THE THING WITH NO NAME
- Devin O'Brien
When you mention riding your bike across a place like South Dakota people tend to laugh or ask, "why?"
I'm no historian, but I'm pretty sure the flat open land is what pushed us west. It's why the country was initially explored and settled. An endless expanse of fertile farm and ranch land was perhaps the most valuable asset this country possessed. Aside from the potential economic output, the spirit it represents is the linchpin of the American consciousness if there is one.
I suppose some people look out over the ocean and have a similar feeling, that it's nothing. One big giant void. Talk to sailors about the sea and they see possibility, mystery, and the only place they truly feel at home. It's because they understand a place that looks so foreign to many of us.
The Great Plains are that kind of a place for me.
Traveling across the land west of the Missouri River and East of the Rocky Mountains puts me into a mindset that helps me imagine all that's happened here and everything it means. Thousands of years ago mammoths and saber-toothed cats lived here. Forgotten species of giant sloths, bears and lions did too. In recent history, giant herds of buffalo, elk, antelope migrated up and down the corridor in a way that rivals the Serengeti of today. Dozens of Plains Indian tribes like the Blackfoot, Crow, Lakota, Ojibwa, Cree, Mandan and Dakota lived entirely on the prairie because it was so rich and plentiful.
Without some imagination this place could be just a big flat nothing. You have to have the right kind of eyes. And if you see it in the right kind of light it truly is beautiful. It's a subtle, more sophisticated beauty than the booming presence of the Rockies and it's easy to miss if you're standing in Murdo, South Dakota in the afternoon sun. It's so windy by noon you can't hear anything…like someone turned the volume up too loud and everything's distorted. The sun is so high and bright that it's all blown out, and there's no shadows, like a bad photograph.
But at sunrise, when the sun sits at a low angle in the sky, the real contours of this country come to life. You see the contrast and the shadow. In fact, it's not flat at all. And it's not all the same. You can hear what's out there too. Wetlands, rivers, birds, small animals, big animals, and predators. I don't think you'll ever get a bigger view of our universe than what you see laying on your back in the middle of the Dakotas with the sound of Coyotes calling to each other at night. You can see everything.
There's another reason that crossing this place is important, too. Robert Pirsig talks about it in Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (this was on our reading list for those of you paying attention).
"…to arrive in the Rocky Mountains by plane would be to see them in one kind of context, as pretty scenery. But to arrive after days of hard travel across the prairies would be to see them in another way, as a goal, as a promised land."
It's as if the mountains and everything that comes after them derive their worth and magnificence from this place and what exists here. To me, it's like the bridge, maybe even the solo, of a well-written song. No one really remembers it necessarily, but when the chorus comes back again, in all it's fist-pumping glory, it's more powerful because of the shift and the place you were brought back from. The prairies have something in their nothingness, specifically because of the nothingness. Pirsig put it this way:
"In my mind, when I look at these fields, I say to her, "See?...See?" and I think she does. I hope later she will see and feel a thing about these prairies I have given up talking to others about; a thing that exists here because everything else does not and can be noticed because other things are absent. She seems so depressed sometimes by the monotony and boredom of her city life, I thought maybe in this endless grass and wind she would see a thing that sometimes comes when monotony and boredom are accepted. It's here, but I have no names for it."
This is a place to ride because of that thing with no name. It's out there. I don't know what to call it and that's why I go.