On a late afternoon in October, I drove across western South Dakota. I was on my way home from visiting my Aunt Marie, who was dying of cancer. I had wondered as I left the hospital what it would be like to lie in bed, able to see only the small, impersonal room with a little glimpse of grass and a spindly elm tree outside, knowing these would probably be the last things in this world one would see. I wondered if she missed the familiar surroundings of home.
Marie had lived in her house for over 25 years. Did she wish she had looked at it more carefully before she left for the last time? Did she think then that it would be the last time? Did she wish she could die in her own bed, in her own home? Would she like to look out her front door one last time and say goodbye to the neighborhood? Would she want to see all her things or go through a box of treasures one final time, or even look at the night sky or watch a flock of geese heading south? How important would all these things be? Would there be a sense of sadness, an awareness of how precious these things have been? Not the things themselves, but the life they represent or the beauty and wonder of them. Or would none of it matter? Maybe by now she was tired enough and in enough pain so she was ready to move on. Maybe the trappings of this life had ceased to have any significance. In a way I hoped so. I didn’t know, and there was no way to ask.
Because of this poignant wondering, for me the trip home was an experience of cherishing and appreciating what was around me. I realized again as I drove just how much I love South Dakota; not the state as a political or geographic entity necessarily, but the land itself. It was late afternoon, so the sun was low and the prairie was at its most beautiful even in late October. The long shadows molded the rolling hills into serene sculptures that extended on either side of the highway for as far as I could see. And I could see for miles.
One of the things I love most about this land is its size. Western South Dakota is sometimes described as bleak and empty. We joke that if it weren’t for the billboards there would be no scenery at all. But we know—those of us who live here because we love it—that this isn’t true. This land is one of the most beautiful places on earth.
The prairie isn’t a glorious spectacle on the scale of the Grand Canyon or the Rocky Mountains or even the canyons of our own Black Hills. Like many of its inhabitants, it doesn’t call attention to itself but waits politely to be noticed. It has a subtle beauty—muted variegations where fall-tinted patches of grass and brush shade into one another; rolling hills with inclines so gradual you hardly notice them until early morning or evening shadows throw them into vivid relief. Even in late fall, when the sparse grass is brown and dry, or in winter when the landscape is white except for the hills swept bare by the ceaseless wind, the placid shadings give beauty and dimension to the prairie.
I drove into the sunset on this day, the sun so far to the south that there was no glare in my eyes as I rolled steadily west on the interstate. This particular sunset wasn’t a dazzling one of bursting oranges and pinks. We have those often, but not on this day. Instead, the sun slowly disappeared behind a bank of deep blue clouds that flanked the Badlands almost as solidly as the ridges of rock themselves. The sky gradually turned pink and purple, the colors spreading across the southwestern horizon with a rich and serene splendor that filled up half the immense sky.
I had started out on this journey the day before, full of agitation. I was harried and hurried and stressed, rushing to meet a deadline in my work, worried that I wasn’t doing enough for a political cause in the last weeks before the election, grieving for my Aunt Marie even as I made this hasty visit to see her for what would probably be the last time.
But by the time I finished my drive across the state and back, most of my tension had dropped away. I was restored and refreshed, reminded both of my attachment to this land and, paradoxically, of its reassuring indifference to me and to the rest of us who conduct our busy lives on its surface.
This land, like the people who live here, has its weaknesses as well as its strengths, its harshness as well as its beauty. It demands strength and toughness from those who presume to try to make a living on its broad back. One of the qualities it gives in return is the awareness of its endurance. This land has survived, adapting to or outlasting ancient oceans and ice ages, cycles of lush wetness and searing drought, and the ebb and flow of lives extinct and existing. It will continue to abide, long past the spans of human life that come and go like the never-ending wind that sweeps across the plains.