The Emerald City of Oz by "Prairie Dog"

“Prairie Dog” lives in the heart of South Dakota and has crossed Hand and Hyde Counties more times than he cares to count. Amplifying the pleasures of country living by moderate use, he finds entertainment in the rain.

Almost anyone can appreciate the scenic grandeur of Yellowstone, Yosemite, or the Grand Canyon. It takes a little effort to appreciate the beauty of Hand and Hyde Counties in central South Dakota. These are plain farming communities on the Great Plains, which flourished in the 1880s and perhaps in the 1940s, but have been in a steady decline for many decades. The landscape is flat or gently rolling, with few trees other than those that were planted in shelterbelts by the farmers. During the long winters, it can be as bleak as Mongolia. In a dry summer, the persistent wind blows up dust clouds that obscure much of the view. Spring and fall pass through quickly, without the lingering beauty of foliage in Vermont or blooming dogwoods in Tennessee. No matter how you slice it, Hand and Hyde Counties don’t have much to attract tourists from faraway places.

I learned long ago that there is a way to enhance the natural beauty of Hand and Hyde Counties, and other places that are more functional than spectacular. Just as the Emerald City of Oz could not be fully appreciated unless one put on the magic green glasses, so too, Hand and Hyde Counties appear far more scenic if one just remembers to smoke a little marijuana before traversing them.

Suddenly the whole prairie comes alive! On a gloomy, muddy spring day, the bright green grasses really shine, and the returning meadowlarks fairly dance on the fence posts. The coteau hills of Ree Heights (despite its name, a suburb of nothing) suddenly appear to be a spectacular range of low mountains. The boarded-up storefronts of dying towns can appear charming and quaint. When a little cannabis is stirred into the equation, the road from Miller to Highmore could almost be made of yellow bricks. After all, it is the “Black and Yellow Trail”, U.S. Highway 14, which I used to imagine got that name from the blacktop and the yellow line down the middle, like the thousand other secondary roads, until someone clued me in: “No, dummy, it’s the road to the BLACK Hills and YELLOWstone.” Okay, now I get it, but it’s a long hot drive in July from Miller to the Black Hills, and another full day at least to Yellowstone Park. And nowadays, most folks take the Interstate, which is an hour to the south.

Hand County was named for someone named Hand. But as you enter the county seat of Miller from any direction, you are greeted by a hand-painted billboard which shows two hands shaking or clasped. One is marked “urban”, and the other is “rural”, and the legend reads, “Hand in Hand, we prosper and grow.” With a little marijuana to encourage the imagination, this thought is almost profound. Perhaps the billboards were put up after a horrendous fight on the local school board, during which area farmers all vowed to boycott Main Street, and Miller, and the merchants started to get a little scared. If the people from Polo and Ree Heights and Wessington and Vayland quit trading in Miller for good, maybe grass really would start growing in the streets. No, not that kind of grass!

Anyway, not everybody can live next to a chiseled red rock canyon or a range of breath-taking snow-capped peaks. And if everybody did, those places would be far more spoiled than they are becoming anyway. Somebody’s got to stay home and mind the farm, and raise the beef and corn and wheat that keeps them city slickers fat and sassy. Somebody has to live in the gray hard-scrabble country where tornadoes and blizzards sweep across the plains with frightening speed, where entertainment and culture means a choice of beer or bowling or a crummy movie. After a driving summer rain, when there is a double rainbow, two perfect arcs that stretch from end to end, and the indigo is the most vivid of the requisite colors, maybe there really is a pot of gold down the fenceline a piece.

On other days, whether you’re in Hand and Hyde counties for the afternoon or for the rest of your life, the experience is doubtless enhanced by just a bit of nature’s emerald glasses, known sometimes as THC. The garbage man in Spanky and Our Gang’s song “Commercial” was onto something. If “pot’s too good to be just for the young”, surely it’s too good to be just for rich urban hippies. What the hell, the sign may say that we’re a drug free county, but it grows wild around here.

South Dakota has a governor who believes in carrying the “war on drugs” to extremes. We have boot camp prisons and drug dogs sniffing school lockers and billboards at the state line that read: “If you bring illegal drugs into South Dakota, plan on staying a LONG, LONG, TIME!” A middle-aged farmer, who grew up not far from Hand county, claims the slogan should be turned around: “If you’re planning to stay in South Dakota a long time, you better bring a lot of drugs!”

A lot of drugs can lead to abuse. Just like the grain from the harvest or the white snows of December, there can be too much of a good thing. With the imported Jamaican or Mexican variety, or the sinsemilla that was raised in a closet in Wyoming with the help of grow-lites, a pinch is all it takes. Suddenly, the plain plains of Hand and Hyde Counties (Anywhere, U.S.) is turned into a magical kingdom, and Miller, Ree Heights, and Highmore could be the cradle of modern civilization.

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