For the next few posts, I will be writing about my latest trip to South Dakota. Rather than start from the beginning, I have chosen to work backwards, so that in effect, the posts will read (hopefully) in chronological order once completed. I don’t know if this will actually make reading them more enjoyable, but since the return trip is freshest on my mind, I begin with this story.
It always seems to rain when it’s time to say good-bye. I try to remember back to childhood. Did it rain every time my grandparents finished their summer visit? And there is a tradition in my family that no road trip to South Dakota would be complete without Mother Nature hurling her most creative weather concoctions at us as we rocket down the parched and patched roads.
My sister and I left Belle Fourche on a cloudy morning, my car so loaded with “treasures” that we could only see out the side mirrors. Traveling this way makes some nervous, but we’ve done it so often that after looking at the pile of bags, coolers, boxes, and assorted furniture crammed into my SUV, we just shrugged, laughed, and started the ignition. My parents were depressed to see us go, and as we prolonged our farewells, rain clouds stacked up in the sky. I noted this but said nothing of my observation about rain and families splitting. I volunteered to drive first so that I would be less likely to pout in the car. I did not want to leave. South Dakota had seeped into my bones and was coursing through my blood. I burned with the fever of wanting to return to the dreamscape –Black Hills Spruce, impossible geography, and frosty creeks hiding gold flecks — all muted the outside world.
We made small talk in the car and let the conversation twist down whatever trail seemed appropriate. On Interstate 90 east of Rapid City, I looked up into the sky to gauge the probability of a storm and saw an enormous bison in profile, charging majestically across his cloud prairie. Tatanka, or He Who Owns Us, according to the Lakota language, demanded our full attention above the horizon. The literal translation of Tatanka is buffalo bull, but the meaning of the name — He Who Owns Us — implies the Lakota’s great reverence for the king of the Plains. Legend and tradition ingrained through generations has made the bison a permanent central character defining life in South Dakota. Symbolizing the sacredness and abundance of life on the Plains, the bison is not owned by any person. Instead, we who walk the earth are owned by him, who has sustained us.
It was difficult to keep my eyes on the road; the Tatanka cloud was practically mesmerizing. Within minutes it morphed into a smaller bison, maybe a cow, and soon it was strolling slowly with its humped back framed against a bluebird sky. By the time we reached Wall, the cloud had changed once again, breaking apart to become the wispy face of an old bull, staring down as we passed the cemetery like a great sentinel watching over his vast domain. Tatanka certainly owned us that day as we wallowed in the bittersweet memories of our adventure.
The next day we left South Dakota in the early afternoon. It was raining. As I said, it always rains when I have to say good-bye. The clouds, a reflection of my breaking heart, streamed quiet wet tears down the canvas of the sky. They swirled above and around, creating the impression that we were enclosed under a great inverted bowl of steel blue wool. A few tears escaped from behind my sunglasses and I brushed them off my cheeks quickly. Suddenly Tatanka appeared one last time, humped up and riding the cloud bank shot through with lightning, reminding me to keep my aching heart strong and wait for the next time I would return to South Dakota. The question is, can I hold out?