Slow Drive to Sitting Bull
First Published in Hole and Corner Magazine, May 2015; and reprinted in the Guardian 30 May 2015
On smooth, grey tarmac, I drive slowly, pass a pair of deer to my left, and realize that I’ve never driven like this before: unhurried, giving myself as much time as I want to look and think. In the hour after leaving Benito I stop the car and turn back three or four times to take photographs – a derelict shack, a lake surrounded by graceful aspens, a line of rusting pick-ups in a field, the road ahead. A few cars and trucks pass me, but I don’t care. I’m enjoying travelling slowly and I’m wondering whether I can drive like this all the way.
Benito is in northern Manitoba, close to the border with Saskatchewan, twenty-three miles south-west of Swan River, a small town which serves a valley filled with farmers. I had left Swan River that morning to drive to Brownsville, the southernmost city in Texas, which sits on the US-Mexico border close to the sandy delta where the Rio Grande flows into the Gulf of Mexico. Swan River and Brownsville are connected by a single road, 2271 miles long, called Highway (or Route) 83.
I drove another hundred miles that day, all of them slowly, stopping, starting, taking in the scenery. But what do I mean by slowly?
When I was at school, a boy called Billy Furtherfield was sometimes collected at the end of the day by his father, a jovial man who wore a trilby hat and made a living as an actor. Mr Furtherfield kindly offered lifts to as many boys as could cram into his old Morris Oxford – like the Furtherfields, many of us lived in a town a few miles from the school and usually we travelled on a stop-start bus. On days when Mr Furtherfield turned up, five or six of us would clamber into his car and be driven the five miles home along a two-lane ‘A’ road at precisely 36 mph. Billy’s dad thought it dangerous, and certainly unnecessary, to drive faster and seemed oblivious to the long line of cars strung out behind him, some of which would shoot past, engines roaring, drivers glaring, while others stayed behind pointlessly hooting. My father, who liked to drive fast when he could, said that Mr Furtherfield’s slow driving was itself dangerous – and even I, aged eight, could see his point. But, though we travelled slowly, we got home more quickly than by bus and we had just as much fun, yelling and shoving each other in the era before seatbelts.
I can see now that, though Mr Furtherfield was a kind, amusing, tolerant man, his slow driving was an irrational obsession. I can see too that the slow driving that I discover unintentionally on my way south from the pines of Canada to the palms of the Rio Grande Valley serves a purpose: it enables, even promotes, contemplation – of landscape, life, history. This gentle cerebral activity grows and flourishes over four weeks as I drive at around 50 mph on a largely straight two-lane road with little traffic, my progress marked by the rhythm of oncoming telegraph poles. I stop a lot, walk a lot, drive backwards, forwards and sideways a lot, so that by the time I trickle into Brownsville I have driven, according to the milometer, 5152 miles, more than twice the length of the road – almost all of them slowly. And, all of them, incidentally, in a rented red Toyota Prius. Later, when they hear about my trip, some people are disappointed that I didn’t drive a Harley Davidson or a pink, convertible Cadillac from the 1960s – as if I might have something in common with Jeremy Clarkson. As if, indeed! For me, on this trip, the vehicle is unimportant. I just want it to move – and keep moving, slowly.
Now and again as I drive, I ask myself why I am doing this. Why am I, born and still living in London, taking four weeks out of my life to drive from halfway up Canada, south through the United States to the Mexican border? Because, I tell myself, I have a connection – through my grandfather, who lived there – to the town of Swan River where, curiously, this road that bisects a continent starts. Because I am curious about what lies along it: the Great Plains, almost one thousand miles of Texas, and then the Rio Grande. Because I feel an affinity with North America derived from music, novels, films, television. Because I grew up watching Westerns and road movies, and I want to look for the realities behind the myths. Because of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Dee Brown’s account of the defeat of the Indians of the American west, a book that roused me to anger, despair, tears. It was on the Plains, which these days lie on either side of Route 83, that the Indians, between 1860 and 1890, fought, raided, stood their ground, retreated, fled, hid and often tried to make peace. And it was there that they lost thousands of lives, their way of life, their freedom and, what the white men wanted most, their land. They – the Sioux, the Cheyenne, the Comanches, the Apaches, Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Red Cloud, Quanah Parker, Geronimo – were on my mind when I planned this trip. I want to see the country where they lived and died, and look at how the descendants of the survivors live now.
In a small bar in Minot (rhymes with why not), North Dakota, a youngish man with a short beard and a baseball cap sits down on the stool beside mine. He nods in my direction, we get talking and he tells me that I should visit the place in South Dakota where Sitting Bull was born. He turns away, back to his beer, unaware of the effect of his casually-delivered words. I have only ever read about Indian chiefs and their people and their struggles to save their ways of life and their lands. Now I am there, on the land where those Indians lived – and I will be there all the way as I drive slowly south.
Three days later I drive across a bridge over the Missouri at Bismarck, the capital of North Dakota. I want to follow the west bank of the river south for some hundred miles to a bluff overlooking the river where Sitting Bull is buried – and then, in the evening, to return to Bismarck. The day is sunny, blue sky, big white clouds. I drive slowly, as is now my habit, windows down, on a two-lane road through open grassland. I am on State Highway 1806. The Missouri is to my left, though I can’t see it. Soon I come to a sign: ‘You Are Entering Standing Rock Indian Reservation’. It has several bullet holes in it; otherwise it is a conventional US road sign, with rounded white letters on a green background. I am in one of the largest Indian reservations in the US, in the land of the Hunkpapa, or Standing Rock, Sioux – the grouping of which Sitting Bull was chief. Long blue-green grass rises to the tops of hills to my right and, as I mosey south, the hills grow gradually more angular and majestic.
I continue driving for perhaps three hours, stopping frequently as usual. Despite the blue sky and green grass and rolling countryside, the region seems desolate, perhaps because that is all there is: blue sky and green grass. There isn’t even much traffic.
I come to a fork in the road, and a sign: 1806, it says, is closed ten miles on. Arrows point to the right, to a long diversion away from the Missouri. I stay on the country road; I want to reach the place where Sitting Bull is buried; perhaps I can get through. Still there are no houses, no cars, just hills in random folds like a rumpled blanket, empty fields – and then a crowd of black cows, way off in the lee of a line of trees. From the crest of a hill I look down at the Missouri, wide and blue. And I see that the road is blocked; it is being resurfaced. I must drive back the way I have come.
I’m not upset about this. In my other life, where I drive faster so as to get from A to B as quickly as possible, I would feel cross. I would exaggerate the inconvenience: a whole day wasted! I would curse the roadworks and my bad luck out loud.
As it is, I’m quite happy – I can visit Sitting Bull another day; there is a bridge across the Missouri further south. Besides, I have seen the waving grass and the angular hills – and much more. On this ninety-five-mile excursion, I have stopped to gaze at Lake Oahe, a vast reservoir formed by a dam further south, and there learned about bobcats – ferocious wild creatures, twice the size of domestic cats – from a man emptying bins. I have visited Fort Yates, the capital of the Standing Rock Reservation, and there contemplated the original standing rock, held to be the petrified form of a young woman and her baby, and sacred to the Hunkpapa Sioux. I have stopped to photograph horses – eight or ten of them, tiny to my distant eye, chestnut brown and somehow perfect – standing against the sky, high above me, gazing west and looking wild and ready to be ridden by Indians, bareback and fast.
I drive back towards Bismarck, slowly, of course, and turn off at a sign to Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park. There – close to the remnants of a sixteenth-century Mandan Indian village, abandoned by the Mandan following an outbreak of smallpox contracted from white men – I find a restored US army fort, dating from 1872, and the ghost of Colonel George Custer. I stand on the veranda outside a replica of ‘the Custer house’, where Custer would have sat with his wife and fellow officers enjoying drinks of an evening, and look to my right, to a gap in the hills. In the spring of 1876 Custer led his Seventh Cavalry through there on their way to the Little Big Horn River, 250 miles away in eastern Montana. There, on June 25, Custer attacked a peaceful Sioux encampment, slaughtering women and children. The Sioux, led by Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse and a younger chief named Gall, fought back and annihilated Custer and every one of his 265 cavalrymen.
Custer was just thirty-five years old, and his two younger brothers died with him. Had he proceeded more slowly – a much larger force was a few hours behind him – the Custer brothers would likely have lived a lot longer.
As I drive away, I ponder Custer’s folly and the bravery of the Sioux. Three days later I drive – slowly, of course – to a bluff high above the Missouri, where I sit and eat a lunch of almonds and apricots at the foot of the mound under which Sitting Bull is buried.
Some might associate slow driving with Buddhism or the teachings of G. I. Gurdjieff or what is now called mindfulness. But perhaps it really is just a simple matter of driving slowly.
David Reynolds’s Slow Road to Brownsville is published by Greystone Books, £10.99