It has been two weeks since my trip to the Fort Pierre National Grassland. The unique landscape left me with conflicting sensations. On one hand, the shortgrass prairie is enchanting. On the restored prairies near home, the big bluestem sometimes is over my head, so I cannot see more than a few feet in front of me. Even when I can see for a distance on these postage stamp-sized plots, there is always forest or ag land only a few hundred yards away. On the wild prairies of central South Dakota, the vegetation is waist high at best, and the vistas from any ridge top is grasslands for as far as I could see.
On the other hand, the mystique of the endless prairie has an uncomfortable starkness to it. I am not sure how long I’d be happy in a place without forests or shorelines or, to my surprise, people. I usually avoid other people when I go to nature, but I want it to be my choice. The shortgrass prairie does not offer solitude so much as mandate it. When my traveling companions were off hunting and I was left by myself, I was at peace. Still, when I looked for miles in all directions and saw fence lines as the only evidence of a human presence, I had an inkling the isolation might be too much over an extended period of time. Even as I enjoyed my time alone, I was glad my stay was short-term. Maybe I could say the same of most backcountry trips, but I felt it more strongly on the endless prairie. Only fifteen miles from Interstate 90, I was more alone on the prairie than times I’ve been dropped in the middle of nowhere by floatplane. On the floatplane trips, I was embraced by the northwoods. In South Dakota, the grasslands were indifferent to my presence. I found myself wondering what the first white settlers must have thought when they realized the Dakota Territories was their new home. I also wondered whether today’s South Dakota ranchers feel claustrophobic when surrounded by trees.
As I tromped across the rolling South Dakota hills, I often watched out for prairie rattlesnakes. This would seem a reasonable precaution, except for the fact that I live in a place with timber rattlers and massasauga – and I’ve never given either one of those venomous reptiles a second thought. What was the difference? All I can think of is that we fear the unfamiliar. My daughter Clare was studying abroad in New Zealand before the pandemic forced her home. She said her New Zealand friends were shocked to learn she hiked in areas with ticks carrying Lyme disease. In their minds, she might as well been describing a hotspot for malaria or dengue fever. (Coincidentally I have not heard a single mention of Lyme disease since the COVID pandemic.)