How do you know when you enter “the West?”
The great American explorer John Wesley Powell tacked it at the 100th meridian. This isn’t just a border on a map. Land to the west averages less than 28 inches of rain per year, while everything east generally gets more than 28. It’s also the where the elevation hits 2,000 feet. West of the 100th meridian is literally high and dry.
In South Dakota, the Missouri River roughly tracks the 100th meridian, and it’s no surprise that the two sides actually have fairly different cultures known as East-river and West-river.
On the third day, we woke up on the eastern side in Sioux Falls, a city that looks to The East for its business, and would end the day clearly on the west, in Rapid City, gateway to the Black Hills.
Sioux Falls is, as we say in my line of work, a fine example of regulatory arbitrage. In 1981, the state repealed its usury laws, allowing card issuers to charge market rates. Citi moved is card operations here, along with 3,000 jobs, and today 15,000 people work in financial services at firms including Wells Fargo and Capital One. According to the FDIC, South Dakota actually holds more bank assets – $2.9 trillion – than any other state.
As you leave Sioux Falls, the next town of comparable size at the same latitude is Boise, Idaho, over 1,200 miles away -- in other words, it’s wiiiiiiiiiddde open. Heading west, green turns to brown, and the 160-acre Homestead Act family farms give way to 2000-acre wheat and cattle tracts. While East-river is organized into Midwestern grids with towns that look downright Minnesotan, West-river roads follow buttes and riverbeds, and towns are really just railroad junctions.
What I remember most about this stretch of the drive was the cold. It was as if Siberia left its door open and it was spilling out unobstructed onto the Dakota plains. This is the kind of weather, literally with highs below zero, when things begin to break down, and we were a bit concerned about Jay’s Explorer Bertha starting up, but she didn’t let us down.
You do wonder, however, how the cattle survive in this weather? We saw many miserable looking beasts out there standing around in the sub-zero weather. Apparently the cold will kill only “very weak” cattle, wrote Teddy Roosevelt in his Dakota ranch days, “which is fortunate for us… the cold being literally arctic.”
Crossing the ice-choked Missouri River -- officially entering “The West” -- it was hard to think about ole Teddy. One of my favorite stories of him is about him chasing boat thieves down the Little Missouri in the spring thaw. “For some miles we went swiftly down-stream, the cold being bitter and the slushy anchor ice choking the space between the boats,” he wrote.
Finally catching up with them, “I covered them with our cocked rifles, while I shouted to them to hold up their hands – an order that in such a case, in the West, a man is not apt to disregard if he thinks the giver is in earnest. The half-breed obeyed at once, his knees trembling for a second, his eyes fairly wolfish.”
Sheriff Roosevelt warned that the Badlands in particular were a favorite place for bandits. “With the ground cut up into gullies, serried walls, and battlemented hillsides … it is the country of hiding-places and ambuscades.”
The best words I can describe the Badlands are “jagged,” “chalky,” and “steep.” It seemed like the kind of place where every time you make your way out of a gully, you are greeted by another maze. If you try to climb out, I’d imagine the ground would erode under your feet. Driving the Badlands is navigating an S-ramp up a 500-foot gully with no guardrails on sheer ice with a 30-mph crosswind. Definitely gets the adrenaline pumping. We never doubted Bertha, but we definitely put her (and our driving skills) to the test. As Teddy put it, “it is a remarkable place that can shake the matter-of-course confidence felt by the rider in the capacity of his steed can go anywhere.”
Surrounding the Badlands is the 600,000-acre Buffalo Gap National Grassland, which looks probably the same way it did when the buffalo roamed it.
If one thing has changed, the wild grasses out here have mostly been replaced by wheat. Wheat is to the Dakotas as oil is to Texas. There is so much wheat grown out here that the US actually accounts for a higher percentage of global wheat production (22%) than Saudi Arabia does for oil (18%).
A lot of that surplus grain is exported, and during the Cold War the “carrot” for the Soviet Union was wheat shipments. Ironically, the US “stick” was hidden right there in those fields too in thousands of Minuteman Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles silos, each fitted with their own 1.2 megaton nuclear warheads.
We visited a retired silo, the Delta-09, a few miles down a gravel road off the Interstate in the middle of a barren snow-covered field. Standing at its chain link fence, you need to remind yourself that there was once an ICBM under your feet that could hit Moscow’s doorstep faster than Dominoes can deliver a pizza to yours. Otherwise, it is such an amazing emptiness out there on the plains, and such an ordinariness standing at a fenced-off patch in the middle of a wheat field, that you’re struck by the boringness.
The book The Missile Next Door notes the daily civilian life surrounding the nukes. “Each day they opened their kitchen windows and saw strange antennas poking from the ground; they shared their dirt roads – roads upgraded with military money – with armored trucks; they spent extra time plowing around 2-acre ‘holes’ in the middle of their wheat fields; they drove their children to school past missile silos.” Hiding in plain sight!
We ended the day at Mt. Rushmore in the Black Hills. We knew what to expect from Mt. Rushmore (and weren’t disappointed) but were surprised at how cool the Black Hills were. Imagine mountains about the size of the Shenandoahs or Alleghenies that look like the Cascades (lots of granite faces).
The Black Hills is essentially a great granite dome two billion years old, where sedimentary rock has eroded to expose granite peaks. I learned that the Black Hills “were ages old before the Rocky Mountains were uplifted. They existed long before the Alps, the Caucuses, the Pyrenees, the Apennines, and while the site of the Himalayas was still a marsh.”
What a canvass for Mt. Rushmore, especially with a fresh coat of snow!
Long before the tourists, the Black Hills attracted gold-miners, which gave rise to the old west towns of Rapid City and Deadwood, where Wild Bill Hicock was shot in the back holding a A-8 two-pair. We loved Rapid City and ended the day with a buffalo burger and Moose Drool, truly a Western meal, and one last leg away from Big Sky Country.