South Dakota


May 4, 2019

North Korea is firing its weapons again, launching missiles into the Sea of Japan. Meanwhile our president is busy arguing with the internet, concerned there isn’t enough hate speech circulating through the already poisoned wells of social media. The Speaker of the House worries that he won’t cede power if he loses the election, an observation that would have been unthinkable three years ago. Our president. Strange how I am embarrassed to write his name, a name that looks like an obscenity on the page. Maybe it’s because I thought we deserved a worthy villain.

Eight years ago I was sitting in a Waffle House when my telephone buzzed with a CNN news alert: White House has pix of #Osama bin Laden with open head wound, his burial at sea, scenes from raid. The face of mass murder, hashtagged and hyperlinked next to the word “pix.” Then I saw a headline that said, “12 Pop Stars Tweet About the Death of Osama bin Laden.” Eight years later and I still can’t get that phrase out of my head. It was a modern koan, a signpost of things to come. American suicide rates continue to climb. Eight reasons why shampoo is a waste of money. Troops open fire on protesters. Your pets might smother you while you sleep. The trivial sits next to the catastrophic like never before, producing creatures like our president.

I remember racing against the sun to reach the Badlands before dark but I didn’t make it because I kept pulling over to photograph little white churches that flashed like teeth. I visited a tractor museum and a family playhouse. I cruised the streets of a leafy little town whose name I’ve already forgotten. When I reached the edge of South Dakota, the Badlands lay out there unseen, crouching in the dark. That night I dreamt of Natalie Wood, leaping and yelling hit your lights on the edge of a cliff, her arms swinging through the headlights again and again, my mind looping the scene until it felt like a critical message.

Dirty Beaches - True Blue

from Badlands | Zoo Music, 2011 | Spotify

From Alex Zhang Hungtai, Badlands is a perfect 26-minute record that soundtracked my drive across the Dakotas. “True Blue” loops The Ronettes into a beautiful blur of AM radio drums and desert twang that sounds like memory.

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