attentive towards. Unfortunately, they weren't.

I brought my copy of "Running Brave"--the movie about Mills's life--with me to school to have him sign it. I was standing around just before the assembly was supposed to start, wondering where he was. Someone asked, "What have you got there?," and I looked up, and there he was. He signed the DVD and then we chatted for a couple minutes about last month's World Championships, the difficulties in fielding a cross country team at the school, and Mills's current life in California. He is going to be seventy at the end of the school year, but he hardly looks older than fifty. I was even going to get to read the bio before his talk, but then the principal did it instead.

At one point during the presentation, Mills talked about meeting Scottie Pippen and other members of the Dream Team during the 1992 Olympics. Noah leaned over and asked what I thought it might be like to meet the Dream Team. I said that for me it would be kind of like meeting Billy Mills.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

SoDak Photos

are some nice photographs of the reservation, taken by the new TFA English teacher at school. I'm hoping to write a journalistic piece on the construction of a wind farm on Rosebud, and I'm going to drag Noah along to provide some professional quality photographs with the story to make it a little bit more saleable.
On the rez again

This is an abbreviated version of an email I sent out to people who have asked to be updated about how school is going (let me know if you'd like to be added). Hopefully I will have some further thoughts of my drive back west soon.

Today was the first day of my second year as a teacher--on Monday I will once again have students. My school has a new superintendent, a new elementary school principal, and a new secondary principal (our second: we had hired a different principal at the end of last year, but he quit after two days on the job this summer). The school is still in the process of being repainted. All of the furniture in my room was moved into the hallway so that the room could be painted; my white boards were taken down and have not been replaced. My desk, when it was being moved, cracked and fell apart. Computers were removed from classrooms, and because we have not only a new administration but a new tech guy, no one knows where they went. I searched the school, and finally found what had been my computer--but its CD-ROM drive had been removed for unknown reasons. Unfazed, I plugged it in and it told me it had a disk error and refused to boot up. At a staff meeting this afternoon, we reviewed who was in what classroom and realized that one of the five classrooms that actually have doors was not being used; this was quickly claimed by our Lakota Studies teacher (. We have no music teacher; we have no shop teacher. There are only two classroom teachers in the high school who have taught consistently at school for longer than I have.

Our school, in short, is in absolute chaos. In the words of the principal, there is simply no way that we will be ready to start school on Monday. He tried to push the start date back until after Labor Day, but all of the contracts had been signed as beginning today, so we are stuck with a half-finished school. Instead, we will be having short days all of next week, hoping that with that extra time in the afternoon we can turn this place into a real school. It should be interesting.

Despite all this, I'm unfazed. Last year at this time I was sleeping on a blanket on the floor in an unfurnished bedroom; I was signing reams of paper, sorting out insurance, trying to open a new bank account, waiting for the internet to be installed, and had a cell phone that got no reception within a 100 mile radius of my house; the only person that I knew in town was my roommate, and I had never once taught in a high school classroom. The other night, when I drove over the Missouri River, crossing from the Midwestern farms of "East River" South Dakota to the rugged, wild plains of West River, I felt, after two months absent, slightly elated to be "coming home." This morning, breakfast was a social hour as the staff--teachers, custodians, bus drivers, and cooks--greeted one another and told the stories of our sumers; this afternoon, the teachers swapped furniture as we scrambled to reassemble gutted rooms. This evening, I shrugged off my work and drove forty miles to have potluck with friends I hadn't seen all summer. I've survived it all--I've even had fun doing it. I'm pretty sure I can survive again.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

New York Times Frugal Traveler: Pine Ridge

According to the map, he drove straight through Wanblee.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Cattle Branding

This cattle branding had been on my schedule for a long time. I've got the cowboy boots, I've got the country music, but I haven't really seen how the ranching life works, and here was my chance, if only for a couple hours. I knew the basics: the cattle have to be branded, and in order for that to happen we have to hold them down. While they're down, might as well vaccinate and castrate them, too. Some friends of friends were having their annual branding last weekend, so us tourists decided to come along.

This is, not surprisingly, not the most pleasant process. When we first walked up, it was a rather hellish scene: calves kicking as fighting as they were dragged out of the corral by their hind legs; others moaning, pinned to the ground, while the hot iron was pressed to their ribs; and above it all the smell of burning hair. It was a shock, and for a second I thought not only could I not help out all, I probably couldn't eat beef anymore.

For all the brutality of that first glance, branding is a pretty uncontroversial practice. In fact, it's necessary for the kind of beef that most "enlightened" eaters would approve, because it gives permanent legal proof of ownership for free-range cattle. The life of an unbranded cow, free from this one day of pain, would be much worse. Though some of this cattle, once it is auctioned off, may also end up in places I'd rather not think about.

All of these rationalizations didn't really occur to me in the moment. I just stood and watched for a while and adjusted to the cacophony and violence until it seemed okay--these are ranchers, and these are cattle. I watched a few of my friends pin calves, and then eventually, nervously, helped to pin one myself.

Once we had branded all of the calves in the first corral, we moved on to a second corral with another couple hundred calves. (The cowboys, meanwhile, herded the third and final set--the biggest calves--back into the original corral. All told, we branded over 700 calves). One calf down, I felt more willing to step up to the edge of the corral and claim some calves to wrestle. I decided I preferred holding the back to the front, as there is some kind of established technique: press your foot down on the bottom leg, above the joint; pull the top leg straight back towards you; and--pardon the language, but this is how I was instructed, and it just doesn't sound accurate described any other way--stick your foot in the calf's ass so that it can't shit all over you. As the possessor of a sullied cowboy boot, I can tell you that this last step is important. If you are holding the head, meanwhile, you just do whatever you can to keep it down. I tended to just jam a knee right in their jugalar, because as Matt suggested, if you cut off their circulation for a little bit, they tend to be a bit more sedate. After a couple calves you learn not to worry about hurting the animal--what you're doing is going to be the least of their worries on this day.

I had been out late in Valentine the night before, and by the time we returned to the original corral and started branding the biggest of the calves, I was fairly exhausted and so, besides a few contributions, I reverted to spectator mode. Desensitized to the violence, it becomes clear that the branding is, more than anything, a social affair. Whole families--mother, father, and two toddlers--combined forces to take down their own calves; friends and families all came together to pitch in a finish a hard day's work. In exchange, once the job was done, we returned to the ranch house, scrubbed the dirt, manure, and blood off our hands, and enjoyed a massive supper. Ranch life, at least when you are not working, seems pretty pleasant (I rode horse for the first time, further legitimizing my claims to being a cowboy--right?).

Later that night, I headed back to Valentine. Wearing boots stained with blood and shit, I enjoyed a hamburger, knowing a little better where it came from.

Photos stolen from Suzannah (some are slightly graphic):

Cowboys roping cattle in the corral.

A calf being dragged to its fate, while two kids run in to pin it down.

Russ and Dan demonstrating how to hold a cow while it is being castrated. The cows didn't struggle much while being castrated. It was the branding where they really showed they were in pain.

Castration from a less pleasant angle. The oysters were saved and put on top of the branding fire, and eaten once cooked. I didn't eat any.


Many kids, one cow.

Cowboys relaxing with just a few calves left to brand.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Growing Up

If I had moved here when I was a kid, it would not have taken me a full eight months to discover that there is a creek fifty meters behind my house.

Monday, April 16, 2007


Last weekend a few of us returned to the wilderness area in Badlands National Park for a more extended backpacking excursion (last time we were "backpacking" about a quarter mile off the road, and drove up to Wall to eat dinner at a restaurant). Our plans originally included crossing the twenty-miles of wilderness from point-to-point, somehow navigating our way to car that would be left at the other side. But I think we all woke up and realized we were pretty big novices. We also recruited Ryan, a former park ranger, who gave us some helpful pointers.

We headed out in the early afternoon into the rolling hillside. While we were hoping to camp in the actual Badlands, in the backcountry the park is more prairie wilderness and less Bad. But still beautiful. After about two and a half miles, we found a suitable camp site and pitched the tent. Then, releaved of our packs, we were able to wander a little freer.

Free of packs.

Matt in what, judging by the matted-down grass, must have been a pretty quick moving stream bed a few days earlier.

After wandering for a bit, we headed back to the campsite for a little dinner and to watch the sunset.

The campsite. We were on the very edge of a hill that overlooked Sage Creek, and in the other direction you could see the Badlands on the horizon. It was basically the best campsite, ever.

View of the Creek from the campsite, and, in the distance, the Badlands. This one looks a lot better when you blow it up.

Relaxing before dinner (PB&Js and beef jerky--no fires allowed).

Down it goes. During this whole time, a small herd of bison began to collect to drink from the creek just to the left of these photos, getting closer and closer to us (but still too far away to make a good photo, unfortunately). The young ones were running around and rolling in the dirt.

Before the sun set, I headed down the hill to check out Sage Creek and the valley below us.

Looking up the hill.

The creek. You can still see the campsite on top of the hill.

More views of the creek. You can see some pretty clear bison trails on the left.

One of the challenges in our quest to backpack clear across the wilderness is the fact that there is no potable water in the park. This picture shows how much silt is in the creek.

Bison bones.

Back on top of the hill, an airplane flies across the sky just after the sun is gone. Even being a three miles walk from a dirt road in the park, twenty miles from anything that would be considered a town by South Dakota standards (and seventy miles from anything that would be considered a town by my old standards--i.e. Rapid City), I still didn't feel isolated. The landscape is just so open that being out here didn't feel that different from being in my own backyard.

Monday, April 09, 2007


How strange it is to begin your day amidst a Philadelphia rush hour, the sun rising over hundreds of speeding cars--and then later, just as the sun sets, to crest a South Dakota hillside and return quietly the sleepy, rundown buildings of Wanblee.

It's been a little while since I've updated, mostly because what used to be adventures are now same-old, no longer worth reporting. But Golden demanded an update, and my trip "home" to Haverford this weekend allows me to oblige. This has been a trip a long time coming; I had looked at various dates to fly back and see all the boys, but I kept putting it off until it was too late and the fares had gone up. But with two days off for Easter, I committed myself and bought my non-refundable tickets early.

I took off Thursday to drive to Denver, saving myself $400 in airfare. But almost dying along the way. For the previous three weeks it had hardly dipped below 40 degrees out here, but I woke up bright and early Thursday morning to temperatures of 20 degrees and a half an inch of snow on the ground. I hit the road hoping that the weather would clear as I headed south, and at first the snow wasn't too bad. My first bad luck came just as I entered Nebraska; at Merriman, there is a slight jog in the highway, and while I made the first turn, I missed the second. I became suspicious thirty miles later when I arrived in Gordon noticing that the road was no longer marked as the highway I was supposed to be on. I consulted a map at a gas station, determined the quickest way to get back on track (only 60 miles out of the way...). Of course, for this whole time I could only defrost a small patch on my windshield, and so I had to crane my neck just to see the road, and after a couple hundred miles on snow-covered back country roads, my tires began to get noticeably slick. But I plugged on, not wanting to take a later flight. As I approached Lake McConaughy, I was happy to know that after some 200 miles I was almost to my first interstate, where I assumed driving would be much less hazardous. And then I felt the car fishtail to the left, drifting off into the other, thankfully empty lane. My attempt to recover failed, and I spun back the other way, almost ending up perpendicular to the road. And then I slammed on the brakes as I slipped over the side of the road and into a ditch. Luckily I came to a stop before slamming into the campground fence. Somehow, never once did I feel panicked.

I popped the car in reverse, hoping for the best but knowing that in all the snow and mud nothing was gonna happen. After repeating this exercise a few times, I started to think. I've heard many, many stories of my friends going off the road in snow, and they all seemed to have been rescued by helpful cowboys in pickup trucks, so I figured that was my best bet. But when one pickup went by without so much as a second glance, I pulled out my phone and called up AAA. Just as I was explaining my predicament to the dispatcher, I saw an old, old baby blue pick up slowing down on the other side of the road, and then pulling around to my side. Here was my helpful cowboy: a skinny, weather-beaten guy much older than his truck. During the entire operation of hooking up the chain to the back of my car and guiding me out of the ditch, he said a total of three sentences: "Pretty slick out here"; "Put it in reverse and I'll pull you out"; and "You're welcome." And he probably never would've said that last one if I hadn't been able to squeeze in a handshake and thank you before he wordlessly returned to his truck and pulled away.

Safely back on the road, and driving very carefully, I was dismayed to find the conditions even worse. I could hardly see the highway through the snow as I pulled into Ogallala and made my way onto the interstate. At this point I called my dad, wondering if I would have to deal with the weather all the way into Denver. Luckily, it turned out I didn't: about five minutes after I got off the phone the skies suddenly cleared up. Arriving into Colorado was like pulling into paradise, and within forty miles the sun was shining and it was fifty degrees out. And the rest of the drive was blessedly uneventful.

Arriving at Haverford, I did my best to pretend I was still a college student: watching TV in the track suite Thursday night, work in the periodical room, lunch at the track table, running with the guys in the afternoon (Although when I tried, half-jokingly, to hang with a few guys as they did a fartlek workout, it became clear to me that some things just do not come back that easily). On Friday night I was treated to what was perhaps the greatest team race in Haverford track history, as a full five Goats all ran national qualifiers in the same 10k race--something that, as far as anyone knows, may not have ever been duplicated by any team in any event. On Saturday I was treated to a long, cold, satisfying day watching more races at Penn, dinner at Bella, and then a rousing, Saturday evening good time. Sunday went quickly and quietly, the way Sundays do: a run, lunch, a nap. That night, though, eight of us drove out to Wayne to eat at the diner, and as we all sat around cracking jokes and busting balls, I realized life couldn't get much better than it does here: even when you're doing nothing at all, you're doing it with the greatest of friends. But I've always been nostalgic.

So it wasn't easy to fly out on Monday morning. Haverford is a place heavy with memories: I can round any corner on any street and remember hundreds of runs, hundreds of little moments, one-off conversations with friends, feelings of joy, triumph, stress, despair.

But as I started my car, parked in a dirt lot somewhere ten miles outside of Denver, and pulled back out onto the highways of the (Mid-)Western* plains--still four hundred miles from my house--, I felt a little sense of homecoming. Maybe it was the country music blasting from my car--of a quality much higher than the country radio I had subjected my friends to back in Philadelphia all weekend. Maybe it was the sight of those rolling, green brown hills, the watertowers, the wind mills, the pickup trucks, and the cattle--all these symbols that I have tried, ridiculously, to adopt as my own. But most likely what felt right about coming back West, despite leaving so many friends behind, was returning to new friends. Only eighty miles outside of Denver, driving through land that was still entirely unfamiliar to me, I passed a familiar car--and there, in the driver's seat, was Kim, a coincidence that doesn't seem so wild once you've gotten to know how large but how small it is out here. So we drove the next three hundred miles from the interstates of Colorado, along the backroads of Nebraska, and up into the familiar old gas station of Martin, South Dakota, as a two-car caravan--just about the only cars on the road.

As I headed north, the route became increasingly familiar. I had only driven I-76 once before, on my way down, but nowhere along the rolling, dead green sameness of the prairies feels that foreign once you've lived here long enough. But as I made it into Nebraska, I hit roads and towns I have passed through three or four times, and then, in South Dakota, places where I knew the contours of every hill, where I could anticipate the particular delapidation of each individual house. A place now as familiar as those suburban highways where I began the day--my new home.

I think of "Home," though, as--to borrow a phrase from The Great Gatsby that heavily informed my thesis--as a "warm center of the world." These prairies have no center. Physically, they ramble on in their sameness; emotionally, there is no one spot to which I return for warmth--only a house that is a convenient spot for sleeping. It's telling that I have rarely spent a weekend's night in my own bed: I'm always in search of new, exciting adventures; and I'm also horribly dependent on the companionship I find scattered across the state. For all the Western absurdities that I have adopted--the cowboy boots, the country music, the rodeo shirts--I'm too obviously still suburban at heart. I love my friends here, and our adventures in the vast and open landscape, but it's a landscape that overwhelms me, too. When I sit in my room and do work at night, I no longer here a roommate's music bleeding through a dorm wall. Sometimes I hear the wind; usually I hear nothing at all. Nothingness and solitude offer their own rewards, for sure, but they don't offere the easy comfort I'm used to. I guess I'm still learning how to find my warm center within myself.

*There is a standing debate amongst my East Coast friends as to whether South Dakota constitutes the West or the Midwest. According to Sherman, it is "cartographically" Midwestern, but that we like to think we are Western. I say the Missouri River is the geographic dividing line, and that I live in a land of ranches, cowboys, and Indians that is unmistakably Western. Does this place look like Ohio to you?

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Till These Badlands Start Treating Us Good

After a long winter (which will probably come back to us before too long), this week's warmer weather signalled that it was time to head back out to the great outdoors and enjoy an evening of camping. This time I didn't go far--Badlands National Park is 30 miles away from my house, which, for around here, is pretty much my backyard. So Kim, Kate, Matt and I met up at the visitor's center around noon and headed out for an adventure.

I had heard that the Badlands aren't that great for hiking: there are only about four trails in existence, and once you've done them, you've about used them up. What I did not realize about the park, though, is that you are allowed to go literally anywhere. There is no need to stick to the posted trails. So we parked the car at an overlook, saw a plateau about a half a mile away, and decided to make our way across to it.

Picking out a trail. It looked like these formations would take us all the way across to the plateau we were aiming for, but eventually we realized there was a valley in the way.

In the valley.

Looking for a way up. Since it was hard to see which formations would really lead straight up to the plateau, I was up on top of a different one, trying to scout out which slope looked most promising.

Matt, sheepish after his cellphone rings in the middle of the Badlands.

Lounging on top of the plateau.

The view on the otherside. What we didn't realize at the time was that not only was it legal for us to go hiking across this random valley, we also could've brought out tent and pitched it right down there--you can camp anywhere in the park. So I think next time we will be lugging along some frame packs, a GPS tracker, and some topographic maps to really make the most of the park.

If you enlarge this photo, you can see a speck on the horizon. That is my car, which gives some indication of how far we trekked and the terrain we had to cross.

After we made it back to the car, we went back to the visitor's center, loading up with our camping gear, and then drove down to the Sage Creek Primitive Campground. It's just two pit toilets and a couple of ugly picnic tables, but for us it was even less, just a place to leave the car. When we first arrived there was an elderly cowboy driving a pickup with a horse trailer attached, and the guy warned us that there were about four bison bulls right back from where we parked that were looking a little "off." And he mumbled something about how he'd been running bulls all his life. Undaunted, we signed in on the backcountry registration, and then successfully carried our gear about a quarter mile into the "backcountry." We followed a couple bison trails into a wooded draw, where we pitched the tent for the night.

Bison trail, not people trail.

Setting up camp.

Here is where we chose to pitch the tent. The tree had clearly been used by the bison to scratch themselves pretty regularly. The bark had been worn smooth and there were lots of lovely clumps of bison fur around.

After we had picked our campsite, Matt and I walked up a little hill to see what was on the otherside. And right on top, there were the bison.

I don't think this picture really gives a good perspective on how close we were to the bison. Maybe about 300 feet away, which is pretty close to a buffalo. But we left to go to Wall for dinner (no fires allowed in the park, and we had no camp stove), and, walking to the tent in the dark we didn't see much wildlife. We we half expecting to see a big ol' guy grazing right outside our tent when we woke up, but the bison had cleared out by morning.