I drove through the Badlands enjoying the scenery, the early morning coolness, the promise of another sunny day and the ubiquitous song of the Western Meadowlark.
Meadowlarks, Eastern and Western, are declining grassland birds who suffer from the earlier cutting of hay and silage these days. They are the corncrakes of North America. But with their yellow fronts and beautiful songs they are well worth holding onto.
Not many American birds, in my limited experience, have great songs. Many are stunning to see – like the Mountain Bluebirds of yesterday and today (and by the way – no internet connection last night) – but apart from the orioles and the meadowlarks I have met few great songsters.
While travelling through the Badlands today I called in at Wounded Knee – a small town in the poorest county in the USA in terms of per capita income, and within the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
Have you heard of Wounded Knee? Perhaps you have read the book ‘Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee’ or seen the film of the same name? Or perhaps you know the story of the massacre of over 150 Lakota Sioux indians at the hands of the 7th Cavalry in December 1890?
This account of what happened is particularly poignant.
If you are keen to visit the site then you will have to make an effort – it’s not signposted at all. And when you arrive there is precious little to tell you what happened there or what is its significance – a strange combination since the events here are widely regarded as having been the culmination of the war against the native American.
You can park in the dust and stroll up to the cemetery where a simple monument, inside a chain-link fence, marks the mass grave of the indian victims. Forty-three names are inscribed on the monument – 21 of them have animals as part of their names and there are no women listed.
If you didn’t know it was here, you would drive past. There is no sign to point you to the hilltop and no sign that America wants to mark its home-grown My Lai massacre of all those years ago.
I can see why the US would be ashamed of events here – past events perhaps but certainly the current poverty of the local people is no basis for pride today. Thinly disguised begging and selling of trinkets to passing tourists, like myself, makes one wonder about the land of the free and the home of the brave.
And the Meadowlarks sing on over the prairies as they did in the time of Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull. It’s as though the Meadowlarks remain hopeful despite their depleted numbers whilst man remains fickle in his kindness to his fellow man. Have the native American indians lost hope or do their hearts still sing like Meadowlarks?
The legend behind the drugstore, restaurant and shopping arcade on the I90 is that it was set up in the 1930s and wasn’t really making a go of it until the lady behind the business had an idea. They started advertising ‘Free iced water’ and that pulled in the hot tired thirsty crowds which had formerly kept on going East or West.
And having discovered the power of advertising Wall Drug has never looked back. The first billboard I saw said that there were 391 miles to go to Wall Drug and they came thick and fast after that. The billboards advertised coffee at 5 cents, the bookstore, the fact that Wall Drug has been mentioned in newspapers all over the world, its kid-friendly atmosphere, its home-made donuts and its pies.
And as the miles tick down there was a growing feeling of inevitability that I was going to stop. How could one not want to take a peek?
Really, I didn’t want even a peek. I wanted to head into the Badlands National Park as soon as possible and see whether I could see bison, pronghorn, prairie dog townships and burrowing owls. I didn’t really want to stop and I didn’t want to see some tacky shopping emporium. But I did want breakfast and there was a bit of me that wanted to reward Wall Drug for all the effort that it had put into enticing me with hundreds of roadside billboards.
But I would only stop for a few minutes. Just enough time for a quick bite to eat. I stayed an hour and a half.
I think I made a good choice having cherry pie and coffee for breakfast as the cooked food looked a bit average, and then I could have got away, but I lingered and browsed and bought some books about local wildlife, looked at the western paintings (which range from the kitsch to the stylish), looked at the photos from the 1880s of sad- or proud- (or sad and proud) looking indians and ambitious-looking European Americans.
I could have played one-armed bandits, bought rocks or gems, a cowboy hat and a host of other things.
So I spent time and money at Wall Drug. They got me, as they get so many people wih their billboard advertising and 80 foot tall plastic model of a dinosaur. I don’t begrudge them the time or money, and I enjoyed the cherry pie and coffee. But I’ll think of Wall Drug the next time someone tells me that they don’t pay any attention to adverts. Of course, neither do I, except I would never have stopped for that cherry pie and coffee, and bought those books, if there had been a single sign saying ‘Cafe’, or even a single sign saying ‘Delicious cherry pie made as the English like it’.
And the two blocks by two blocks that is Wall Drug must have sucked money away from other localities nearby – surely? Maybe Midland would have more people in it still if Wall Drug hadn’t hit on the simple idea of advertising free iced water. But that’s capitalism and a free market for you – winners and losers, and you can’t really argue with that.
I got up, dressed, tip-toed down the creaky wooden stairs of the Stroppel Hotel and strolled down the rain-soaked main street. Midland was quiet at 630am although there were orioles singing, House Sparrows chirruping, Killdeers calling from near the railroad track and a couple of dogs barked as I passed by. It didn’t take long to get to the edge of town, and back again, but the stroll was pleasant and the air was fresh.
A few male-driven flat-back trucks drove past – everyone gave me a look but also a friendly wave. It felt a bit like the far north of Scotland in a way. Not much here, not much happening, but a friendly atmosphere. And no midges either.
I just stood in the street for a while and then two men left the Stroppel and headed for Just Tammy’s, I guess for breakfast, and they said ‘Morning’ as they talked about the price they could get for calves ($400) and their plans for grazing a particular stretch of ground.
Heading back into the Hotel I paused to look at the row of plastic Uncle Sams outside, and by the front door a notice setting out the events of Monday’s Memorial Day – a service, a potluck lunch, entertainment by the Haakon County Crooners and proceeds going to help to defray Mary Parquet’s medical expenses – right next to a sign saying ‘Cancer cures smoking’. Inside, the words to the ‘Star-spangled Banner’ were on the wall below a mounted elk head and next to a drawing of President GW Bush, and then I met up with the lady in charge who had been absent last night. As I settled the bill she told me that she had been in Pierre because her daughter’s place there was in danger of flooding and they had been moving stuff – including the grand-daughter who was running around.
The Missouri River was very high she said and it just kept raining. She’d heard that they’d had snow in Yellowstone last week and there was still meltwater coming off the Rockies as well as all this rain. But although the forecast said rain for today she was hopeful of fine weather.
Her grandparents had set up the Hotel and when she grew up, Midland had had 350 occupants and there were now 120. There were no jobs and nothing to keep young people here. But she herself had a beauty shop down the road in Philip, about 20 miles, and she didn’t really want to move out. She liked the quiet life and Midland was home to her.
You won’t find the Stroppel Spa Hotel in the guidebooks and you’ll struggle to find Midland, South Dakota on the maps, and South Dakota usually gets a mention for the Black Hills and Mount Rushmore alone, but I’m glad I stayed at the Stroppel. It’s not that small town America is in any way more real than New York or San Francisco but it is just as real. And stepping off the tourist route is often much cheaper and much more interesting than staying on it.
Midland has attracted some new residents though. As I walked, I heard and then saw Collared Doves. Sibley’s distribution map doesn’t show them here, but here they are. I wonder when they arrived; probably in the last decade, maybe they moved in on a day when a resident family moved out.
Today, the sun shone all day and the birds came out and it was great.
I occasionally renewed my friendship with I90 heading West but mostly I stuck to smaller parallel roads that took me out of the homely and friendly Sioux Falls and through a mainly arable, mainly flat landscape broken up with wetlands and woods.
Having done little birding for a few days I suddenly picked up a bunch of new species – many of them Western species. Birds such as Western Meadowlarks were now sitting on fence posts and Western Kingbirds were on the fencelines. Amazing Red-winged Blackbirds were joined in the marshes by lovely and gorgeous Yellow-headed Blackbirds.
The marshes had familiar Shoveler, Mallard, Pintail and Gadwall alongside slightly less familiar Green Heron, American Coot, Blue-winged Teal, White Pelicans, Marbled Godwit, Black Duck and American Avocet.
It was good birding and lovely weather. I stopped at a place marked on the map which you could miss if you blinked – Aurora. The Central Store sold a few candy bars and drinks so I bought a Mound Bar – as similar to a British Bounty as the Great Blue Heron is to the Grey Heron – pretty similar but noticeably different. This Mound Bar was different though – it was covered in dust and when I came to bite into it I realised it was past its best – probably by a year or two, or more. How many customers did the Aurora Central Store have? And do they all know to swerve the ancient Mound Bars? Have they been waiting for a stranger like me to stop by so that the 5-year old Mound Bars can be brought out to replace the 10-year old ones?
I didn’ t ask the old man behind the counter that, after all the purchase was just an excuse for a break and a talk. He wanted to know where I came from and when I said, he wanted to know why I was in South Dakota. Mount Rushmore always seems a better answer than Yellow-headed Blackbirds so that was what he got. I said how great the weather was and he agreed, but told me there were three days rain ahead – oh no! We talked about tornadoes and he said there hadn’t been one here since the 1940s – but then the new Mound Bars may have arrived about the same time.
I got on with my travel towards the Missouri River and he got on with cutting his lawn.
I really like my sunglasses that I bought in Charleston an age ago. I have once or twice thought of writing that it is unusual for me to keep a pair of sunglasses for this long without breaking, losing or scratching them. Today I almost lost them – in fact I did for a while, but then just as a smiley farmer’s wife was asking me what was wrong – I was parked by her gateway – I found them. I moved my tank of a car as her husband drove an enormous tractor over where my sunglasses had just been found – I told you it was close. She wanted to know where I was from and was amazed that anyone from England would turn up here, and she, too, wanted to know why I was here. My explanation of birdwatching – you can lie to the old men but not to the young women – was received with polite surprise but she probably put it down to the English being a bit odd. I checked the way to the Missouri River and then turned down the offer of a soda. I’ve been kicking myself ever since as the chance to talk farming would have been really interesting. It’s that English politeness – I didn’t want to intrude.
Americans do not show some of the outward signs of politeness that would be expected in the UK – it’s just their way. I noticed at breakfast in Sioux Falls this morning that two well-dressed men in the diner ordered and received their meals with no pleases and no thank yous. It’s just their way.
I stopped at the Missouri River to look at the view and to put back my timepieces by another hour. If anything, crossing the Missouri was more impressive than crossing the Mississippi – maybe the better weather had something to do with it but also the Missouri marks more of a natural barrier.
The land changes quite abruptly to rolling hills with cattle and some deep gorges. There is a lot of grass. Many say this is where the West really begins so I am now scratching its surface.
I am now hotelled-up in the Stroppel Inn in Midland, SD. A spa hotel where you run the hot tap for minutes to allow the naturally occurring hot water to find its way through the plumbing. The owners were out and grandpa, sporting a WWII Veteran’s baseball cap (and it is Memorial Day on Monday) wasn’t totally au fait with how things work. The light bulb on the stairs doesn’t work, we tried one bedroom but found it already occupied by Frank and he’s trusting me to pay tomorrow morning rather than cash in advance. But it’s a friendly tacky place with lots of things with stars and stripes on them, messages written on the wooden walls (eg Delighted you are here), natural hot water at 110F in the basement and, most of all, a very genuine and warm welcome.
Chimney Swifts and Killdeers called over head as I walked across the street to Just Tammy’s bar which does food. I would have had steak or maybe fish but each is seasonal and is only available June-August – I couldn’t wait that long so I had a burger with fries, salad and my first alcohol for a week – a cold Coors beer.
Tammy’s was large, and largely empty apart from Tammy and her daughters. Two elderly ladies came in, had a Coke each, had a chat and then left looking at me slightly suspiciously. I headed back to the Stroppel – this time in the pouring rain. Maybe I won’t need those sunglasses after all – but I have enjoyed my day in the sun.