Great Plains aura

by Pete Letheby

Not long ago, I revisited the long-abandoned farm in south-central South Dakota where my grandparents farmed for over 30 years. Nothing could induce any of their children or grandchildren to copy their commitment to this lonely land, but it took a nasty cancer to get grandpa Lyle off the place.

Standing at the farm's highest point, the top of the pasture, I could see for miles in any direction. I closed my eyes and felt the warm breezes and, with them, the presence of my grandparents.

I opened my eyes and noticed that the farmyard where I hit baseballs and chased chickens was now covered with weeds. The only animals in sight were a multitude of barn swallows that frolicked about as if they owned the place. To the east was a familiar sight -- the Rattlesnake Hills. At least that's what grandpa called them. Decades later, I learned that its real name was Bradleyon Butte, and it stood 2,355 feet above sea level. There was another rise called Rattlesnake Butte about 10 miles further east. My younger sister and I didn't know if rattlesnakes wandered those buttes, and we weren't interested in finding out.

I found some old items in the farmyard, including a 1963 license plate. But I was more attracted to the unobstructed view of much of Tripp County. When I was almost a teenager, in this very spot, I had no clue about where I was. I only knew what and how I felt. One minute I'd feel uneasy, thinking this vast solitude and expanse just might swallow me whole if I ventured too far away from the farm. The next moment, I was comforted by the cozy air currents, sweet scent of clover and sun shadows that danced over these fields and rolling hills.

On the day I returned, more than four decades later, I felt exactly the same way. That's what the Great Plains do to you. Although maps tell us the North American Plains eventually turn upward into mountains, it never feels that way. It feels as if this land must go on forever.

The Great Plains -- the adjective "great" is almost an understatement -- is North America's unrestrained region -- one that begins at the 100th meridian and inconspicuously moves west to the base of the Rockies. It encompasses parts of 10 states, three Canadian provinces and even a speck of northern Mexico -- a half-million square miles.

Some say it might even be larger. In his 1931 "The Great Plains," Walter Prescott Webb, the 19th century Texas historian, pegged the 98th Parallel as the easternmost point of this prairie. That would push the Plains farther east to include a sliver of northwest Minnesota, too.

The Great Plains is a juxtaposition of undulations, badlands, grasslands and river valleys, some fertile and some just about lifeless. The subtleties of its terrain can be mesmerizing. Even as a child I felt that there was always more to this land than its apparent monotony. The western half of South Dakota is defined by its 2,500-foot buttes, each with its own name and story. How else could you explain Dog Ear Butte, Buzzard Butte and, just a half-hour east of my grandparents' farm, Haystack Butte? What are the stories behind The Devils Backbone, Half Dome and Plenty Star Table? And who named all these places anyway?

Up and down the Plains, the place names tell of the dreams and challenges faced by those who settled here: Golden Valley and Devils Lake, N.D.; Last Chance, Colo.; Utopia, Texas, and Winner, S.D., about eight miles southwest of my grandparents' farm.

You can read some of their stories in historical accounts that chronicle the lives of our own grandparents and great-grandparents -- Pawnee and Lakota Sioux, Irish and Scandinavians, and Germans, Russians, Latinos and Poles. My grandparents were of German and Danish ancestry, sculpted by the rugged seasons, by a wind that was often harsh but always fresh. They were deeply aware of their place on these Great Plains and, I think, came to cherish the intricacies of nature out here.

They knew that despite its name, Thunder Creek wouldn't run full every year, and maybe during some years it wouldn't run at all. They saw how promising thunderheads on the horizon often died before reaching their farm. They watched as the winds sometimes turned violent.

But on the day I visited, the breezes were anything but fierce. They cradled me as I stood alone on top of this hill, with nobody at all for miles around. Nobody except my grandparents, whose resilient spirits I again felt. That gave me great comfort, because the one thing's that certain out here is that the wind never stop blowing.

Pete Letheby is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a freelance writer in Grand Island, Nebraska.

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