Protecting Pactola Alone Won’t Protect Our Water Supply

When I first heard about the Forest Service/Bureau of Land Management plan to protect the Rapid Creek Watershed, I let out a whoop of excitement, closely followed by tears of joy and disbelief.

For a few years now, I’ve been working with a team of folks whose goal is just that–to protect the Rapid Creek Watershed, our agriculture, tourism, and recreation economy, and our way of life from threats of mineral exploration and mining.

Discovering that our cause has traction with folks in D.C. was a wonderful surprise.

“Black Hills Gold” -Rapid Creek in Dark Canyon west of Rapid City, South Dakota. Image by the author.

But, it wasn’t entirely shocking. For months we’d been awaiting word on resolution of the proposed F3 Jenny Gulch gold exploration plan. That plan threatens a beloved recreation area adjacent to Pactola, the watershed’s largest reservoir, and it received thousands of negative public and organizational comments as well as condemnation from Tribes.

As the months ticked by, it became clear that the decision had been kicked upstairs.

If something seems too good to be true, it probably is

The proposed mineral withdrawal “to protect cultural and natural resources of the Pactola Reservoir–Rapid Creek Watershed, including municipal water for Rapid City and Ellsworth Air Force Base […] from the adverse impacts of minerals exploration and development” was published in the Federal Register on March 21st. It included two columns’ worth of descriptions of areas to be included. All told, the publication claims, it adds up to about 20,574 acres.

Does that seem like a lot? I’m sorry to say that it’s not. By comparison, in January of this year, the Biden Administration announced a mineral withdrawal of over 225,000 acres in the Superior National Forest, adjacent to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

Map of the Central Black Hills of South Dakota with an outlined of the Rapid Creek Watershed, entitled "Future Designated Recreation Area Pennington and Lawrence Counties, South Dakota" with Rapid Creek Watershed Action logo
Map of the Rapid Creek Watershed from Rapid Creek Watershed Action (RCWA). RCWA has been working to secure a mineral withdrawal in the entirety of the Rapid Creek Watershed via Congressional action.

The area of the Rapid Creek Watershed upstream from Rapid City–from its dual headwaters on tributaries of the North Fork of Rapid Creek and tributaries of the South Fork of Castle Creek above Deerfield Reservoir–is approximately 198,000 acres.

This proposal withdraws from potential mineral exploration and large-scale mining about 10% of a watershed that serves as the primary water supply for an airbase, thousands of rural residents, and the state’s second-largest city.

That’s not a lot of protection.

In fact, it appears that the only areas to be withdrawn from potential exploration and large-scale mining operations are in the immediate Pactola Reservoir area, including portions of Silver City, which happens to be right on the doorstep of F3’s proposed Jenny Gulch gold exploration project.

Silver City is a tiny, isolated, historic mining community. The county road to get there is narrow, winding, and treacherous. A lot of folks in Silver City don’t own the mineral rights underneath their homes, and you’ll see signs to “Protect Rapid Creek” prominently displayed in most every yard.

It’s entirely possible (based on a preliminary map I’ve seen) that while this proposed mineral withdrawal may protect some individual property owners in that community, it may not prohibit a single drill pad in nearby Jenny Gulch.

While F3’s Jenny Gulch proposal is on most folks’ radar here in the central Black Hills, it is far from the only potential exploration or mining site on or near Rapid Creek and its tributaries. Mineral Mountain Resources has numerous active claims in the watershed, and has conducted formal exploration near Rochford. Claim activity in the Black Hills has skyrocketed in the past couple of years–in part due to a rise in gold prices, and in part due to the discovery of hard rock lithium deposits.

Map of active mining claims in the Black Hills, dated December 30, 2022. Credit: Black Hills Clean Water Alliance. Prepared by Mahto Ohitika Analytics, LLC
Image from Black Hills Clean Water Alliance

Protecting watersheds and water supplies means understanding how water flows, both above-ground and below

Thanks to research from U.S. Geological Survey, South Dakota School of Mines (which educates far more environmental engineers than mining engineers these days), state agencies, and others, we’ve got a lot of resources to call on when it comes to understanding the Rapid Creek Watershed. The Black Hills is an incredibly complex area of uplifted geological formations, and we don’t know everything about subsurface fractures, fissures, and flows. But we know a lot.

We don’t need in-depth research to understand some concepts, like the fact that water generally flows downhill and downstream. It’s also easy to grasp that, if we rely on water supplied from a reservoir, we need to protect that reservoir from contamination threats. But, if we only protect the areas around a reservoir without protecting the waterways upstream flowing into that reservoir, we’re not protecting the water supply.

Protecting Pactola alone won’t protect our water supply

Protecting the Rapid Creek Watershed means protections have to extend upstream. If we don’t extend protections upstream, we risk contamination of Deerfield Reservoir, Pactola Reservoir, and everything that flows out of them.

There are plenty of active mining claims downstream from the Reservoir as well. And below Pactola Dam is where it gets (to my mind) even more interesting.

Those outcrops of water-bearing rock formations (aquifers) high in the central Black Hills that feed water into Rapid Creek year-round are also exposed at lower elevations just outside Rapid City limits. And when Rapid Creek flows across those exposed, porous rock formations, a LOT of water (to the tune of a few million gallons a day) gets dumped back into those aquifers.

Those aquifers–the Madison and Minnelusa–are the main formations that Rapid City and Ellsworth Air Force Base (as well as thousands of rural resident and smaller water systems) wells draw from.

There’s no pipeline from Pactola Reservoir to Rapid City or Ellsworth Air Force Base.

Rapid Creek itself is the “pipeline”–and one that supports agricultural activities, timber production, a world class trout fishery, and all manner of other recreational and cultural pursuits all along the way.

Pactola Reservoir “reserves” and controls the flow of Rapid Creek and tributaries and releases it back into Rapid Creek below the dam, replenishing the aquifers we rely on. The City of Rapid City also occasionally pulls surface water directly from Rapid Creek to meet increased demand. When they do that, they’re pulling water out on the west side of the City–below a major aquifer recharge area in Dark Canyon, and far below Pactola Dam.

Contamination upstream from Pactola threatens the Reservoir, as well as the water that flows out of it. Contamination downstream from Pactola threatens not only the surface waters, but the aquifers those municipal wells draw from.

It’s simply false to suggest that municipal water supplies for Rapid City and Ellsworth Air Force Base can be protected by prohibiting exploration and mining only in the area immediately surrounding Pactola Reservoir.

Protecting Pactola is a great start, but it’s nowhere near enough to fulfill the stated goals of the withdrawal. It’s nowhere near enough to protect our water, our agriculture, tourism, national defense, and recreation economy–our way of life.

How to weigh in on the proposed mineral withdrawal

You can comment on the proposed mineral withdrawal via the U.S. Forest Service comment platform HERE. Comments are due by June 19th, 2023 at 11:59pm Mountain Time.

Also plan to attend the joint Forest Service – Bureau of Land Management public meeting on Wednesday, April 26, 2023, 4-8 p.m., Mountain Time (MT), at the Best Western Ramkota Hotel, Conference Hall, 2111 N. LaCrosse Street, Rapid City, South Dakota 57701.

Information regarding the proposed withdrawal will be available at the Black Hills National Forest, Forest Supervisor’s Office, 1019 N. 5th Street, Custer, South Dakota 57730 and at the BLM Montana/Dakotas State Office, 5001 Southgate Drive, Billings, Montana 59101.

Another Path to Protection…

There is more than one path to a mineral withdrawal. The currently-proposed withdrawal is an administrative action which, if approved, will last a maximum of twenty years. It’s important to support it, AND to push for its expansion.

The team at Rapid Creek Watershed Action is working toward a Congressional withdrawal that, if enacted, would protect the entirety of the watershed upstream from Rapid City, and would be permanent unless repealed. You can learn more, and sign the petition for Congressional withdrawal, at

Photos of the Rapid Creek Watershed in this post include Dark Canyon, Rhoads Fork area, Victoria Creek/Canyon, and Nichols Creek. They were taken by the author.

Cheddar Cheese Scones–Optimized!

I first discovered savory baked goods when I was in middle school. And the first savory baked good I ever made was a batch of cheddar cheese scones.

I can’t remember where the original recipe came from–I assume it was an old copy of Better Homes & Gardens magazine my mom had lying around. I brought that recipe to her, and she granted me permission (and I assume, help) to make them.

Fast forward a few decades and add in a recent trip to New Zealand–where cheese scones are ubiquitous–and I was again inspired to make this savory treat. But, having tasted several variations on both the North & South Island, my old recipe fell short of its remembered glory. Too dense, too floury, not cheesy enough. Cheddar-lead balloons!

It’s also possible that our home west of Rapid City has something to do with it. At 3,550 feet in elevation, I’ve found a lot of go-to baked good recipes have needed some tweaks. I started reading up on scone recipes and tips and mashing up recipes I’d found based on the direction I wanted my scones to go: more cheesy, less heavy, a more tender crumb.

I wanted them to be tasty plain and room-temp (not optimal, but sometimes you need to pack a field lunch) but also split-able and toast-able in a slot toaster (because that’s what we have) without crumbling to bits. I’m pleased to report that after multiple batches (and my dear one possibly near to crying “Uncle!”), I’ve gotten to a basic cheddar scone recipe that I’m really happy with.

Your mileage may vary, of course, depending on your altitude, humidity, and tastes. But give this a try! I think it’s great.

Cheddar Cheese Scones

  • 3 cups pastry flour
  • 2 TB baking powder
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp dried thyme leaf, crumbled
  • 1/4 tsp dried oregano leaf, crumbled
  • 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper powder
  • 6 TB cold butter
  • 1 3/4 – 2 cups shredded sharp cheddar cheese (plus a little extra for sprinkling tops)
  • 1 TB prepared Dijon or grainy mustard
  • 1 1/4 cups half-and-half or milk

Directions: Place all dry ingredients (including dried seasonings) into a food processor and pulse to blend. Then, cut cold butter into chunks, add to processor, and pulse again (briefly! you want some pea-sized bits). You can, of course, do this step the old-fashioned way without a machine.

Dump the flour mix into a bowl and stir in the shredded cheese. Add the prepared mustard and half-and-half or milk and stir to create a shaggy dough. Dump out on the counter and fold/push together gently to incorporate all the bits–patting out into a rectangle about 1 1/2″ thick.

Use a knife or pastry cutter to divide into 8 or 10 pieces and place them on a parchment-covered baking sheet. Brush the tops with half-and-half (or milk) & sprinkle with a little cheese. Now, put the sheet in the fridge while you pre-heat the oven to 425 degrees. When it’s hot, slide the pan out of the fridge and into the oven and bake for 18-20 minutes til golden brown.

Notes to know:

It’s absolutely worth it to use pastry flour. A lot of scone recipes I’ve seen (and tried) call for all-purpose, but you’ll get a much more tender crumb with the lower protein content of pastry flour. That said, if you’re jones-ing for a scone and don’t have pastry flour, try it with all-purpose. Just be gentle with the dough–don’t knead it because you’ll make the end product tough.

Cayenne pepper doesn’t make the scones spicy, but it really contributes to the depth of flavor through some mystical alchemy with the cheddar.

I buy fairly inexpensive “sharp-ish” cheddar in a block and grate it fresh for this recipe. I’ve seen recipes warn against using pre-shredded due to the coating they put on that stuff to keep it from sticking together in the bag. I’m not really certain how much of a difference that would make, but it’s cheaper by the block anyhow.

This recipe, as simple and delicious as it is, is begging for variations like green chilies or caramelized onions or bacon or scallions or…whatever you like. I’d recommend adding those wet ingredients right after mixing in the cheese (which could also be changed up). If you want to vary the dried herbs, add with dry ingredients.

Enjoy! And let me know how it turns out for you.

Beginning Again


Welcome home! Watch your head!

I’m back on the Coteau after the nine-week legislative session which at times felt unbearably long and now feels like, “wait, it’s over already?” After a brief stop down in Southeastern SoDak to pick up my entitled feline, I made it home just in time to come down hard with the Capitol crud I’d managed to avoid while I was in the thick of things.


Still, a hacking cold doesn’t excuse a gal from glorying in visions of spring, regardless of the snow mountains piled everywhere in my little town. Especially since I picked up three weeks’ worth of mail, and among the bills and shoppers and credit card offers were three packages of seed I’d ordered in a fit of desperation during my last long weekend in Pierre.

Of course I’d done a seed inventory in late December, and of course I left my garden journal here at home, but I figured I remembered most of what I really needed. Unguided figuring coupled with websites full of glossy veggie and flower images is more than a little dangerous, but I didn’t get too far out of line. I set a budget of $100, and I managed to stay under it even with those seductive buy-this-much-get-free-shipping offers. I was disciplined.

OK, well, I was disciplined in that I kept my trio of orders under $100. And, I did order pretty much everything I needed, which wasn’t much. And then, in superbly un-disciplined fashion I ordered a bunch of other stuff that wasn’t on my needs list because I was still under my $100 limit.

I’m still amazed at how little seed I need and how much weird and wonderful stuff I can get now that I’m pretty much just growing for myself. The small amount of money and discipline necessary for making a seed order as compared to my CSA and market gardening days still blows my mind–at the same time, it’s difficult to force myself to choose the smallest pack size rather than, say, a pouch of five thousand.

Civilization as we know it could collapse. What if I didn’t have enough turnip seed to isolate, grow out, pollinate, and make more turnip seed? What if some rogue grower up the block (I’m lookin’ at you, Kim!) was growing out Chinese cabbage for seed at the same time, and it crossed with the last of my turnips and formed some mutant Brassica that not even flea beetles found appetizing? Do you think the Svalbard seed vault would save us? It’s already sprung a leak from melting permafrost!

I think we’re on our own. The last defenders of the Family Brassicaceae.


onion harvest
Seed-grown storage onions

Actually, I didn’t order turnips this year. I still have two packs in my seed stash. What I did order was storage onion seed because I’m tired of getting crappy onions from the store that go moldy in less than a week or have soft, rotten layers undetectable from the outside. Onions are easy to grow from seed; it’s just that they take some time. I much prefer starting them myself (if I can) than buying plants or sets.


Onion sets are an absolute last resort because they have a much greater tendency to bolt–and an onion that sends up a seed stalk is an onion that won’t keep through the winter. I seed my onions in 4-packs with 4 plants per cell as Eliot Coleman suggests in The New Organic Grower (though he uses soil blocks), and I agree with him that this makes weed control much easier than with a single row of onions. It doesn’t adversely affect the size of the bulbs.

I started my onions today, as well as Blue Solaise leeks, a superb variety of flat-leaf parsley from Pinetree Garden Seeds, and Brilliant celery root, which I grow every few years because it’s hard to find in grocery stores, it stores well, and it’s really delicious. Also on the celery theme, I’m starting lovage from seed–a huge, deep-rooted herb whose young leaves taste like very strong celery, but that I don’t usually eat–I grow it because it’s cool-looking, pollinators love the big umbels of yellow flowers, and it’s a tough-as-nails perennial. And, you know, if a civilizational collapse causes a desperate celery situation, you’re covered.


lovage flowers
Pollinators love lovage!

I ordered other stuff for the pollinators, too–borage and anise hyssop from Pinetree and swamp milkweed and cup plant from Seed Savers Exchange. (Turned out I already had seed for anise hyssop and cup plant–that’s the danger of ordering away from home.)


I also ordered and started rue (Ruta graveolens) plants because I saw very few Black Swallowtail butterflies here last year–I think I glimpsed one or two all season. Elsewhere, when I’ve had rue growing in my gardens, they seem to prefer to lay their eggs on it even more than dill, carrots, fennel, and parsley (which I’ll also grow). Rue is also a tough perennial–even when eaten down to a nub by hungry caterpillars, it’ll make a comeback the next season.

cooler tomatoesOne thing I pledged not to order this year (and was nearly successful in avoiding) was tomatoes. While browsing Territorial’s site, I found a variety of sauce/slicing tomato I had great success with in the past but has fallen out of my collection in recent years. So, Cuore di Bue will be back in the garden, along with one or two other varieties that somehow slipped into my stash during the Deuel County Women Farmers seed swap.

After last year’s multiple marathons of tomato canning, I’m thinking I’ll cut back this year and give myself a break. Wish me luck…er, discipline!



I sure do know how to rock a staycation.

I was hired for my current organizing position close to a year ago. I was living down in the southeastern corner of SoDak at the time, and initially I was hired as a lobbyist, so getting the job basically meant I had to up and move to Pierre the following week.

But, the organizer part of my job post legislative session required me to relocate somewhere closer to the Brookings office. And that meant getting my finances in order and house-hunting on weekends in between the madness of legislative weekdays.

My budget being what it is (and my entourage including a weekend teenager, a large dog, and a grumpy cat), Brookings itself was out of the question. I scoped out a few places in surrounding communities, and found the sweet spot in Toronto–where the population and property prices are low, the yards are big, and “urban” agriculture is a given.

I closed on a good-sized place with 1/3 acre–not as big of a lot as I wanted, but looking back I’m relieved I didn’t hold out for something even more time-consuming to maintain. And I moved in and got started at my organizing duties pretty much immediately upon returning from Pierre in the spring.

The compressed time frame meant that instead of doing the whole Rug Doctor dance, I gave the place a good vacuuming and then carried my stuff in the door. For those who recoil in horror at this–well, what kind of timeframe and more importantly what kind of help do you have going for you? The place looked decent enough; it didn’t stink; I moved in and got my butt to work.

Fast forward to the end of the first year. With the house closed up for winter, I notice that the furnace filter needs changing pretty often. There’s a kind of mustiness which is probably emanating from the dug-out basement (mine is the second-oldest house in Toronto, I’m told), but, you know, the carpets.

As awesome as my vacuum is (and it is super-cyclonic!), there’s no real substitute for  a machine designed to get down in there and suck up as many years of gunk as is possible without ripping up the floor coverings entirely. When I saw the opportunity for a few days off toward the end of the year, I also saw the opportunity to do the spring cleaning I didn’t have time to do this year, and I won’t likely have time for next year, either.

The first two calls I made to price renting a machine led me to one quick realization: the majority of people  must either have a lot of stamina or very little carpet. Who rents a Rug Doctor for one day? In my case, two carpeted bedrooms and a hall upstairs, the actual stairs, plus the living room and office on the main floor were not going to get clean in one day. And probably not two.

Maybe when normal people do their deep cleaning, it’s not that deep. I’m not a neat-freak (I let things go–and go–and go), but I grew up in a cleanliness-next-to-godliness household, which means that when I do deep cleaning, not only does the place really, really need it, I know how to get in there and do it like a gal who’s had warnings about doing a “half-assed job” worked into her brain from infancy. If I’m going to rent a carpet cleaner, I’m going to rent it for a week because I intend to make every inch of that carpet forget it has a history.


So, the third call was to a rental center in town. I asked if they rented “Rug Doctors” because I guess I thought that was shorthand for a carpet cleaner the way that “Kleenex” is shorthand for facial tissue. I got corrected on that, but in the process of the explanation of the difference between machines, I learned that they had a commercial hot water extractor machine, and I sorta decided that if I was going to do this thing I was going to do it like a professional. A professional on staycation.

This sucker is big, it’s awkward, and it was absolute hell to get out of my car, onto my deck, and to lift-and-push one step at a time up the steep and cornered staircase to the second floor. It has two long cords I was advised to plug into separate circuits in my house to avoid blowing a fuse.

Yes, I have some fuses. I also have some circuit breakers. Maybe you have a hybrid car. I have a hybrid house.

I dragged all the furniture out of the first room. Luckily, I have one bedroom upstairs that is not carpeted, so I crammed everything in there. I crammed it more tightly when I realized that as I cleaned my way down the carpeted hallway, I’d have to back into that room with the machine and all of its hoses in order to do the landing at the top of the stairs.

I checked the fuse box map and figured out where to plug in the vacuum and spray line separate from the tank heater line. I filled the tank and measured the cleaning solution. I turned the machine on; the vacuum was sucking like Nebraska, the sprayer was blowing like North Dakota (this is the punchline to a joke about why it’s windy in South Dakota). The tank heater was…kaput.

I checked everything over again. In part because I really wanted it to work and in part because, as a woman, I knew the kinds of questions I would likely get from any man who answered the phone at the rental place. Questions suggesting that I lack a basic understanding of machinery and electrical systems and that the failure of the machine to operate was a failure on my part.

Studies have shown that being able to answer those kinds of questions before they’re asked is a safe and effective way to reduce your blood pressure and also avoid ripping someone’s head off.

On closer inspection, I could see that the protective cover on the tank heater switch was missing, and that there was moisture inside the clear inner part of the switch. Bingo. It wasn’t me, and it wasn’t going to work no matter where I plugged it in. I hashed out the problem with the rental place (and sent them a picture), and they suggested that, if I didn’t want to drag that thing down the stairs, load it in my vehicle, and drive the 50-mile round trip back to the store (and then try to find someplace else to rent one), I could simply heat the water on my stove top and pour it in the tank.

The reservoir on this machine is 5 gallons. The machine is upstairs. The stove top is in the kitchen on the main floor. Umm…no.

So, another thing I learned on my staycation this year is how to crank up my water heater to the temperature that ground beef is supposed to be cooked.  That’s 160 degrees–which is not as hot as the machine’s tank heater was supposed to get, but it’s hot enough to burn the heck out of your hand if you go to wash your dishes and forget you turned your water heater up that high.

I sat on a folding chair in the bathroom and filled buckets of scalding water with the shower head (low-flow, extra-slow) and finished the upstairs bedrooms and hall in two days. Tomorrow I put the upstairs furniture back in place and then start moving the office and living room furniture out of the way to do the next round of cleaning on the main floor.

The good thing about the professional hot water extractor is that it takes extraction seriously–very little water stays in the carpet, so it doesn’t take forever to dry. But it’s still not instantaneous, and with all the extra furniture from the carpeted bedrooms crammed in the guest room, it’s looking like I’ll be having another exciting staycation adventure tonight…

…sleeping on the couch.






This is a Post About Drought. And Farmer Suicide.

I traveled to Pierre on Saturday from my home in Northeastern South Dakota–a tiny little nook of the state that is green, lush, and lucky with moisture. We had edged into abnormally dry status in the last drought monitor update dated 7/25, but the nearest weather station update records nearly an inch of rain that day–and I’m fairly certain that in our little corner we absorbed twice that or more late that afternoon and into the evening.


The afternoon of the storm, I was trudging around a Nature Conservancy prairie preserve in Deuel County, and as I was leaving lightning was flashing in the distance and dark clouds edging in from the north and west. As my companion drove us back into Clear Lake, there was a solid gray wall bisecting upper Main Street from lower–a wall of absolute deluge. Despite being parked directly next to the driver’s side door of my vehicle, I had to wait about five minutes before the downward-facing firehose let up.

It’s a different story elsewhere in the state.

I travel to Pierre once or twice a month, so I knew already the stricken landscape that is central South Dakota. When I was there ten days ago, the bindweed (whose roots can extend thirty feet deep in the soil) was the last green thing remaining in the un-irrigated hillside lawns in town. Now it too has browned out.

This time, I was in the area for a tour of B&G Produce farm near Canning and meeting of the Greater Oahe Action League (GOAL) Chapter of Dakota Rural Action. Because of Matt and Lindy’s stewardship of water resources through drip irrigation, the beds of produce there were green and lush–but in between the rows, the soil was powder-dry.

Matt Geraets, who led the tour, told us one of his challenges this summer is pocket gophers–not their tunnels or depredations of the crops themselves so much as that they are chewing holes in the irrigation lines because there is no water to be found anywhere else. Powerful dust devils are also an issue–one whipped off a fifty-foot length of row cover, sucked it up in the air, and deposited it…well, they don’t even know where it ended up.

In attendance on the tour were a number of town folks and a farm couple who raise mostly small grains north of Pierre. I won’t mention their names, but I’ll say that I fell into conversation with them as we walked to the far fields of tomatoes, peppers, and squash. He said that he’d just plowed under his sunflower crop, and I naively asked if there might be any allelopathic effects of the plowed-down crop on a subsequent one.

[For the uninitiated, allelopathy refers to the positive or negative effects of one crop on another–sunflowers are known to have a negative effect on some other crops.]

He chuckled and said, “well, I doubt it, since I only had a 10% stand.” Meaning, only about 10% of his crop even had enough moisture to survive. Yeah. It’s bad out there. And, considering the conditions, there isn’t really the ability to plant a late crop–even a cover crop to protect the barren soil. When weeds with roots a dozen feet down can’t survive, there probably isn’t anything else that can, either. Except the farmers themselves.

Which brings me to the next point. And that is this: it’s too late to save the crops. It’s too late for the grass to come back or to have enough to feed all the cows through the winter. But it is NOT too late to save the farmers and ranchers, and we’d better start talking about that. Right. Damn. Now.

That point came to me later in the morning, after I’d traveled a much larger swathe of the Crow Creek Reservation than ever before. I was heading down to Chamberlain to see a friend who’s a mentor to me, and whom I’d not seen for a couple of months. It was early in the morning, and I saw a detour I thought I was supposed to take–though looking back I kind of wonder if it was a necessary turn. Whatever. I had time.

Crow Creek storm
Too little too late–storm clouds north of Crow Creek.

The sign said, “Detour BIA 3,” but as far as I know, I was on SD 50. There was also a “ROAD CLOSED TO THROUGH TRAFFIC” sign (I think–but maybe I just remember that wrong because I saw a lot of other signs like that before I got to where I was going). I had a half tank of gas, so, why not? I took the dirt road out through the pastures.

It ended up taking an extra hour to get to my friend’s place. I saw a lot of miles with a lot of cattle on a lot of dried-out grass. And then I finally found a crossroads with actual multi-directional signs and stopped to pull my gazetteer out of the backseat.

[Pro tip: rural travelers do not depend on navigation apps.]

I was east of my target destination, and apparently I was smack dab in the middle of the town of Shelby. Let me relieve you of the notion that there is an actual town there–there is a ranch there, but a town there isn’t. Still, I now knew exactly where I was and how to get where I was going.

After I related the previous night’s conversation, my friend told me she’d attended a recent meeting in that area on the topic of the drought. There were dozens of local farmers and ranchers there, and although folks sat with other folks they knew, there wasn’t the usual jovial atmosphere of previous gatherings she’d seen. The discussion focused on belt-tightening–the corn cut for hay (not wet enough for silage), the recommendation to return newly purchased and rented equipment. How many cows to sell off.

And then one of the professional presenters who’d started her presentation on drought effects abruptly stopped, removed her glasses, pulled up a slide, and started to cry.

The slide was the suicide hotline.

This is where we are at, folks. It is better that we start talking about it now. Now, before we lose anyone–though in saying that, I realize that I don’t actually know that. Maybe we’ve lost people already. Maybe we’ve lost people and there’s nothing in the obit column that makes it clear this is why. We’d better start talking about it. Right. Now.

I’m a child of the 70’s, and I grew up in the 1980’s. I grew up in the Champlain Valley of Vermont, which is a region that was, at that time, rich in dairy farms. And then came the farm crisis and the whole herd buyout. My school was a mix of kids whose parents worked for the ultra-spendy liberal arts college, kids whose parents worked white and blue collar jobs or no jobs at all, and farm kids–mostly dairy. Some kids whose parents sold out their herds and moved to town. I was young enough and sheltered enough then that if the worst happened, I would never have heard the reasons behind it–though farmers in the Northeast had a much lower rate of suicide than those in the West and Midwest.

Now that I’m older, and I’ve worked for a couple of organizations that formed during the farm crisis of the 80’s, I’ve learned the history of what happened, and I see many of the same factors playing out today. Commodity prices have crashed. We have an administration threatening to gut USDA Rural Development funding. And, here in South Dakota (as well as North Dakota and Montana), drought is hitting hard.

According to a University of Iowa study, over a thousand farmers took their lives during the 80’s crisis. And the rate of suicide among farmers and farm workers has remained higher than in other professions.

As in the 1980s, financial issues continue to cause some suicides, especially during economic crises or periods of extreme weather, Peek-Asa says. But farmers face an array of other stresses that put them at high risk for suicide: physical isolation from a social network, leading to loneliness; physical pain from the arduous work of farming; and lack of available health care resources in rural areas, especially mental health care.   Snee, Tom. “Long after 80’s farm crisis, farm workers still take own lives at high rate.” Iowa Now. 6/12/2017.

Right now, we are seeing the double-whammies of economic crisis and extreme weather in some states–the very factors that can cause a spike in suicides.  We’re seeing our rural communities hollowed out by federal farm policies still operating on the, “get big or get out” model that we known damn well is killing us–in some cases literally. It is bad out there, and it is getting worse.

But, one thing we do have that we didn’t at the start of the eighties is a host of organizations and support networks formed during that time of crisis. Many of them are still here, still doing good work to challenge the policies that are failing people in farm country, and still fighting for family farmers and ranchers.  And many of them also help connect farmers and ranchers to support networks and communities of neighbors that can alleviate the isolation and feelings of despair.

I’m not a counselor. I’m a rural organizer. I care about farmers and ranchers and our rural communities, and I’m worried for our people. My friend in Chamberlain has been trying to get local bankers and business owners to talk about the drought for months now and has gotten virtually no acknowledgement that it exists. I’m worried that we won’t really admit how bad things are until it’s too late. I’m worried we’ll lose people.

So, let’s start talking about it. Right. Damn. Now.

Here is the South Dakota Helpline Center link.

Their suicide hotline number is 1-800-273-8255. 

Here’s a link to the Farm Aid Crisis Support page. Farm Aid was formed in 1985 to “raise awareness about the loss of family farms and to raise funds to keep farm families on the land.” They also fund the work of organizations like Dakota Rural Action, where I’m employed.

Don’t be a stranger. Visit your neighbors. Take care of yourself.

And don’t wait to ask for help.






Some Thoughts About the Election

***Note: this post contains some adult language.

I spent the days surrounding the election up at Oceti Sakowin Camp on and near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. I did that on purpose–after voting early for a few people I wanted in office, and a few more I was pretty apathetic or even somewhat uncomfortable with–I GTFO’d up to the community in North Dakota where I’ve stayed, worked, and prayed four times now since late August.

Because I was traveling with an elder companion, and because I still had the cold I’d picked up on a previous trip, we slept at the casino hotel where there is tv, internet, and cell reception. That meant I was able, after a long day in the wind and sun, to watch the election results come in and also the (for the most part) grim horror and disbelief of those reporting on it and reacting to it.

And as I watched, I started to get angry.

To be clear, I wasn’t mad at the Republicans or the people who voted for Donald Trump. And, frankly, I wasn’t even surprised at what happened. I was watching this thing and getting angry at the Democratic Party–getting mad at all the people who patted us Bernie supporters on the head, called us naive and bratty, rolled their eyes at us, said he was unelectable, and proceeded to–there is no other way to say this–royally f*ck us, themselves, and our country. And then watch those folks be totally horrified and flabbergasted when someone who is about as unelectable as it gets took home the prize.

A few weeks ago, somebody added me to the Hillary-supporting Facebook group called, “Pantsuit Nation,” and although several friends whom I respect participated in it, the group as a whole struck me as elitist and offensive. In the Democratic primary, it was clear from nationwide results and from the rural/urban split in many states that Bernie Sanders was speaking in a very direct way to groups the Democratic Party had left behind–people whose communities are dying, people whose “pantsuit” is a pair of Carhartt coveralls and whose dress-up clothes are a pair of clean jeans and a button-front shirt. A string tie and the good hat if it’s a wedding or funeral. People for whom the people in suits are the ones who have paperwork you sign knowing that if you don’t fulfill all the fine-print obligations, you’ll lose your farm, your home, your family, your whole world. To put a finer point on it, calling a group, “Pantsuit Nation” is a sure way to alienate folks whose professional attire does not fit in a white collar environment.

I was watching the wailing and gnashing of teeth from the pantsuit group on election night and what I envisioned was a parade of well-appointed and empowered white women (with an “appropriate” and token few LBGTQ women and/or women of color) marching forward, arm-in arm, laughing and congratulating themselves on their amazing leadership toward this historic achievement of electing Hillary Clinton, only to look over their shoulders and discover with complete shock that no one was following. Reactions to that realization were along the lines of, “I can’t believe this is happening,” “I’m just weeping in disbelief,” and “Maybe we can start ‘Pantsuit Circles’ locally–like ‘Lean In’ groups for support?”

It made me want to barf in my mouth, and it also made me angry. The next morning when I woke up to the result I was pretty sure was going to materialize the night before, I posted this status on Facebook:

“When y’all are done wailing and gnashing your teeth, done with being angry and blaming, we could use your help at Standing Rock. And a thousand, million other places as well. Leave your pantsuit at home, humble yourself, and listen to people who didn’t see a choice in the choices they were “given.” Just be quiet and listen. And then–without jumping in or ahead or figuring you know how to “fix” it, without getting upset because you aren’t being recognized and appreciated as much as you think you should be–ask how you can be of service to the community. Humble yourself. Listen. #StandWithStandingRock”

And that post pissed off some people. It was “too soon” to point out how there had been a major miscalculation in the Democratic Party, a major amount of condescension and a major lack of listening and recognizing where people were at in this country. It was “too soon” to point out what rural Democrats and disenfranchised folks have been pointing out for years because the pantsuit people’s feelings were too raw on the day they realized how much they’d miscalculated. Maybe I should have said what I was real, raw-ly feeling myself, which was something like,

“OK–you patted us on the head and said we were naive and our candidate was unelectable and we should just go home and shut up about the “political revolution” and vote for her. And guess what? Despite all that condescension, many of us STILL dutifully did just what you told us, and YOU WERE WRONG, and WE ARE PISSED OFF, and we are not terribly concerned about whether your feelings are hurt by us saying it because WE ARE ALL F*CKED NOW and IT IS YOUR FAULT.”

On Election Day, I was at Oceti Sakowin Camp all day, and I heard nearly constant announcements that those who’d been in camp thirty days or more were eligible to vote in North Dakota by signing an affidavit of residency. Cars were waiting to take people to the polls a couple miles away. I took one person myself because I could only find one person out of the many, many people in my camp who were eligible to vote and had any interest in doing so. And that one person was a white person. I’ve had people react to that story by saying, “don’t [Native people] understand how terrible Trump will be for them?” And my response is, don’t you understand that all the violence perpetrated against the water protectors thusfar has been on President Obama’s watch?

Don’t you realize that Hillary Clinton has made absolutely no assurances whatsoever to indigenous people fighting for their lives, land, and culture? Don’t you know that FDR–the New Deal guy, the four-term Democratic president–authorized the Pick-Sloan Plan to dam the Missouri and flood millions of acres of reservation lands, communities, and cultural resources? Don’t you know that even your most beloved and just President Abraham Lincoln–the one who freed the slaves!–also authorized the hanging of 38 Dakota men in Mankato, Minnesota–the largest mass execution in US history? But, by all means, tell Native people more about how they ought to be participating in your system and voting for your candidate because the other guy will be so much worse. As one friend in camp put it, “at least now the enemy is out in the open.”

The day before the election, I sat talking with a thirty-something Dakota woman by a small woodstove in a makeshift willow-and-tarp structure, winterized with layers of pallets and thermawrap to protect against the coming North Dakota winter. This woman, whose ancestor led her people out of Minnesota after the 1862 Uprising, told me about her experience in the Democratic primary as a delegate for Bernie Sanders–how she and other Native people felt respected and heard by him–how proud she was to have presented him with a pair of handmade moccasins. How despite her disappointment in the outcome of that primary, her experience has made her committed to running for public office in the near future.

I keep hearing the Democratic Party faithful say that even if Bernie Sanders had been their nominee, he’d have lost. But, I am fairly certain that if Bernie Sanders had been the Democratic nominee, the cars taking people from camp to the polls in Cannonball would have had a lot more riders. I believe that many of the white people who voted for Trump not because they agreed with his hateful and racist rhetoric but because he told people in desperate economic situations he’d get their jobs back would likely have been Sanders voters, as would many of the nearly half of the electorate who stayed home. It wouldn’t have taken much to swing this election the other way, and I’m frankly done being polite with those who continue to blame Trump’s win on the “fact” that a quarter of the electorate are a bunch of xenophobic, homophobic, racist misogynist “deplorables.”

Let me tell you something straight out in case you’ve never experienced it yourself: when you’ve lost your job, your home, your savings, and your wife–when your own circumstances are that desperate, you’re not thinking about who you’re “throwing under the bus” by voting for someone who says they’ll stick it to the people who did this to you plus also get you your job back and hopefully your dignity, too. And it’s just too bad that the Democratic Party decided someone who said things like that was “unelectable” because our guy meant it as more than lip service, he has experience doing it, and he said it with a message of healing, not hate.

And, about all that hate? That hate existed before the election, and it would be there no matter who won. Heck, the backlash might’ve been worse if Hillary had triumphed what with armed militias warning they’d take down the country if she did win. Nevertheless, the haters are emboldened now, and that is scary, but the enemy is out in the open where it is easier to fight. All those messages of support about standing up for people of color, for people of non-Christian faiths, for women and for LBGTQ folks are incredibly important, and I hope those who are posting them knew that it was important to stand up for love and equality and justice before the election, too.

Yeah, I think they did know that, and I hope that they acted on it and will continue to act on it. I hope we all do. But, I also hope that this election has clarified that loving people and standing up for them is also about listening to them–about humbling yourself, offering your service to their community–giving up the podium and the microphone without worrying that your power and your voice might be questioned or lessened–and truly listening and believing what they have to say.



A Little Post…and More to Come

Now that I am actually starting to work off-farm a little (and putting together a super-exciting project proposal I’ll blog about if it goes through), I thought it might be time to get some content flowing here again!

Here’s a small thing I’ve worked on in the past couple of days, since returning from the Spirit Camp north of Cannon Ball, ND very early Sunday:

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[Most of] Whatever’s ripe goes in the pot…
Of course, when I returned from a few days on the road there was a crisis of deliciousness in the gardens begging to be harvested. Since I planted so late this spring (umm…summer), the warm-season crops (which were all that I attempted to plant) began to bear fruit a couple of weeks later than normal. That means the main canning season is also starting a couple of weeks late, and I’m scrambling to put up in jars what I’m able because freezer space is very limited.

Hence, this stew of skinned and cut-up tomatoes, red okra, roasted peppers and eggplant. With freshness like this, there isn’t much need for doctoring with spices, but I did add a little salt, a couple of cloves of garlic, and some chopped stems and leaves of a cute little celeriac that has been growing companionably in the pot with my bay tree ever since late 2015, when it suddenly germinated out of the batch of cell packs I’d given up on in spring (over a year ago!!!) and redistributed the seemingly barren potting soil among the houseplants.

Talk about a late bloomer (well, OK, it didn’t bloom):

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I only ended up with eight pints of the pressure-canned stew (plus a little left in the stockpot for supper), but eight shelf-stable pints is better than no pints, and it’s also better than using half my available freezer space for one small project.

Now, to consider options for the wave of beans, cukes, and tomatillos coming next…

Chokecherries: A Little Creativity Would Be Appreciated

After searching for pie cherries and coming up nearly empty (I found about a gallon to pick a bit past their prime), I am positively overwhelmed with chokecherries at the farm. I’ve picked a few gallons at this point, and I haven’t even gotten out the ladder for the fruit at higher elevation.

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Yeah, I could say screw it and let the birds have them, but that seems wasteful when there are loads more of them on shrubs in the convoluted downer-tree grove for the fruit-eating bluejays and redheaded woodpeckers and all.

With a bounty like this, I’ve decided I want to be a little more creative–beyond the cordial, jelly, and juice. I’m curious about combining flavors and entertaining new ways to use chokecherries. Surely, others (and more specifically, others with some measure of creativity in the kitchen) have experienced this kind of over-abundance?

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According to my so-far searches on the internets–apparently not. Yes, I’ve got a promising wine recipe, and I’ll be picking up equipment for that very soon. Otherwise, the only somewhat “different” recipes for chokecherries involved drying them and pummeling them into flour, which apparently has a pleasing almond flavor (imparted, I suppose, by the cyanide-producing compound in the pits). Not having a flour-making device and also feeling a little sketchy about the whole cyanide-pit thing, I’m just flummoxed by the total lack of interesting recipes for the juice and pulp.

So far, I’ve canned five quarts of juice (plus not quite a sixth living in the fridge), and with today’s picking I attempted a cordial which ended up gelatinous once chilled (I won’t cook the berries and sugar next time) plus a pint and a half of syrup spiked with basil (Meh. OK.). I’ve got plenty of herbs this year, so I might also try sage and maybe rosemary as well. Bay leaf infusion? A few spices from the cupboard might also fall in the pot in further experimentation. It’s hard to go wrong with cinnamon.

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I’ll let you know if I come up with anything promising.



This is the year I officially laid aside gardening and took up prairie restoration.

I didn’t really see it coming, although the garden space when I arrived this spring was dauntingly overwhelmed and overwhelming. I started a few plants indoors (late) and planted out in the latter half of June (very late) when I finally broke down and asked my neighbor to strip till a couple of spots. I check on things down there every couple of days, and I’ve weeded just enough to keep the jungle in check.

The deer and rabbits have chowed down the first planting of beans, and I suspect they’ll do so with the second planting as well. The seed is a couple of years old, so whatever. I throw it in the ground and maybe we’ll get something. Most of what’s down there is being left alone–about thirty tomato plants, peppers and eggplant protected by a small fence–the sweet corn and okra seem so far unpalatable to the critters. Meh. Whatever happens, happens.

I think the transition began when the earliest of the native prairie forbs poked through. Hoary vervain. Ox-eye sunflower. I never knew what they were before–never knew that these hills contain maybe dozens of species that survived decades-ago overgrazing and another few decades of neglect and invasion. Never saw anything before but the vast expanse of brome–never even looked, and if I had, I would not have known what I was seeing.

I blame Minnesota. I blame being immersed in the protected, restored, and re-planted prairie landscapes among passionate prairie people–grass farmers and photographers, conservationists and watershed protectors. Hermit-naturalists and native plant nursery-people and birders, geologists, and mollusc-lovers (yeah, really).


I blame hugging, as far as my arms would stretch, the biggest cottonwood tree in the state, and most of all I blame myself for enrolling in the Minnesota Master Naturalist class, where for months I spent a few hours a week hanging out with a nerd-herd of those similarly infected with a prairie passion. And then the small but constant doses at work, hiking hilly grazing lands dotted with Hoary Puccoon, Ground Plum, and Birdsfoot Violet and punctuated with Bobolinks, Grasshopper Sparrows, and a dozen species of Odonata–learning how well-managed grazing can not only be safe for the endangered prairie ecosystem, it can be beneficial for the preservation and restoration of grasslands.

Living on the prairie for over half my life now, how could I have missed the immense diversity and complexity of this landscape? Well, that’s easy to answer: how much complexity do you see, driving down virtually any road in Southeast South Dakota? Corn, beans, Smooth Brome. Canada and Musk Thistle. If you’re lucky, a lonely clump of Big Bluestem surviving alongside a patch of Common Milkweed. You might spot a spike or two of vivid purple-blue, or a splash of tall yellow-something sailing past an old hayfield at 65mph or more.

Teucrium canadense (Germander)

Now, instead of coddling annual food plants in a small, protected space, I wander out almost daily into dozens of acres of tall grass that no one’s walked in years, cataloging species I never knew existed here–some obvious from my training and some to mull over, matching images taken with my phone to those in my guides and Google, guessing at families (when in doubt, Asteraceae is a good bet–square stems likely Lamiaceae) and flower structures not yet formed.

Most of what’s left on this farm is of the weedier, hardier class of native plant. The ones that can take a beating from brome, sweet clover, and field bindweed and survive. I get my “fix” of further diversity by visiting the restoration-in-progress a few miles away at Spirit Mound–there are a lot more forbs out there than you’d expect in a high-quality preserved remnant, but it’s beautiful to walk along the trail and be enshrouded by the minty-sage-y scent of Monarda fistulosa, nearly blind yourself by gaping at the almost unnatural fluorescence of Asclepias tuberosa, and peer into the “cups” of Silphium perfoliatum to see who’s taking a drink.

The restoration project at Spirit Mound is a riot of colorful forbs that is best appreciated by walking the trail and being soothed by the scent of native Bee Balm.

Otherwise, and in addition to the almost constant job of clean-up and fix-up on the old farmstead, I’m formulating plans for restoration and revitalization. I want to know what’s here first (principles of intelligent tinkering and doing no harm), but I also know from experience that some of what’s here may not be immediately evident–might be suppressed and waiting underneath that decades-old mat of brome. I’m beating back my desire to start interplanting native grasses (none of which are yet in evidence) until I have the plan and the equipment to keep open a space for them to establish. One very small mowing experiment on a dry, compacted patch of ground to set back Kentucky bluegrass did result in an explosion of Verbena stricta and Asclepias verticillata–but it also precipitated a land-grab by invasive yellow sweet clover.

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Early mowing in a small test plot knocked back Kentucky bluegrass and facilitated an explosion of whorled milkweed–as well as invasive yellow sweet clover.

Of the various tools for restoration and management, fire is probably going to be the most important to remove the long-accumulated mat of vegetation, but also the trickiest to pull off safely. As much as I was rarin’ to go on it this spring, pulling together a crew and establishing fire breaks comes first, and so that ingredient will have to wait until next year. I’ve started familiarizing myself with heavier equipment like the big brush mower, and after some safety training and practice, I’m planning to purchase my own chainsaw, so I can finally go after the cedars too big to take down with loppers and pruning saw. I’m getting used to wearing safety gear I never needed in the garden–hard hat, chaps, safety goggles, hearing protection.

And while it has been a little odd explaining to old friends and acquaintances that I’m no longer interested in being “Veggie Queen,” it has been an absolute pleasure to meet and visit with the multitude of new vendors at the farmers market and know that if the rabbits do eat all my snap beans while I’m out cataloging and conspiring to save the prairie, I’ve got excellent back-up.


Lithospermum incisum–Fringed Puccoon



Road Trip Part 3: Land of Enchantment

For part one of this series, see Paradise on The Platte.

For part two, see Captured By Kansas.

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Past Elkhart, the road roughened crossing into Oklahoma; glass insulators gleamed on power poles stretching to the distance. The route through the Panhandle at this point is 71 miles of loneliness, punctuated by Boise City, threading just south of Colorado’s border and north of Texas by a hair.

Rabbit Ear Mountain, that sentinel of U.S. 56, loomed as I passed into the Land of Enchantment, and I gained an hour from Mountain Time. Twelve more miles got me to Clayton, where I pulled off to a parking space along the main drag and, realizing I had the tools to avoid the hot beef disaster from earlier in the day, asked my phone where to eat.

I also really, really wanted a cold beer. My butt was killing me from two days of driving, and there were motels visible from the parking lot. I had made it to New Mexico. I could eat and crash. But there was no beer available at The Rabbit Ear Cafe–just the typical line-up of sodas, plus real brewed iced tea–which ended up being the perfect accompaniment to my awesome tamale plate with green chile sauce and homemade beans and rice. I walked out the door somewhat revived and completely satisfied, and with the rest of my tea in a to-go cup, sat down on a bench with my road atlas to decide what to do next.

U.S. 56 ends at Springer and Interstate 25, which heads south toward Las Vegas (no, not that Las Vegas) and then loops up toward Santa Fe, then down again toward Albuquerque and eventually, Los Cruces. My intention was to avoid long stretches of  interstate and heavily populated areas as much as possible (as well as going north when I meant to go south) while making my way across the state and into southeastern Arizona, so I wanted an alternate route. Fortunately, there is this little two-lane (402) running from Clayton to Nara Visa, which sits at the junction of another diagonal highway, U.S. 54. With a fresh infusion of caffeine coursing through my veins and an hour or two of daylight left, why not?

New Mexico is not only gorgeous, has more consistently delicious food than most other states, and is fully deserving of its “Land of Enchantment” moniker, it is really, really big. Despite getting one measly page in my road atlas (while horizontal Kansas, Nebraska, and the Dakotas all get two), New Mexico is the fifth largest state. And, when you consider that its ranking puts it behind only the truly enormous states of Alaska, Texas, California, and Montana–well, it’s hard for a New Englander–even one turned prairie gal for over two decades–to fully comprehend. Unless, of course, she drives across it. Twice.

New Mexico 402 is a narrow, lonely two-lane through the Kiowa National Grassland hills blazing in the sunset. There are two towns between Clayton and Nara Visa that (as I discovered is true for many points on the New Mexico map) are virtually abandoned. Or probably there wasn’t much there to begin with. Either way, the service they provide is more about seeing that you are making progress toward your destination than giving you a place to pee or buy a cold drink. You quickly learn to use the bathroom and gas up whenever you get a chance rather than waiting for the next town indicated on the map.

From Nara Visa, it is another 24 miles to Logan which, despite being the same font size on my map as many other towns with no services, has plenty of them due to the presence of Ute State Park just on the edge of town. I pulled into a cute little motel called the Yucca and, after petting the office kitty, got a room for less than forty bucks. It was a little shabby in that old-family-run-motel-near-the-state-park kind of way, but it was perfectly clean, and the decor was old-school kitschy cabin goodness.

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Antler lamps & handmade doilies

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Vintage chenille

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Jigsaw under glass

I ended up staying in the Yucca twice–once on the way out, and once on the way back. My only real disappointment there was failing to eat at the cafe next door, whose chile-laden menu is displayed over four delicious photocopied pages in the hotel rooms’ information book. I missed it on my way into town when all I wanted was bed (and one of the beers in my cooler), and when I left the second time, it was 5:45am and I assumed it wouldn’t be open (it was, but with a major storm rolling in to the north, I was thinking more about miles than a meal).

The gas-and-restroom lesson is one most travelers of rural regions are familiar with, but the other hard lesson of this trip (and one that never quite set in) was taking off in the morning without eating first–especially when there was a promising-looking cafe in the vicinity. I’m not usually an early eater, but by late morning I can get desperate enough to make a bad choice. That happened in Hoxie, Kansas, and it might’ve happened again in eastern New Mexico had there actually been any place to eat on my route (though, as I said before, New Mexico doesn’t seem to have much bad food).

I passed through Tucumcari (TWO-come-carry) and it was still too early to eat; I followed a sliver of I-40 to Santa Rosa and then south again on 54 and west on 60. By the time I got to Willard, I was desperate enough for a bathroom that I begged the postmistress to let me use hers–only then seeing “No Public Restroom” signs on the door she blessedly unlocked for me. But there wasn’t anything else public in Willard–all the old business were boarded up with “For Sale” signs bleached from the sun, and the grassland plains don’t offer much to hide behind along the roadside.

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No place to pee here…

In Mountainair, I stopped in front of the historical marker and tried to use my phone again to seek out food, but I couldn’t even get a signal. Then, looking off to the side, I saw a sign advertising an old, historic inn nearby with great, fresh food and a welcoming atmosphere. It turned out to be closed as well, so I headed back to the main drag behind an old lime-green painted Chevy pickup with Bernie Sanders “Honk for a Political Revolution” and “Wolves Against Sarah Palin” stickers. Yes, I was truly in New Mexico.

Parked in front of the post office, I practically assaulted a young woman walking down the street (she had ear buds in) in order to find a place to eat. Once she realized I was yelling at her, she smiled broadly, pulled out the buds, and pointed me to Alpine Alley–a funky little coffee house and sandwich place where the regulars are crusty with each other, but kind and generous with visitors. In keeping with my vow to eat green chile at every meal in New Mexico, I had the “Sophia Loren” wrap and grabbed a scone for the road.

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From Mountainair, I headed on, down into the Rio Grande Valley, and then up through the mountainous western part of the state. For that tale, my friends (which includes the Continental Divide and famous PieTown–see how I managed to keep my green chile pledge!), you’ll need to read the next installment of the road trip series.