Tag Archives: South Dakota

Embarking on a #Vagabond #Instagram #Vanlife #Adventure

December 20, 2018 by
Photography by Jared Kennedy

In my daily, mindless scrolling of social media, “#vanlife” posts began creeping into my Instagram feed.

The wanderlust-inspiring images of people not giving a crap about anything carried a strong allure; however, I couldn’t help but be turned off by the stereotypically beautiful bohemians dominating the movement. This throwback hippie lifestyle seemed to reek of privilege for people who don’t have to work for a living. I had no idea that—within a year of discovering the hashtag—I would become part of this movement, a lifestyle far more sincere than I had realized at first glance.

What is van life?

While popularized via social media, van-dwelling, van-camping, or van-lifing isn’t a new thing. The most obvious precursor to van life now can be found in the 1970s. Think floor-to-ceiling carpeted Ford Econoline vans, Volkswagen buses, etc. On the whole, these build-outs were simpler than their modern counterparts. Van life today includes vans of all shapes and sizes, ranging from super-technical to very basic. A lion’s share of these van dwellings are colloquially referred to as “Sprinters.” This type of van is taller, often providing more living space than normal, low-roof vans. Sprinters dominate the fleets of commercial businesses, and they are produced by brands such as Mercedes-Benz, Ford, Dodge, and Nissan.

Looks crazy. Sure, I’ll try it.

Erin and I hadn’t been together for very long—maybe two weeks—when she mentioned in conversation she wanted to live in a van with her dog and travel the United States. I feigned interest and support in my initial reaction, but having a person bring this up in “real life” somehow made the idea far more tangible than before. I started looking at the popular hashtags on Instagram; I stalked the accounts of notable van-lifers; I even looked at vans and how people built them out. Soon enough, I caught the bug. I began running the numbers in my head: “How long would I have to save to take a year off and do this? What would my monthly budget look like?” I found that saving ahead of time for a whole year of expenses was probably off the table if I wanted to go on this adventure sometime this decade. Maybe if I would’ve gone to school for economics and not communications I would have the cash flow necessary, but no, I knew I would need to find remote work and take a job on the road.

I was sold on the idea, and once I am sold on an idea there is little that can get me off it. Erin and I were in a fairly new relationship, so I had to figure out how to say: “Let’s go halfsies on a $35,000 project and make this massive commitment to each other even though we just met” without the part where I sound like a naive nutcase. I think it ended up coming out something like “Wow, I just ran the numbers on what it would cost to save up for van life, and it’s way more doable than I thought…” What happened next was pretty simple. We agreed to go for it.

We went for it.

After about a month and a half of deal-surfing online and test-driving a couple of vans, we found ours. It was at the top end of our price range, had low mileage, and was a “high roof, extended-length” model, which are hard to find and sought after by van-lifers. On April 27 (neither of us will forget that date), we drove up to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and picked it up. That’s when the hard work began.

We built it.

The van was a bare cargo van, so we were truly starting at square one. The first three steps were: install a plywood subfloor, install a roof vent fan, and insulate the interior of the van. We logged over 50 hours on those three projects alone—mainly on insulation. We had to make sure the van was insulated to retain heat in the winter, and ventilated to repel heat in the summer. Once the insulation was complete, we installed wood paneling on the walls and ceiling and began building the living space. It took at least another 40 grueling hours to install a bed, cabinets, solar panels, and other essentials. Finally, the van was coming together. We were feeling pretty good.


What I learned when I actually looked into van life is that the glamorization of the movement isn’t really the fault of the people in it. Social media just has that effect. The reality of van life is that the aforementioned privileged, bohemian beauties are living in a dirty, tiny, cramped, often-uncomfortable living space. (I am writing this paragraph at night, sitting in a lawn chair at the front of our van with a massive head cold. My feet are buried in the dog’s bed for warmth, and I am thinking about throwing on some gloves because my fingers are getting numb.) Even if your van has all the amenities, there is still a unique set of challenges associated with occupying such a small, off-the-grid space—especially if you are doing so with another person.

Megan and Matt McMonagle—widely known in #vanlife circles as @dirtydarlings—are a married couple who have lived in their Mercedes Sprinter van for 14 months and say their nomadic stint may be coming to a close. Megan is an accountant and took her full-time job on the road. Matt quit his job and does photography and other freelance work now. Megan eventually decided to quit her job also, but she wants to continue doing remote work of some kind.

“I worked at this job for a year on the road, doing everything from 10 to 40 hours a week trying to find the right balance between work and our traveling lifestyle,” Megan says. “For now I’m living the, ‘I saved up money for a long time to enjoy a few months of unemployment’ life.”

So work is a thing, and van-lifers must work (unless they are fabulously wealthy, which I am not).

Another challenge to the social media phenomenon is personal. The lifestyle will test your relationship. It is not always rainbows and butterflies.

“Let me just tell you,” Megan says. “No matter how much you love another person, spending 24/7 with one other person in a very tiny space is hard. Another challenge has been the lack of independence in our relationship. Our days and schedules are so closely tied together that we sometimes forget we need to take time for ourselves and spend time apart.”

Erin has a dog, Yadi, that she definitely loves more than anything on the planet, and she has jokingly shared her fear that one of us would get so tired of hearing the other speak that we would drive the van straight off a cliff. She claims she wouldn’t do such a thing because she has Yadi to live for—which means I better come up with something, too, or I will never get to drive.

Seems like it isn’t what it’s cracked up to be, so what gives?

Things that go viral on the internet seem to exist on one side of a digital dichotomy, like representations of “real life” that only exist in social media: Are there really kids who eat Tide Pods? Do people really do yoga with goats? Do Instagrammers really live in vans? (The answer to all those questions is “yes,” but representative individuals add up to statistical outliers from the general population.)

Being an outlier is OK with me, and we are evidence that #vanlife isn’t just for hipsters (I’ll admit that I tend to wear my long hair in a so-called “man-bun” on occasion, but don’t call me a hipster!). Van life is real, and we have the receipts and debt to prove it. After hundreds of hours—and tens of thousands of dollars—my girlfriend and I are embarking on this lifestyle. We don’t know how long the open road will be our domicile, and we don’t have an exact timeline for our journey—but we know it’s happening.

Van-dwelling, van-living, van-camping, whatever it’s called this decade, is not easy. It stands in direct opposition to some major American ideals—particularly the ones that have to do with collecting lots of things, living in a big house, being well-established financially, etc. It may not impress your grandpa’s golf buddies, but who cares? America is also rooted in the ideals of individual liberty and personal freedom. In a way, van life is as American as it gets. So, excuse me while I take a selfie…before my fingers freeze and my phone battery runs out of juice.

Follow the author on Instagram at @runnerbikersprinter for updates from his #vanlife experience.

This article was printed in the January/February 2019 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Pheasant Heaven

January 4, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

“We went through 250,000 birds and 30,000 hunters in the last 30 years,” Bruhn says. “We had every celebrity you could think of out here.”

As urban sprawl takes over rural America, yesterday’s pasture transforms into tomorrow’s super store. Earl Henry Bruhn Jr. foresaw this trend long ago. He knew hunters would need a place to go where they could get inspired, stay in touch, and most importantly—hunt some birds.

Scott Bruhn is the son of Earl Henry Bruhn Jr. His family’s farm along the Elkhorn River Valley underwent decades of preparation before opening for commercial hunting.

“My dad bought the property in 1962,” Bruhn says. “He was a big hunter. He said, ‘We’ll buy our own property; we’ll have our own private hunting preserve and get a head start.’”

Pheasant Haven officially opened as a hunting preserve in 1987 after Scott and his brother, Earl Bruhn III, graduated from the University of Nebraska at Omaha. The two wanted to realize their father’s vision for Pheasant Haven—opening hundreds of acres to hunters from all over the nation.

“We went through 250,000 birds and 30,000 hunters in the last 30 years,” Bruhn says. “We had every celebrity you could think of out here.”

Unfortunately, his brother Earl did not live to see the full realization of their Pheasant Haven dream. After his untimely death in 1991, just four years after opening, Bruhn was left to carry on the dream—alone.

In recent years, urban development has finally reached the gates of Pheasant Haven. Trophy homes now dot the beautiful Elkhorn River Valley. At this point in time, Bruhn says the preserve is no longer viable as a hunting retreat. The property shrank from a vast acreage to a mere 75 acres, and Bruhn has come up with a new focus for the business.
pheasantheaven2“Now I have a staff created, and all the buildings, and everything I need to do dog boarding and training,” Bruhn says. “I love dogs.”

According to Bruhn, there is a large and underserved community of hunters in Omaha who want to have their dog trained for hunting. He says a lot of people want their dog to be ready for sporting, but simply don’t have the space to do it.

“They can drop their dog off, and we can exercise the dog and keep it in good condition,” Bruhn says. “When they go up to South Dakota, or wherever they go, they will already have their dog trained, ready to roll, and in great shape.”

Tom Kazmierczak of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, says he would pay the more than $1,000 it costs to train a dog at Pheasant Haven. Kazmierczak himself trained his dog, Sam, with mixed results. In his opinion, having a well-trained dog is very impressive and makes the hunt go more smoothly.

“I have also hunted with old-school guys who got mad at me when Sam took off running and I couldn’t stop her,” Kazmierczak says. But he acknowledges that having a perfectly trained dog that can hunt is not what it’s all about. He finds joy in the quality time spent with Sam.

“I read a book called Travels with Charlie by Steinbeck when I was in about eighth grade, which is all about a guy and his dog discovering America—that’s Sam and I,” Kazmierczak says. “I take her anywhere they allow, and I start every morning in the backyard with Sam and a cup of coffee.”

Talking to someone like Kazmierczak, it is obvious that a hunting dog is more than a utilitarian tool. It can be the family pet—the dog that flushes pheasants and drinks from the proverbial toilet bowl.

There is another sporting aspect of Pheasant Haven’s new business model that plays into the light-hearted side of dog ownership. Bruhn calls it dock jumping, but it is known nationally as “dock diving.” The premise of the sport is simple: dogs are trained to jump as far as they can off a dock over water.

Training dogs to dock dive goes beyond the fences of Pheasant Haven. Bruhn plans to partner with local animal shelters to give adoptee animals a second chance. He calls it “Wet Dog Jumps.” Pheasant Haven has already done fundraising dock jump events to benefit the Nebraska Humane Society, and this is another layer to that on-going effort.

“Those poor dogs that aren’t going to get a home—we are going to turn some of them into champions, sell them at the venues, and then give the money back to the shelters to feed more dogs,” Bruhn says.

Margaret Allen is Bruhn’s fiancée. When Bruhn retires, she says that will likely be the end of Pheasant Haven.

It is a little gloomy, seeing the beginning, middle, and end of a family business. But, as a game reserve, the destination was transient anyway. Encroaching urban sprawl has been a known threat for decades. Taking in dogs without a home, however, and giving them a new life—that creates a timeless legacy.

Visit pheasanthaven.org for more information.


A Linguistic Sea Change Across Indian Country

August 30, 2016 by
Photography by Doug Meigs

Although I am a member of the Oglala Sioux tribe, born and raised on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, my first language from my earliest years has been English. My father was a white man from Onawa, Iowa, and my mother was Lakota. Although to my knowledge my father spoke no Lakota, my mother was fluent in the language.

My father died when I was not yet two years old, and I was raised by my mother. Mom never pushed me to learn the language and never tried to teach me; however, much of the dialogue in our household after my father’s death was in Lakota, for most of her friends were Lakota and very traditionalist. So over time I acquired a pretty good vocabulary, but never learned the nuances to make much sense speaking the language. In fact, when I would try to speak Lakota, my full-blood friends would laugh at me. I didn’t know for the longest time why they laughed, and they didn’t offer to tell me—they were having too much fun. I had learned all that I knew of the language from my mother; when I would ask how to say something in Lakota, she would tell me. What I didn’t know, and what she didn’t tell me, was that there is a male way of speaking Lakota and a female way, and I was speaking like a girl.

ChuckTrimble2I attended Holy Rosary Mission on the Pine Ridge Reservation, an Indian boarding school run by Jesuit priests and Franciscan nuns. As with all Indian boarding schools at the time, rules were strict and discipline was often harsh. But I do not recall that there was any prohibition, written or otherwise, on speaking the Lakota language. And if there was, signals were certainly confusing, for there were prayers and songs in Lakota. Student dancers performed in full regalia before each basketball game, and there were cheers in Lakota during the games. But that was in the 1940s and 1950s, when most of the students were fluent in English.

However, it is well documented that in all Indian boarding schools during the first three decades of the 20th century, tribal languages were forbidden, and punishment was severe for speaking them. The overriding principle of Indian education was articulated in 1879 by Richard Henry Pratt, founder and head of the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania: “Kill the Indian and Save the Man.”

The story of the state of Native tribal languages today has got to include the struggle of Indian people to save and preserve their cultures, including their languages, over a period of nearly three quarters of a century in which national policy demanded destruction of those cultures. 

At the turn of the 20th century, after the tribes were conquered and confined to ever-shrinking reservations—many of which were in alien lands far from the tribes’ primeval homelands—national Indian policy was one which is known today as Manifest Destiny. Although it was never articulated as national policy, Manifest Destiny philosophy held that conquest and development of the New World was preordained and that the aboriginal inhabitants would succumb and fade into non-existence in the public view and conscience.

Under this philosophy, the tribes would suffer physical attrition as a result of alien disease to which they had no immunity, warfare provoked by transgression onto their lands, and assimilation into the larger dominant society.

That philosophical strategy also provided for cultural attrition in the destruction of tribal structures and lifeways, and the Indians would be forced into the dominant society as second-class citizens, pressed in desperation to forfeit their lands. To facilitate the process of cultural attrition, native religions and ceremonials were prohibited, and tribal languages were forbidden in Indian schools. By the close of the 19th century it appeared that truly the end of the “Indian race” was at hand. The popular perception of the dying race found a perfect metaphor in James Earle Fraser’s 1915 sculpture End of the Trail, depicting an exhausted, dying warrior astride an equally pathetic mount.

But other forces were at work that would help save the tribal languages, although these were not intended to counter Manifest Destiny. Catholic priests and Protestant ministers had begun in the early 20th century to learn the languages and publish prayer books and hymnals for use in their proselytizing—conversion to Christianity, after all, was an important part of forced assimilation being imposed on Indians. Both the Presbyterian and Catholic churches produced excellent dictionaries which would prove to be invaluable in preserving and restoring tribal languages.

The Smithsonian also sent out ethnologists and anthropologists to collect Indian artifacts and record tribal languages and songs. Among those assigned to this multi-year undertaking was Frances Theresa Densmore, a young professional anthropologist who would become the Smithsonian’s first ethnomusicologist in 1907. Over the next 50 years she would collect thousands of recordings, many which are held in the Library of Congress’ American Folklife Center. Many of the original wax cylinder recordings have been reproduced using state-of-the-art media and many have been returned by the AFC to the tribes of their origin.

Today we are witnessing a resurgence of Indian tribes reclaiming and exercising their sovereignty and developing their resources accordingly. And restoration of the tribal languages is spearheading this renaissance. Indian schools and tribal colleges now are offering tribal language courses. My alma mater, Holy Rosary Mission—now known as Red Cloud Indian School—requires a Lakota language course in all twelve grades.

Tribal members are using new technological innovations in the restoration of their languages: Recently a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians received a patent for his new method for decoding the inherent patterns in the Cherokee language, making it simple and easy to learn. 

ChuckTrimbleAbout the writer:

Up to his retirement in 2001, Charles E. Trimble was president of Charles Trimble Co., a national consulting firm specializing in economic development on Indian reservations. He is president of Red Willow Institute, a non-profit corporation he founded to provide technical and management assistance to Native American non-profit organizations.

Born and raised on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, Trimble is an enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe.  He received his elementary and high school education at the Holy Rosary Mission Indian School in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, and received a B.F.A. degree from the University of South Dakota (1957). Following service in the U.S. Army, he did further studies in journalism at the University of Colorado.

In 1969 he was principal founder of the American Indian Press Association, and served as the organization’s executive director until 1972, when he was elected Executive Director of the National Congress of American Indians.

In 1975 he represented U.S. Indian tribes at the charter meeting of the World Council of Indigenous Peoples in Copenhagen, Denmark.  In 1983, he was a U.S. delegate at the U. N. Sub-commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities in Geneva, Switzerland. In 1985 he was a U.S. delegate to the Human Rights Experts meeting of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (Helsinki Accord) in Ottawa, Canada.

Trimble served from 1991-1997 on the Board of Trustees of the Nebraska State Historical Society, the last three of those years as President. In 1996, he was appointed by the U.S. Senate Majority Leader to the American Folklife Center Board of Trustees in the Library of Congress.

In 1998, Trimble received the Pioneer Award from the Nebraskaland Foundation at its Statehood Day Dinner in the Nebraska Capitol Rotunda. In December 2000 he received an honorary Doctor of Cultural Sciences degree from Creighton University, and in May 2002 he received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from Wayne State College. In 2008 Trimble received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from the University of South Dakota, and an honorary degree from Oglala Lakota College.

Trimble lives in Omaha, Nebraska, with his wife, Anne. 

Read also from the September/October 2016 edition of Omaha Magazine:

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Black Elk Still Speaks

January 6, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The blood of a warrior, holy man, healer, mystic, and visionary runs in the veins of Myron Pourier, whose broad face, jet-black hair, and dark, narrow eyes provide a window to his proud heritage. Pourier’s great-great-grandfather, an Oglala Lakota named Black Elk, straddled two distinct eras in the history of Native Americans.

“For 16 generations of our family, we lived the good,” says Pourier, 45. “But when Grandfather (Black Elk) was still a young man, we started living the bad, when the first European settlers came.”

The story of Black Elk became the stuff of legend in 1932 when author, teacher, and critic John Neihardt—Nebraska’s first poet laureate—published Black Elk Speaks, a moving account of his historically fascinating life.

The “good” for Black Elk and the Oglala Lakota lasted only a few years after his birth in 1863, when “everything was in harmony and you only took what you needed from the earth,” says Pourier.

At age 13, Black Elk took his first scalp from one of General George Custer’s soldiers at the Battle of the Greasy Grass—the Lakota translation for the Little Big Horn River.

Wounded during the massacre of Lakota men, women, and children at Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota in the winter of 1890, Black Elk surrendered his way of life. He lived out the rest of his days at Pine Ridge where, at age 68, he entrusted Neihardt, whom he considered a kindred spirit, to “spread the word.”

Like Black Elk, Pourier possesses the heart of a warrior. Unlike his great-great-grandfather, Pourier’s warrior instincts have drawn no blood. They arise from deep despair.

“Life on the reservation is a struggle,” he says with slumped shoulders, looking out the window of his trailer in Porcupine, South Dakota. “We have 85 percent unemployment among 44,000 enrolled members.” Pourier, who receives a small military pension, goes through a litany of ills plaguing Pine Ridge: cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure, alcoholism, fetal alcohol syndrome, and teenage suicide rates soar above the national average.

Pine Ridge, considered the poorest reservation in the country, spans 3,468 square miles of prairie grass, most of it unsuitable for growing anything. Tattered trailers and rusted-out cars and trucks dot the landscape. Children play on large propane tanks. The sound of laughter: nonexistent.

Why does Pourier stay? “To keep fighting for my people and mend the sacred hoop of Grandfather’s vision.”


The vision to which Pourier refers comprises the longest chapter in Neihardt’s book, one that makes Black Elk Speaks a spiritual classic.

Rich in Native symbolism and almost biblical in its content, the vision came to Black Elk at age 9 during a severe illness. It eerily foreshadowed the decimation of the Lakota. Black Elk sees his people dead or dying, only to be revived through the power of a sacred hoop he’s been given. As he stands “on the highest mountain of them all,” he sees the whole world as one, with the hoops of many nations united in one hoop, “living together like one being.”

Black Elk’s vision defined him in later life. “He believed his people could be saved if we fix the hoop one generation at a time,” says Pourier, one of only an estimated 6,000 who can still speak the Lakota language. “That has been my mission in life, to stand up for our rights as a people and to make others understand who we are as a people.”

One way to heal, Pourier believes, involves changing the name of Harney Peak in the Black Hills of South Dakota—the “highest mountain” in the vision—to Black Elk Peak. The tourist site is the highest point east of the Rockies and bears the name of a U.S. Army general blamed for wiping out a Brulé Lakota settlement in 1855.

“I went to Washington in August and met with the Board on Geographic Names,” says Pourier. “I told them the name is as offensive to the Lakota as waving the Confederate flag is to African Americans. I felt a positive energy at the meeting.”

South Dakota’s process for such name changes seeks consensus, so the state opted against the name change after a huge backlash from citizens who pointed out that blood was shed on both sides during the Indian Wars. But after Mount McKinley was recently renamed Denali in Alaska, Pourier believes the Feds will override the state’s decision soon. A large photograph of an elderly Black Elk standing on top of Harney Peak, arms outstretched, hangs in Pourier’s home.

Curiously, John Neihardt ends Black Elk’s narration at Wounded Knee, omitting the next 60 years of his life and his conversion to Catholicism in 1904. Baptized Nicholas Black Elk, he embraced Christianity fully.

A Native Catholic church in Milwaukee began a petition drive last summer to make Black Elk a saint, based in part on this inexplicable occurrence:

“The night he died [Aug. 19, 1950], Grandfather told his children some sign would be seen in the sky,” says Pourier. “The next day at his wake, the skies filled with a brilliant light.”

In fact, a spectacular electrical storm, documented around the world that day, was so pronounced that it disrupted military communications in the Korean War.

Perhaps the last chapter has yet to be written.


Omaha Magazine Wins 2015 Great Plains Journalism Award

April 14, 2015 by

Photo above: Director of Photography Bill Sitzmann, Creative Director John Gawley, Managing Editor Robert Nelson, and Senior Graphic Designer Kristen Hoffman with our award-winning cover at the 2015 Great Plains Journalism Awards ceremony in Tulsa, Okla.

Omaha Magazine won best magazine cover at the prestigious 2015 Great Plains Journalism Awards, one of five categories in which the magazine was named among three finalists.

The Great Plains Journalism Awards annually recognize the best newspaper and magazine journalism in an eight-state region comprising of Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, and South Dakota. The awards were presented during a luncheon April 13 at The Mayo Hotel in Tulsa, Okla.

Omaha Magazine won the top award in the Magazine Cover category for the January/February 2014 Best of Omaha issue, executed by Creative Director John Gawley, then-Junior Graphic Designer Paul Lukes, and Ben Lueders of Fruitful Design.

We received two of the three finalist slots in the Magazine Cover category. Gawley and Director of Photography Bill Sitzmann were nominated for our November/December 2014 cover featuring local radio legend Otis XII in a story written by Managing Editor Robert Nelson.

Nelson himself was a finalist in the Magazine Profile Writing category for his July/August 2014 cover story on then-Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and again in the Magazine Column Writing category for his September/October 2014 “The Closer” column, titled “Slogan Explosion.”

Sitzmann was recognized for his portrait of Jeff Toma accompanying the story “The Handyman Diaries” in the January/February 2014 issue of Omaha Home. That story was written by Executive Editor David Williams.

Mike Lang and Corey Hart of Spectral Chemist were recognized for their video supporting our September/October 2014 story “Cricket: The Grandfather of Baseball is Making a Comeback in Omaha,” written by Robyn Murray.

“I am proud of our talented staff and we are honored to tell the stories of the people of Omaha,” Omaha Magazine Publisher Todd Lemke says. “It’s great to be recognized by our peers as being right up there with the best of the best in an eight-state regional competition where Omaha Magazine was the only Nebraska magazine recognized as a finalist—let alone a winner. We also congratulate the Omaha World-Herald for their strong showing at the awards.”