Thursday, January 29, 2009

"Trip to the Heartland" by Judith Dupree, Part 1

Judith Deem Dupree

South Dakota . . . the prairies stretch to infinity, disappearing in a far blur of dust. We ride the ribbon of asphalt without talking. There is something quieting about this land; perhaps it is a respite that we are experiencing – a letting go of expectation.

Always, in our long drive, I have watched the fields and hills appear, fill our windshield, and disappear behind us. I wait for each variance as it comes. A curve of furrow, a sudden rise and plummet of earth, the jagged rip of a seasonal stream gone dry, a long claw of erosion. The way a stand of trees braces the skyline. Farms hedged in against the whine of wind, their encircling trees ever bowed, even in the now-still air. These are the pictures that race across my field of vision . . . a kaleidoscope of earth-tones that draw me on.

And now I let the landscape carry me past, unheeding – not from boredom, but, as I say, with a sense of rest. The very flatness and sameness so often despaired of seems more a gift than a frustration. Like life, I guess. We are so often engrossed and compelled by the ups and downs -- the dramatic, the traumatic, the demanding, startling, or stimulating. It is sameness that we really live in, that we come back to from whatever highs and lows life shoves us through – or which we plunge into willingly. Dailyness. This earthscape is like our dailyness. It rests me.

We are watching for a name on the map; we've made a detour from our pilgrimage to Mt. Rushmore to find this "dot" on the matrix of wavy lines.

Dupree, SD – My husband's surname. It has intrigued him for years that this small settlement on the edge of "nowhere" bears his name. When he first suggested we go to Rushmore on our trip, I knew, right away. It was the pull back to tenuous roots that really drew him, not the famous faces. The unknown, the "nobodies" like him who perched atop this stubborn soil so long ago and left little but this family name behind – that was the pull.

This much I know, from reading: The land was once ruled by France, then Spain, and is replete with tales of explorers, fur traders, and gold miners. And it is soaked in the blood of the Sioux, who lived along the adjacent Cheyenne River. Many of the current residents on this reservation we skim through are descendants of these early settlers A bit further south, or west, are names that echo – like the funereal toll of a bell – through our national history: Little Big Horn . . . Wounded Knee . . . Custer.

And so we draw near, and take notice once again of what this land says about itself.

It grows "kinder" now – less barren, more "peopled," both past and present. Remnants of ancient outbuildings and blank-eyed houses sag beneath the relentless sky. Farm yards, some choked with the machinery of the seasons, abut the occasional dirt roads – clusters of trees and hulking shapes that rush into focus and instantly become someone's life story. I want to stop at each and beg a cup of coffee and find the shape of their history here.

(Part Two will be published next week)

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