It occurred to me, as the rain made a Photoshop filter out of my windshield. I squinted through the sheets of water, trying my best to discern traffic and traffic light. Gradually, fog crept its way up the windshield, cocooning me into the driver’s seat. And it occurred to me, as it has on so many other drives home, that I hate my ancestors.
Why would you want to live here?
I like to joke that South Dakota has only two seasons: winter and pre-winter. Winter isn’t just a season; it’s a state of terror. Other states might complain or cry about their “winter season”, but we all know that it doesn’t get much worse than the Midwest. Far from any large body of water, we get the joy of experiencing the full swing of nature’s fury. From 130°F in the summer to -130°F in the winter, we see it all: blizzards, prairie fires, tornadoes, and floods.
Why would you want to live here? Death Cab for Cutie sings a song by that name from the perspective of someone who can’t understand why anyone would take up residence in Los Angeles. No one writes songs about people who live in the Great Plains; it’s a foregone conclusion that we’ve lost our minds. Any descendants of the people who stopped and settled in an area named for its vastness and boringness, who aren’t in the process of moving away, are right mental.
Guys. Where are we?
No need to worry, though, I made it home safely. Once inside, I dried off with my iPod touch (not literally). I noticed that there was a new update to the Weather Channel app. Intrigued (as I hadn’t used it since I’d downloaded it months ago), I fired it up. Imagine my surprise when I saw that the county we live in was in the midst of four weather messages: flood, flash flood, wind, and tornado.
(Sidenote: Isn’t coupling a “wind advisory” with a “tornado watch” like announcing a “flatulence advisory” during baked bean night?)
It seems poignant that Holli and I are re-watching LOST season one. Looking back on that season, the problems that the characters dealt with seem insignificant compared to what they are currently facing. One major thing has changed since the first season; the survivors have learned to live on The Island. Season one had, as one of its themes, the mantra, “Everything can kill you.” That same mantra can be applied to living in South Dakota. Our winters are fraught with blizzards, frost bite, hypothermia, over-exposure, and countless car collisions. Our summers are replete with floods, tornadoes, forest fires, heat exhaustion, and, occasionally, earthquakes. As the LOST survivors learned how to exist away from society, they had to overcome obstacles like: no water, no meat, no fruit, wild animals, wild people, and bad weather. Eventually, they were able to refine a new mantra of “Only specific things will kill you”, as they learned to master their environment. South Dakotans haven’t been so lucky.
It is regrettably frequent that I find myself driving home in full realization that I am traveling through conditions that kill people. Certainly, it doesn’t take much to give even experienced drivers road duress, but the white knuckle rides get old. During poor road conditions, I can count on a Twitter update of how many vehicles have ended up in the ditch. We joke to ourselves that they were the stupid ones, the cocky drivers, but it could have been any of us. I wonder, not unoften, just how many times a year are California roads closed to weather? How often does Florida shut down its interstates? When is the last time someone complained about New Hampshire’s weather?
Nothing on the inside
For all the crime in the big cities, I wonder how it stacks to the lives claimed by The Prairies. There’s a library in a college in Minnesota named after a man who wrote a book in which a woman contracts “prairie madness”. Essentially, it’s a Disease of Empty. The lack of people, of things besides grass, drove settlers insane, usually ending in starvation or suicide. That is what this place can do. That is the power of Nothing.
We’ve built modest cities, which has held back the tide, but more and more people are moving to the populated areas. Sioux Falls is growing, and the villages of South Dakota are dying. Towns like Big Stone City have largely weathered the movement, where the lake and surrounding community keep it insulated. Other towns, like Doland, are fading away, with nothing but farm land and memories to keep people rooted there. Even those are eroding.
Part of the plot for the movie Cars revolved around the idea of the shrinking small-town culture in America. Like cars give a damn. But it did bring up a good point in that there’s a culture associated with these smaller dwellings that cannot be replicated even within the relatively small suburban areas. For as long as I can remember, a motor repair shop occupied half of the building devoted to our post office in Big Stone. A man, whose name I’ve forgotten, owned it. It was a simple business, and it must have done fine enough by him. He may have yearned for more, but I think that probably he didn’t. He was content with that simple lifestyle. He’s repair small motors all day, then go home and relax. A man can live that way, and die that way, and leave little behind. No great funeral would be held in his honor, but, possibly, he’d be happy more days of his life.
Dust in the wind
The prairie is permanent; its populations are not. Once there were great groups of Sioux and Lakota, Iowa and Pawnee, Cheyenne and Wichita, that roamed these same hills and valleys as we do today. Where now stands minor league baseball stadiums and convention centers, they trod that earth on horseback, carrying homes on their backs. Eventually, violently, they were extricated from their ways of living, and new settlers lay waste and stake, confident, bringing Complication hidden beneath the silken mask of Liberty. The dust of the First Fathers mingles with the dust of our Forefathers producing the rain that chilled my car, today, and blurred my vision. One day, too, my bones will break down into earth which will feed the storms and tornadoes of tomorrow.
Perhaps one such storm will catch a young Lakota man, driving his hover car home from space-work. He’ll sigh, as fog climbs up his windows, and, telepathically, he’ll turn on the defogger. And as he waits for the hover traffic light to turn space-green, he’ll curse aloud, “I hate my ancestors.”