My German husband has been to all 50 United States, and he’s found a geocache in every one. Although I’ve travelled quite a bit too, mostly with him but also with the family I grew up in, this trip was my first time in South Dakota. I got on one big plane at SFO airport, and then transferred to a small one in Denver, heading to Rapid City. There I rented a car and drove about a half hour south to the ranch where the retreat took place, just south of the small town of Hermosa. The normal schedule for these retreats is a half day, followed by two full days, followed by another half day. My flight schedule worked out that I got in late the night before the first half day, and rather than stay in a hotel in Rapid City, I added another night at Windbreak House. With the extra time in SD before the retreat started, I planned to do some sight-seeing and find a few geocaches.
I mentioned in Part I that I was a big fan of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” books when I was a girl. Laura and her family lived for a time in De Smet SD, which, I discovered, is more than 300 miles from the retreat. Also, their time in De Smet is described in the book The Long Winter, one of my less favorite ones in the series. So as much as I’d like to frame it that way, this trip was not really a pilgrimage to a magical place of my childhood imagination.
If De Smet is too far away to make a day trip out of from Rapid City, Mt Rushmore is not, and my father recommended I go to Mt Rushmore at night, to see it light up. I got into Rapid City and Avis rented me a white Ford Taurus. With a sun roof. This was not the economy car I expected. It started by pushing a button, and it had bluetooth to connect my phone. It drove very quietly, and on these long, straight deserted highways that seem to characterize the region, I felt a little like I was piloting the Starship Enterprise. It started to rain, with thunder and lightning in the distance, visible for miles around.
Nervously, I phoned Linda. I had only had email contact with her, and in those emails, I’d sent her this big chunk of a crazy science fiction novel that other readers had termed “confusing” and “full of BS.” (BS=backstory in this case, but still). There is something scary about the thought that someone might know you primarily through your fiction and nothing else. She was very supportive of the idea that I come to Windbreak House, check in, and then head out to the Mt Rushmore lighting ceremony, but she was also concerned that I get something to eat. (Food, except for a dozen fresh eggs, is not provided at the retreat, you have to buy groceries in Rapid City.) I didn’t have time to get groceries before the ceremony, and I also spent entirely too long trying to figure out how to plug my phone in in the car, as it got increasingly dark.
Finally I ditched my suitcase in the Eagle bedroom and headed out to Mt Rushmore. It was completely dark when I got there, and I couldn’t see anything but the road ahead. The ceremony would have started by now. At the gate, the young ticket taker asked for $11. That seemed a lot for a few minutes of ceremony. But I could always use the same ticket and come back tomorrow. I asked, “is the ceremony over?” “I dunno, is it lit up?” I hadn’t even realized you could see it from the road. “No, I didn’t see anything.” I parked in the Washington parking lot and walked up, up, and up. The story of Teddy Roosevelt’s life was being broadcast on loudspeakers as I walked. Finally I reached a veranda looking out over an amphitheater, and saw the monument, still dark. People were milling around, listening to the story, kids on parents’ shoulders, some climbing on ledges where they shouldn’t. Many of the spectators had on those rain ponchos that look like plastic trash bags. I hadn’t seen one since the 1980s.
Then, finally, the story ended, and the monument lit up. The National Anthem played, and everyone—children, adults, plastic ponchos and all, sang along. I stood alone, singing softly. It occurred to me then that in my novel, set in the year 2074, the United States has changed beyond all recognition. I had been playing around with the idea of Federalism taken to an extreme, of individual states and regions serving as incubators for different political and economic ideas, and this was what had come out. I believe that at its best, Science Fiction allows you to do just such thought experiments. I was happy it was an experiment; at that moment, it became clearer to me what the inhabitants of my alternate future timeline had lost.
I left and went home to bed, with no groceries.
The next day was a bit of a whirlwind of Starbucks, tourism, and geocache finding. I went back to Mt Rushmore and saw it in the daylight and had my picture taken. I made a couple of souvenir pennies. I bought a tacky Christmas ornament for the collection and some books as gifts for the kids. I found a geocache at a dinosaur park and bought lunch there for less than $2.00. I ended up calling Linda again to let her know I would be late coming back. “That’s okay, I imagine this trip is once in a lifetime for you,” she said.
As I drove around, becoming unnaturally impressed with the Ford Taurus, what I ended up thinking about most was not Laura Ingalls Wilder, or the Federalized United States circa 2074, or the structure of my novel, or even what I was going to eat for the next 3 days. It was when I was one of those kids in the gift shop, asking for a cedar box with the name of the attraction engraved on the top to store my collected treasures. It was when I thought big fake dinosaurs could be real. It was when, walking in the hot sun, I told myself stories about surviving a terrible drought, or living in a 1-room cabin. It was about when I was more of a reader and about when being a writer, among other faraway dreams, seemed truly possible.
I finally bought too much food at the grocery store and brought it back to the house, ready to take out my computer and get started.
“Little Writing Retreat on the Prairie” – The Set
–A series of blogs describing my experiences at Windbreak House, a women’s writing retreat in South Dakota run by Linda Hasselstrom