South Dakota Journal, Part II


The smell of the mountains is part of the wonder of it all. Fresh, clean, lovely. (I ain’t in Manhattan no’ mo’.)

Walking through a forest, I have this thought — a funny thought: “I can understand why people want this scent out of an aerosol can.”

Mt. Rushmore, I must say, is superbly done. The visitors’ center, the pathways, the signs, the parking lots — everything. The Park Service, or whoever it is, has done a wonderful, tasteful, elegant job. Yay, America.

I tell Rick Brookhiser, “I’ve seen some friends of yours” — meaning Washington and Lincoln, in particular. He says, “What did they say about Syria?” I say, “They’re not talkin’ much.”

I think of a Pushkin tale: The Stone Guest. Based on the legend of Don Juan and written after the poet saw Mozart’s opera. (At the end of the opera, the Commendatore speaks. He is the “stone guest.”) (A Russian composer, Dargomyzhsky, wrote an opera from the Pushkin drama.)

There is plenty out here that is named after Custer: the town of Custer; Custer County; Custer State Park. I thought Custer was supposed to be a bad guy in American history. A black hat. Glad it isn’t completely so.

I enjoy one sign by the side of the road: “Cattle at Large.”

More proof that I ain’t in Manhattan no’ mo’: a big sign advertising switchblades.

In Custer State Park, I drive through a natural tunnel, a stone tunnel, tall and narrow. Reminds me of Petra, in Jordan (which was made sort of famous by an Indiana Jones movie).

Bear with me while I try to explain something — see if you know what I’m talking about: The Black Hills and the rest of the environment look so beautiful, from a distance. When you take in the panorama. But your immediate surroundings — not so much. The nature looks more beautiful from far away than at hand.

Is that all right to say?

In the park, there’s a big old rock, casting a shadow. When you’re in that shadow, it feels like the temperature has dropped 25 degrees. I’m sure that isn’t true — but it feels that way. I think of something Biblical, something from Isaiah: “the shadow of a great rock in a weary land.”

Speaking of things Biblical: On the way down a mountain, or a very large and steep hill, a father says to one of his children, “You’re keeping up so well, Hezekiah!” Interesting that kids are named such things these days. Joshua became so popular all of a sudden! When I was growing up, no one was named Joshua, except for maybe rabbis and a few hippie children.

I remark to someone, “It’s almost harder going down than going up” — trickier to get down the mountain than it is strenuous to get up. Yes, he says: “More people die in the Himalayas going down than going up.”

Well, there’s a have-a-nice-day thought!

Years ago, I went camping in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan — place called the McCormick Tract. We saw no animals at all, except for a chipmunk or two. After hours of hiking in Custer State Park, I’ve seen no animals. And there appears one at the end: a chipmunk.

Bless the chipmunks, for showing up.

In a lodge-like eatery, the girl behind the counter is from just where you’d expect a girl working in the Dakota wilderness to be from: Serbia. It’s amazing, how people get around, vaulting continents and oceans.

Last night, in Rapid City, I met an Indian, who told me this: “In Pine Ridge, they’ll think you’re a social worker, a policeman, or an FBI agent. They’ll feel better when you tell ’em you’re a journalist.”

I don’t know about that. Anyway, thanks for joining me, friends, and see you tomorrow.