Bird’s Eye View of a Wildfowl State – Reflections over brunch

I ended up taking lunch at the one place I had seen open earlier.  The Calumet Inn was a handsome building, made up of a light quartzite (from the town of Jasper which I had passed through earlier)  with pipestone highlights.  I went through the main door not quite knowing what to expect.  Apart from the sign showing that it was open for brunch I had no idea of the quality.  A receptionist for the hotel pointed me towards the dining room and I passed by a buffet table with a modest but interesting range of dishes.  I was invited to sit and have a drink (soft) and then I started working my way through some cantaloupe, pancakes and maple syrup, slabs of beef, mashed potato, vegetables, tomatoes, salads, an array of very sweet looking cakes and cheese.

The dining room was a trifle seedy and weary.  The windows were high above the level of the tables.  the decor was dark.  But the staff were all friendly and I was left alone to get through my two meals in one.  I had my ubiquitous novel with me, but I used it to disguise my people watching.  I, as often is the case when I travel, was the only person here on their own.  The hotel was surprisingly busy after the deserted streets.  Most people were coming in from a back entrance and had obviously, like most Americans, driven over and parked up in the lot at the back of the hotel.  It was predominantly extended families.  A couple of tables had 10, 12 people on there of up to four generations.  A matriarch or patriarch might be sitting in one seat, the dominant son or daughter would be orchestrating affairs for them and the rest of the family, the numerous offspring and beta males and females all tagged on.  OK, that is a tad unfair – yes from the outside this was the makeup of the groups, but a few more minutes of observation saw that there was a friendly familial banter going on, lots of different conversations crossing the generations.  I guessed from the dress of most of the families there they were either fresh out of church, or had got together for some celebration.

I do find myself a bit of an outsider in these situations.  You are used to me writing about my travels where I am on my own dipping in and out of other people’s lives.  Even back home, while I come from what was a tight family of four brothers and mum and dad, my parents were only children so I never had an extensive set of aunts and uncles or cousins.  And because of the age of my parents when I was born, I only ever really knew one grandmother very well.  I never met my paternal grandfather.  So this picture of multiple levels of families all interacting as a unit was slightly uneasy and daunting for me.

Envy?  Jealousy? No – it is not for me so I do not crave it.  But I did have respect for it.


Small town does not mean small minded

But it was another example of this part of the US, whether it be in Minnesota or South Dakota.  Family ties run deep, there is a natural order to life that despite the harshness of the past and the economic wars of the present, the strength of those family bonds and the firmness of friendships in this area are vital.  But none of these bonds are flashy or brazenly publicized.  The people of the northern plains are quiet and unassuming.  In that way they mirror their landscape which at one scale seems monotonous, but in fact has subtle and unique beauty.

I took a different route back to Sioux Falls, sorry that this was the last journey I would take in this environment.  I had one more day of work at EROS before dropping the car off at the airport and flying back through Dallas the next evening.  But I sucked in this noble land to my memory and learned the lessons of being comfortable with what you have from these splendid people.

Bird’s Eye View of a Wildfowl State – Small Town America

It was getting close to lunch time so I headed back to the car, stopping off to obtain my own little piece of pipestone from the gift shop, and I drove into town.  I had not had much breakfast and was looking forward to a brunch.  Once more I steered clear of the McDonalds, Wendy and KFC on the main road strip and headed into the centre of Pipestone itself.  The old town was barely three blocks by two, and I parked up on the side of one of the wide streets and started to explore.  Two things worked against me; one was this was Sunday so very little in the way of shops or cafes were open in the main town.  The only place serving brunch was an old style hotel.  I decided I would take a wider tour of the town centre before plumping for my restaurant so headed on out of town.  On the edges of the old town were a few of the grander institutions, a rather handsome court house, a few churches, a couple of nice old 19th century villas.  But still no areas buzzing with life.  The streets indeed were almost deserted.  The occasional car would lazily cruise past me on a street.  One or two children were playing on swings in green squares.  But this was small town America on a Sunday and it was shut.

So back into the main town I went.  The buildings downtown were substantial versions of the old wild west.  Two storey buildings at best, possibly with an awning.  But they were built of deep red quartzite from Sioux Falls or imported rock.  You could see at sometime this town had been quite prosperous; when the railroad was built through the area it became a great impetus to develop a hub that served both the quarrying and agricultural communities around.  Indeed Pipestone became an important junction for lines at one time spreading out in seven directions.  But both of those industries struggle in the modern world and now only one through railroad dissects the town.  Only scraps of modern America had reached here and some of those, like the strip of 7-11, super 8 and Esso gas station on the east side of town, were none to glamorous.

The town had preserved its centre well, but not just because it was Sunday, the second thing which worked against me was Pipestone did not look a thriving town.  Whereas Brookings had a quiet confident buzz about it, this looked like it was just holding on to what it had already achieved.


Downtown Pipestone

Bird’s Eye View of a Wildfowl State – The enduring importance of Pipestone

While the historical quarry wall had been the centre of the industry for years, nowadays permits were given to smaller quarries on the flats nearer the visitor centre. Pits arranged in two clear straight lines parallel to the main quarry face had been dug down to the pipestone level. They tended to fill up with water in the wet season and the Parks Service had to arrange for these to be drained whenever someone wished to quarry.

In one or two pits I saw recently active workings; some of the craftspeople who worked in the visitor centre maybe.  Their tools were scattered around the pits.  Here you got a much better picture of the thin seam of the glossy deep pink pipestone.  A few fragments of the rock littered the ground, a stark contrast to the grey stone of the quartzite.  It is a captivating stone; you could see why it was valued for its beauty by many tribes.  It is not just its appearance but the softy smoothness when you held it in your hand is almost magical.  It was relatively easy to carve into any shape but some care had to be taken.  It could break under pressure.   It still meant that the stone could be made into the intricately carved cylinder shapes and drilled with a bowl for the tobacco and a long tube to allow the smoker to drawer.  Only the bowl and far end of the pipe would be made of the stone, the rest, where the smoker would chomp down with his teeth, would be wooden.  The wooden pipes would be regularly replaced but the pipestone parts could be past down generation to generation.



Bird’s Eye View of a Wildfowl State – The Pipestone Quarry

The stream I was following topples over the quarry edge in a pretty cataract, and it zigzags manically in amongst the quarry workings.  The removal of the rock appears piecemeal, of course.  The rock has all been hand dug over the centuries by individuals and small groups. Modern equipment could have systematically dug out the overburden easily and sliced off the layer of pipestone in an even manner, but that is not allowed.  Various treaties and agreements allow Indians to obtain permits and come and take small amounts of pipestone for pipes, ornaments, jewellery and souvenirs.  The result are intricate and artisanal facets to the stone.  In a couple of places stacks of quartzite have been left standing away from the main face. One is called the Leaping Rock – the challenge is not the distance from the cliff edge to the stack, more to ensure you manage to check the momentum used to jump the gap so you don’t go shooting off the far side and smash yourself to death on the ground below.

The pathway runs along the bottom of the man made escarpment for a while then steps up in amongst the workings.  Some rocks when carved have given the appearance of various characters and animals, and are now preserved.  From a particular angle, one face has the appearance of an old woman, not a natural impression but more like the carvings you might see on totem poles.  When you first see the excavations by the waterfall they appear modest, but the quarry face goes on for nearly a quarter of a mile, and all the way along you see the rubble, cut blocks and the remaining exposed solid rock showing the excavations are of monumental proportions.  All those hands, all those years, all those generations.  There was some ingenuity in the excavation.  To constantly chip away at the quartzite would take months just to get a small piece of pipestone out.  The technique most commonly used was to exploit the natural cracks in the quartzite at the top of the hill; bash down long metal pegs to weaken the joins and using crowbars to lever chunks of rock off, that would tumble down away from the face.  There they would be broken up into rubble to be transported away from the face onto the big piles I had seen earlier.


At the quarry face – the pink pipestone clearly visible

Bird’s Eye View of a Wildfowl State – Prairie

The trail was a well marked tarmacced path and not very long.  I could see the small escarpment that was the main quarry just beyond a range of trees.  Between me and it was a rare site in modern America, a stretching plain of tall prairie grass dominating the terrain for about half a kilometre.  About waist height it was a tangle of stems with, at this time of year, extensive seed heads which rattled and whooshed in the wind.  I could see variations in the texture as I looked out; there were obviously other species intermingled with the grass.  This was not something that would be easy to navigate through – to walk through the patch here might take ten, twenty minutes, and who knew what potholes and depressions lurked below to give you a twisted ankle, or how scratched (or even poisoned) you might get if your bare skin came in contact with the vegetation.  How did the settlers manage to get through all this from the east, let alone burn it down and make cultivated fields?  Of course it would die down over the winter and there would be paths of least resistance, but it was another reminder how tough those trekkers must have been to even attempt it.  Where the grass met a small coppice of trees I noticed a huge pile of loose boulders; a very odd feature in a landscape of rolling prairies.

I came across a small river in a wooded valley a few steps on.  Attached to several trees were multicoloured cloth, prayer ties fluttering in the cold wind; what intentions or requests had been made one can only guess at; perhaps it was just to ask to find a nice solid piece of pipestone up ahead.  The trail followed the stream up a small incline through an open woodland till it met the vertical bluff of the quarry face.  It could almost be a natural feature, but it is not.  Generations of Indians had cut down through the hillside till they reached the narrow seam of pipestone.  I realised the pile of loose boulders I had seen was rubble pile that had once been solid rock above where I was standing.  Huge amounts of incredibly hard quartzite needed to be removed first before they could get to the deep pink layer of pipestone, and with that seam dipping down to the north, the more they excavated the pipestone the more overburden had first to be removed.  So what was left was a deep face of quartzite that had the pipestone at its base.


A sea of grass

Bird’s Eye View of a Wildfowl State – A sacred site

I bypassed the centre of town, drove past a small strip of eateries and car services, and came round the north side to where the entrance to a small park was marked by a modest paved road.  Although this time I was in a national monument, the approach was manicured to the nth degree like in the State parks.  I drove up to a generous sweep of car park  (made no doubt to keep the RV drivers happy). I emerged from my car in the sunshine, then dived back in again to get my fleece.  The wind was still a bitingly cold northerly.  I’d noticed on my journey north from the Interstate some road side infrastructure.  There were several huge red and white barriers next to the road which could be brought down when the snow got too deep to venture out.  I’m used to closed roads to be part of the mountainous terrain of Europe; I am less used to seeing where transport routes on flat lands can become impassable.

I headed over to the modest visitor centre and spent a few minutes learning of the story of this location and its significance not just for the US today but for all native Americans.   The location is one of only a handful where Indians would excavate a special form of dense but pliable stone that could be cut and carved into pipes, including the iconic peace pipes so beloved of Western films.  The stone here is something called Catlinite and the only other place it is easily quarried is in Canada.  Another form of pipestone can be found way west in Utah, but for the tribes of the plains, Pipestone was the only practical source of this valuable stone.

The importance of this site for such a culturally vital raw material meant that it had become neutral ground for some of the older tribes, including the Dakota and Lakota.  The Sioux, maybe with a reputation for not being the most peaceful of Indians, had taken control of the site a few hundred years before white settlers reach the location.  But it was still a sacred place, and was managed carefully by the native Americans and National parks board alike.

The little museum in the visitor centre was informative but a bit dusty, and what I wanted to do was look at the quarry itself, so I zipped up the fleece and put on the gloves and woolly hat and headed out into the sunlight.


At the site – the quarries in the trees

Bird’s Eye View of a Wildfowl State – Crossing the State Line

Next day, the Sunday,  was another perfectly sunny day and I headed east along the Interstate and into Minnesota.  With this I had now been in three states, for as well as Minnesota and South Dakota, I had popped over into Iowa.  Having spent most of my time in America to date either in enormous states like Florida, California and Texas, or rooted in one city; I had not hopped over many statelines.  Of course like any boundary they are totally artificial and the countryside on one side looks little different from the other.  I had found it funny in Iowa though that as just as I crossed the stateline and the road gently curved to the right up a hill, the prospect of an enormous casino loomed up in amongst the cereal fields.  The natural landscape may not change but the legal landscape varies dramatically across the USA, and more favourable gambling rules meant Sioux Falls residents would head out of town some twelve miles to cross the stateline, but wanted to stop right there and place a bet instead of going to the next town.


From the air at Brookings you look into Minnesota

Passing a little lay by on the Interstate was the only real landmark on the border between South Dakota and Minnesota, and I turned off the almost immediately and headed north on another road which could have been anywhere from the Rockies to Chicago.  After about ten miles I hit my first bend in the road, mainly to drop down into a small valley then up the other side.  I drove through the quarry town of Jasper.  There were several of these towns around I noticed.  The road and the railroad would be the dominant features of the town, and on one side some industrial complex and the other the residential side.  The quarries were often set in the valleys and the rocks cut out of the bluffs on either side, or else there was gravel extraction from river beds and the alluvial deposits in the valley bottom.  There would be some crushing plant and piles of its end products littered around the compound.  The surrounding vegetation would be coated with grey dust and everything looked a little dingy.  You could see why the residential area would be set apart from both the polluting industry itself, and the grimy sidings where the rock was piled onto wagons for moving all over the country.

My destination for the morning was a much more substantial settlement.  It was the county town and contained all the institutions you would expect, court house, hospital, fire station.  But the town itself was still only had 5,000 inhabitants but probably accounted for more than half of the county’s population.  This was Pipestone, and this curious name was also the reason I was here.

Bird’s Eye View of a Wildfowl State – Loving and admiring the Dakotans

This last couple of words is not meant to insult the South Dakotans, though.  Very little has been actually easy about setting up these idyllic towns, and Brookings was the best of them by far having the added angle of academic and cultural highlights sometimes lacking in others.  The settlers had come in to a windswept nothing – a big grassy plain with bison on it, and they had not had an easy time working with the Sioux there.  Crops failed, cattle died.  People suffered.  If you fell foul of some illness or tragedy, it was pretty much up to you alone to pick yourself up and start again.  There were no safety nets, no social services.  You had to do it yourself.  Even the basic chores were all done by hand.  You extracted or carried your own water, you found ways of heating your home from whatever soil or shrub you could find around.  You ate what you could grow, rear or hunt for.

No, what I meant by easy living is that the South Dakotans make it look easy.  And they are relaxed and pleasant and friendly.

I’ve mentioned the film Fargo, a film full of violence and gore, but what always appealed to me was the calmness of many of the “local” characters who matter of fact get on with life.  The film slightly overdoes the deadpan nature and their touch of naivety.  Yes they talk a little slower than most Americans, and much more quiet (nothing wrong with either of those traits), but to me the characters here in the real Dakotas were funny, intelligent and with diverse interests, set in a rock solid sense of where they are and how they coped.


Certain solidity of character needed out here.

Bird’s Eye View of a Wildfowl State – Evening in Brookings

In the mean time the sun had dipped over the horizon and the temperature was less dipping, more plummeting past freezing.  We headed back to the car park, loaded the dog in the trunk and drove back to Brookings.  Gray’s house was cosy and warm; him and his wife had a wide range of hobbies and their home reflected various aspects in piles of papers, books, craftwork and pictures; a clutter of sorts but one of richness rather than laze.  I settled in a chair with a cup of tea and soaked up this atmosphere.  When you have been away from your own home for any period and staying in a comfortable but sterile lodgings you feel privileged to be brought into someone’s own space like this and realise the world over, home is home.

Gray offered me a choice of restaurants; I soon eliminated the chains; I’d had Applebees elsewhere and although one or two of the chain eateries in Sioux Falls had been perfectly pleasant I thought, Brookings being a little more Bohemian, that I’d like to taste something with local flavour.  Gray and his wife suggested somewhere they loved, but he warned me not to expect cordon bleu.

We drove a few blocks back to the main strip out to the Interstate, and pulled in at a very ordinary little building, with the large lit sign declaring we were at the Back Yard Grill.  It was a 70’s diner, a precursor to the fast food joints and from the outside looked slightly warn, even though lit only from  street lights. I found out although the building might be old, the business was a new one.   Inside were plain benches and tables, and you ordered up at the counter. Behind you could make out the kitchen, dominated by a series of grills permeating all sorts of woodsmoke.  I went for some pulled pork on cherry, with a host of sides including cornbread and beans, washed down with a coke.  It was all very basic.  But it tasted amazing.  The meat had been smoked for  hours and was so tender it melted in the mouth.  Cornbread is not usually my favourite dish; it has a tendency to dry up my mouth, but with the mixture of sauce on the pork and the beans soaked into its pores, it was a useful offset of all the riches of the other ingredients.  Unlike so many American dining experiences, I did not feel bloated by the time I stepped outside again.

I said my farewells to Gray and his wife in the car park and thanked him profusely for a rich and wonderful day out.   I scurried into my car out of the cold northerly wind and headed back to the Interstate.  As I drove south I reflected on this little town; real home town America.  Not the chintzy or oversanitized versions shown by Hollywood or the advertisers, but a demonstration of fairly simple living.  No huge dramas, no massive throbbings of people commuting or gathering.  Just a place where you can make a living, but more importantly make a home and keep your family and friends around you.  I’d seen the civil defence sheds near the airfield earlier on and had joked to Gray; who is going to invade here – the Canadians?  But it was an interesting angle – it was essential to have the Civil Defence force but they would be taken up with community activities, particularly when the winter storms hit.  The rest of the time it was a relaxed and in some ways easy living.

Bird’s Eye View of a Wildfowl State – The missing part of the story

For as we wandered round the lake, even though it was a bitterly cold fall afternoon and the sun had barely half an hour left in the sky, the Oakwood park lakes were busy with fowl activity.  There were ducks of all plumages clustered around the reed beds.  I saw a white pelican, a bird I had always assumed was a marine creature, very much at home about as far from the sea as you could get in North America.  There were a few woodland birds in the trees and we spotted the odd eagle or hawk lazily watching the proceedings from dead trunks, along with an occasional heron that was eyeing up the fish life.

The lakes were shallow and almost any rise in the ground lifted the surface from the water.  As well as a couple of small islands there were several peninsulas dividing up the open water, and we did a circuit of the coast of one of these before we headed back to the car.  On top of a bluff was an open space reputedly the summer camp of the local American Indians, and had been more recently used as a boy scout camp.  Another name for the Oakwood lakes was Tetonkaha and there was evidence of native American habitation everywhere.  The trail stops told us stories of how the different woods were used for making canoes or poles for tents, or for medicines.  The collection of fruit bushes were a valuable source of nutrition in what was a relatively poor natural larder.  The tradition of tapping maple sap  occurred here as it was such a valued source of energy.  We saw what looked like a few raspberry bushes as we wandered around, still with the odd red fruit on despite the snow earlier in the week.  Later I discovered they were a type of gooseberry, which made sense as the stems were a bit spikier than your average raspberry cane.

While wandering this landscape with Gray I realised I was missing a big chunk of the story.  I’d absorbed the settlers agricultural conversion of the plains quite happily and seen how ranches and huge grain fields were feeding the rest of the country.  I had learnt a little about the rocks and the glaciers and knew of the ancient history.  But the time in between I’d not taken in.  Stupid, really, since I had been staying in Sioux Falls the whole week; you would have thought the name of one of the most infamous clans of native Americans would have triggered something in me.  I wondered what the countryside had looked like in those days.  From the agricultural  museum we had visited that morning I realised most of the land had been completely treeless and covered in the sort of transitional area between the long plain grass to the east and the short plain grass to the west.  But even here in the lakes there was very little of the natural swathes of grass you expect in the prairies.  I decided the next day I would put that right.


Pelican at the lake