Norbert Mutchler’s name is one of thousands carved into the white headstones that line the Black Hills National Cemetery in South Dakota. Small plastic flags and individual red carnations are the only decorations. On holidays, family members still kneel to place these items of remembrance. Solid and unpretentious, the grave markers – like the dusky mountains surrounding them – represent an isolated remnant of the American spirit.
And, just as it is impossible to visit this veterans’ memorial without needing a Kleenex, it is impossible to visit the Black Hills without discovering the true heart of a country.
Paha Sapa and Khe Sapa, the Lakota Native Americans call these peaks. Translated brokenly into English, the names describe the sacred mountains emerging from the earth, and their pines that appear black in the distance.
Driving west on South Dakota’s Interstate 90, they first break the horizon like a dark mirage, an island amid the vast golden prairies. It is only when your wheels spin past Rapid City and on towards the famous sculpted faces of Mount Rushmore, that the scenery changes. Gone are the 360-degree skylines of the eastern Dakota territories. Now, aspen, deer and cowboy boots surround you.
The Black Hills have always marked the first outpost of the West; an enclave of indigenous culture, pioneering standards and gambling opportunists.
I returned to these shadowy forests – 28 years after my birth – to find a national identity that had withered abroad. The United States of my grandparents’ generation, the motherland that Norbert defended on the shores of Normandy, seemed to be an endangered ideology.
Filed under: Nature & Environment, North America, South Dakota, Travel, United States Tagged: a place I love, America, Black Hills, inspiration, South Dakota, travel writing competition, WeSaidGoTravel