A college friend from South Dakota occasionally made sweeping pronouncements. Many of these were quite abstract and marijuana-enabled – he was a physicist and a hippie – but every now and then he came up with a sharp social observation. The Dakotas had been divided incorrectly, he told me; instead of a North and a South Dakota, there should be a West and East Dakota. In terms of economic activity and general temperament, his argument went, this arrangement would suit the region better.
Many years later, his analysis holds, at least superficially. As we travel west across South Dakota, the immediate, effortless friendliness of the Upper Midwest gives way to the taciturn distance of the American West. In Brookings, very close to the Minnesota border, and in Sioux Falls, the state’s biggest city, people are gregarious and inquisitive; in Mitchell, not even a quarter of the way across the state, a Western reserve predominates.
The obvious division of the state is provided by the Missouri River, which separates the state into East River and West River. West River is home to the state’s main tourist attractions (the Badlands, Black Hills, Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse, and the towns of Wall, Spearfish, and Deadwood), and both cowboys and Indians. This is the South Dakota of the popular imagination. It is a little bit flashy and a little bit country, and it has more in common with Wyoming and the West in general than it does the eastern side of the state.
By contrast, there is little of the Wild West in East River. It feels, for all practical purposes, like the Upper Midwest. Much of it is agricultural land settled in large part by immigrants from Scandinavia and Germany, similar in this respect to Minnesota and western Wisconsin.
We approach East River from Minneapolis, driving through the Twin Cities’ unremarkable western suburbs and dozens of little agricultural towns. We arrive in Brookings, the home of South Dakota State University, at 7:30 pm on a Friday night. The streets are empty, their low-lying building casting long shadows. In the warm September evening there are no hints of autumn at all, rather waves of students ready to start the school year.
Nick’s Hamburgers, where we eat lunch the following day, feels like a 1950s time capsule. Customers sit in a wide U-shaped counter around the grill. Young men cook hamburgers, which are then assembled by young women by hand and placed on waxed paper in front of customers. There is gentle flirtation behind the counter, and everyone is so polite. The burgers are small and delicious and filling.
Sioux Falls, the largest city in the state, is about an hour south of Brookings by car. Its downtown is mercifully devoid of the major chains so common in mid-sized American cities. And – most importantly perhaps – here is very good coffee here, at a two-café chain called Coffea. One barista tells me that he moved from Minneapolis; here he lives downtown with his artist girlfriend. “You can’t compare Sioux Falls to Minneapolis,” he says. “It has its own pace. But I am happy here, even when the river stinks,” he smiles, crooking a finger in the direction of the Big Sioux River, which runs through the centre of town.
From Sioux Falls we drive on to Mitchell to visit the Corn Palace, a tribute to the area’s agricultural fecundity. Its decorative façade is made entirely out of corn. It is in Mitchell where we begin to feel that we’ve left the Midwest, even though we’re still technically in East River. Crowded with tourists, the Corn Palace feels like an attraction from a different era, just like Nick’s Hamburgers. We buy corn syrup candies for friends and a caramel popcorn ball to snack on, and we drive on.
Disclosure. South Dakota Tourism provided a National Park pass and a very good media rate at the State Game Lodge in Custer (Black Hills).