When I moved to Sioux Falls nine years ago I came for the job, not for the place. I’ve always lived in the mountains; now I live on the prairie. People sometimes call this “fly-over country” because there’s nothing to see here, just hundreds of miles of flat grassland that’s now growing corn and soybeans. If you rush through, the place seems empty.
Sometimes, though, thunderheads loom in the west, and my heart leaps as those mountains of rain roll across this fertile plain. Once there was an ocean here, stretching from the Arctic to the Gulf of Mexico. Behemoths, now extinct, left their bones in the ill-named Badlands a few hours to the west.
From the sky, Sioux Falls looks flat, but it would be better to say the land undulates. It is as though the land remembered the ancient ocean and now, as though in memoriam, rises and falls, wave-like across the prairie. As the wind sweeps across the tall grasses in the late autumn, it too moves grain heads in waves.
The people here have come in waves as well. Waves of Native Americans, most recently the Lakota, preceded waves of immigrants from further away. Norwegians and Dutch predominated for a while. They are frugal and neighborly, and their churches and music are everywhere. Lutheran Social Services and other aid agencies have more recently welcomed refugees from eighty or so other countries, and now in school hallways lilting Midwestern accents mix with Serbian and Dinka and Arabic.
When I moved here, this place seemed empty to me. Learning what Thoreau calls the Art of Walking changes my view. Nestled in an oxbow of the Big Sioux River, the river is a natural quiet greenbelt where kingfishers and green herons, deer and mink and the occasional cougar live as our very near neighbors. We have no great heights here, perhaps, but the prairie is ocean-deep, hushed by the slow roll of steady wind and water falling over pink quartzite falls. There are mountains here, and slowly I am learning to see them.