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The Forgotten Time Zone

It is an irritating burr under my saddle that some people - actually, many people - insist on placing my home state of South Dakota in the Midwest. I live 50 miles from the Wyoming border, for Pete's sake! Now, I might be willing to concede that the eastern half of our state has certain Midwestern traits, but out here in God's Country we aren't yielding an inch on this issue.

Everybody "in these parts" accepts this truism, but it is nice to encounter validation every once in awhile. I learned just recently that no less an authority than historian Stanley Vestal, called the Missouri River "the great divide, where the West begins, a social barrier between two cultures, two climates, two ways of life."

Nowhere is this more evident than here in South Dakota, where the Missouri River divides the state in two, serving as the dividing line between Midwest and West. East of that fabled watershed is farmland and farmers, a sub-humid climate, Central Time Zone, Twins and Vikings fans, and two-thirds of the population of the state. West of that divide is cattle country and cowboys, a semi-arid climate, Mountain Time Zone, prairie instead of furrowed cropland, Rockies and Broncos fans, and lots of wide open spaces.

Our historical characters are unquestionably of the western stripe: Wild Bill and Calamity Jane (always spoken of in the same breath, though they were not as closely allied as Jane later claimed), Sitting Bull, George Armstrong Custer, Seth Bullock, Potato Creek Johnny, Poker Alice, Crazy Horse, Boone May, Valentine T. McGillicuddy, Chief Big Foot. This is the land of the six-foot jackalope, where buffalo still roam and men dream big enough to carve mountains. Our mottoes reflect the expansiveness of the region: Big Sky Country, Legendary North Dakota, the town too tough to die, and my personal favorite: Where the pavement ends and the West begins. (Unfortunately, this great phrase originated with the Crystal Springs Rodeo which was located well east of the Missouri River, but never mind, it's still a great slogan.)

So if not in South Dakota, just where does "The West" begin? No one disputes that those people living in the Eastern time zone are Easterners. So you'd think it would follow that the rest of the zones (at least in the lower 48) would follow suit with the Central time zone being the Midwest, the Mountain time zone, the West, and so forth. Arizona's in a zone by itself. But I digress.

To bolster my position, I've done a little research. Few people would dispute that Cleveland, Chicago and Omaha are in the Midwest. From Rapid City, South Dakota, where I live, Cleveland is 1,267 miles away. There are two time zones separating them. How could they both be Midwestern cities?

Chicago is 923 miles away, a long two-day drive. Kansas City on the Missouri River is a bit closer at 723 miles and Minneapolis on the Mississippi is 581. But it would be tough to reach either in a day's drive without pushing it.

On the other hand, Denver is a mere 400 miles, Montana's largest city, Billings, is 329. The Wyoming border - not to belabor the point - is exactly 50 miles from here, due west. Colorado, Montana and Wyoming are all in the Mountain Time Zone, and two of them abut the state of South Dakota. Doesn't that make South Dakota - or at least the western part - in the West?

Perhaps this is such a sticky question because that line has been in constant motion since the first Euro-Americans arrived on these shores.

Did you know that the "West" was once in Ohio? When Merriwether Lewis set out from Pittsburgh on his great continental exploration, he stopped in the western town of Clarksville (across the river from Louisville) to pick up his friend and co-leader, William Clark. Sixty years later, Abraham Lincoln, our first "western" president, hailed from the frontier state of Illinois.

In fact, our entire history is one of westward movement, and the frontier was constantly moving with the line of settlement until historian Frederick Jackson Turner declared it gone in 1893. His declaration may have been a bit premature, since six more states entered the Union after Jackson's pronouncement, and some states still have more cattle than people - like South Dakota, for instance!

I was on a tour once with a lifelong Easterner who was thrilled to be in the West, which she defined as our starting point of St. Louis. We gently informed her that no, we were not yet in the West. Day after day as we proceeded toward the setting sun (following in the wake of Lewis & Clark) she asked, "Are we in the West yet?" And every day the answer was, no Cathy, not yet.

Finally we reached South Dakota, traveling north along the eastern bank of the Missouri River, which both literally and figuratively is NOT the West. Then one day we crossed the river to visit a private buffalo ranch - the very one where "Dances With Wolves" had been filmed not too long before this. On that day, the answer was a final and triumphant, YES, Cathy! NOW, we are in the West! And we remained so for the rest of the trip to the Pacific.

In closing, I should point out that there is nothing exactly wrong with the Midwest, of course. In fact, the only flaw that comes to mind is that it ISN'T the West.

(With apologies to all my friends and colleagues who live, love and work in the Midwest)

Happy Trails from the Mountain Time Zone!



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