T here’s a spot by my house, maybe ten miles or so north, where the late summer’s sunflowers roll on for acres till the pine-covered hills—the Black Hills of South Dakota—rise to mark a ragged horizon. I drive up there sometimes, just to sit among the slightly drooping flowers, watch the sky, and think of the rest of the distant world—all those people elsewhere, elsewhen. Who they are. What they do.
Even while I was little, living in Washington, D.C., and then Manhattan, my parents made a point of hauling me off on trips to South Dakota, exposing me to a rural life: years of horseback riding, old pickups that looked as though they might fall apart if the door were slammed too hard, and hard scrambles up the crumbling rock formations. It prepared me for a life much different than I was used to, and I wasn’t shocked when we moved to the Black Hills full time the winter I was fourteen. It felt like a vacation.
The Black Hills are undeniably beautiful. There’s the old granite, among the most ancient in North America. The thick, dark Black Hills spruce and the thinner, yellower Ponderosa Pine. The clear creeks. The wary deer and antelope. The indifferent buffalo. Sunsets as though God were the world’s most sentimental painter, all purple and blue and pink and orange. The land sometimes feels to me like a permanent playground: snowboarding in the winter, summer lakes to cool off in, the deciduous aspen and birch highlighting the fall in the canyons, and the newborn wildlife in the spring.
The last census shows (as the new one probably will) that South Dakota’s population has been going up in recent years: increasing by 59,336 people, or 7.86%, from 2000 to 2010. But to drill down into the data is to see that, generally, the increase is only because the cities have been growing—especially in Sioux Falls, the largest city in the state. The old countryside is still declining as the farms and ranches, the rural county seats, continue to empty. This midwestern and western phenomenon has been called “the depopulation of the Buffalo Commons,” which may be why I find South Dakota itself a liminal space: everywhere going nowhere, everything becoming nothing.
Small towns, like the one we moved to when I was fourteen, have their advantages. They are typically safer and they allow a closeness, an awareness of neighbors, that cities lack. They give their residents a sense of place, and a sense of attachment: a geographical feeling of being from somewhere and native to the soil. With their slower pace, easier economics, and calmer life, they let us feel connected to our physical location and the people nearby. Big cities are exciting, but small towns are more profound, inviting us to feel the deep stuff of life.
As a teenager, filled with angst and drama, I often said that I missed big cities. And, in truth, I did. A metropolis is certainly not about comfort. (Neither are small rural towns; you have to move to the suburbs to fall into that pillow-lined pit.) Cities show off their wealth and are very expensive. There’s something extraordinary about the sheer economic machine that is a city, but who wants to pay $6 for a bottle of water or $5 for a hot dog? In New York or San Francisco, it is not uncommon to pay over $4,000 a month on rent for a mediocre apartment.
The unknown traveler next to you on the bus, the wah-wah of police sirens, the way plaster flakes fall from your ceiling as the upstairs neighbor plays heavy-metal at two in the morning, the crime, the urine stink of the subways: Our experience of the city can be ugly and unhappy. At their best, Ralph Waldo Emerson observed, “cities force growth and make people talkative and entertaining;" even then, he added, cities “also make [people] artificial.”
The city is appealing for its diversity and excitement. However good the short-order cooks are at the local diner (the only restaurant open on a Sunday morning), they can’t even begin to match the thousands of restaurants and dozens of cuisines found in urban settings. However well-educated and artistically involved the residents of a small town may be, they can’t compete with the urban museums, galleries, theaters, concert halls, libraries, chess-player-filled parks, the absurdly expensive clothes in the window of Fifth Avenue couturier, the knick-knacks for barter at a Chinatown stand. Boston, Massachusetts, can support a philharmonic symphony and an opera company. Hot Springs, South Dakota, cannot. The true feeling of a city is the sense that you’re in the thick of things. There is no time to sit among the sunflowers, only time to be up and doing. Only time to be in pingpong motion.
Still, many of the children brought up on the Buffalo Commons clearly feel a drive to flee the rural life. “You know what our biggest export is in South Dakota?” the longtime governor Bill Janklow once sourly queried. He continued with the observation that it was “our young people.” He wasn’t wrong. Even if they stay in the state, running only as far as Sioux Falls when they get the hell out of, say, Fall River County, young people are abandoning the deep roots of South Dakota for a more active urban life. Again and again, when I speak to young South Dakotans, I hear strange echoes, as though they feel unfilled spaces inside themselves—half-understood dreams and half-motivating hungers.
These young people sense the disadvantages of rural and small-town life more than the advantages. The emptiness and quiet weigh on them. The lack of big city opportunities seems like a trap. Sameness becomes stultifying and unbearable. The empty two-lane blacktop highways look like a chance for a clean break.
Some of the young people in South Dakota don’t feel this way, and they interest me. I went to high school with kids whose eyes would grow sharp and clear, as though they were focusing on an unclouded horizon, when they talked about the ranch they were planning to take over from their fathers and mothers. They were going to college to study agronomy, or small-business economics, or animal science: the subjects they would need when they returned to the farm or ranch. They intended to stay here in this place, in this state, on this land. South Dakota isn’t a vacation for them. It’s home. It’s life itself.
Driving through the eastern portion of the state you’ll see miles upon miles of wheat, hay, sugar beets, and red sorghum ready for harvest: fitting work for those who live in a state where cows outnumber people.
I’ll be finishing college this spring. The contentment I feel, the ability to drive up to sit among the sunflowers, will soon burst. I expect I’ll be thrust into new work, a new job, and a new home. I’m very excited about that change. Or, at least, a little excited.
But these South Dakota thoughts are a personal borderlands between the place with which I feel a connection and the places I suspect I must go. The sunset this evening is streaked with color, a splay of pastels across the sky. Soon I will have to leave the sunflower fields, but for now they are enough. And more than enough.