South Dakota, 2011

Some people worry the American president won’t cede power if he loses the election this year, an observation that would have been unthinkable four years ago. Our president. Strange how I am embarrassed to write his name into this journal, a name that looks like an obscenity on the page. Maybe it’s because I thought we deserved a worthy villain.

Nine 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 murderer, 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.” Nine 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. The trivial sits next to the catastrophic like never before, producing creatures like our president. I keep scrolling: American suicide rates continue to climb. Eight reasons why shampoo is a waste of money. Coronavirus death toll hits 812. Your pets might smother you while you sleep.

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 | Bandcamp

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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