Life on the 100th meridian -- where cultures clashed and farm traditions hit arid realities of the plains
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Sam Hurst calls me a child of the 100th meridian.
If someone had called me that back when I actually was a child growing up in central South Dakota just a few miles east of the 100th, I’d likely have responded with an air of confused suspicion.
As if, perhaps, I was being forced into an outside-the-classroom 5th-grade geography test about the line of longitude that reaches from the North Pole down to the South Pole, cutting across Lyman County in the process.
What 11-year-old needs such a challenge when he could be down along the Missouri River feeding chicken liver to catfish? Not me. Not then. Not a chance.
But today I’m quite comfortable with the name, what it means and what it says about where I grew up and who I am as a person.
Or at least who I might be.
Much more than historic markers along the road
Truth is, before I met Sam Hurst 14 or 15 years ago, I didn’t pay much attention to the 100th meridian. Oh, sure, I knew that stuff about how it marked the beginning of the Great Plains and the vague demarcation between the carefully tended farming country to the east and vast, generally more-arid expanse of ranch ground to the west.
I’d seen the marker announcing the 100th along Highway 14 west of Blunt up in Hughes County, And I’d known that the line passed through my home county somewhere a few miles west of our farm near Reliance.
I lived the environmental and cultural realities of the 100th growing up, on a farm that some might call a ranch at the edge of the Lower Brule Reservation, in the spiritual shadow of Medicine Butte. Like our neighbors, we blended small grains and row crops and a cow-calf operation on a productive mix of fields and pastures, most of which still grew native grasses, some of them virgin prairie.
But I certainly didn’t spend much time considering the realities behind the name, 100th meridian, or what they might have meant to the shaping of our state and our nation, or to the people who lived or live there, including me.
I’d heard Sam mention the 100th from time to time in discussing the settling of the West and the reshaping of the landscape through human impacts and accelerating climate change. He’s a man of many theses on many subjects, including politics, cultural trends and land uses. Knowing him is knowing intellectual inquiry and challenging discussions.
I’d enjoyed his references to 19th Century explorer-geologist-cartographer-topographer-geographer (there’s more, but I’ll stop there) John Wesley Powell, who drew the imaginary 100th meridian and warned against expecting too much of lands west of it (warnings we ignored, mostly, and still do). But I wasn’t really engaged by the whole idea of the 100th until Sam started a book project that involved a year of living in a line shack -- for him, not me -- over in Hyde County, just east of the 100th.
A line shack. Living in one. Let that thought settle in for a moment.
And in case you don't know, line shacks were the barely inhabitable shelters constructed way out yonder from ranch houses -- often but not always along the fencelines that required tending -- so cowboys or sheep tenders could keep track of livestock that were otherwise wandering far from view.
There are still a few line shacks, or their humble relatives, around. And Nick and Mary Jo Nemec managed to rustle one up from the still-fairly isolated property located out yonder a fair bit from their home place on Nemec Ranch, Inc., near Holabird. And with their support and cooperation and assistance, that's where Sam planned to live for a year.
I use “live” with an asterisk here, because Sam was not a full-time resident of the little shack on the prairie 20 miles or so north of where Nick and Mary Jo usually keep the coffee on and something good to eat at hand. But Sam generally resisted those temptations and spent more time in and at the shack in different degrees of discomfort than I would have. Much more. And I admire him for it.
Far from the more easily understood beauty of the Black Hills
But why leave the glorious backdrop of the Black Hills, where Sam lives, and the rugged nearby badlands country of western South Dakota for what many consider to be a drive-through landscape of middle Dakota? Well, there’s a lot going on there, and always has been.
Much more than meets the eye of a casual observer or the fast-paced traveler.
“The 100th meridian is a subtle landscape. Because it appears flat, people mistake it for boring when it is really complex and beautiful,” Sam says. “But to appreciate the beauty, you have to slow down, be patient, let the place come to you. If you’re just driving by on I-90, you’ll never really see it.”
As teenagers back in Chamberlain and Reliance, we tried to explain that to travelers who pulled off U.S. Highway 16 — I-90 in central South Dakota was still under construction — for gas and snacks and bathroom breaks. They often seemed desperate when they asked: “How many miles to Rapid City?”
And it wasn’t just that subtle beauty they were missing. It was the very nature, the historic presence, of the landscape.
“I think that the 100th meridian is the eastern edge of the American West. This is where American settlers crashed into Native culture. This is where the traditions of American farming crashed into the invisible rain shadow of the Rocky Mountains,” Sam says. “I have always loved the opening scene in ‘Giants in the Earth.’ The immigrant family is lost in the grassland. The patriarch is fascinated, thinks it gorgeous. The matriarch is terrified by the solitude and endless horizon. They cannot tell that one mile they are in the greatest farm country in the world, and the next mile they are in the arid lands.”
So Sam sought that transition zone as a place to “live” his book as well as write it. His residence and home remains in Rapid City, where he seeks creature comforts and does most of his writing and a lot of his research in “the cave” of his basement office. But he has been a regular — as in several days a week — visitor to Hyde County and parts thereabout and a committed part-time inhabitant of the shack.
So he caught the changes of seasons and came to know the idiosyncrasies of the landscape. He reached out and felt the edges of the environment and their sharpened impacts on the people who live there. That went on for that planned year, and then six months more, and then six months more, as his reporting and the scope of the book expanded.
But even when he was over in Hyde County working, he didn’t spend every night in that miserable little shack on a grassy rise above what began, when that first year started, as a large-and-tangled lake bed. On terribly cold, snowy winter nights, or when he had heavy writing to do or needed a break from the the heat, the bugs and the lack of electricity or running water at the shack, Sam would rent a room at the Prairie View Motel in Highmore. He also watched the Super Bowl there.
Watching a lake bed become a lake, for now
But he stayed in the shack often enough to get to know the place and the land around it. He listened to rooster pheasants crow at dawn and coyotes yip at dusk and he watched the big lake bed outside the shack get transformed by heavy snows and drenching rains into a big, deep duck slough.
Or call it a lake, if you prefer. Either one works. But only for a while, because in the cycle of life along the 100th, that lake or slough is destined to shrivel up and give itself back to the prairie, which has a thirst that is rarely slackened for long.
For now, though, the lake is a lush home to mallards and teal and spoonbills, Canada geese and, along its edges, killdeer and other shorebirds. And it was just one of the many transformations, most of them occurring beyond the prairie grasses surrounding the shack, that Sam Hurst witnessed as he came and went during the last two years.
He saw births and deaths, marriages and divorces, school starts and school graduations. He helped Nick Nemec plant trees in a shelterbelt, rode a four-wheeler as cattle were moved from one pasture to the other and joined in a branding operation. He saw market prices for soybeans fall victim to a trade war and tariffs and watched farmers who resent the hand of federal government in many ways gladly take that hand for financial help.
Along with the predictable windy, hot, dry spells, he saw brutal winter storms and seemingly unending spring snow and rain that delayed planting, changed crop plans and punished those who work the land in ways that only true residents can feel deep down inside.
And in watching him long distance, visiting him at his shack and talking to him over coffee or during pheasant hunts at Nick’s place, I’ve concluded this much: Sam felt and feels to the core of his being as powerful a connection to the 100th as any part-time resident of that place could ever hope to feel. And I admire him for that, too. It speaks well of him.
The road to understanding through indigenous knowledge
I was lucky as a child to know and be inspired by many Natives from the Lower Brule and Crow Creek reservations. Some of them worked as hired hands for our farm-ranch operation, bringing particular skills and insights to the livestock part of it. No one who is serious about really understanding the 100th meridian can hope to do so without reaching out and learning from indigenous people. And Sam did that in ways that will enrich the book and, if we pay attention, could help guide us in how we approach land use in the coming generations.
“One of the great surprises of my two years in the field is that many of the most innovative ideas about the future are coming from young Native Americans who have gone to college and come home to their reservations to try to make a better world,” Sam says. “I’m not a pollyanna about the problems of the reservations, but I have been amazed at the creative energy of young Indians. If they had access to credit and capital like commodity farmers have, they could transform the 100th meridian in a decade.”
Here it’s important to note that Sam Hurst was not some West Coast city slicker when he began this adventure along the 100th. After getting to know and admire western South Dakota through his TV work, Sam left the financial security of big-time news media on the coast to become a buffalo rancher in the foothills of the Black Hills and out in the badlands.
He did that buffalo business for 17 years, along with his own documentary film work. So he knew more than a little about livestock production and the challenges of the South Dakota climate.
But he has learned a lot more in this book project. That’s because he paid attention. He engaged people personally as well as professionally. He asked thousands of questions to hundreds of people. He went to schools and auction barns and farm fields and county offices and small-town cafes.
He strayed east and west of the 100th meridian a degree or two or three, and traveled north and south along it for 100 miles or so each way, doing what journalists do: asking questions, listening well, engaging the place and its people.
He learned about things he didn’t know and learned more about things he did.
And he went back to that shack along the 100th, time and again, where he got a personal sense for the beauty of the landscape, along with its dangers and challenges and rewards.
High winds. Scorching heat. Bitter cold. Pounding rains. Blowing snow. Beautiful summer evenings and crisp, clear winter afternoons. Bluestem earning its name each spring, and turning the color of sunset each fall. A lake bed becoming a lake, for now.
And through that journey, the former network news producer and Neiman scholar, a California guy I once suspected of being a bit of a liberal elitist, went through an inspiring transformation of his own.
He became part of the landscape he was covering. If not a child or even quite a resident of the 100th meridian, he became a student of it and an advocate for it.
And it’s pretty clear that he fell in love with the place -- my place.
It's the land I've always known and loved. But I'd never used a number — the 100th — to identify it as the source of my deepest passion and most enduring sense of place.
Not until Sam Hurst came along and properly identified the child in me.