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WOSTER: Home on the wide-open range

Driving back to Pierre from a Chamberlain visit late last Saturday evening, I listened to some '50s music and enjoyed the stars on the western horizon about a million miles ahead of us.

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I know the terrain along Interstate 90 between Chamberlain and the Vivian junction isn't flat enough to see that far, especially at night. Still, the calm, peaceful evening made the distance stretch. I thought how fortunate I've been to have lived and worked in such a comfortable place.

I thought, too, on that big-sky night, about John Milton, the late poet and professor from the University of South Dakota.

I call him my friend even though we only spoke in person a couple of times. We had a number of telephone conversations over the years, and we traded letters now and again. He was from the old school, and his letters were hand-written notes and messages on actual pieces of stationery. In the news business, I grew accustomed to typing short notes and letters on whatever paper was handy, usually rough copy paper or, later in the days of computers, printer paper that captured the words I pounded out quickly on the keyboard. I believe I did write an actual letter to Milton once, but I failed to master the Palmer method in first grade, and I doubt he ever deciphered the scribbles.

Once after I mentioned his 1976 Bicentennial book in a newspaper column, Milton sent me a thank-you note and a copy of one of his books of poems, "A Tree of Bones.'' Some of the poems are centered in the southwest, but others are rooted in the Vermillion area where he lived out his life.

Milton and I shared a fascination and affection for the open country, which is part of the reason he pops into my mind when I ponder the flat lands of my home range. That's how it was the other evening. As my eyes scanned the road ahead and the ditches on either side, I thought of the passage in which Milton said city dwellers can become disoriented when they find themselves out in the open, with nothing around them except prairie and space.

"The problem for this person is that there is nothing to lean against, nothing for him to prop himself against and nowhere to hide,'' he wrote.

It isn't always so, I suppose, although I recall a news trip I made with photographer Greg Latza to the northwestern part of the state to document in words and pictures how a group of church volunteers from Pennsylvania were helping Perkins County ranchers and sheep growers recover from major blizzards one year. To a person, the Pennsylvanians were awed by the space available in the butte country below the North Dakota border and west of the Missouri River.

Some couldn't believe anyone could live so far from anything and travel such a distance for the basic necessities. A lawyer from Philadelphia, in the state with his son and helping a rancher and his son rebuild a long, long section of barbed wire fence, stood on a high spot and made a slow, 360-degree turn. Back in Philadelphia where he had his law office, the attorney said, if he could see as far as he could from that spot in South Dakota, he'd probably see seven or eight million people. On that Perkins County hilltop there were, besides the two father-and-son pairs, a reporter and a photographer. He shook his head. Disoriented? Maybe. Or maybe he was simply appreciating the incredible beauty of a land where fewer objects exist to block the broader vision of earth and sky.

Well to the south of where we stood that day, Latza and I once followed wagon ruts through rough prairie -- also across big country -- to trace the Fort Pierre to Deadwood wagon route, another news assignment. Besides a panoramic view of western South Dakota, that visit reminded me of this Milton passage:

"The earth, unlike concrete, accepts tracks, paths, the mark of a foot. A man can leave a trail as evidence of his life on this Earth.''

Such a person also can see the edge of eternity out here.