Tuning out and finding local

  • Linda M. Hasselstrom


Global thinking has its good points; it may broaden our viewpoints or remind us that we could be Haitians or Tunisians. But in the West, the most visible representatives of the global economy are the super-stores where forklifts rearrange cartons of goods made somewhere besides America.

Here in South Dakota, we specialize in local experiences, and one guide is the newspaper we're still lucky enough to have; besides offering a hefty dose of reality, it provides lists of activities from art shows to auctions, bingo to bowling, music and poetry, and a swarm of interest groups.

But some of my best experiences come when we simply pick an unfamiliar area and go. On Memorial Day, we visited cemeteries in Hermosa, Black Hawk and Spearfish; besides honoring deceased relatives, we visited with family members we hadn't seen in years, laughing as the youngest generation tumbled among the tombstones. In Edgemont, we puzzled over a tombstone that bore the likeness of a black Army corporal lost in World War II. A month later, we learned more of the story in a local history book, expanding our appreciation of the town's history and people.

The same cemetery shimmers with pink quartz tombstones, as well as concrete markers with the decedent's name spelled out in marbles or shards of glass. After ambling and musing, we ate lunch beside the rusty water tower, listening to the whisper of dry grasses. We reflected on the ways we remember the dead, and the things you can't tell about a community by looking at it.

One day, we turned down a twisty gravel road too tricky for tourists and found a historic silver-mining town where we exchanged howdies with the current inhabitants. We'll go back with fishing poles some spring weekend.

Our favorite hot springs are hours away, but we've found local hot water with saunas and a spa featuring hot sand, hot granite and massage. Down the street is an art gallery featuring wildly varied art by Lakota artists, and nearby there's a former hotel offering homemade soup and sandwiches too large for one person to eat.

We've picked up books written and published by local folks; we learned more about Sheriff Seth Bullock of Deadwood, and discovered that "Sarah Campbell: The First White Woman in the Black Hills" was African American. (Confused about the subtitle? Read the book.) The local scratch and dent store -- our private slang for Pop's Grocery -- always has homemade baked goods for sale at the counter; while a clerk helps me find pepper flakes for a buck, she tells me when the town council meets and who's making a fuss over what this week. One Sunday night when we pressed our noses to the door after closing time, the proprietor -- inside counting the till -- opened up so we could satisfy our craving for ice cream.

Eggs delivered by a neighbor carry messages: the date they were laid, and sometimes the name of the hen who performed this personal service. When an employee of a quick-lube shop said my car's front axle seals were leaking, I took it to a recommended mechanic. In his tiny, cluttered garage, he hoisted my car, found nothing wrong and charged me nothing. His reward will be to see my old Toyota again and again!

Wherever we go, we make discoveries. A local man who bakes kuchen from his grandmother's recipe sells it in a locally owned grocery store. We buy honey at the hardware store, and when I call the phone number on the jar, the owner says, yes, please do bring the jars back to his farm. At our small branch library this Christmas, the librarian handed me a container of mint fudge.

One chilly day last winter, wanting to learn more about Sarah Campbell, I drove an hour to a 100-year-old schoolhouse preserved by locals for community events. Sipping coffee and nibbling cookies baked by the residents of this little clearing in the woods, I listened as people told stories of attending school there 50 or 60 years ago. I was a stranger, but I could smile, recalling my own experiences in a country school. Later, we all wedged ourselves into the antique desks to learn more local history.

We believe we've found this fascinating local world because our minds aren't cluttered with rubble from TV and shopping. Our life in the present is growing to include some of the best of the past, things that matter, like food produced by people we know, face-to-face conversations, a sense of history we can touch.

Linda M. Hasselstrom is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She is the author of several books about the rural West and lives in Hermosa, South Dakota.

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