Friday, October 21, 2011

The Dakotas

I'm not sure why I find South Dakota so interesting. Both of the Dakotas, actually. It has always seemed to me that people from there are friendly, tough, practical, and unpretentious in a way that makes people from other parts of the country seem a bit sissified in comparison.

Some of my perception is due to random snapshot experiences. Like the time we were driving to Minnesota and stopped at a cafe in a tiny town for breakfast. I looked over the newspapers for sale at the front counter and asked the cashier if they had any with national news. She paused. "Well," she said, "as national as we get out here."

I loved that line.

Or the time Jenny and I rode the bus home from Minnesota and I talked with a few Dakota grandmas for a couple of hundred miles, and then one of them got off the bus and got picked up by a wholesome, smiling teenage farm boy in a pickup truck with a trailer behind who hugged his grandma and hoisted in her luggage and seemed a world apart from the slouching, miserable-looking, black-clad high school crowd that crosses the street by WinCo in Eugene.

Then of course there was my nephew who died in South Dakota, and his crowd of friends who came to his viewing and hugged the family and freely conversed with this West Coast aunt like they wanted to know how I fit into Leonard's life and like I was worth getting to know.

And then there's the mystique of the South Dakota Farm Boy as the Ideal Man, as discussed by Emily and Hillary way back in early 2006.

So I have a bit of an idealized picture of Dakotans. But I didn't know if I could ever live there.

My nephew had been very good friends with a family in South Dakota--Tim and Katie Faber, I'll call them--and their many young-adult children. When Leonard died, the Fabers were "there" for his family in intensely supportive and ongoing ways.

Some time ago the Fabers moved to a ranch in western South Dakota where they raise hay. I'm not sure if they also have cattle and sheep, but I know others in the area do. [They also put llamas out with the sheep to chase off coyotes which I find intriguing.] While I was at Mom and Dad's last week, my brother Marcus and SIL Anna went to visit Fabers for the weekend.

They came home with lots of stories about life in western South Dakota. It's rugged but not Badlands country exactly, Marcus said, and not all prairie either. Basically ranch country with buttes here and there. There are two public high schools to choose from, he said. One is 30 miles from the ranch and the other 35. The bus from the one school goes as far as 50 miles away to pick up students.

If a part breaks down on a John Deere baler, you have three John Deere dealers to choose from to get the part, but they are all about 85 miles away. So do you spend the day making a 170-mile round trip, or do you order the part and wait for it to be delivered the next day?

Tim and Katie took Marcus and Anna to a Norwegian supper at a small Lutheran church, some 60 miles away. About 200 people showed up, most likely from all directions and distances, and they all seemed to revel in the chance to talk with "neighbors" like this.

"It would take a special person to live in a place like that," I said.

"How so?" Marcus asked.

"You'd have to be ok with not being connected with people," I said. "I mean, driving through Montana and North Dakota, I'd see these houses sitting there alone in miles and miles of countryside and I thought, I don't know if I'd have it in me to live there, so far from other people."

Marcus disagreed with me. "You wouldn't believe how connected those people are with their neighbors, even if the neighbors are five or ten miles away. They really watch out for each other. If someone is making a run to the grocery store, they call each other up to see if they need anything. Someone called up Katie to see if she needed groceries, and she said she needs lettuce, and the next morning there were two heads of lettuce on the front seat of the truck. If someone is having a hard time, the neighbors help them out. People make you feel valuable, and they talk with you. On our way out there we stopped and ate at a little cafe before we went on to the ranch, and there was only one other customer, and she struck up a conversation with us and wanted to know all about us and told us about her work as an EMT."

"In fact," Marcus said, "I really think people are more connected in that part of South Dakota than they are in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania."

Wow. Maybe I could live in South Dakota after all.


  1. It seems that it's not miles that keep people separated.

  2. The Dakotas never appealed to me...but after reading your post, I'm about ready to pack my bags! (If it weren't for family and church family here.)

  3. We live in Eastern SD--there are Mennonites here; we attend a Mennonite church and our kids go to a Mennonite school. I grew up on the east coast and can't imagine ever moving away from here--LOVE IT.

  4. This stood out to me:
    " I was worth getting to know.

    ....make you feel valuable, and they talk with you."

    It's so easy to be busy instead! thanks for the reminder.

  5. thank you for summing all this up for me, also a Dakota fan mainly because a very special sister & family live in ND for the last 6 yrs. (I got to visit twice so far) Now I want to see how savvy I am w/ sharing your link on FB....~~Pauline Martin

  6. Oh South Dakota, our favorite state!! Our family lived there for several years on a reservation and go back to visit as often as we can. The friendliness of the ranchers and the others is genuine and real. Also, the Black Hills have the most awesome scenery.