Allen is located on Pine Ridge Reservation, in the pole of inaccessibility, which isn’t quite as terrifying as it sounds, but it does mean that it’s as far away from the ocean as you can possibly get in North America. This is where, as I understand it, in the late 1800s, the U.S. military kept losing battles to the Lakota natives who lived in the area. They’d decide they wanted the Lakota land, and then they’d try to take it, and then they’d have a battle and lose and make a treaty and break said treaty when they decided, again, that they wanted the land. After this happened a couple of times, the U.S. chose playing dirty over losing and massacred the Natives, everybody, including children. Some of this happened in Allen, so I was walking through a place where a hundred and twenty-five years ago, my people did inconceivably terrible things to their people, and the Natives are still reeling from it, unable to get their feet under them. And there I was, apologetically cradling my white privilege, so clearly an outsider.
Here are some stats on Allen, provided by Wikipedia and Martha (more on her later):
- According to the 2000 census, it has the lowest income per capita in the entire United States at $1,539
- The unemployment rate is around 80%
- The life expectancy is 47 years, the lowest in the developed world
- The alcoholism rate is at 60%, which contributes to the average life span as many of its residents are killed in drunk driving accidents
Tell me that these figures aren’t due to the horrors the Natives faced, the horrors directly inflicted by the white people, and I will tell you that you are wrong.
Exiting soapbox. But – the stage is set, yeah?
I got to Allen on a Saturday with the sun in my eyes, that early evening, pre-dusk sun that no visor or sunglasses or squinting can dilute. A black pickup with Alaska plates followed me down the gravel road to the American Horse School where Martha (the girlfriend of Luke, who I'd been in contact with about WWOOFing) had suggested we meet. When I turned my car around, a short woman with brown curls, about my age, jumped out of the truck. "I'm Martha," she said. "There have been a few... updates, which I'll fill you in about at the ranch. Just stay close." At this point I’ve learned that in WWOOFing, of course there are updates. I was apprehensive but unsure of exactly how apprehensive to be. Worse than being locked in with a sixty-year-old who kept hitting on me? Worse than beans and rice four meals in row? We caravanned the couple miles to the Livermont ranch, leaving clouds of blackish dust in our wake.
As soon as I got there, three dogs jumped up to look inside my window. They were Bounce, Boone, and Selkie, who were each so unique and precious in their personalities. Bounce was the brat, the tagalong. He was the only dog on the ranch who was still intact, but he was also the smallest, besides Bobby who didn’t even count, and it gave him a sort of frenzy to keep up with the big kids. Boone was the star football player. He was handsome and brave and athletic and everyone wanted to be him, especially Bixby. Selkie was a beautiful wolfish dog with mismatched eyes who, according to legend, turned into a horse mermaid at night. She was elegant and confident. She and Boone ran the show. It was especially hard for Bix to have such a helicopter mom this week. Because of the horses and cattle and rattlesnakes and cats and who knows what else and Danny (to be explained later), I didn’t let him off leash 99% of the time we were there, and he so desperately wanted to pal around with Boone and Selkie. (Not Bounce. Never Bounce.)
Anyway, we got there, there were dogs, I got a quick tour of the main house and then Martha and I moved my car out to the camper where I’d be staying, and that’s where I got the lowdown.
The number one update turned out to be the ex-meth heads who were staying in one of the campers that dotted the Livermont landscape. Murphy was tall and muscular and Lakota. Vicky, his girlfriend, was skinny and blonde. They were both perfectly pleasant/ambivalent towards me. Vicky even called me a pretty girl, which made me feel a little parrotish, but that’s better than terrified. “You might want to lock up your bike,” Martha warned. I found out the next day that "ex" was a sort of relative term when it came to their meth consumption. "They were WIRED yesterday," Danny said Sunday morning. "They told me they were clean, but I can tell, cause yesterday they were wired and today he's done some work, so I can tell." It was true; Murphy was working on some sort of addition to the house, and Vicky was baking a molten chocolate cake, or she was going to once she found her glasses (to my knowledge, she never did). They left Tuesday morning after a rambunctious night of, apparently, Coca-Cola and crystal meth. I was happily oblivious, asleep in my camper next to a very protective dog, a couple of knives, and a can of pepper spray.
Let’s move on to Danny. Danny was an Italian New Yorker who had only been on the ranch, on any ranch, for a year, but had a natural talent for the horses and cattle. He showed us a feral horse he had been training, bridled and saddled him up and walked him around the yard. I'd been warned by both Luke and Martha, separately, that he was a teaser, and true to form, he told me he'd shoot Bixby if he went after the cats or the calves. "He's joking," Martha told me each time Danny stuck out his index finger and thumb and pointed at Bixby. The next day he announced he'd discussed it with Larry, and they'd agreed he wouldn't shoot Bix, although he then encouraged me to let Bixby off leash around the horses and, after I refused, told stories of dogs who'd died or nearly died after getting a hoof to the head. But Martha and Luke had caught him talking to the calves and feeding them canned peaches by hand, so I knew he was a softie. A hardened, Italian, New Yorker softie, sure, who had rested his hand on his pistol when confronting Murphy about a stolen saddle. Murphy said, "I ain't scared of your gun," to which Danny replied, "It ain't the gun you should be afraid of, it's me." I wasn't present for this, I heard about it later from Danny, so who knows what actually happened. Danny also reused his pot bag as the cheese bag and had to pick a bud of marijuana out of the parmesan one night before dinner, but by that time, I couldn’t do anything but laugh. He won me over when he chased me down in the mule to tell me when dinner would be ready. By the end of the week, Danny and I were totally good.
Larry was Luke's father, and mostly all I knew about him was that he was high half the time but you couldn't which half. He was friendly enough, and people called him Cotton because even though he was part Native (mostly not), his hair was white. He was quiet and kind of gruff, but all in all perfectly nice.
Kent was Larry's brother, and his hobbies included going into town to mess with people. "He'll probably mess with you," Martha said. "And he doesn't mean anything by it but he doesn't really know when to stop." He never did though, except once he told me Luke wasn’t back because he didn’t like WWOOFers and was avoiding me. At least I think that's what he said, he could be a little difficult to understand.
Kent and Larry's mom lived there too, and all I know about her was that her name was Caroline and she had an obnoxious little skittish dog who play wrestled with the cat, but I love her because my first night there she stood outside her back door, holding out an extension cord like an offering to the gods. She's the reason I got electricity in my little camper, and for that she is my hero.
Martha was the most normal person by far, the eye of the Livermont hurricane. She was twenty-seven or so and had worked as a WWOOFer in California and on other farms too for money, Florida and Pennsylvania and Vermont, and some non-profit start up that backfired in Colorado. She’d met Luke via the internet somehow, and he’d come to visit her in Colorado, and then she’d gone to visit him in South Dakota. When she tried to leave the first time, she got snowed in, and when she tried to leave a second time, she hit a deer in Hay Springs, Nebraska, totaled her car, and had to be towed back to Livermont. All of that led up to her sort of accidentally moving out there with him. That’s not even the punch line. She was already working remotely, so when she moved into a camper in South Dakota, she continued to do so. She’d be announced as Martha from Colorado, and she’d wave and say hi, and then one day a coworker asked, “Are you... in a camper?” and she had to fess up that yes, actually, she was in a camper in Allen, South Dakota, eight miles from the actual ranch even, and plugged into a telephone pole with stallions fighting outside her window. Martha was quirky and fun and witty and reminded me a little of Ellen Page. She was Livermont’s saving grace, and I would have hightailed it outta there on day one if she hadn’t been there to show me the funny side of things and share her six-packs.
I never met Luke. I can’t be sure he’s real. If we’re doing analogies and Martha is the eye of the hurricane, Luke is the center of the spider’s web. He held everyone together, the pothead father and the slightly creepy brother, the kindly grandmother, the meth heads, the nutty Italian New Yorker, and Martha. And yet, he wasn’t there. He was in Fargo for a wedding and had told me he was coming back on September 15 but definitely didn’t. Hitchhiking went poorly, and the bus took 24 hours, and other stuff that I don’t even know about. I got sporadic updates from Martha on his whereabouts. “He sent me a photo of a plastic mold of his face.” “He’s approaching Sioux Falls.” “He’s not approaching Sioux Falls.” “He’s hitching.” “He’s taking a bus.” And on. Luke was elusive and flighty. His last name on facebook is Journeyman, not because that’s his last name, but because that’s what his last name “should be,” and that tells you a little about Luke.
I did almost no work while I was there. That was Luke's task, to manage the WWOOFers, and after Larry told Martha that the couple hours we spent hacking at weeds and gathering hay could have easily been accomplished using the tractor, I did no work at all. I ate their food and slept in their camper and lived with the craziness. One night I disposed of a mouse that had died under my bed. I checked underneath it each night right before I slipped into the blankets, and even after I saw it that’s what I did anyway, telling myself I’d take care of it in the morning. I couldn’t do that, of course, couldn’t sleep with something dead underneath me. With lots of moral support from Sarah, who had dealt with dead mice before, God bless her, I found a spatula, scooped the poor mousey’s corpse up from the carpet, draped a Wet Wipe over its body, and tossed it and the spatula unceremoniously out the camper door. And you know what? For all the weird noises we heard during the night, the coyotes, the owls, even the resident cats and dogs, nothing came and took that dead mouse away, and the next morning it was still laying in the grass.
Another thing I did was explore the graveyard. Maybe three-quarters of a mile from the ranch, there was a church with metal grating on the windows and a big, fenced in graveyard. The gates weren’t locked, so I swung one open and Bix and I walked through. The names were amazing – Iron Cloud and Black Hawk and Charging Bear. My favorite was Theresa M. Imitates Dog, who shared my birthday (although not year) and had died on August 5. The dirt on her grave still rose up in a mound, and it was covered with all kinds of colorful trinkets. There were other graves like this, some with large, ornate headstones, some with small wooden crosses. One grave had a cowboy boot leaning against its marker.
My second to last night there, I got a call from Martha, which hadn’t happened before. She told me about a baby coyote she had seen, covered in mange, possibly rabid, very much dying. “You want to drive to the gas station and get beer?” she asked. “Luke isn’t coming back until Friday.” I said yes. We got in the Subaru and drove half an hour to the gas station, where she picked up two six packs, a gallon of ice cream, and a lot of bacon. The clouds were gorgeous on the way back, and we talked about how that was just because of the dust South Dakota kicked up, about The Golden Compass, about the White Stripes. She told me Jack and Meg White were not siblings, as they led people to believe, but divorcees who had decided to make music together anyway. We took the six packs to the field and climbed up on hay bales with the dogs, sat cross legged and talked about Jenny Lewis’s song “Pretty Bird” and its ties to the Lakota people as storm clouds rolled in. “It’s not gonna rain,” we said, as it rained on us. We could see lightning in the distance, clouds dumping precipitation miles and miles away, and we talked about boyfriends and ex-boyfriends and sort of boyfriends and how they came to be, and the clouds danced closer and the sky grew darker and all of a sudden we couldn’t deny it anymore, it was raining, and we slid down the hay bales and took off running through the weeds in the dark and the rain. Larry looked up when we came in. “Raining, huh?” he asked. We ate dinner together then, and Larry and Martha talked about the price of hay while I swam in the backlash of it all. And that – that long moment with the hay and the rain and Jenny Lewis – that is what I want to remember about South Dakota.
You go west for the black setting sun
You go south to the white spirit world
You go east for those real green eyes
You go north, walk the good red road