Last Wednesday, I drove the company vehicle to the Pine Ridge reservation to interview a high school student for our annual report. I’m working on a series of stories focusing on how individuals and businesses in rural South Dakota weathered the pandemic (hence all my recent business travel). She was a junior at Lakota Tech High School last year, so the angle for this piece is online learning.
I’d never been on the reservation before and didn’t know what to expect. I mean, I knew there weren’t going to be teepees or anything, of course. But there were just enough differences to make it feel somewhat like a foreign country.
For starters, there was the COVID check-in point as soon as you crossed onto tribal land. Two fellas with clipboards asked me my name, where I was headed, and the nature of my business there. Not exactly Checkpoint Charlie, but still a bit more invasive than I’m used to. I suspect it’s got something to do with contact tracing, because I later learned they are still taking a very aggressive approach to COVID…in direct contrast with the rest of the state.
A few miles down the highway, I had to come to a stop because there were horses in the middle of the road. Cows are the norm across most of the state, but on the rez, it was horses. That was a novelty. And then, I passed right by a section of the Badlands I’d never seen before. This area isn’t part of the national park but was every bit as dramatic, at least from a scenery perspective.
It took me about an hour and 45 minutes to arrive at the high school. I had to wear a mask and submit to a temperature check when I got there. (97.7º, baby. I passed with flying colors!).
After the interview, I drove around for a while, checking the place out. There were some interesting differences…like the fact that all their street signs are red instead of green. But there was also a Subway and Taco John’s and Pizza Hut and Conoco gas station. It was like visiting a foreign country that isn’t too foreign. Like Canada.
The houses were pretty depressing, though. Either mobile homes or very basic ranch houses, many of which were in serious need of a little TLC if not outright boarded up or falling down. I won’t delve into the politics surrounding the Lakota Sioux’s refusal to accept a half-billion dollars from the U.S. government because that is a complicated issue that I can never hope to fully understand. Kudos to them for standing by their principles (they want their land back, not money), but it’s a shame they can’t use those funds to help out their people.
In any case, it was all pretty fascinating. It’s not every day one gets to wander around a reservation.
Driving back, the weather unexpectedly took a turn for the worse. The forecast had called for a slight chance of isolated thunderstorms, but around Hermosa I ran into a pretty good storm—lots of rain and lightning.
That’s when I remembered I’d left my car windows partially rolled down.
Good thing this storm is south of Rapid City, I thought.
Only, it was a pretty good-sized storm…and when I got back to Rapid, sure enough, it was raining there, too.
“You left your windows down!” my boss said to me the moment I walked in.
“I know!” I replied, racing to the parking lot.
When I got there, I found two guys from the I.T. department standing in the pouring rain and covering my windows with plastic sheeting and electrical tape. How nice was that?!
The previous week, we took a company field trip to the Delta-09 Missile Silo, part of the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site, an hour east of Rapid City. During the Cold War, 150 of these silos were spread across the plains of western South Dakota, each armed with a 1.2-megaton nuclear warhead. One push of a button (well actually, two twists of a key), and those weapons would have been unleashed upon the Soviet Union. It’s pretty scary to think how close we actually came to Armageddon.
The underground silo was fascinating. It’s like a time capsule dating back to the 1960s.
I organized the private tour because I’m working on an upcoming story about this tourist attraction that few tourists are even aware exists.
How cool is my job?!