The 1989 Rand McNally World Atlas chose to exclude parts of North Dakota, South Dakota, and Oklahoma based on an “editorial decision”.
Because all there is to see in South Dakota are the monuments built to men in stone, their likenesses permanently etched by the force of dynamite, mankind all the better for it. There are the four faces polished shining and white, stoic over the Black Hills. Drive a few minutes over to see the impressive face of a man who will one day ride his horse to become a world record. The Badlands are there too, their strata like a layer cake. For a fee, the kids can war whoop at a few dozen Indian pit stops, the burden of privilege lifted because their parents paid for authentic souvenirs. A few major cities— the capital, for instance, and the places visible by freeway— are included, and the waterways, which give the maps a bit of color. No matter the texture— small towns and rundown farms. Follow this map and the roads give out, scale suddenly inaccurate, the sense of here and now confused, tied up with when and where back on page eight. End up lost between horizon and sky, in the marrow of this place, the very reason to come at all.
Separate strands with turned out hands— like swimming but sharper— diving into the prairie brush. Bristle, bend. Concentrate to isolate one from many. Trace a finger down the length, careful to avoid the sharp edge, slick as a blade. Reaching ground, push pointer finger into the soil to go further along the shaft. Wriggle nail and knuckle, dig down, careful not to rip the knot beneath, coiled and so densely matted.
It takes effort now—force, stamina, the sun on the prairie leaving skin slick— two fingers, three, dirt rising past the wrist. Roots beyond grasp spur curiosity, for they hold the whole world up, an inverted tree underground. Forearm. The tender crook of the elbow. When the shoulder sticks, remove and place hands together like prayer. Dive headfirst into the space created, eyes closed, wriggling like a blind worm.
Feet motionless, anchored above, try to grasp where this system stops. Feel the root you’ve followed thicken, hard, controlled, and decisive, an enticing leash further. Become small, surrounded, subsumed. Toes slide from the soil perch. There’s only so much breath, so swim fast and determined to find the end of this world. Deeper, darker, forever lasting.
Sarah Fawn Montgomery holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from California State University-Fresno and a Ph.D. in creative writing from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where she teaches and works as Prairie Schooner’s Nonfiction Assistant Editor. She is the author of The Astronaut Checks His Watch (Finishing Line Press). Her work has been listed as notable several times in Best American Essays, and her poetry and prose have appeared in various magazines including Confrontation, Crab Orchard Review, DIAGRAM, Fugue, Georgetown Review, The Los Angeles Review, Natural Bridge, Nimrod, North Dakota Quarterly, The Pinch, Puerto del Sol, Southeast Review, Zone 3, and others.