The prairie dog’s bark echoed across the plain – a plaintive cry for me to break the rules and hand over some of my popcorn. I resisted, glancing over at the sign: “DO NOT FEED THE ANIMALS!” Though my mother, stepfather, sister, and I were the only humans in sight, I could feel the park ranger’s phantom eyes upon me. I pictured Tonto on horseback, riding up to scold me – “Maize no good for prairie dog, Kemosabe.” – and snatching the errant kernel from my hand (or, perhaps, an unnamed Indian shedding a single tear over my proposed misdeed).
I crumpled the end of the bag closed and returned the popcorn to the back seat of the family car. A worn-out Pontiac, it had nevertheless ferried us from the gentle, green hills of northern Illinois, to the vast, scrabbly tableau of South Dakota, to this nameless drive-thru nature preserve in particular. Along the way, that car carried us over the Mississippi (which seemed less mighty with a giant concrete and steel bridge shrinking it to a five minute drive) and sailed sickening seas of soybeans in Iowa.
There we made a stop in Mitchell to see the Corn Palace, which is indeed made entirely of corn. (Curiously, there was no maze of maize in Mitchell, however.) There was heat, though; oh my goodness, the heat. I was amazed the Palace didn’t spontaneously pop. It smelled of cooked kernels. Not the left-too-long-in-the-microwave smell: this was the almost sweet scent of corn and oil in a pan on the stove from my childhood.
Outside there were hawkers of all kinds, with Corn Palace bumper stickers and Corn Palace T-shirts and Corn Palace corn cob stuffed animals and Corn Palace books and Corn Palace videocassettes (no Corn Palace DVDs, even though it was the mid-Nineties). I was glad to be rid of Mitchell and its thrice-damned Corn Palace. Nothing like rampant capitalism to shatter a perfectly good reminiscence.
The Crazy Horse monument in South Dakota was little better. Only the outline of the noble native was visible, with completion a decade or more away, yet still rocks blasted away from the face of the mountain were for sale. I shook my head and wondered what Crazy Horse would have thought about selling broken parts of the earth – never mind carving his image into his Mother’s body. Of course, we bought one.
The Crazy Horse rock sat in the back seat of our Pontiac, and I used it to hold down my half-empty popcorn bag. An arid breeze blew across the amber waves that day, and I was not about to explain how the animals came to be fed through my negligence and a gust. Tonto would not be scolding this Kemosabe today.
I started when what I assumed was the chief of the prairie dogs let out three sharp barks. “Son of a…” I said as I cracked my skull on the roof, but my mother’s peregrine ears caught me before I could complete my curse. “Language, son,” she said.
The prairie dog’s language became more insistent, as if he had understood and ignored my mom’s rebuke. His barks came faster, louder, commanding his tribe back to their holes not more than twenty feet from the road winding through the preserve. I pulled my now-aching head from the car to see what his bother was. Scanning the horizon, I saw no wolf or fox emerging from the wood for a snack, no buffalo stampede threatening the dog’s den or our dying Pontiac – in fact, I had not seen a buffalo at all in South Dakota, though I had eaten one the day before.
My mom (originally from Canton, S.D.) was advised by her cousin in Sioux Falls to try a local burger joint specializing in buffalo. Signs proclaimed buffalo an “All-American Meat.” Presumably, this was because the buffalo were, as another sign shouted, “Free Range,” not that I had any idea what that meant.
I understood after the first bite, however. That burger was the most exquisite mesquite-fire-cooked hunk of flesh I had ever experienced. No grease dripped down my chin, yet the patty was moist and tender; no preservatives taxed my liver, yet the meat tasted as fresh as new-fallen snow; no vegetables garnished my plate, yet every bite came with a whiff of grass and scrub.
The McDonald’s down the street had a sign indicating there had been “Millions and Millions Served” there. If this little burger joint had a similar sign, it likely would have proclaimed “Dozens and Dozens Served.” Still, I had no doubt even Crazy Horse would have called this burger a work of art.
Returning to my search of the source of the prairie dog’s stress, I turned my eyes to the painted sky. I scanned the expanse, so much bigger here than in Rockford, Illinois. The stratus and cumulonimbus seemed miles long, and their height threatened to scrape the Hubble. Still, even in the clouds of South Dakota, I saw no buffalo.
I saw the predator, though: the slow-circling falcon – or perhaps it was a hawk or an eagle (though not a bald eagle: those I had seen along the banks of the Mississippi as a child on my grandfather’s fishing boat). I pointed it out to my mother, who decided we should move on to a different part of the preserve. I was sure she wanted to give the raptor a sporting chance. I was also sure she wanted to avoid having to explain the “circle of life” to my younger sister if the bird’s hunt was successful.
We piled back into the Pontiac and continued our languid tour of the prairie. Wildflowers and brush surrounded us and concealed the vicious dance of the smaller animals of the plain. My mother and stepfather decided our time in the preserve, and in South Dakota, had come to an end. As we made our way toward the park exit, one last obstacle kept us in Sioux territory a bit longer.
A pack of burros wandered along the narrow road winding through the prairie. Content and confident, they were little concerned about the car casually cruising toward them. My stepfather blared the horn at them; their ears moved, but not their hooves. Soon they surrounded the car, poking their noses in, sniffing for a treat (which they’d no doubt received from other tourists, despite the signs admonishing such activities). My sister cried when one of the donkeys licked her face, and so desperate measures were called for.
I took up the popcorn bag from under Crazy Horse’s stone, pushed a donkey aside with the car door, and climbed out, despite my mother’s warning. I opened the bag and offered a few kernels in my outstretched palm to the donkey I’d shoved out of my way. It seemed the best way to make amends for treating him so rudely. Ears up, the donkey devoured the popcorn in an instant.
Soon, I was making amends for crimes I hadn’t committed. The rest of the pack caught the scent of maize, and moved in to get their share. Shortly, the burros pressed against me, their short hair bristling my legs and arms like brushes. I was surrounded by jackasses there on the plain, just as I had been amidst the soybeans in Iowa.