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Road Trip into the Heartland
South Dakota
by Peter Thody

Highway 14, South Dakota
"Brilliant blue skies, endless grasslands..."


We spent our first night in South Dakota in the small town of Brookings, home of South Dakota State University whose motto, "You can go anywhere from here," suggests a resigned acceptance that this was precisely what most graduates would do. We chose Brookings on the recommendation of the woman at the Laura Ingalls Wilder museum in Walnut Grove Minnesota, who, we'd been delighted to learn, played Nellie Oleson's mum in the annual Wilder Pageant. And we chose our hotel, the perfectly good but unremarkable $60-a-night Hotel Brookings Inn on the outskirts of town, simply because it seemed to be the best available.

A quick shower to wash away the dust we'd collected on the outside, down to the bar to do the same inside, and our first South Dakotan welcome courtesy of the hotel barman. Within minutes we knew his name, his college course, and his hopes for the future, and he knew where we were from and where we were going. This wasn't someone just doing his job or spouting the corporate "How are you guys this evening?" (the 21st century's "Have a nice day"). This was someone who clearly liked people and was genuinely interested in why we were visiting his town. Then there were the two or three fellow drinkers, all local, all equally welcoming and all warning us about the empty, featureless, never-ending roads we faced in the morning.

And finally there was our waitress, whose initial nervousness we put down to shyness or inexperience. However, on bringing us our main course -- medium rare rib-eye to share with garlic mash and corn -- she blurted out her confession: "You know, I was sooo excited when I got to be your server. Are you from England?." Yes we are. "Last year I visited a friend at college in Manchester. Do you know it?" Yes we do. In fact it's only 30 or 40 miles from Leeds, where we live.

"Do you like any Manchester bands?" Being more than twice her age, a shared interest in the likes of Joy Division, the Fall, and the Stone Roses was unexpected to say the least, but yes, I said, there are loads I like and listed a few. "Cool!" she said uncertainly, her expression making it clear she hadn't recognized a single one, "but what about …" and went on to name half a dozen bands that were equally meaningless to me. Two people divided by a common interest as well as a common language.

Next: Brookings to Pierre>

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Peter Thody
January 8, 2006


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