The heart of western South Dakota: US Highway 212 near the town of Faith.
Leaving Spearfish, South Dakota, on October 17th en route to eastern North Dakota, I decided to skip the Green Bean coffeehouse, as much as I like it, and fueled up on motel-room coffee and a leftover partial burrito. I was on the road shortly after eight, up to Belle Fourche and then east on US 212.
US 50 across Nevada is often publicized as “the loneliest road in America,” but US 212 between Belle Fourche and the Missouri crossing at Charger’s Camp also qualifies. You come to a town of what looks like thirty people and then it’s forty miles to the next place. Tan rolling hills with the occasional butte—Bear Butte, Mud Butte, and the rest—to serve as landmarks. So it goes for more than two hundred miles.
Between Faith and Dupree, having crossed into the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation, I saw a figure walking east beside the road. I thought he was a (probably) Lakota teenager with an instrument case (trumpet?) slung on his back. I blew past him at 75 mph and then re-considered. There was almost no traffic. There never is. He was miles from anywhere. Well, who will pick him up if I don’t? I turned the Jeep around. (It’s so hard to break that driving rhythm when you have 450 miles to go.)
As I drove back west, I scanned the two vehicles that I met, a pickup truck and a sedan full of people. I did not spot him. But suppose he was lying down in the bed of the truck?
“I’ll drive to the top of the next rise and have a look,” I thought. Sure enough, a dot in the distance, there he was. I tossed some stuff from the passenger seat into the back.
Travis (we exchanged first names) was grateful. He was no teenager, but rather 33 years old—I got his birthdate and much of his life story. Father an Anglo biker, a regular at the Sturgis motorcycle rally every summer (they had lived in nearby Rapid City), Vietnam vet, died of prostate cancer in 2016. Mother Lakota. For some trivial reason, he had missed visiting his dad at the VA hospital in Sioux Falls, and shortly afterwards, his dad was gone, and he was still angry with himself. He told me where his mom was from—I recognized the name, a little town off the rez, that’s about all.
The grey thing on his back was a duffle bag with everything he owned in it.
He had been visiting a man whom he called his “father figure” (a maternal uncle?) in Iron Lightning, a place I know only from seeing the sign when I go by the turnoff. Let’s just say that there is no Wikipedia entry for Iron Lighting. He said that the evening before, he and the other man had walked along the meandering little Moreau River to a butte where eagles nest. They had prayed there.
Then they went to the man’s house and started drinking—sweet wine, by the smell of his sweat. The “father figure” passed out, but Travis had started walking south toward the highway some time around 2 a.m. It is about ten miles out to the highway. He had stopped for a sleep, he said, and was walking again when I saw him about 10:00 a.m.
Food and water? None. I gave him cold coffee and apples from a neighbor’s tree. He said that he had done this kind of reservation hitchhiking before, with an emphasis on “hiking.”
I got his story: the jobs he took off the rez (there is nothing on the rez except tribal government work, basically). The broken marriage to a Lakota woman, who was currently in Eagle Butte, the reservation’s administrative center. The 11-year-old daughter he has not seen for several years. The recent time spent at some rehab center in Wyoming for his alcoholism, which was a good experience, he said, but of course after a couple months, back his old situations, he fell off the wagon. He had worked construction recently in Rapid City, but oddly did not know where Canyon Lake School was, so he must have had a circumscribed view of that town. Or maybe he just paid no attention to elementary schools.
He was headed for Mobridge, a larger town about ninety miles away. I turned north at Dupree, having planned to go through the Standing Rock reservation and on up to I-94 that way, a new route for me. But I realized that turning east to Mobridge and then continuing north on US 83, one of my usual routes, would be about the same distance, so I gave him the hitchhiker’s dream—a straight-through trip to a friend’s house where he hoped to be able to stay awhile. The friend’s pickup was in the driveway, so Travis hopped out, thanked me, and was gone.
Everyone in the world is damaged, has susto or “soul loss,” I often think. We medicalize this condition with terms like post-traumatic stress disorder, but I heard one curandera say that even your birth can set off susto, if it was a difficult birth. This is all just starker out there on US 212, where the tan prairie rolls away and there are no other human beings for miles.
I gently suggested at one point to Travis that he go out somewhere and offer up his problem to his ancestors on both sides . . . make a little offering . . . there might be someone who could give him a nudge in the right direction. Maybe. It’s his choice.