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West or Midwest?

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, and I’ve never heard anyone call Wyoming a midwestern state.   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.

Still the misconception persists:

Literally NO ONE, including clients and suppliers I communicate with on a regular basis, recognize that I adhere to a work schedule based on the Mountain Time Zone. The phone starts ringing promptly at 7:00 am and enters an eery hush at 3:00 pm. Now that I think about it, I don’t get any emails after 3:00 pm either. For those of you who are not good at math, those are Eastern work hours! When my colleagues back East are headed for happy hour, I still have a good two hours of work left. The upside of this, of course, is that I get an awful lot done in the blessed silence between three and five in the afternoon!

It would be helpful if geography and politically-inspired state borders were more clear on this issue but – as the recent book and popular television series, “How the States Got Their Shapes” pointed out, there is nothing tidy about these things.

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 would have liked), Sitting Bull, George Armstrong Custer, Seth Bullock, Potato Creek Johnny, Poker Alice, Crazy Horse, Boone May, Valentine T. McGillicuddy, Sacagawea. Try interjecting those names into a conversation on crop yields and hog futures!

This is the land of the six-foot jackalope, where there are more cattle than people 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.

It’s been a long time since South Dakota boasted that it’s primary roads were composed of “modern gravel highways”, but once you cross the Mighty Mo you definitely know you are in the West. (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.)

Actually, the dividing line is somewhat fluid and can even move eastward. 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. But 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!

Shebby Lee is a historian, writer and tour operator specializing in the historic and cultural heritage of the Great American West. Her early training was in the theatre and she served a tour of duty as an entertainer with the USO. She is also an Admiral in the Nebraska Navy.



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