story and photos by Paul Ross
It was my first foray from Santa Fe, New Mexico, up South Dakota way and one my few experiences in the Midwest, “America’s heartland,” which is derisively included by bicoastal media under the broad heading of “flyover country.” Almost immediately, I sensed something was wrong. I couldn’t put my finger on it but there was an element missing. I didn’t need my urban-honed 360o hyper-awareness ...’cause, generally, I wasn’t in any big city in South Dakota; I was just surrounded by miles and miles of flat agriculture: corn, soybeans, hogs –NYSE commodities literally on the hoof. I didn’t have a problem with it, because it was what I’d expected. It was with the people. They smiled and audibly said “Hi” on the street –to a stranger -for no discernible reason!
At an annual charity affair –the McCrossen Boys’ Ranch Extreme Event Challenge Rodeo-- the best place from which to shoot photos was secured behind doubled fences. So I tried a big city ploy and walked in like I belonged. It worked, until Cindy Menning, THE woman in charge, approached. I mentally prepared a barrage of important credentials with which to snow, or at least impress, her. But, instead of a challenge, she offered access to an even better vantage point –right atop the chutes where professional bull riders dropped down onto their ¾ ton mounts.
No questions were asked, just friendly help extended.
In even the most basic service jobs, SD employees seemed really concerned and wanted to help. And they actually listened. I was suspicious and vaguely uncomfortable.
You see, I was accustomed to this kind of exchange:
“I want this black shoe in a 9.”
“Close enough?-It’s a different make and model, brown and in an 11.”
But, in Sioux Falls, I got this response:
“Here.” (Black. 9. –just as requested.) And it was done cheerfully and accompanied by a real smile.
In restaurants, the unthinkable was commonplace: substitutions (!) With no raised brows, rolled eyes, sighs, sneers or language unbefitting.
In the Wilde Prairie, Schadé and Strawbale wineries, I was curious about some product not on their standard tasting menus. They not only opened bottles (Beet wine, anyone?) but they did so at no extra charge. In the world of wine, that’s truly cordial.
Don & Suzie Schadé play it up for visitors to their eponymously-named winery.
Had I time-slipped into some retro zone? High school sports were on the front pages of local papers. No surveillance choppers scoured the night. Could I be in “Mayberry” as Williamsburg, populated with dedicated re-enactors!? Things were as normal as they were on any day –in 1950’s America. The unnerving part was that it wasn’t creepy. Not “Pleasantville” and definitely not “Stepford” (too many folk were too fat for that).
At the small hamlet (population 1300) of Freeman, after expressing interest in their substantive history museum, I was gifted a box of the local newspaper reproductions which detailed activities dating back to the town’s beginning. It was four inches thick and weighed a good six pounds. And all I had done was admire a collection.
On the plains of South Dakota, people still attend church regularly and, even when the religion was fringy or relicky (Mennonites and Hutterites, Anabaptist European refugees who fled to early America but are still marginalized by much of mainstream Christianity), the adherents were aware, sometimes even hip and they had a sense of humor. I freely referenced pop culture, science, even cuisine and –while there was little of the latter in physical evidence- they understood what I was talking about!
I wondered where was that Midwestern rebellious edge that had given us Crazy Horse, Dillinger, Bonnie & Clyde?
Finally, on the last day, in a chain store in a mall, I encountered someone who seemed not to give a damn. Indifference. Now that was familiar and I could accept it.
“Where would I find men’s shirts?” I inquired with uncharacteristic and renewed politeness.
“Over there,” came the reply, monotonally delivered with a dismissive wave and no eye contact. Aha!-I was home. I stood, vainly searching 30,000 square feet of open floor space. She looked up. “I’m sorry. I’m new. I’m not from here.”
Neither was I.
Paul Ross is a (words, photos & video) multi-media content provider for a variety of international publications. He covers the off-beat, culture, drink and, often, the culture and history of drink. Among other accomplishments, he’s the Travel Editor of “Drink me –lifestyle through the glass” (www.drinkmemag.com)