British travel writer Fraser Harrison knows most travelogues are written with the writer's home country in mind. He admits, though, that he didn't necBritish travel writer Fraser Harrison knows most travelogues are written with the writer's home country in mind. He admits, though, that he didn't necessarily aim Infinite West: Travels in South Dakota at British or other readers. He also is addressing "the people who inhabit the exotic land through which I journeyed." Although writing as a tourist, he intends to describe the face of South Dakota to those who live here.
The extent to which Harrison succeeds may be in the willingness of the reader to accept Harrison's outsider and more objective view of the state and its history. Don't be mistaken. Fraser is infatuated, if not in love with South Dakota. It's just that he occasionally makes factual and historical observations perhaps no longer apparent to many of us who live here may be somewhat immune. This recurs throughout the book, whether from his visit to a town named Harrison (simply because he has the same name) to exploring part of the Lewis and Clark trail to the Badlands to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. What these things have in common for Fraser seems to be how they reflect the state and its people.
Another theme running through Infinite West is Fraser's use of his travels and experiences in South Dakota to recall episodes of is own life. He not only tells us of his fascination with the American West growing up, but it is not uncommon for his geographic tales and descriptions to inspire reminiscing that isn't directly connected to the state.
Still, it is the face that South Dakota presents the world that comes through. Take the town of Harrison, for example. Located west of Corsica, it is representative of many small towns in South Dakota -- and many that have already disappeared. With a population of less than 50 in 2010, it is "an old person's town." In 2000, more than half its residents were age 65 or older. Although it has a variety of well-kept homes and two churches, there are no businesses. And what struck Harrison in visiting with the town's residents was their tendency toward certitude. "They had been taught by their church and their parents that the Bible contained answers to all the philosophical questions that might otherwise have disturbed them," Fraser says, "and I felt I was confronting a mind-set that, for all its friendliness, had not changed since 1884, when the original settlers had founded their church."
While many South Dakotans may not say so out loud, few of us who have spent any time in the state's small, aging and declining communities can deny this. Whether pioneer spirit, a strong streak of conservatism or, as Fraser says, "the product of a particular set of historical circumstances that was no longer available to South Dakotans," this is often the face the state's smaller communities may present.
It isn't as though South Dakotans are blind to change. In fact, his journey to Deadwood recalls the reaction of many of the state's residents to its conversion to a "town-sized casino." Although Fraser believes the town gained some "probity" since his first visit there in 1992, there still is evidence of how we tend to disguise aspects of our history. For example, a tourism brochure describes Dakota Territory as having been "fairly uninhabited" before gold was discovered by the Custer expedition in 1874. How many of us have asked the question that struck Frasier: "why did a simple reconnaissance expedition require the protection of a thousand soldiers, three Gatling guns and a cannon?"
This also is seen in Fraser's visit to the site of the Wounded Knee massacre, one of several he's made on his various journeys to the site. It is a place he believes everyone should visit. To him, Wounded Knee "is the quintessential locus of the Sioux's subjugation," and historically crucial.
[Wounded Knee] represents a symbol not only of the Sioux's final, conclusive defeat, but of the last perceived challenge to the white population's acquisition of the Sioux's traditional lands. The latter aspect of its symbolism is not often acknowledged... South Dakota was wrested from its American Indian occupants, a fact that does not deserve to be erased by tourism's need for an inoffensive account of history. Among other things, Wounded Knee is a monument to the country's completed transition to white authority, and it is therefore worth seeing because it quantifies the price of that transition and shows who paid it.
It would be wrong to conclude that Fraser doesn't see beauty and good in South Dakota and is people. In fact, Infinite West often seems a paean to the state. Still, one of his goals was to perhaps those of us who live here to see it from an outsider's perspective. Although some may take offense at them, views such as those set out above are necessary for that goal. After all, looking at ourselves in a mirror does not always reveal what others see.
My idea of the ideal vacation? Oceanfront on the Pacific or Caribbean, sun and plenty of cold drinks and reading material. A hammock is always an exquMy idea of the ideal vacation? Oceanfront on the Pacific or Caribbean, sun and plenty of cold drinks and reading material. A hammock is always an exquisite addition. What did Kevin Grange do in 2007? He embarked on what is billed as the toughest trek in the world, a 24-day horseshoe-shaped journey of 216 miles on foot through the Himalayan Mountains in Bhutan.
Granted, Grange and his fellow trekkers were accompanied by a seven-person support team, a kitchen tent and toilet tents and were served hot tea upon arising each morning and hot evening meals with silverware at a large table. Still, the trek is a daunting challenge. Not only are trekkers hiking nearly 10 miles a day, they traverse 11 high-mountain passes, seven over 16,000 feet. In addition to the risks inherent on at times precarious trails and from unpredictable weather, the height of the mountain passes makes altitude sickness a very real -- and potentially fatal -- danger. More people have climbed Mount Everest than have completed the Snowman Trek. Fewer than 120 people a year attempt the trek; less than 50 percent finish. Or, as one of Grange's fellow trekkers put it, "Everybody cries at some point on the Snowman Trek."
Were Beneath Blossom Rain: Discovering Bhutan on the Toughest Trek in the World, Grange's account of his journey, limited to its hazards, trials and tribulations, one could easily categorize it as an adventure travel tale for those who enjoy such reads. Fortunately. Grange's scope and journey were far broader. He does a fine job of showing readers the nature, history and landscape of Bhutan, as well as taking us to remote villages and monasteries (including an encounter with a "shit-faced" shaman who is plainly intoxicated when he comes to bless the group in a remote village). He is equally open about what is essentially a personal search for meaning.
As such, Beneath Blossom Rain combines the best of two other recently released works. Noted travel author Colin Thubron's To a Mountain in Tibet is somewhat more heavily philosophical account of his pilgrimage trek from Nepal to a Himalayan mountain in remote western Tibet. A search for meaning and an account of life in Bhutan, a country that actually measures Gross National Happiness and limits the number of tourists, is the focus of Lisa Napoli's Radio Shangri-La: What I Learned in Bhutan, the Happiest Kingdom on Earth. Napoli's story, though, is set in Bhutan's capital and largest city, not Himalayan treks.
Two concepts help drive Grange on the trek. One is the western idea of Shangri-La. A friend who completed the Snowman Trek described a high-altitude village in a valley in remotest northern Bhutan as "the most beautiful, most mysterious and most otherworldly place I've ever been." It becomes Grange's personal idea of Shangri-La and motivates him along the trek. The other is a Tibetan and Bhutanese concept that inspired the book's title. In local folklore, an auspicious superstition surrounds blossom rain, the moment of rainbow light when it is raining and sunny at the same time. Bhutanese he asks about blossom rain provide no better than enigmatic answers about its significance and his desire to grasp the concept also animates his efforts. Beneath Blossom Rain becomes as much a journal of an internal trek as a Himalayan one, a tale in which we are even privy to Grange's ongoing debate with his "inner critic." We also learn with Grange that enlightenment may not always come in places or events we would suspect.
Grange occasionally falls into a few clichés ("like home, sleep felt far away") and platitudes ("A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step"). Additionally, some of the conversations with his fellow trekkers and guides seem somewhat artificial, designed more to convey basic information to the reader that someone on the trek would already know. Still, Grange brings a light touch of humor and direct, conversational tone that outweighs these occasional foibles. More important, Beneath Blossom Rain succeeds in merging travelogue with personal contemplation, allowing the armchair traveler to share both the physical and personal journey and taking them beyond a geographic place to a more philosophical one.