This Versus The Other
Since moving to North Dakota, I’ve found multiple occasions where I spend time in South Dakota, and for some reason, I default to describing both North and South as “The Other Dakota” depending in which Dakota I happen to be at any given moment. When in South Dakota, North Dakota is the Other Dakota, but when I am at my residence, South Dakota becomes the Other Dakota. Don’t think this is a regional style, or that this descriptor applies generically, like to the Carolinas. I simply prefer this subtle distinction.
The first time I drove from one Dakota to the Other Dakota (see “North Dakota on a Napkin,” November 2011), I cruised the eastern edge of both states – Interstate 29 from bottom to top and back again. The young dirt lives on that side of the Dakotas, where the glaciers of the last Ice Age wore down the soil to expose the grazing lands and the acreage of crop fields. The Missouri River serves as a distinct break of a million years between the top soil of the western badlands and the ground-down features of the Red River Valley. Truthfully, the western Dakotas, whether this one of the Other Dakota, have a closer resemblance to each other than the eastern Dakotas. Perhaps the dividing line should have run vertically rather than horizontally.
More Than Earth Is Worn Down
The highest points in the Dakotas both rise on the western sides of the states. In South Dakota, the Black Hills mark elevations uniquely separate from the rest of the state, including Black Elk Peak in the Black Elk Wilderness, often described as the highest point in the United States east of the Rocky Mountains. The high point in the Other Dakota, however, named White Butte, less than half the height of Black Elk Peak, doesn’t really rise so much as it hasn’t been as worn down as the rest of the North Dakota topography. That sentiment, I find, rings true of much of this Dakota: only those objects (hills, soil, buildings, people) that haven’t been completely worn down comprise the scenery of the upper of the two Dakotas.
On the drive between North and South, I see the remnants of roadside motels where only the outline of the sign remains. Oil wells and their surrounding tanks struggle to hold themselves together for the rust that discolors them. Tumble weeds make themselves visible on most drives, sometimes in the road, sometimes caught in the warped lines of the barbed wire that still endeavor to separate ranch spreads. Even the cattle appear beaten down, frequently huddled against the wind, which continually carves the earth, even if not as forcefully as the long-gone glaciers. Perhaps the Other Dakota isn’t distinguished by where I am, but what is still standing despite Mother Nature’s best efforts.