Thursday, July 26, 2012

On the Rez

There are few things I know about South Dakota.

I know it’s in the Midwest.
I know its capital is Pierre.
I know Mount Rushmore is there.

But I don’t know much else. Or I didn’t. I wish I knew as much about every state as I do about those in which I have lived, but unfortunately my brain seems to be filled with other things these days, like the fastest way to get to Brooklyn from my apartment and that I have to remember to pay my cable bill on time. Such is life.

I learned a bit more this past weekend, though, when my dear friend CGR came to visit. CGR is a teacher on a Native American Reservation in South Dakota, where she drives three hours to go dancing in nearby Rapid City, one hour to the grocery store, and two hours to the airport. There is no city where she lives, she laughs.

New Yorkers live in a bubble, and any one of us (oh, by the way, yes, I do now use the term for myself. I flicked off a cab driver the other day who honked at me when I had the right of way, and I now consider myself fully worthy.) will tell you that’s entirely true. Because when you live in New York, sometimes your greatest worries are if you’ll be able to catch a cab to the airport on time, if you’ll be able to get a reservation at that cool, new, hip restaurant on the Lower East Side, or what bar in the East Village your friends are meeting up at later. Anything you need is around the corner from your house or within a five-to-ten minute walk. Manhattan itself is only 10 miles long.

“What do you want to eat tonight?” I asked CGR. “Chinese? Indian? Mexican?” I realized there were just so many options. The list could literally go on forever because New York is the United Nations when it comes to food. It’s not so in South Dakota. CGR once asked the gas station store proprietors to carry soy milk so she didn’t have to drive to the grocery store an hour away. They obliged, but didn’t order it again because she was the only person who bought it. I think they have soy milk in the bodegas in New York. We are spoiled here—anything you want, you can get it at any hour, in a short amount of time, I’m pretty sure. But do we appreciate any of it?

I used to think I could never live life without a Bloomingdale’s close by. But something about the world that CGR described, where her dog drags home a buffalo head, where she drives in and out of time zones to go dancing, where horses are sold as raffle prizes, sounds incredibly interesting. To be fair, I don’t think it’s a place I could live full-time, but it’s such a completely different life that I’d want to see and explore.

Walking past apartments during her visit, CGR realized “You know, there are probably more people in that building than my entire town?” (Her town is 500 people). It’s strange to think how we’ve piled ourselves on top of one another here in New York. We keep moving up and up and up and space is a highly sought-after commodity. But in South Dakota, all there is is space. Lack of space is strange, maybe even incomprehensible. But, as I’m sure many things are on the reservation, it is a way of life to which we accustom ourselves because, well, what will we do if we don’t?

CGR told me more of her stories about life “on the rez” as she calls it, and I loved all of them. I couldn’t summon as many “New York” ones, though. She says it’s because when you’re living in a place, you don’t see all of its eccentricities as eccentricities—you just see them for the every day parts of your life that just, well, exist. I wonder if I went to teach a photography workshop “on the rez” for a weekend as she suggested then would my stories have the same ring that hers do, of a seemingly foreign land in one’s own country? I am curious, curious about the air and the dirt, about the horses and the lakes. Even now as I write this I am looking up flights on Kayak. Sometimes it's just nice to see something that's not asphalt and windows and cement, to see another part of the country, another part of the world. What kind of footwear does one take to South Dakota, anyway?