If you buy into that kind of crap.
You see, I’ve been to South Dakota before. In fact, I reckon I’m the only American outside of South Dakota itself who can count the Mt. Rushmore State among his best childhood memories. I’m also the only American who regularly uses the word ‘reckon,’ but that’s neither here nor there.
There are some people who romanticize the summer of ’69. I tend to romanticize the summer of ’97, myself. Having been turned down for a summer study program in Germany, my mom was forced to cook up a different scheme to get me out of the house for a month. She came up with South Dakota.
I was part of a Unitarian Universalist mission trip, which sounds more holy than it was. Rather than spreading the good word of our boy Jesus, we were instead an interfaith collective with the mission of repairing houses on the reservation. We spent a month in the town of Norris living in teepees in the backyard of Russell Eagle Bear, one of the village elders.
Our group consisted of about fifteen people, including an elderly couple, a woman named Thompson who practiced wicca, a smoking hot 24 year old woman named Shana, our fearless leader Kevin who was forever driving to Mission to “get supplies,” a single, middleaged man named Mark who would curse loudly in his sleep every night, and Ben, the teenaged stoner who once came up to me after using the restroom and said, “Dude, I just got the perfect idea for a book. It’s called ‘Shit: It’s All in Your Head. The Psychological Guide to Taking a Good Shit.”
I was the youngest of the group.
Organization was not the group’s forte, nor was civility. We bickered, got impatient, and lost time on our construction projects. We had entered Norris as a whole group, but we all left at different times, never to speak with one another again. As for Ben, he was sent home early with another teenager from the group for smoking weed with the locals, adding more friction to the group.
But the time inbetween was brilliant. If Butte lies just beyond the national radar, Norris is somewhere in the Andromeda Galaxy. Just as light travels more slowly in certain parts of the universe, life passes by Norris more slowly than elsewhere. It was truly a middle of nowhere town with nothing in the way of diversions save for listening to the wind blow through the grass, watching stray dogs chase grasshoppers, or talking for hours under the night sky looking for shooting stars. I don’t remember being bored during my time in Norris. It was a time before the ubiquity of cell phones, IM, Myspace accounts and even regular use of e-mail. It marked the start of the convoluted and strange path my life would take from high school to the present day. Nostalgia hits hard when I think of Norris.
I learned not only from the diversity in our own group, but also from the Oglala Sioux who were our hosts. We participated in a two hour sweat lodge ceremony, listened to talks from Russell around the campfire, and helped set up for the Sun Dance ceremony. It was, one could say, a formative experience, one that forged a sense of how different people are in the world and a respect for those differences. It is why, to this day, I get annoyed when people (myself included) try to generalize what Americans are supposed to be. We are simply too diverse.
And now it is time for me to see Norris for the first time in ten years. I should have known that an attempt to relive the past would not be a good idea. Disappointment is inevitable.
I drove to Norris yesterday and found not much has changed. There is still a beat up general store, a laundromat, an American Legion Post, a collection of thirty houses, and a school. I pull up to the Ben Looking White Memorial Hall where a couple of old, swarthy men are sitting outside in the 106 degree heat watching life drive by, the way old men the world over are wont to do. I ask them if they know a Russell Eagle Bear. An ancient language passes between them before one of them responds.
“He out at the Sun Dance grounds. Been out fifteen minutes now. You should be able to find him there.” He points to some houses off near the horizon that vibrate in the heat’s shimmer. “Follow that dirt road near them houses there, 'bout five miles back. Russell’s got a white pickup.”
I thank him and ask him, in case I don’t find him, to give Russell one of my cards. On the back I’ve written the post script “Unitarian Universalists, Summer ’97, best summer of my life!”
The dirt road puts Black Betty through the rounds while sending great plumes of dust behind me. About a mile before I reach the grounds, I wonder what exactly I’m going to say. I realize I have no proof of my stay on these lands ten years ago. I haven't even brought any of my pictures to share. While Norris played such a significant role in my youth, the residents now don’t know that. To them, I must be just another white man invading their territory.
What is it I want from Norris? What do I expect to find here? Why am I chasing a man who probably won't even remember me?
As I think about what to say, a white pickup truck speeds towards me. I wave but he does not slow down. In the split second that it takes to pass me, I recognize Russell and another man inside the truck. I turn around and try to follow them back to town, but the old men are gone from the memorial hall and Russell’s truck is not in front of his house. He has disappeared. After ten years I get only a glimpse.
I leave Norris reluctantly and drive for a ways along state highway 63 until I find a place to pullover. I sit and listen to the wind in the fields, relentlessly turning old memories over in my mind, wondering if I’ll ever make it back to Norris again. When I finally relinquish the past and head back to my car, I accidentally set off the alarm. I laugh and let it go on for a second longer than normal. There’s no one out here to hear it, you see.