State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America, Ecco Press, 2008


“…some of the pieces which don’t join in with the regional tendency are the most successful, such as a hilarious piece by Said Sayrafiezadeh about a gormless trip to South Dakota to see Mount Rushmore.”

           The Spectator

The plan in South Dakota was for us to spend four days in the Badlands and then four days in the Black Hills. Our first order of business, however, was to go grocery shopping. This was no small matter. Karen and I are both vegetarians, or as close to being vegetarians as one could be while occasionally eating chicken or beef, and we had paid extra to have a cabin with a kitchen. Our diet was comprised not just of organic fruits and vegetables, but also of a complicated mixture of whole grains and beans and nuts and oils and rice milk and small wild fish, all of which my nutritionist had patiently counseled me on, and all of which Karen had cautioned me might not be easily available in South Dakota. “All they eat is beef,” she said, “and not just beef but bison beef.” In preparation for our trip, we had briefly considered bringing along with us a week’s worth of brown rice and black beans and agave nectar and other staples, but as the list grew longer we soon saw the impracticality of this. Instead, Karen had discovered online a health food store in Rapid City, apparently one of two in the entire state. So instead of packing our suitcase with beans, we packed it with our eight-quart Fagor pressure cooker, which we then stuffed with our underwear and socks.

So the first thing we did the morning after arriving in Rapid City was to drive ten minutes through wide vacant streets to Staple & Spice Market located on Mt. Rushmore Road. It was a nice store, clean and airy, but it was a far cry from Integral Yoga Natural Foods on West 13th Street which I shopped at weekly, sometimes twice weekly.

“They don’t carry teff,” I let Karen know.

“Who cares?” Karen said. 

“I’m disappointed,” I said.

“Would you rather eat bison burgers for the next eight days?”

We spent the greater part of an hour carefully choosing all that we thought we’d need to survive our week. In a burst of inspiration I recommended buying a bottle of toasted sesame oil as a quick and easy way to add zest to our salads and sautés. In the end our total came to $126.69. This, unfortunately, did not include any fruits and vegetables, which Staple & Spice Market for some reason did not carry.

“You can try Albertsons,” the cashier offered.

Albertsons was on Omaha Street. It took us fifteen minutes to get there. It should have taken us five but I read the map wrong and we got lost.

“Look how gigantic it is,” Karen said as we pulled into the parking lot.

Whereas the airport in Rapid City was the size of an elementary school, the grocery store was the size of an airport. Upon entering it we were immediately dwarfed by the brightly colored boxes and bottles and bags that towered above us, running aisle after aisle. We meandered slowly through the near empty store. Where was everyone?

“Is it a holiday?” I said to Karen.

“Oh, no,” Karen exclaimed. “The rice milk is cheaper here!”

For a moment we debated returning to Staple & Spice, but the day was getting late, and the Badlands were waiting, and so we quickly loaded up on romaine lettuce and cucumbers and tomatoes and mustard greens and bottled water and bananas and oranges. I felt guilty about the bottled water. I recalled how Mayor Bloomberg had just recently informed New York that not only was New York tap water the best in the country, but that the trillion discarded plastic water bottles were doing irreparable harm to the environment. I wasn’t sure if South Dakota could make a similar claim regarding its tap water, and who knows what had happened to the generations of South Dakotans who had consumed it, and so rather than take a chance I bought eight gallons.

After that, we were hungry.

So we got back in the car and drove another fifteen minutes until we happened upon Main Street, which looked to be the city’s premier shopping district. The street was exceptionally wide and exceptionally spotless, and it was fronted by little restaurants and shops, most of them not yet open for the day, even though it was almost noon. It just so happened that the Central States Fair annual parade was taking place that morning, and Karen and I watched as burly men in cowboy hats rode past on horses, followed by little girls on horses, followed by municipal garbage trucks, followed by Shriners wearing maroon fezzes and riding mopeds, followed by Bozo the Clown, followed by a silver Mustang Convertible carrying Lynae Tucker, National American Miss South Dakota Junior Teen, waving cheerfully to the smattering of onlookers that lined the sidewalks. Karen and I waved back.

Across from us was a place called B&L Bagels, which, despite being shiny and new, made me think fondly of Kossar’s Bialys on the Lower East Side that’s been making bagels for something like sixty-five years.

“Let’s eat bagels,” I said enthusiastically to Karen.

As we were waiting for our bagels to be toasted, I happened to overhear a woman behind me talking about yoga, and after some hushed discussion with Karen I got up the nerve to ask the woman if there was a yoga studio in the area.

“Oh, yes,” the woman said smiling warmly at me. In fact, she was the teacher. But it turned out that the class was only once a week. She gave me the information anyway and I wrote it down and I promised that if we ever happened to be in Rapid City on a Tuesday night at seven o’clock we’d definitely come by and take her class. Then we chatted for a little while. She was about thirty-five years old, and she was lean and lithe like a yoga teacher, with blonde hair and clear skin. She said that she was originally from Ft. Lauderdale, but had moved to Rapid City ten years ago because she “didn’t feel safe in Ft. Lauderdale.”

“I love it here,” she said. “I feel completely safe.”

I told her we were visiting from New York.

“I love New York,” she said. “I’ve been there a few times. I would never feel safe enough to live there, though.”

Safety was obviously paramount for her.

“I think New York’s pretty safe,” I said.

“In Rapid City,” she said, “you can stand on the sidewalk and talk to someone without getting mugged.”

This seemed to be an outlandish childlike view of the danger of urban life and I wanted to say so. I also started to suspect that the word “safe” was really a euphemism for “no blacks or Hispanics,” and that the two of us had been speaking in code. Then again, it was possible that “safe” meant “safe,” and I was guilty of my own outlandish childlike view of the inherent racism of middle-American life. This was troubling.

“In the wintertime,” Laura continued, “old ladies will go shopping at Albertsons and they’ll leave their car doors unlocked with the keys right in the ignition so they can keep the heat running. That’s how safe it is here.”

“That does sound safe,” I said reluctantly.

Laura smiled at me as if she had won.

Then the guy behind the counter was telling us our bagels were ready.

No trip to South Dakota would be complete without visiting Mount Rushmore. So on day six of our vacation my wife and I got back in our car and drove a mere fifteen minutes to one of the world’s most famous attractions. I realized I was excited to finally experience in person those four presidents’ heads I had been seeing since I was in first grade. Roosevelt, Lincoln, Jefferson, Washington. I also realized once we arrived that I had been operating my entire life under the false assumption that a visit to Mt. Rushmore entailed parking your car on the side of the road and strolling around on the tops of the heads. I had even gone so far as to picture a staircase leading down into an ear. Perhaps I had extrapolated it from my experience at age five of entering the Statue of Liberty and ascending towards her crown.

The reality was much more regimented and mundane. It involved first parking in the underground parking garage for eight dollars, and then walking with a crowd of sightseers with gift bags through a gauntlet of flags, billed as the Avenue of Flags — a flag for every state and territory — as if this construction in itself were some sort of major achievement, and then finally coming out onto the Grand View Terrace where five hundred feet in front of me — maybe a thousand feet — were those familiar heads rising out of the mountain, each staring off in a different direction. The heads looked exactly the same as any photo I’d ever seen of them, and considering we could barely get any closer I wondered if the fifteen minute drive had been ill spent. I watched with irritation as a young couple took a grinning picture of themselves with the heads as backdrop.

“I’m disappointed,” I said softly.

There was an audio tour “wand” that you could rent at the Audio Tour Building for five dollars. An organization called the Association of Partners for Public Lands had apparently selected it as the winner of the 2007 Media and Partnership Award in the audio/visual division. Karen and I rented it.

“They gaze over the landscape as if sentinels,” a man’s voice intoned in my ear as soft music played in the background. “A living memorial that speaks to us, listens to us, and challenges us.”

The voice was firm, gentle, and wholly optimistic.

There was a concrete path that ran around the base of the mountain and we were instructed by the voice to follow the path, which we did, stopping when it told us to stop and pressing the next number on the wand when it told us to press it.

“To learn about the transformation of Mount Rushmore from a roadside attraction to a national memorial press the pound key.”

This was how five minutes of viewing Mount Rushmore became three hours. This was also how I learned almost everything there was to know about the sculpture, the mountain, the Indians from whom the mountain had been stolen, the artist — Gutzon Borglum — whose idea it had been to carve the mountain in the first place, his son — Lincoln Borglum — who took over after his father’s death just months before it was finally completed in 1941. A lot also seemed to be made of the fact that, while the heads were already gigantic — each the size of a six-story building — they were actually scaled to a figure who would stand four hundred and sixty-five feet tall, and that that figure, if it had ever been sculpted, would then be taller than the Statue of Liberty.

By the time we reached the end of the audio tour, number twenty-eight on the wand, Karen and I were more exhausted than when we had walked through the prairie. We lay down on a bench and listened numbly as recordings of everyday people described what Mount Rushmore meant to them.





“They’re not eroding,” Karen said.

“What’s that?”

“The heads — they were carved in granite so they’re not eroding. I read about it. One inch every ten thousand years. That means even a million years after the Badlands are gone they’ll still be here.”

©2008 Excerpted by permission of Ecco Press.