As you go down from my beloved Medora, it becomes quickly apparent that the painted rocks, the hilly landscape of the little town where Teddy Roosevelt tried to make a success of ranching, is not going to last. This is not Montana with it’s skies and Rocky Mountain passes, and huckleberry bushes, this is not northern Idaho with it’s sugary sweet disney cartoon Snow White landscape, trailing bunnies and bluebirds and gentle streams and non threatening forest beauty scenes, this is not Washington State with its blues and greys on the coast, nor the ugly harsh brush of it’s south eastern portion. This is not the California of my dreams sun bleached and tantalizing, nor the Oregon of my nightmares, for all it’s Willamette Valley appeal. No. This is the starkest, most desolate, most empty fly over country you could ever try to hurry through and hope not to break down, lost forever more on some vast open plain or prairie, waiting for someone else to travel the same road and rescue you. I would think it is totally possible to wait for days for a rescue or another human being. It is that empty, that vast, that isolated, that desolate. Dictionary definition of lonesome? Take a photo out of the window as you drive through whatever lays between Medora and Fargo, and there you have it: lonesome’s essence distilled.
The rocks and their reds and ocres and greys and browns disappear abruptly from the scenery, and it all goes flat. So flat for so far that you can see the curve of the world spread out before you, dizzying. There is nothing like seeing the curve of the planet we are standing on to make you feel as if you are going to untether completely and fall off it, hurtling into space, forever lost. I suppose I was always suspicious of gravity, always trying to defeat it, and gravity was playing tricks on me for once.
As we left behind the comfort of the rocks and hills enclosing and protecting us back in Medora, as we left behind the Little Missouri river, and the horses, and the buffalo and the campfires. As we left behind the caves, and the turkey feathers and the busy quiet of populated desolation, as we left behind one of the most perfect few days that we as a collective group of people would ever share, as I rested my cracked shin, blood seeping out into my jeans, sticking cotton onto skin, and I slid Dylan’s Pat Garrett recordings onto the stereo, letting Bob drive along our wagon train into the bright light of the a new day, a new four hundred miles of blacktop trail, hoping our tires would hold, our engine wouldn’t cease and there would be no North Dakotan Columbo want to find out if Billy had brought in any weed from Oregon, in personal use quantities, and we driving it through his domain. I wouldn’t have minded knowing that either, but figured ignorance was deniable bliss.
As we started down that four hundred miles of straight road, meaning to drive the whole of North Dakota in one day, I realized I had never seen so much of nothing in my entire life. I started to panic after fifty miles or so that we would run out of gas, it was so empty and so few were the houses, let alone shops of gas stations. Signs on the road reminded you that this was the last gas for considerable mileage ahead, and we stopped and filled up with ridiculously cheap fuel, and started down the road again in increments of $100 in the tank stages through some of the wildest, emptiest wilderness on this planet. Nothing to the left and right but the occasional cow, a calf nosing it’s way out of broken fencing. The Girl shouted to me she saw Eagles circling up ahead. I looked up at their huge wing shadows curving scavenger-wise against the fading light of the day, and told her that it was no eagle…it was a vulture. Alone and on the prowl for morsels left by other animals, or a dead decaying antelope. Antelopes careened into view, galloping along, their slim pronged horns pointed towards Minnesota, running alongside the Beastie, more bird than mammal, appearing from nowhere, and disappearing into nowhere just as fast. You can see the devil out there if you look long enough, a bucket of water in one hand, a flashlight in the dark, a promise of a safe road a-ho. The prairie grasses wave in the breeze, an ocean that seems like it could go on forever, the grasses bone white and green, greys and heathers, the corn and the wheat and the feedlots. I felt untied, untethered, not so much free as unbounded, not so much open and wild as dangerously bereft of human life. Yes, North Dakota terrified me. Winter over, patches of ice still remained here and there, the air frigid and steel cold winds buffetted the camper as we did a straight seventy down the highway headed for Minnesota and a dream I once had.
We did not see another vehicle for a hundred miles or more, I swear. Nothing. The sight of a farmer leaning up against his fence sent me waving and grinning like a loon. Hello! Hello! We are here! You are there! Where is everyone else? The farmer seemed to shake his head slightly. Amateurs, he seemed to say…. He lived in this state of perpetual emptiness. I wondered what he filled it with. I looked at the map, We were coming up to Bismark, we would stop, grab some food and gas and head on towards Fergus Falls. No idea where we were camping or sleeping that night, just that we would have to find somewhere, and I always did. Bismark came and went in a vaguely intimidating town of roughnecks and cowboys, ranchers and tough people who lived in tough country. I looked again at the map. “Darling, Billy?”
“Uh huh?” he replied, concentrating on getting through North Dakota without being busted for weed. Looks like it won’t be until at least Fergus Falls that we will find some camping. “Figures.” He replied blankly. He was still in a state of high alert, the camper would not start in Bismarck, the engine coming up dead as he turned the key, the solenoid burnt out by our fucked up generator that he had unwisely hooked up to spark from the engine. I eventually stopped such mindless exploits, but not in time to prevent this problem. Generally things cooled down and given enough time, they started up again. Eventually. It was not like I wasn’t shaken. No visa in date, my husband refusing the divorce preventing me and Billy from marrying and my problems being fixed, any attention in a place like North Dakota was potentially lethal for me. I would have been beside myself if I knew we were carrying an ounce of weed through it. Fucking Billy!
On we went, made it through Fargo, which is North Dakota, the Moorhead side being Minnesota, a strange state border town, not quite one thing or the other. Thick accents, cold weather, friendly people. Finally tipping out into the Fergus Falls of his youth, no open camping in sight, eyes closing, exhausted by so much emptiness and driving, I pulled out my emergency hundred and pointed at the sign for a motel. Billy drove in, silent, sulking, and I ran in, and paid cash for the room, using his card to secure it, and fielding questions about my accent and my business in town, telling the kind but nosy woman that we were visiting his family – partly true, there were some graves to put flowers on, and pulling my tired children up the stairs, past the largest teddy bear I have ever seen, wearing granny clothes and holding a tray, Girl petting it as we passed, swiping the door key and laying them down on the bed, kissing their faces, and throwing myself in to the shower. An indoor shower, with hot water. I hadn’t had one of these since goodness knows when, the last time I cleaned up with anything bar baby wipes and dry hairspray, a couple of thousand miles behind me. I stood under the hot water, and sighed. Minnesota. Now if I could just find Billy here, amongst the past, and repair the damage old men’s wars had done to him, I might just have a hope of regaining my old friend and giving him some peace. Just so you know, don’t expect too much. I failed. I failed him. I failed me. I failed my children. I failed myself. But at least we had some fun while I failed.