Two summers ago, while participating in the annual bike trip Ride Across South Dakota (RASDAK), I spent long minutes looking at fences. South Dakota fences. Which are sometimes different from and sometimes similar to the lodgepole pine fences I helped build in my youth in Montana. Those fences were made of trees we found up a rocky road in a box canyon in the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness Area.
The trees had to be tall, straight, and dead. When we found some with these characteristics, we cut them down and hauled them back to camp. Then stripped bark and soaked the logs in creosote before notching and nailing them to the posts we had set in the ground earlier. Our work was often accompanied by the flute-like song of the bright yellow-breasted meadowlark perched on the fence.
While the fences I see in South Dakota are sometimes the same, more often they are long expanses of barbed wire stretched for miles across wood posts in horizontal landscapes marked by scruffy, dry, buttes of grasses, cacti and yucca plants. They provide sight lines along the miles of Dakota roads, stretching into an infinite blue.
I had time to gaze at fences on this year’s ride because I decided to sag. Sagging means that you stop a lot along the way, every 5 to 10 miles, in case the bikers need help. And many did—we handed out water, lent the bike pump, brought weary riders into town along with their broken-down bikes. But for most of the day, when the cyclists were moving past us with ease, I stood and looked at fences. The itinerary for the bike ride started in Rapid City, went into the Badlands for three days, through the small prairie towns around Interstate 90, and ended in Sioux Falls. My friend and I stood or sat in the hot Dakota sun most of the time, waiting for bicyclists to come along old two-lane roads with little traffic. Meadowlarks and red-winged blackbirds punctuated the stillness with their songs. We pulled off by the edge, usually by a two-track dirt road that led into a pasture.
I brought my camera, notebook, fountain pen, and laptop, but took more pictures than I wrote words. There wasn’t time for thoughtful writing. Every morning we got up between 4.30 and 5.00 so that the bikers could be on the road by sunrise and beat the heat of the day.
During our stay in the Badlands, one of the women I met while sagging learned something about fences too—how to cut your way through one. She learned that if you want to cut a fence you should do so no more than 18 inches from the post or it weakens that whole section of fence. She discovered this trick when she and her friends picked up a hungover cowboy the night before and took him to his ranch. Nothing happened other than a tour of the ranch. No night of prairie passion, just advice about fences.
Some fences we encountered were remnants of the Cold War. After our night in the Badlands, we stopped at the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site Visitor Center, with its exhibits and reminders about the history of the Cold War and the role that South Dakota played in it. The missile launch centers, hidden in plain view, held enough atomic power to destroy the world. Men and women secured the sites year round and were ready to respond in a moment’s notice if a threat was present from an enemy of the US.
As we headed out the door of the Visitor Center, a guide reminded us to watch for the square acres of land marked by high chain link fences with razor sharp barbed wire on top. Not too far down the road, we found one of them, part of the discontinued DELTA Minuteman Missile program.
Signs warned us to stay out and power lines ran to the inside of the enclosure. The whole area felt strange, and alien. The US Government chose the Dakotas because the land provided isolated sites for the missiles. For decades, missiles and ranchers were close neighbors.
Later that day, we drove to the Lower Brule Sioux Reservation which was once a fenceless land. At the Golden Buffalo Casino we asked a local Lakota guide what sites we should visit. She suggested the Narrows Interpretive Area where a Lakota tipi camp and an Arikara earth lodge have been built to honor the tribal residents of the last thousand years.
We set out with directions that are probably clear to local people but confusing to us. We reached a gravel parking lot and a fence that read: Culturally Sensitive Area. No Motorized Vehicles. Lower Brule Cultural Resource Office. Keep Gate Closed. We couldn’t see the Arikara earth lodge at first, so we left our vehicle, and walked up the road beyond the gate.
After walking a half mile, covered with dust and tired from keeping our eyes and ears alert for rattlesnakes, we returned to our car. Then we thought: “Well, the gate was open and the guide encouraged us to see the place,” so we drove through the gate, taking our time. Finally, the Arikara earth lodge appeared ahead. The Arikara moulded the dome like structure out of bent tree limbs, thatch, and clay. At the top of the roof, slightly offset, a hole opened up where smoke would waft upwards from the fire pit below.
Earth lodges once dotted the prairie river bluffs. The tribes lived off the rich, river basin land, growing all kinds of crops, including corn. Now, on Lower Brule, the largest popcorn manufacturer in the US provides popcorn for Jiffy Pop and Orville Redenbacher. We climbed the lower bluffs, gazing out to where Lewis and Clark once stopped to view the big bend in the Missouri River. The river stretched itself out in ribbon-like curves, the long prairie grasses blowing in ripples of green and tan.
The first settlers of Dakota Territory built the barbed wire fences. On a long stretch of highway, we noticed this wooden sign: Old Deadwood Trail, 1880-1906. Original Wagon Wheel Ruts. We pushed up the latch on the gate and went looking, then found the ruts—over 100 years old—they look like a faded two-track road. Stagecoaches once pounded over that field of grass and rock, bringing their visitors to Deadwood— the home of Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok. Today, Deadwood attracts those looking for the Wild West—both its myth and its reality. Not much is mentioned about the peoples devastated by this myth of the West.
We had started in the Badlands that morning, and now we were at our last stop of the day. Standing once again, looking into the hot sun, feeling the thirty-mile-an-hour headwinds, we waited for the cyclists. Blackbirds perched on the fence posts, squawking so loudly we could hear them through the winds, but the stocky, yellow-breasted meadowlarks never landed near us.
Then as I looked again for the bikers, listening to the roaring of the prairie wind, I heard, over everything, the piercing sublime call of the meadowlark. The fence remains empty but the bird’s call reminds me of years ago in Montana when I would hear the voice of the meadowlark as I built fence.