For many young people across the Dakotas, weekday mornings begin with a trek down a gravel driveway to wait for a ride on the school bus. For some students, the miles to town can't go by fast enough, but there are others who rather enjoy the bouncy trek to school.
Back in the day, you could count me as one of the latter. I was one of those kids who actually looked forward to walking up those gray and often slippery steps to take a spot on one of the cold bench seats. It was a daily ritual that brought me together with friends and, in a strange way, helped form a love for the world on either side of the gravel roads we traveled each day.
Our house stood just two miles south of town, so, initially, I was one of the final kids to be picked up. The short trip amounted to several minutes of loud conversations with those around me before the tall doors opened and another school day began.
One winter day, however, the route changed and my bus-riding world turned upside down. Instead of being one of the last to stagger up the steps, I was now the first.
Strange as it may sound, there were benefits to being at the top of the list. For one thing, it meant that I had a choice of all the seats, and as an elementary student, that was a pretty big deal.
At first, I'd always wind my way down the narrow aisle to the back of the bus, as most of the older kids indicated that one's coolness was directly related to the distance between you and the bus driver. It didn't take me long, however, to figure out that my early arrival in the back of the bus didn't automatically exclude me from the official Hierarchy of School Bus Seating, which, of course, was dictated by age.
After several weeks of being bumped from the back of the bus to the front, I finally swallowed my pride, and every morning I'd scramble up the stairs, only to sit in the very first seat. And it was here that my eyes were opened up to the world outside - literally.
Once in my seat, I'd continuously scan the passing fields in hopes of spotting something wild, and soon, because of the bus driver's uncanny ability to drive the route at exactly the same time every day, I could almost predict what I would see and where I would see it.
Two miles east of my parents' home, directly across from an old corn crib, it was a covey of partridge huddled on the roadside, pecking on the gravel. Another mile to the east it would be a doe and her yearling quietly emerging from a shelterbelt that surrounded one of the many farms in the area. And near the end of the route, pheasants would congregate between two fields of CRP to scratch for food beneath the wind-swept snow. The front of the bus was a beautiful thing.
In a strange twist of fate, my current drive to work in the morning today takes me down many of these same roads that ushered me to school when I was young. At first glance, things look pretty much the same. The old corn crib still stands to the east of my childhood home, and deer still appear silhouetted against frosty stands of willows and shelterbelts of ash.
Yet, among the expanding fields of corn and bald swaths of alfalfa, some things have disappeared. Gone are the small, winding lengths of grass waterways, replaced by lines of black dirt recently turned by a tile plow. Manicured fields now sit where small clumps of weedy cover once broke up the rows of corn and beans. A bean-shaped slough that often held a rooster or two in the twilight of the season now sits in the shadow of a new home. The country roads of my childhood are losing their moments of wild.
There is no doubt that the rural landscape of South Dakota is under more pressure today than ever before to produce and provide for a country of consumers. The irony of the situation is not lost on me. After all, the gas that powers my truck over the gravel gridwork of roads is produced in part by the very fields that I now bemoan, and I cannot count how many times I have dropped the hint to my wife that I would love to one day live in the country. Balancing progress and preservation is proving to be a bumpy road for all involved.
The buzzword the past couple of years has been change, and there is little doubt that our state and our country is at a crossroads of sorts. For those who make the decisions that impact the day-to-day aspects of our lives, the choice is not as simple as choosing one fork in the road over another. My hope is that our governmental and business leaders do not forget that our communities absolutely include waterways, weedy patches and bean-shaped sloughs - our moments of wild.
In 1948 Aldo Leopold questioned whether a still higher standard of living is worth its cost in things natural, wild and free, and 65 years later, we still seem to be struggling to find an answer.
Maybe we all need a drive in rural Dakota to take account of what we have and what we've lost.
I hear the front of the bus makes for a pretty good view.
About the Author: John Pollmann is from Dell Rapids, S.D. More of his work can be found in publications from Ducks Unlimited and Delta Waterfowl.