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.

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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 – 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.

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A sea of grass

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.

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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.