Summertime evokes a million memories for me. There’s something magical about the season, what with the lingering sunlight and bonfires and fresh produce in abundance and fireflies flitting about. But I imagine my onslaught of memories also has something to do with the greatness of Michigan summers and the splendor of South Dakota, these the two stages for my childhood summers.
My parents are from South Dakota—Rapid City, more specifically, “the gateway to the Black Hills.” Throughout my childhood, we road-tripped from Michigan to the Black Hills every summer to see my extended family, as the majority of them still lived (and live) there. My sister and I adored the whole trip. Atypical children, we loved the car ride, filled with games and little presents to keep us going and roadside picnics and the rare pleasure of fast food and music on our Walkmans. We loved the usual trappings of summer vacation: swimming, lazy mornings, picnics, cookouts, ice cream. And we loved staying at our grandparents’ little house on a wide, busy road, a place filled with memories from my dad’s childhood and delicious smells and a quiet backyard garden and a funky, orange-and-brown-patterned corner sofa in the basement. I was enamored with the old photos of the family hanging on his parents’ walls—the big, gold-framed family photo of him and his six siblings when the oldest of them were teenagers, the six boys outfitted in leisure suits my grandma made; the image from my uncle and aunt’s perfectly 80s wedding, puffy dress sleeves very much included; the graduation photographs hanging in my grandparents’ room. Sometimes my grandma would pull out boxes of even older photos, tiny black-and-white images of her and my grandfather when they were kids, living in the same little town. I always wanted to drive by my mom’s childhood home on the boulevard, have her tell me again which window was hers, see my parents’ schools on opposite sites of town and their old haunts and my dad’s college campus.
The summers are hot there, with rainstorms that arrive with only the briefest notice, dark clouds rolling over the plains, stopping abruptly to drop buckets of rain, maybe even hail. We would read in the mornings and sit on the living room floor to make friendship bracelets and play with our many cousins and visit the store downtown that sold brightly colored beads and Native American art. Family constantly dropped by, making me feel like royalty. Toss in a wonderful place called Storybook Island that sits only a block from my grandparents’ house and giant cement dinosaurs perched on a hill above the city and doting grandparents, and it is easy to understand the appeal.
Ben and I flew out to meet my parents in Rapid City a few weeks ago, and after a couple of years away, I was enthralled once again with the place, and grateful, too, for the chance to share it with Ben. I always say that a part of me is from South Dakota, and now I think he can better understand. The Black Hills themselves are grand and glorious, full of unmatched natural beauty, the sort of place that captures you. After years of travel, my dad still says that his home is one of the most beautiful places on earth, and I’m inclined to agree. There’s nowhere like it. The hills are stunning from a distance, dark but not foreboding, trees and the remnants of fires dotting the landscape. The lakes are gorgeous, the Needles Highway a winding path through spindly mountains and rocks. Nearby, the Badlands rise like sandy-colored castles from the dry ground. Above that, the biggest expanse of sky you’ll ever see, with magnificent clouds dotting the blue landscape.
I took Ben to my favorite childhood destinations, introduced him to the whip-smart and wonderful great-aunts on my mother’s side, mixed up simple salads to share at big family meals. We saw uncles and aunts and cousins suddently all grown up, played cards, ate plenty of ice cream, drank beers in the afternoon, picnicked by lakes. We visited places I hadn’t been in years, like Mount Rushmore and the Badlands, savored slices of my grandma’s amazing rhubarb pie and taught Ben the art of making peanut bars, a Ladenburger institution.
In the long tradition of my childhood, we drove to Custer State Park and stayed in the same little Lincoln-Log cabins charmingly tucked into the pines at Blue Bell Lodge, where we’ve stayed for years. Per our tradition, we went around and around the Wildlife Loop, seeing buffalo by the hundreds, big horn sheep, antelope, deer, chirping prairie dogs (my childhood favorite), majestic elk.
I’ve been to South Dakota a few times in the last several years, but it had been quite a while since my last visit to Blue Bell, and I was struck by the partial accuracy of my memories. When Ben and I walked around the lodge property, I was surprised to see that there were not so many cabins as in my memory, and an end to the campground well before I expected it. I have a vivid memory of dinner at one of the park lodges, and of the gift shop my sister and I would peruse with enthusiasm. I couldn’t find either spot—it turns out that the places in my mind are amalgamations of many.
Our memories, I recently learned, are altered each time they’re recalled, given a new filter as they’re remembered, then locked away as a new version. It’s unnerving in a way, and it makes me plenty nostalgic—we really can’t get anything back. But even with the details off, my memories told the right story: of comfort; of feeling so very small in a big, beautiful place; of adventure; of the magic of a land with endless sky and roaming buffalo. And some things do stay the same: bison really are epic creatures, the breeze feels a certain way at dusk up in the hills, my grandmother’s peanut bars are something to behold, my late grandfather’s myriad collections decorate the basement, that sweet little house smells just exactly the same.
There’s a song my mother sang to me while putting me to bed when I was small, a song her mother sang to her. When I’m feeling sentimental or lonely for my family and the comfort of what’s familiar, it circles through my mind: Take me back to the Black Hills, the Black Hills of South Dakota, where the pines are so high that they reach the sky above. I think it’s the most beautiful thing, evoking all of the magic of the place, of safety, of glory like summertime.