The House on the Hill

An enormous flash flood killed two hundred and thirty-eight of our neighbors. I was only a year and a half old at the time and obliviously slept through the whole thing, but my very earliest memories were of the aftermath. I remember being carried by my dad as he walked with my older brother on his back while we made our way through waist deep mud to my grandma’s house several blocks away. My mom trudged along next to him, silent and stoic. It was all just a snapshot in my mind.

The next memories of my life happened a year or so later, although I don’t remember the order. One memory was holding my mom’s hand as we stood on the concrete front steps and looked down into the incredibly stinky, rotting hole that used to be our basement. Another memory was finding a dying duck in the debris and insisting we save it. When I told my mother about this memory years later, she was surprised I remembered it because I had been so little. She confirmed the memory as true but told me it had really been a blue jay, not a duck, that we had saved.

The most vivid of my earliest memories was driving up the hill for the first time and seeing our new neighborhood and home. It was all under construction: the neighborhood, the roads, the sidewalks, the houses. There were piles of dirt, scraps of lumber, and machinery everywhere, yet somehow this mess felt clean, new, and fresh. It didn’t smell bad, like the old neighborhood.

All the people who had survived the flood wanted to rebuild high up on the hill that overlooked Rapid City, as far away from the creek as possible. My parents were no exception. They purchased a building lot in the highest neighborhood possible. The hill continued past our neighborhood, but beyond our streets the landscape was too steep to build, so they settled for “most of the way” to the top.

When I stood on the front steps and looked down the hill I could see the whole city. Our hill was “The Gateway” to the Black Hills. It was a geological formation called the “Hog Back,” and it wrapped the entire way around the Black Hills, leaving a wide valley between it and the actual Black Hills.  On the hill across the valley, I could see West Jr. High School, SooSan Hospital, and the baseball fields below them. I could see Storybook Island and Sioux Park. But my favorite place to view was Rimrock Canyon above Canyon Lake, where the flood had come from.

The street was nestled in a little draw that led up the hill, so when I looked straight out the living room window, I could see all the happenings on the hill above me. Coyotes chased deer and people rode horses or hiked. The wind blew the trees, and the seasons changed in front of our eyes. My favorite thing about the hill was the massive T.V. towers that were planted at the tippy top. There were four of them. They stood like soldiers in a row, red and white striped, and appeared pencil thin.

These T.V. towers were my friends. The red lights slowly blinked off and on and deterred airplanes from hitting them. At night when the cloud cover was low, they cast a soft pink glow all over the neighborhood. This was especially wonderful in the winter when snow was on the ground. The neighborhood kids could sled down the street all night or ice-skate on the backyard rink, and we could always see where we were going in the pink haze.

In the summer when the nights were clear, the red lights on the T.V. towers would twinkle in the sky along with the stars. They watched over us kids like guardian angels while we played hide and go seek, chased fireflies, or ate popcorn on a blanket spread in the lawn and watched for satellites among the stars.

We grew up spending days on end climbing all over the hill, always using the towers as a guide toward home. We built tree houses under them. We even built a cave fort in a cliff of rocks. Next to one of our tree houses was a cable anchor for the massive towers. The towers were around 800 feet from the ground, and the top of the hill was about 800 feet from our street, so the cable that anchored the towers was roughly 1600 feet long.

We stood on a large rock lined up next to the base of the cable, and on the count of three, all us kids would pull the cable down and then up, two or three times, sending a wave up the cable. Several seconds later, the wave would come back down ten times as big as the one we sent up. We hung on for dear life as the cable whipped us off the ground. Up and down we would fly, clinging to that steel cable, laughing till we couldn’t breath. We learned to wear gloves so that we didn’t get metal splinters in our hands on this crazy ride of amusement.

As we got older, we became braver. One night while we were in high school, we dared each other to climb the towers in the dark with no clips or harnesses. The wind blew the towers back and forth as we climbed. We hung on to the cold little rungs, knowing if we slipped it wouldn’t turn out well, but we were confident, and nobody fell. The sight at the top was spectacular! We could see for hundreds of miles from the base of the towers, but from the top we thought we could see to the end of the earth, except it was dark, so we weren’t really sure.

From the time we moved in when I was two, until I got married and moved away, I would lie in bed and look at the towers. Often lightning would strike them, and the massive white bolts would crackle from tower to tower. The simultaneous thunder would crash and rumble deep into the ground until our house shook. During storms, water would rush down the hill and create instant rivers that gushed down our street. These summer storms usually involved large hail that smacked the bushes and popped on the cars sounding like a battery of bullets.

Tension wracked my mother when these storms hit. She paced in front of the living room picture window and sucked down one cigarette after another, often getting through a whole pack in just one storm. I never understood her anxiety. I loved these storms! They were thrilling! I knew that lightning would never hit us because my T.V. towers would suck up all the blows from the sky, and I knew we were safe from the rushing waters because we were so high up on the hill.

But I did not have memories of cars full of mud and dead bodies stuck twenty feet up in the cottonwood trees. I did not have memories of the roaring sound of the monstrous wall of water, mud, and trees as it all crashed in a mass into our home twenty feet high. I did not know the sound of people we knew screaming for help and then going silent. I did not know the helpless feeling of watching neighbors drown and houses wash away and vanish in the muck.

I did not remember the lines for food and clothes or the chaos of people searching for loved ones they would never see again. I didn’t recall the piles of bodies and destroyed belongings. I didn’t remember my brother being born way too early at my grandma’s house because there was no way to get to the hospital. But my mother did. She remembered all of that, and she seemed to remember it better when lightning was striking the towers, hail was falling from the sky, and water was cascading down our street.

All I remember is our lovely neighborhood, nestled on the hill where I spent my entire childhood. Never again would they build in the floodplain. I remember riding my bike down the hill and all over town on the map of bike paths that stretched from Canyon Lake and followed the creek all the way through town. We could rent paddle boats and feed the ducks at the base of Rimrock Canyon. We rode our bikes through the baseball fields and the golf course that used to be our neighborhood. The 18th hole sits on the green that used to be our yard. We could ride around Storybook Island, the Frisbee fields, and the public gardens. There was a concert pavilion, picnic shelters, swimming pools, and playgrounds. There were dog parks, ice skating rinks, and bike rental shops. All the neighborhood bike paths poured down into the floodplain, and it was beautiful!

The house on the hill with the towers constantly watches over this beautiful city. The towers can be seen for hundreds of miles in any direction. They beckon me home whenever I come back. At the end of my two thousand mile drive from the east coast, I can see them in the distance a hundred miles away.

Now the Black Hills pop onto the horizon as I make my yearly pilgrimage west, and the blinking lights of the towers are like a siren, calling me home for the last hour of the drive across the prairie to the hills. Those are my towers on my hill and above my house overlooking my beautiful city, which was once washed away by a flood that I don’t remember. But my mother does.