Rapid City, Slow Ride

2 Jun

The trip down: One of many Badlands buttes.

We stand in the small baggage claim area of the Rapid City airport, awaiting the few bags that were checked. We’re not exactly the pioneers rolling westward in their Conestogas, but the night flight has taken its toll; it’s after midnight Eastern as we approach the rental van desk.

Having started the day negotiating enormous crowds and endless ticket counters at Boston’s Logan Airport, here in Rapid City I’m naturally expecting to stand in the rain outside on some concrete island, breathing in the fumes of a dozen vans before boarding out own, getting soaked until our flesh falls apart like so much soggy tissue paper.

Instead, the guy standing behind the counter – a young man with long blond hair and beard – simply says, “OK, follow me”, walks outside the door, and points to the van, sitting right at the curb.

Even more hospitably, the guy then asks me what kind of music we’d like to hear on the way to the hotel.

“Shock us,” I say, feeling adventurous.

“Really?” He looks until I nod.

And he does. What he pops in is, of all things, Paul Anka. Surprising enough in and of itself, but it’s not even Anka’s hits from the ‘60s and ‘70s, or a compilation of his commercial jingles. Instead, it’s the considerably older Anka – who decided the new millennium was crying for an album called Rock Swings, consisting of big band jazz covers of rock ‘n’ roll anthems.

Anka’s a pop genius, so I shouldn’t be surprised that Van Halen’s “Jump” sort of works as a big band arrangement, once you suppress the image of David Lee Roth jumping around in sequins. Then our driver ups the ante – the next selection he picks is Anka crooning Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” – which proves that grunge rock was indeed  the appropriate genre in which to perform the song. When Anka croons “on and on and on,” the existential alienation is for some reason lost in translation.

We’re swinging onto I-90 – the same interstate that, more than 1900 miles away, took us to the airport in Boston eight hours ago – when the driver asks why we’ve come to Rapid City.

“We’re going to Pine Ridge Reservation to do some volunteer work.”

“Got your passports?”


“You’ve going to another country.”

This warning of strangeness, from the man who just had me listen to Paul Anka cover Kurt Cobain. I don’t get to ask him why – maybe I don’t want to know – but the statistics I’ve read bear him out. According to one source, the average male on Pine Ridge Reservation dies at age 48, the typical woman at 52. The infant mortality rate is five times the national average, amputation rates due to diabetes is three to four times higher, death rate due to diabetes is three times. Unemployment is at 80 percent. The per capita income in Shannon County is $6,286.

Our van for the trip down.

Numbers aside, when it comes to our direct experience over this next week, will the rez really seem like another country?

After all, like a lot of people, my journey through adulthood has been one of encountering and overcoming alienation when encountering people different from myself – and feel it’s my moral obligation to do so. I like to think that by age 54 I’m pretty good at checking my assumptions at the door – and at believing that when you engage people without imposing preconceptions, you generally find far more commonalities than differences. (Although, for all I know, the people I encounter might secretly think I suck at it.)

Besides, the Oglala Lakota we’re bound to meet will be those friendly to Re-Member volunteers, individuals who either share the vision or at least see the upside of being friendly to us. But this last reassuring aspect introduces a contradiction in my ambitions for our week among the Lakota.

On one hand, I want come out affirming that the rez isn’t so different that one should think twice about volunteering there himself or herself: I want to say that we should all go there, repay them in some small way, no matter how inadequate, for the horrific violence and injustice we have heaped on them.

On the other hand, given the depth of poverty and the segregation of the rez, if it doesn’t feel like another country, did we just fail to look hard enough?

All I can say for now is that as the next day, as the Re-Member caravan takes us by van from our Rapid City hotel down into the reservation, there were no sentry gates or immigration booths – just a continuous gentle rolling series of mostly tree-less ridges from which it seems you can see forever. (I’ll learn later that in spots you can see thirty miles each way.)

There are signs of where we are, of course, from the humble and scattered homes to the names rooted in place – porcupines not only provide the quills for use in native crafts, but also the name of a town so tiny, you can’t even call it a crossroads: It pleases me to see that instead of calling its sports teams such stereotypical names as Braves or Warriors, Porcupine High’s sign declares:  “Home of the Quills!”

The only alien moment is when we roll through the Badlands – a national park within the ridge of near-arid, white volcanic ash ridges and buttes, spectacular in its starkness, as close as I’ll come to driving across the surface of the moon. Although I also get a start when I glimpse, across a field in the corner of a pasture, a seemingly life-size green statue of a brontosaurus.

Dinosaur lurking off the highway.

“I have no idea why that’s there,” said our driver, despite being a fount of information on any other geographical feature I’ve asked about.

Eventually we pass KILI, the reservation radio station we are listening to – but the music is familiar pop and rock songs, and the Lakota disc jockey actually feels familiar to me, the way radio should be – reflecting the voices of locals, not some national syndicated format. Unlike our Rapid City airport driver last night, today’s driver, David, is not from around here. A Michigan native who majors in sociology at Western Michigan when he’s not on staff out  here, is used to a wider diversity of choices on the dial. “Out here the radio is country, country, country … classic rock … and country,” he tells me.

“So you’ve learned to like country?”


His only alternative to the radio is the CD player, which he tries for part of the journey south.

Thankfully, it’s the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

“Bloodsugarsexmagik?” I guess on the album title.

“No, a hits CD,” David said. “It’s been stuck in the player for four years now. No one can get it out.”

Oh well. It beats four years of Paul Anka covering “Black Hole Sun.”

Besides, isn’t the rez supposed to move to a slower rhythm? With a tone of stark alienation, the Peppers plaintively invoke the familiar chorus “with birds I share this lonely view”; a few miles later, I spy a buzzard riding a ridge, going nowhere fast.

Medicine bag protects van in the Badlands.

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