Pine Ridge Indian Reservation -
Sometimes, especially at night, when driving home on Slim Buttes road, lulled into an anesthetized mind-numbing semi-coma by the rumble of studded snow tires on rough gravel, and the numerous idiosyncratic rattles of a '62 Chevy tank of a truck, I'll wonder, "Have I crossed the White River yet?"
Until a familiar stretch of road opens up before the tank's fan of light, there'll remain a disquieting uncertainty. "Is it still up ahead, or behind?"
It's happened more than once.
The White River, flowing under a short two-lane country bridge, marks the halfway point to the reservation border town of Chadron, NE, and heading north, you can take the 'S' curve leading down to the bridge at 60, 65 mph if the road conditions are just right, and if you can get a good clean look through those branches of that bush on the north side to see if there's anybody coming the other way, which happened only one time.
If not, you can hug the inside of the curve and accelerate across the bridge into a three-mile climbing straightaway, churning up a massive cloud of dust that forces anyone behind you to fall back a mile or so. Bo Davis knows what I'm talking about. So does Tom Cook.
If the first of the cattle-gates appears in the headlights, then I've already crossed the river. It's behind me. If I come up on the Rod and Connie Sandoz property, where Connie's name is crossed out on the archway sign over their drive, then the river is still up ahead a couple of miles.
And so, I'll have to ask Tom or Bo, or maybe Beatrice...anyone who regularly travels that road, if they have the same experience, especially at night. In the daytime you can tell where the hell you are.
It's really strange, that, 'Where the hell am I?' thought, to be occurring in a normal, or did I say 'semi-coma' state, to be differentiated from say, a sharp blow to the head, or any other physical impairment.
Maybe you've experienced it. 'Where the hell am I?' Maybe you've thought it.
It's on this same road, where a few miles out of Chadron the way inclines north to the crest of a butte, and with the town of Chadron over one's shoulder in the mirror, the land opens up in a great yawn for miles, yielding an expansive view of chalky white buttes emerging from rolling yellow ochre hills, and brown, parched sunburnt grasslands.
Perhaps its the liberating sensation of leaving civilization behind to enter another universe of reservation life, or maybe it's just the emergence of that spectacular vista that engenders a volcanic spew of literary ideas, almost as if the washboard road was rumbling out prose. This happens all the time. Tom, and others, say they haven't experienced it, but I'm sure there are other roads where the same phenomema occurs.
On past that special place atop the butte, just before Rod and what used to be Connie's place, there's a sharp left-hand turn that can be taken at 50 mph on the inside of the blind uphill curve, where a number of people I know have gone off the road, coming downhill from the opposite direction.
Only one time did I meet someone coming the other way as, out of habit, I hugged the inside of the road. It was snowing, I had the whole family with me, and we were returning to Slim Buttes from Chadron in Loretta's old Ford SUV on some kinda fry bread gopher mission after sitting up all night in peyote meeting, which, under the influence thereof and circumstances, I already felt someone approaching from the opposite direction.
Whipped the car to the right, shot across the road, barely being missed by the other guy, a couple of Indians in a low-slung rez ride. Spun the wheel back to the left, knowing we were already going into the ditch. I saw a roll-over in my mind.
We didn't. We spun out, stopping right in the middle of an access to a pasture, probably Rod's, the kids in the back seat wide-eyed and silent at first, then freaking when what had happened caught up to them.
A mysterious stretch of road, almost as if Rod's direct ancestor, the famous writer of the West and author of 'Crazy Horse', Mari Sandoz, was beckoning for attention.