Spearfish to Mitchell, SD – It’s hard to sleep well surrounded by Harleys coming at all hours of the night. I was happy to be on the road at a reasonable hour and headed up to Belle Fourche, which incidentally is the geographic center of the United States. Stopping to fill the gas tank and feeling like the center of the world, I remembered that this was the gas station where I had stopped on a roadtrip back from Michigan several years ago. It was early in the morning and the man in the gas station was about seven feet tall. He had a congenital deformity that made one side of his face droop and told me he played basketball in Montana before moving to South Dakota. I told him we were headed to Washington. “Do you want to know a shortcut that will take three hours off your trip?” This was the first time I was suckered by a shortcut. He told me that we could take highway 212 northwest out of Belle Fourche through the North Cheyenne Indian Reservation. “You can stop in Broadus for gas and if you have to, stop in Lame Deer but whatever you do, don’t stop in Busby. They’ll slash your tires.” Noted. We made it from Michigan to Washington in 32 hours that time. I was a lifetime fan of shortcuts from that point on.
Taking Highway 212 out of Belle Fourche, I thought I would reach Eagle Butte quickly. Passing through ranch-land and gravel roads labeled with the names of the families who live miles away in the hills, I marked my way by whether or not I saw cattle. On one hill, cattle chased a cowboy on four-wheeler. He was the only person I saw for hours.
I stopped for a bathroom break at the Ben Ash Monument, unofficially the least visited National Historic Monument in the United States. The monument said this was where Ben Ash, a white man, first saw the Black Hills while traveling on the Deadwood Trail west. A couple on a motorcycle stopped and I said this was the least visited monument in the US. They said they only stopped because they saw my car and thought there might be something interesting. The man looked west and said, “Those hills look black.” I took their picture and got back on the road.
In Dupree, I stopped for gas, anticipating that Eagle Butte might not be as friendly. The women at the station were part of the Cheyenne tribe. One woman, Amanda, even said her mother spoke Cheyenne and she could understand but not speak the language. She said Eagle Butte was perfectly safe and I might want to talk to Faye Reeves if I wanted to meet someone who knew my grandpa’s family. Amanda showed me a map of the various land plots and said many of them were owned or leased by white people, some of whom were tribal as the Cheyenne tribe didn’t require a blood amount to be considered part of the tribe.
The hardware store was so cluttered that I couldn’t find the desk. A man’s cross voice said, “Yeah, we’re here,” over to my left and I walked past some wheelbarrows to see a white guy about my age behind the counter. He was disturbed. I would guess drugs were on board but kept a clear route to the exit and asked if there was a cemetery nearby. He gave me directions in scatter-brained, angry way. Just as I made my exit, a Lakota Police SUV showed up. A white man wearing a navy blue long-sleeved t-shirt that said “POLICE” asked if I needed anything (code for What the hell are you doing here?). I asked where the cemetery was. He asked which one but then proceeded to tell me how to get to the only graveyard just up a gravel road. I asked about Faye Reeves. He said she was way out of town to the east and her number was in the phonebook.
I didn’t recognize any of the names in the graveyard and left Eagle Butte wondering why my grandfather’s family, after losing their farm in the Depression, picked to live so far from anything. Heading south on 63, I could guess. It would be easy to squat on land and claim it as your own without anyone arguing in this area. Tufts of grass on un-farmed hills of land went on for miles. I wasn’t seeing any traffic and this started to worry me. I thought about the Lakota policeman. There was no way I would pull over in the middle of nowhere for him and I daydreamed (more of a day-mare) that if he pulled me over, I would crack the window and tell him I wouldn’t get out until I got to the next ranch. I wondered if he would shoot my tires. Does AAA cover having your tires shot by South Dakota’s finest?
Finally I made it to the barren intersection of Highway 14 and it started to pour. Off to the left though was inspiration. With only one house nearby, there in the middle of the prairie rested a baseball field. The floodlights and dugout looked sturdy and the field manicured. A real-life field of dreams
Miles later I hit I-90 and head east to find my grandma’s roots. I exit on Road 45 (I can’t really tell what is considered a road and what is considered a highway but at least all the ones I’ve chosen are paved.) I stop at a cemetery called Bullis-Wilbur Cemetery noting after jumping the gate that the only people buried there were named either Bullis or Wilbur. Should’ve seen that one coming. Things are usually exactly as they seem in the west.
I stop in Platte to buy lemonade from some girls and they give me directions to New Holland: take a left at the stop sign, drive 20 miles and turn left at Pete’s Ranch.
Besides my Washington plates, I look like everyone I meet. The intersection called New Holland boasts Dutch names I recognize but I can’t tell what to take a picture of for my grandma. I decide to pull into the driveway where an old man is sitting on the porch in purple sweats with his flyswatter. The curtains on the window have a woven windmill design and I ask if I can ask him for directions. He swats a fly that lands on the deck railing and says, “I guess.” I explain who I am and who my grandma is. He says he knows my grandma; she’s his cousin. Marion Veurink is his name and his wife, May, comes out to catch me up on gossip about the Likkel family good-for-nothing members she remembers and then says, “Oh god, there’s been an accident” as a helicopter from Platte buzzes overhead. “Yep, that’s the helicopter,” and then continues to tell me about the family.
I ask her what I should take a picture of and she says, “Joubert! They bulldozed it down and there’s nothing left. I bet your grandma would like to see that.” I wonder if it would be helpful to show my grandma who is 89 a picture of her flattened hometown but thank them for their help and drive three miles to a bulldozed field where a few old stores used to stand (see photo left). So much for Joubert.
Back at New Holland, I stop by the church and noticed that the pastor is Jack Gray, the man who married my parents. A middle-aged man pulls up and I talk my way into the church to take pictures. He says he is the interim pastor. Jack Gray retired and I ask if he went to Calvin College. That changed the mood. He’s from the south and trained as a Reformed pastor, not Christian Reformed and obviously is used to explaining the legitimacy of his credentials. I take a few pictures of this lovely gem of a church and as I’m walking out, he tells me that he also sells farm implements in Platte and that’s mainly what he does. I halfway wonder if I was just hit on by a South Dakota pastor and take my exit to go find the New Holland cemetery.
It’s late but I drive down the gravel road and I let myself in where I can already I recognize most of the headstone names. Kooiman, Maas, VanderWerff… then I see VanderTuin and start to cry. There is my grandma’s grandfather’s name: Father Johannes, 1847-1927 and next to it Mother Margje nee Groen, 1866-1947. There a marker to note my grandma’s mother’s death: Mother Dena Likkel, 1870-1957. And her husband, my great grandfather: Father Gerrit Likkel, 1860-1931. I remember my grandma saying she used to hate having to ride out to her grandparents’, Johannes and Margje’s, house on Sundays because her father would drive too fast and scare her. And here they are.
At this point, I’ve seen enough small-town USA and lived closely with first generation families and been steeped in Dutch culture to see how painfully isolated yet passionate they were. They carved a life out of nothing, trusted God, eventually lost what “nothing” they had during the Depression, and moved to Lynden, WA. Those who stayed, remember them and not always the best stories about them. There is a sense of roots and then a sense of me not quite fitting in with this life.
I also sense the loss that took place in leaving a home – who paid for these headstones? – and then I start to see the headstones of children who died young. There’s one headstone that says, “William H., son of Mr. & Mrs. G. Likkel, 1891”, maybe a baby-death of my grandma’s brother? One headstone that says “DeJong” has the names of three boys on it; two were twins who died within three months and the other was a three-year old.
Two little edges of marble peek out of the grass below the stone and I rip up the grass a little to dig out two headstones. One says “Mother” and one says “Father”. I lay them on the grass. In another year, they’d be lost. I hope whomever takes care of the cemetery keeps them above ground.
Somber, I leave the cemetery and drive to Corsica. It is bigger than New Holland and people are definitely watching as I take pictures around town. I text my uncle that I’m in Corsica. He’s with my grandma and says she’s tickled. No one says anything and I shoot a few pictures of an old barn that makes me happy before driving back to the interstate.