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Seeing South Dakota’s Promise and Possibilities
Aug 13, 2014
Fraser Harrison, a travel writer from England, spent the summer of 2013 in Yankton. An essay on his impressions is featured in the current South Dakota History magazine, published by the State Historical Society.
Harrison calls it a love letter to Yankton. But it was not love at first sight. The 2013 visit was not our English friend’s first time in Yankton. He visited several South Dakota towns in 2011 for his book Infinite West: Travels in South Dakota. Harrison stayed for one night in Yankton and left with a bleak picture of a "melancholy little town." In hindsight, he realized his stay had started off on the wrong path when he was booked into “a cell-like hotel room” from a misleading website. His impressions didn't get better. He found several closed buildings downtown, and the historic Meridian Bridge was closed and fenced. He left, wrote a sad account of Yankton, and thought he would never return.
"Travel writing is an irresponsible art," he writes in his new essay. "The writer grants himself the license to visit a place for a few hours and pronounce magisterially on its vices and virtues, its charms and blemishes, without fear of punishment or reprisal."
On the flip side of that sentiment, there is something precious about seeing a place for a first time. In the business of travel writing, Harrison says it is always important to "preserve your capacity for wonderment."
That’s our goal at South Dakota Magazine. We hope every issue surprises readers and gives a sense of wonderment to a place we all know very well. Harrison told me that ordinary things such as grocery stores, which are quite boring to visit at home, seem fascinating when you see their equivalents in foreign countries. Likewise, some of our greatest features here in South Dakota may seem mundane after viewing them so often.
In the July/August issue of South Dakota Magazine we asked town mayors to tell us one thing they would like readers to know about their town, something that would surprise and entertain. Mayors have strong ties to their towns, and work tirelessly to make them better places. They didn't have the luxury of seeing their town with fresh, clean eyes. Nevertheless, their answers often did surprise us even though we travel the state intensely.
We hadn't heard, for example, that Brookings recently turned trash into treasure by converting an old landfill on 22nd Avenue into the 135-acre Dakota Nature Park. Mayor Tim Reed hikes there with his dog, Ace. There is also kayaking, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and four ponds stocked with fish.
We learned that a world-renowned airbrush artist is a new resident in Menno. To feel more at home, he has already painted many murals and signs around the Hutchinson County town. Harris welcomes visitors to his downtown studio.
And we found that there is more to do in Wall than stopping by Wall Drug for donuts. Mayor Dave Hahn informed us that the town has the only U.S. Forest Service Visitor's Center in the United States. The site seeks to educate visitors on national grasslands and has many hands-on learning exhibits.
It's also important to note that not all towns care about first impressions or even desire visitors. Cottonwood mayor J.C. Heath says he knows his town looks like a ghost town, but people do live there — 12 people, to be exact. "We get every tourist coming through Jackson County to the Hills," says Heath. "We don't mind people stopping to look at the old buildings but they should keep off our private property. Everything belongs to somebody.”
A visiting travel writer has the benefit of surprise and wonderment when touring South Dakota landscapes and towns, but as we explore within the state we know and love we have a bigger responsibility. We owe it to our readers to see the possibilities and the promise.
I guess mayors and South Dakota’s writers have that in common. Fortunately those of us who write for a living don’t have to worry about sewers, streets and gutters.