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Woster: The many facets of section lines

There was a time, back in my younger days as I learned some of the finer points of farm labor, when I thought a section line was just one more place where I could get a pickup or grain truck stuck in mud up to its axles.

This time of year on the farm, if spring rains come, at least, a guy starts remembering the mud holes and mishaps. I could get a vehicle stuck in fields, pastures and barnyards anytime there was standing water. Section lines were just another tool in my toolbox, you might say.

In school I learned about sections of 640 acres and state surveys and townships of 36 sections and other basic stuff. Each township had two sections set aside for schools, I think. That information gave some form and substance to the rutted, sometimes unmarked section lines with which I was familiar as a farm kid.

As a reporter covering state government and the Legislature, I learned more about school lands and taxation and leases and why so much of the public land was crowded into the western part of the state and why many section lines were unmarked or plowed under. I found that information fascinating, and it was necessary to understand some of the public policy decisions South Dakota leaders made.

Reporting on the Legislature also is where I started learning the issue of hunting on section lines. As a kid, I didn't pay much attention to where visiting hunters drove as they searched for pheasants or geese. I had no idea how controversial a little strip of land that divided one 640-acre tract from the next could be if pheasants happened to be feeding or nesting nearby. I got that education over the years.

But in the beginning, section lines were, as I said, places to get a vehicle stuck. The one to the east of our mailbox was perfect. The mailbox corner was located at a place where a dirt road from the west ran up and merged in a sweeping curve into a better-maintained dirt road that stretched to the horizons north and south. On the east side of that intersection, the only road was a two-track path with tall grass on both sides and barbed-wire fences to mark the edges of the fields.

The section line was rough, sure, but it was good enough for a truck, pickup or tractor. Dry ruts marked the path of travel, except for one long, low stretch that held water long after every rain. My dad, my uncle, probably my big brother and everyone else who drove the section line simply left the two-track at that point and drove in the higher ground next to the fence until they passed the water hole.

You would think any kid would watch and learn, following the example of his elders out of the ruts when he approached the water hole. Most kids would. But maybe they hadn't read that "the shortest distance between two points is a straight line.'' People might tell you Archimedes said that. I think I learned it from a math teacher in school, and it made sense to me.

So, given a choice between the straight line through the standing water in the middle of the section-line path and the longer path around the water, I opted for the straight line. I also opted to really push on the gas pedal, under the corollary that the quickest distance between two points is full throttle.

Here's the thing. I got pretty good grades in school. Turns out, that didn't necessarily mean I was smart. My dad made that pretty clear when he showed up with the John Deere and a couple of logging chains to pull the pickup to dry ground. (Full throttle wasn't enough.) He didn't yell, but he did shake his head quite a lot, and I know I heard him mutter a couple of times, "I don't know what this kid is doing with his brain half the time.''

You'd think after getting stuck once, I'd never try that again, wouldn't you? You'd be underestimating how persistent I was.

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