After a brief stay in Yankton while working on his book Infinite West: Travels in South Dakota, British travel writer Fraser Harrison returned last summer for an in-depth look at the town. His recent essay, “Yankton: Portrait of a River City” appeared as the Spring 2014 issue of South Dakota History, the quarterly journal of the South Dakota State Historical Society. Harrison blends history with descriptions of modern Yankton for an insightful account that covers everything from its iconic bridges to its bars, churches, and even the patriotic cow that stands at the stockyard’s entrance. With a grant from the South Dakota Humanities Council, Harrison spent six weeks in Yankton in 2013 interviewing residents and researching the town’s colorful past and present. He traveled there again this summer for a June 19―July 3 lecture tour to relate his experiences and promote his work. As Yanktonites and visitors gather this week for the annual River Boat Days celebration, we offer this excerpt from the opening pages of Harrison’s essay:
It was not love at first sight.
My first, fleeting encounter with Yankton, South Dakota, in May 2011 was a disappointment. Booking a room in advance of my trip, I had been fooled by a misleading picture on the website and had chosen a hotel that I knew was a mistake as soon as I drove into the parking lot on a damp Saturday evening. My early misgivings were confirmed by a cell-like room, whose bare brick walls were lit by a single naked bulb dangling from the ceiling, and a rug on the floor that had the consistency, and something of the odor, of a swamp. I fled and booked myself into the comparative luxury of the Best Western Kelly Inn.
The next morning I drove downtown in search of what my guidebook promised would be “a gem-like historic town . . . comfortably ensconced beside the Missouri.” Once again my expectations were disappointed. [. . .] I checked out and drove westward towards Valentine, Nebraska, never imagining that I might return to this melancholy little town. My verdict, later recorded for all the world to read in my book, Infinite West: Travels in South Dakota, was that the city had “a forlorn and abandoned air.”
Travel writing is an irresponsible art. The writer grants himself the license to visit a place for a few hours and pronounce magisterially on its vices and virtues, its charms and blemishes, without fear of punishment or reprisal. Unlikely to call on the place again, he or she feels free to dispense judgments, caring for nothing except to score an entertaining point. And so it was with me, until I was caught out. I did return to Yankton, and I learned to eat my words; if nothing else, this essay is an act of atonement.
To read more of Harrison’s essay on Yankton past and present, contact the South Dakota Historical Society Press at (605) 773-6009 or email@example.com.