The Dakotas

For all of you who may never have been to the Dakotas, I’d like to sing their praises. I’ve just returned from Sioux Falls in South Dakota, and I’ve crisscrossed the state several times this year, stopping in Pine Ridge and Rosebud and visiting Rapid City, Spearfish, Sturgis, and the western Black Hills/Badlands country. As to North Dakota, I visit it frequently because it is a short 120 miles west of my home, and I drive to it and through it constantly for any number of reasons. Both states have a hypnotic power that is intoxicating and addicting.

Folks in the rest of the country tend to make jokes about the Dakotas or else ignore them completely. Mount Rushmore may make a mild blip on the consciousness, and the word “Dakota” may raise a vague thought about Lewis and Clark. But, beyond those, the states blend as one in people’s minds and quickly disappear into a hazy cartoon of endless flatness and utter boredom.

What a pity. These are fascinating places, each very different and each very powerful.

There is no place in the United States. with the possible exception of New Mexico and Arizona, where the Native American presence is such a strong spiritual force as in South Dakota; the South Dakota Badlands are perhaps America’s most lunar landscape; the Black Hills/Paha Sapa rise miraculously, almost spiritually, like an outcropping of small, pine-covered mountains and stone spires; the buffalo grasslands roll and echo with the hoof beats of a former time when our country was young, naive, and a land of conflicts and dreams.

Move into North Dakota and you feel an uncanny sense of lonely peace. The winds of the north blow down upon you; you sense the presence of the great Canadian prairies. The forces of nature loom large here, coming from great distances and carrying intimations of power on every cloud and wind and sunset. When those forces bring peace, it is enveloping and amniotic; when they bring intimations of storms or oncoming winter, they close you in upon yourself with a feeling of insignificance and dread. More than any other state in the lower 48, North Dakota turns your mind and heart to the weather. And any time you are called to an awareness of great natural forces, you are turned toward the spiritual.

So these two states reverberate with spiritual forces. Anyone wishing to remove him or herself from the tiny and jangled concerns of urban angles and corners could do far worse than considering a trip into the Dakotas. They do not have the grandeur of Montana or the drama of Wyoming’s space and mountains. But they speak quietly and directly to the spirit, and the echoes of the Lakota, Nakota, and Dakota peoples, as well as the distant whispers of the hardiest of America’s pioneer settlers, are present in every sunrise and rustle of the wind.

I, personally, love the Dakotas. I go there every chance I get. There is a singularity to their experience that focuses the attention, and they have a spiritual complexity born of geography, geology, culture, and history. They are like a quiet, deeply spiritual friend who has a reservoir of depth that no one knows or notices.

I am happy I have gotten to know that friend. I hope you all have the same opportunity someday. It will be a measure of your spiritual acuity and a lesson in learning to listen to the deeper forces of the land.

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