Sunday, September 09, 2007

Item from the Past: September 9, 2004

South Dakota became my 45th state [on September 9, 2004]. I took a childish pleasure in crossing the border, there on I-29. A silly thing, considering the arbitrariness of it, but then again, human beings delight in arbitrary things every day and all night. I just choose eccentrically. Anyway, I’d inspected the area maps beforehand, to see if there was a more civilized way to cross from Iowa to SD than on a four-lane freeway. The Big Sioux River forms the border at that juncture, and I saw a park on the Iowa side of the river with what could have been a pedestrian bridge across to a golf course on the Dakotan side.

Arriving in the park, I got a good look at the river, and the Dakotan banks on the opposite side. The golf course must have been obscured by the trees lining the river, or perhaps it was a mapmaker’s fiction. The item on the map that looked like a bridge turned out to be a large pipe, supported by a truss of some kind. If I had been 19 and brainless, I might have tried a crossing. I got back in the rental truck and drove across the border.

I had only a short time in that large state, and on the map I'd come across a red point-of-interest dot called Spirit Mound, without further information. It was well placed for my purposes, only about 10 miles north of Vermillion, which itself is a short drive across the border. Without further ado, I decided to go.

It’s a lone hill, standing in the farmland of that part of SD, which looks precisely like the neighboring parts of Nebraska and Iowa. The state of South Dakota is restoring the 300 or so acres around the hill to tallgrass prairie, which was rustling briskly in the wind that day. Armies of crickets and grasshoppers added their buzz to the whip of the grass in the wind. It was late afternoon, but still very warm. I was completely alone. A path led from the small roadside parking lot into the prairie, and, barely visible as a line across the hill, it promised a walk to the top. I didn’t need any more invitation than that.

According to the vague state-erected signage near the parking lot, “Native Americans revered the site,” though it didn’t say who or why or whether any Indians still did so. Perhaps the history of incursions into the Black Hills has made the state hypersensitive in these matters. But it is certain that Lewis & Clark climbed this hill, this very spot, on August 25, 1804, or 200 years and small change before I did.

It took me about 20 minutes to reach the top. The path curved around the hill like a question mark, and was only moderately steep even at the very end, when it ran up to the top of the hill. Lewis & Clark, by their own account, saw herds of buffalo from this vantage. I saw farmland, farmhouses, a radio antenna or two, and the road I’d come on. Still, it was a swell 360° panorama, and I felt a distinct — though fleeting — sense of place.

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