My South Dakota

I have long had a love affair with the Wild West. Having grown up in California and spent so much of my childhood traveling with my family up and down the coast of the Pacific Northwest, across the deserts of Nevada and in the mountains of the Greater Yellowstone Area, I have found the wildness of the West both incredibly fascinating and hauntingly beautiful.

When we vacationed, we road tripped. Hotels were more often than not tents and the drive away from home could take days. I would spend hours staring out the window between stops and imagine the lives of the people living in the places we passed by.


It was hard to imagine ever leaving the borders of the states I felt captured the awesomeness of the human experience. Of all the places I had ever visited, the West always held my heart. It was where I was born, where I first explored, and where I felt so insanely drawn to that I knew it would be hard to ever leave.


South Dakota was a complete unknown. Short of passing through while moving to Ohio for an internship, I hadn’t ever spent time in the state.


It immediately seemed smaller. But in a way that didn’t make you feel confined. There was so much open space between people and towns, yet everyone seemed to be connected.


Cole Kuchenbecker, 16, back-flips into the water from the cliffs high above the surface at Pactola Reservoir in the Black Hills of western South Dakota.

Cole Kuchenbecker, 16, back-flips into the water from the cliffs high above the surface at Pactola Reservoir in the Black Hills of western South Dakota.

There is this inherit closeness among South Dakotans. While there may be many miles between homes in some parts of the state, everyone seems to know everyone. Our degrees of separation might only be two or three connections away from everyone being tied to one another in some way.


It’s not surprising that you’d want to get to know your neighbors in a land like this. The state is known for it’s extreme weather – a blizzard one day and spring-like temperatures the next. Knowing your neighbors can be imperative to both your physical safety and the health of your business.


Branding season is an example I often give when asked about what people are like in South Dakota. Like many places across the West, unrelated families will gather at a ranch to begin a long, unpaid day of branding and vaccinating cattle.


A few days later, that group of maybe 10 or 20 people will gather at sunrise at another ranch, on and on until all the neighbors have completed their brandings. Everyone is fed pot-luck or family style, with warm coffee always on hand and plenty of kids running around both learning the process and keeping themselves busy. It’s a season of trade, teamwork, and tradition.


As a rancher, you’re a business owner. And you’re taking on a lot of risk, hoping every year that Mother Nature won’t deal you too terrible of a hand and that market prices allow you to provide well for your family.


But it’s also a business that is made successful by the help of your family and friends. Your neighbors are all facing those same hardships, so there’s no question in lending a helping hand when it is needed.


That resiliency is admirable. And that camaraderie is so valuable.

There are places here where it feels like time has stood still. Scenes are often unchanged for decades, with storefronts only changing out a promotional poster or a sign for the price of gas. But there is also an incredible amount of growth happening in an area that I think is often overlooked by the rest of the nation.

Our young families are bucking the trend of moving away from their rural homes and are instead returning to steward the land their parents and grandparents had long cared for and lived off of. In turn, our urban areas are also seeing a demand for more jobs and growing industries.


We are the 46th least population dense state, ahead of only North Dakota, Montana, Wyoming and Alaska – each wild in their own daunting ways.


Our vast, open space of rolling prairies places us in the Midwest. But South Dakota is uniquely divided, with the great waters of the Missouri creating a split between East River and West River.


West River is home to the the Badlands, the Black Hills, and fertile land riddled with creeks and lines of cottonwood trees. These scenes draw from similar views in Wyoming and Montana, but are scaled down and seem much smaller.

The same town that houses one of the world’s most innovative labs and scientists searching for dark matter, also has parades with a penny farthing rider and free candy being tossed into the street for onlookers.


South Dakota is a state comprised of small towns and big ideas. While we aren’t always the most progressive, there is definite progress happening at this Edge of the West. And the parallel scenes of growth and appreciation for longstanding traditions make for a unique home.


I think most visitors would agree that you’d be hard pressed to find people that are as hard working as South Dakotans. It takes a hearty person to still love this place when the winter temperatures have finally thawed.


After eight years of making this state my home, I still think of myself as an outsider. Unless you were born here, it’s hard to argue that you’re a local. South Dakotans are wary of newcomers, unsure if you understand their way of life. But they are warm and welcoming, just as eager to get to know you as you are to hear their story.


I am thankful for my camera and notepad to carry me through this state. They have been incredible tools for this former San Francisco resident to get to know a people and place she had long wondered about.

And even with hundreds of stories already captured, there is still so much of this state that fascinates me. I continue to be drawn to the history and curious about the new. The roads are rough but the sunsets make the flat tires worth the trek.

A storm passes through Custer State Park in South Dakota and a rainbow appears in the sky over the Harney Peak Fire Tower as seen from the Needles Highway.

A storm passes through Custer State Park in South Dakota and a rainbow appears in the sky over the Harney Peak Fire Tower as seen from the Needles Highway.

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